Timing is everything.
Alaska had been on my horizon all winter, an agreement between my partner Roeland and myself that we would share an adventure further afield on a big mountain in the Spring.
On my horizon but just slightly out of sight, as Alpine Arc and skiing across the Alps had dominated all my time both in organising the project and then in leading it. Roeland agreed to plan the project entirely, allowing me to just say yes.
So I said yes in 2014, several months before the start of a very busy winter and at the time I firmly meant it.
In April, after prolongued report writing closing down Exercise Alpine Arc, combined with a vague feeling that I just needed time sat under a tree (reading a book and listening to the wind blow softly through the branches above me...), I was not prepared for the physical and mental rigour demanded by a big trip to a cold snowy mountain. The timing, for me, was terrible.
Nevertheless Roeland and I travelled to Alaska with the hope of getting the weather and conditions which would allow us a shot at the famous South Ridge of Denali; the Cassin route.
That first week of acclimatising, dragging sleds across many kilometers of glacier, battling through wind and snow, digging in camps, building snow-block walls, shovelling out the tent, peeing into a bottle above my sleeping bag, emptying said pee-bottles, shitting into bags in a can and sleeping constrained within my sleeping bag in a frost lined tent... and I wasn't ready for it.
I wasn't in the right state of mind to have to put the effort in, and considerable effort was required; is required just to survive out on the glacier, let alone climb a 2500m technical climb to a summit over 6000m.
I felt guilty at having said yes to Roeland, to a project that I wasn't in the right state of mind for. I certainly wasn't the best climbing partner for him at the start and I was accutely aware that I had let him down.
The first week passed and we'd made good progress, established a camp at 14,000ft and reccing the fixed lines before a couple of bad weather days set in with 90kph winds and several feet of new snow. I spent the morning of my birthday wrapped in the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag listening to the wind howling outside the tent as Roeland galliantly did the first round of snow shovelling. Preventing us being entirely entombed in a snowdrift. Later I managed to rouse myself and take my turn... :)
After a few days settled in at 14 000ft and some days reading books, chatting and eating, whiling away the bad weather (and not hauling a heavy sled uphill on my bruised hips) I began to feel more content and happier to be there. Then finally we gained a break in the weather and the stunning scenery and sheer grandeur of the place began to take a hold... and I started to feel more motivated and better about being there and our chances of success on the mountain. Roeland never stopped believing that we could do it, and also that we could climb the route fast, in a single push. His faith and thorough planning helped me start to believe as well...
The satellite weather forecast that Roeland had arranged told us that we had four good days of weather coming up and then aother, bigger storm which would probably mean the end of our chances at climbing the Cassin ridge during the time we had available. It was now or never.
I was very sure that I wanted to have already summitted by the West Buttress route and stored the route on my GPS just in case we ended up having to come off the mountain from the summit in poor visibility after the route. This would also help our acclimatisation, which would be crutial in our plan to climb the route in one go. Clearly that meant that we'd have to be very careful how we used those four days! So we decided that the first day we would leave as much gear as possible, including the rope and go fast and light from 14,000ft to the summit and back in a day. Then we would be able to use the second good weather day to rest, eat and dry out any gear. The third day we could then use to approach the base of the climb down the West Rib and Seattle '72 cutoff, and the fourth day we would climb the Cassin.
A tight schedule but possible... so we decided to go for it.
Our first climb to the summit on the West Buttress went very smoothly. Most people on the route seemed to be waiting for the middle of the good weather window and so very few people summitted on the first day of this period- which meant we had the summit practically to ourselves. Sharing it with one other US Guide who had ascended on skis just after us. We were back in the 14,000ft camp for dinner that night, feeling a little tired but both having felt good at the summit with no acclimatisation problems.
Two Austrian aspirant Guides camped next to us had left that afternoon to walk into the Cassin and we knew that by the end of our "rest" day the next day they should come back from their own single-day push on the route and we'd be able to get lots of info about conditions from them.
A immensely enjoyable lie in the next day followed by a n easy day in the sunshine and relative warmth of a 14,000ft camp without wind followed. Finally at around 8pm the Austrians returned, tired but happy with a successful 20hr ascent of the Cassin under their belts. They reported a good track in place and several of the bivvi sites (at the base and at the end of the cowboy arete) already having been dug out by a team engaged on a four day ascent and currently at the cowboy arete camp.
