Monday, August 20, 2012

Skiing Denali: Turns in the Messner

Jeb, Matt and Tucker skin toward the Orient Express and Messner Couloir.

After a much needed day of rest, our team set our sights on some loftier goals.  The Messner Couloir was high on the list of objectives, but the snow had looked downright dangerous during our stay at 14 camp.  With a good weather forecast, rose early (a relative term in the Alaska Range) and set out to climb the Upper Rib and ski the Orient Express.

Tucker explores a crevassed section of the lower Messner.

When we got closer to the base of the Orient, we couldn't help but notice that the snow in the Messner was looking rather enticing.  Tucker and I decided that we couldn't pass up the opportunity.  We roped up for the lower crevassed portion, crossed a few snow bridges and were into the meat of the Messner shortly after.  

Climbing the Messner was amazing.  The exposure and continuous steepness was intense.  

Tucker climbing through the choke of the Messner at around 17k feet.
When we reached the choke of the couloir, a cloud socked in around us.  We deliberated about climbing higher and decided to ski while we could still see.  Descending the Messner in a white-out was not on my list of fun things to do on Denali.  We chopped out a platform to click into our skis on and made haste.

The descent - we couldn't have asked for better snow!
Tucker laying down a turn near the base of the Messner.
After the first few icy turns, the snow got really, really good.  It was boot buckle deep powder, soft windboard and only a couple of punchy wind-affected turns.  And of course, when we were about halfway down, the clouds cleared and the day went back to blue-bird!

Blue sky appears as we descended through the choke of the couloir.
We waited for Matt and Jeb to return from the Orient and skied back to camp.  On our descent, we passed a skier named Ricardo who we had skied off the summit with two days prior (he the first Mexican to ski from the summit of Denali).  He was headed for the Messner as well.  As we prepared dinner we watched him ski the couloir.  

Everyone in camp watched in horror as he was caught in a serious avalanche just below the choke of the Messner.  He survived the ride and was able to capture it with a Go-Pro video:

This avalanche goes to show how conservative you need to be in a new range.  This was a scary experience for all of us and we were glad to have learned the lesson the easy way.  

That night we were pretty tired and ready for rest, but the weather forecast had changed for the worst.   We needed to make it off the mountain.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Denali: Ski descent from the top of North America

Matt Paul rippin' pow on the Fantasy Face above 17 camp.

After last year's stormed out attempt on 20,320' Mount McKinley, I needed another try.  This year I stepped it up a notch by bringing skis and a group of super fit skiers from Tahoe.

Our crew at 14,000' Camp.

Two weeks can be a relatively short trip for this behemoth of granite and ice, but with a high level of fitness and by acclimatizing a bit before getting on the mountain we were able to get it done.

Flying onto the Kahiltna is always amazing and with a crew that was seeing it all for the first time made it that much more fun.

Mount Foraker on our descent into Kahiltna Base Camp.
A big part of my plan was to get to 14 camp as quickly as possible to be ready for a summit push if we got a weather window.  This was a tough proposition, meaning that we would each single carry 115 pounds of gear to 14,000' in two days.

Taking a 'breather 'on the  Kahiltna Glacier at 9,500'.
Above Kahiltna Pass on the way to 11 Camp.
Jeb realizes that Denali is a cold place.  Glad I wasn't staying in that tent...

From 11 Camp, we slogged our way up to 14 Camp.  This stretch was tough with our loads, but once we were at camp it was time to relax and recover. 

Looking at the Messner Couloir from 14 Camp. Avalanche debris from the Orient Express.

Tucker Cunningham skiing from 16,300' on the West Rib.  Rippin' pow at higher altitudes was an important part of the acclimatization have to do what you have to do.
The Rescue Gully from the fixed lines above 14 Camp.

The author climbing near the fixed lines.

Jeb climbing the ridge above 16,000'.
Jeb, Tucker and Matt on the ridge at close to 17,000'.
Posing in a tent site at 17 Camp on the way to the top.

Jeb and Matt climbing the Autobahn above 17 Camp.
The Team on top of North America!

Jeb grabs a few nice wind buff turns at 18,000'.
Pausing to take in the view of Foraker before descending to 17 Camp.

Descending the ridge back to 14 Camp around midnight.

We took advantage of the first weather window that came our way and summitted via the West Buttress.  This was an amazing day and we were all pumped to have gotten some amazing turns in on the way down.  Skiing at 20,000' can't get much better than this!  We were worn out but happy.  Our trip was coming to an end, but we still had another goal in mind on the mountain....

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mount Rainier: Gib Ledges to Fuhrer Finger.

The Fuhrer Finger, just left of the sunlit rocky ridge.
Exploring new routes on Mount Rainier is an exciting challenge.  This trip Matt and I were joined on our Cascade crusade by some friends from Tahoe, Corey Champage, Mike Carkill and Eric Seel who had never been on the peak.  They were psyched to say the least.

We wanted to get on the mountain and try to ski as soon as we could, but our weather window looked marginal.  We packed our bags, loaded Mike's truck and set off for Paradise.  We'd camp at Muir, climb and ski if we could the next day but probably have to wait another day for the wind to die.

Matt and the author scoping the ascent route.  Photo: Eric Seel.
Clouds filtered in and out as we made our way up the Muir Snowfield.  The temperatures were perfect for skinning, but we knew it was cold up top.

At Muir the temps were cold, but the scenery was amazing as usual.  We enjoyed a hot meal and went to bed realizing if the winds didn't drop we would be waiting another day.

