Alaska Expedition 2011: Kahiltna

I was perplexed for a moment. Graham was below at a hanging belay and I had lead until he had no more rope to give me. For several minutes I dug down to the wall through sugar snow looking for some feature to attach an anchor to. After several minutes of digging, I reached rock.  But when I cleared away the snow, I found a steep sheet of granite with no cracks. The headlamp light faded down the fluted snow searching for alternatives. After the mixed section of my pitch I had sprinted this first unprotected snowfield, hoping for a solid anchor. To follow this pitch Graham would have to pendulum 40ft to get on line. We needed an anchor. I resumed digging. Over 10 cubic meters of snow had been removed with my ice tools before I found a flake. Not knowing if it was attached to the wall and four marginal pieces placed, I backed up the "C+" anchor by digging my heals into a stance. I held both lines with my hands. Graham was on belay.These memorable moments of last year's trip have come to mind over the past twelve months. But these are not the reasons Graham and I are compelled to go back. They are bi-products of the stress, concentration, good and bad fortune that comes with navigating long, complex alpine terrain. Our motivation instead comes from the inspiring stories of other climbers on these steep faces. Like them, we hope to add something innovative to the history of alpinism.  Contribute our memories to the narrative. Each year, we chose a new mountain feature, a new imaginary line, and test our ability to actualize that vision. To create moments.

The Alaska Range is magnetic, compelling and formidable. After several decades of climbing history there remains much to be explored, many lines to be drawn. Each peak has unique characteristics that give it distinct allure and personality.    When conditions, ambition and abilities align over the next 4 weeks, the stories will begin to take shape. We are stoked to go back. ~Mark

The Kahiltna is home to some of North America's largest alpine faces belonging to Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, Denali, among others. Mark and Graham, the Pirates of Rad, are looking to forward to getting after it again. Follow their trails here on VertiCulture and more detailed information on Markallenalpine.com.

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Dispatch 1: Pirates of Rad HQ, Kahiltna Glacier, 5/13 Our one week update on our expedition 2011 on the Kahiltna Glacier...when we first got here we dug in our camp at the Kahiltna landing strip and immediately set out on a six day trip to the rarely or never visited West Fork of the Lacuna Glacier. This entailed over twenty miles of glacier travel and it took us four days to recon the route out from the base of the peak which we intended to climb. We put ourselves below the unclimbed South face of an unnamed numbered peak on the Lacuna Glacier system and made it up 2,500 feet of a new route. We were turned around due to bad snow conditions and an impending storm. We ended up descending after one and a half days on route...returning to our camp. We used the remaining time for the 20 mile of glacier travel back to base camp. It was...an odyssey into extremely remote Alaska Range terrain into a zone that neither of us had ever seen with the naked eye and possibly hadn't been visited by a human being. So it was a pretty wild adventure.

Everything is going well, right now we're focusing on acclimatization. We're going to spend the next four days climbing the West ridge of Mt. Hunter, with the intent of climbing most of the route tomorrow, and bivying as high as we can to spend as much time as can above 10,000ft to start acclimatizing for bigger objects. 

Dispatch 2: Mt Hunter, West Ridge, 5/18On the morning of the 12th Mark and I left Kahiltna Base Camp for the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter. This route is a super aesthetic feature that gains about 8,000 feet of elevation in 3 miles. It is an absolute classic of the Range and is included in the revered Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Without a doubt, it lives up to its reputation. The night of the 12th found us halfway up the route just above the crux, a mixed section. We had climbed up miles of beautiful corniced ridge through a series of steep rock towers. We were joined at the bivy by our buddies and local Alaskans, Clint and Boon. We spent the evening hootin’ and holerin’ between our tents and to Kahiltna Base camp over the radio.

The next morning saw us moving on to the ice face, four pitches of traversing steep ice on the side of the knife edge ridge. Above this, we rallied up the broadening ridge to the summit plateau where we found the one of the most spectacular bivys either one of us had ever experienced. A wave of ice and snow inside a crevasse allowed us to escape the developing winds and spin drift while watching the purples and pinks of alpenglow wash over Mt. Foraker. The next morning it was obvious that our weather window was coming to an end so we ran to the summit, avoiding the summit ridge cornice via a natural Chutes-and-Ladders tube. On the summit, we were graced with gorgeous views of the AK range around us including Denali, Foraker, Huntington and peaks of the Ruth, where we spent time last season. We then proceeded to race back down to the Ramen Couloir just below the ice face and down-climbed that feature. As we reached the glacier, we were encompassed in pea soup. With zero visibility we attempted to navigate our way around the heinous ice fall that we knew was somewhere out there in the fog in front of us. But after a few hours of fruitless wandering we bivyed once more and finished our food. The next morning dawned clear and we found our way to the other side of the ice fall and by the afternoon we were back in the comforts of base camp.

