Two Weeks in Alaska

This trip was a long time coming. Though discussions started last autumn, things were cemented on this fateful night when Hans convinced me to join him (Lauren assisted) on a 12-day mountaineering course with AMS. Six months (and a plane ride, and 6 hours in the Ted Stevens International Airport and a 3-hour shuttle) later, we were dropped off at the Talkeetna Hostel, where we would be spending a night before flying out to the Pika glacier.

After dropping off our stuff, Hans and I struck out to check out the town (he’d been here before, I hadn’t).

As both of us were hungry, we stopped off at the Roadhouse and each ordered a full Standard (those with normal appetites are encouraged to only get the half). The full has 8 eggs, two pieces of toast (each as thick as three normal slices of bread), a few potatoes worth of home fries, and a healthy amount of some of the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.

Of course, being hungry young climbers shipping out for two weeks the next day, we had relatively little difficulty in finishing them. A few people in town were mildly impressed at our feat.

After breakfast we stopped by AMS and met Greg Runyan, the instructor/guide who would be making sure we stayed alive, then went by a gear shop to grab a few last-minute things, and went down to the river to make some phone calls and hang out for a bit.

Despite our huge (and late) breakfast, we went to Twister Creek for beers and then dinner, which was way too much food. I didn’t sleep on the plane (which was a red-eye, after working all day) so I was out cold at 7:30, woke up at 11:30 to call Lauren and take a shower before going back to sleep until 7:30 the next morning. Apparently I was asked if I wanted to go out with Hans and a friend of his for a beer – I have no recollection of any such thing.

The next morning I grabbed a burrito for breakfast (and had eaten so much the day before I was stuffed after only a few bites) before going back to AMS for a final gear check. Later that afternoon, it was off to the airstrip for our departure.

I lucked in to getting shotgun on the ride out. Hans was not so lucky, but it’s ok since he took this flight (though he got to come back) last year.

This was taken shortly after takeoff, heading towards the Alaska Range.

This is the Ruth Gorge. It has walls a vertical-mile high sticking straight out of the glacier, which itself is about 3,500′ deep.

A random scenic shot of some mountains.

Our pilot, Will, as we fly by Denali.

And Denali, the high one. It is absolutely gigantic and awe-inspiring.

Next we headed over the Kahiltna glacier on our way to our final destination.

More rock, ice, and snow.

Next thing I knew, we were landing on the glacier and unloading hundreds of pounds of some of the lightest gear ever made.

Though it was a bit intimidating unloading our gear on the glacier with no way out for a couple weeks (it was my first time), I can’t say the views were anything but spectacular.

Suddenly, we were all alone.

We got camp set up pretty quick – two Trango 3s and a Megamid, along with a semi-private area dug in the snow.

Another view from camp – this is known as “the Trolls.”

Another view of camp, with our cooktent in the foreground.

Another view of the Pika Glacier aka Little Switzerland from camp.

The next day we practiced some snow-anchor and haul-system building before heading out for a short ski tour.

After a hilariously bad ski back to camp (skiing in mountaineering boots required far more balance than I ever could have expected) it was time for Hans and Alain to cook dinner. After this we started a rotation with one person per meal, so you always had quite a bit of time off between having to cook.

And yet another mountain that I can’t recall the name of.

Camp 2 (a couple miles down glacier) had quite the views.

This mountain, known as Italy’s Boot, was across the main Pika from our camp, and provided some spectacular views (and quite a bit of noise, as it was avalanching almost constantly).

The CMC, or “Clean Mountain Can,” was new to me. It’s an 8″ diameter plastic can that takes a little practice to master, and that makes you really appreciate toilets.

Sometime on day 4 (of 12) we headed up to do a little rock climbing. Notice our camp (three small specs) for scale of the area.

But first we took the time to dry out a few things (including ourselves) when the sun was out. It was important that we took this opportunity, as it ended up raining on all but two days we were there – one day it snowed instead.

Photo: Alain Caron

The view across the Exit glacier was, again, beautiful.

We climbed for a while (about six pitches) until it completely socked in and started raining, forcing the sketchiest rappel I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing.

We occasionally ran across small patches of alpine plants. It’s amazing they survive given the harsh environment.

