Getting Technical with Alaska Objectives
Aaron Kurland and I began talking about a trip into Denali base camp last summer while climbing in the Cascades. Aaron had already taken two trips to base camp, one for a Denali prep course and another for an attempt on Denali. However, last summer he discovered the joys of technical climbing. We planned a trip to climb some of the steep ice and mixed routes located in the southeast fork of the Kahiltna glacier, and attempt Mt. Hunter’s West Ridge.
When we checked in with the ranger station they told us Hunter was in great shape. The next day we flew on with high hopes. After arriving in base camp a strong low pressure system came in. The first storm day we tried to push a route up the west face of the Radio Control Tower. We had a fun day climbing about 600 feet up a couloir with vertical steps and lots of spindrift coming down.
All photos by Alan Rousseau
Once gaining the top of the couloir the avalanche conditions increased and the upper face was constantly shedding. We had gotten out and swung the tools — it was time to begin rappelling back down to camp. Three snow bollards quickly got us down 210 meters and below the technical difficulties. From here it was just a 30 minute walk back to camp.
The next day brought an additional three feet of snow to mid elevations (10,000−14,000 feet). So we were tent bound and logged some solid reading time. The next day was sunny and we headed out on a ski tour. We went down “heartbreak hill” and onto the main body of the lower Kahiltna. From here we headed south for a couple miles to the start of the West Ridge of Hunter. We decided to wait at least a day for the new snow to settle out. That evening on 8 o’clock weather the forecast was clear for the next few days. Since it was already day five, that was our window. The next day was spent in camp packing five days of food and six days of fuel, and mentally preparing to break trail on the entire five-mile West Ridge of Hunter.
We left camp at 8:30 pm and reached the base of the West Ridge in an hour and ten minutes. From here we left our skis and started booting up the steep heavily crevassed pocket glacier to gain the ridge. Even with the new snow we moved quickly. In two and a half hours we had hit a prominent rock feature known as the Cat Ears, or point 9500. After passing between the two ears, we did two 60 meter rappels that would have to be re-climbed on the descent. We arrived in the 8,700-foot col at 2:30 am. It was now a time of twilight in the Alaska range and the coldest part of the night with ambient air temps of ‑20 F. The next section of ridge looked intimidating and the snow pack was less than inspiring. We decided to dig in at the 8700-foot col and bivy for a few hours. By 4am we had the tent up and nice platform dug. We ate some dinner and promptly passed out.
At 12 pm we left our platform and had 2 pitches of 55 degree ice. From here we climbed into the first of two bowls that would put us at the top of point 9500. However entering the first bowl we found deep punchy snow conducive to slab avalanches. Soon a big shooting crack came off my feet and shot 150 feet in front of me. Fortunately the slope angle was not yet steep enough to make it pull out. It was however a sign of things to come and forced our retreat.
We climbed back up and over the Cat Ears via two pitches of 5.6, and returned to base camp that evening around 8pm.
The next day was a rest day in camp, we dried out gear, did some avalanche beacon drills, and got packed for the next objective — Bacon and Eggs. Not to be confused with the Ruth Gorge’s famous Ham and Eggs, Bacon and Eggs is a 1,000-foot ice hose on the micro moonflower formation. We had a great 13-hour day encountering difficulites to M4 WI4+/5- over 7 pitches of sustained climbing.
With three days remaining in our trip we decided to rest the next day to keep our legs fresh for our final two days of climbing. On our rest day we went over some alternative rappel techniques, and some more advanced rope management tips.
Our 11th day on the glacier was one of the most enjoyable of the trip. We decided to return to our first objective, the West Face of Radio Control Tower. We had not heard of anyone climbing it before, although that is generally par for the course on smaller objectives in Alaska. Our West Face objective offered about 300 meters of climbing which varied from ice to snow and even a wild overhanging hand crack! This route took us approximately 4.5 hours from the shrund to the summit. We descended the standard route and hiked back to our skis. It was a great sunny day, our route provided fun climbing up to M5 and AI3.
Since my return home I have not been able to find any information on this couloir. With its proximity to base camp it is probably safer to call this the first recorded ascent of the “spindrift couloir”!
Route on West Face R.C.T. Numbers represents an end to each of the 7 pitches.
Our final day was spent ice climbing on the Moonflower Buttress.
Then we spent the afternoon on a relaxing ski tour enjoying corn snow and blue skies.
Thanks for a great trip Aaron!
~ MM Guide Alan Rousseau