The Cassin Ridge

Regional discussion and conditions reports for Canada and Alaska. Please post partners requests and trip plans in the Canada and Alaska Climbing Partners forum.
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by peladoboton » Tue Sep 14, 2010 2:59 am

in my two brief trips up to that park, niether on Denali but both right next to it, it has the ability to loosen the bowels of the greatest climbers on earth. i watched it do so once to one such who was our guide, once when i was so new to alpinism that i hadn't a clue how far up shit creek we were (in a place that was the more mellow and inviting for three parties before us and two that came after due to how fast conditions can change).

i second that james is right.

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by wallspeck » Tue Sep 14, 2010 7:25 am

JLo, I went to your club web site and read a bit.
It sounds like you have your winter camping skills down. It also sounds like you can climb ice quite well. And your attitude is great.
So here's my 2 cents.
I went to climb the Cassin in 1988. We acclimatized by going up the West Buttress to the summit. Went a bit fast I think (10 days from landing strip) and I got terribly hypoxic on summit ridge. But then, goofing off at 14,500' while skiing below the headwall, my partner tore a tendon loose in his thumb and we were done.
HOWEVER!!!... I'm convinced that had that not happened, we would have climbed it.
Why? Attitude.
We were having a great time, loving being on the mountain, loving being in whiteouts, laughing about the cold, and we were not intimidated by the mythology of the route.
I returned as an old guy (age 44) in 2001 with what I thought was a great team.
We skipped the acclimatizing and just went for it.
Got up to Cassin Ledge, and the next day, on the 3rd pitch up, belaying literally only 75 feet below where the ice starts on the long ice ridge, my partner (who was doing a sketchy lead through the frozen rocks) got a bit spooked. It was snowing and spindrift was washing over us (I was LOVING IT!!!!!) and he came down and said he thought the route was too hard, conviced my other partner the same, refused to allow me to try the pitch, refused to remove his pack for the short 75 feet to the ice, and well, we were done.
Ultimately, most retreats are because you don't want to be there anymore.

I was guiding a group on the West Buttress in 1999, and we encountered two young men descending the ridge below the high camp. They had technical tools, and they looked beat in a different sort of way than the West Buttress does you in.
I asked what they had come up and it was the Cassin.
They had gone straight for it. No acclimatizing. Spent 10 days. Had a great time.

It's a long, classic, moderately hard route, but doable by any well seasoned winter mountaineer with the right attude.
It's even been done in bunny boots!!! And guys have carried ski's up it.
So don't get intimidated.

Now for the other side of the pep talk.
It involves LONG days of utter exhaustion. You must have good ice climbing skills on 60 degree IRON HARD boiler plate ice hidden below 8 inches of snow which is hard to see because of all the spin drift and your pack is pulling your shoulders down backward like a linebacker is tugging on you and your calves are cramping and your fingers are battered and cracked and cold and god are you hungry and you've got a headache and your partner is not watching you because he's hiding from the death plates of ice you're kicking out and over him and you know you need psychological help because even though you want to vomit there is something making you smile because you love being there.
And if you can relate to the above paragraph because you've lived it....
then you don't need any advice on this route.
And if you can't relate... there is no advice anyone can give you worth shit.

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by James_W » Tue Sep 14, 2010 10:33 am

Looks like a strong group (VICE)

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Re: The Cassin Ridge

by JLongcor » Tue Sep 28, 2010 8:44 pm

Thanks for all the info and advice. I really appreciate your feedback. I'll do my best to use the resources you provided and work my hardest to prepare. I'm already training every free moment of every day. See ya out there.


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Re: The Cassin Ridge

by wfinley » Wed Sep 29, 2010 4:53 am

Good luck.... my advice is to have a backup plan. Many travelers have crashed on my couch in the hopes of climbing the Cassin but only a few have actually stepped foot on it. If it's your first trip to Alaska then you're aiming pretty high --- a better plan would be to come here in '11 and do routes in the Ruth and then come back in '12 to do the Cassin. If you're a bad ass you can warm up in the Ruth on a route like H&E or something similar and then hop over to the Kahiltna... but like I said - most who have this plan are happy to just get one climb in.
Last edited by wfinley on Wed Sep 29, 2010 4:59 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Cassin Ridge

by ExcitableBoy » Wed Sep 29, 2010 4:57 am

On my first trip to the Alaska Range my partner and I chose a rarely climbed Alaskan Grade IV+ (6,000 ft+, 90 degree ice, rock to 5.8). My friends that had been to the range suggested something easier saying "Nobody does anything significant on their first trip to the Alaska Range". We trained hard all winter climbing technically difficult, big (5,0000 ft+) routes in the Cascades all winter and we made a sucessful, rare ascent of the route.

We learned everything we could about the route and found an extremely accomplished and well traveled climber who attempted the route the year before. (Jack Tackle and Doug Chabot said the route was much harder than they expected). He said the crux rock band was too difficult to free climb with packs and would either have to be aided or packs would need to be hauled. We did neither and pulled overhanging roofs, crampons scratching rocks, packs tugging us down. We both fell seconding pitches, but we did it.

