I ‘m back. I’ve been here four times now – yet I am still awed by the presence of the Cassin and Denali’s summit as it appears hulking above our heads while we dig in for the night. Snow falls, the temperature rises just above freezing – the familiar pitter patter of sleet on a glacier. Mt. Hunter casting off snow. The usual crowd of Euro climbers camped for months at a time waiting for the Moonflower to open, for the ice lines that appear every other year to solidify. Francis looming, the South face falling apart before our eyes.
Kathy Zukor, Cathy Still and Mark Gnadt and I are camped in the far corner or Kahiltna Base Camp away from the mad rush of climbers who come and go at all hours on their way to Denali’s West Buttress, We’re here to climb the ‘lesser’ peaks – Kahiltna Dome, Franicis and East Kahiltna. Whatever strikes our fancy.
May 24th – Today we gave the East Ridge of Mt. Francis a try. Work up at 6am and were climbing by 8:30. It began with a couple miles of glacier travel up to the base of the ridge which we accessed via a 1,000′ snow slope that consisted of severe hollow unstable snow. Half way up the sun hit the slope and we had an uncomfortable bit of travel until we reached better snow. Higher up the slope the snow was better bonded and we began to make good time to the ridge.
Once on the ridge we regrouped and then headed off. At first the ridge consisted of mellow glaciated terrain – but after about 1000′ we hit a crux – a steep corniced headwall that l lead across placing half buried pickets and one screw. To get over the cornice I broke away snow and then precariously balanced my way up and over onto a better slope where I belayed the others up on a crummy anchor consisting of 1/2 picket equalized with my ice tool and axe sunk into the snow.May 24th – Today we gave the East Ridge of Mt. Francis a try. Work up at 6am and were climbing by 8:30. It began with a couple miles of glacier travel up to the base of the ridge which we accessed via a 1,000′ snow slope that consisted of severe hollow unstable snow. Half way up the sun hit the slope and we had an uncomfortable bit of travel until we reached better snow. Higher up the slope the snow was better bonded and we began to make good time to the ridge.
Mark brought up my screws and I made a anchor, brought up the others and then continued on.
Above our belay the route became extremely crevassed and I screwed around finding a route through them (including a belly crawl / slide over a paper thin bridge). Above we could see the summit only 500′ above us. But it was 500′ of steep terrain protected by a final very steep pitch to the summit.
It was getting cold and late and weather was moving in so we bailed and downclimbed our route – reaching the tent 13 1/2 hours after starting.
May 26th – 9.500′ on the Kahiltna Glacier (just below Kahiltna Pass) – This morning we left camp at 9:45 am and slogged uphill for 4 hours. As usual the weather was horrible… a hard cold wind and wet snow pushing us uphill the entire time. We tromped for a while until I could see the pass and then decided we were too high – so we dropped down a few hundred feet to set up our tents on a little knoll that seemed to he slightly sheltered from the weather.May 25th – 7,500′ on the Kahiltna Glacier – Today we woke up late and packed up camp in early afternoon – finally leaving Kahiltna Base Camp at 5pm. We reached 7,800′ camp on the West Buttress at 9pm and set up our tents in an abandoned fortified snow camp. Tomorrow we will move camp up to 9500′ and then attempt Kahiltna Dome from a higher vantage point.
The weather cleared where we got to the knoll and we now have a beautiful clear day with excellent views of Hunter and Foraker. Tomorrow we will attempt Kahiltna Dome vie and the N Ridge – a route that looks to be fairly straight forward and fun.
May 27th – 9.500′ on the Kahiltna Glacier (just below Kahiltna Pass) – Woke up at 6am to snow and clouds. Unfortunately I drank my coffee before checking the weather and thus I am wide awake when I should be sleeping. We’re not going anywhere today but will instead hang out around camp practicing our shoveling techniques.
Spirits are pretty low as should be expected after 1 good day in 6. Supposedly tomorrow brings a high pressure system that will last though Sunday – so we hope to give it another go and then decide what to do.May 28th – Kahiltna Dome Attempt – Today we attempted Kahitna Dome. The weather, once again, was abysmal; high winds, cold and terrible visibility. We gained the ridge, climbed for perhaps 500′ then turned around and retreated to camp.
May 29th – N. Ridge Kahiltna Dome – We awoke this morning to beautiful clear still skies and by 8am were skiing out of camp headed for Kahilitna Dome. Part way to where we started yesterday we stopped and checked out a line that snaked in-between seracs and crevasses to gain the ridge considerably closer to the summit then where we had initially planned. We talked about it for a minute and then decided to try this route over yesterdays to save time.
The route began with a fun lead through some exposed seracs that I wove my way through to reach the upper snow fields. Then Kathy Zukor took over and began kicking steps up to the ridge. On the ridge we all took turns probing and tip toeing over crevasses and around bergscrunds – slowly pushing our way up the ridge. A few points found us on 45 degree ice but for the most part it was moderate angle styrofoam snow. A final steep push put us onto the summit plateau where we plodded along above 12,000′ for 1/2 mile while only gaining 500′! The views leading up the final summit were beautiful but once near the summit the clouds rolled in and I had to feel my way to the summit.
The descent was straight forward – fast and safe with a final steep traverse to avoid the serac I had lead over. It took us 12 hours exactly from camp to camp!
May 31th – Yesterday we skied all the way from our high camp back to Kahiltna Base Camp. The weather was nice – but once again they are calling for a storm so we have opted to head out while we still can. We’re flying out a week earlier than we all expected but we are tired of practicing the art of Tent Meditation and honing our shoveling techniques.
So now we’re all sitting around the runway waiting for the planes to come in!
Mt. Francis E. Ridge – AK I, 10,450′
Route: From base camp travel up to the col between Francis and Peak 12,200′. Ascend the obvious couloir to the ridge. Once on the ridge head W towards the summit – trending S when seracs impede your progress.
Gear: Ice axe, crampons, pickets, 4 screws / rope team; an ice tool is nice to aid in getting around the seracs
Time: About 15 hours from camp to camp
Kahiltna Dome N. Ridge – AK I, 12,525′
Route: From a camp at 9,500′ on the Kahiltna Glacier ski towards the obvious weakness in the slope that makes up the E face of Kahiltna Dome. Ascend this ramp by first starting on the right, working left and finally working your way back right on a moderate ramp to the ridge. Avalanche and serac fall threaten this route. Once on the ridge head S to the summit. The summit plateau is large and flat so it might be a good idea to wand the route once the ridge begins to broaden.
Gear: Glacier travel gear and a few pickets
Time: 12 hours camp to camp