Denali, Cassin Ridge
By: Allan Sanderson | Climbers: Allan Sanderson, Brent Manning, John Steiger |Trip Dates: May 20 - June 6, 2000
Photo: Kim Grandfield
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They say that the third time is a charm. Maybe so, but perhaps the mountain gods just smiled on us. Having tried twice before to climb Denali, I predicted tent bound storm days to my partners who had never experienced climbing in the Alaska Range. I predicted major avalanches. I predicted high winds. I was wrong on most accounts. Of 16 days on the mountain we had zero tent-bound days. Our rest day consisted of a 90 minute venture down to a cache while acclimating on the West Buttress. Our expedition was called "Old and in the Way" since the average age of the group was 45. Although I was the kid on the expedition, I brought the most Alaska experience to the group being that this was my fourth trip to the Alaska range. Everyone else brought well over 20 years of climbing experience.
Day 0: Flew into the Kahiltna Base Camp aka KIA (Kahiltna International Airport) about 8pm. We did the usual things like check in with Anne the Base Camp Manager so we could get our three week supply of white gas (four gallons). We decided that since all of our gear was packed up we might as well do a bit traveling rather than hang out in the confines of camp. Before heading out we buried a cache of food for the return. John and Peter decided to use sleds while Brent and I used drag bags for hauling our gear up the glacier. Although it was mid season we decided to ski roped up since one never knows where a crevasse might show up. After skiing down Heartbreak Hill we started up the Kahiltna Glacier. The skiing was fairly easy and we all seemed to be skiing in sync with each other. There is nothing worse than skiing roped together with three other people, each having a different pace. We skied until about 11pm when the wind picked up. At that point I became chilled and we decided to bivy, although we were very low on the glacier and the temperature was probably only 10F. For me it was a cold night, perhaps my coldest night on the mountain.
Day 1: First full day. A bright and sunny day. The sun felt good after my cold night. I slept with most of my clothes on. Around noon we got started and after an hour reached the confluence of the South Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. At first everyone though that this was the fork we wanted for our attempt on the Cassin Ridge. But then I reminded them that the NE Fork was very narrow and heavily crevassed. After some discussion I convinced everyone that we needed to ski farther up. After another hour or so we reached the confluence of the NE Fork of Kahiltna. Here we buried a cache of food for our attempt on the Cassin Ridge. Our plan was to ascend to the 14,000' camp on the West Buttress and acclimate before dropping down for the climb of the Cassin Ridge. So from here we skied up to around 9600' on the glacier heading towards the West Buttress. It was cold but clear so the skiing was great. Everyone was complaining that the beer they brought was frozen. Their beer (American pee water) was frozen but mine was not (real beer with alcohol). Even better I had a pint to drink while they slurped their little 12oz cans.
Day 2: Another ski day, up to the 11,600' camp. Another day of clear blue skies but with warmer temps. Not much to say about today as it was a work out and the last hour was a real uphill slog. There were probably 30-40 people in this camp and being an established camp we were able to find a good site for both tents.
Day 3: Stormy day. We stayed in the tents until late as it was a bit snowy and windy. Watching my altimeter I saw that the camp elevation was going down which meant a high pressure system was moving in so we got ready to go. Instead of trying to move camp up to 14,000' we decided to ski up to Windy Corner at 13,400' and drop a cache there as it would make life much more reasonable when we did move up to the 14,000' camp. The trip up was cold and windy but the sky was clearing. By the time we got to Windy Corner, the sky was clear and the temp was around 15F but it was windy. Around the corner the wind died down so we buried our cache and skied down. By the time we returned to camp the sky was clear with no wind.
Day 4: Clear and cold. We decided to leave the skis and walk since the winds had compacted the snow enough to make skiing unpleasant. After about 6 hours we reached the 14,000' camp. There were already 75+ people there. I knew that 95% of all climbers who come to Denali climb the West Buttress so I was prepared for the massive tent city that awaited me. We found three unoccupied sites and moved in for the next four nights.
Day 5: Rest Day (??). Got up late as it was cold, damn cold, real cold. -40F below. But once the sun came up it quickly warmed up to about 15-20F. Finally about 1pm we walked down to our cache at Windy Corner. It was a quick 20-minute walk down, 25 minutes to dig up the cache and 45 minutes to walk back. I noticed that the day before it took me about an hour to do the same distance so I knew I was acclimating well. Everybody in the group except me was taking Diamox to help with their acclimatization. Since we were going up slowly and that in the two weeks previous to the trip I had been up over 10,000' several times I decided not to take it. Plus the side affects where not worth it (Diamox is a diuretic and it will make you piss like a race horse).
