South East Alaska Spring 2013

I had never gone on a climbing trip with the sole purpose of doing new routes. I’ve always been more of classic bagger. There is definitely something appealing about doing something new though. Since it’s so much more improvisational than following a topo, so it feels like a completely different game. More than anything though, I like the idea of not being able to get off route, because there’s no established route to get off of. It’s totally acceptable to stray from the plan.

Last fall, a friend named David Hertel (“Whiskers”) who I hadn’t seen since I was about 12 years old at Boy Scout camp messaged me out of the blue. He invited me on an expedition to Greenland that he was trying to put together. I noncommittally told him that I’d be very psyched, but wouldn’t have time to help with most of the logistics, and wouldn’t be able to do it unless he could get the vast majority paid for. I expected that he’d omit me from his tentative plans as a result of that message, but he kept me in mind. Eventually he calculated that such an expedition wouldn’t be at all financially practical anyway, so he offered that I instead come up to climb with him in southeast Alaska, where he would be working for the summer. I had never climbed with Whiskers before, so I wasn’t immediately excited to front a bunch of money and time to head north, while not even knowing whether I’d have a decent partner when I got there. He volunteered to take care of nearly all of the logistics though, which I had no idea how to approach myself. Because of this, I was swayed to commit.

As soon as the busiest semester of my life ended, working two jobs and volunteering in a lab in addition to my full class schedule, I began the trek to a completely different world, with an entirely different set of priorities. I hopped on a plane from Denver to Seattle, then Seattle to Juneau. I managed to get a ride from the airport to the ferry port in Juneau from a hotel shuttle van because the driver was awesome. After a seven-hour boat ride and some gnarly food from the ferry cafeteria, I finally arrived in Skagway, AK, where Whiskers lives and works during the summer months. Skagway is a tiny town that’s supported solely by tourists from cruise ships. Whenever a ship pulls in, it explodes into a mess of sight-seers who spend money like it’s out of style. The town then dies back to ghost town status as soon as the luxury liners pull away. At night, only the quiet murmur of drunk seasonal workers in the 3 bars can be heard on the streets. Whiskers picked me up at the dock at four AM, from which we drove about thirty seconds back to his house.

I woke up on the couch to a flurry of people running around the house, preparing food and gear for the day. When I had gone to sleep, I assumed I was in a house where something like 3 or 4 people lived, but it turned out that I was actually in the employee housing for Alaska Mountain Guides (A.M.G.), containing about 15 residents in its bunk-lined bedrooms.

Mt. Emerick Cirque

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Above Photo: Dysentery Shoot, M5, WI3, ~250m

We spent a day preparing our gear, then hopped back on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Skagway to Haines, where we would wait for a weather window to fly into the Mt. Emerick cirque. Whiskers works for A.M.G., which has an office in Haines, so our first order of business was to acquire gear and last minute beta. Two of the company owners named Sean & Ely were incredibly helpful. They gave us my two favorite things in this world; beer and beta. The company also loaned us a satellite phone, and avy beacons fo free. The office is surrounded by old broken down busses and vans that have been converted to employee housing. We were allowed to stay in a 1970s StreamLine style camper for $2 per night, which we referred to as ‘The Palace’.

The weather forecast was questionable at best for the next couple of days. It was almost certain that we’d be laying low for a while. This was totally fine with me though because I was starting to feel a little sick. Haines is a pretty cool small town, which makes waiting around relatively pain free, even though climbing was the only thing on our minds.

Haines essential beta: everyone wears rubber boots, even if it’s sunny and dry out. The library is wicked nice for being in such a small town. The only free wifi is in the Fogcutter bar, where the Obsidian Stout is awesome. There’s a pretty good gear shop in town. The Mountain Market Cafe’ and Grocery Store is essentially the hub of town, and a good place to hang out.

On our second night in The Palace, I started to get very sick. I couldn’t eat, didn’t want to move, and stuff would come out of me when I didn’t want it to. On our third day in Haines, the weather improved so that flying might be a possibility, but I was still too sick to even think about being on a glacier, let alone climbing. It was obvious that Whiskers was getting quite frustrated, and rightfully so. After waiting around town for one more beautiful sunny day, I started to feel a bit better, and decided that I might be ok to fly in.

We met out pilot (Drake of *Fly Drake*) at the airstrip outside of town early the next morning. We loaded our gratuitous amount of gear and food into the tiny prop plane, handed Drake a wad of cash, and took off. Drake wasn’t sure if landing in the Emerick Cirque was even a possibility at that point, so he cautiously assessed the snow conditions by flying around the cirque a couple of times to look, then flying to and landing on a strip of snow that he knew he could take off from. He decided that conditions were acceptable, so we cruised back to the Emerick cirque and landed on the short bench just below Mt. Emerick, where we would set up our basecamp.

