Thursday, August 15, 2013

Alaska 2013 – Ruth Gorge, Little Switzerland and Squamish.

Just back from a quick trip to Alaska and Canada. Here is quick trip report.
It was during the middle of a long hot summer in Australia when I received a call from a good mate Ryan suggesting a climbing trip to Alaska.  The Alaskan range is a mecca for big steep mountains of rock, ice and snow so I didn’t need much convincing.

It had been about 9 years since my last visit when I climbed Denali, the highest mountain in North America and I was psyched for another trip.  Our focus for the trip would be long technical routes on rock and maybe ice if there was any left by June.

We flew from Australia through San Francisco then up to Anchorage in Alaska. A long flight and some excessive excess baggage charges later due to accidently flying on United Airlines, we arrived to a beautiful midnight sun casting an amazing glow over the Alaskan mountains.
Denali and the massive Ruth Glacier

Plane dwarfed by Mt Dickey, Ruth Gorge

After two days in Anchorage stocking up on food and supplies we made our way to Talkeetna, a quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem and our launching point for our flight into the mountains. We had been blessed with perfect clear weather and a few hours after arriving in Talkeetna, we were aboard a Twin Otter aircraft and weaving through the steep mountains on our way to the impressive Mountain House landing strip in the Ruth Gorge.

The following day, Ryan and I skied into the Ruth Gorge past the massive monoliths of Mt Dickey, Mt Barrill and the peaks of the Moose’s Tooth toward a formation called the Stump, named after the enigmatic Mugs Stump a prolific climber in Alaskan Range.

The first objective was a route called Goldfinger (5.11a) on apparently immaculate rock. After 3 incredible pitches of incredible stemming corners and cracks, I encountered slimy wet cracks, which were unpleasant and somewhat dangerous to climb. The wetness and slime appeared to extend up the route, maybe a product of the late wet spring that Alaska had experienced. At this point, it was also evident that Ryan hadn’t spent much time rock climbing in the last 3 years as a result of living in exile in Rockhampton in rural Queensland. We bailed and skied back to our camp at the Mountain House. 
Ryan on Goldfinger, Ruth Gorge

After a rest day we headed back to the Stump to climb some of the other amazing looking routes in the area.  We climbed about 8 pitches of good quality rock around the Stump and then headed back to camp, which was about a 3-hour ski uphill from the Stump Camp. With Ryan’s lack of rock climbing fitness, the super long routes of the Ruth Gorge were out of the question so we opted for a bump flight to the Pika Glacier otherwise known as Little Switzerland, an area known for its moderate long rock routes and ski touring opportunities.
Planking in the Pika
Camp in the Pika with the trolls behind. 
South Troll, Little Switzerland
We arrived to a deserted base camp and promptly scoped our options. The weather was holding and options were plentiful. Our first route in the Pika was the South Face of Middle Troll (5.9 300m), which began with some scrambling followed by some beautiful 5.8-5.9 pitches on beautiful rock. Near the summit was an incredibly cool spike of rock that jutted over the void like a diving board. We took turns posing on the diving board before descending the route and skiing back to camp.
The trolls, Little Switzerland
Planking on the diving board, Middle troll, Pika

