Category Archives: Alpine Climbing

Take the Tools for a Walk

It’s what we say when we get up at 2am, hike for 8 hours with a pack full of ice climbing gear on our backs, and get back to the car without really climbing anything. My friend Chris called me last Sunday and proposed we climb the North Face route on Mt. Hood this morning. Word on the street was that climbing conditions were good and the weather looked solid. The North Face has been on my climbing ticklist since I started ice climbing 2 years ago, and it seemed like I could just squeeze it in between driving back from San Jose and going to Montana. The route doesn’t come “in” very often, and the chance to do it with one of the most influential climbers in my life was prime. We geared up at Chris’ place last night and drove up to the mountain.

(The alpine toys getting ready to roll)
There is a hut to use at the trailhead and we rolled in to grab a few hours sleep before starting to climb. The plan was to get up at 2am, pound a quick breakfast and make the hike to be at the base of the route just as daylight illuminated the hard parts.

(Awesome sunrise colors)
I hadn’t been in the area around the climb in 2 years, and Chris hadn’t been in 3. I thought I remembered the approach being “straightforwards” and the friends I mentioned our plans to had not asked whether I had the beta or not. I thought the plan was simple: hike the hill, descend onto the glacier, don’t fall in any cravasses, and climb the route with impeccable speed and style.

Instead, we took the tools for a walk. Without daylight or any moonlight at all, we had trouble finding a workable route down to the glacier, and then missed the critical ramp on the left side of the glacier. Instead we climbed the gentle line in the center of the glacier and found ourselves in the middle of the icefall in the dark. Both Chris and I had limited time to do the climb, and we knew when daylight hit we would be racing melting conditions to finish the route ahead of ice and rocks falling down the route. By the time daylight hit and we figured out where we should have gone, we knew we were too late to finish the route.

(So close, yet so far. Not this time my friends.)
We finished the hike up to the base of the route anyway just to scope out the rest of the approach and look at the route. Oddly enough, when we got there it was t clear what we were supposed to climb. The majority of the route looked like great neve, but the first pitch seemed to be missing. To get on the route we were either headed up a thin mixed line (we had no rock pro) of marginal quality, or facing a 100′ overhanging ice cliff. Not that we knew what it was going to look like but neither option seemed appropriate forthe route description. Despite our navigational failure, both of us were curious as to whether the route was actually as “in” as we had heard. It was not inspiring, and being 2 hours behind schedule meant that our fate was sure, we were headed down.

(Bergschrund trouble.)
All that said, it was a beautiful day out with a great friend and climber, I wouldn’t have missed it. We all screw up the approach sometimes, and now I’ve got one more piece of experience. The route will still be there next year, and at least the tools got out for a good walk.

(Still, a great day out.)

(Heading home on a gorgeous fall morning really isn’t so bad.)

Grabbing the Dragon’s Tail- The Serpentine Arete, 5.8, III

After 11 days in Portland I was getting the itch again, and I knew it would likely be my last chance to get on an alpine rock route for quite some time.  Pat and I have long dreamed of getting into the business of alpine climbing in the North Cascades National Park.  We packed up Friday night with hopes of making the long approach into Mt. Goode, but at the last minute the forecast hit 60% chance of rain on our summit day, so we pointed the car east and headed for Leavenworth, Washington.

We pulled into town around 7am on Saturday and were fortunate to make friends and secure a permit.  Then we headed up Hwy 2 and warmed up on a nice two pitch line next to the highway called Canary.  Good times, but the crux on pitch 1 got my attention, and Pat felt the air under his butt on pitch 2.

Good morning Skander, and welcome back to rock climbing with a smack in the face.

Pat eyes up the wildly exposed step across...

Scary step complete, time to get a move on- nice work Pat.

The real reason to come to Leavenworth though was a line I first saw in 2008- I was scared then, but when we needed to pick a different mountain for the weekend, it was one of the first to come to mind.  The Serpentine Arete on Dragontail Peak is a gorgeous yet moderate line on one of the most prominent peaks in the eastern Cascades.  After not rock climbing for over two months, and still uncertain of how my foot would do, I had a few doubts, but the last dance is the last dance, and you’ll never get the girl if you don’t ask.

The line starts at the snow directly above my head, heads right up the faint ramp, then left up the ridge.

Early morning light on Mt. Colchuck, just across the valley.