My point is, learn everything you can about the route, take heed from experienced climbers, but don't let the doubters get you down.

Now, here is my advice:
Fully acclimatize by climbing the West Buttress or Messner Couloir. Before arriving at 14k you will need to decide how you will approach the base of the Cassin. You have several options:

-Descend to 11k and approach via the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, A.K.A. 'The Valley of Death'. This is the least technical of options, plus you can cache all of your technical gear you don't need on the West Butt at 11k, however, the route is threatened by seracs and crevasses.

-From 14k descend the West Rib to the base of the Japanese Couloir. This is one of the quickest routes but is more technical. I have watched EXTREMELY talented and accomplished apinists turn around due to poor snow conditions.

-From 14k descend via the 'Seattle '72' ramp described briefly here (scroll down to the bottom).

If you haven't already, contact Joe Puryear, Mark Westman, and Colin Haley (contact info in previous post). Nobody currently climbing has more Alaskan Range experience than these three and they would be happy to give you advice about the route, gear, bivi sites, etc.

Training by toproping 40' waterfalls and snow shoeing around the White Mountains ain't going to cut it. You need to train your body and mind and develop the skills for climbing big, hard routes, the likes that you have never seen.

Make as many trips out west as you can. The Canadian Rockies or the Tetons are probably your closest venue. (Colorado doesn't really count - no alpine climbing to be had, keep driving). Climb big waterfalls and alpine routes. Hone your systems for climbiing in extreme cold. Closer to home practice rock climbing in crampons and a pack.

Improve your fitness by trail running and lifting weights. Include long slow distance, intervals e.g. running hill repeats, and lactate threshold training (tempo runs). Once a week do a long hike (4000+ ft elevation gain) with a 50+ poound pack. Dial your systems for winter camping. In the weight room focus on upper body, core, and leg strength.

If you make smart decisions and sincerely aknowledge you and your team's fitness and abilities the worst that is likely to happen is you will summit via the West Butt then get a look at the Cassin and decide to come back when you have more experience. Or you may just send the rig.

Best of luck,


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Re: The Cassin Ridge

by bird » Thu Sep 30, 2010 1:12 pm

This makes me think of an old Todd Skinner story about his first trip to Yosemite. He and his partner knew some of the classic routes they wanted to try would be the hardest they ever did. So they trained like animals, working out, climbing as hard as they could locally, to prepare. When they got there, they found the climbs were well within their capabilities. Since they didn't know what to expect...they in effect "over trained".
OP, go climb the Black Dike twice in a row with a 40 lb pack, speed hike the presy traverse in winter. You never know.

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Re: The Cassin Ridge

by ExcitableBoy » Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:04 pm

From my experience climbing big routes in Alaska ( by lower 48 standards, not Alaskan standards) it was not the technical difficulties that were the choke point, it was the scale of the place and the realization of the consequences of mistakes. A dropped mitten would not be just cash out of your pocket, it might mean losing fingers.

There is also the logistics that need to be dialed: what to bring, how much to bring, how cold will it really be. It helps to talk this over with folks that have a lot of experience climbing in the range. Climbing the West Butt it is not such a big deal to bring too much (or too little, it is easy to scrounge fuel and food on the route) but on a technical climb every ounce counts. You have to balance climbing light to be fast enough to climb between storms yet carry just enough in case you have to ride one out for a few days. It’s a tough juxtaposition.

I fully believe that the OP and his crew are capable of climbing pitches of equal difficulty to those that would be found on the Cassin and are young and strong enough to hump the loads but one really can't prepare for the gumption trap that accompanies being dropped off on the KIA and suddenly feeling very, very small with Hunter, Foraker, and Denali looming 13,000 ft above you. It takes most climbers a couple of trips to become comfortable with climbing in the range to begin doing genuinely big, difficult routes.

wfinley offers sage advice:

"If it's your first trip to Alaska then you're aiming pretty high --- a better plan would be to come here in '11 and do routes in the Ruth and then come back in '12 to do the Cassin. If you're a bad ass you can warm up in the Ruth on a route like H&E or something similar and then hop over to the Kahiltna"

There are some really kick ass, technical routes you can do that would help prepare you for a successful ascent of the Cassin, and are big accomplishments unto themselves:

SW Ridge Peak 11,300
West Ridge Mt Hunter
Quirk/Nettle Couloir Mt Huntington
Ham and Eggs Couloir Mooses Tooth

To parrot wfinely’s advice you could plan a longer trip, come in say mid April and get on some of the above routes then hop over to Denali and acclimatize on the West Buttress. By then you should have an inkling for the character of the range and be better able to make an informed, honest evaluation of your chances on the Cassin.

It took Colin Haley three tries, and many successful trips on much harder routes in the range before succeeding on the Cassin. You are a young man; you have plenty of time to develop the skills and judgement necessary to succeed on the marque routes that every climber want to put on his or her resume'.


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