Sunday, June 27, 2010

Alaska 2010: Dracula and Cassin Simul-Solo


Bjørn-Eivind Årtun and I have just come out from a 37-day trip to Denali and Mt. Foraker, which was partially funded by a Mugs Stump Award and the Norwegian Alpine Club (NTK). Here is a report of what we did.

We flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier on May 13, and immediately started up Denali’s West Buttress route to acclimatize. We soon established a basecamp at the 14,200 ft. camp on the West Buttress to stay for a while. On May 21 we attempted to climb and ski the Orient Express route, but turned around and skied from 17,500 ft. in the face of dangerous wind slabs. On May 25 we climbed to the summit of Denali via the Messner Couloir and returned to the 14,200 ft. camp in 9:15 roundtrip. On May 29 we climbed to the summit of Denali again via the West Buttress route in 8:10 roundtrip.

On the evening of June 6 we departed the 14,200 camp with light packs to attempt the Cassin Ridge, with hopes of breaking the speed record established by Mugs Stump in 1991 (he climbed the Cassin Ridge in 15 hours, and 27.5 hours roundtrip from the 14,200 ft. camp). The forecast was marginal, and our attempt was preceded by a lot of new snowfall, but we had already waited too long for a good weather window. Rather than descend all of the lower West Rib route, we opted to approach via a variation to the West Rib, the “Seattle ‘72 Ramp,” established in 1972 by Alex Bertulis, Jim Wickwire, Robert Shaller, Tom Stewart, Charlie Raymond and Leif-Norman Patterson. This approach worked excellently, and we were soon melting water in the bergschrund at the base of the Japanese Couloir.
We crossed the bergshrund at 22:40 and began climbing up the Japanese Couloir. Above Cassin Ledge we made a route-finding error and accidently climbed a mixed chimney that was more difficult than necessary. While climbing the first rock band the weather took a turn for the worse, and the mostly cloudy skies turned completely cloudy and started snowing. We had decent snow conditions until the top of the third rock band, at 17,000 ft. (although much more hard ice on the icefields than most years), but then began to wallow considerably in deep, fresh snow. We had made excellent time up to 17,000 ft. (about 11 hours) and were confident that we would break the speed record, but that hope began to disintegrate as we worked through snow sometimes waist-deep on the left (west) side of the ridge. The snow worsened closer to the summit ridge, and the final 1,000 ft. to the summit took us over three hours. We finally reached the summit at 15:43 for a time of 17 hours from the base. We took our time down the West Buttress route, and when we arrived back at the 14,200 ft. camp 28 hours had elapsed. We brought a 20 meter rope for the approach, but simul-soloed all of the route.

