This is an account of an Alaskan trip to the Middle Triple Area by Kevin Thaw and Calder Stratfield in 1996. They managed to do two new routes, naming them the Alaskan Rose and Dreams of Sea, both 5.10+ A4-ish. enjoy!
Alaska's climbing scene revolves around a small strip of tarmac in Talkeetna. Denali aspirants and steep seekers alike share the row of Bush Plane laden hangers. Talkeetna is a minimal township, geared around adventure tourism and always with a bush plane in its skies. Most Alaskan endeavors begin here.
On arrival, our pilot to be J. Hudson stated his name and punctuated his greeting with a minimal hand gesture all without breaking stride. Maybe the pseudo-crisis after pseudo--crisis of business occupied his mind or perhaps he was just a man of few words. My partner Calder Stratford and I busily readied our equipment, addressing important last minute details. Our VE-25 needed seamsealing, and a pretty thorough job, judging from all the tales told about Kichatna weather. We scrounged around for extra stove fuel, necessary for fattening our skimpy supply. Several homeward bound adventurers, thoroughly wind and sun beaten, shared our hanger. Some were jazzed by success, others tried rationalizing defeat;
Our pilot J flew a couple of parties in to McKinley's base camp, but still remained negative about our chances of seeing the Cathedral Spires anytime soon. The Cathedral Spires (often called Kichatna Spires) are located approximately 70 miles southwest of McKinley amid the Kichatna Mountains. This precipitous granite region is famed for fickle weather and broken dreams. Many laughed at our optimism in expecting prompt travel to the climbs. It never hurt to hope.
Our tensions eased with the arrival of some familiar faces. Noel Craine, Strappo, Andy and Steve Quinlan now pulled into the hanger. Strappo and I are ex-patriot Brits, loving to call ourselves English but would not want to live there again. Noel Craine, a braver soul, still resides on the pestered isle, tortured by weather and government. We caught up on trash talk and gossip as they prepared for the Great Gorge of the Ruth. If our chosen region was visible while J flew in this crew, we would get the green light on our project.
On return from dumping Strappo and crew, he had not viewed the Spires, but was willing to give it a try. Trying to pack our sizable racks, portaledges, food and fuel seemed to cause Mr. Hudson great amusement. Our load amounted to four big haul bags and four smaller packs. Calder, his father Lynn Stratford and I crammed everything into the small red bird. Our bush pilot only allowed 850lbs per aircraft, but was less than scientific about evaluating this sum. Choosing only to eyeball and guesstimate the total, bulk seemed more our problem.
As he eased forward on the throttle, we quickly became part of the Alaskan sky. Once airborne J became very charismatic. He switched into the mode of an enthused guide pointing out the features and history of the tundra as it swept beneath, and always joking on his plane's capabilities.
To the North, panoramas of Denali, Hunter , Foraker unfolded with many appealing routes and just as many steep snow tracks. Slowly gaining elevation, J still questioned the westerly skies, a haze protected the spires from our wanton eyes
The Tatina Glacier Valley was our intended locale. J now careened towards one of its more sizable alpine hunks, then banked hard upping the G force on his air mobile. He wore an ear to ear grin, easily conveying his love for this work. During Alaska's dark months J heads to the Great Southwest, combing the deserts for lost treasure, artifacts, and trinkets. He thinks strangely of our adventuring, but has his own at heart.
The Cessna's snow landing skis have been hand pumped into position, and we began the descent, skids eventually digging into the glacier. After quickly unloading J departed with a final, "Yeah, we'll come get you if the weathers good."
At 9:30 p.m. daylight does not diminish, in fact the term "daylight" is not very applicable during northern summer time. Using this late light we ferried loads up to the Tatina's widest point, avoiding encampment below one of the many sloughing gullies. "When does it get dark," Calder asked, "August I think" was my reply.
Alone without the Internet (no Duke Nukem 3D), climbing or eating is just about the only way to pass time in this locale. With camp established, choosing an objective was left until the following day. There seemed no shortage of scope in this stark gray/white land.
The Tatina's carved valley reminded me somewhat of Chamonix, a French alpine town that whittled away at many of my youthful years. The summits around us share many characteristics with the Chamonix Aguilles, a ridge line located high above its French valley. Even our latrine had French ambiance, two foot plates and a pit.