Day 6: Still cold, damn cold, real cold. A mixed day with winds up high. Peter decided to stay in camp since it was so cold while the rest of us decided to climb up to the head wall on the West Buttress. Just below the fixed lines Brent decided to turn back with a case GI distress. The upper head wall had a fixed line which John and I clipped into since it was a bit icy. (While most folks jug this line we just used it for protection). Once we reached the ridge the winds just ripped. At times you could hardly stand up because they were so strong. I walked up the ridge a short ways where I could look down on the upper Peters Glacier some 2000 feet below. I took off my glove and reached into my pocket for a piece of candy. I took the candy and threw it down the slope to Peters Glacier. The candy was not for me but for my friend Mike who was buried down there somewhere. He fell down this slope to his death two years ago while going to the aid of another climber who had fallen. His body was never recovered so I wanted him to know that he was not forgotten. I remained for a while but because of the wind John and I quickly returned down the fixed ropes to camp.
Day 7: Another day hike. Got up this morning and found the bottle of Tequila frozen. Instant margaritas!! They would have to wait as we needed to get a little more exercise. Since we had seen the West Buttress up to ~16,400', it was time to see the West Rib. This was supposed to have been a fun hike up to the West Rib so that we could see the South Face and the Cassin Ridge. But after reaching the balcony camp at ~16,500', the clouds came in and no views could be afforded. Thus we turned around and returned to camp at 14,000'. That day it was Peter's birthday. I promised him that morning when we returned from our hike that I would serve cake and ice cream. Little did he know that I was serious. So when we came back from our little hike out came the cheese cake mix complete with cherry topping. There was the cake. Next was the ice cream. A little corn snow mixed with condensed milk, a little vanilla, and viola ice cream. We sang happy birthday ate cake and ice cream and drank the last of the Tequila.
Day 8: Down we go. With four nights at 14,000' and two hikes to over 16,000' we decided that we were well enough acclimated and that any more time at the 14,000' camp would make us stir crazy. Brent and John already had a case of summit fever and wanted to run up the West Butt. and tag the summit just in case we did not make it on the Cassin. I knew that doing this would be a big mistake, and convinced them this was not the thing to do. Thus it was time to go down. Down to the confluence of the NE and NW Forks of the Kahiltna we went. As we past Windy Corner we started passing group after group after group. They were carrying big packs and dragging even bigger sleds. No one looked like they were having fun. Around 5pm we reach our cache at 8000'. We quickly sorted gear and food. We were going from a team of four to a team of three as Peter decided it was too cold for him. Being a team of three would mean less hardware but not much else. Around 8pm we started into the NE Fork AKA The "Valley of Death". However, everything was calm. No avalanches and so far no major crevasses. We had a bit of trail to follow going in so the route in was not too bad. Finally around midnight we reached "Safe Camp" and bivied. There I surprised Brent and John by giving them a beer to drink.
Day 9: Up we go. Another crystal clear day. This could be good or it could be bad. If it stayed cold we would be okay but if it warmed up things would be moving and staking (e.g. avalanches). Just before the icefall we passed two groups going into the West Rib. They were planning on doing carries later in the day. Later in the day we thought, it was already noon and warming up, not very smart in our book. The first part of the icefall was fairly casual a few big crevasses to jump over but nothing major. The second half was exciting as we passed under and around several seracs that looked very unstable. Finally around 3pm we exited the fall and were in the upper NE fork. Now all we had to do was punch a trail up to the base of the climb at around 11,500'. Around 7pm we finally reached the bergshrund below the infamous Japanese Couloir. Here we decided to lighten our packs so we ate big and buried a small cache just in we came back - which none of us planned to do.
Day 10: Japanese Couloir. My lead. The initial part of the couloir was mixed ice and neve. It was not hard to climb. After about 1000' of simul-climbing I ran out of ice screws and started moving over to the rock to belay. The last part was the most difficult physically because it was 60 degree hard ice. My calves screamed for relief. John and Brent came up and John took over. Slowly he made his way through the short rock pitch before continuing up the couloir to the top of it. By the time I stared moving again I was cold. The climbing was never hard, just fatiguing with a pack on. My boots were a bit loose so it added to the strain on my calves. Once I reached John and Brent again I was hot. But it was a quick 100-foot traverse over to the tiny Cassin Ledge, at 13,400'. Home for the night. Every one said that it would be difficult to put two tents on the ledge but we managed to put two Biblers on the ledge with out any problems. That evening I stayed out and cooked dinner and melted water so that John could get into his tent. We decided to take two tents with us; Brent and I in one and John in the other. Since John was solo he ended up doing most of the cooking.
