The earth buzzes by below us; rolling hills turn to spires, caribou tracks up ridge lines, blue ice overflowing tight river drainages. The creeks flow past – Caribou, Divide, Boulder. The mighty Chickaloon calm, frozen in time the meandering blue ice locked until Spring (who hovers just around the corner) descends. And suddenly we are banking past jagged granite spires. The spires become behemoths trapped in glacier ice, seracs clutching their sides glistening and opaque.
My pilot, Mike Meekins, maneuvers his plane between granite towers and we float out into the open, the Talkeetna glacier spread below us, her many forks outstretched and the plane spiraling over them with my eyes glued to the window looking at ice, granite and snow. Meekins studies the snow and we aim for a calm tongue of powder unscathed by the winds.
We drift in, the landing so smooth I can barely tell when we’ve touched down. And then Mike opens the door and we step out into deep snow and blue sky. He passes me my bags and then he’s off leaving me standing alone and 50 miles from the nearest road. If I were to escape on my own I’d be a modern mini Shackelton, skiing down glacier past yawning glaciers to a wild river meandering through thick brush with sleepy bears waking up hungry, no food since October. I stand still and silent for a full minute after Mike’s drone disappears into the next valley. It is so quiet it’s deafening.
Mike is flying a Supercub, which means 1 trip per person. Each trip is one and a half hours round trip so I busy myself making camp. Over the course of the next 5 hours the rest of our party arrives. Eric Parsons comes after me, followed by Yvonne and finally Bryce Stath. We amuse ourselves by watching their eyes and face light up as each person steps out and looks around.
Finally the transportation cycle ends and Mike shakes our hands. “The 28th right?” he says. “Call me on your sat phone and give me the weather.” We all wave and he takes off and then we’re truly alone; no one around for miles – no overflights, no flightseeing tourists. We are totally removed and it feels good!
Camp is totally built so after Bryce tosses his sleeping bag in the tent, we rope up and ski west over rolling crevasses to a col where we tip toe to the top to see…more mountains, more glaciers – deep blue crevasses cracking open yawning in the evening sun.
We rip off the skins that enable us to ski uphill and point our skis downhill ripping turns down terrible snow; breakable crust, sugar. With nothing graceful about our style we float back into camp for a late dinner and then crawl into warm sleeping bags asleep as our heads touch down.
Eric wakes us at 8am. “Coffee! Breakfast! GET UP LET’S GO CLIMBING!!!!” We crawl out of our tents and into the group cook tent where we sleepily melt snow and wait for the water to boil. At 10:30 we set off to climb Mt. Sovereign – an “easy” warm up peak which also happens to be the tallest peak in the Talkeetna Range – topping out at 8849′.
The ski to the base is uneventful; the glacier mellow and we encounter no crevasses and we’re soon skiing up to a basin at the base of the south ridge where we pull the skis and drop our harnesses, rope and glacier gear.
Before we can barely catch our breaths the ever excited Eric is off breaking trail at a frightful pace that none of us can hope to keep up with. He literally sprints uphill while Yvonne, Bryce and I stumble along panting heavily. We stumble uphill… but the snow is abysmal! The Talkeetna Range is famous for it’s unconsolidated “sugar” snow – a type of snow that forms when you have a cold ground temperature (like a glacier or rock deep in a mountain range) and a very cold air temperature. This causes the snow to bond poorly and look (and feel) just like sugar. So when you step on it the snow does not pack down as one would expect but instead seems to spill out on all sides causing you to flounder about as if you were in a pit of cold dry quicksand.
The sugar snow causes everyone but Eric much grief as we struggle to follow Eric’s steps which resemble lunges more than steps. To make up for his 6’3″ gait we’d take an extra step now and then – only to suddenly disappear up to our waist in a pit next to a rock.