After a day of snow shoeing and scoping potential lines, both Calder and I felt a little spoiled by El Cap's right side. After arriving in the Kichatnas with ideals of finding a northern "Sea of Dreams", a touch of disappointment crossed us on not finding a huge continuously overhanging wall. Still, no point in worrying; there are more than enough steep surfaces to soak up our energy. We chose a Half Dome size spire for an initial objective, a campside attraction, and load ferrying ensued. Our route went up a buttress below a long ridge, the lower section could be climbed via a long diagonal gash, but instead we opted for a path through a series of roofs to attain the hanging headwall. A free pitch cleared us of the glacier and the
Under the main roof's centre and out of rope he plugged in our second belay. At the belays we drilled single bolts to enable easy rapping without leaving any precious rack. I
On returning to camp we found Lynn, our site engineer, had filled his days with construction projects. Walls and ditches now fortified our humble abode. Everything was set up perfectly. Lynn was not accompanying us for the whole ride, choosing only a week of sparse living. He brought much relief to tent life, and was by far the best card dealer.
We awoke to snow beating upon our nylon canopy. Alarm clocks were left to sound and be ignored. Finally, exiting the tent a perfect day greeted all. We decided that tomorrow would be our day instead. Lounging in sunshine and baking fudge brownies passed the remainder of a much needed lazy day. The Outback Oven turned me into a chef, rounding off our day with pizza and scones.
The next day, our summit push day, brought a little more wind than is usually pleasant. We were set up and ready, procrastination was far out weighed by motivation. A speedy snowshoe approach and a quick jumar, aided by our psyche for new summits, deposited us atop the fixed lines. Calder took the lead while I engaged in belay aerobics. Shadow boxing and deep knee bends kept me warm as Calder nailed out our rope to the next station. Cleaning the pitch also warmed me considerably, but this new found warmth did not help convince me of the next pitch's freeable nature. Staying in the aiders for the entire pitch would be easy, but time consuming. Free climbing shoes were decided upon. During my next debate of whether or not to tote along the aiders, Calder interjected that if I take them I will use them, so true. Into our Atom Smasher they went, along with the hammer and pins.
About twenty feet out with only a badly tipped Camalot, I would have happily pounded pins and stood in aiders had I been equipped. Upwards is all that really counts, so I was forced to continue laybacking the smooth flare. An unexpected sinker hand jam offered respite and protection, keeping the pitch from getting too scary for 5.10+. Normally, this pitch would not be what I would consider a serious grade, but up here things feel very different. The steep groove/crack eventually ended on a small ledge. The second half of this stretched pitch encompassed many loose and exfoliating flakes. It had my interest.
I ran out of rope with my hands on a small shelf. Only the cords elasticity allowed me to place a meager seven piece belay above the shelf. I say meager because no single piece was very good, but their combination seemed to work out fine. With the rope fixed I was forced to untie to mount the ledge. A snowflake drifted by, absorbed by my prior lead I had been oblivious to the sky. The engulfing clouds had slowly crept from behind our peak's ridge. We must race for the prized summit. With not enough rope to fix this high, and no desire to repeat the lower pitches, we quickly free climbed onwards, forever eyeing the changing clouds. Trading pitches that successively eased moved us toward the last lead onto the summit ridge. Its extensive lichen crust guarded the rock against our touch, making for very interesting climbing. The summit was finally gained, hollow glory was ours to behold. As we reveled in achievement the snow began falling in earnest. We abseiled towards safety and the comforts of our pokey yellow home. Numerous chilly raps finally had us touching down after many hours on the go. One down.....? to go.
The next morning brought frenzy, Lynn's bush plane was due to arrive, and once there, he was not eager to stay. Excitedly, we packed Lynn into the plane, hoping to hitch a ride over to Middle Triples East Buttress, but were informed that no landing was available on that side. Rats! Dejected as we gazed up to the col, it glowered from its aspect three thousand feet above. Dividing loads between pack and sled, we bolstered dwindling psyches and tramped towards our obscured goal. We were not quite traveling light for a sub 24 hour ascent. The col was guarded by yawning crevasses and very steep snow. Gravity favored the sleds weight over our forward motion.