After our climb of the Cassin we packed up our camp at 14,200 ft. on the West Buttress and descended down to Kahiltna basecamp. Ever since our first week on the glacier we had not experienced consecutive days with good weather, and still the forecast was not optimistic, so it seemed unlikely that we would attempt the main objective of our expedition: a new route on the Southeast Face of Mt. Foraker. After a few days in basecamp the weather forecast called for one day of high pressure, and we thought we might as well pack our backpacks and ski over to the base of the face to check it out. We skied to the base of the face in a whiteout, and never even once that day were able to see the wall that we hoped to climb. We set up our tent in dumping snow, and assumed that in the morning we would simply ski back to basecamp. However, we awoke at 4:00 am the next morning (June 13) to clear skis, and made a hurried decision to launch.
We skied from our campsite up the glacier to the base of the face, and then cached our skis below a protected rock buttress at 6,800 ft. The lower portion of the face (before we branched off of the previous route, False Dawn) is serac-threatened, and so as soon as we left our skis, at 6:00 am, we set off simul-soloing as fast as we possibly could. We raced up a narrow snow couloir to the left of the main serac (but still threatened by a serac on the French Ridge) with steps up to AI3, and then made a right-ward traverse to above the main serac and out of danger. We spent a total of two hours and ten minutes in what I consider dangerous terrain, although we never saw anything come down from these seracs.
Above the dangerous terrain we climbed up a hanging glacier, and then departed False Dawn, climbing up to the base of the large diamond-shaped wall that we hoped to climb. At the base of the wall we stopped to rest, eat, melt snow and bust out the ropes. The wall itself is about 3,000 ft. tall, and comprised of first a large left-trending ramp system, and then a large right trending ramp system. We climbed a lot of ice runnels, and some tricky mixed bits. The rock was mostly good granite, but the technical crux came on a section of crumbly M6R.
At the top of the rock wall we had hoped to brew up, but there was still not a single ledge big enough to chop a butt-seat, so we kept climbing through the night up interminable 60-degree ice slopes to the junction with the French Ridge. Climbing through the night, combined with severe dehydration and wet socks, caused me to develop frostbite on my big toes.
At the junction with the French Ridge we stopped to rest and melt snow in the dawn light. Eventually we got on our way again, and slowly began the long plod traversing under the south summit and on towards the true summit, quite exhausted. We finally reached the true summit at 13:00, 31 hours after leaving our skis. The skies were clouding up however, and we scurried off almost immediately, heading down the Northeast Ridge.
We quickly descended 5,000 ft. down the Northeast Ridge, and then stopped in a convenient crevasse to melt snow out of the wind. We had planned to continue descending via the Sultana Ridge variation, but when we exited the crevasse we were greeted with complete whiteout and 50 mile-per-hour winds. After a brief attempt along the ridge we returned to the protected crevasse. A little while later we tried to start out again, but again realized we had no chance to continue along the Sultana Ridge in the blizzard.
Back in the crevasse we discussed our options. We had half a canister of isobutane left, a handful of energy bars, no sleeping bags, and no tent or sleeping pads - staying long was out of the question. We spent the night sitting in the crevasse shivering hoping for the weather to improve. When in the morning it was just as bad we decided our only reasonable option was to descend via the original Northeast Ridge route, established in 1966 by a Japanese team, as it would be much less exposed to the wind than the Sultana Ridge. We had no information about it, and I don’t think it has been ascended or descended in at least a decade, although probably two or three.
Slowly we fought our way down the 1966 route. Low down the original route traverses off the rib into an extremely broken icefall, underneath seracs. We decided it would be safer to stay on the rib, and began rappelling directly down the unclimbed rock buttress instead. It was sometimes quite tricky, and included a couple overhanging rappels, but finally we made it down to the glacier. Once far enough away from the face that we felt relatively safe from avalanches, we stopped to melt snow once more, and then began the long post-holing session back to Kahiltna basecamp. When we finally reached basecamp we had been awake for about 71 hours, and I was hallucinating a lot. The toes that I had frostbitten during the ascent had re-warmed during the descent, and had been excruciatingly painful for most of the descent and hike back to basecamp.
My frostbite looks as though it will heal up just fine (although I might not manage tight rock shoes for a bit!), but in basecamp I could not yet put on boots, and Bjørn-Eivind retrieved our camping gear and skis from the base of the route with the help of our friend, Chris, from Colorado. The whole climb and descent felt massive, and made the Cassin feel like a small, non-commiting route by comparison. We named our route Dracula, and the numbers are: 10,400 ft., M6R, AI4+, A0. June 13-15, 2010.


The view from the flight into Kahiltna basecamp, with our intended wall on Foraker in the center of the photo. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Our first acclimatization venture to the 17,000ft. camp was via the Rescue Gully. Colin perched on some rocks next to the 17,00ft. camp with Foraker behind. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Hanging out at the 14,200ft. camp in the igloo of the "Leningrad Cowboys." From left to right is Stephen, Justus, Bjørn-Eivind, Colin and Sean. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind kicking steps up the Orient Express. We went to approximately 17,500ft. but then encountered scary windslab and skied back to camp from there. Photo by Colin.

We passed much of our acclimatization time skiing laps in the basin above the 14,200ft. camp. Colin catching a bit of air. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind high in the Messner Couloir on our first visit of the expedition to Denali's summit. Photo by Colin.

Colin on the summit of Denali after our climb of the Messner Couloir. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Our next trip to the summit was a few days later, via the standard West Buttress. Bjørn-Eivind on the summit for our second time. Photo by Colin.