We left camp at 6am, and started across the snowfield at 6:50.  The route is about 2,000 vertical feet and would entail a full range of technical skills, so we knew we needed to boogie.  After cutting steps across the snowfield and jumping the moat from snow to rock at the base of the route, we were in the business at 8am, and made steady progress.

Across the moat and time to go!

Getting the business end- yours truly on the crux.

Supposedly not the crux, but Pat and I might disagree.

Close quarters on the last serious pitch.

We moved through the harder pitches efficiently, and we hit the easier ridge terrain around 2pm.  The route gets a grade IV for the overall duration of effort (IV typically means a very full day of climbing), and despite the harder terrain being below us, we still had quite a bit of ground to cover.  We switched to simul-climbing after 8 belayed pitches, and started to wander up the ridge, not always certain we were on the right path.

Pat looks to make short work of a few spicy steps.

We kept pushing, in retrospect tying in even shorter than the 35m we were at would have reduced rope drag and increased communication, but so it went, and we hit the summit ridge at 6pm.  We coiled the roped and scrambled around to grab a gorgeous view of the lakes and Mt. Stuart, which were well worth the effort…

Loved by many, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area does not disappoint.

The great granite beast, Mt. Stuart. I look forward to returning when I can.

Tired and happy on the summit.

We headed down on well packed snow, but with a sinking feeling that we were racing daylight.  Quads burned, knees ached, and the trail wandered faintly.  The views took an edge off the urgency, and we made it almost all the way back to the lake before true darkness fell.

So much gorgeous granite...

The hands show signs of a good day out.

Racing the light back to camp.

We did end up hopping rocks and bushwhacking in the dark to make it back to camp at 9:30pm.  For our first grade III route, and new terrain that neither of us had been on, we had a blast.  Also of note, there were no bolts on the entire route- so fun to climb super clean.  Thanks to Pat for being a solid partner and friend, and always being down for the next big up.

In the photo of my hands above, there is a purple rope in the background.  Normally I wouldn’t plug products here, but I need to give credit where due.  The rope was a gift to me from my parents, it is a Sterling Nano that might be pure magic.  I think of them every time I use it, and today it was the star of the show.  70m let us run pitches together, yet it was light when we doubled it over to simul-climb.  It didn’t pick up dirt, it feels great in my hands, and doesn’t tangle easily.  I am truly grateful for solid gear, and amazingly supportive parents- thanks.

Matanuska Peak

When I first came to Palmer in 2007, I was taught to “always climb things that inspire you, regardless of their grade or requirements.” And I saw Matanuska Peak for the first time. It inspired me then, and now, so today I climbed it with two stellar local companions. 6,000′ vertical each way and 10 miles later, I’ll say I’ve earned my cheesy corn grits tonight. I’ll try to get a good photo of the overall peak and area tomorrow, I forgot to take one today…


Eluna- super awesome dog, and me, on the summit.


Not bad for a rainy day...


Coming down the cirque.


Stellar teammates. Thanks you two!


Part 7: Teardown

One of the stipulations of being on the Muldrow Glacier patrol was also to assist with tearing down the 7,000+ lbs of tents, food and supplied stored and used by the National Park Service at 14,000′ on the West Buttress route of Denali. This usually takes place every year in the second week of July and involves packing the camp into helicopter netloads, and flying the loads off using the A-Star helicopter taking ~500lbs per trip. My first patrol in 2009 (in which I was able to visit the South summit of the mountain), was conducted expressly to complete this purpose, so the task was not new to me.


This view seems familiar...


The best pooper view in the world?

July 8 myself and three others descended to the 14,000′ camp to begin teardown and meet another NPS patrol- two others stayed high to return to the south summit on July 9 as the good weather was sticking around. In hindsight, this left quite a bit more work for some of us down low. The Park Service often has a hard time figuring out when when and how to schedule and stage these loads, so teardown can be a cat and mouse game between the rangers on the ground, the weather, and helicopter availability. We pulled into camp, and the park administration immediately called wondering if we had loads ready to fly.

