Big thanks to Ty Cook and Bryan Feinstein for giving us this mid-summer stoke from a trip to Denali in May-June 2008. Though the ski conditions deteriorated during their stay, they managed to haul their way up the Cassin Ridge, a fine alpine objective.
Moon over Mount Hunter
The morning of May 16th I was laying low at the TAT (Talkeetna Air Taxi) bunkhouse, trying to shake off the prior night’s visits to the West Rib and the Fairview. Since our arrival in Talkeetna on the 15th, the weather had been marginal at best. At 8:00am, we had been told by the folks at TAT that we would be on the 3rd wave to get flown out, if anyone got out at all. So my partner Bryan Feinstein and myself were a little surprised when a worker came in and told us we had ten minutes to get on the plane. That’s how it goes trying to get into mountains via ski plane. Wait, wait, wait some more, make sure you’re in the “ready suit”, then go into warp drive when the weather breaks while hoping not to forget some critical piece of gear during the process. These pilots fly by visual flight rules only, so there is no way of knowing when the flight path into the Alaska Range is clear until some pilot actually goes out and reports back.
We scrambled madly and were airborne before we had a chance to catch our breath. Through second shot, past the West Ridge of Hunter and on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier before my hangover had even considered giving me a break. With most of the day still ahead of us, we collected our fuel at the Kahiltna International Airstrip, a unique, seasonal manifestation in the Alaska Range. We packaged our roughly 150 lbs of gear each into our packs and sleds and struck out on the Kahiltna Highway for our date with Denali.
Author Ty Cook trys to make sense of all the gear.
We made it to the base of Ski Hill in good time even with some trail breaking on the usually well-packed track leading to Denali’s West Buttress route. Looking up the Northeast Fork from camp, we could see the upper half of the prize we sought; the Cassin Ridge, splitting the South face of “the Great One”. The next day was one of the days of questioning why the f**ck one engages in such a painful activity such as big mountain alpine climbing.
Bryan convinced me we should do a single carry up to the 11,000 foot camp to save a day and get off the lower glacier. It ended up being a good decision, but it didn’t seem that way while I spit, swore, pulled, and kicked my sled up 3,000 feet of moderate terrain. The slope was just steep enough to make me want to puke from the continuous effort. Bryan displayed his much calmer demeanor while slogging than I when we rounded a long corner. The camber kept rolling my sled over repeatedly in thigh deep snow. This was accompanied by some sailor type verbal outbursts from my mouth. Kyle and John, another team headed for the Cassin and with whom we shared Jackson, Wyoming as a place of residence at one time or another passed us at this point. They offered some much needed encouragement and promises of whiskey when the day’s task was done. We had over 5 weeks worth of supplies in our packs and sleds. They had many days less of supplies, and thus had more manageable sleds that I envied greatly. When planning the trip we made it a point to not cheat ourselves on time and to take acclimatization slow, hoping to avoid a repeat of Bryan’s unfortunate prior HAPE experience on the mountain. We had both been here before and had failed to summit, and thus our team name, Redemption.
Bryan Feinstein packs a heavy load in preparation for “The Great One”.
After a rest day, we spent the next two days making carries from 11K to the 14,000 camp before we finally moved up to our home for the next couple of weeks. The carries were fun days and we both seemed to be acclimatizing well. There was some decent snow that we skied between the two camps, as well as the longest side-slip I have ever done on an icy headwall above Motorcycle Hill. Overall, we skied about 7,000 feet and enjoyed some great boot top powder. At 11K, we met some guys who worked for Dynafit in Europe, but who were unfortunately skiing on Silvrettas due to a boot mix-up. The final heaviest move to 14K camp was a suffer-fest for me, versus Bryan (a rare creature entirely composed of lung and legs), so we unroped and went at our own pace. We would do this quite a bit on this trip because of our different slogging paces, the high level of comfort that we both had with our judgment while soloing, and the good trail conditions on the West Buttress.
