Michael Heathfield, our trip organizer, and Michael Buchanan, another eager first-timer to Alaska, met me in Anchorage in May of 2006 to climb a new route on the Northwest face of Peak 11,300 (1),(2),(3), which is on the Southeast Spur of Denali.
While the existing lines went directly up couloirs on the edge of the face, meeting the West Ridge, or approaching the summit from the side, our intended line would ascend a large ramp that cut across the face, before cutting directly up the center of the face to the summit, following a couloir, with a sizeable section of rock in the middle. From there we would climb a snow ridge and ice dome to the summit. After months of planning, and months of diligent physical training, I was ready to embark on my first big Alaska adventure.
May 29th – An Air Circus in the Ruth Gorge
The K2 plane was very small turboprop, with just enough room for our pilot, Doug, and the three of us to cram inside with our gear. After a few minutes of Doug explaining emergency exit procedures (there were none) and the locations of the exits (in case you didn’t notice the door beside you), we taxied onto the runway and soon we were airborne.
As we flew on, the range continued to get unbelievably large. Jagged peaks along the mouth of the Ruth Glacier caught my attention. In the Sierras they would have been major peaks, but here I could see that they were just minor unnamed summits! Soon the Ruth Glacier became a jumble of impassable crevasses. Some were filled with meltwater – a bad sign for us. As we continued up the Gorge the granite walls were increasingly smooth and steep, and rising ever higher above the Great Gorge as we flew on. The scale soon became incomprehensible – the Yosemite Valley would have easily been one of the small branches extending off of the Great Gorge of the Ruth (1), (2).
Mount Huntington (1), (2), and Denali came into view as we rounded the corner of Mount Barrille. Conditions on the Ruth Glacier looked unpromising as we flew deeper into the Gorge, with numerous signs of sagging snow bridges and lots of prominent meltwater channels. Doug expressed doubt of the feasibility of landing us at the West Fork Airstrip, but we flew up the Gorge anyway to check it out. There were no signs of a recent landing at the strip and the conditions didn’t look promising. Doug said he could try to touch down but he expressed doubts on being able to pick us up at that site if we had another week of warm weather. Rather than risk a long trek down the glacier with all of our gear, we relented and chose to land and set up camp at the Mountain House Airstrip, 6 miles down the glacier. If conditions became favorable, we would pack lightly and trek quickly up the glacier for the climb.
By midday we were dug in and settled in our new home several hundred yards away from the Mountain House Airstrip. Now there was nothing to do but wait and monitor the weather for safe climbing conditions. We had barely been on the glacier for a few hours and already we were rearing to go. On a quick skiing foray above camp we picked out a promising line for another route to try on the north buttress of Mount Dickey (1),(2). We agreed that if it cooled off enough that night, we would try to quickly climb the route the following night.
As we took in the grandeur and wildness of the place, I couldn’t help but notice the strange atmosphere of the Gorge. Despite the remoteness of the place, the buzz of airplanes was ever-present due to the mad influx of flight tours in the Alaska Range. Several times each hour a plane would land at the strip, tourists typical of Yellowstone or Yosemite National Park would hop out of the plane, take pictures of the mountains and our camp (“look honey, climbers in their natural habitat!”), shout in unison (perhaps in hopes of starting an avalanche?), and then take off.
This tourism eliminated any sense of solitude in the Gorge and I found the experience disappointing. Still, it was amazing to see the extreme juxtaposition of the tame air tours within such an extremely wild and dangerous place. While the plane flights created an illusion of tameness in the Gorge, we were about to learn how tenuous this presence could be.
So far the weather on the trip had not been encouraging – the day had remained clear and sunny with temperatures staying into the 50s, even at 5,500ft on the Ruth Glacier! We stationed a digital weather tracker outside to monitor nighttime freezing and turned in for the night.
May 30th – Storm Clouds on the HorizonWe woke to silence the following morning – no planes were flying. I peeked out of my tent to find cloudy skies and lightly falling snow. But it was still around 50 degrees. To our dismay the nighttime low barely dipped to 29 degrees – not even close to a hard freeze. Now we had a storm that was not forecasted and, since there was no wind, there was no telling how long it might last. This would have been alright with us if it brought cold weather, but the continuing warm spell only added to the team’s frustration. Things were not looking favorable for team M3.