The next few days were lost in a blur of furious activity. The rest of our team arrived at 14 and we put our backs into getting things packed tight. The weather unfortunately, rewarded our efforts with a whiteout and unfliable conditions for 3 straight days. With loads rigged and ready, we were stuck until we could fly loads. Most volunteers had flights on the 14 and 15, so the evening of July 12, one ranger and 7 volunteers left on ski/snowshoe to walk to basecamp and fly out, while one ranger, myself, and 2 other volunteers with looser time commitments stayed behind to finish packing and fly loads once the weather broke. We knew we still had a lot of work to do, but it was a hurry up and wait situation, with 7 folks not being able to wait any longer. The 8 folks walking down had their own adventure in the horrendous conditions of the lower glacier- multiple cravasse falls, whiteout, and slogfest conditions were reported.


Just a little snow on the tent to shut down helicopter operations.

The morning of July 13, the clouds broke clear and we got word the helicopter was finally inbound. Starting around 9am, we sprinted to make the final arrangements, and fly off 15 helicopter net loads before the weather closed in. Not quite enough. We sat with 2 loads to go plus one trip for ourselves, and debated sitting on the mountain for another few days with minimal food and fuel, four guys to a tent. Around 7pm, things cleared up just enough to get the last loads, and ourselves, off the mountain. We felt a little like heros, but mostly we just felt worked- physical labor at 14k will drain you. We flew back to Talkeetna on the last flight and landed back in town around 9pm, just in time for last call at the West Rib. There was much celebration, and a nail biting finish to an outstanding expedition.

Thanks to Dave, Tom, and Minu for working like machines to get it done at the last minute. Thanks to Chris for bringing me on patrol in the first place. Thanks to Josh, Drew, and Bob for their unlimited encouragement and partnership. Thanks to Andy and Rico for the ride home. Thanks to Amanda, Margaret, and Michael for making Alaska feel like home away from home. Thanks to all of you for sharing the adventure with me, I’ll post more photos as I sort through them.


Minu and I, on the commute home after a hard days work...



Part 6, Summits

After getting worked on the traverse, we all agreed July 5 was prime for a rest day. It was tough being at 17,000′ with good weather and not going for it, but I had a stiff headache and didn’t feel acclimatized yet so I knew it was well timed. July 6 I woke up feeling better and our team considered going back up Denali pass for the summit but rooster tails of snow peeling off the ridge indicated it would be a rough day to go. I still wasn’t feeling 100%, and was grateful for another rest day.
July 7 was go time. The weather was solid and we all felt strong. Given that Chris, Josh, Drew, and I had already been to the south summit (20,320′), our team split up- Tom and Bob going south for their first true summit, and rest of us going north to summit the rarely accomplished north peak (19,470′). The north peak is slightly more technical and remote, and far less popular. Needless to say while Tom and Bob shared the summit with 35 other guides and climbers, we were alone in a different universe 2.5 miles away on the north summit. Once we reached Denali pass we found ourself in an unceasing ~15 mph wind that made the next 7 hours unfortunately cold and miserable. It was closer to the edge of comfort than we would have preferred, but manageable. We summited around 700pm, took a few quick photos and headed for home. An awesome culmination of awesome experiences with 3 incredible men. It was truly an honor to be a part of. I’m pleased to congratulate Tom and Bob on a successful trip to the south summit as well. Back in camp around 11pm, there was no doubt it had been a solid day. Stellar.




Part 5, the Harper Glacier

The Harper glacier could be considered an extension of the Muldrow, but with a distinctly different flavor. After the Icefall we skirted on Karstens ridge, the Harper exists solely above 15,000′ and is one of the coldest, most windswept, and barren places in commonly travelled mountaineering. Stories of demolished tents and bitter temps humbled our expectations and set our senses on edge for this portion of the route.
After rescuing the Russian guys, the weather closed in and we declared a rest day. July 3 we woke up ready to roll but found our tracks from June 30 covered by over 3 feet of fresh snow. The trail breaking was absurd and visibility was almost nil. We could feel the trail undef the snowpack, but could see it. As the third guy on the first rope if I stepped incorrectly, I was buried in bottomless powder up to my chin. We took turns breaking trail, the visibility lifted and slowly we worked our way onto the upper Harper. Late in the day I broke trail again through the Icefall. I probed our old track and kept an eye on our wands but still managed to take a cravasse fall over my head. This time the crack was dry and I was able to get myself out quickly, but I was happy to have solid rope mates behind me. Despite a full days effort we didn’t make it back to the cache we had put at 16,800′. We camped cold and tired in the seracs at 16,200′.
July 4 was a day to remember. We packed camp quickly, picked up our cache, and pushed up to Denali pass dragging sleds. The park service needed our team to staff the 17,000′ camp on the West Buttress, so we completed out traverse and headed down Denali pass carrying over 100lbs each between packs and sleds. Before descending the pass we enjoyed meeting the NOLS team coming down from their successful summit push- way to represent guys. It was good times but descending the pass with sleds was maddening, and we got worked. With skis and wands on my sled it did nothing but barrel roll down the pass, attempting to pull me off with each turn. Everyone else’s sleds seemed to slide fine. The profanity emanating from my mouth was not one of my finer moments, and hitting the 17 camp never felt so good. We had completed the traverse and were in spectacular position for the summit.


