On May 14th Yvonne and I woke up early and by 7am were skiing up the Casner Glacier in the Deltas en route to the upper glacier to attempt a few peaks. We hauled 7 days of food and fuel, skis, sleds, crevasse gear and a few pickets and screws for the larger peaks. The Deltas are the eastern most region of the Alaska Range. In spring / summer it takes about 5 1/2 hours to reach the parking area from Anchorage – in winter it’s a little closer to 7 or 8 hours depending on the ice and snow. Weather had been a tad on the warm side so we made sure to get an early start in order to minimize the trail breaking with large sleds.
We had spectacular weather – deep blue skis with not a cloud to be seen. At the head of the valley loomed an amphitheater or peaks in the 8000-9000′ range. The ski in was excellent. The first 2 miles were relatively straight forward with only one section where we had to hike – leaving our sleds at the toe of the glacier and ascend the mud and rock encrusted glacier to reach the easy slopes above.
Once across the snout we found ourselves on a gradual plain that we were able to ascend for 5 miles (and 2000′) where we reached the area where the glacier splits into three branches. It took us about 8 hours to reach the fork.
At the fork we took a nap on a rock in the hot sun, then buried a cache of 3 days of food and fuel and headed up the south fork of the Casner. Our plan was to head up the south fork for 4 days and attempt the South face of Triangle (7,200′) and the SW Ridge of White Princess (9,800′). Afterwards we planned on dropping back down to our cache and heading across the main branch of the Casner to the North and attempt the South face / S Ridge of Silvertip.
We skied up glacier for a little over and hour and then headed slightly east to a mound of moraine where we made camp.
The temperature was a bit too hot. We spent most of the day skiing in only white silk weight polypro tops and our climbing tights bottoms. Once the sun dipped behind the long undulating North ridge of Triangle the temperature dropped a little to just slightly below freezing. We went to sleep with sleeping bags unzipped trying to stay cool in our -20 bags.
The next morning we woke to rain. Rain. Rain on a glacier sucks. There’s no way around it. You’re surrounded by snow in all directions and you’ve carried in down jackets, down sleeping bags, bags and bags of warm clothing, hats, gloves etc.. And then it starts raining and no matter what you do everything starts getting damp. The down begins to clot and the warm clothing becomes rags to soak up the seeps coming through the (improperly seam sealed) single wall tent.
Luckily it didn’t rain long. By 12:30 the sun was poking out from behind clouds and by 2pm we were skiing uphill headed towards the upper glacier to get a look at our proposed routes. A mile out of camp we skied across some old wolverine tracks. I’m always amazed at where wolverines tracks show up. I’ve only seen 2 in all my travels – and both times I was high up in some very remote mountains.
An hour later we were at the base of Triangle. The sun was beating down on us mercilessly but the beautiful mellow south slopes beckoned. Besides… the sun doesn’t set till 10:30pm so what excuses did we have? So up we went. We began the ascent unroped but around 6,500′ we encountered a huge crevasse so we once again pulled out the rope and continued the rest of the way roped up.
Up high the clouds rolled in. Occasionally a break would appear and we could glimpse the summit through the clouds so I just aimed for them as best as I could. Around 7000′ I spied what looked like and old ascent track coming down off the peak so I aimed towards the tracks thinking they were remnants from a prior ascent. To my surprise they turned out to be the wolverine tracks again. He (or she) had climbed the entire west face of Triangle, traversed the summit ridge and then headed up and over the neighboring peak before doubling back.
We reached the base of the summit pyramid in midst of a thick cloud so we sat down and waited for visibility. 15 minutes later the clouds were gone and we had a clear view of the route and summit. So up we went – and 20 minutes later we were on the summit.
We sat around admiring the view for a while and then quickly descended back to our skis. Back at the skis we packed up the rope and ripped off the skins and then quickly dropped down the south face – cranking turns where the angle steepened to the point to allow it. Up high the snow was deep and mushy – but on the lower steeper slopes we had excellent corn. We continued on down skiing past the huge crevasse and eventually skimming down the lower glacier all the way back to camp.
That night while melting water for dinner it began to rain. It drizzled on and off all night and the next morning it picked up again. However – once again by late morning it was sunny and hot again. We pulled everything out of the tent and hung it in the sun to dry, then packed up everything and skied another 2 miles up glacier where we made camp at the base of the Southwest Ridge of White Princess.