Now a storm is bearing down on the Range and we are resting -perfect timing. The West Ridge allowed us to gain a period of acclimatization and knowledge of the conditions up high in the mountains. When our bodies are ready and the weather is clear, we will begin to attack the steeper terrain this range has to offer and we’re psyched about it. Best wishes to everyone at home. We will check in again soon.

Dispatch 3: First Ascent of Peak 12,214 and three routes opened After 4 rest days and a several feet of new snow, our focus and thoughts of climbing the North Buttress of Hunter via the Moon Flower had been derailed. Rather we used the days the mountains needed to shed, to return to the Lacuna project. With high pressure predicted we hoped this would be perfect timing for an ascent and it was.

We returned to the NW fork of the Lacuna glacier after confirming with the park that our trips there were the first visits to the area. Two days of glacier travel and retracing our tracks put us back at our previous Advanced Base Camp, below the south face of the unclimbed Peak 12,214.

Returning to the peak a second time and having a previous attempt (see post one) gave us integral knowledge of the south face and a quicker route down with a previously installed descent. This encouraged us to change strategies and take a much more aggressive approach by not taking any bivi equipment and committing to a single push. Our sights became set on a central buttress right of center, this being the most technical direct line on the south face not threatened by seracs capping the left flank of the mountain. The 2500ft granite buttress climbs several hundred feet of dihedrals and flakes finally narrowing to a thin exposed technical ridge and transitioning into a 1000ft couloir. The couloir ends on the summit ridge with 1000ft corniced knife ridge climbing to the summit cap.

On May 23rd at 8:30pm we left our tent and skis at 7500ft on the NW fork of the Lacuna for the summit of unclimbed peak 12,214. The climbing on the lower buttress was several pitches of excellent steep mixed climbing with M6 cruxes on good rock but faceted snow. The ridge narrowed to a technical gendarme laden and rather narrow ridge with unstable and precariously balanced snow mushrooms. The exposure, position and good rock provided some epic climbing. It took us 12 hours to reach the couloir and finish the main buttress cruxes. Unforecasted clouds began to build and covered up the sun not allowing us to rest and dry out during a brew up as planned and instead we had to push on. We reached the summit ridge and then caught a glimpse of the dark grey clouds on Foraker next door and began to descend. We connected with our high point from the first attempt and began a familiar descent down the SE buttress (the first attempt route). 26hours round trip.

After waking in the tent, Graham and I calculated the remaining food and decide to go for one last attempt. Due to remaining energy, time, and resources we focused on the most direct line via a central couloir that trails into the upper snow headwall climbing nearly a plum line to the summit; the most obvious weakness. We had to commit to using our “return” food for the ascent (still only a couple of bars) leaving only 4 oatmeal packets for the 25km ski back to Kahiltna Base Camp. We nervously rested in perfect weather and watched the first hot day start the spring shed cycle, making massive avalanches come off the peak. We rested and got stoked to fire.

On May 26th at 10:30pm we headed up the Central Couloir. We found perfect neve and ice and blasted the face averaging 20-25ft/min and 1200ft/hr We reached the old high point on the summit ridge in less than 5 hours and summited in 3 simul-climbing pitches; 5hrs:45min at 4:15am opening the new line To the Center (4500ft AK4 AI2, Cornices). The descent was a long and blue collar involving technical down climbing and rappelling on the SE ridge to the SE buttress decent. We arrived at the old bivi on the SE Buttress and waited 4 hours for the snow to cool and descended back to our camp arriving at 7:15pm totaling 20:15 hours return.

This ascent felt good and validated all of our previous attempts and incomplete lines with a summit line that connected our two previous high points. This established three lines now that can be climbed to the summit.

We coined the peak Voyager Peak. Named after the satellite that launched in 1977 by NASA which is pushing further and further into outer space sending back information about deep space and carrying a payload of information about earth in case anyone else picks it up. This reflects the fact that while in the NW fork of the Lacuna we felt as though we might as well be on the moon. 

 May 9, 2011: Southeast Buttress/Ridge “Lunar Spur” 2500ft AK4 M5, AI 2, Cornices (green)

May 23, 2011: South Face Central Buttress “Nebula Arête” 3500ft AK 5, M6, AI2, A1, Cornices (blue) May 26, 2011: South Face Central Couloir “To the Center” 4500ft AK 4, AI2, Cornices (red)

We pushed the 25km ski back to Kahiltna Base Camp in 13 hours running on fumes and returned to congrats and smiles from the park staff and friends keeping tabs on our project. This was the most adventurous Alaskan odyssey that either of us had been on. Our persistence to succeed rewarded us with a beautiful summit of a remote unclimbed peak in Alaska’s great range. We thank everyone for the support and we hope you will join us next year for our nomadic wanderings in to the vertical world we are choosing to roam.

Cheers, Mark and Graham