Denali, Cassin Ridge

By: Jim Beall | Climbers: Jim Beall, Will Silva, David Coombs |Trip Dates: July 1 - Aug 3, 1981

Photo: Kim Grandfield

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From the American Alpine Club News, September 1981, sent to me by a friend, wondering how our trip went:

"The crowdedness that has affected and to some degree polluted McKinley's West Buttress route seems now to have taken hold on the Cassin Ridge. We were some of the early pilgrims there in the last week of April finding at the base of the climb a party of four Swiss plus John Roskelly and Jeff Duenwald camped together below the Japanese couloir. We seemed more likely to find the freedom of the hills on the empty West Rib which Jon Waterman and I climbed in seven days despite two heavy storms."

But coming down from the mountain, we personally bumped into six parties on their way into the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna to do the Cassin and we were reliably informed that there were at least five earlier parties higher up on the glacier or low on the route. So that in this early week in May, there were as many groups as attempted the Cassin in all of 1980.

It is hard to explain this explosive growth in the popularity of what is, given the character of McKinley, a tough climb - made even more so, of course, by the current fashion for alpine style climbing. But three observations are in order. There aren't campsites enough on the mountain to take this traffic. Secondly, climbers bound for the Cassin Ridge should have an alternative plan in the event that the congestion is too bad. Third, the popularity of this classic will inevitably attract more climbers who aren't qualified for its rigors. (See for example, the four Pennsylvanians in Robert Kandiko's harrowing story, "Rescue on Denali," in the 1981 American Alpine Journal.) Inexperienced mountaineers on such a route naturally create problems for climbers, rescuers and park officials.

Therefore, the next time you think "The Cassin Anyone?" - think carefully and remember, too, McKinley's voluminous contributions to the heft and weight of Accidents in North American Mountaineering (Seven sad stories in 1980 alone). Messner, Scott and Habeler have borne witness to McKinley's seriousness - heavy traffic on the Cassin only makes it doubly so."

- John Thackray

In 1981, we were worried about the crowds, the stories of gullies filled with old fixed ropes and wondered about the trade-offs of doing "trade routes" versus exploring, but jobs and school pushed us into travelling in July when the weather pushed most parties off the mountain. What follows is a 20-year-old (ouch!) recollection, quoting heavily from my trip journal. Our lessons ranged from the advice of Brad Washburn - "always make your approach in bad weather" to the humbling "good judgement is the result of experience which is often the result of bad judgement."

Winter 1980-81; The expedition is conceived on yet another long drive to New Hampshire to climb ice in the rain and later planned on the backs of envelopes (sheesh, no email!) in Will Silva's Cambridge apartment over tea or beer. I met Will's Harvard friend Dave Coombs in Cambridge one night for the first team meeting and final dividing of chores and equipment responsibilities. Jim & Will-one week each of 'high altitude food,' Dave-2 weeks of 'low altitude food' to be used when we were acclimatizing low on the West Buttress. Dave (at the time working for Boston Whaler) somehow scammed a tent from Whaler's daughter-company, Sierra Designs. A beauty-a three-season, three-person Airflex backpacking tent-but, it was free, in better shape than my Frostline and came with some swell Boston Whaler tee-shirts. Skis (3-pin, ankle-high boots, light waxable touring gear; all we owned) for main glacier travel, and snowshoes (solid beartrap jobs, lashed with veins or sinews or something), MSR XGK stove with a Svea for simmering. Will and Dave had leather double boots; I, the radical, had a shiny pair of white plastic Koflachs.

With trepidation, we filled out the NPS application forms, which only recently had dropped the requirement for the names and numbers of your proposed rescue team. My "major climbs" at the time consisted of a couple of classic Canadian Rockies alpine tours, the Black Dike ice gully on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, the Trench Route on Mt. Logan, and a rare and particularly ill-conceived winter climb of Mt. Ypsilon's Y-Couloir. After this last adventure, we watched Kagamusha to distract our frostbitten partner after arriving home a day late. The requisite amount of suffering, I suppose (the movie).

Dave's job commitments meant we rendez-voused in Alaska July 1. He and his then wife, Toby, had gone to Alaska two weeks before for some tundra backpacking. Our two weeks of 'low altitude' rations sat in the basement of the ranger's house. Sausage aged nicely, developing an impressive gamy character (we ended up pitching it all), cheese grew green tendrils....