The day was spent lounging in the camp Mega-Mid, sucking on Ricolas, swapping stories and inventing new ways to keep ourselves occupied. Heathfield would occasionally suggest yet another creative way to pass time at camp: take off shoes and put on slippers; take off slippers and put on shoes; walk around camp clockwise, then counter-clockwise; check coat pockets for forgotten goodies; etc. etc. ad nauseam. The occasional roar of a rockslide off a nearby mountain (dubbed “The Crap Heap”) would break the monotony in camp as we would try to locate the slides through gaps in the clouds.
Every now and then, Heathfield would refer to our beloved hangout as the “hellhole” – so I figured it was time to lighten the mood. I took my snow shovel and started digging outside the camp walls. I didn’t have any real plan apart from getting exercise. To my joy the snow didn’t harden appreciably as I dug lower, so I kept on digging. By the time the Michaels came outside to see what I was up to, I was already in over my head into snow pack. They looked at me like I had lost my mind, but they were enjoying my entertainment as well, so I continued digging.
“How much deeper are you going to dig, Mark?” Heathfield asked.
“I don’t know. Perhaps until I get tired or hit bedrock,” I replied. The Michaels shook their heads and disappeared for a while. Heathfield returned to point out that there was a sizable crevasse only a few hundred feet away, and that if I dig too deeply I might break through into a buried crevasse. I had just reached a hard icy layer at this time, and I began to worry that it was the bottom of a snow bridge, so I stopped digging. Still, while I wanted to avoid the fate of a Darwin Award, the three of us were now curious. Heathfield put Buchanan on belay and Buchanan hopped into the hole with an ice tool and a probe. After a good deal of stomping, digging, chopping, and probing we decided that there was no danger, so I enlarged the bottom of the hole.
Now we were having fun. Buchanan promptly laid his skis over the top and began doing pull-ups - thus the M3 Gym was born. Another burst of inspiration involved creating a weighted cable machine in the hole. We hung a pulley on the skis, placed a weighted pack in the hole and tied it to a climbing rope that we strung over the pulley and tied off on a shovel handle section.
After we had exhausted ourselves we returned to the Mega-mid in a much lighter mood. “Well, I guess its back to the hellhole,” Heathfield lamented. Sensing a slide back into melancholy, I countered, “don’t you mean the Happy Dome?” As we headed back to our supplies of Ricolas and booze I started to hum a loopy circus song to add to the silliness of our home’s new name.
As we turned in to bed around midnight, the clouds parted briefly to reveal an eerie sight of alpenglow emanating through the clouds and Mt Dan Beard reappearing in the swirls of mist. Hopefully this was a sign that the storm was ending.
May 31st – The Happy DomeThe next day turned out to be another downer. It barely reached freezing during the night and there was no change in barometric pressure. We were stuck with warm temperatures and a windless storm that showed no signs of abating.
Although our 3rd day on the Ruth looked to be no better, there was an improvement in morale. Stories were livelier and we reveled in our mock descent into madness, which turned out to be a good vent for frustration. The Happy Dome had become much happier, and our mundane routines for passing time at camp were often accompanied by the circus song I had hummed the day before. The song was always sung whenever we referred to the Happy Dome.
During another fit of energy I went ahead with my grandiose plans of enlarging the Happy Hole into a Happy Trench. I wasn’t satisfied with a small 8 foot deep hole, so I turned it into an L-shaped trench, with each leg being some 15 ft long. This provided a new route to the regular circuit around camp when attending to menial duties such as bathroom breaks and brushing teeth. I left a steep entrance at one leg and a gradually stepped entrance on the other leg, creating a varied experience of passing through the trench (i.e. walking in and climbing out, or stumbling in and walking out).
