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Mountain Madness Climber

Spectacular Mixed Climbing in Alaska Range

When Peter and I arrived in Anchor­age in the mid­dle of May, it was snow­ing light­ly. We were about to embark on an 11 day jour­ney to con­quer some spec­tac­u­lar mixed climb­ing on some of Alas­kas most pic­turesque and excit­ing peaks. We wast­ed no time by crank­ing into a gear check 15 min­utes after touch­ing down and then went food shop­ping. By late after­noon we were on our way to Talkeetna.

The next day we awoke to a light dust­ing of snow, weath­er that does­n’t bode well for fly­ing out. Nev­er­the­less, we checked in at the park ser­vice in addi­tion to the Tal­keet­na Air Taxi, our flight ser­vice for trip.

Kahilt­na Queen. Ian Nichol­son photo

After spend­ing too many hours in the Road­house and chat­ting with climbers from around the globe to pass the day, we turned in for the night at the Tal­keet­na Air Taxi bunk house, cer­tain­ly the his­tor­i­cal cen­ter of climb­ing in the Alas­ka range. Climbers the world over stay here. Whether attempt­ing new ground-break­ing routes or duk­ing it out up the West But­tress, they sleep in this dusty, slight­ly run­down house.

The sec­ond day we woke up to 3″ of snow on the ground — our hopes of fly­ing in were low. We went to the Road­house for more unlim­it­ed refills of cof­fee and the ever famous Stan­dard” break­fast, which most climbers can’t even fin­ish half. But around noon, TAT rang the bell and start­ed dri­ving around town hol­ler­ing out that they were hop­ing to fly .We hus­tled back to the bunk house and gath­ered our things and made our way to the Tal­keet­na airport. 

The day passed in a game of hur­ry up and wait.” We hung out at the air­port until 7pm, at which point we gave in and ordered a piz­za. Only a few min­utes lat­er the pilot told us hur­ry, up, we’re going!” We des­per­ate­ly start­ed orga­niz­ing our gear and start­ed load­ing the plane. Luck­i­ly, anoth­er guide, Kurt Hicks, ran to pick up the piz­za we had ordered and we crossed our fin­gers he would arrive in time for take-off. Luck­i­ly, Kurt arrived, we inhale­dour piz­za and as if on cue, the pilot fired up the engine and we board­ed and sped off. The weath­er was in and out the whole flight. Over one pass, the ceil­ing closed in and we cir­cled sev­er­al times — I was sure we were going to turn around. As our plane made its way above the main body of the 55 mile long Kahilt­na Glac­i­er, the clouds moved in again. How­ev­er, soon we could see Kahilt­na Inter­na­tion­al” on the South­east fork of the Kahilt­na, the land­ing strip for Denali and many oth­er famous peaks in the Alas­ka Range. We land­ed at near­ly 8pm and quick­ly went about find­ing our camp site for near­ly the next cou­ple weeks.

Bacon and Eggs, one of our lat­er objec­tives. Ian Nichol­son photo

The first night in camp was cold and ther­mome­ters record­ed ‑22F in base camp. We could feel the cold even in our minus ‑20 F sleep­ing bags. We awoke the next day to crys­tal clear skies over the entire Alas­ka range. We reviewed crevasse res­cue tech­niques then began mak­ing our way fur­ther up the south­east fork of the Kahilt­na Glac­i­er to attempt the east ridge of Radio Con­trol Tow­er. While small­er than many of the sur­round­ing peaks, Radio Con­trol Tow­er dom­i­nates the view above base camp. As we worked our way up the glac­i­er we could see slight out­lines of crevass­es now buried by the two feet of new snow that had fall­en while we were wait­ing to fly in.

About two hours into the climb, I fell neck deep into a crevasse, snow­shoes dan­gling above the black abyss. After some excit­ing squirm­ing, I extract­ed myself and we con­tin­ued post hol­ing up deep snow even while wear­ing snow­shoes. We climbed steep snow to a final short, but improb­a­ble, burgshrund guard­ing the ridge prop­er. We climbed ten feet of ver­ti­cal and over-hang­ing snow, pulling on snow pick­ets to gain the ridge crest. Once on the crest, the views were incred­i­ble, with Mount Hunter, Mount Forak­er, Peak 12,200, Kahilt­na Queen, Mount Fran­cis and Denali dom­i­nat­ing our surroundings. 

