The Alaska Range - Katie McKinstry

The Alaska Range - Katie McKinstry

"In climbing there is so much you can control. From training, to the food you eat, the gear you buy, the knowledge you learn, the skills you possess.... but the weather is that almighty being which ultimately controls all."
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Expectations are a big part of anyone’s goal. In my case, with this Alaska goal I was expecting to be challenged, physically and mentally. I was expecting for things to not go as planned, and for the team to have to adjust accordingly. I expected for there to be unpleasant weather, and to have to hunker down for a couple of days. What I didn't expect is for our team to try to accomplish our audacious goal, in the worst May weather many have seen in years.


Morning of our flight, geared up and ready to go with Sheldon's Beaver behind us. PC: JDSTYLOS


When the morning arrived for us to fly out onto the Kahiltna glacier, my heart pounded in my chest. The unknown was just ahead. It felt like you could grab the excitement out of the air and hold it in your hand. We packed up the small Beaver (plane) with all of our climbing gear as we waited for the frost to melt from her wings. When the time came to finally fly out, a million things were running through my head, hoping we had everything.


 Ready to go!Ready to go! PC: JDSTYLOS


In the distance, the northern skyline came into view, the Alaska Range demanded everyone's attention. As the plane flew nearer and nearer the mountain quickly towered above us. I had heard others describe the range from the perspective of the plane but it’s hard to imagine something you’ve never seen. Foraker rose to the left; I squished my face as close to the window as I could to attempt to see the summit. I scouted the route as best I could but the flight seemed to go by so fast and before I knew it the plane floated onto freshly placed snow from the previous storms.


 Blue bird day during our flight in, with Foraker in the background. PC: JDSTYLOS


Basecamp had fewer people than I had been expecting. Early season, and a five day storm had prevented many climbers from coming in, and we were some of the first to land for the season. We unloaded the plane quickly, making sure to place all gear on the side of the runway, away from any incoming planes. A loud roar filled the valley as a large icefall had caused a distant massive avalanche to come raging down the side of Mt. Hunter. All urgent gear moving was put on hold as we admired a not so welcoming “hello” from the Alaska Range. We said our goodbyes to the family members who had flown in behind us, and we quickly got to business.


 Headed up the West Buttress. PC: JDSTYLOS


Shuttling gear, rigging sleds, digging the cache, and putting the finishing touches on our harnesses seemed to fly by but in reality it took the rest of the morning. By early afternoon we finally started down the East Fork of the Kahiltna and headed right towards the West Buttress to acclimatize with Melissa in the lead.


Trav never failed to lower his optimistic outlook during the entire trip. PC: JDSTYLOS


Our team was stop and go, trying to figure out what worked best to allow for efficient travel. Soon we passed the teams ahead of us, and Melissa broke trail, setting the route for the West Buttress climbing season. With fresh snow from recent storms, movement wasn't especially fast. Melissa’s snow shoes kept shedding their straps and quite quickly one of her snowshoes was without any straps at all. After a quick fix-it, we were back on trail with the other teams close behind us. With the light starting to fade we were left with the decision to keep going, and try to get to the base of ski hill, or camp where we were at. With the temperature quickly dropping we decided to make camp, not without a few learning moments along the way.

Who knew probing for crevasses with a sled dragging behind you would cause so many problems? Trying to secure the campsite was a world of issues, things we never thought about reared their ugly head. Frozen carabiners prevented us from disconnecting the sleds from the rope, cold temps made for frustrating camp building, and little light had us rushing to get everything done. By the time we finally climbed into bed, it was almost midnight. That night we fell asleep with a brewing storm coming our way.


 Crosswords were a favorite. PC: JDSTYLOS


Little did we know, we wouldn't be making a new camp again for another 6 days. We woke up to a whiteout and raging wind for four days in a row. Joe and Trav created excellent walls. Even though we were in a fairly exposed spot on the glacier, it was hard to tell with a 6 foot wall guarding you from the freezing wind. Those days were spent moving around camp, only to dig out tents, make dinner and melt water, use the bathroom, and visit Melissa and Trav in the Hilleberg (their tent had a vestibule, and was used for all social occasions). Each night we listened to the weather forecast in hopes of clearer skies, only to be shut down. But finally we caught a break and were forecasted clear skies for at least a couple days.


 Finally out of the tents, we headed up Ski Hill for a quick hike. PC: JDSTYLOS


We woke up the next morning to a view I find hard to describe. Denali was being illuminated from a morning sun behind her, while Foraker and Hunter basked in a sun that felt like it was hardly ever seen. Though the sun was out, it was by far our coldest morning. We took the opportunity given by a sunny day and packed up our gear to climb to the top of ski hill to try to get some acclimatizing in before moving to the base of Crosson.