Part 4, Browne Tower and Rescue

Having got all our gear to Browne Tower we were excited to be in such an awesome position on the route with plenty of food and fuel for a potential summit push from the upper Harper glacier. Our campsite was less than ideal, having carved it out of a 35 degree avy slope, but it worked, and June 30 we moved a cache of gear up to 16,900′. Above Browne tower lies the Harper glacier, a cold, windy place with a reputation for destroying gear, morale, and people, and being the second to last major obstacle of the trip. Moving a cache allowed us to acclimate to the high elevation, build some walls for a future camp, and get a feel for this tough, wild place.
When we got back to camp, the Russian duo we had been concerned about stopped by and asked us to look at one of them. Due to Park Service rules about patient care we knew that assisting this group might have a massive impact on our trip. The team had ascended the route too quickly, and one member showed serious symptoms of both high altitude pulmonary and cereberal edema- potentially life threatening conditions. The morning of July 1 we officially took the patient under our care- his oxygen saturation was in the mid-30s and it was obvious his partner was unable to care for him. We spent the day outlining various options for rescue and waiting for his response to drugs- while a rest day, it wasn’t very restful. It was snowing heavily with low visibility, heavily loading the avalanche terrain on the ridge below us. The Muldrow is a remote route without many good rescue options and significant terrain hazards- a crappy route to rescue someone off of. Late that night rangers in Talkeetna decided that a helicopter evacuation was the best option but that required far better weather. The snow finally stopped and we used the window to scout and prepare landing zone for the helicopter. The morning of July 2 we had a short window of clear wether, got the helicopter in, got the patients out, and had a special delivery of cinnamon rolls from the local bakery.
The weather closed again immediately after the rescue and continued to dump snow. We declared another rest day and started to wonder how hard getting to our cache would be with almost 3 feet of fresh snow covering our tracks onto the Harper.

Part 3, Karstens Ridge

After the Great Icefall, the Muldrow glacier technically ends in a large bowl below a massive jumble of ice- the Harper Icefall looks like a giant alligator waiting to eat you. Fortunately the mountain provides gorgeous detour around this feature by following Karstens Ridge for approximately 3,000 vertical feet just east o the Icefall. This ridge is arguably the most beautiful and engaging climbing of the route.
June 23 we carried most of our food and fuel to the base of the ridge at 10,800′ and scoped a plan to get on the actual ridge (one of the hardest parts). June 24 we packed up camp in good weather, gained the ridge, and built a new snow camp at 12,100′, passing our cache below us. We knew there was some hazard in leaving an avalanche slope between us and our cache at 10,800′ but we wanted to take advantage of good weather, and felt like the short gap between us would be doable in most conditions. The 12,100′ camp is likely the most beautiful place I have ever camped, and offered views above most of the surrounding peaks.
As might be expected, June 25 saw us hunker down for our first weather day (hard blowing snow and low visibility) loading the avy slope between us and most of our food. We had enough to wait two days, but I wasn’t impressed with my response to the first real threat of food stress. We decided to scope out conditions on June 26, and spent a long 11 hours very carefully mitigating avy hazards to get our cache up to the ridge camp that evening.
Also at 12,100′ we caught up to a large team from NOLS, and a 3 person team from Massachusetts both whom had left about a week before us. It seemed a little funny to have 3 teams on a remote wilderness route all stuffed into a small ridgetop camp, but it was fun to share the experience with new faces.
NOLS had already broken a trail up the ridge for us, so June 27 we moved a cache to 13,600′ on the ridge and returned to camp. The terrain on the ridge was steep and exposed, normally this wouldn’t have been a problem but with a huge pack I felt unsure of myself. That night we met a fourth team at 12,100′- two Russians that had started two days after us and were moving quite fast, and something triggered our suspicions.
June 28 we broke camp and moved up to Browne Tower, a huge granite feature at the top of Karstens Ridge, along with all of the others teams. Campsite space here is limited and building camp was extremely laborious- NOLS got out of camp first and grabbed the best spots for their huge crew. I went to bed worked, but excited to be high on the route at 14,600′. June 29 we took it easy and retrieved our cache from 13,600′ and absorbed being truly above the clouds within direct sight of both Denali summits.



