On May 16th 2003, Todd Kelsey and I flew into the upper Chickaloon drainage with Dave of Grasshopper Aviation out of the Wasilla airport. We got to the airport to find out that fog was sitting over the landing zone so we sat around in Dave’s office while he regaled us with tales of plane crashes. Nothing fills your mind with confidence like a pilot who reminisces about various spills and forced landings. Apparently losing a tail in a landing was no big deal. Who knew?
While flying in Dave apparently sensed my unease and did his best to scare me silly. He skimmed along the river, diving in sickening bursts of madness. When we landed we landed a bit too fast and hit the ground HARD slamming into the rocky strip and bouncing close to 10 feet in the air. I crawled out of the plane and ran into the bushes dry heaving.
There were 3 other people at the landing strip. Jake, a bear hunting guide, and his two clients. Jake was the classic Alaskan bear guide. He was classic in the sense that instead of flying out with his garbage on his lap he opted to throw it into the bushes. Classic in the sense that he had hauled literally hundreds of pounds of junk into this area only to leave it sitting under a blue trap so it could be destroyed by bears and porcupines.
The only reason I mention Jake is because he tried to pawn off a case of Doritos Chips on us. Todd and I both laughed and asked why we would want Doritos; Jake then took the case and stuffed it into the nook of a tree. Todd and I were both disgusted at his lack of stewardship and the vast amount of trash he left lying around camp and we walked away in disgust.
Todd and I then hiked 4 miles with absurdly heavy packs – and sleds – across rocks and snow and rivers. It was the beginning of our 15 mile trek to the glacier. We were heading west – to the Chickaloon Glacier where our goal was to spend 15 days climbing and skiing.
The next morning we started moving at 11am after a nice breakfast. We originally woke early only to find that it was still snowing so we went back to bed; waking up a couple hours later to blue skies and a blanket of snow. The snow was welcome as it made hauling our sleds easier.
We hauled about 130 lbs of gear (each) up the river – over rocks, boulders, trees, ice and snow. I fell in the river once; I dropped through a snow bridge and fell through to my knees – my feet dipping into rushing cold waters.
The closer we had got to the glacier the harder and slower progress became. Small river rocks were replaced with small boulders that forced us to lift up the sled at times. After 5 hours and 4 1/2 miles we gave up; exhausted and sore. Dinner was served and we collapsed into our sleeping bags.
After 4 days of insanely hard work we put in a camp at 5800′ on the Chickaloon Glacier. We had to haul loads to reach camp: At first we shouldered heavy packs and tromped about 4 miles uphill. Luckily we were able to ski straight from camp. Up we went through a talus field and then up and through the terminal moraine and finally to the glacier where we skied for about a mile before digging camp. The next day we went back and picked up the remainder of our food.
We dug out a base camp in the middle of the Chickaloon Glacier. To the south lay the N. Face of a massive peak that is called Black Knight; it is beautiful peak with an incredible north face. To the north lay a peak that was a jumbled mass of loose talus; to the east the Chickaloon valley and to the west huge snow covered peaks and pristine glaciers.
We were psyched to finally be done with work and about to begin skiing and climbing!
On May 20th we skied up to the pass that was 3 1/2 miles out of camp. We skied up the glacier to a perfect beautiful pass that leads to the Sheep Glacier. The day was perfect: on the pass there wasn’t even a hint of wind and we sat around without our jackets and ate lunch.
We attempted a ridge south of the pass but the snow was rotten and the first 30′ was vertical and not something I wanted to try. Next we skied out onto the Sheep Glacier and admired the views: a big icefield (4 square miles) surrounded by massive beautiful peaks including a massive beautiful monolith to the southwest. Off to the north lies a huge rocky peak; a 2 tiered rock buttress leading to the summit. It is spectacular and looks like it would be an incredible rock climb.
After checking out the views we turned and skied back to camp. 200′ of beautiful snow and perfect turns. Back at camp we did a round of crevasse rescue practice and then cooked up a fat meal of alfredo, tuna, mushroom and pasta.
On May 22nd we attempted another peak. We skied up a glacier to a sub-valley and then skied up into a beautiful bowl and finally up 800′ up a 30 degree headwall to a col. At the col we donned crampons and then started up a beautiful ridge to a highpoint. Beyond us lay 1/4 mile of knife edge corniced ridge. And Todd was not into it. I would have tried it – but not alone and I am not one to push a climbing partner. So we turned and headed back down to our skis. We then had an excellent run down beautiful crisp snow. The first 1000′ was beautiful, afterwards we roped up to cross a few snow bridges and then unroped for more beautiful skiing. Finally we hit the main glacier and skated back home to lounge around in the sun, eat a huge dinner and crawl into our sleeping bags fully satisfied!
On the 23rd we awoke to cloudy skis and sat about lazily in the tent waiting and waiting. Finally at 11:30 we decided to go and at 12:30 we left in the hopes of climbing the large peak that sits to the North of the Sheep / Chickaloon pass. We reached the pass in 2 1/2 hours and then turned north and skied up to a col that is on the south side of the peak. Halfway up Todd, who was leading, turned and pointed out a wall of clouds moving towards us. We reached the col and 4:30 and then sat in a thick soupy mist for an hour waiting for at least a view of the summit.
We sat in the thick mist shivering with brief glimpses of the glacier appearing every now and then tempting us. However, after being taunted for an hour we opted to bail. Todd skied from the col; I descended on foot for 100′ then skied the rest of way down. It was pure survival skiing: We could see at most 100′ in front of us and the light was totally flat. We reached the pass and then nervously skied back to the tent in the thick soup.
The next day we awoke at 6 am and were out of camp by 9 skiing towards the pass. Our objective was Peak 8150′ – the summit due South of the pass.
