A Typical Eastern Alaska Range Trip

Finals week in Fairbanks was filled with blue skies, sun, pollen, and little wind.  Mount Hayes was visible every day that week.  We planned to fly to that mountain the weekend immediately following finals.  Packing that weekend was made easy, as my climbing partner Grant and I lived next to each other in a small and quaint trifecta of a cabin community.  As Monday dawned, I arose with a sore throat and Grant storming into my cabin. We acknowledged we would be waiting around until Thursday; a large storm system had rolled into the Hayes Range, meaning we would be flying nowhere until it cleared.  The next few days passed, my sore throat turned into full-blown allergies.  It seems as though one member of a Hayes expedition always gets sick, but luckily it turned around and I was on the improving side when we left.  Thursday morning saw us driving to Delta Junction packed and ready to go.

Thursday afternoon saw us drinking beers in Fairbanks once again due to poor flying weather.  It also snowed that week, that was weird.

Grant and I biked to Hoodoo brewery to meet up with some friends, then we biked to Wolf Run for some food.  We met up with a dirty hippie who had relocated to Fairbanks (my former cabinmate’s ex-girlfriend’s stepsister’s stepson) who needed a place to stay, so Grant and I went over to the liquor store to prepare.  Grant took the turn on gravel too sharply for his 20 year old road bike, fell and scuffed up his hand.  All external damage, but dammit Grant!  Wounds don’t heal at high altitude.  The nice saleslady helped Grant clean his hand, despite his protests of the wound’s insignificance.  We got liquor and returned to my cabin and partied with aforementioned dirty hippie.

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As Grant was leaving he hit his head on my ladder, causing it to fall and bust his lip.  Dammit Grant!  A day or few later, mostly Grant decided to drain a bottle of Jim Bean, then we planned to bike to school in order to access showers before we left.  Grant managed to crash his bike and skin his chin on the flat bike path.  He decided to go ensconce himself in his cabin to avoid further injuries, potentially from walking or remaining conscious.  Sunday we drove down to Delta Junction, stopping at the Hayes viewpoint to ogle and relieve ourselves.  I tried to jump the guardrail, caught my foot, and fell on my wrist and knee. dammit. We needed to get to away from our lowly elevation to the safety of the high mountains.

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IMG_2915.JPGGrant flew out midmorning with little fanfare.  The plane, a Supercub, only seats the pilot and a passenger with gear, so Brian and I go grab meowlers of beer to pass the time.  Beers drained, we waited until the pilot could ferry Brian.  He departed and I piled my stuff in the field and anxiously waited for my turn.  After the pilot landed we loaded my shit, my self, the gas, and took off.  I have never flown in a Supercub before and was surprised at how easily the plane took to the air.

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The flight in was spectacular.  After half an hour watching the terrain change from green/brown plains to rolling foothills, transitioning to frozen tundra with frozen rivers, one river which we followed to a host of glaciated valleys.  We rounded a corner and Mount Hayes revealed itself.  I saw the boys on the Trident Glacier by our runway the pilot had made with Grant.  We landed and I stepped into the alpine world.  I watched a sizable avalanche release that no one else caught

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We saw many more over the next few days.  It looked like we had 5 or 6 days of amazing weather with no wind, but we hadn’t really considered the storm that had just left the range after depositing 1 to 3 feet of snow everywhere.  3 feet of loose, unconsolidated, dry fluff. We watched the pilot leave and got camp set up.  As it was only 4PM we roped up and skied out a ways to pack a trail for the next day and to investigate snow conditions.

 

We went out a ways and found some questionable snow conditions (we judged with our total lack of avalanche training), but we rationalized it would stabilize with the heat.

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Grant; performing some sort of snow stability test involving shovel and picket

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The next morning we hauled our 50ish pound packs to the Ramp and up to Levi’s Bump, close to 10,000′.  Grant’s dad stopped by during a “training mission” and buzzed us a couple of times in his Herc.  Grant was really excited!

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It was also really, really hot, I had to take off my thermal lower layer after I started sweating too much for comfort.

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IMG_3148.JPGThe boys took my suggestion of resting the next day and getting an alpine start that night, so the next day we hung out, took pictures, slept and ate.  We listened to almost every available story of Arctic Entries to procrastinate 100% boredom.

At some point during the day Peter flew around us and took a picture of my ass…but that’s a different story.  The next day we awoke at 0200, rousing and boiling water takes longer at high altitude because of the lower pressure, but we were roped up and walking by 5.

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5AM

The first section was a large knife edge cornice we had to traverse down and hop over, Grant led out and found a few crevasses, which you will learn is his special skill if you climb with him enough.

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6AM

Eventually we cruised by the pass separating Levi’s Bump from the East Ridge.  We started to gain some elevation and Brian took over.  Travel was awkward with 3 people, especially as we haven’t all climbed together before.

 

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We remembered our picket skills after a few clips, but the three feet of airy powder made travel extremely tedious.

 

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After a bit it was my turn to lead.  My first leading experience was a trial by fire.  Brian told me the plain we had to cross was likely riddled with crevasses and also have fun, so I took care leading but had no incident.  I traveled up a ridge until I found it was broken by a giant corniced crevasse, so we diverted to the right and found the crevasse ran perpendicular to the ridge, breaking horizontally across the entire face.

