Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mt. Burkett: The National Public Arete

After our ascent of Mt. Suzanne we indulged in two solid rest days, sitting hunched under a rock overhang as rain fell and fell, turned to snow, and kept falling. But only a few days later, on June 19th, the morning exit from the tent revealed the unexpected clearing that excites the perched alpinist. We scrambled to put together gear for an objective we had seen from our last summit and over our few rest days, decided was our next project. The line was obvious, staring only a half mile from our base camp. We both had known it was there most our trip, but it was also obviously quite huge and very intimidating. After unexpected early success in free climbing the Burkett Needle, we had sought out more managable objectives, but now we were ready to push our limits again. Sitting here after our successful ascent of the NPR, I can assure you we were challenged like never before.

The National Public Ridge is enormous. An initial 2000 feet of climbing to 5.10 R leads to a snow and talus arete that turns into a 5.9 X knife edge ridge. After that one must ascend a glacier to a long coulior. Once atop the coulior, a steep 55 degree glacier gaurds the summit. The circirtous natrure of the last bit and it's continual steepness required quite a bit of tenacity. By our calculations the route is a little over 7000 feet.

Our first attempt saw us about 2000 feet up the initial buttress (crux climbing) when the weather began to get iffy. We set up the First Light and enjoyed a fun evening, before waking to crap weather. Down we went, climbing down about 1000 feet before linking horn and nut rappel stations via double rope rappels. We had not even got to the halfway point of the route, but we were intrigued.

The weather continued to be poor for the next two days, but day three since our retreat dawned warm, breezy, and clear. It was a no brainer. We packed our bags again, this time adding a bit more weight with more fuel and one additional dinner of ramen. Although the weather was great, we didn't expect it to last. We did get to climb the initial 2000 feet again before the weather turned, but the rest of that first tough day was cold, snowy, and intense. After the initial rock pitches, we followed a cutty heather ramp before gaining a nice snow field that covered the ridge for a few hundred yards before being stopped by a steep talus cone. After cresting the cone the next section of the route came into view. Right away, I knew this next section would be challenging for us. A 600 foot horizontal, gendarmed 5.9 X knife edge led to the upper buttress. After five hours of carefully climbing that engaging stretch, we fought to set up the First Light in snow and wind on the coolest tent platform I have ever been on. The bivy was flat (with a bit of work) and dropped away on both sides. It was an awe inspiring position, looking back through the tempest at what we had climbed that day, and ahead at the upper mountain, lost in clouds and snow.

That first day of climbing stands out as one of Max and my best days in the hills. Years of climbing together allowed us to forge ahead even in the intense conditons. We had worked really hard and now had our tent 2500 feet from the summit. We slept well through the cold, bad weather that night and spent the whole next day sitting in the tent listning to NPR on our radio for hours on end. Although we had brought a bit more food, it wasn't enough. We ate little that day, trying to stretch what we did have. All in all, we spent about 30 hours in the tent. As I closed my eyes that night I laughed at the probablity of this storm clearing. I was sure the stormy bailing would commence in the morning.

I rubbed my eyes as I looked out fo our tent. It was about 3:00 AM and it was cold and clear out. I couldn't believe it. All the peaks were cloaked in rime and ice. The beauty and cold stole my breath. Before I woke Max to tell him the suprising news, I had a hint of doubt. Could I climb the rest of this peak with my one bar and a few goos? It was freezing too. How would my hands and feet fare? But these thoughts slipped away as I began to feel a certain peace about our day ahead. Everything was alinging right and if we stuck with this for one more hard day we would get the summit and be back at basecamp to boot. Up we went.

I led across the rest of our knife edge ridge before tackling a fun mixed pitch. This placed us on the mountains upper south face glacier, which we negotiated with the normal wandering trickery. After that we climbed a great rimed coulior that held nice, 60 degree ice and neve. The sticks were good nd the postion was everything you could ever want. High on an alpine face, swinging tools, pushing through, and then cresting the ridge that brought beautiful and warm sunshine. We took a breather before starting on our summit push. Steep seracs forced us to traverse the back of the peak before kicking steps endlessly up a 60 degree slope. At this point the lack of calories were catching up with me. I was worked and by the time we had summited I barely had the will to make the final 10 foot climb to the top (sketchy snow arete). After I did touch the cold, small, windy summit, we immediatly began rapping via bollards. Although the weather did not turn, the mist that usually holds Burkett's summit regions returned, making for another stressful, low visibility descent. Climbing over and rapping through ice cliffs brought us back to the top of the coulior we had used to access the top of the mountain. It had been 6 tough hours fighting our way up and down that final slope, but as we descended we felt more confident in our ability to pull this off. Hungry and dehydrated, we finally came back to our First Light where we lounged in the sun and hydrated. Once we were ready we put our boots back on and finished the descent, which challenged us all the way. I was near 11 Pm when we arrived back at base camp, making for an almost 20 hour last day.

Although our Alaska goal had been a free ascent of the Burkett Needle, I feel this is surely the experiance that will define this trip. We pushed ourselves to stay sane and psyched. We never gave up and therefore recieved on of the most intense, beautiful experiances of my life.

Summary: First ascent of the National Public Ridge on Mt. Burkett
5.10 R, AI3, 7000 feet.
First ascent by Max Hasson and Jens Holsten

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