7/01/81: We all finally met at the ball field in Talkeetna, sorted gear and started dinner on a picnic table. Around 7 PM that first night Will and I had arrived in Alaska, Cliff Hudson, proprieter of Hudson Air Service and pilot extraordinare, strolled by and said the weather on the Kahiltna was clearing and 2 of us ought to get ready to go. Will and I volunteered and loaded up on the edge of the dirt strip across from the Fairview Hotel, just off Main Street, Talkeetna. (The orange plane, 69-Xray, seemed venerable then; in 1998, Cliff's son Jay flew us in to attempt Foraker's Sultana Ridge, in the same plane!) Forty minutes later, we were on the ground at Kahiltna Base Camp, 6500 feet, AKA, Kahiltna International Airport, ogling the light on Hunter and double-taking at the Alaskan scale. 'Ohhh, wait --- that's Denali's south face, way back there!'

A day or so later, the weather pattern of whiteout and light snow was already established, but Hudson delivered Dave and Toby (who was just joining us for a few days while we acclimatized on the West Buttress Route). We spent the next week shaking out our gear systems and warming up by travelling a couple of days up the West Buttress to drop a food and gas cache at 11,500 feet. We left our skis at the cache and waffled back on snowshoes. We also got a chance to get used to the almost daily, heavy snowstorms and whiteout conditions that would be with us for the entire trip. (1982 AAJ: "Beginning with a severe storm in the last week of June (1981), the bad weather continued almost uninterrupted for over five weeks. Occasional and short breaks in the weather did allow some climbers to complete their climbs, but all who were on the mountain in July were humbled and impressed by the severity of Mt. McKinley's weather." Ya, sure, you betcha we were impressed!)

7/08/81: Schlepped 2 weeks of food, 4 gallons of gas, ropes and hardware about half way up the East Fork to 8100 feet where we stopped due to whiteout and fear of walking into an avalanche path. Rumblings all around us. A large band of crevasses slowed us down for a while but then it smoothed out. Returned to KIA.

7/12/81: After succumbing to basecamp/glacial lassitude for a couple of days, we finally bit the bullet and left KIA with 1 tent and 2 weeks of food. It was hard to leave the scene there-basecamp manager Frances Randall playing her violin out under the blazing sky, card parties at the Army encampment, pineapple upside-down cake at Frances' place. Toby waited in basecamp for a plane out; it took several days to clear the backlog of folks trying to fly out when the weather finally broke. Heading down Heartbreak Hill out of KIA, we passed the "NY9 Expedition" returning from 21 days of trying the West Butt - they were fried and shook my own self confidence. What will we look like in 2 weeks? Around the corner and up the east Fork, we found our cache and camped at 8100' on the north side of the glacier on a small knoll. At sea at last.

7/13/81: Awoke to whiteout and tried to sleep in the hazy heat. Had dinner around 6 PM and walked up into the gloom (light rain/snow) around 9 PM with all the food, gas and hardware. Moved out to mid-glacier then up a long haul to the icefall which was about 1500' and 1 mile below below Kahiltna Notch. There was a good ramp rising steeply to the left of the icefall. We passed 2 pairs of skis and a sled cached at 9800', probably left by a Japanese party that the NPS had told us to look out for and were feared lost in an avalanche on the American Direct Route. At 5 am we dropped the loads at 11200', somewhere near where we thought the Kahiltna Notch ice gully was. Scooted back down in under 2 hours (7 hours going up!) to wallow and dine in the Airflex. We got a weather report from Fran (Frances Randall, paid by the Talkeetna bush pilots to feed them weather info from the glacier, organize flights in and out and dispense from their caches of fuel and sleds. Every night at 7 or 8 pm, Fran would come up on CB channel 19 and check on the various parties on the mountain and give a weather forecast.) - 3+ days more of the Siberian Low - she was surprised to hear that we had carried up. We had debated bringing a radio, but finally decided that more information was good and brought a 5 watt CB. Reception from the Cassin was excellent and contact with 'the world' did lift our spirits even though the news generally revolved around extended bad weather and stranded climbers. Since we were moving almost every day, we didn't include ourselves in that group!

7/14/81: Blazed out of camp for the last time at 10:30 PM in light snow. Our track from yesterday is barely visible. Veering off the track meant postholing up to our knees. Made it up to our cache at 5 am and set up camp below the Kahiltna Notch gully.

7/15/81: Rest and drying day. Proper meals in the proper order - very important to my pathetic metabolism. (Because we often waited late in the day for a break in the clouds and snow for a little sun to dry our non-Goretex bags, we got into an inadvertent pattern of climbing all night and sleeping and drying gear all day.)