Day 11: The Cowboy Traverse. This was to be John's day to lead as I knew the exposure would be terrific. John did a couple of pitches of mixed snow and rock before belaying at the beginning of the traverse. The Cowboy Traverse we agreed was the most exciting, terrifying, and amazing part of the climb. One foot on one side and one on the other of a 50 degree arette that dropped off very steeply on both sides. Half way up the first part John triggered a huge slab avalanche on one side - there went my foot holds. Finally the angle kicked back and John belayed us up. We chopped out a bucket belay as any protection was garbage. John started off again. Fortunately, the angle of the ridge is such that we could now climb on one side and traverse upwards along the crest. Since there is no protection, in the back of everyone's mind is the fact that if someone falls the others have to jump over the other side. Fortunately, no one fell or slipped. Finally the traverse kicks back and it is easier climbing to where we reached a great flat spot at 14,000' to bviy.
Day 12: Bergschrund - First Rock Band. My day to lead. The bergshrund usually causes lots of discomfort. In the past you had to traverse to the end of it, rappel off onto an exposed shelf and go around. No longer, as there is now a split in shrund that has filled in as ramp. In less than 20 minutes I was up and over the shrund with the only difficulty being a boulder move over the top that did not even require taking off my pack. After that Brent took off breaking trail through the hanging glacier. Just below the First Rock Band he stopped. Not liking the spot because of avalanche danger I started off looking for a safe belay spot. Brent asked me if I wanted all of the gear, I said "No" since I was just going up to look for a belay spot. A few hours later and several hundred feet up in to the rock band I stopped and found a belay spot. I stopped mostly because I ran out of gear and the rope drag was terrible. John came up and led another pitch before I took over again, leading the rest of the rock band. During the last part of the lead the weather start to deteriorate but I was just loving it. Excellent rock and ice climbing over moderate terrain, high on the mountain. Even the squeeze chimney was fun. After that I gave Brent the lead to break trail up the to base of the second rock band where we bivied for the night. Our bivy that night was short as we spent several hours chopping out two platforms for the tents. Several groups who climbed the route after us commented on the quality of work. Glad some one enjoyed them as I was too tired to!!.
Day 13: Second Rock Band. The day started with clouds and a few snow flakes. We packed up and started off for the second rock band. Brent started us off; when he decided the terrain was getting too technical he stopped to belay. (We each had our specialty, Brent was our slog dog, as he has great stamina for breaking trail whereas John was good for rock and leading through the exposed sections, and I was the mixed master). I quickly took over and led to the hidden couloir. Given that I had so much fun the day before I decided to let John lead the couloir. I think it was more than he was expecting but he got up through the worst of it before I came up and finished the last little section. At the top of the couloir I found an old haul bag from an expedition during the 70's. John led off again. This was the only section where we did not find any old pitons or fixed line. It took John a while to lead this section much to the dismay of Brent and me as we were both getting very cold. There was some hard climbing but there always seemed to be a good hold nearby. After I reached John at the belay I decided that I should go look for a place to camp for the night. About 150 feet away by a large rock out cropping was a nice sheltered spot. We were now at 16,700' and had the most difficult parts of the climb out of the way. Now all we needed was some good weather.