We skied right up the North face. Cutting a Z track right up and avalanche gully to the ridge. Conditions varied from hard crusty hollow pockets to decent snow. It settled on me twice and near the Todd felt a big “Whoomp!”. Until then I had not been too concerned with avalanche conditions. The obvious signs were there – but we had not seen signs of a single slab avalanche; so after a brief discussion we opted to continue onto the ridge.
On the ridge we traded skis for crampons and headed up a beautiful ridge climb. At times the ridge steepened up to 45 degree and wound up and over false summits and cols. Finally it headed straight up a ridge that was maybe 50′ wide. This deposited us right on the summit which was a perch overlooking the surrounding glaciers.
We found a cairn and register. Tom Choate, the ubiquitous climber from Anchorage, and two others had climbed the peak in 1995 and in found a cairn, so we reckoned ourselves to be the third party to the top. After basking in the sun we descended the ridge back to our skis.
Due to the instability we had encountered on our ascent, neither of us were too excited by the prospect of skiing our ascent route. After scouting around we continued down the ridge. 4:30 saw us back on the pass and we pointed our skis downhill and zipped back to the tent!
After sitting around for 10 days staring at Black Knight we finally decided to give her a try. We awoke at 6am to clouds and crummy weather so we sat around drinking coffee and eating breakfast waiting for it to clear. At 9:30 patches of blue began to appear so we grabbed our packs and began skiing up glacier and then up a side valley towards a notch on the West side of Black Knight. We reached the col at 11 and then sat around for a while clouds swirled about obscuring our route until finally the clouds cleared enough for us to decide on the far right couloir.
I lead off and began kicking steps up the couloir. From below the couloir looked to be all of 800′ but it kept going and going for a full 1300′ (from 7300′ – 8600′) alternatively from steep nice styrofoam snow to slabby windblown and then back to styrofoam. For the most part the route was pretty mellow. I lead it all protecting it with pickets on the lower portion of the route and with pins as we climbed higher. Finally after 100′ of steep snow covered talus we topped out on a col and I traversed left to an alcove behind a rock.
Todd joined me and we ate and drank and then set off again. I then lead a 200′ traverse across steep snow below a rock wall that I was able to protect with cams. We then topped out on a stunning ridge which we traversed for about 1000′ to snow covered (and corniced) summit.
From the summit we could see the Matanuska Valley, Mt. Marcus Baker, Denali, Sovereign (the tallest peak in the Talkeetnas and stunning peak with sheer rock walls on the south face), the entire Hayes Range and Sanford, Drum, Blackburn and Wrangell.
There was a summit cairn: Tom Choate, Mark Miranglia and one other person had climbed the peak in 1995 via the same route.
We enjoyed the view for a little longer and then descended our route. Luckily clouds had rolled in thus keeping the gully cool and reducing avalanche risk. We were able to quickly descend the route and soon reached our skis.
We then unroped, strapped on our skis and began flying downhill in perfect corn snow! Conditions were awesome; although at one point Todd fell through a snowbridge and dropped about 4 feet onto another bridge.. Luckily he did not fall further and was able to climb out on his own. We were back at base camp 8 hours after starting!
The summit was a fitting day for our last night at camp!
The next morning (May 29th) Todd and I woke up early and began breaking down camp. We had planned our meals perfectly; in fact so perfectly that on our last day all we had left to eat was 30 Gu’s and 2 packets of oatmeal. We cooked our oatmeal and then shouldered our packs and began skiing out.
We skied along; the two miles going by fairly quickly and easily. I was in the lead double poling along when suddenly the ground gave out from under me! With skis and a full pack on I dropped up to my chest in rotten snow. Todd skied up next to me and suddenly he dropped in as well. For the next mile we skied on – at times on top of the snow and at other times dropping into the rotten mush.
After about 2 miles of utterly exhausting travel on our skis we pulled them off and began post- holing. The rotten snow did not get better and we traversed the final mile of the Chickloon in deep snow that with no warning would suddenly open up and suck us into the rotten depths. At times I found myself in pits that were as deep as I was tall.
As we neared the toe of the glacier we began to get spooked for fear of dropping into an unseen crevasse that was partially covered by rotten snow. We began to probe each step and progress slowed to a crawl. Finally after what seemed like hours we were off the glacier and on solid ground.
We had covered 5 miles in as many hours and had another 15 to go to reach the landing zone. Our pilot was due in the next day so we opted to begin sucking down the Gu’s and knock out the entire hike in a single day. So off we went; dragging the sleds over boulders and trees.
Once you begin taking Gu’s the sugar high takes control of you and you’re forced to suck down another one every hour or so or risk bonking. So we divided them up; we had started with a total of 30 and had already consumed 5 each; that left us with 10 each and they needed to last us for the next 15 miles.
Needless to say neither one of us were happy with our meals when suddenly we recalled Jake’s case of Doritos! Jake, the guide we had cursed from day 1, was now our savior and we hefted our packs with renewed vigor and continued the hike out.
After about 5 miles we were forced to cross the Chickaloon river. We tied our sleds to our packs and waded across; the water knee deep. On the opposite bank Todd pulled his boots off to reveal nasty blisters and swollen feet.
We continued on; a couple miles later rounding a bend to see a grizzly bear that, upon seeing us, turned and galloped up the mountain next to us.
Around 8 pm we stumbled into camp. The case of chips was still wedged into the tree and we each devoured about 5 mini bags before passing out in our tent!
The next morning we rolled out of our bags to hear the sound of a plane buzzing up the canyon. We pulled ourselves out of the tent and looked downriver to see Dave’s plane drifting towards us.
Frantically we began stuffing sleeping bags and tents and before you knew it Dave was on the ground and we were tossing our packs into the plane. And then we were off, flying down the Chickaloon river, the peaks fading behind us as we drifted towards town.