The following day we attempted the gargoyle buttress (5.10c, 600m) on the Royal Tower. After negotiating the schrund and climbing the stunning first few pitches, we encountered massively loose and slimy rock. I ripped a huge flake off and took a small fall on an apparently classic well-travelled route. I tried a few variations and encountered more loose and wet rock before common sense prevailed and we bailed back to camp.
Rob on great cracks on Sth Face, Middle Troll
Ryan on Sth Face middle troll
We took the opportunity to meet the new arrivals in camp, Tom and Mark from Seattle. Tom and Mark were on a week’s holiday in the range and their company and humour was a great addition to an otherwise deserted base camp. During the next week, we would share stories, salmon flavoured chocolate, camp-baked cinnamon scrolls and some great ski runs.
Royal Tower, Pika Glacier
Lost marsupial route on Throne.
Next up was a fun route called the Lost Marsupial Route (5.9 350m) on the Throne. The route consisted of some fun pitches of climbing interspersed with some moderate 5th class scrambling. As was becoming customary for the summits, we shared some American ever-fresh bagels with crème cheese and took in the rewarding views of Mt Foraker and Denali in the distance. After retrieving the skis from a hollow shrund, we skied down to camp 6 hours after setting out. A few days later, another team of 3 would take 15 hours to climb and descend the same route, arriving back at camp at 3am the following day after starting.  We did get a bit worried about them but they ended up descending safely back to camp.
Skiing in the Pika
Little Guy retrieves the skis - hahah
By this stage of the trip, our original tent platforms were becoming seriously melted out and our tents sat about 1 foot above the surrounding snow. The edges of my borrowed 1.5 man tent had sunk off the edges of the platform, effectively lowering the roof of tent and creating a coffin like effect. I couldn’t sit upright in my tent and had to worm my way in to enter. My spacious base camp was sitting on the lounge room floor at home. Doh!

After a day of skiing and camp maintenance, we headed up to climb a route on the west face of the South Troll called Free Radical (5.10+, 400m), a route claiming to have some of the best cracks in Little Switzerland. After a few approach pitches on moderate rock to avoid the dodgy and dangerous couloir mentioned in the route description, we began climbing on some amazing sustained hand and finger cracks for about 5 pitches. After a quick scramble to the summit for the obligatory bagel and crème cheese and photos, we headed down, backing up and fixing some of the aged anchors as we descended. The rappel anchors on this route were apparently fixed but needed careful checking after Ryan pulled a 2-piton anchor out by hand. This ended up being one of the best routes of the whole trip and probably the closest to camp (a 5 minute ski away). 
Rob on Free Radical 510+ 

Ryan on Free Radical 510+, Pika Glacier
The last route we completed in Little Switzerland was an unknown route spotted by Mark and Tom and climbed the previous day. A 20-minute ski approach followed by 4- 5pitches of perfect hand and finger cracks led to the west summit of the Crown. Tom and Mark had spotted the route and climbed it not knowing the name or if it had been done before.  We found fixed anchors and perfect rock. With endless daylight we followed up the climb with some ski touring and fun ski runs during the midnight hours.
Mark on west face of Crown, Pika
West face of Crown, Pika
By day 13, we were pretty much out of food so opted to fly out with Mark and Tom and make our way to Squamish in Canada for some more climbing. With the weather still perfect, the plane made a detour to Denali Base camp on the West fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Conditions were far from ideal on the Kahiltna with waist deep slushy snow, hardly the perfect conditions of the Ruth and Pika Glaciers. In contrast to the climbers slogging with heavy packs on Denali, we had carried only light day-packs and climbed technical warm rock routes with easy ski approaches. Life was good.
Showers and burgers in Talkeetna topped off a perfect trip into the hills before we headed back to Anchorage and other adventures.

Another key factor in my decision to head to Alaska was to catch up with a great friend of mine who lived in Anchorage. Our lasting friendship was forged in the wild mountains of Patagonia where, both partnerless for various reasons we teamed up for an epic attempt on Fitzroy and a successful ascent of Poincenot in 2006. Charlie’s spirit was still strong and although he had largely given up climbing seriously due to various injuries, we headed out scrambling on one of the local cliffs and spent a cool day Stand-up paddle boarding on Prince William sound near the historic Alaskan town of Whittier. Time spent with good friends like Ryan and Charlie is one of my treasured memories and one of the most valuable times in life. Friendships forged in the mountains seem to endure the years. Maybe it’s the intensity in which they develop or shared understanding of those tough and amazing days shared in the hills.