Day 14: Summit day??. The day started out cold and clear but it warmed up. After leaving our bivy spot we traversed out on to the south face. Brent was moving slowly with perhaps a bit of AMS so John played slog dog. After reaching around 17,400' we regained the ridge proper. We discussed going to the summit that day since it was so beautiful but because Brent was not feeling well we agreed to see how he felt when we reached the 18,100' camp. As we made our way up the ridge we finally decided to unrope. This is one of those times when it is safer to go unroped since if one fell more than likely all would fall if we were roped together. John and Brent traversed out on to what I thought was an exposed snow slope. Instead of following them, I continued up the ridge proper on mixed terrain. After a while I lost sight of them since I was on the other side of the crest of a ridge. The terrain started to ease and I made good progress up to around 18,100' where I found the remains of the Korean camp from 1992. They had to abandon their gear when they were rescued. I found ropes and other misc. gear. About this time John and Brent popped up from the other side. We ate lunch and enjoyed the views. We continued up the moderate slope and into the third rock band. Since Brent was still not feeling well we decided to cut off ridge towards the Football Field at 19,00'. Slowly we worked our way up the snow slope until it got steeper. I decided to face in and climb while John and Brent took a different route up. I felt safer facing in on the 50+ degree slope since a fall would be fatal. Slowly we made our way up to where a side couloir exited to the right. Somewhere in the back of my mind I did not think this would get us to football field especially when I looked at my altimeter and saw that it read well over 19,000'. We continued up through the rock band where I had to stop to put on more clothes. Out came the pile pants and my down jacket. I was not truly cold but getting chilled, and the extra layer made me feel a lot better. Farther up I got Brent to put on his jacket, which made him feel better. A few minutes later I walked over to edge of the ridge and looked over --- there was the summit. We were doing the direct finish, which is what I had thought. Finally around 7:30PM we joined the main summit ridge at 20,000'. 320 feet to go. We did not rush up to the summit. Instead, we brewed up and I tried to call a few friends on my cell phone. About 30 minutes latter we strolled over to the summit. The weather was still clear and we could see in every direction - the mountains gods had smiled on us. But getting up is only half the climb; getting back is the other half. Brent and John took off down the West Buttress to Denali Pass while I took my time. I was enjoying myself but I was also tired. I was worried about the traverse down from Denali Pass. Many people have fallen from the pass, and I did not want my name added to the list. Finally around 11:30PM I reached the 17,200' camp on the West Buttress and found John and Brent already brewing up and fixing dinner.
Day 15: Going Down. After a lazy morning at 17,200' we started down. I was curious to see what the ridge along the West Buttress was like now that there was good weather. (This was now our fourth day of clear weather and our ninth of good climbing weather, which rarely happens). The ridge is probably the best part for those climbing the West Buttress. As I went past Washburn's Thumb I found myself alone both in person and sprit. I paused and found another piece of candy for my friend Mike. I threw it hard and watched it tumble down towards the Peter's glacier to Mike. Sleep peacefully my friend. I continued on down the ridge to the fixed lines and descended to the 14,000' camp and our cache of food, which I got into and promptly ate a four days worth of beef jerky. I wanted meat I was protein starved. After talking with the rangers and others who congratulated us on the first ascent of the year we packed up the remaining food and fuel. In most years you can give food and fuel away because people run out. However, with such great weather everybody was leaving early thus there was lots of extra food and fuel to be had. This meant a lot of it was being carried down the mountain. Rather than carry the fuel I decided to secretly fill a few other climbers cans and bottles for them while they were gone. I wish I could have seen the look on their face when returned to find all of their fuel bottles full!!. By the time they did we were long gone. Coming down Windy Corner was a treat. We were basically the only people on the route. This was a huge contrast from when we dropped down previously. We continued to the 11,200' camp, where I ran into a climbing ranger Roger Robinson whom I knew from my days at Oregon State University. We chatted for a while before I headed down again. At about 8,500' I ran into some friends from Salt Lake City so I stopped and chatted with them. Finally after all of my social calls I was back to the confluence at 8,000' where we camped for the night and picked up our last cache.
Day 16: Going out. At this point we had our skis back so we quickly skied down the glacier to the airstrip where we waited for a flight out. For the first time in over two weeks I took off my polar fleece suit. I sat it down in the snow and it promptly walked off. Hmmm I think I stink. After digging up our cache we decided that chili sounded good so we opened a couple of cans and ate lunch. Mmmm, nothing like cold chili after a couple of hard weeks on the hill. After an hour or so a plane came in so Brent went out with two other climbers. Then another flight came in on a scenic tour. I told John he should go since he had never seen much of the Alaska Range. Unfortunately, though, the scenic flight was on its way home and not around the mountain so John did not get much of scenic flight. Finally after another 90 minutes the pilot returned on another scenic flight. The pilot said he could take one person but no gear. I said that was fine with me. He then asked me if I minded if we flew around a bit before heading back to Talkeetna. I knew it meant only one thing - a flight around the mountain!! What a way to end the trip. We flew up the Kahiltna where I got great views of the Cassin ridge. Over Kahiltna Notch to see the Wickersham wall. The Muldrow and Harper glaciers. The Trelika Galcier and the East Buttress that was so deadly in years past. Over to the Ruth Glacier and Mt. Huntington and finally out the Great Gorge to Talkeetna where John and Brent met me with a beer.