7/16/81: Up at 6:22 am! But it was socked in so we wiled and frittered and eventually got moving at 2 PM, grubbed up to the base of the Kahiltna Couloir, dragging a sodden/frozen 300' 9 mm rope which had a near-infinite coefficient of friction. The first pitch of the gully was the most exciting - narrow, kinda bulgy, kinda manky ice with slough avalanches every few minutes pouring down on my head at about 50' out. Motivation enough. Above that it opened up into a 45° bowl for 6-8 pitches. The anchors stank, we argued about the wisdom of being roped together slogging around with big packs, and finally coiled up the rope and plodded on. At the top of the bowl we hit the knife-edge ridge that connects the Kahiltna Peaks to the Cassin Ridge. We walked and humped along the crest till about 11 PM at 12000' where we dropped the loads and had lunch. Tiptoed down to the steep part of the gully where we had left 300 feet of water ski tow rope and rapped down to the East Fork. Dinner at last at 3 am.

7/17/81: Ten days till plane time! It's funny how on long trips, the beginning can take so long that by the time you feel you have actually started, the end seems like it comes rushing up to meet you before you're ready.

Warm day with patches of brief clearing gave some much needed goosedown drying time. The warming triggered lots of slides out of the couloir (and everywhere around us), so we lolled about until 6 PM and packed the second half of our loads up to Kahiltna Notch. At the end of a section of knife-edge ridge, we rapped off of a picket 300 feet down the far side (overlooking the NE Fork) and traversed over to where we could dig a tent platform on a ledge just under the bergschrund, thinking we were just right of and below the Japanese Couloir. After a little 2 AM lunch, we turned around and hoofed back up to the cache at Kahiltna Notch. Serious bonk, saved by a beautiful clearing and startlingly brilliant moonrise over Hunter in the darkest hour. Got back to the tent at 12,400' for dinner at 7 AM. We all felt the effects of three all-nighters in a row, several skipped meals and sleeping head-to-toe like sardines.

7/18/81: Woke up about noon to hydrate and eat aspirin. Slept like babies until a powder slide half buried the tent. Instant motivation; our 10' x 15' ledge was half buried, the tent squashed. The rate of snowfall gave us a new motto - "Dig we must!" We did, and broke through into the lower reaches of the bergschrund and found a fairly flat-floored cave/crevasse into which we moved the whole tent. Now the avalanches could slide right over us. By 9 PM we were resettled and inhaled a breakfast, a lunch and 3 pots of tea. Felt almost normal. Fran reported by CB little movement elsewhere on the mountain as another Siberian low was settling in the area. Around 11 PM a real big powder slide totally erased the former location of our tent.

7/19/81: Back in synch with the sun, we managed to get moving by noon. After a little dithering about, we found we had overshot the Japanese Couloir in the gloom and it was actually back to our right a bit. The snow was good and we could kick steps up the first 4 pitches of the couloir. Two ice pitches followed, then 2 very easy mixed ice/rock gullies. A few fixed pins and a bunch of tatty old rope fragments. Cached a load and rapped back down our 750 feet of rope and water-ski tow line. (The polypropylene water-ski towline worked great, never freezing or kinking, but a few years later when using it to rap the first 2 pitches of the Diamond's D-7 route, I noticed it shedding great quantities of yellow flakes all over my shirt and was forced to retire it to gardening duty.) In and out of clouds, light snow and sloughs.

7/20/81: Inauspicious start today with both stoves faltering. Halfway into cooking breakfast, a big slide broke part of the roof of our cave and swamped the stove. After digging out 3 times during breakfast, we got the message that it was time to find a new home and packed up and followed the ropes back up to the cache. Will dropped his pack and led a 300-foot pitch of steep snow while Dave and I lugged loads. I led the last 200-foot section to the top of the couloir and around to the Cassin Ledge, a 4' x 25' snow ledge at the base of a big granite monolith. The ultimate campsite in the sky. The Airflex fit in the middle, with the outside guy hanging off just a little. The crapper was a 2" angle pin from which you could hang in your harness and, .... Dave and I rapped down to pick up the remaining food and gas and were back for dinner around 1 am. We slept tied in, in case anyone rolled over the wrong way.