Once again we made camp in the moraine at the edge of the glacier. I was psyched to be able to scavenge a large flat rocks for sitting comfort so I set about running around to the various exposed moraine piles to see what I could find. One particular pile near by proved promising so I headed over nonchalantly when suddenly the ground broke out from under me and I dropped through to my waist with my legs swinging freely below me. That familiar “Oh yeah we’re on a glacier” panic feeling set in and I quickly belly-flopped my way out without further harm. I returned a few minutes later with my ski pole and excavated a huge crevasse which I admired for a minute. Subsequent probing found another crevasse a mere 10 feet from our tent door.
We went to bed early with the alarm set for 3:30am in the hopes of an early start on White Princess.
We woke at 3:30 to snow. I reset the alarm for 5:30 only to wake to more snow. So back to sleep we went. It snowed on and off all day – with a total of about a foot of accumulation. We were running low on food. We had one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner left. Plus only enough fuel to last us max 2 meals. We considered dropping back down to our cache to get the remaining fuel and meals but opted instead to go on half rations and use the stove as little as possible. I don’t understand why I continually find myself in this situation: forced to go on half rations when I could have just sucked it up and brought extra food and fuel.
However – by evening the sky was clear and beautiful so once again we reset the alarm for 3:30 am. I went to sleep with my stomach growling.
The initial climb to the bench 500′ above camp was misery. We ended up resorting to belly crawling across a breakable crust over 4′ of sugar snow. Once we gained the wind swept plain above we were able to make quick progress and by 6am we had gained the ridge and were quickly scrambling up moderate lower slopes unroped. After about 1000′ of moderate climbed we reached an exposed gendarme and roped up again – and then simul-climbed up to 8000′ which we reached at 8am.At 3:30 am we woke to beautiful clear skies. We ate a pop tart, drank a mug of coffee and by 5 am we were headed out – carefully probing our way out of what we had dubbed “Camp Crevasse”.
At 8000′ we reached an exposed gendarme. Yvonne started out across it only to find that the far edge dropped off sharply. She climbed back, set a picket and belayed me up so I could take a look. I climbed past her and out to the drop which didn’t look like it had an easy way down. I then turned around and headed back to her. We began to discuss our options while Yvonne coiled up the slack out of the rope. She then tossed the rope coils out and above her onto the slope when we heard a loud “Whumpf!” The slope didn’t go – but we quickly turned and headed back down off the exposed slope to a safer spot at the base of the gendarme.
At the base of the gendarme we discussed our options. Evidently the snow was not as stable as we hoped – on the other hand we were traveling on a ridge so even if an avalanche was triggered we would be (relatively) safe from danger. After talking it over we opted to drop back down the ridge and traverse the lower slopes that were still in the shade and below the gendarme.
Once back on the ridge we lead out again. Alternating breaking trail through the knee to thigh deep snow. Around 8500′ the angle steepened and I began breaking trail full time – placing the occasional (marginal and psychological) picket in a less than ideal snowpack. We climbed along the steep ridge taking care to weave a fine line between the corniced snow and the potential avalanche zone below us.
At 1pm reached the ridge that connects the SW ridge to the final summit snow slopes. The traverse began easily enough across a wide safe ridge – but after about 200′ I found myself on a sharp corniced ridge. I lead out across it – only to discover that the snowpack consisted of a 6 inch slab over bottomless sugar snow. Above me I jabbed repeatedly with my ski pole to see what the snow pack was like – only to punch through a small cornice. I wallowed for about 15 minutes fully aware that the only thing really holding me was an ice axe placement that was marginally at best. It was getting warmer by the minute and half way across I suddenly decided I was being stupid and that all signs were telling us to descend rapidly. So I turned around and climbed back to Yvonne.
We regrouped and then began the descent. In the hour since we had ascended the upper slopes the snowpack had changed rapidly and warm wet snowballs were rolling out and causing point releases below us. I was nervous. It was too hot and we were in prime avalanche territory. Yvonne was carefully downclimbing the route taking her time to place bomber pickets and sink her ice axe deep and I was behind her pushing her to go faster.