At 14K camp the big talk on the mountain was regarding the two Japanese climbers who were missing and overdue on the Cassin Ridge. It would turn out later that these two talented individuals whose exact fate still remains undetermined had been camped next to my group last season in the Ruth Gorge. I remember them as friendly, humble, and absolutely bad-ass. The rangers believe that they actually did a traverse of the Kahiltna peaks before reaching the 17K level on the Cassin where their tracks ended. The other group in their expedition climbed the Isis Face and Czech Direct routes back to back. The microcosm of alpine climbing seems like a small world sometimes. These losses to the community are felt by all of us on many different levels, especially when someone can make such a positive impression in just a brief encounter.
Skiing from 14K to 11K.
We settled into a deeply fortified and freshly abandoned tent sight that a large Korean group had recently abandoned, and made our presence and intentions known to the great ranger staff. Mostly volunteers, the rangers attempt to keep safe the thousands of climbers who attempt North America’s highest peak every year. Over the next week we made numerous forays up the Washburn route, A.K.A. West Buttress, and the West Rib that gained us several thousand feet of skiing in pretty good snow. Unfortunately several days later, 120mph winds stripped the mountain down to its intimidating underarmour of blue ice. Bryan had really hoped for a ski descent of the Messner Coulior from the summit as part of our overall plans. I was more focused on the Cassin and only willing to ski such things that he is willing to go down first on. The mountain had been fairly ski-friendly up until this point, but would be sketchy to marginal at best for the rest of the trip as we experienced no significant snowfall for the second half of our stay on the mountain.
Skiing below the Orient Express
I had a couple of days where I bonked above 16,000 feet, culminating with my pitiful attempt to follow Bryan up the Upper West Rib and ski the Orient Express. From our high point, Bryan clicked in and took a few turns on super questionable snow in limited visibility and pulled the plug. I think in part because of his concern over my state of being and my lesser ski abilities. I’m fairly solid, but with skiing, he has the experience I always defer to. This is an aspect of partnerships that I think would keep more people out of trouble if they took it more seriously. Some doubts existed in our minds as to whether or not I could cut it on the Cassin. I almost threw the towel in and it was one of several points in the trip when Bryan showed patience and understanding beyond his years, almost ten separating us in age with me being the winner. Bryan can slog all day, while I detest it, and seem to improve in speed the steeper things get. This was one of the realities that eventually made me decide to stay in the game. That and giving up easily has no place in the psyche of an alpine climber.
To feel out our dynamics a little more, and to just be able to say we got up the damn thing before we bailed, we decided to make a summit on the West Buttress. We single carried to 17,200 and we soloed from high camp to keep our own respective paces. I started to get a headache above 18,000 feet and by the time I got to the headwall leading up to the summit ridge, I was stopping every 15-20 steps to pant like a beat mule. Bryan had summited well over an hour ahead of me and had waited as long as he could for me. We passed on the summit ridge, an airy walk in almost zero visibility, and I encouraged him to not wait for me as his lips had turned a lovely shape of hypoxia blue. It meant a lot hat he had waited that long. Partners sometimes do dumb things for each other, but that only makes the bonds stronger. I summited along with a group of Iberian climbers that were leading the 1st Ecuadorian woman to summit Denali.
I had with me the ashes of a dear friend of mine who had said that climbing Denali would be a pinnacle of his in climbing. Even if I failed my own purpose for being on this mountain, I would succeed and climb Denali for Scott because an avalanche had decided he never would. On this summit day on Denali, my second attempt, I became overcome with emotion when I said my final goodbye after seeing the other memorials that had been deposited on the summit to honor those close to us who have moved on from this life. It is one of the only times in my life that I felt someone else was with me in spirit alone. If I ever lack a reason to go up high, the thought of being closer to those who now only live in the wind of memory will be my inspiration.
Success. It feels damn good even if you almost tossed your cookies achieving it…sometimes even better. The Cassin it would be. Now all we needed was a little understanding from the weather gods. Jeff, another Jacksonite and Exum guide, along with his German partner Mathais (Matt, another body composed entirely of lungs, legs, and a PhD to boot), had joined the 14k camp party in order to climb the Cassin. Having only just met these two gents through Kyle and John, we all became quickly acquainted and friendly over some shared dinners and chess. We all daily looked up at the sky and asked each other the same question, is it time, or not?