Monday, May 23, 2011

Blown Away In The Great White North

Paul Roderick banked the plane through giant walls of ice and rock while my heart skipped beats and my finger pulled the trigger on the camera again and again. Our first flight into the Alaska Range was like a bomb in my brain. The scale, the shapes, the lines, and the summits sucked my reality out and fostered my rebirth into a life of never ending twilight, hard ice, and grainy granite. I never expected to be this blown away.

The Stunning Flight in...big thanks to Talkeetna Air Taxi!
The world's greatest climbing arenas have always refigured my vision and inspiration as a athlete. When I saw El Cap from a foggy bus window for the first time, I felt the smooth granite permeating my being. I knew I would climb those 3,000 sheer feet, although at that time I had no clue how. I knew that was where I wanted to be. I knew that was what I wanted to do. The Alaska Range struck me with a similar energy. Just setting up basecamp I realized the impact this trip would have on my life.

Setting up basecamp on day 1
The last few years has seen me stepping away from the hard core rock jock I was and embracing the all around climber I strive to be. For me, this means building skills on icy, snowy, and high terrain. After spending the last few years banging my head against the Cascades wintry, iron playground, I knew it was time to take the next step. Alaska was beckoning and Dan Hilden and I heeded the siren call.

Dan skinning back to basecamp after a failed mission on Mt. Dan Beard

When I learned to climb at the Redmond Vertical World (love you guys!), my mentor Taylor Roy told me to never skip steps, but to build a solid base of climbing to gradually improve on. I have never forgotten that lesson and count this method as the reason I feel so natural with the rock. Every area I have ever been to I have tested myself against the classic routes I should be able to do before trying anything difficult or new. Now, I am on a similar journey, but in a land of ice and snow.

As a result, Dan and I have become partners in suffering, repeating most of our local range's alpine ice routes and adding a few of our own. Only after a few years of this method have we considered the next step. After arriving in Talkeetna, we quickly dubbed ourselves "Team Non-Rad"as every other party we chatted with was headed into the range to try huge, difficult routes. We kept our core focus alive and still chose to fly into the Mountain House basecamp, a flat area above the Ruth Glacier that allowed for easy access to many classic Alaskan objectives.

My trip was a short and sweet eight days, so we used every bit of good weather to get out and try routes. Most we failed on due to avalanche concerns, often times finding ourselves on the wrong aspect at the wrong time. Even though Alaska is a cold place, we quickly realized the folly of climbing in the hot sun.

Psyched and ready the afternoon before climbing 11, 300
After six days of failures and learning experiances, Dan and I set off for Peak 11, 300, a beautiful pyramid of ice and granite seven miles up glacier from our basecamp. Skinning towards the objective I could tell the conditions were perfect. Even in the intense sun I did not sweat and the air had a crisp, pleasant edge. By the next morning we were weaving through house eating crevasses towards the Southwest Ridge, a line that inspired the both of us with it's solid rock, waving ridges, and ice filled gullys. We traveled light, taking no bivy gear but a shovel and a jacket to fight off a brisk night.

Incredible climbing on 11, 300's SW Ridge
The climbing unfolded like a dream. Firm snow, amazing mixed terrain and bullet hard ice pulled us upward. We took a few rests to brew up, but mostly kept moving. High on the mountain, conditions became more difficult with fresh snow. Although this slowed our pace, the climbing remained well protected and fun. As day faded to never ending Alaskan twilight, we stepped on the top of 11, 300, donned our parkas, dropped off the summit 100 feet to dig a snow cave. Outside, the still, cold air hovered among thousands of pointy summits. We wiggled our toes and joked the night away. When it was light enough to see without the headlamps we cramponed out of the cave and began our descent.

More amazing climbing!
One thing I quickly realized about Alaska was that the descents are almost as big as the routes! It ain't over until it's over on any mountain, but in Alaska, this mantra is extremely pronounced. We traveresed a sustained, icy arete, aiming for a clump of rocks where we hoped to find rappel anchors. At one point we tried to break out the stove for a brew, realized it was no longer working, and kept heading down towards our camp with parched throats and dehydrated brains. For a moment I had to pull my act together and tell myself I could do it. The lack of water and intense sun was taking it's toll.

Dan soaks up the view low on the route
One foot in front of the other saw us to our basecamp, freeze dried chilly mac, and cold beer generously offered by a party who had flown into 11, 300's base that very morning. Our rest only lasted a couple of hours and then we were off on our skis to more food and our cozy basecamp. After seven miles of zoned out skinning we were sipping whiskey and eating bacon. A few hours later I was back in Talkeetna wondering if it ever happened at all.

Our climb of 11, 300 taught me so much about real alpine routes. The climbing itself is not the hard part in a place like Alaska. Nutrition, hydration, gear, timing, and conditions make or break your deal with the mountain. A clear head and a focus on problem solving are mandatory. Next year, when Dan and I fly into those awe inspiring mountains again, we will have a whole new bag of tricks to pull from. Even though we only succeded on one of our intended routes, I came away a new climber with a new vision to guide my training. I can't wait to hear the propeller of a Twin Otter buzz through the air and to feel the glacier under my boots again. It's less than a year until next season! Better keep training...

One more big thanks to TAT, especially for providing a free place to stay in Talkeetna!

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