By Dustin Fric
Every year we spend early season running around with heavy packs; winter camping; trying to pluck off classic ice lines in thin conditions. Travis McAlpine and I have been putting life on hold for the month of November for six years, chasing this dream and hunting the unique. From replacing transmissions in the snow to quitting jobs, nothing is out of line when it comes to making November THE month that propels us into the winter.
Along the way we always go from making calculated decisions to throwing all caution to the wind, sometimes resulting in working at random establishments or getting dropped off in canyons with no planned ride out or time frame in mind. All of this in pursuit of thin, fresh, virgin, marginally protectable ice just ahead of the pack.
I ended up rolling my ankle and tearing some ligaments off on the second day of a fifty day trip. In a parking lot of all places. So far so good, things usually have to go so wrong that plans take a drastic change of direction a few times before November is over. It seems we are right on track. I think that long climbing trips help build our character by breaking us down to the point we let go. The whole point is: you’re spending time with the people you choose to, and want to learn more about and become more connected with. Two weeks laid up icing and elevating and we were right back on track.
Typically I find my partners and I share similar characteristics, as well as similar goals; all in it to push our-selves without taking it too far. Knowing and pushing past our limits, while being comfortable in the alpine. Your partners are what make climbing interesting and fun and also the reason soloing gets boring.
Travis McAlpine is the most fired-up future hard man you could ever meet, worthy of a story himself, and surely the topic of many stories yet to unfold. With the motivation of an Iron Horse, most spend their day just trying to keep up. Travis often pushes on with wet boots in a one-piece suit from the eighties, happy as a clam. He is our rope gun, with a handful of screws, an anorexic rock rack, 2 spectres, some KBs and a McAlpine we were bound to get into it.
Zach Clanton, an aspiring alpinist and professional photographer from the land of Honey Boo Boo and confederate flags would prove to be a crucial link in our team. Earlier this year, Zach threw caution to the wind to solidify his career as a photographer by moving to Alaska and living in his Honda Element all winter long. Super motivated at 25 years old, Zach put it all on the line to pursue his passion. This kind of motivation is a rare commodity in today's comfort driven world. Having just returned from an expedition in the Arctic to climb ice, Zach was fired up to go climb anything frozen.
We decided to head out to the Nabesna valley, rock star style, due to Travis’s work obligations. Leaving Girdwood at 9:00 PM we drove through the night only to arrive in camp and have more work ahead of us, pitching camp. Zack's “shoebox” or Honda home was the bottleneck in our operation. With two front seats and a custom bed, one person had to lay in the back for the drive. The bed would end up breaking before the trip was over. We ended up in Nabesna with a slim selection of amenities and by day two we moved into a lavatory. From cooking to hanging out the bathroom turned into our sanctuary overnight when the temps dipped to -17 Fahrenheit. By the end of our trip the voles were so full that we could pick them up to show them the door.
Its funny how during the period of breakdown denial sets in, then you let go and succumb to your situation and persevere. One comment Zack made stands out when I think of this “When we first came in here I didn’t want to touch anything, now we have gloves hanging on the toilet bar and it’s comfortable in here!” Climbing exemplifies the concept of learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I have to admit I have eaten in a bathroom before, but this was another level of dirt-bagging.
There are only two roads leading into the Wrangell- St. Elias, which is hard to believe considering the park is the size of Switzerland. The state is so vast that climbing is most accessible via bicycle, skis, packraft, snowmobile or plane. A logistical nightmare to some ends up being the spark that starts the fire for others.
Climbing in Nabesna is not much of a logistical nightmare, just far, far away from a hospital. It is a large open river valley engulfed by mountains, chock full of Moose, Caribou and Grizzlies. Early season climbing here is unique to say the least. With 165 different species of moss, the frozen turf approaches seem surreal. Early mornings start with a stroll through parting mist and fog, hopping from shaggy blob to blob like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book.
In our four days in the Valley we took a day to do recon and realized the classics must be classics for a reason. We warmed up on The Corridor; a long fun WI 3 with huge smiles, singing songs and soloing. Eight rappels led us back to the frozen turf word.
With that out of the way we focused on Spring Fling, a ridiculously nice thin ice streak that lasts for 1400’. Which climbed much better then it looked, and again it looked amazing. Skinny flows in a narrow slot couloir with an incredible view of the valley floor below. On the seventh pitch I yelled, “oh HELL ya!” in a red neck accent, right after Zach got pounded with spin drift. This left us laughing for a while.
Threads, chock stones and boulders frozen in the creek made the rappel pretty touchy especially in the dark as a three man team, but in the end it went great. We also ended up being more cautious about not running into any Bear or Moose on the walk out. A drive that lasted into the early morning led us back to Girdwood, Satisfied, but ready for more frozen water.
We just received these photos from Eric Dacus of his and Jon Jugenheimer's ascent of Freezy Nuts on London Tower in the Ruth Gorge. Eric says:
The salopette I bought last fall worked great. I was really impressed by how dry I stayed despite all the snow climbing we found. Also the chest pockets were placed well, and it was really easy to swap out my camera batteries to keep them warm enough to stay charged
Good work gentlemen!
