By: John Fitzgerald | Climbers: John Fitzgerald, Charlie Carr |Trip Dates: April 22-27, 2004
Photo: John Fitzgerald
® The author(s) and naclassics.com | Back to climb page NAC Home page
It's the Fall of 2002 and I'm thinking of heading back to Alaska to try Peak 11,300 again. First, I need a partner. The eastern side of Virginia is not overrun with alpinists, ice climbers, or even rock climbers. I turn to the internet but with little hope. A fellow by the name of Charlie Carr from NH emails me saying he is interested. I drive up and we do a little ice climbing one weekend. Charlie's a great guy; we both hope we can spend 3 weeks together in a tent without ending up hating each other. It turn out we are a perfect match. He's 8 years older, an introvert, reserved, low key. I'm high strung, known to ramble, 36 and full of more piss and vinegar than I should be for my abilities. A good balance, right?
We keep in contact over the next year and figure out gear, food, dates, strategies and backup routes. "Hey, let's try the Harvard Route on Huntington." Peak 11,300 is now the backup route.
Paul Roderick (of Talkeetna Air Taxi) flies us towards our main objective. The problem is, Mt. Huntington (and our landing site) has been shrouded in clouds for days. Rather than waste time sitting in Talkeetna waiting for good weather, we decide to have Paul put us in between Huntington and Peak 11,300. We can attempt the Harvard after Peak 11,300. At our base camp, we note that we have the entire glacier to ourselves.
We pack for an attempt tomorrow morning -sort out who carries what, how much food and fuel, etc. We decide to ski to the base of the route to look at conditions since it has been snowing a little over the past couple days. Things look good, and we ski down the West Fork of the Ruth to the bottom of the small glacier we will descend after summiting. We put in some wands for safe passage around crevasses in a whiteout. Ravens attack our camp and eat our Doritos, arrgggg! At least they did not drink our rum.
Leaving camp at 5:20am, we ski to the base of the route in 25 minutes. Charlie boots up the initial 600' snow slope to the ridge at 6:15am. I head out across horizontal ridge for several hundred feet. The ridge is lightly corniced so we drop down a few feet on north side. I drop into a bergschrund to my chest. The corniced ridge stops and we start gaining elevation. The SW ridge is broad, covered in rocks and snow and is ill defined at times. Route finding is unobvious but if you follow your nose, it is not a problem. At times the ridge is corniced and the route is very obvious.
We lead in blocks and simul-climb, but rope drag starts slowing me down after our first mixed pitch. I am on familiar terrain so route finding goes easy. Charlie is ready to lead on some mixed terrain and takes the sharp end with a grin. Snow and interesting mixed terrain flow up this route, which is why it is so much fun. We slap up a couple times and get to the "squeeze mans chimney". Charlie tells me that it is all mine. I tell Charlie it's fun; like "wrestling a pig", with a pack on. All goes well and we get to one of 5.8/5.9 rock steps. Charlie works his way up while I keep a close eye. "Geeze, what the hell will we do if he pitches off?" I yell to him that there is an easier way to the right (that I did in 2002) - just rake the snow off the slab and front-point on tiny nubbins. Sounds sick but it worked. I grunt my way up asking for tension and wondering how he pulled it off on lead. "Nice work, my man." I take the lead and head up easier mixed terrain that was covered in snow and ice two years before. I recall being on very steep snow with little pro, and digging the ice out of a crack for a frozen red Alien. Life is good now. I pass the "snow dome" bivy from '02 and drop down into a col as Charlie simul-climbs up. I swim up 200 feet on sugar snow (you know, the kind with that lovely crust on top) up to my chest. A snow arête leads to a snaking couloir. We stop and brew up since Charlie is out of H20 and out of gas. No hurry, as the day is young and taking in the scenery is nice. The snaking couloir takes us to the Grey Rock by 3:30pm. We kick back and take pictures, brew up, dry our gear in the sun and rest our flatlander legs.
We oversleep and wake to clouds to the southeast and falling pressure. Charlie is uncomfortable with the odds so we rap and down-climb back to basecamp in about 7 hours. Better safe than sorry, right? After an hour of rappelling, the clouds clear and the skies are cobalt blue. The pressure has not changed. The ski back down to base camp takes a whole 10 minutes.
Rest Day. We are tired and a little sore. I have now climbed the lower part of the ridge twice. We are both a little bummed knowing we would have to climb it again on our next try. We eat and lay around. As the day goes on, we start feeling better and we talk of our next try. We pack up and get ready for another early start.
We make better time up the ridge and lead the same pitches to move efficiently. We also have our steps so life is good. We pass the Grey Rock campsite without a glance and motor up warm snow in warm conditions. Rappelling into the Notch at 5pm, we start chopping a ledge for the tent. We leave the rappel rope in case the weather takes a turn for the worst that night, and rig a clothesline to stay clipped to. The sun disappears quickly due to our location and it gets cool fast. We have looked at the next days climbing and think we have it figured out.