Anyway, here I am on that rappel, raining with huge exposure on all sides, loose rock, and weird transitions all over.

Photo: Greg Runyan

And here I am on the final rappel of the day, with things starting to clear out. Not long before we started down, Greg said “we’d still be climbing if it weren’t raining!” When we got down here someone mentioned that it was 10pm. Greg immediately burst out “It’s ten o’clock?!” That was a fairly late day.

Photo: Greg Runyan

The next day we went on a tour around the glacial valley, and up Exit Pass to take a look at conditions. Our initial plan was to head down there and explore a little-traveled (if ever) area across the Ruth. Unfortunately it was mostly melted out, and we had to change plans.

The next day we went ice climbing on an exposed glacial wall, which was a blast. Here’s me, wailing on the ice. The top several inches was rotten, and on one lap I was bashing so much I let loose a few square foot plate roughly 4″ thick that slid to the bottom.

Photo: Greg Runyan

Ice climbing is so fun and so theraputic, I’m already looking forward to bashing some ice this winter. My favorite part is that it’s much more brute-strength intensive rather than finesse-based. I’m not a finesse kind of guy. Even belaying was fun, as you got to watch chunks of ice rain down the wall (at least when I went)!

As with everywhere on this trip, it was gorgeous.

Later that day we went to take a look at a line Greg wanted to check out for the future, which happened to be at a beautiful overlook. It also happened to be the only day packed full of sunshine.

Photo: Greg Runyan

Hans and Alain decided to get rad and throw some heel-hooks on a boulder.

The sheer scale of this place is nearly incomprehensible.

I’d love to come back in late April or early May sometime, during a non-El Nino year.

The next day, we headed back over to climb a likely-unclimbed couloir that is now named the “What? Couloir.” It’s the second couloir from the right and while the snow was garbage (not unexpected), the climbing was fun and the protection was solid.

The next day we moved again (leaving after midnight), and got a bit of sunshine later in the day to dry things out a bit.

Unfortunately, we went over to a nearby rock wall to practice placing pro and do a little top-roping, but got rained on half-way there, so we skied back to camp and made dinner.

After moving a couple days later, we went in search of a good rock wall. Sadly, the access had melted out and we just skied back to camp (in the rain, of course – what else would it do?). We had all finally figured out skiing in mountaineering boots, so it was a fun 1,000-1,500′ of boot-deep untracked slush.

Photo: Greg Runyan

That night things cleared, and we called to see about an early pickup (we were scheduled to leave the next morning at 11am). Talkeetna was socked in, and they couldn’t fly to come get us.

The next morning, we woke up completely socked in. It was raining, and felt as if we were inside a ping pong ball. It was July 4th, and we were all very much looking forward to getting out on time, eating real food, drinking beer, and dancing at the Fairview. Unfortunately, we didn’t leave. Instead, we stared at the inside of our tents all day and had refried beans and couscous for dinner. The next morning we woke up to the same thing. I was not happy.

It stayed that way all day. Hans and I were scheduled to fly home that night, and we missed our flight as a result of the weather. We woke up the next morning to no rain, just lots of wet, heavy snow. The cook tent nearly collapsed in the night, and I was banging snow off our tent all night long. Fortunately, things finally started clearing. We broke down non-essential parts of camp and hauled loads over to the landing zone after spending a couple hours packing it down.

As I dropped a load off at the LZ and was about to ask one of the other groups if they’d heard from TAT about flights (two other groups were leaving that day; they were bailing early on a week-long trip, and we were already overdue two days on a 12-day) when the Otter blasted through a pass out over the glacier. Hans and I couldn’t contain our happiness, and just started shouting “Plane! Plane!” and got as fast as we could back to camp to tear it all down and get out of there.

We were pretty busy after we got back, but had time to hang some things up to dry, and put away other things before catching a shower, a couple beers, and a burger (along with amazing sweet potato fries) at Twister Creek and then rushing off to Anchorage to catch our rescheduled flights home. We got back in yesterday morning and I once again couldn’t sleep on the plane, so I was up for about 30 hours before getting a nap in.

During the storm I was pretty down on ever going back, but now that I’m a few days out, I’m sure I will be doing plenty of similar expeditions – just not in an El Nino year.

2 thoughts on “Two Weeks in Alaska

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