We descended the upper steep ridge without any incidents – and were soon back at the place where we had bypassed the gendarme. Descending our ascent route was out of the question so I opted to lead straight up and over the gendarme. We tied into the ends of the rope (previously we had been traveling with only 80′ of rope in-between us) and Yvonne sat down and anchored herself securely behind a ridge of snow.
I lead out – the initial traverse leading to the gendarme was steep and covered with 5 inches of wet heavy snow. I was able to hang onto exposed rock above me and then sweep the slope with my axe and trigger the wet snow. I continued across – finally knocking loose a large chunk of snow which slid, rapidly picking up speed and spreading out across the entire lower slopes we had climbed up that morning. The avalanche continued to spread. By the time it was 500′ down it has spread to 50′ and then it dropped over a rise and slid another 1500′ – the end pile being 200′ wide and very deep. I tried not to think about it.After I triggered the large slide the climbing got easier and was able to safely reach the gendarme where I buried yet another psychological picket and then climbed up the notch to our old tracks and was then able to quickly traverse the gendarme. Yvonne followed me without incident and soon we were safely down the ridge and out of the danger zone.
The rest of the descent was uneventful and by 7 pm we were back at camp where we ate a measly pile of hash browns that were supposed to be a breakfast.
The next morning we woke up to hot sun. We managed to squeeze out enough fuel for 2 more quarts of water before the stove finally sputtered and died. We then packed up and skied back to our cache. Down we went – skiing down the lower Casner sans skins for 3 miles before finally being forced to put on our skins. The snow conditions were abysmal – at times the rotten snow was thigh deep.
The lower glacier was so melted out we were forced to do some creative skiing (i.e. – skiing on and over long stretches of rock and mud) and at the snout of the glacier we had to double carry our gear (packs and skis first, then sled) for almost 2 miles before we finally reached the lower river which luckily was still frozen.
We finally reached the car after 8 hours and 10 miles of skiing!
Triangle Peak, S. Face – 7,200′
Route: From a base camp somewhere on the S Fork of the Casner travel up glacier until you see a notch in the moraine to your right (west). Pass through this notch and aim for the broad south slopes. The route up the south slopes is pretty obvious. We skied the lower potion unroped – however at around 6500′ you reach a giant crevasse. We roped up at this point and continued all the way to the summit col roped up. At the summit col we unroped and climbed the upper portion unroped. There might be a bergschrund as you approach the summit pyramid – but we didn’t see any evidence of one. At around 7000′ the summit pyramid looms. The easiest way to gain the summit is to head up the west ridge where it bisects the southern slopes. The summit ridge is easy hiking. Descend your route on skis. The south slopes are very expansive and should a storm blow in while you’re ascending it would be easy to get turned around. Carry a GPS or wand your route.
Gear: Skis, Ice axe, crampons, glacier gear.
Time: About 4-5 hours from camp to camp.
White Princess, SW Ridge – AK I, 9,800′
Route: The best way to ascend the southwest ridge is to put in a camp at the base of the ridge. Gain the ridge by either starting up the actual ridge – or traversing the large plain NW of the ridge. Once on the ridge quick progress can be made up to the 8000′ mark. At 8000′ you reach a large gendarme. This can be passed one of three ways: You can drop down the the SE ridge of the gendarme – however watch for rock fall above you; you can traverse the gendarme itself (which in good snow would be relatively easy); or you can bypass it via a series of ramps on the NW side of the ridge. Bypassing via the NW would be safe early in the day before the sun warms the upper slopes – but would be a bad decision later in the day. Consequently a faster way to ascend the route would be to bypass the entire lower section of the ridge by traversing the lower slopes and booting up the 8000′ col east of the gendarme. This would save you a good bit of time but you would miss out on the lower ridge which is spectacular and aesthetic climbing. After the gendarme the angle steepens and avalanche danger is obvious. Stay as high on the ridge as possible but beware of cornices. At 8700′ you top out on the SW ridge and have to traverse 500′ of steep terrain to reach the final 1000′ summit slopes. The final 1000′ is said to be heavily crevassed. Descend the route. Note – the Southwest ridge is the same route as described as the West ridge in Coombs / Woods book. The West ridge has a number of large towers that must be bypassed whereas the Southwest ridge is very straightforward.
Gear: Ice axe, crampons, glacier gear, 2 pickets / person and 2 screws / person.
Time: About 12-15 hours from camp to camp.