We all continue on trying to catch Eric. As we climb higher Eric leads us onto rock steps to avoid the snow and we start scrambling up steep rock where we have to use our hands to pull ourselves up through the granite blocks that line the way. With every step we feel the altitude and start sucking and breathing hard. All of us live at sea level… so venturing into the mountains above 8000′ pretty much knocks all the energy out of all of us!
The climbing goes on and on. And on and on. We meander from snowy steps to a series of boulders to rock steps where we actually find ourselves pulling the occasional rock climbing move (in our ski boots) and then back to snow steps once again. Finally after 5 hours of grunting and groaning we boot up the final summit couloir and reach the final summit block where we all collapse in the sun and begin soaking up the views.
We spend about 20 minutes on the summit looking around and then start heading downhill once again. Eric plows a way though waist deep snow down a couloir so we avoid the rock climbing – then we traverse left to a couloir where the snow is stiff enough to allow us to glissade -suddenly we’re sitting down zipping downhill riding a rodeo bull of heavy wet snow and back at our skis within 45 minutes!
We ski back and eat a huge dinner before once again collapsing in the tent asleep before our heads hit the pillow.
After Sovereign Eric lets us all sleep in a little longer so we get a little extra sleep and take a long time to eat breakfast and drink our coffee. The weather is once again perfectly still and blue so we opt to conserve our strength and go for a short ski tour down the East Fork of the Talkeetna Glacier.
We set off around 11am and ski about 2 miles to the East up a valley that was split by a nunatak and up into a cirque where we eat lunch and consult the map.
The map shows a potential link up that would lead us back to our camp so we head out and ski south across a basin and down to the valley floor below the nunatak and below a number of beautiful hanging glaciers that spilled off the northeast face of the peak above us. This in turn leads us to a ramp which dumps us on the col overlooking the South Fork of the Talkeetna Glacier.
The slope leading down from the col is the only slope around without avalanche debris (always a good sign!) so I lead the way and drop down the slope fully expecting to find rotten snow and kick off a minor avalanche or two. But the snow is perfect so I ski down excellent snow and whip out into the basin below where I turn and watch the rest of our group ski down.
Eric is the last one to come down – and just as he starts, the couloir to his left suddenly releases and a large avalanche roars down as he is kicking out turns down the couloir. He zips up next to us as we sit there eyes wide staring at the debris pile that wasn’t there 15 seconds earlier!
Being unfamiliar with the glacier below us we all agree to rope up and ski back to camp; so down we go – tied together and linking turns tethered to each other by 80′ of rope – gliding into camp and creating a perfect loop!
Dinner is served in the cook tent and we all eat while our eyelids drop heavily trying to remain awake long enough to eat.
The alarm sounds at 7 and I snuggled deeper into my bag hoping to avoid getting up. But it’s clear and cold… and Eric is already bustling about so I roll out of my bag and get dressed and drag myself in front of the stove for coffee. Yvonne and Bryce soon join us as we discuss routes and soon all four of us are roping up and skiing off.
Bryce and Eric set off to climb a steep couloir on the peak just west of camp (peak 8200′) while Yvonne and I opt to climb the face. After a short ski Yvonne and I begin booting up the northeast face. The snow starts off hardpack so we cache our skis down low and begin booting up. However the good snow quickly gives way to knee-deep snow. Unfortunately by then our skis are a couple hundred feet below us so we commit to just continue on.
The knee-deep snow continues and time drags on yet still we plod uphill – weaving first to the ridge in the hopes of solid snow and then back again to the middle slopes to avoid potential weak spots near the warm rock.
At the top of the first rock band we could look out onto the glacier below and see Eric and Bryce skiing away from their intended couloir. I pull out the radio and buzz them. Their route ended up being warm and prone to rock fall so they opt to climb another route and ski over towards Peak 8100′ which is south of camp.
We set off again. After about 500′ the angle kicks up and we begin booting up 40 degree slopes. This continues for about another 500′ and soon we are setting rock anchors in the rocks next to the slopes as well as sinking pickets and occasionally digging down to the ice underneath to set screws.