Hanging out at the 14,200ft. camp with our Dutch friends, Wouter Van Dijk and Jeroen Vels. They educated us on Dutch culture, particularly the word "swaffelen." "Swaffelen" was apparently the official word of the year in Holland in 2009. I won't divulge it's meaning here... crazy Dutch guys! Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

When we went for the Cassin there had been about two meters of snowfall since the most recent ascent of the route (two weeks earlier), and the forecast called for one day of "partly cloudy" between other days of worse weather. Not exactly an ideal scenario, but we were tired of waiting! Bjørn-Eivind and Colin about to depart the 14,200ft. camp. Photo by Jeroen Vels.

Bjørn-Eivind jumping over a small 'schrund while desending the lower West Rib, shortly before we branched off on the Seattle '72 Ramp. Photo by Colin.

Two Belgian friends, Sam Van Brempt and Joris Van Reeth, camped in the 'schrund beneath the Japanese Couloir (the start of the Cassin). Sam and Joris had descended the Seattle '72 ramp half a day before us, so even if we were to have no previous tracks on route it was nice to have tracks on the approach to the base of the Cassin. We hung out with Sam and Joris for a couple hours while we were having dinner and melting water for the route, and then said goodbye before crossing the 'schrund. Tragically, Joris was killed in the Japanese Couloir the following morning, after taking a large fall and suffering serious trauma. RIP Joris. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind and myself melting water in the 'schrund below the Japanese Couloir. Photo by Colin.

We had originally planned to attempt Foraker before the Cassin and only changed plans to save time after we had waited through so much bad weather. Thus, we weren't equipped for the Cassin quite as we had planned, and most significantly, our helmets were down in Kahiltna basecamp. We took a lot of care throughout the route not to knock rocks or ice on each other. Bjørn-Eivind in the Japanese Couloir. Photo by Colin.

Colin just past the most difficult section of the Japanese Couloir. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind arriving at the ridgecrest at the top of the Japanese Couloir. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind climbing through the Cassin's crux rock band, just above the Japanese Couloir. We realized after the climb that we accidently climbed this more-difficult chimney unnecessarily, and the correct gully was further to the right. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind in the first rock band. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind in the second rock band. Photo by Colin.

Colin in the second rock band. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind in the second rock band. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind in the second rock band. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind almost to the top of the second rock band. Photo by Colin.

A tired Bjørn-Eivind enduring the weather a little ways above 17,000ft. Photo by Colin.

Colin getting frosty on the upper Cassin. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

The last 1,000ft. to the summit ridge took us over three hours, due to deep snow and our fatigue, but Bjørn-Eivind did a great job with the majority of the trail-breaking on this section. Colin following. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Colin on the summit of Denali for our third time of the trip, a bit more tired this time! Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

After going to sleep amidst dumping snow we had assumed our last chance to try Foraker was gone, but we awoke surprisingly to clear skies. Colin at our camp below the face the morning that we started climbing. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind about to cross the bergschrund of False Dawn, going as fast as possible in the "danger zone." Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind on the lower part of False Dawn, almost out of the dangerous terrain. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind past the serac danger and almost to the hanging glacier on False Dawn. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind departing False Dawn, and kicking steps up to the diamond-shaped rock wall. Photo by Colin.

Colin starting up the first, left-trending ramp. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind following the first pitch of the left-trending ramp. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind's view up the first of the route's two crux pitches. This mixed dihedral was quite steep, but with excellent rock and protection. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind arriving at the top of a pitch of rotten ice. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind connecting the top of the left-trending ramp with the right-trending ramp above. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind on the right-trending ramp. Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind on the right-trending ramp. Photo by Colin.

Colin on a very precarious cornice near the top of the right-trending ramp. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind on the route's second crux pitch: not as steep, but with rotten rock and bad protection. Photo by Colin.

Colin following the second crux. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Colin almost to the top of the rock wall. We really wanted to brew up at this point, but couldn't find anywhere to do so. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind on the never-ending 60-degree ice slopes above the rock wall. We really wanted to brew up at this point. Photo by Colin.