My plan is to knock this pitch out and get up far as we can before the snow gets warm like yesterday. It starts out fine until I get to "The Slot", which contains the most awkward move on the route. I fumble like the gumbie I am, pissing away valuable time and getting irritated with myself. Finally, I bring Charlie up and leave my pack with him. Pull up through "the Slot" onto the icy snow ramp . . . haul our packs and motor. Up farther we run into a pitch of waist-deep sugar snow, but are rewarded when we reach the corniced ridge above with stunning views and moderate terrain. We rap at the headwall above. Not sure where to rap too, we end up in a couloir hoping it is the way to go. Charlie leads out and finds a piton. "Hey, we got her now, eh?" Charlie heads up a snowy section and soon discovers it is loose snow over rock. He struggles up a hard step that I follow needing tension. "Umm, maybe this isn't the way". I take off up the narrow couloir on steep warm snow, brushing snow off rock to find gravel on somewhat positive edges. The climbing is more strenuous than it looked from below. I run out of rope and tell Charlie to start climbing, though I'm not in a good place if he slips. 50 feet later, I have a nice belay and Charlie comes up. We step onto a short arête and can see the summit snow cap. We drop down into a broad gully to find crust and sugar and warmth. "This is Alaska in April, right?" Swimming uphill past large boulders, we look for a place to brew up. Nothing really looks big enough and the idea of a dropped pot or pack makes me want to continue. Once past the last big boulder, 600' of snow-covered ice appears. We are engulfed in the afternoon clouds and light flurries as the temperature drops. My wet Windstopper gloves are soon shaped like my axe handles. Finally, we plop down on the huge, flat summit. The clouds clear and we take some photos. We set up the tent, cook dinner, brew up and get pictures of the alpenglow on all the surrounding peaks - Denali, the 3 summits of Hunter, Huntington's 6000' north face, the Rooster Comb, Dickie, Barrille , the Moose's Tooth and Dan Beard. We'll sleep in.
I've been married 6 years today. "I wonder what my wife is doing?"
It got down to 10 below. That's not too bad in April and it was our coldest night spent in the Ruth of 17 nights there. We waited for the sun to rise and headed down. The Southeast Ridge is beautiful. The corniced ridge drops straight off on the north side. We travel to the south on firm snow with ice not too far below. We rapped via v-threads at least 4 times figuring it was not wise to risk any mishaps on steeper terrain. The rappels require traversing to stay on the ridge. The ridge has mixed terrain lower on the ridge, which allowed us to rappel from rocks using ½" Supertape and old 6mm cord. After 12 rappels, we were finally down to the small glacier between the Southwest Ridge and the Southeast ridge. After roping up, we soon crossed a "talus field" of baby blue chunks of ice from the serac above. Some are the size of a big screen TVs and the ground is frozen hard. Our crampons squeaked as we cross through the debris that was deposited here 24 hours earlier. The area would be pummeled again the next day.
As we head down the glacier, clouds and flurries hide base camp. Charlie yells back for me to watch him and soon goes in to his armpits. We continue looking for our wands and are starting to feel knackered. We plod uphill towards camp. We stop and talk to our new neighbors who just skied up from the Amphitheatre the day before. They were 3 climbing rangers hoping for better weather and a shot at the SW Ridge. They offered us hot chocolate, a swig of scotch and congratulations. They were gracious enough to have brought our skis back down from the start of the route and left them in camp. Once again, a big thanks!
We talk to the rangers about the route and I give them my topo. It continues to snow and they are running low on supplies so they decide to head back down to the Amphitheater until weather clears, then come back up for a shot at the ridge. One of the rangers would later be hit by a piece of ice before The Notch, badly bruising or breaking her arm. The visibility is so poor that it takes them 2 days to ski 7 miles. We lie around and rest our tired bodies. The Harvard is next when the weather clears.
As the rest of our trip continues:
It snows on and off for a week. Charlie has packed in the 1,100' runway for TAT to land on. When visibility is good, the snow is too warm for the plane to take off so no one comes. I shovel fresh snow as it falls. I also shovel to rebuild our melting camp when it is not snowing. We probably see 4 or 5 feet of snow that week. We are bored and tired of waiting for plane to pick us up. We finally decide that we are out of time for a shot at the Harvard. If and when the weather did clear, we would have to wait at least 2 days for the snow to sluff off the upper ice field. So we decide to go give Ham & Eggs, on the Moose's Tooth a try. Another party has skied up and is on the SW Ridge of 11,300. We hear another party is flying in to try the Rooster Comb. We have been partially packed and ready to go for days. The Beaver buzzes up the West Fork and we scramble to get ready. He drops off a party and we are on our way to the Ham & Eggs.
It is not even freezing at night in the Root Canal. Our attempt quickly ends when Charlie pulls a loose 100lb rock off the 1st pitch, injuring his elbow and rattling his confidence. I attempt the Bears Tooth with a party of two but we are turned back by bad snow conditions near the col.
My first trip to the Alaskan Range was in 1996 and I fell in love with the area. I made it back in 2002 with 2 peaks in mind. 2004 was to be the Harvard on Huntington and whatever else I could get on. I'm planning for 2005 now with the Harvard in mind and 4 other back up routes. Yeah, and I gotta scope out future routes for the following years. I am going to run out time before I can attempt all the routes I want to in the Alaskan Range.