With a few days up our sleeve, we decided to head south to Canada via Seattle. We picked up a big Dodge Grand Caravan and a few hours later met up with Erik (a friend from Adelaide) and Sarah in Squamish below the fabled Chief, a mecca for granite climbing an hour north of Vancouver.
The Chief in Squamish
Sara on Star Check
Rob on Star Check
Sara on Star Check
Erik on LIfe on Earth
Mt Habrich
Ryan on Life on Earth, Mt Habrich
Ryan on Life on Earth, Mt Habrich
After a relaxed start we headed out for an ascent of the photogenic Star Check (5.9, 80m), a relatively straight forward arête rising out of a foaming river in Cheqamus Canyon. The following day we headed out to climb a classic route in the Squamish backcountry on a peak called Mt Habrich. The route was called Life on Earth (350m 5.10c) and consisted of 6 long pitches of sustained and runout 5.10 + climbing despite Erik’s memories of a few point cruxes. After an hour on muddy logging trails, an hour on the mountain bikes and a steep 1-hour hike, we made it to the base of the route. Leading in 2 groups of 2 (Erik & Sara) and (Me and Ryan), we made progress up the committing slightly less than vertical granite arête until a 150 m scramble led to the top of the peak, where Erik’s fondness for taking his clothes off overtook him. Erik posed on top with magnificent scenery in every direction and everyone present in hysterics laughing. This route was definitely a highlight of the trip for me with the long approach and mentally absorbing climbing all the way with great friends.
Ryan takes a stack on the way down
Erik- Wild natural beauty
ryan on Mt Habrich
Ryan on Mt Habrich
After simul-rapping to the base, a steep descent and fun mountain bike descent with a few crashes, we topped the day off with some ciders and Mexican food. Damn fine day with about 14 hours of action.
Next on the list was Angel Crest (5.10c, ~500m (13 pitches)), a classic route leading to the top of the Chief via some fantastic climbing. The last few days of hard climbing had taken their toll on Ryan and for the first few pitches he was suffering along with persistence. With some perseverance and admission that the hard climbing and abuse would toughen him up and get him back into shape, he kept going and slowly got back into the groove despite getting savagely pumped on many occasions.
Ryan on Angels Crest
Ryan on Angels Crest
This was the last big route of our trip, as I had to head home and Ryan was staying on in Canada for a few more weeks to climb and travel before coming home to look for work. Ryan had quit his job prior to the trip and moved back to Brisbane after his leave from work was denied. He was a man of freedom now and the month in the hills had him more psyched than ever.

Another great trip comes to an end and the next one is being planned. Onward and upward. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

One out of two - Alpine style in the Himalaya - Cholatse and Kyajo Ri

In March 2012, I headed to Nepal to climb Kyajo Ri (6186m, otherwise known Kyazo Ri) and Cholatse (6440m). I have tried to write this trip report in a way as to provide information for future parties who wish to attempt these mountains. Enjoy. Be inspired.

Life was busy and 2012 was bound to be a busy one but I needed to get back to the mountains. I looked at my calendar and figured I could wrangle a month off around mid-March. Next came the big questions of an objective and teammates for the climb.

I decided on Nepal as a destination because of the easy logistics and reasonable airfares, and decided on two 6000m peaks as objectives for the trip. Kyajo Ri (6186m) would be solid ‘warm up’ peak to acclimatise on and Cholatse (6440) would be the second objective. Now all I needed was a solid partner who had the time and was keen for some suffering. On Christmas day, Tim, one of my British mates from Sheffield, sent me an email letting me know he was in. Maybe the five red wines he had drunk that day helped convince him that it was a good idea to leave work and home duties for the simplicity of the Himalayan mountains. It was on. We had an objective, a solid team and a plan.
In mid March, I arrived in Kathmandu. It was still a quiet part of the year with not too many tourists around. My trusty agent Nima had helped me arrange flights into the mountains and some strong porters to help us with our equipment. I am quite used to the hustle and bustle of the traffic in Kathmandu but Tim never stopped being transfixed by the near misses and seemingly hectic traffic that resembled some kind of ordered chaos.