Colin almost to the top of the never-ending 60-degree ice slopes, in the first rays of the sun. Now we really, really wanted to brew up. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Colin looking a wee bit tired upon joining the upper French Ridge. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind was a wee bit tired as well... Photo by Colin.

Bjørn-Eivind on the upper French Ridge, with Mt. Hunter behind. Photo by Colin.

The traverse from the south summit to the main summit of Foraker was a long ordeal in our utterly depleted state. Like on the Cassin, Bjørn-Eivind did a great job with the majority of the trail breaking on this last section. Two worn-out climbers on the summit, anxiously watching clouds building all around us. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Our crevasse shiver-bivy at 12,000ft. on the Northeast Ridge, where we spent a miserable night hoping for the blizzard to abate. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Colin back-tracking while navigating a route through humongous crevasses on the stormy descent down the Japanese '66 route. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Colin pulling the rappel ropes above the last rappel. Photo by Bjørn-Eivind.

Bjørn-Eivind on the last rappel, which was almost 50 meters of overhanging rotten rock, into the biggest moat we've ever seen (we had to climb a pitch of steep ice to get out of it). Photo by Colin.

The two of us arriving in Kahiltna Basecamp at 2am, hallucinating quite a lot. The long, post-holing walk across the Kahiltna Glacier was excruciating for my frostbitten toes, so I opted to walk the last section, up Heartbreak Hill, in just my boot liners. Photo by Jacob Schmitz.

The view of the wall from our campsite, the morning that we started up the route. Dracula is marked in blue. Photo by Colin.

The entire Southeast Face of Foraker, showing all established routes.

GREEN: Southeast Ridge (bottom not shown), 1963, 10,400 ft.
RED: French Ridge, 1976, 10,800 ft.
YELLOW: Infinite Spur (bottom not shown), 1977, 9,000 ft.
PINK: False Dawn, 1990, 10,400 ft.
ORANGE: Viper Ridge, 1991, 6,000 ft. (climbed only to junction with SE Ridge)
BLUE: Dracula, 2010, 10,400 ft.


For those who have cried success at the top of the buttress on the Bibler-Klewin route on Mt. Hunter, this photo which I took from Foraker can provide a bit of perspective. The red dot shows Mugs Stump's high point, the green dot shows the top of the buttress and the blue dot shows the summit of Mt. Hunter - the top of the route.


I have now tried all three of the popular approach routes to the Southwest Face of Denali (1. Hike/ski up the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna. 2. Downclimb the lower West Rib. 3. Downclimb the Seattle '72 Ramp), and I am now quite convinced that the Seattle '72 Ramp is the best route to take. There are still advantages of approaching via the Northeast Fork, but I think there is no good reason to descend the lower West Rib. When I down-climbed the lower West Rib it took most of a day. The Seattle '72 Ramp, by comparison, took Bjørn-Eivind and I only three hours and ten minutes from the 14,200ft. camp to the bergschrund below the Japanese Couloir. We had light packs and were well acclimatized, but nonetheless I think any party would find it a much faster approach than the lower West Rib. We found the approach via the Seattle '72 Ramp to be fairly straightforward. It required a bit of tricky crevasse navigation, and we made one 10 meter rappel, but that was it.

For a long time the Seattle '72 Ramp has had a reputation of high serac hazard, but it is only the last, lowest portion, and all three approach options are subject to the same seracs at that point anyways. Of course you should make your own choices about whether or not you think it is dangerous, but it is certainly the route I will take if I approach the Southwest Face again.

I took this photo while we were climbing the Japanese Couloir. It shows the lower portion of the Seattle '72 ramp, with the route we took in red and potential alternate routes in green.

This photo, that I pulled off the internet, shows the upper portion of the Seattle '72 Ramp, with our approximate route marked in red. The green dot shows a steep rock wall which is a useful landmark while descending.

Mark Westman took this photo of the Seattle '72 ramp from the Denali Diamond in June 2007. Just for another perspective on the ramp.