After a while we reach an obvious bench and Yvonne takes over – busting trail up 200′ of waist-deep sugar snow and encountering two areas where she suddenly begins wallowing in waist to chest-deep snow. She finally is able to crawl her way to the rock above and set an anchor and belay me up.
We eat some food and drink and I set off again; traversing across 200′ of deep snow to a firmer base which I quickly boot up. The angle is kicking up considerably – approaching 50 plus degrees and I am starting to feel ice under the snow so I make my way up and right to a big boulder where I find a perfect crack where I can equalize two cams and belay Yvonne up. Once she joins me, we strap on our crampons and I set off to climb the crux: 200′ of 60 degree ice covered with 12 inches of sugar snow. I’m able to protect it with screws and feel solid enough for Yvonne to simul climb with me, so soon we are both climbing and I make my way up onto the hard snow that is on the ridge just below the summit.
I set another belay, bring Yvonne up and then set off again – this time making my way to a spectacular final summit ridge. The summit ridge is spectacular! I crampon my way up a sidewalk-sized ledge with a 2000′ drop to my right onto the ice covered north face! To the left the ridge rolls down into a basin and then drops off the rocky south face.
The sidewalk takes me all the way to the summit and I navigate around a couple rock bands and am soon standing on the top looking down at Eric and Bryce who had traversed Peak 8100′ by going up the south ridge and then downclimbing / skiing down the northwest ridge and out into a basin where we watched them carve turns down the glacier.
After soaking up the sun and catching our breaths it was time to go so I belay Yvonne down and we downclimb to a belay spot above the ice pitch.
After rigging a secure belay I set off. We trade out our whippets (ice axe blades attached to ski poles which I had used with my mountain axe for the ascent) for ice tools and I turn, face the snow and begin downclimbing. Downclimbing is a bit spookier than going up. I have placements for my feet but I never feel totally secure. I take my ice tool and dig away at the sugar snow until I can see ice then I set my pick in hard and kick steps down. I have a total of 4 ice screws and 200′ of 60 degree ice to downclimb – so needless to say I am wishing for more screws.
I slowly make my way down – sinking a screw every 40 or 50 feet and after a long time I reach the steps that take me back to the rock where I rig the belay to bring Yvonne down. Yvonne downclimbs the route without a hitch. I’m always worrying about her – and had I been the one to downclimb the pitch I would have been yelling nervously pretty much the entire time, but she makes her way down smoothly and efficiently and soon is at the belay spot where we swap and she begins downclimbing the next pitch.
We have one more steep pitch – this time though the snow is deeper so it is easier going and we are able to simul climb the next two pitches back to a secure rock belay. From there we begin booting downhill and 30 minutes later we are back at the skis tired and trashed!
Soon we are back at camp where Bryce and Eric greeted us with a freshly cooked hot dinner and hot drinks! They tell us their route had been yet more deep sugar snow so they dubbed the peak “Mt. Splenda”. Yvonne and I, thrashed from the waist deep wallowing, decide to call our route and peak “Sugar Momma”!
Once again we stumble into bed and are asleep before our heads hit the pillow!
We sleep late, not bothering to crawl out of our bags until 9am. Eric and Bryce are already gone; skiing up to try an ice face on the northeast face of 8517′ – a peak west of the Sugar Momma.
We finally leave camp at 11am; following Eric and Bryce’s track from yesterday as we ski towards Splenda to follow their tracks up to the summit. While skiing along we keep looking over to 8517′ to see Eric and Bryce slowing inching their way up the impressive ice wall they chose to climb.
The route up Splenda is easy; Yvonne boots up where Eric and Bryce had skied and once it gets steeper we find a nice deep boot track in place. We are soon on top and looking all around at the spectacular view of the Chickaloon glacier. To our southeast looms Black Knight which I had climbed with Todd Kelsey in 2003 and to our southwest looms Guardian Peak which I had also climbed with Todd in 2003.
