As with most trips to the big mountains, our recent trip to the Alaska Range did not go exactly as planned. While the objectives changed, we are definitely stoked about and proud of the routes we climbed.
We flew into the West Fork of the Ruth Gorge on Friday, May 29th. Flying into the mountains, my neck was getting tired pivoting back and forth, staring in awe at the huge peaks off either wing of the plane. We landed with sparse clouds in the air and the occasional flurry, then set up camp as it snowed a small amount in the evening and overnight.
We were in a week and a half earlier than last year and it was noticeably colder this year. I had a bittersweet reaction to this. On one hand, the cold weather is good for keeping snow and ice stable during the warmer (relatively) times of the day, but on the other hand… cold isn’t super comfortable and I don’t enjoy sitting outside in a snowstorm at 3am shivering with numb toes (but we’ll get to that later).
With questionable weather, we decided to scope out the West Face of Peak 11,300 as well as the Reality Face on Reality Peak. We climbed a short way up the Right Couloir on the West Face of Peak 11,300 to get our legs going, but clouds were rolling in and we turned around before committing to the route. Upon returning to camp it snowed harder and proceeded to turn to white out conditions on and off for the next two days. We were happy to be waiting out the storm in camp and not on the mountain.
Almost every day of the trip consisted of some clear sunny skies, some clouds, and some snow. Without a good high pressure system holding storms out of the mountains it’s difficult to commit to a route. It’s scary not knowing if it will remain okay or deteriorate to a gnarly storm that could potentially pin us down in a bad spot on route. We knew we would need about two days to go for the Reality Face, but figured we could do the Right Couloir with a bit more than a day and decided this would be a better option given the circumstances.
On May 1st, we packed up our gear and prepared to launch onto Peak 11,300 early the next morning. Including the clothes I was wearing, I had a pair of fleece pants, softshell pants, puffy pants (synthetic insulation), a thin synthetic top, a mid-weight fleece hoody, a softshell hoody, a mega puffy hoody (half down, half synthetic), 5 pairs of gloves and 1 pair of mittens. While this may sound like a lot… a day later I was wishing I had more. For food I packed 4 Chocolate Hazelnut Butter Packets, and 3 stroopwafels. The forecast was for clear skies most of the day with snow rolling in in the afternoon and this was exactly what we got.
My alarm went off at 3am and we slowly got out of our tent and put our boots on. Obviously coffee was next… We sparked up the white gas stoves, made coffee and a bit of food. We made the 45 minute skin to the base of the route and it was game time. The first part of the route is a 55-60˚ snow couloir for about a thousand feet with a quick 30 meter step of 65˚ alpine ice mid way. We simul-soloed up all this and roped up at the first chunk of steep ice. Here we climbed 5 x 60m pitches of spectacular ice up to 90˚. This section of climbing in the lower 48 would be as classic as it gets. A couple sections of rotten and unprotected ice kept it exciting.
Upon reaching the second snowfield it was obvious that we were exposed to the serac above. While it was docile looking, seracs are impossible to predict and I wanted out of the firing zone ASAP. I led a traversing pitch with a bit of unconsolidated snow that turned into solid snow and névé. Here we unroped in order to move quickly through the next 500 ft snow field. I put in the boot pack here and was sweating hard when we reached the next section of ice.
Now protected from the serac, we took a moment to eat a bar and drink water. I continued to lead on through more beautiful ice then passed the lead back to Kurt after a few hundred feet. Keenan had been sick for the last few hours, but was killing it keeping the stoke high despite feeling terrible.
Going into the route, we had thought the summit was not far from the top of the couloir, maybe a couple hundred feet. Around 7pm we reached the ridge at the top of the couloir and were slapped in the face with an image that said we were a hell of a lot further than we thought. A long ridge of huge cornices, steep seracs, and delicate snow bridges lay ahead. It was a low point for my stoke. We didn’t want to retreat back under the serac below, but it certainly didn’t look easy to continue forward. Now to top it all off, snow was starting to fall.
We continued on rope length after rope length, over one overhanging step of ice, tunnelling through another bit of steep snow, stemming up through a crevasse and navigating other sorts of bizarre snow features. Finally we could see the summit. With a bit of careful navigation and a bizarre off-width “boulder problem” we reached the final snow field. We summited Peak 11,300 around 11:30pm with a good deal of snow coming down and nearing darkness. At the summit, we pulled out our headlamps and puffy pants.
In the snowy darkness it was getting cold and we had a considerable descent ahead of us. We remained roped up as we moved across crevassed snowfields. The descent required moving diagonal along a 45 degree snow slope which normally would be easy to down climb unroped, but given the snow and the lack of visibility we decided to rappel down it. On the first rappel we were reaffirmed that this was a good call when Keenan triggered a small avalanche. It was no problem on a rope, but might have ripped him off had we been down climbing.
Around 2am it was cold, snowy, dark, and we were totally lost in an open snow field between the summit and the east ridge. We found a rock outcropping amongst the snow that we decided was our best option for resting at. Given that we didn’t carry a tent or sleeping bags (to stay light) it was hard to call any breaks from climbing an actual rest. We put on all the clothes we brought pulled out our stove to melt water. After refilling our bottles and drinking some warm water, we situated our packs and took a seat. As I curled into a seated ball, I managed brief moments of sleep interrupted by shivering, numb toes and accumulation of snow on my head.
4am rolled around and it was beginning to get lighter. We dusted the snow off our backs and put our packs on again. With light, we found the ridge shortly thereafter and made countless short rappels and down climbs leaving us entirely done with the technical climbing. Another easy half hour of walking on the glacier and we were back at our base camp. We got back to camp just over 30 hours after we left. Totally wrecked and sleep deprived, I took down a sleeve of oreos, a Recovery shake, and went to sleep!
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