TimAfter flying into Lukla (2700m), we began the 5-hour trek to Monjo (2700m), the trails still relatively quiet in the middle of March with a hint of winter still in the air. After a few hours of walking the following day we made our way to Namche Bazaar (3400m), the bustling Sherpa village in the heart of the Khumbu. After an active rest day trekking up to Khumjung, we made our way to Thame (3800m) as part of our acclimatisation schedule. A few hours into our trek to Thame, the soles on Tim’s boots started flapping and peeling off his boots. After some taping repairs, we eventually made it to Thame but the boots were looking decidedly average. We both felt quite strong so we decided to head up to Mende (3700m) and Kyajo Ri Base camp (4500m) the following day.
TIm's mangled boots

The village of Thame (3800m)

Information on Kyajo Ri was a bit thin and hard to source because not too many expeditions venture into this harder to get to and more recently opened peak. After about two hours walking from Thame, we made it to Mende (3700m) and asked for directions to the Kyajo Ri base camp. Previously obtained information indicated it was only about 2 hours to base camp from Mende, but information from the Mende locals indicated that it was closer to 5- 6 hours so our porters didn’t want to continue that day because they needed to allow time to return to Mende or Namche. Tim and I were still keen to get to base camp that day so we loaded our packs with the tent and enough food and equipment for the next few days and headed up the steep yak trails past the monastery until some rock cairns led rightwards over a ridge. We continued to follow faint trails as the usual afternoon mist and cloud enveloped us. After around 5 hours, we made it into the Kyajo Dranka; an incredibly beautiful valley flanked by massive peaks, rock walls and frozen waterfalls. Spring had not arrived in the valley yet and most of the valley floor was covered in snow and ice.

On the way to Kyajo Ri BC

Kyajo Ri Base camp

2nd valley on Kyajo Ri

Dan and Prakash
Two of our porters, Prakash and Dan arrived around 9am the next morning after getting an early start from Mende. As they left for Namche, we told them to expect us in Namche in about 5 days time. Keen to get started, Tim and I loaded our packs with climbing gear and food and headed up the valley for an acclimatisation carry. The massive rock wall at the head of the first valley was easily ascended via a steep gully on the right side. Once the first rock wall was surmounted, a second long valley and the mountain we intended to climb became visible.
Kyajo Dranka in late Winter
After another night in base camp, we packed and headed up the valley again. We were barely acclimatised so the going was tough with heavy packs. Tim was complaining of some GI disorder and struggling for energy so we made camp 1 at around 5000m in the second valley. It was a beautiful campsite with a little stream nearby for water. I was feeling strong so I carried some equipment and food to the next camp at 5300m. There was some evidence of previous expeditions but it was remarkably clean and pristine.
Looking back down the second valley
Looking up the second valley toward the 2nd headwall and Kyajo Ri (just left of centre)

The next day, we made our way to camp 2 (5300m) in a few hours. Tim was still affected by his GI complaint and altitude so a rest day was scheduled in. We tested the effects of altitude on our brain capacity with Sudoku puzzles during the downtime. Tim’s completion of a ‘very hard’ puzzle signalled that he was ready to head up the next day.

Getting to camp 3 on the col at 5700m entailed crossing a frozen stream and lake, then a relatively straightforward glacier before ascending a steep snow and scree filled gully. After a few hours, we made it to the wind blasted col and set up the tent. With excellent views of the route to the summit and surrounding mountains, we feasted on the last of our cheese, salami and noodles and prepared for the impending summit day. We fed our salami skin scraps to the birds that visited us. Tim was hoping that an illusive yeti might make an appearance and eat some scraps but he disappointed us by not gracing us with his presence.
view of Ama Dablam from high camp on Kyajo ri
View across the lake and glacier of Kyajo Ri
The following morning dawned cold; the wind sucking the warmth from the hands. The first section of the route required some rock climbing that would be agonising and dangerous with cold bare hands so we delayed departure from camp till 8am. Tim took the lead on the first few rock and ice pitches though perfect granite and bulletproof blue ice. It had been a dry winter and there was very little snow on the mountain.  By the end of the day, the calves would be burning from endless front pointing (standing on the front points of our crampons) on the hard ice.
Tim on the rock band on Kyajo ri