Mount Adams from Camp Muir.  The Tatoosh range is capped by clouds in the foreground.  Photo: Eric Seel.

With cold temps and high winds we wouldn't need to get up early.  We woke up well after dawn and the wind was still howling.  

Shifting gears, we called off our climb to the upper mountain and instead went up to scout the route. 

Matt and Zeb checkin out the route.  Photo: Eric Seel.

Wind blowing snow off the top of Rainier as we scamper back from our scouting mission.

After inspecting the Gibraltar Chute and Ledges we decided that the icefall above the chute was way too active to climb that route.  The Ledges route was in fine shape and would allow us to move fast.  And since none of our team had climbed either route, we were happy to get on something new.
A small ice fall on the Nisqually Ice Cliff.

With another cold forecast, but lower winds from the Northwest, we set out the next morning fairly late.  10 is hardly an alpine start, but who needs that when temps on top are going to be -2 Fahrenheit and the wind will be 20 mph?

Corey and Zeb top out on the Col before the Ledges.  Photo: Eric Seel.

The start of the Gibraltar Ledges route.  Photo: Eric Seel.

Above the ledges, but below the top of Gibraltar. 

Corey, Matt and Seel climbing above Gib Rock.

On top with Mt Adams in the background.

Matt skis off the top.  Great firm, winter snow.
Corey celebrates a few sweet chalk turns.

Matt looks into a deep one.
The author makes a few turns on the Nisqually Glacier.

The author dropping into the clouds on the Fuhrer Finger. Photo: Eric Seel.

Skiing out the Wilson.  We reconnected with the Nisqually Glacier and skied all the way to the Nisqually Bridge at 3,900'.  10,500'+ descent, yeehaaa!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mount Adams: Cascade Massive

Matt watches clouds clear on Mount Adams.
We knew this was going to be a big day.  We knew it was going to be literally longer than a marathon.  That it was going to be more vertical gain than Mount Rainier from Paradise or Mount Shasta from Bunny Flat.  But we didn't expect this 9,300' vertical, 35 mile round-trip journey to take us nearly 3 and a half hours longer than our 15 hour estimate.

It snowed on us as we started.

Taking the improving forecast into account, we started started our day relatively late: 3:00am.  Starting at the 3,000' Orr Creek Sno Park, we walked dirt road for the first mile.  When the snow became consistent we transitioned to skinning and picked up the pace a bit.  We skinned in nearly nine miles to the Killen Creek Trail junction.

Matt skins past lichen draped trees toward Killen Creek.

I expected to be relieved because we'd finally begin chipping away at the 9,281 we needed to get to the top.  I didn't think we'd be able to see any trail markers due to high snows, but I figured we'd be able to follow a rough outline of where the trail went.  This was not the case.  Instead all we found was thick woods and a maze of winding creeks.

The navigation was a nightmare. Every turn ended in a thick stand of trees, a steep bank of snow, or a creek.  We wandered our way through and by 10:00 we were at treeline around 6,000'.  Significantly farther from the top than we had hoped to be.

Matt skins toward the North Ridge.  Adams remains veiled in cloud.

Adams reveals itself...but it's still far away.
Seeing the mountain gave us new hope and we were able to pick up the pace.  It had taken us seven hours to gain the first 3,000'...a pathetic pace by climbing standards.  Even though our vertical rate was slow we were moving fast the whole time.  Now that we'd covered the approach we were ready to start getting some vert in.

The North Ridge of Mount Adams.  We skinned up the wind-drifted snow on the left, scrambled the scree and climbed the ridge.

On the way up the scree leg of the ridge, we encountered another climber.  We kept our distance from the big white goat, having heard of their sometimes nasty tempers.  It was amazing to see the huge beast scramble up the rocks and disappear behind the ridge, but we were a little unnerved when he and his tracks disappeared in the scree and we couldn't tell where he'd gone.  I kept expecting him to charge suddenly around a corner and gore us.

Past the goat, we gained the ridge.  The climbing was all over the place.  It went from hard, wind-scoured alpine ice to knee-deep powder.  The variety and aesthetics of the line were amazing and made for an interesting climb.
Climbing one of the firm sections on the lower half of the ridge.

On top of the ridge the climbing quality took a dive.  Here the snow was heavily rimed and each step was like walking on a fragile coral reef.  Not fun.  The climbing continued this way for a long stretch to the false summit on top of the North Ridge and the extra third of a mile to the true summit.

Matt walking the rime reef.

After slogging to the summit, we skied down the chicken head packed slope to the col between the summit and The Pinnacle, the top of the Northwest Ridge.
 From there we had to transition again from skis back to crampons and we made the uphill traverse to reach The Pinnacle.

Matt traverses The Pinnacle.
Down climbing before it got good.

All the effort payed off.   After a short down climb and a few nasty rimed kick turns we got into the goods of the North Face of the Northwest Ridge.  The skiing here was some of the best turns of the trip.  The powder was settled and stable, although we skied our first few turns with caution after seeing a large debris pile that had plowed out of the Adams Glacier just to our east.

Matt gets the goods on the North Face of the NW Ridge.
The skiing was perfect powder.  Huge relief, nearly 3,000' of great snow and somewhere around 40 degree turns.  It was amazing!

The author slashing one.
As good as the skiing was, we were relieved when we were off the glacier and back onto terra-firma.  We'd made it past the technical and dangerous parts of the tour and just had to crank out the remaining 12 miles between us and our car.

Success! Our ski line is on the far right of the picture, mostly out of view.