I personally felt a bit sluggish after spending 4 days in a tent but was plenty happy to get out of the tent. Truly though, we cruised up ski hill, because we had light packs. We passed our friends who were headed up the West Buttress. After reaching about 9,600 ft. we headed back to camp for dinner and to work on packing up any unneeded gear for the the next day's move.


 Our camp after the storm. The walls did an exceptional job to keep the blowing snow out of camp. PC: JDSTYLOS


The following morning we awoke to a small cloud layer, but warmer temperatures. Packing up camp was no quick feat, but we were finally out of camp and headed back in the direction we came by midmorning.




The recent storm had covered our tracks, so finding our way back was a bit tricky, and even scary at some points with the sound of settling snow making our stomachs drop. Once we arrived to a now broken trail from recent climbers coming by, we made great time. We cruised down the glacier to the point where we broke off and headed towards the base of Crosson and away from base camp. As we crossed the glacier the light became flatter and flatter. Joe lead the way but without much ability to see any sort of definition in the snow whatsoever. You couldn't tell if there was a ten foot drop off in front of you or a straight line. After slow moving because of poor light, Joe finally started to throw our wands out in front of him to see where they landed. And it was this technique that got us all the way to the hill that lead us to the access couloirs on Crosson. With the weather starting to sock in, and snow now falling I was hesitant to try to climb the hill. But alas, we persisted only to turn around after the sleds caused for slow moving and we decided to go find a camp at the base of the hill. After so much time to deliberate after our frustratingly slow camp building last time, we vastly improved on our second camp. With more daylight, there was less pressure and we could take our time each doing a specific duty.


 Tent life was a big part of this trip. PC: JDSTYLOS


What was forecasted to be sunshine was actually snow. The weather was decent enough that we decided we would at least hike up the hill and get a good look at the access couloir to see what condition it was in. What felt like a beast of a hill the following day was quickly behind us on this one. Trav lead us to a point where we could all see the conditions of the snow and the steepness of the couloir, which had been on my mind since I had first read about the route. The couloir looked in great condition. Though steep, it looked doable and we all seemed like we were on board to give it a go the following day, weather permitting.



Melissa, with the reflections of the rest of the team in her goggles. PC: JDSTYLOS


The following morning, it seemed that Joe was up most of the early hours checking the weather. By the time we all finally got out, the clouds had lifted just enough to where we could see where we wanted to make a cache, at about 8,600 feet on Crosson’s ridge. Though there was some snow falling, the wind was calm and there was little snow accumulation throughout the night.

We each packed 2 bags of food, except Trav who also brought along a completely full can of fuel. The goal for the day was to climb up the couloir and make a cache at what we hoped would be our first camp on Crosson.


 Rocky section in the couloir. PC: JDSTYLOS


When we arrived to the base of the couloir, the weather was holding. So we changed out our snowshoes for crampons, and with Joe in the lead we headed up. He placed running protection as the climb gradually got steeper and steeper. With fresh, dry snow, Joe was having to wallow through waist deep snow, making for slow progress. The couloir got to about 55 degrees at its steepest, but as we continued up the grade got shallower, but the weather got worse. The wind had picked up along with the snow, causing hearing each other to become increasingly more difficult. What appeared to be a large wind slab not too far ahead, required us to stay as much as we could on rocks. I yelled to Joe asking if we should be placing a cache in this weather, and was told he wanted to make it to the top of the ridge. It got to the point where truly no one could hear each other. We continued up and when he finally got to the ridge, he laid his entire body weight into the wind and it held him up. He pointed his axe down, signaling the meaning for “Go Down”. Going down, was just as slow as going up, but by the time we finally made it back to our snow shoes the weather was exactly the same as when we had started to go up. But this time when you looked back up the ridge you could see the wind raging.


 Going back down in a whiteout. PC: JDSTYLOS


The following morning, on day 10, we woke up to a complete whiteout… a now familiar sight. Morale was kept high with all of us, by reading books (though my kindle had died and decided mountain life was not for it), playing sudoku, connect the dots, journaling, eating tons of candy, but probably the most entertaining part was working on crossword puzzles. Melissa and Trav would yell from their tent to ours, asking the clues. Each evening we worked on the puzzles, in hopes we could finish them (weekday puzzles were dominated, weekend puzzles… not so much).