After 3 pitches, I took over the lead and we began simul-climbing up 50-70 degree ice toward the summit, placing ice screws as we climbed. Black clouds were forming over the nearby mountains as we climbed at a steady pace, breathing hard in the thin air. Around 2pm, I stepped onto the summit and set up a belay to bring Tim up. We had amazing views of the south face of Cholatse, our next objective. We were supposed to be back in Namche by this time so we were overdue. We had no mobile phone reception so we had no means by which to notify people that we were OK. The bad weather was closing in so after a few minutes on the summit, we began abseiling back to camp 3 using v-threads in the ice and snow stakes.
Tim approaching the summit
TIm on Kyajo Ri
TIm on Kyajo Ri
TIm on Kyajo Ri
Tim descending back to tent after summiting Kyajo Ri

We arrived back at camp tired but still intent on making it down to camp 2 where it was warmer and less windy. It snowed for most of the afternoon, making the descent seem that little more desperate. Crossing of the frozen lake late in the day was going to be interesting because we didn’t know how thick the ice was. It seemed thick enough early in the morning when we first crossed it but after a few days of thawing, I wasn’t too sure. Tim thought it would be ok so we roped up and I suggested he went first. We were both carrying heavy packs and the thought of falling through the ice into freezing water a long way from help was unimaginable. Thankfully, we made it back to camp 2 without incident and settled in for the night. After an 11-hour day, we had one packet of minute noodles and 2 slices of salami. We had so far stretched our 5 days of food to 6 days, but this was the end of it. 10 minutes later, we used the last of our gas making tea. We were too exhausted to care and both crashed into delirious sleep.
Tim attacking the salami after summit day.
After a slow start and the last of our food- an energy gel each, we packed and headed down toward base camp. From the ridge above base camp, we saw two people waiting below. Without wanting to get our hopes too high, we waited until we reached them to confirm that it was our fantastic porters, Prakash and Dan.  They had walked up from Namche that morning after the lodge owner told them to come and look for us. We were overdue and they were worried. After splitting up the loads, we headed down.

We had been told there was a short cut to Namche via Khunde so we tried to follow a trail and water pipe trench leading to a break in the ridge above Khunde. The trail became exposed and unnecessarily dangerous at one point and we were not willing to risk the lives and safety of our porters or ourselves so we headed down through a thick thorny forest toward Thamo instead.

Four hours later, we walked back into Namche for a well-earned rest and food. Though sickness, exertion and lack of food, we had both lost a few kilos. Our clothes were now hanging off our frames.
After two days rest and some good food, we headed into up into the Gokyo valley up to Dhole (4200m). Feeling well acclimatised and rested, we covered the distance in about four hours. Cholatse became visible as we trekked toward the small village of Machermo(4400m) the following day. The mountain looked rocky and relatively bare of snow compared to previous times I had seen the mountain during post monsoon seasons.

SW ridge on Cholatse
View of Cholatse from summit of Kyajo Ri
Initially, we had planned to climb the north face of Cholatse, but after Kyajo ri took longer than planned and the scarce snow conditions of the mountains, we decided instead to try the South West ridge. The following day, our porters helped us carry some of our equipment up to the base camp and then headed back to Machermo to wait for us. From the base camp, the route followed a little valley from the left side of base camp to a moraine ridge overlooking the Cholatse glacier. We headed up the right side of the glacier in deep snow conditions, sometimes struggling in waist deep powder snow, and made camp at around 5400m nestled between the seracs on the glacier.
headwall leading to col camp on Cholatse

