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. 

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