This was great news and very reassuring. With good conditions and a track we were more confident that we could climb it relatively fast. My two remaining concerns then became how difficult the downclimb of the West Rib and Seattle '72 ramp would be and if the bad weather would come in early...
Midday on the third good weather day of our 4-day window, Sunday 3rd May, Roeland and I left 14,000ft camp with light(ish) sacks and a weather forecast that confirmed we had until 10am local time Tuesday 5th May to be down before another storm would hit the mountain.
In addition to our technical climbing gear we took sleeping bags and a sleeping mat each, 2x250g gas cannisters, an MSR reator stove and pan set, and 2 Dehydrated main meals each. No tent, no bivvibag... and a bigger sense of commitment than I've ever had on any of my big Alpine North Face routes in the Alps...
By 4.30pm we were relaxing in the sunshine on a bivii platform at the base of the Japanese couloir. Relaxing.... hmmm.....
The base doesn't go into the shade until about 9pm, when some of the sun's heat is blocked out by the West Rib, but the light remains. Roeland had planned to set off at midnight and sleep for a few hours at the base, but once I was there, at the base of such a famous route... I started to feel the nerves that so often accompany an endeavour where you are taking a calculated risk.
I have several very talented friends who have climbed the Cassin Ridge before and I knew that it had taken them several long days and bivouacs to complete the climb... here I was with Roeland daring to try to climb it in a day. I confess to feeling too nervous to sleep. I insisted we set off earlier... as soon as the couloir was properly in the shade... at 9pm.
In hindsight it would have been better to wait. Without sleep we effective strung two days together and hit a tiredness barrier later in the climb which was worse than just physical fatigue. We're both convinced now that a few hours sleep at the base would have made a huge difference to our speed in the latter stages of the climb.
At 9pm we set off... through the Japanese couloir with the technical crux of the climb and the only pitch of steep ice, past the Cassin ledge, the striking and memorable cowboy arete to our first pause in the small hours of the morning at the bivvi-site at the end of the arete. We both had something to eat and drink and a little chat, I put on another layer as the cold was beginning to slowly seep through to my core and my hands and feet were cold...then we set off again.
The first rock band... the second rock band... the promised good weather proved to be offset by a cold wind much stronger than forecast and we both felt the pressure to keep moving to keep warm...
Finally the sun hit the face late morning and we began to worry less about the cold. At the top of the difficulties the tiredness hit us and we both felt we needed to sleep a little before we continued. We made a platform and took two-hours to doze and melt more water before continuing onto the upper slopes. We began to slow down...
The climbing is nowhere very difficult, but it's serious terrain and often icy and exposed, particualry to the wind which was bitterly cold that day. It's the first time that I have been wearing all the clothes with nothing else in my rucksack and been unable to properly feel my feet... knowing surely that if the wind picks up any more or it gets any colder then I could very quickly be in serious trouble.
I felt.... committed. Out there... more than on any other climb I have completed. I had made a decision and there was only one sensible exit strategy now... and that was to keep climbing and be off the mountain before 10am on Tuesday the 5th May; before the bad weather returned.
The endless upper slopes drained both our energies but my drive to be off the mountain helped me set a steady pace for us both. Every now and then I would rest my head against the snow and accept that it was beginning to feel like I could fall asleep whilst climbing.... not an entirely advisable course of action on the summit slopes below Kalhitna horn. Finally I began to recognise the summit ridge we'd climbed much more easily only two-days before.... we were almost there!
Working together and keeping a steady pace we crested Kalhitna horn at 7.30pm on Monday 4th May. Tired.... empty... cold... probably a little dehydrated but immensely happy. We headed quickly down, having climbed the Cassin route in 22 1/2 hrs. Three hours later we were safely back in 14,000ft camp and ready for sleep.
We'd already decided that if everything went to plan we would break camp the next morning and try to use the small weather window to get back to the airstrip before the storm shut down movement on the mountain. This again turned out to be a wise move... although still tired from an intense four days of effort, we struck camp, returned to our skis at 11,000ft and skied out to the strip in deteriorating weather. It was snowing hard by the time we arrived at the strip on Tuesday 5th May at 9pm. We stowed our gear, pitched the tent and crashed into a deep and well-earned sleep.... whilst it snowed continuously for the next 48hrs. Perfect timing. :)
Roeland has compiled a great little video of our climb together in Alaska which can be seen HERE.