The next morning I learned that I was not healthy yet.  At this point, I felt pretty regretful about succumbing to the pressures of limited trip time to fly in before I was ready. I lay around for the next couple of days, barely eating and only leaving the tent when the privy would suddenly call, which occurred about every half hour.

My condition eventually improved enough that I could consider climbing, so I meandered up some steep couloir on the south side of Emerick to check out some possible lines on that side of the peak. Although the couloir I ascended wouldn’t be a good way to access the lines I was interested in, it put me right up next to the original ridge route on Emerick, done by Jack Tackle in the 70’s. The ridge was too snow packed to allow for a reasonable ascent, but it was interesting to take a look at the terrain from close up. I was also able to scope the steep lines I was interested in on the far south side.

Over the next couple of days, conditions worsened. Temperatures became quite a bit warmer, so the cirque began to fall apart. From our camp, we could hear avalanches and cornice collapses thunder down around us every 20-30 minutes. We lay low for a couple more days with the hopes that conditions would improve. To keep ourselves occupied, we spent our time hiking around on the glacier to scout potential climbs. It did get slightly better, so we decided to go for a route that we had picked out the previous day, one with a prominent runnel of ice through a relatively steep section, and some sections of snow trudging and steep exposed rock.

We left the tent at 3 am, strapped snowshoes on our feet and slogged our way across the cirque until reaching the steep snow leading to the base of our route. After trudging up some steep and precarious snow for another 45 minutes, we reached the base of a band of rock with the most technical and intimidating pitch. This climbing felt pretty insecure for me, especially since I was still recovering from sickness, and wasn’t totally clear headed yet. I found a questionable cam, a questionable nut, and a solid pin in the 60 meters of climbing. There was ice on the pitch, but none solid and thick enough to place a piece in, which was representative of the awkward season we were there, with still too much snow to climb pure rock, but not enough ice to hold loose rocks together. I thought the climbing on this pitch was around M5, which Whiskers agreed about. A couple more pitches of loose rock climbing took us to the tiny summit, which only one person could fit on at a time. We were able to find a reasonable descent down the next gully to looker’s left, after two rappels and some reverse slogging.

After we were able to finally squeeze this worthwhile climb out of the poor conditions, temperatures continued to increase. We wouldn’t be able to climb in the cirque again. Although we had initially planned to walk back to town from our camp, our exit was heavily corniced and we couldn’t find an alternative way around that would be safe to travel with heavy packs, so we called Drake on the satellite phone to see if he’d pluck us out of the cirque. He hesitantly agreed, so we waited around one more boring day before he was able to fly in. The liftoff was a bit saucy because of the short runway and soft snow. It was really cool of him to stick his neck out to keep us out of some very hazardous terrain. I hope that pilots like Drake are always around, and don’t get dominated by the tourist-based “flight seeing” companies. During the flight out, we received a well-deserved lecture about how it’s a bad idea to plan climbing trips in Alaska without knowing how the conditions will be.

North West Ridge of the Ships Prow

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Above Photo: Ships Prow, North West Ridge, 5.9, WI3, ~700m

Since we didn’t hang around Mt. Emerick as long as we had planned, we headed back to Skagway where we’d try to get some more accessible stuff done. Whiskers had previously scouted a route above upper Dewey Lake, on a formation that he called the Ships Prow, which is a few miles above town. I was still a bit sick, so I took a couple more rest days to recover while Whiskers worked, running his company’s tourist-trap zip line.

We hiked up to an awesome and free cabin that hikers have maintained. Sitting right next to the lake, that little cabin is definitely a place that I’d recommend everyone in the area to experience (although the locals would probably not like me for saying so). We left the cabin before the next days light, and headed up an approach that was a lot longer than we had expected when looking at it from the lake. We punched up a steep couloir as the sun hit, and decided to make our way up the prominent North West ridge of the formation. As predicted, the climbing was very loose, but overall was of good quality, especially because of the awesome position. We had an incredible view of the Sawtooths on one side and the ocean on the other. Whiskers let me lead all of the pitches, which felt good after being held down by illness for such a big portion of the trip. Five or six short pitches with a lot of traversing back and forth between the north and west faces took us to the summit. The climbing got up to about 5.9, with some thin ice for a couple pitches in the middle. After topping out, we were able to make it back to the top of the couloir, where we had started the technical climbing, in two 60m rappels and some down climbing. Tired and wet, we returned to the comfort of the cabin for the night, then jaunted back to town the next day to pack for the journey home.

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2 thoughts on “South East Alaska Spring 2013

  1. Hi, Kurt.

    I’m the Editor of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska’s monthly newsletter, Scree. I would love to be able to print a report of your climbs in an upcoming issue of the Scree. Are you able to email me a copy of an article (or two) detailing your climbs? You can include photos and maps in a separate email. I would, of course, email you a pdf copy of the Scree that contains your published article(s).

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Steve Gruhn
    Scree Editor
    Mountaineering Club of Alaska
    Anchorage, Alaska
    mcascree@gmail.com

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