Yvonne, eager to stand on the tip top, cajoles me into scrambling up a rock tower 5 feet higher than the snow cone I am standing on… so off we go, downclimbing over to the gendarme and then inching our way up crumbling rock and deep wet snow to a small summit with a cairn and film canister and note signed by a couple of the high Chugach (and Talkeetna) overlords: Tom Choate and Mark Miraglia. I’ve now seen Tom and Mark’s name in 4 registers in the Talkeetna / Chickaloon glacier region!
We then turn and downclimb the route and ski back to camp. Eric and Bryce don’t get in until around 8:30 pm. Their route had been a 2000′ wall with up to 70 degree ice and involved every trick in the book from chopping ice anchors to pounding in pitons and downclimbing steep ice!
Morning comes and with it a stiff wind that makes us decide to head down glacier instead of back to the peaks we are familiar with. We all ski off late once again and after skiing about 2 miles down glacier Bryce and Eric turn off to attempt a north facing couloir on a peak they dubbed “The Peak of Many Couloirs”.
Yvonne and I continue down glacier to a huge west facing couloir that we hope will take us up to the summit ridge of Peak 7802′.
We start out by skiing up as high as we can on hardpack snow and then switch to boots and start kicking our way up the couloir. I am still trashed from Sugar Momma so Yvonne takes over and leads the way all the way to the col – 1000′ of good snow.
At the col I take over the lead and turn right and begin making my way up the ridge. The first pitch is mellow 4th class ground with high exposure to the west. The second pitch begins with a fun scramble over talus blocks and then I encounter chest deep sugar snow over rock. The climbing slows to a crawl as I dig and dig and dig to get a purchase.
At times I step in the snow and begin to sink past my chest. Finally I crawl my way up and over some blocks, set up a secure belay and then bring Yvonne up. I then set off again, traversing around a few big boulders to a vantage point where I can see I am no where near the summit and that at least 2 large towers block my progress to the east part. So we turn around. 2 rappels and some downclimbing gets us back to the col where we pack up the rope and then turn and downclimb the entire couloir back to our skis.
The ski back to camp is 2 1/2 miles of drudgery in a hard wind. We reach camp at 10:30pm trashed and cold.
On the third day it partially clears and we set out in a thick soup and ski up a nunatak west of camp – Point 7500′. Yvonne and Bryce elect to ski down while Eric and I boot across the corniced ridge to the summit in a howling severe wind! The storm hits the night we return from our aborted rock climb. The wind howls and snow begins to accumulate. We are all tired from the past 6 days of climbing so we are happy to sit around in the cook tent, eat, read, write, play cards. It snows and blows all day and the next and we never venture further than 100 yards outside of camp.
We then both ski down in pure whiteout each of us leap frogging the other trying to judge angle and distance. We spend the evening skiing south of camp and jumping off a jump that Eric had built on our storm days.
By evening we are all ready for home and go to sleep dreaming of pizza and beer.
I have about two dozen photos that I’ve titled “Waiting for the Bus”. In them a random climbing partner sits in a pile of duffle bags and backpacks on some random glacier somewhere in Alaska looking off into the distance and waiting for the bus… or rather the bush plane that may or may not come on schedule.
We wake up at 7 and pack up. We dump duffle bags on the runway to give Mike some depth perception. Then we wait. And wait. And wait. The clouds never lift; at times we can see all of 20 feet in any direction. We go to sleep thinking we’ll never get home.
Morning comes and with it sun. At 9 am Mike buzzes in and scoops Yvonne up. An hour and a half later I fly out. The Supercub banks past jagged spires and now over open river, emerald green against the white snow banks. We drift towards home.
Check out Eric’s Blog Entry from this same trip: http://epiceric.blogspot.com/2008/04/back.html
And his awesome YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHv6v0c1Pho
For Scree references check out September 1967 and page 5 of June 1983. Also look at page 123 of the 1968 AAJ.
Mike Meekins can be reached at http://meekinsairservice.com/