Peter walk­ing on the Kahilt­na Glac­i­er with Mount Forak­er behind. Ian Nichol­son photo

We wad­ed through knee-to-waist-deep snow anoth­er hour along the ridge before decid­ing it was get­ting too late in the day with sev­er­al hours of painful­ly slow trail­break­ing left, so we descend­ed back to camp. The increas­ing temps the next day gave us a rest day to pre­pare for our 3am depar­ture. We spent the day relax­ing and social­iz­ing with oth­er climbers from all over the coun­try and a few from around the globe. What was amaz­ing was how many peo­ple we knew; the major­i­ty of climbers stay­ing in Kahitl­na base camp were old friends and famil­iar faces. 

Peter on the East Ridge of Radio Con­trol Tow­er. Ian Nichol­son photo

The next day, we got an ear­ly start, wak­ing up at 3am and start­ing across the glac­i­er at 4:30am. We snow­shoed up below the 4,000 foot Moon­flower But­tress on Mount Hunter — a wall big­ger than Yosemite’s El Cap­i­tan and coat­ed in ice! We looked at one of our objec­tives a lit­tle far­ther up the val­ley: the north couloir of the Mini Moon­flower, a strik­ing 2,000 foot ice line but with a gigan­tic hang­ing gar­goyle. There were at least half a dozen 1,000−2,000 foot incred­i­ble look­ing alpine ice lines. We passed Bacon and Eggs (not know­ing it at the time) to anoth­er climb called Bis­cuits and Gravy (or Eggs depend­ing on who you talk to).

Peter ascend­ing Radio Con­trol Tow­er. Ian Nichol­son photo

We crossed the val­ley to the south face of Peak 12,200 and its 4,000 foot south face eye­ing its steep low­er rock bands for pos­si­ble routes for a lat­er day. We then descend­ed the glac­i­er and approached the South Face of Radio Con­trol Tow­er, a steep­er, longer and more sus­tained route up the peak com­pared to the pre­vi­ous route. Swing­ing tools and dag­ger­ing picks allowed us to climb 800 feet of snow and ice to the ridge crest gain­ing the crest only 100ft from where we had the pre­vi­ous day. A large group had attempt­ed the route and pushed the trail break­ing near­ly to the sum­mit but even they turned around before the final step in the ridge because of the knee to waist deep snow. We fol­lowed their tracks past our old High point to theirs. From there we trudged up toward the sum­mit. After 45 more min­utes we made it! The views were as good as one could ever hope to have on any moun­tain on this cen­tral­ly locat­ed peak. 

On the sum­mit! Ian Nichol­son photo

After spend­ing over 30 min­utes on the sum­mit, we descend­ed back to camp low­er­ing, rap­pelling and down climb­ing the steep south face. The next day we rest­ed and hung out and shared sto­ries for hours on end. 

After anoth­er rest day and soar­ing temps, so we opt­ed to try the west route on Annie’s Ridge. We cir­cled around to its base and climbed 8 fan­tas­tic pitch­es before being turned around by more of the steep and sug­ary facet snow. On Annie’s Ridge, in places the snow was so bad that I would fall in head-deep in the steep­er sec­tions. It was still very enjoy­able with some of the fun­ni­est mixed climb­ing pitch­es on amaz­ing and fea­tured granite. 

Mixed climb­ing on Annie’s Ridge. Ian Nichol­son photo

Since we got back to camp ear­ly we opt­ed to try the west ridge of Peak 12.200, a.k.a. Lisa’s Peak,” named after the long time base camp man­ag­er. While this peak does­n’t have an offi­cial name, it boasts one of the most clas­sic routes in the area. We got anoth­er ear­ly start and were walk­ing by 5:30am. After a cou­ple hours of snow­shoe­ing we reached the base of the start of the tech­ni­cal climb­ing. The route begins with about 1,000 feet of fun ice steps, some steep snow and cool mixed climb­ing which reach­es an exposed ridge. The climb­ing up to the ridge took us about 1.5 hrs and was quite fun. We post holed along the ridge just as three of our friends, AMS guides on vaca­tion, gained the ridge. They had been the ones to inspire us to do this climb. At the end of the exposed ridge was anoth­er long sec­tion of steep snow, ice and mixed climb­ing. This was the high­light of the climb as we climbed pitch after pitch of awe­some ter­rain! The 3 vaca­tion­ing guides caught up to us but Peter and I man­age to keep a good pace together.