Eric Halfway up Freezy Nuts
Jon on the last ice step, Freezy Nuts
Rappelling Freezy Nuts
It was a busy winter and spring in Alaska this year. Several long high pressure systems provided good conditions and weather for climbing. In March, my friends and I made our fourth trip into Mt. McGinnis, the eastern most peak in the Hayes Range. A 14 mile approach brings you to the east face and easy access to a col on the northeast ridge, our objective. We gained the col, dug in for the night, and continued up in the morning. After a few blocks of simul-climbing along the knife-edge ridge, Andy arrived at the belay and told me that he was feeling pretty worked. I turned and looked at the long section of ridgeline we had remaining to get to the summit, almost a mile. I know we could have made it to the summit, but it was descent back down the knife-edge ridge that I was worried about. It was an easy decision, we went down.
The Northwest Face of Peak 9400 Photo: Jason Stuckey
As we downclimbed under bluebird skies, I struggled with disappointment. During all of my previous trips here the weather had been horrendous. As we descended through the icefall a couloir on the northwest face of Peak 9400 caught my eye. Chad and I decided to give it a go the next day while Andy rested in the tent. We skied over and started up the couloir around 9am. The snow was a bit deep at the bottom of the couloir where it pinched down, but conditions improved above. The angle was around 45 degrees, steepening to 60 degrees on the upper part of the face. Simul-soloing, we topped out 20 yards from the summit. The face had been in the shade the entire morning, and a strong wind had begun to blow about halfway up. But the summit was warm, sunny, and sheltered from the wind. It was glorious. I usually don't like to waste too much time on the summit, but we stayed for almost an hour. The view was incredible. We finally packed up and headed back down the face. An hour and a half of downclimbing brought us to back to our skis. We had dinner and slept, and the next day skied out to the car and headed back to Fairbanks.
Clint on Pyramid Peak before Bailing Photo: Jason Stuckey
Descending Peak 9400 Photo: Jason Stuckey
A week after the trip I got a message on Facebook from Clint Helander, a climber down in Anchorage. He and his partners had been waiting for almost 2 weeks to fly into the Revelations, the western most mountains in the Alaska Range. His partners had to get back to work and school, but he still wanted to fly in and needed a partner. I had never met Clint, but knew he had already made numerous trips into \the Revelations and had climbed several first ascents. This was an opportunity I didn't want to miss. Somehow I talked my boss into letting me take more time off, and a few days later I was on a flight to Anchorage. Clint picked me up, and shortly after we loaded our gear and were on our way to the Revelations. We landed on the Revelation Glacier, setup camp, and skied down to Pyramid Peak to look at a line Clint had seen the year before. We couldn't see the upper part of the mountain due to clouds, but the lower half looked good. We had a good dinner and went to bed early. At 4am we were up, and after breakfast and coffee we were ascending the lower slopes below Pyramid. From the ground, it looked like there was going to be steep steps of ice with lower angled sections in between. But instead of ice we found overhanging waves of snow. Scary, and not fun. We climbed around them on mixed \terrain, but around every corner we came to another wave of snow. After spending most of the day climbing six pitches we bailed.
Apocalypse West Face with Route Marked
We spent the next day skiing around and looking at other objectives. Clint wanted to try a line on a peak towards the end of the glacier called The Apocalypse. After a few minutes looking at the west face I was psyched. A steep ice and snow couloir looked like it would take us to the upper snow slopes and the summit ridge. We skied back to camp and packed. Another early start and we were heading up the slopes below the first section of steep ice by mid-morning. The first ice pitch was excellent and led to lower angled ice which we simul-climbed. The ice ended and a long section of snow climbing brought us to another steep ice pitch. After this more snow climbing with short sections of ice brought us to the base of a steep rock wall and the final section of ice before the upper snow slopes. It was getting late so we built an anchor and chopped a ledge in the snow at the base of the wall. After an hour, we had a ledge big enough for our tent. We brewed up, ate, and slept.
Clint Climbing on Apocalypse Photo: Jason Stuckey
Climbing on Apocalypse Photo: Jason Stuckey
The next morning we left most of our gear and went for the summit. After the last bit of steep ice we reached the upper snow slopes, and simul-climbed up to the summit ridge. As I reached what I thought was the highest point on the ridge, I realized (to my great disappointment) that a point 300 yards across the ridge was actually about 20ft taller than where we stood. We wanted to stand on the true summit, so we headed across the knife-edge ridge. The climbing, although very exposed, went quickly and before long we were on the summit. We took a few minutes to admire the view, snap some photos, and then began our descent. Heading back across the summit ridge and down the upper slopes went smoothly and before long we were rappelling back down to our bivy. Another brew, more food, and more sleep. The next day we downclimbed and rappelled the rest of the route. As we skied back to camp there was a brisk headwind and I realized how lucky we had been with the temperatures while on Apocalypse. Our first night was pleasant, a bit colder the second night, but when we arrived back in basecamp it was -20F. We ate a huge dinner, made several hot water bottles, and went to bed. When we got up the next morning the mercury in the thermometer had dropped below -25F. Clint had wanted to stay longer and try a couple more objectives, but I was feeling pretty satisfied and concerned about the weather deteriorating and having a hard time flying out if we waited. By chance, Paul Roderick with Talkeetna Air Taxi was flying a team of skiers in that afternoon and after a short discussion we decided to fly out with Paul. We made breakfast, broke down our camp, and a few hours later were sitting in Talkeetna eating pizza and drinking beers. It was magnificent.
First ascent of the Northwest Face of Peak 9400 (60deg snow, 3,400')
First ascent of The Apocalypse, A Cold Day in Hell (AI5, 4,400')