Sunday, March 15, 2009

The southwest ridge of Peak 11,300 has long been a desired route of mine. Several years ago two friends made a late winter ascent, climbing the route in six long days.

"We were slow, you can do it much faster for sure!" they said.

When our pilot friend offered to fly us "anywhere we wanted to go" it was hard to resist. Seth and I quickly jumped on his offer and settled on a trip to the Ruth for some late winter exploits.

It isn't often that an *almost* free trip to the Alaska Range falls into one's lap. We quickly learned that free doesn't always come without a price.

Conor "The Man" McManigan on the flight in

The Broken Tooth

The stunning UNCLIMBED East Buttress of MT. Johnson.

Peak 11,300's SW Ridge

We equipped ourselves with an arsenal of warm clothes that would lift a Russian's brow and ran up a hefty Costco food bill.

The weather gods appeased us and granted us with a solid week of stellar bluebird weather and astonishingly moderate temps ranging from -10 to 10F at basecamp in the west fork of the Ruth.

Despite the temps, the snow was extremely unconsolidated and dry, as expected. Our pilot's ski dug in on the turnaround and became hopelessly stuck. Hours and hours of digging, wedging and improvisation finally dislodged the plane. The strut on the wheel bent which caused the ski to edge in to the snow. Hmmm, was this a sign?

The Rooster Comb

With that near miss behind us, we hastily broke trail up glacier. The firing squad of gravity-defying seracs on Huntington's North Wall hurried our movement to the base of the ridge.

Beautiful winter light over the North Wall of Huntington

Up on the route, everything looked good. We knew that in typical spring conditions the route can be done in two-three good days. We packed five days of food and fuel, knowing the deep snow would dramatically slow us.

On the first day we made quick time up the approach gully. Snow ranged from waist or more deep snow to firm neve. Still, with so much snow on the route, every move seemed to take five times longer than it should have. Locating pick or protection placements turned into grueling minutes. The 35lb packs bogged down with cold weather bags, ample fuel and food, etc didn't help.

Our goal had been the first col on the first night...roughly one third of the way up the route. On the first day we made it half the way, to the boulder bivy just below Flake Gully.

Seth on one of the mixed pitches

Seth at the boulder bivy

"Ugh, this is painfully slow," we thought. "We have to move faster tomorrow!"

The next day required full on snow trench warfare against Flake Gully and the subsequent mixed pitches beyond.

Swing, swing, bash, bash, scoop, swing, drag, place. Step up, sink down. Repeat. Look back and see five minutes had advanced us three feet. "WHAT!"

The North Wall of Huntington

Day two came and went with not nearly as much progress being made as we had hoped. Despite continuous 55-58m pitches, we just didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

"Hmmm, so tomorrow we'll make it to the first col...on day three. One third of the way up the route..."

"Yeah, but what if the snow gets better up high and we can move faster?"

"What if it doesn't?"

Seth contemplates the future while water boils on the second night. Notice my mittens acting as booties!

We battled the decision on the morning of day three just below Thin Man's Squeeze and bailed. The descent down the south ridge and under the hanging glacier with waist deep snow didn't sound appealing either.

On the way down a friendly raven followed us and cooed as if to say we made the right choice.

We got back to basecamp only to find that this same lone raven had destroyed our camp. That damned bird had tunneled, literally tunneled under our duffel bags and gotten to our trash bag. He also managed to unzip my bag and pull my jacket and spare clothes out. We knew ravens were notorious for invading camps and even digging, but in early March??????

The raven's revenge

We called Paul Roderick from TAT and asked for a pick up.

"Sure thing. I'll need a six, no wait - eight, no wait - thousand foot runway with a big turn around."

Five hours later Seth and I had a stellar 12'x1000' strip flattened out. Paul arrived in a jolly mood and whisked us away with ease.

Despite not getting to the top, or even close for the matter, the climbing was amazing and very fun. The imposing North Face of Huntington, Rooster Comb and South Buttress of Denali provided incredible vistas throughout our week.

It was a pleasant experience to be completely alone in the Ruth. We learned that Masatoshi Kuriaki, the Japanese Caribou soloist, is bailing from Hunter's West Ridge due to the same deep snow conditions we had. He has already climbed both Foraker and Denali solo in the winter and needs only Hunter to complete his quest. We wish him a safe descent.

Hopefully we can go back this spring and tackle the route in better conditions.

It was a treat just to be in the Range for a week.