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 Alaska’s 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