Almost back down, with a little more snow than before. PC: JDSTYLOS


The next morning, I wrote this;
“Day 11, Would you believe me if I told you that we are still in the same place as 4 days ago, and there is currently ZERO visibility outside?!”.

The following morning I wrote this;
Day 12: “With great delight, I poked my head out of my tent to find sun blinding blue skies”.



Headed back to basecamp on a gorgeous day. PC: JDSTYLOS


On only the second day of the whole trip where we finally had some decent sun we were faced with a very difficult decision. We knew that the climb up Crosson, and Mt. Foraker would take longer than we had enough food for. After having to wait for the snow to shed and settle, and with a weather forecast calling for another significant storm coming, we were forced to make the difficult decision to pack up our gear and head back to basecamp with Foraker towering behind us. It was hard to go, to head away from the trip's major goal was not an easy task. I knew another storm was coming, but with perfect weather, all any of us wanted to do was to finally start making progress up the mountain.



Basecamp was a bit busier on the return. PC: JDSTYLOS


We arrived into basecamp to find a completely different scene. The planes that had gotten in the last 2 weeks had brought enough people to make a tent city. We were approached by other climbers asking if we had made it onto the Sultana Ridge, worrying about us. Only to answer with we never even made it onto Crosson. Our disappointed spirits were made bright again, when Tim, Sheldon’s Base camp manager had to head back to town to make a flight before the incoming storm and left us the basecamp tent to tend to. We pulled out the camp chairs and basked in the wonderful sunlight, and watched as fresh climbers with high spirits landed on the Kahiltna glacier.



It was a luxury getting to enjoy the range in a lawn chair after days hunched over in the tents. PC: JDSTYLOS


We slept in the hut that night, but were quite cold so the following 5 nights we slept in the tents. Like the forecast called for, snow arrived and stayed for the rest of the time we were in base camp. We had figured out the radio system in the hut and were in contact with Sheldon Air Service trying to give them any good news, but whenever the sun would try to come out, it was quickly covered by an incoming cloud layer. We had originally planned on going to base camp with hopes to try to do our plan C, which consisted of climbing Mt. Francis and other small peaks. But with the poor weather we were once again tent bound. Luckily, this time we could enjoy basecamp life and socialize with other climbers, enjoy the SAS tent, and learn the ins and outs of life in basecamp.



The SAS hut had a Coleman stove and cots, making for a five star hotel. PC: JDSTYLOS


A few false weather windows appeared and many of the planes attempted to land with little success. Only fooling us once, did we pack up our entire camp and move it down to the runway. We learned our lesson and when our plane finally did come get us, after another 6 days of weather we only had our tents and sleeping bags to pack up.

Flying out of the Alaska Range was very hard. Foraker and all her beauty awaited the next climbers' attempts. As beautiful as it was coming in, the range felt different this time heading out. As much as I was looking forward to a shower, clean clothes, some food that wasn't candy, in hindsight I also yearned for some good weather to try to go back and at least put in some true effort on the actual mountain.



The arrival of the plane was bittersweet. PC: JDSTYLOS


When we finally landed, the excitement to be back was short lived, as I didn't realize how much I had been working to keep my morale up on the glacier. The disappointment of not getting to do any climbing, and having come so far, had come over me in a wave of emotion.

After having trained for months and putting in thousands of dollars, disappointment is to be expected. What I wasn't expecting was the feeling of wanting to return next year to try the climb so quickly. After weeks of sitting in a tent you would think that feeling would come with a little time, but for me it came almost immediately.



Back to Talkeetna. PC: JDSTYLOS


After writing on Facebook I was home from the climb and a short synopsis of how it had gone, a friend had commented with this, “It seems like you have to build up a reservoir of suffering to be an experienced mountaineer”. While I don’t know if I would describe our time as suffering, I would describe it as a true test to all of our friendships, and mental strength. As a result, I am so happy to say, I think we came out of this trip stronger and closer in our relationships than when we went in. And maybe my suffering reservoir is a little more full than it used to be ;).



Spending time in the Hilleberg was a common thing on the trip. PC: JDSTYLOS


In climbing there is so much you can control. From training, to the food you eat, the gear you buy, the knowledge you learn, the skills you possess.... but the weather is that almighty being which ultimately controls all. I expected there to be bad weather, but I didn't expect the weather we got. I am looking forward to more years to come in the Alaska Range, and all the things that I won't expect that come along with them.

Thank you to all of you for your support!



The Hilleberg crew looking SHARP. PC: JDSTYLOS

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