Heading back into the Winds today. This time allowing three days instead of just one, so it should be a bit more relaxing….except for the heavier packs. See you next week and have a great weekend!
Click here for Part I of Redemption on Denali’s Cassin Ridge.
A guest trip report from Ty Cook.
Alpenglow on Foraker at 2am.
When the time came, our motivation was bolstered by a sat-phone call to our local weather guru in Jackson, Jim Woodmancy, and Bryan and I went. It seemed like there were more parties on Denali this year attempting the Cassin than in any other year. There had been several successful ascents in prior weeks, but for this weather window we were told we lead the way. I just couldn’t stand to spend anymore time in my tent.
Ty Cook starts up the Cassin Ridge.
We went up to the West Rib cutoff, and then descended the lower West Rib in its entirety. The next day, camped at the base of the Chicken Couloir on the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna, the morning clouds broke in the early day sun and we absorbed the enormity of our route, and started to get really f**cking stoked!
Ty leads on technical terrain on the Cassin Ridge.
Considering that one of the main reasons I climb mountains is to lead on technical terrain with great views, I have to thank my partner for giving me most of the best pitches on the route. The whole first day Bryan gave me the lead until the Cowboy traverse. While I was racking up to tackle the first thousand feet in the Japanese Couloirs, we saw Jeff and Matt descending the Wickwire route, a hanging glacier. It was instantly reassuring to know that another strong, and even more experienced team would be on the route with us. Besides, it’s fun to climb with other teams you respect and click well with.
Byan and Ty on the Upper Cassin Ridge.
We simul-climbed almost all the Japanese Couloir, except for the few short vertical ice sections that a 40+ pound pack at altitude can make a bit pumpy (yeah, we had a few luxuries in our packs, we were going to enjoy this route. Sorry Mr. Twight…). After stretching out the calves on the Cassin Ridge proper, I led up a full pitch of M4-5 mixed terrain to the base of the Cowboy Traverse. The Cowboy, a knife-edge snow arête with massive exposure, was a ton of fun, especially because I wasn’t leading it. I would rather solo a sketchy snow arete than have to constantly be looking where I have to jump on the opposite side of the ridge that a leader may get slid off of. A thousand feet of climbing brought us to the first flat patch of terrain in over 2,000 feet, and we pitched the tent around midnight in 35mph winds and blowing snow.
Day 2 on the route, Jeff and Matt caught up to us at the camp atop the Cowboy Traverse. They had spent the night on the Cassin ledge and used adjectives such as “classic” to describe the camp. We followed them at a leisurely pace up a mere thousand feet to the “Schrund” camp at the base of the first rock band. For the rest of the route we would follow them closely, and I am not ashamed to admit I was grateful for someone else to break trail. I would get a smirk on my face when I heard the scraping of crampons on rock and the occasional “ROCK!” and “ICE!” from near above indicating an experienced and safety-conscious team ahead, very comforting.
Bryan led off brilliantly through the first rock band on day 3. He stopped to bring me up just after the point where I started to get bitchy about needing a rest. Safely sucking down a GU and some water while simul-climbing like this can lead to some interesting multi-tasking. I took over the lead for the last bit of the first rock band, and up to the last pitch of the second rock band. I can remember very few times having as much fun as I did on mixed ground as I did on this day. The crux rock section, a 5.8 dihedral with a slabby exit, went free after a lot grunting and my usual responses to Bryan’s questions during tense climbing, “I’m busy here!” Over the top, I built a well-deserved anchor and gave Bryan the sharp end for the last bit of mixed ground. The rock had been surprisingly solid, pick friendly, and could be climbed almost entirely with cam s and a few nuts. Having lead for so many hours I didn’t know what to do with myself with the rope being pulled on me from above, and I felt like a floundering squid when I panted up to Bryan. His expression was priceless, saying “That was some of the coolest f**cking climbing I have ever done!” with just a look, and I agreed completely. We had reached the end of the technical difficulties and now we only needed to find our way upward another thousand feet in decreasing visibility to find a camp.
Bryan Feinstein leads off on day 3.
Not like the weather had been great at all during the day, but our marginal visibility deteriorated to a complete whiteout and we lost Jeff and Matt’s tracks. It was snowing at least an inch and hour and we spent a significant amount of time deciding where to go. We ended up gaining a narrow ledge that the Black Diamond I-Tent barely fit on. This ended up being one of the coolest camps I have ever had. We caught the forecast and progress report from our route-mates, who ended up being about 500 feet above us on a cozy ledge around 17,200. That night we caught glimpses of Foraker, the Ruth Gorge, and what looked like the South Buttress. We checked the maps and decided we were good to go. One more day of good weather, and we would have our second summit, a fantastic route under our belts, and be back at 14k camp eating like hogs. It turned out just that way, but only after waking up to several inches of snow on our sleeping bags that had been pushed through a small opening in the tent by 50+ mph winds.
Catalog bivy shot at 17K.
After a delay of two hours, the winds subsided and we slogged our way up the rest of the Cassin under mostly favorable skies, with occasional glimpses and waves to the other two up high. After 80ish hours on route, we topped out, rather breathless on my part, at Kahiltna Horn, the same point that the West Buttress intersects the summit ridge. With a warm sun, light winds, and sparse valley clouds below us, we dropped our packs, hugged, and made our way together to the summit for the second time. To sum it up…it was the shit. Sometimes only expletives can describe something properly because they encompass the whole, broad range of emotions that can be felt at times like these.
Jeff and Matt were long gone, and Bryan took off ahead of me as I lingered back to look at the views I was denied on my first summit earlier in the trip. He waited for me at the 17 camp and together we made our way down the Washburn route, my ass dragging heavily on the last thousand feet of descent having already covered 8,000 feet of mountain this day. Matt and Jeff, being the saints they are, had water boiling and invited us over for dinner and drinks to bask in our mutual success. What a gift to share such an accomplishment with not only a good partner, but another team as well!
The cherry on top of the sundae came two days later. After having a rather interesting ski down from 14k camp to Kahiltna base camp at 7k in 4 ½ hours with a sled in tow and 2 gallons of unused, undumpable fuel, and a morning of packing down the runway with the whole camp, we got to imbibe a keg of Moose’s Tooth IPA. The beer was provided by a photographer taking pictures of us ugly ass, weather-beaten climbers at base camp for a project of his. When we queued up first, the skies cleared, and the plane from TAT landed to take us out, the realization that whole trip could not have been more perfect set in.
With no accidents, a couple minor arguments between Bryan and I, plus a few pieces of dropped gear, the trip went smoothly overall and we succeeded on one of North America’s most classic alpine routes in good style. I calculated loosely that we ascended on foot and ski a total of about 42,000 feet, and managed to ski about 13, 000 of descents, making this our “biggest trip” to date. For a person who hates to “train”, it all paid off in being able to put in the big days it took to make this trip happen. Later, after landing in Talkeetna, we showered for the first time in 33 days and enjoyed a warm, spring evening, while stuffing ourselves with 3,000 calories in one sitting of burgers, beers, and brownies. Oh, the prizes are so much sweeter when they are so well earned.