A SEASON OF SPONTANEOUS COMMITMENT IN THE ALASKA RANGE ~ Alpinist

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Mike Gardner

Posted on: August 9, 2021

[The following trip report by Mike Gardner summarizes a spring season in Alaska that he shared with fellow guide and frequent climbing partner Sam Hennessey. Between late April and the end of May, the two added a new line on Denali’s Isis Face that they dubbed Anubis (Alaska Grade 6: AI5, M6, 6,900′); ascended the classic Bibler-Klewin on the North Buttress of Begguya (Mt. Hunter); and then finished by climbing Denali’s Cassin Ridge in deep snow with their friend Adam Fabrikant, reaching both summits of the mountain before skiing and walking a long way back to the nearest road.—Ed.]

Hiking out to Wonder Lake after reaching both summits of Denali (20,310') via the Cassin Ridge and skiing down the Northwest Buttress to the end of the Peters Glacier. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Hiking out to Wonder Lake after reaching both summits of Denali (20,310′) via the Cassin Ridge and skiing down the Northwest Buttress to the end of the Peters Glacier. Denali is on Dena’ina, Upper Kuskokwim and Koyukon Dene land. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

I am still reflecting and learning from this wild season. At this point the only things I can say with some level of certainty, is that climbing in the big mountains is all about abiding by the age-old practices of patience, flexibility and spontaneous commitment when the time is right. Also, no climb is a stand-alone endeavor. It takes a wide network of support, time spent listening and watching, plus a deep understanding and appreciation of history—and of the shoulders we stand upon—to reach for our dreams. Many thanks all around to the people, past and present, who made these experiences possible.

In what has become our traditional start to the season, Sam Hennessey and I convened in Talkeetna at the end of a massive high-pressure system. I had just spent the previous 10 days guiding Ham and Eggs on the Mooses Tooth (10,335′) and the Sothwest Ridge of Peak 11300. The range was in prime shape, as stable, unseasonably warm weather had set up near perfect conditions. As luck would have it, however, by the time I unpacked from my work trip and Sam arrived in town with all our groceries, we were potentially looking at a mere 48 hours of stable weather remaining before the next pattern shift.

We hummed about which objective made sense and which would give us margins that we would feel comfortable with. Ultimately we settled on heading to the Isis Face on Denali (20,310′). Both Sam and I have spent ample time in that region—in 2019 we established a route adjacent to Isis on a small feature—and we had been eyeing a more direct line up the middle of the face. The Isis is rather logistically complex, because after climbing the face you find yourself at approximately 15,400 feet on the South Buttress of Denali—a far cry from anywhere. To descend the 7,000 feet back down to the Ruth Glacier would be time consuming to say the least. We figured it was a perfect objective for deploying our ski-alpinism technique: climbing in ski boots and carrying light skis.

Climbing Denali's Isis Face by a new route with skis on their backs. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Climbing Denali’s Isis Face by a new route with skis on their backs. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

On April 27 we flew into the West Fork of the Ruth. We moved nonstop from the airstrip. Climbing well into the dark under a big bright moon, we made it to the top of the 7,000-foot Isis face 18 hours after getting off the plane and climbing well into the dark under a big bright moon. We arrived on the top of the face to a stiff wind and set to work riding out the cold night in a small tent with our shared suffer sheet of a blanket. After we’d spent nearly 9 hours waiting and shivering, the sun came back around and coaxed movement back into our weary bones. The morning brought warmth as well as fingers of a low-hanging cloud. With purpose we broke down the tent and began skiing and down climbing our way along the South Buttress and toward the Kahiltna Glacier.

The entire journey was a 31-hour odyssey of climbing in some of the wilder folds of the AK Range. Our route was entirely independent of the only other line on the face except for perhaps the final three pitches in the upper rock band. Call it a variation, call it a route, we simply called it “Anubis” (Alaska Grade 6, AI5, M6, 6,900′). The views were amazing, the climbing superb and the company was bar none. 

Topping out on Denali's Isis Face. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Topping out on Denali’s Isis Face. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Denali's Isis Face with Anubis (Alaska Grade 6: AI5 M6, 6,900') drawn in red. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Denali’s Isis Face with Anubis (Alaska Grade 6: AI5 M6, 6,900′) drawn in red. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

The climbing on the route was incredible. Sustained mixed climbing brought us through the lower rock bands and then we found wild fluted snow climbing where we would rely on our horseback riding experience. Perhaps the most memorable moment was climbing by headlamp with a huge moon over Huntington behind us. I cast off into what I assumed would be straightforward ice pitches. But as my small beam of light illuminated more of the terrain, I found several full ropelengths of very sustained grade 5 ice in a tight chimney, where I had challenges with the skis on my pack getting stuck in the tight space. 

After three days of rest in base camp, there seemed to be a small weather window approaching the mountains. Sam and I decided to make the most of it and set our sights on climbing the Bibler-Klewin (Alaska Grade 6: WI6 M6, steep snow, 6,000′) on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter (Begguya, 14,573′). 

We left camp with a stove, tent and two days of food. We climbed from the glacier to the top of the buttress in 13 hours, freeing all of the pitches except the pendulum to the ice dagger. We arrived at the cornice bivy in a cold wind and set to work passing the long night without a sleeping bag. The night was spent alternating between spooning, making hot water and rocking to Metallica and Motley Crue.