7/21/81: A glorious morning. Bare headed, tee-shirt, easy ice climbing, 2 pitches up and right from Cassin's Ledge. Then a crummy rock gully followed by a snow pitch. We dropped our loads there and retreated to Cassin's Ledge for dinner and to get the rest of the food (we had about 10 days worth at this point and 2 gallons of gas). Jugged the line we hung in the rock gully to the cache and then went from ~10 pm till 2 am, mowing down and mushing through deep snow on the crest of a knife-edge ridge. Pretty low energy hours, those around 2 am, belaying. Eventually we started moving continuously, dressed in everything we had brought and still freezing. Got to the flat spot at the base of the hanging glacier at 14,000' around 3 am. The most secure camp on the ridge, a protected dip with nothing big around-nice after seeing the entire South Buttress face slide yesterday. Dave celebrated his new altitude record for sleeping. We were sobered watching the Parks helicopter circling below, searching for the Japanese who had, in fact, disappeared on the Direct South Face.

(Apparently there is now a significant bergschrund to negotiate above this camp to attain the hanging glacier.)

7/22/81: Slept and ate through another wet blizzard.

7/23/81: Waited till afternoon for some sun to dry our gear and left around 3 PM. Alternating bands of thigh-deep snow and blue ice to what we called Potato Rock at the base of the First Rock Band. Got a ledge dug and dinner eaten by 1 am. We built a diversion gully above and around the platform to guide the sloughs away from the poor tent which is suffering from the abuse - one pole is bent, the shock cords froze and had to be amputated so the pieces are all separate (we are very paranoid of dropping one), and the door zipper died, so now we use the window.

7/24/81: Into the rock band! Finally, some relief from trudging! Our plan for the day was that 2 of us would lead up and fix in 300 -foot pitches with lighter packs while the third humped big loads on the previous 300-foot section. A snowed up rock and ice ramp up 300' to some pins. Fifty feet of mixed, crampons and hammer in ice with rock holds on the right followed by a long snow field and then the 'inside corner pitch.' Iced up steep corner for 75' or so. A few more snow covered and mixed pitches (perhaps 5.7 max.), then we started wandering around looking for the "easy ground and campsites" mentioned in Boyd Everett's description. What I found while floundering around in thigh-deep, loose snow over low-angle ice and rock was "the Diving Board," a big rock jutting out from the face, about 2 feet bigger than the tent. Around midnight I shoveled a platform while Will and Dave brought up the last loads. Dinner was aspirin, codeine and soup. Years later I realized that most of the time on this trip, I was dehydrated, starved and not altitude sick as I thought at the time. Also that moldy cheese and dark chocolate are not palatable under duress.

7/25/81: Yesterday's lasagna for breakfast provided the energy to get us up and moving finally around 5 PM. We climbed only for a couple of hours, but at least we were moving up every day, and got to 15,800' at the base of the second rock barrier. Still snowing - our 20th day in the range with snow (the final tally was 30/32). After dinner the upper cloud layer broke up and the tips of Foraker, Hunter and the Kahiltna Peaks came out - the latter two were actually below us, finally!

7/26/81: Totally clear from 13,000' to the heavens! Starting to notice serious lack of air when doing something strenuous like chewing. We now discussed "Up, over and out" for our new motto, looking at a long and winding road down what we've come up versus the West Ridge, which must surely be a trodden cattle path-that's what it looked like from lower down before we got above the cloud deck. The 'hidden rock gully' was pretty neat; good holds covered in snow. Traversed 1000' right and then started 'laying trench' in the bad sense, i.e., with a shovel, the leader pushing away thigh deep, unconsolidated snow enough to kick disintegrating steps up. Camp at 16,800'. Cold, tired, cranky. The tent door was hosed. The stove would not crank. The weather report from KIA included the cheery news that most West Buttress parties were descending due to continuous heavy snow accumulation.

7/27/81: So much for that plane reservation! The marbles in my head were clanging. Traversed over right towards the Big Bertha icefall and then very slowly up to a snowfield. Mostly shoveling 2-3 feet of fluff and kicking steps in what's underneath, back towards the ridge, which we hoped would be more consolidated. Camped at the 'i' in "Ridge" on the Washburn map, 17,800', on a 5 foot ledge we cut into the slope.

7/28/81: Snow accumulation overnight seemed to be about 1" per minute. We eventually got tired of shoveling off the tent and got worried about it's future and decided to dig a cave. I explored a bit above and found that we were above the difficulties and just needed some clear weather to go up.

7/29/81: "Light Dawns Over Marblehead." The cave was great - dry, warm, quiet. In the morning we tried for about an hour to light the stove. MSR striker wouldn't work, Bic's wouldn't flick, emergency wax-sealed matches wouldn't light, hmm, .... Eventually, we tunneled back out the door to get some light to work on the stove and it whooshed into flames with the influx of - surprise - oxygen! "Open the door, the light comes on!" Many lost brain cells later, we had breakfast. A less than optimal start to our supposed summit day. A long slog up and left on low angled (but hard packed!) snow. We thought we could make it to the summit ridge, but bonked at 19,800', cut a ledge in the slope and camped.