Peter about to gain the ridge. Ian Nichol­son photo

At the top of the mixed climb­ing was more steel snow which wor­ried us as route climbed diag­o­nal­ly across the face. To our sur­prise, the snow turned out to be excel­lent and we climbed the next sev­er­al hun­dred feet up and across the face. At the top of the face was a pure-water ice pitch that, while it was one of the tech­ni­cal crux­es, led to the true chal­lenge of the route. We climbed sev­er­al rope lengths through a full-on ice fall with bot­tom­less holes and ice jut­ting out at all angles! To exit the ice fall, there was one more slight­ly over-hang­ing ice pitch that luck­i­ly was­n’t too long. When the 5 of us reached the end of the ice fall we were all relieved. Between the steep snow and the ice­fall, no one was sure if we were going to be able to make it.

Tra­vers­ing the exposed sec­tion of the ridge on Peak 12,200. Ian Nichol­son photo

Above the ice fall was a hang­ing heav­i­ly glaciat­ed plateau. We nego­ti­at­ed the many crevass­es to one more steep step and, just as the clouds start­ed to roll, in we made the sum­mit! We could­n’t believe it, it was a hard won sum­mit. High-fives all around, but did­n’t hang out too long, know­ing we had a very long and very com­pli­cat­ed descent. We rapped off of V‑threads, pick­ets, slung horns and did a ton of down climb­ing. Final­ly, after 15 hours on the go we arrived back in camp.

On the sum­mit of Peak 12,200! Ian Nichol­son photo

After our 15 hour push on Peak 12,200 and climb­ing Annie’s Ridge the day before, we decid­ed anoth­er rest day was in order so. We walked around and spoke with Denali climbers and swapped sto­ries with our camp­mates. There had been a few climbers climb­ing Bacon and Eggs, a mega clas­sic 1,500 foot WI5 water ice line on Mini-Mini Moon­flower. This slight­ly inap­pro­pri­ate­ly-named peak is short­er than the 4,000 foot north but­tress of Mount Hunter, yet it is as big, if not big­ger, than the vast major­i­ty of ice lines around the coun­try. We left with yet anoth­er ear­ly start, again stay­ing away from the north couloir of the Mini-Moon­flower because of the unusu­al­ly warm temps and the hang­ing cor­nices threat­en­ing from above. We made it to the base of Bacon and Eggs in a quick 2 hours of walk­ing. Bacon and Eggs is a strik­ing ice fea­ture soar­ing up around 1,500 feet and being incred­i­bly sus­tained with many WI4 sec­tions, a WI5 crux and no pitch­es eas­i­er than WI3 — and no stances because of the steep­ness! We climbed up 4 calf-burn­ing pitch­es to the crux, an amaz­ing 3‑foot-wide stretch of dead ver­ti­cal with the top budg­ing to slight­ly past ver­ti­cal ice. You can see the crux from below and Peter com­ment­ed that looks real­ly steep — maybe even budg­ing to slight­ly over­hang­ing,” my response is I don’t think it looks that steep.” But I was wrong. It was incred­i­bly steep and sus­tained with cool occa­sion­al semi-rests on rock in a wild setting!

Peter swing­ing tools. Ian Nichol­son photo

Peter aced the crux and we kept climb­ing until 12:30pm. Just 1 pitch from the top of the route at 2:30, we turned back. We did­n’t want to be any­where close to this face in direct sun because it was going to fall apart. We rapped down on v‑threads, includ­ing one excit­ing over-hang­ing rap­pel over a crevasse. We returned to camp extreme­ly hap­py. While this route had­n’t end­ed in a sum­mit, we both agreed that this was one of the best, if not the best, ice routes we both had ever done.

Peter on the descent with Kahilt­na Queen in the back­groundd. Ian Nichol­son photo

Tired after anoth­er big day in the moun­tains we took anoth­er rest day. Lis­ten­ing to rocks and ice falling of the sur­round­ing peaks as the temps soared to 55F in base camp — unheard of for this time of year. The next day we bor­rowed some skis from our adopt­ed fam­i­ly in base camp and went on a glac­i­er tour down the main body of the Kahilt­na Glac­i­er. Our goal was to climb Piz­za Point but a mine­field of crevass­es pro­tect­ed its base so we just hung out on the glac­i­er enjoy­ing views of peaks some 40 miles down the glac­i­er and tried to absorb the scale of the place.

An amaz­ing jour­ney that can’t but help bring to mind Tal­keet­na Air Taxi slo­gan: Fly an hour or walk a week.” We skied back to camp soak­ing up our sur­round­ings, now hear­ing mas­sive avalanch­es and rock fall around every 20 – 30 min­utes. The next day we packed up camp and flew out. Once back in Tal­keet­na, we went to the Road­house, where I could still only eat half of a Stan­dard Nick­’s, no mat­ter how hun­gry I was.

Thanks, Peter for the amaz­ing journey!

~ MM Guide Ian Nicholson