We woke with the inside of the tent covered in rime ice from our condensing breath. Every time we moved or brushed the tent the ice crystals covered us and filled our sleeping bags. We headed up toward the headwall leading to the col camp 5600m, weaving around some crevasses on the glacier. After crossing the bergshrund (crevasse that separates the mountain from the glacier), I encountered deep unconsolidated snow and spent around 10 minutes trying to make progress before retreating momentarily. We tried a few options before Tim tried without his pack on and made it through to some slightly more solid snow and made an anchor. After another hour and some steep snow climbing, we made it to the col, which was in remarkably different condition to the last time I was there in 2006. The smooth even snow had given way to foot high sastrugi (fins of windblown ice) that were extremely awkward to negotiate. Maybe it was the pre monsoon conditions, the dry winter or the effects of global warming. We did manage to perch our little tent on the only even patch of ice we could find and settled in for the night.

Site of our camp 1 on Cholatse (5400m)

After another night of hoar frost inside the tent, we packed and headed up the mountain. The rockwall that was the key to the rest of the ridge was about 30m high and sprinkled with powder snow, making it nearly impossible to climb. In 2006, compact snow was banked up nearly to the top and provided easy access to rest of the route. After climbing about 10m up the rock and snow, the holds disappeared and the snow became unconsolidated powder. There was little to no protection available and a fall in this location was unthinkable, especially with a 20kg pack. On inspection, there was an old fixed rope running over the blank rock to an anchor on the ridge. I managed to ascend the rope using prussic loops (pieces of cord wrapped around the rope) and place some pieces of protection along the way. Nevertheless, it was quite scary and exhausting.
Col camp - note the incredible sastrugi

Tim in the eye of the storm
Me embracing the amazing weather

The weather was deteriorating rapidly by the time I reached the belay and was snowing heavily by the time Tim reached me. It was 930am by this stage and we were in the beginnings of a full-blown storm. Neither of us could argue that we weren’t tired from the last few weeks of exertion. It had been tough operating on minimal food and carrying heavy loads but we weren’t ready to give up. Both of us hated the thought of failure after so much effort but the weather had other ideas. The storm was getting worse and the slopes leading to the col were loading up fast. It was time to go down. Retreating from a climb is possibly one of the most depressing moments of mountaineering. All the effort and planning seemingly for nothing, but the disappointment fades and the good memories remain. The freedom, the struggle, the fight for upward movement, the motivation and the time spent with good mates are the real reason we venture into these places. Summits are a bonus and one out of two isn’t too bad.

We made our way back to the col and began our descent down the glacier in a complete whiteout, following my instincts and the odd barely visible footprints to find our way off the glacier.  After a long day with heavy packs, we arrived back at Machermo around 7pm, tired and disappointed, but happy to be finished. We didn’t have enough time left for another attempt so we decided to walk out and return to Kathmandu in the hope of an earlier flight home. On the walk out, we encountered the throng of trekkers and climbers making their way to Everest base camp to either climb or just visit the base camp. It seemed a great contrast to the experience that Tim and I had both shared. On both mountains, we climbed entirely alone without seeing anyone else. It is a huge privilege to have the mountains to oneself away from the maddening crowds. All it takes is the decision to step away from the norm and step up to a new challenge.
Skinny me
Tim and I both had responsibilities back home that we now needed to focus on again. With a shower and clean set of clothes, we felt like new men but we had both lost a lot of weight. I had lost about 7kg and Tim looked a bit like a famine victim. I struggled to see him if he turned side on so he began a beer diet on reaching Kathmandu to rectify the damage. My body decided to lose some more weigh with a bout of food poisoning before I jumped on the plane home- all part of the third world fun. I returned home tired and happy, excited about a new job and ready for some recovery time. The body was in a state of fatigue but recovers quickly with rest and a return to training. Life continues on with another rich experience added to the mix.

With another trip over, it’s time to plan the next one.…

Big thanks to
Mountain Designs for their ongoing support and excellent kit
Seth at Sea to Summit (I used one of the new S2S sleeping bags on the trip and was super impressed)