Enjoying the Bibler-Klewin (Alaska Grade 6: WI6 M6, steep snow, 6,000') on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter (Begguya, 14,573'). [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Enjoying the Bibler-Klewin (Alaska Grade 6: WI6 M6, steep snow, 6,000′) on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter (Begguya, 14,573′). [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

The next morning the weather appeared to be holding for another little while, so up toward the summit we went. Above the buttress the climbing takes on a more mountaineering type of feel. Corniced ridges, calf-burning ice and overhanging snow climbing lead to the upper slopes and summit. At one point I found myself climbing a 15-foot pitch of overhanging snow out of a crevasse. The topout was sugar snow, and as I pulled hard on my tools, the picks simply raked downward and I took a micro fall into the soft snow below. 

“Killer alpine boulder problem, Gardner!” Sam shouted at me as he stood there holding the useless rope between us. “Maybe try to aid off your tools next time.”

Sure enough on the next go-round I was able to pull through using an odd combination of face manteling and stand on my ice tools as foot holds. We tagged the summit and began rappelling the buttress. We arrived on the glacier 36 hours after leaving terra firma.

On the Bibler-Klewin. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

On the Bibler-Klewin. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

This climb was just pure joy, as I had always wanted to climb Begguya. The only pain in the ass was riding out such a long cold night at the top of the buttress with no sleeping bag. After a dropped belay device early on the route, we found ample opportunity to refine our carabiner brake rappels over the 30-plus rappels.

After one day of rest in town, we both guided West Buttress trips on Denali. It was a rough year for weather. Both Sam and I ran over the time of our contract length, each of us stuck in different camps. Despite this setback we were both able to summit with some of our clients and keep the acclimatization program going.

After work we spent 48 hours in town. There appeared to be a decent weather window approaching, so we flew back in at 8 a.m. and immediately headed up the East Fork with hopes to jump on Denali’s Slovak Direct that night. While we were waiting and watching, a squall moved through and deposited quite a bit of snow on the face. The storm raged for several hours and we figured we had seen enough. We tucked tail and headed back to base camp in a whiteout. The next seven days were very stormy, and we passed the time sleeping and reading, as well as eating corn dogs, meatballs, Mountain Dew and other highly technical performance foods.

Through our satellite communication devices, we were tipped off to a potential pattern shift and perhaps several days of decent weather. Knowing that there would most likely be several feet of new snow, we wrote off climbing on the south face proper and instead set our sights on an up-and-over mission on the Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8, AI4).

Ascending Denali's Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5: 5.8, AI4, 8,800'). [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Ascending Denali’s Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5: 5.8, AI4, 8,800′). [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Sam and I have wanted to walk out of the range for more than 10 years. We decided that this would be the trip. We had our good friend Adam Fabrikant with us because his ski partners and missions had not lined up for various reasons. Adam is an incredible skier but does not have much alpine climbing experience. We figured he would probably get more experience over the course of a 9,000-foot route. The more the merrier, plus we knew that with so much new snow we would want all the leg power available to break trail. We carried enough food and fuel for 72 hours, one small tent, sneakers and our standard ski-alpinism kit.

Sam and I both soloed the whole route, fixing a 6mm tagline for Adam on any technical bits so that he could climb with Microtraxions securing him to the rope. This method allowed either Sam or me to keep breaking trail while the other fixed a line for Adam. And man, was it deep—waist-, chest- or knee-deep from the East Fork all the way to 18,000 feet.

On the summit after the Cassin. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

On the summit after the Cassin. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

From the top of the Cassin we went to the South Summit. Then we traversed to the North Summit (19,470′), clicked into our skis and began the odyssey of skiing down the Northwest Buttress. We encountered everything from waist-deep powder to highly technical skiing on blue ice with ice tools. We skied from 19,470 feet to the toe of the lower Peters Glacier (4,187 feet) where we transitioned to sneakers for the long walk across the tundra and through the rivers to Wonder Lake.

The skiing on the NWB was wild; we only down climbed a total of 600 feet over the course of 15,000 feet of skiing. The upper portion was blower, and lower down we encountered blue ice hiding underneath 10 to 50cm of wet snow. At that point we were skiing with an ice tool in one hand and occasionally executing a “French transition”—a phrase introduced to us by Chantel Astorga and Nick Maestre. It means that you ski the blue ice until you lose purchase and fall, and then you self-arrest. While hanging from your tool, you put in an ice screw, clip to it, swap out your skis for crampons and start down climbing. 

Skiing down Denali's Northwest Buttress. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Skiing down Denali’s Northwest Buttress. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

We arrived on the Peters Glacier and found some running water, so we crushed some calories, topped off the water and kept sliding…all the way down to the absolute toe of the glacier, well below firn line. When we ran out of ice to ski, we put on our sneakers and walked a long way (approximately 20 to 30 miles). Of course there were no trails, just tussocks and all sorts of heinous ‘shwaking. The bugs were so insane that we considered pissing our pants just so we would not have to stop, let alone expose ourselves. When we finally got to the river crossings, we were all nervous. A) Adam can’t really swim, and B) rivers can be very deadly, especially in Alaska because the glacial streams are so cold and the banks are often choked with brush, making it difficult to get out. Along the way we saw huge bear scat and fresh tracks. We yelled the whole time. The river crossings went fine. We reached Wonder Lake 64 hours after leaving base camp and we caught the last bus of the day with 30 minutes to spare. At this point we had not really stopped since the North Summit, 25 hours ago. 

Crossing a stream on the hike out. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Crossing a stream on the hike out. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

We napped the bus ride away and a young Alaska Mountaineering School guide met us in Healy with pizza and beer at 11:30 p.m. He was a total legend and drove us back to Talkeetna, where, despite the 64-hour push, we unloaded our gear and walked right into the Fairview Inn for last call (1:45 a.m.) in the clothes we wore the whole journey.

Nodding off on the bus ride home. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

Nodding off on the bus ride home. [Photo] Mike Gardner collection

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