7/30/81: Up early, covered in frost, barfing out the door. "Barf twice and die," Rheinhold said. I really hoped not, since I did. Cup-of-Soups for breakfast and we moved up a final snow field and through a band of hoarfrosted rocks lining the ridge top. Packs dumped and parkas on so we're light and warm for the final ridge. Big wind over the ridge crest as we wandered up, each in his own world. In 20 minutes we reached the top which was adorned with pickets, wands and a thermometer which read -5 °F with a 20 mph wind. Foraker popped up out of the clouds, down there. After about 10 minutes on top, we were history, blundering back down the ridge, through Denali Pass and down a long slope to actual FLAT ground at the 17,500' camp on the West Buttress. We found no one; just a few igloo remnants. But we could loll in the warm western sun at 8:30 PM. Kiwi Frank, the new basecamp operator promised a beer at basecamp and gave us an 'improving' forecast.

7/31/81: Woke up to snow and whiteout. I woke up hearing crunching around the tent and thought that another party had appeared, but it was just Will out early, digging us out. We hung out, rehydrating, trying to wait out the whiteout, to no avail, and headed off eventually on a recollected bearing towards the 17,200' igloo-plex. Finally the West Buttress appeared - a skinny ridge dropping off fairly steeply. Passed the 16,000' camp - a mess of wands, and took a sharp left down a big snow slope. Face out plunge kicking. Two feet of new snow with a crust. Found the 14,000' camp deserted, a mess of wands, snow blocks and yellow snow. Ate half of our last freeze-dried dinner for dinner.

8/01/81: Whiteout and snow. Turkey tetrahydrazine leftovers for breakfast. Finding the cache today would be good. Nothing left in the other tent spots to scarf from, so we headed off in the white. At one point Dave walked off the edge of a 50'-wide crevasse which pulled us all over, but turned out to be only a shallow one, so we could regroup and walk across and out. Windy Corner was. 500 feet below, we came across the first people we had seen in 3 weeks, a party of French, camped in large box tents. They gave us tea and frozen ham patties out the door of their tent and off we stumbled. The wands were scarce and we resorted to looking for crampon scratches and pee stains in the ice. At one point we were following Washburn's map by rock features along the wall to our right. Finally, our cache of food and skis appeared on schedule as we navigated by map and compass. Gluttony ruled and we snow caved at the cache - stocked with candy bars, pepperoni, non-moldy cheese, .... The snow cave was a blessing after two weeks in the Airflex, giving us a bit more room to spread out and some relief from the flapping, wet tent walls.

8/03/81: Clear morning. Crash and burn trying to ski with laden packs and our light touring gear. We dropped down Motorcycle Hill (I think it's called) unroped and then roped up at the Kahiltna Pass camp as we descended into whiteout and started following wands. Mostly just the right angle for very slow, steady running, but every once in a while, I'd lose focus and not be able to tell if I was stopped, gliding, or flying. Crash. Unnerving. At one point Will and I agreed to schuss the final slope. No one told Dave and 100 meters into our screaming straight-down descent, we caught Dave at the wide point in a big traversing turn. Wham. Taut rope, full packs, deep snow.... "I would appreciate being notified of all such decisions in the future!" We tried postholing for a while and then switched back to our lame skis until we got to the mouth of the East Fork. Will and Dave volunteered to hike up the East Fork to get our snowshoes while I brewed up a gallon of drinks and soup.

The afternoon was spent mushing through the rapidly melting Kahiltna, threading through deep blue pools of meltwater. Heartbreak Hill was just that. At the base of the hill we heard a plane come in; at 50 yards out, it took off. Ouch. Frank, the Kiwi basecamp watcher, greeted us at 10:30 PM with a couple of 12-packs of Buckhorn Ale and word that Hudson Air would be back in at least one more time that night - hallejulia! Around 11:30 PM we got the call that Hudson Air pilot Ed Hommer was 10 minutes out and we rushed around digging out our cache as Ed popped out of the purple haze down glacier, 2 white lights dropping out of the sky. Ed ruefully admitted that as a relative newcomer, he would have to land at the lighted state airport, instead of the one right downtown. Luckily, Cliff was up on the CB radio and informed us that he'd give us a ride into town and would make sure that Sparky's Grill would stay open to fix us something. On the way in, we hear him checking in with his wife at home on the CB - "KWX-317, Mobile 1 heading for the Fairview Inn, come on over, over."

And off we go in the warm, moist Talkeetna summer night.