Part 2, Muldrow Icefalls

When the path of a glacier flows over a particularly steep piece of a mountain it forms a feature called an icefall. Typically these areas host many cravasses, huge broken chunks of ice, and terrain that makes travel both difficult and scary. The standard Muldrow route includes travel directly through 3 major icefalls, and based on my recent cravasse fall experience, these were somewhat the mental crux of the route for me. Icefalls tend to change from year to year, storm to storm, and temperature when traveling in them.
The Lower Icefall of the Muldrow was the first of the three icefalls, and the one in which we had the heaviest loads to carry. For a variety of reasons, I elected to use tele skis and skins for floatation on this trip partially because they do a better job of keeping people out of cravasses than snowshoes. Unfortunately, they make traveling throughout the dense broken terrain of icefalls much more difficult, especially while pulling a sled. We found a partial trail left by previous parties but it still took quite some work to navigate. Due to the difficult terrain and size of our loads we started double carrying, spending one day carrying a cache higher on the route (through the icefall), then returning to camp the night and moving our tents and other gear the next day- if it sounds like it makes the climb twice as much work, you’re right, it does. It also makes the experience workable rather than unbearable, and I found it allowed me to enjoy the incredible place we were in. This is a typically strategy for most teams and most of the route until reaching the Harper glacier at 16,000′, so we had lots of work to do. The Lower Icefall went smoothly, no falls or other surprises, but we ended up caching our gear earlier, below the hill of cracks, rather than the base of the Great Icefall as is typical. When we moved camp from below the Lower Icefall we decided to move past our cache and through the Great Icefall with lighter packs and hopefully finding better camping at approximately 10,000′.
The Great Icefall of the Muldrow also went smoothly and without surprises, but was a pretty spooky place to be none the less. Home to some of the wildest and gnarliest ice formations I have ever seen, it is a feature to respect and move through (and yes we double carried through it). Again previous tracks help point us in the right direction, and we were stoked to dig into flat, safe camping once we got uphill of the Icefall. Travel and weather conditions through both of these Icefalls varied from perfect to terrible, but being on a night travel schedule helped make them somewhat more predictable. If doing the route, expect anything from brutal cold to uncomfortably warm temps, sticky/gloppy to styrofoam snow, rain and snow precipitation, whiteout to clear visibility- the full gambit, during this portion. We got it all in four days. Night schedule is recommended as it makes snow bridges over cravasses more stable and temperatures easier to predict. Skinning throughout the Icefalls was some of the most difficult and frustrating time I have ever spent on skis- I would actually recommend snowshoes for the route because of their lighter weight and better mobility. As we had passed our cache in a big push to camp above the Great Icefall, we returned the next night to retrieve it, I led our team back up the track pulling amsled and heavy pack into a cold down glacier wind. I don’t think my hip flexors have ever worked so hard and it seemed like this last carry through the most difficult of the 3 Icefalls provided our team with the first opportunity to truly suffer together. Suffice to say I was very grateful for the mental training provided in my sessions at Crossfit Fort Vancouver, and mental strength of my teammates. We earned our hot drinks that night.

Rocksteady and Bebop

(from June 19th, 2011)
When I moved to Portland four years ago I was just learning to be an adult- sorting out challenging circumstances and defining myself in a new city and new position in life. A friend of mine had this title phrase posted on his instant message status and the two words were exactly what I needed to think about. Steadiness, making good decisions on good information, slowing things down, and embracing adversity helped sort out the mayhem. Bebop, a music that I grew up playing, involves creativity, energy, and intelligence- all qualities I wanted to make sure I had in my newfound west coast life. I only found out some time later that my friend was referring to two thuggish characters from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Ever since, the phrase has reminded me of the petty drama I entertained during that period of my life and exactly how to beat it. Hauling a heavy pack and heavier sled up a glacier there’s a lot of funny stuff that can get in your head because you are worked. Planting each step and humming a little jazz reminded me how to finish a strong day, rocksteady and bebop.