Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The West Ridge of Mt. Suzanne

A few rest days back at camp was all it took for a new vision to conjure itself before our eyes. Directly across from our base camp was a symmetrical, pyramidal peak. It had an obvious, outstanding ridge climb. Over our few rest days it's gendarmes, knife edge sections, and snow patches formed a line that we decided to try, despite unsettled weather and only three days after our ascent of The Thriller Arete.

At around noon we began the snowshoe to the base where we planned to set up the First Light and melt some snow for hydration. As we sat in the First Light brewing up, a soft rain pattered against the walls. Visibility was low and a light rain/snow fell, but we still pounded our hot drinks and got out there. An initial 50 degree snow slope with a tricky bergshrund crossing placed us under about 300 feet of mixed snow and rock which we covered quickly, but carefully. Halfway into this section with Max stemming above me, a large television size block bounced violently down the snow slope we had just ascended. Dual snow slides began to fall around us, scouring the face clean. Although it sounds dangerous, we were in the best position one could be in and thus avoided anything catostrophic.

It didn't take long for Max to finish his pitch and for me to stretch the rope out over a snow patch and on to the safer ridge section of the climb. Even though a col sleet rained down and unseen avalanches thundered down misty walls, we know we were ok on the ridge. Still, the wet climbing and the eerie scene kept us on the tip of our crampons. Destpite the harsh conditions, the great features of the ridge lured us ever upwards, although at some point, we both cared little for another hand traverse, hoping for the summit instead. And what a summit it was! As I began to belay Max up to the pointy perch, the clouds parted dramatically, rays of sun casting light beams on the floor of the Witche's Cauldren, 6,000 feet below my boots. We were blown away to say the least.

The climb (like most things in Alaska) had been larger than expected and we both knew we had a lot of effort to give still before we were in the First Light, especially since we were determined to go down a safer way that we had ascended. The openening in the clouds gave us a glimpse of our best option. The backside of the peak was comprised of a long glacier. Easy travel, despite of the huge crevasses to work through. Only a few sections required down climbing on front points. We nailed the descent, but it was taxing. I led the the way down, my tired eyes playing tricks on me. Everything blended into the mist. I felt as though I might walk off an ice cliff without seeing it, but the reality was our senses were hightened and we did fine through the intimidating maze. Once on the valley floor it was a two hour hike around the massif to the tent. We lost ourselves in the Alaskan night, our steps heavy with wet snow and weariness.

Ramen had never tasted so good. I could barely see Max through the steam from our wet layers and overheating bodies. Rain still fell on the First Light, but the Ramen was doing the trick. Our psyche was high enough to exit our shelter and finish the hike back to basecamp. A parting in the clouds and the pink of a rising Alaskan sun accompanied us the rest of the way home. At basecamp, we sat making hot drinks, enjoying the beauty of the Baird glacier. I felt good inside. Although the technical difficulties were never to high, we had fought hard for 20 hours in poor weather, making the summit and descending an unkown side of the mountain. It felt nice to relax and sit. After an hour or so we both crashed, but before I hopped in the tent, I looked around in awe and wondered, "what next?".

Summary: First Ascent of the West Ridge of Mt. Suzanne: 5.8, m4, 3000'
Jens Holsten and Max Hasson, June 16, 2009
Note: Getting to name this peak was very special for me. It is named after the founder of my passion, my mother, who passed from cancer. Her passion for life and people has formed my character. I am forever grateful....

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