Hours of toil passed, and now with the main approach hazards gone, we gazed down over the other side of the col. Tell-tale streaks whisked the sky far to the South thus capping our wasted effort, along with all motivation spent. A storm was approaching. Ugh! We turned tail and headed back to our sanctuary. As night fell (only measured by chronology with no relation to light) the clouds drew around and engulfed us. Four feet of snow then surrounded us, filling in for just as
The short approach, brutal enough with many feet of fresh uncompacted snow, saw our snowshoes punching through deeply. With only a few days left before a mandatory extraction, a sense of urgency was decidedly felt. The first clear day allowed us to complete two semi-dry, and quite run
Our Atom Smasher hung high atop the fixed lines, taunting us the next morning, at times barely visible through the many swirling clouds. Bad went to worse with rain being our new torment. Snow seemed preferable at this point because it took longer to soak the rock and feed the abundant black lichen. Everything was getting soaked. Hopefully enough days remained to send this route, even if it meant climbing in weather the day before our extraction.
One more rainy day thwarted us, dowsing everything including my free climbing psyche. I contemplated suiting up and aiding, no matter what the sky's state, but we waited. Our resolve was rewarded with an offering of the best day I believe the Kichana's can give. In almost warm sunshine, the fixed lines hung loosely below. My concern of skating on wet lichen was no longer a problem. Moving off the belay to a thin and crispy flare had me jamming and laybacking, wishing for some better pro. While out on lead I was using a long and thin lost arrow to scrub clean the various foot holds and thin jams. This was the key.
Our plan was to moan up the right most headwall crack. Instead the cliff steered me left, towards the prouder of the two fissures, but I could not ignore this perfect ledge stance. I set the belay. On this route we added single bolt belays with a nice deep rivet for back up.
From beneath, this soaring golden headwall appeared to have a "Harding" type slot. Once upon it, this was hardly the case. Instead, after a short face traverse, I was confronted by a shallow bottoming groove. Initially easily tamed by hand jams, the groove started tapering and thinning to a mere shallow trough. The slot was interspersed with some O.K. pro, yet the rock was always crystalline, its teeth claiming much skin. Halfway out my next lead, with a string of junk pro behind me, a similar trough now confronted me.
I could not aid now, not after all this. Besides, this new trough was minus the thin crack in the back, where pro was possible before. Placing two marginal pieces at the point of no return, I hung and swung around searching for options. This new view point afforded a glimpse of some face holds appearing to the right and some tenuous traversing to what looked like a flake. Leaving my high pro, (it is hard to consider your follower in moments like these) the face traverse did indeed link to an easy lieback. I ran it out redeeming any previously unvoiced inconsiderations for Calder, and I knew we were in there.
This flake lead directly to a point above the trough then leftwards into an easy chimney system. I stepped out of the chimney to place the next belay so we had a clean shot downward, a forethought for pulling our rappel ropes on the return portion of this journey. For the next lead, Calder stepped back into the chimney and later deemed it "hardly climbing" after cruising an easy boulder hop pitch. After a final 5.8 offwidth pitch, we stoop atop our spire. We built a cairn, to mark our passing, then headed back down the route via rap. Our elongated shadows on the wall stretched eastward as the sun rode its shallow elliptical path.
We dubbed this route "Alaskan Rose," named after the abundant, sharp lichen with its appearances akin to the garden bloom. One thing we learned is that Alaska seems to require a relaxed approach, at least 50% of our time was spent stormbound. Just when the cabin fever began building the weather almost always broke, but sometimes it was only long enough to step outside.
In twenty-three days of glacial life the only human impact encountered was the occasional aircraft drifting far overhead. On exiting our glacial home, I noticed the other valleys looked to contain some steeper looking walls. Maybe everything can look as overhanging as desired when viewed from a flat perspective. Perhaps the grass is always greener, or rather, the crag is always steeper phenomenon is working on us. Who knows? I may have to return just to be sure.
Now back in the city, my memories of the stifling storm day boredom luckily becomes hazy, for it is the brilliant climbing days that hold all the vivid memories. When in the midst of a situation it is easy to forget or fully appreciate what a retrospective experience alpine climbing can be.