Later that night we had a frank discussion in the tent regarding our situation. We couldn’t deny the fact that the weather hadn’t been favorable for climbing for weeks, and it showed no signs of improving. Additionally, the unexpected storm would be adding unstable snow to the slopes, further increasing the wait needed before attempting any climb. The uncertain weather was also a little unnerving as we had no communication out of the Gorge (only pricey satellite phones could reach the outside world), and until this mystery storm cleared, planes wouldn’t fly in or out, so we were effectively stuck where we were with no knowledge of when the planes could possibly return. We concluded that remaining on the glacier in hopes of sneaking in a climb would be in vain. We faced the possibility of being clouded in and missing our flight out of Anchorage if we waited too long on the glacier.
After our discussion, we decided that once the weather cleared and the planes returned, we would arrange an early pickup. It was time to call it quits and head home.
June 1st – Bad News from the Outside WorldI awoke the next day to sunshine and the hum of a turboprop engine. The weather had cleared and the planes had returned!
I reported our “bail out” status to the Michaels, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying the sunshine. We wandered out from camp a ways, took in the sights and some ski turns (1),(2), and had a “skice” climbing ‘fest in the Happy Trench, traversing the vertical walls and climbing directly out of the trench with our ice tools.
One benefit of the stormy days was that the snow slopes had a lot of fresh snow on them. We knew that once nighttime cooling began, the mountains would begin sloughing snow like crazy. As the sun started to dip low in the sky, we moved out of the Happy Dome, fashioned seats in the snow, and sat back to watch the show. As expected, every few minutes an avalanche rocketed down the slopes, varying anywhere from a small jet to a raging torrent of snow and rock (1), (2), (3). As the avalanching slowed, we were treated to an extremely impressive one – a cornice broke off of Mt Barrill and set off a slide about 100 feet wide that cascaded off the 400 foot cliff at the edge of the airfield. It wasn’t quite the powderblast that Heathfield hoped Buchanan and I would experience, but it was still quite a show. There was an enormous cornice still lingering above the airfield on Barrill, but despite Heathfield’s telepathic efforts, we weren’t able to get the rest of it to break off.
That night we savored a beautiful display of alpenglow that extended well past midnight. It was unfortunate that we were leaving so soon, but after experiencing Alaska, I can’t wait to return . . .
June 2nd – Heading HomeThe following morning brought us more clear skies, more warm weather, and a final morning avalanche show for our pre-flight entertainment. We were delighted to see that Doug had returned to pick us up, and after a thrilling takeoff he continued on with the excellent flight tour that he gave us on the way in.
I tried to absorb as much of the vastness as I could as we flew away – I felt a deep sadness in leaving such an incredible place and I wanted to savor every last minute of it. Although we never managed to even start our planned route, we all agreed that the trip was a success. This setback is a normal, albeit underreported, aspect of mountaineering in the major mountain ranges, and it should be expected and enjoyed like any part of the trip. Despite the setback, both Buchanan and I are now hooked on Alaska, and we’re eager to return for another attempt on Peak 11,300 and other peaks in the range.
In addition to this experience and learning how to organize more trips to Alaska in the future, there was another lesson that really sank in over the course of the trip. The route on Mount Dickey was right next to our camp, and we could have tried to climb it quickly in the middle of the night once the storm abated. Still, we showed restraint, following a saying Heathfield shared with us in the Happy Dome:
“It’s easy to climb hard. It’s hard to climb smart.”
Any regrets that we may have had about not attempting the route were eliminated when the entire route slide just before we left. It was definitely the wrong time of year to attempt alpine routes in this part of the range.
While it was disappointing that we were unable climb on this trip, we still consider the trip a success because managed to keep our priorities straight:
1. Come home safe.
2. Come home as friends.
3. Come home with the climb completed.
As our pilot Doug said when he picked us up, we “lived to climb another day,” and we came out of the experience better friends than ever. You really can’t ask for anything better than that!
I would like to express my gratitude to the American Alpine Club for helping to make this trip possible through the 2006 Mountaineering Fellowship Fund Grant and the Boyd Everett Fund.
Other Photos by TopicTopos - Annotated Photos
The Ruth Glacier seen from the Bush Plane
Peaks seen from the Bush Plane
Photos from Camp