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9AM

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Grant put me on belay as I slowly made my way to an existing snow bridge.  Each step took about 30 seconds to make since the snow was dry and lofty; it took a lot of stomping to make a single step that wouldn’t collapse under my weight.  Typical bottomless Eastern Alaska Range powder.  I got pretty practiced at stomping. Having reached the bridge, I spent about 10 minutes hand-packing a step on the snow bridge before realizing I had to ascent 3 vertical feet past that step to clear the crevasse.  The upper lip of the crevasse was, of course, covered in about 3 feet of unconsolidated dry snow and, once I got a seemingly-sturdy step packed on it, I moved myself in position to step up onto it.  The whole bridge settled about an inch as I made my move.  Standing on the snow bridge, I was convinced I could climb the rest, but Grant wisely reminded me everyone had to cross the bridge.  I got down and slowly chased the crevasse as it ran to the right until I found a place that looked crossable.

It took a lot of stomping to make a platform to work on.  Once I made my step on the snow bridge I was stymied about how to pull myself up, past the crevasse.  Driving my two pickets vertically as far upslope as I could get them, I used the them as aid and pulled myself up, kicking my left foot into the snow for support.  I took one picket with me so could progress.

10:15AM

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You can see camp from here

The slope angle above the crevasse increased significantly and now was around 50 degrees, with a foot of fresh powder on top of icy snow on a glacial base (I assume, we never touched bottom).

Hoping the snow would improve, I climbed up the slope, placed a picket, and set myself up to quickly belay Brian and his picket past the crevasse, which he got by with less difficulty than I.  He passed a picket off to me, anchored himself into the one already placed, and then rope management got tricky.

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Not wanting to belay on the sketchy slope, I decided to continue upwards and run it out to get a better belay, hoping for safer snow and easier slope angle.  This was obviously one of those no-fall zones.  Grant made it through the snow and past the crevasse easily with his caribou-like legs and I was pretty much done leading after that.

Somehow it was still my lead, so I continued upwards as the snow conditions deteriorated; I had many pickets again but they were placing too easily for me to have much confidence in them.  Not only was the amount of fresh snow increasing, but the underlying snow became less consolidated the higher I got, so every step was made with special care.  Brian asked if there was a good spot to belay from and I was not sure, it looked like the ridge rolled back a bit higher up so I continued onward.  I reached the point where the angle lessened, which was farther away than I had thought, and belayed the other two up.

Grant told me he was getting a weird feeling about the snow conditions and I was inclined to agree.  I trust Grant’s mountain-sense, he has a sixth sense for trouble.  And also great taste in beer, but that wasn’t particularly helpful at the moment.  I was also not stoked on the snow conditions.  After a short debate with Brian, who was still raring to go, I declared we should at least get up to this triangular-looking snow-formation-thing above us.

Somehow, it was still my lead and I journeyed upwards through the same shitty snow conditions we had encountered lower down, and after stomping a particular step for about a minute something clicked and I decided I was done; I had been leading for about 2 hours and had no more love to give the mountain.  And I was getting really pissed off at the pickets around my neck that kept clanging into me like some broken wind chime.  I told the boys someone else had to take over and Brian stepped up, as we watched him struggle through the hip-deep snow I told an increasingly-paranoid Grant that Brian was the last one who needed to be convinced to bail.

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IMG_3249.JPGAfter making literally zero feet of vertical progress past the end of my tracks over the course of a few minutes, Brian retreated back to our somewhat-consolidated belay ledge.

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Grant, being the most experienced, led down the steep slope placing pickets as he went.  It took two belays to get to the crevasse, which Grant slid over just fine.

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IMG_3258.JPGUnfortunately his sliding had destroyed part of the upper ledge.  I told him I was just going to jump over it and he cautioned me to slide.  Looking down at my given slide path I was definitely going to end up in the crevasse.  I ignored Grant’s advice and jumped down to the safety of a low angled slope.  Brian followed and cleaned the pickets and wands and the rest of the tromp down was uneventful.  I did unrope after the crevasse to take a much needed break and it is worthwhile to mention never had I a better view while squatting.

I followed the footsteps, met up with the boys, clipped back in and we worked our way back to Levi’s Bump.  Brian was pretty bummed out we didn’t summit, Grant and I were still pretty stoked just to be off the ridge proper.

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We ate a good chunk of our food, woke up early the next day, packed up camp and downclimbed the Ramp.  The top part had me worried for some reason, it was half-ice-half-snow on top of rocks with a slope angle around 50 degrees.

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This section didn’t last too long, Brian shot ahead as Grant and I worked our way down.

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Meeting up at the base we strapped on our skis and skied back unroped.  Most of the ski was enjoyable until Grant yelled at me to stop making (admittedly shitty) ski turns, they felt the slope was a bit unstable.  So began the long process of side-stepping our way down the slope, which was incredibly slow with heavy packs.  Stripping off my shirt in the 80 degree weather that had been plaguing the afternoons, I heard Brian tell Grant to “downclimb with your skis”.  I took this to mean kicking the tips in, an idea I immediately dismissed, but after thinking for a few minutes I pointed my tips uphill and walked down the slope backwards.  A process I termed “down-skinning”.  This took much of my weight off my glutes, which were quickly becoming exhausted, and put my weight on my meaty quads.  The process of moving my poles in sync with my legs became meditative.  After an indeterminate amount of time passed, the angle lessened and I began skinning in the proper orientation, though I was pretty far behind my long-legged companions.  I headed down a hill and grabbed a wand from the lone crevasse we had identified crossing our trail, meeting up with my apparently disheartened partners at our base camp.  Turns out the pilot had no desire to fly in when the snow was indiscernible from buttery mashed potatoes, so we would spend one more night on the glacier.  We tanned and jammed for the rest of the glorious day.

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I’ll take this over a beach

Friday dawned and we woke up and called our pilot Jim (the uncle of our previous pilot, Jesse) who asked us to stomp down part of the airstrip.  The strip was frozen pretty hard so I gave up after a while.  Also, Brian was already halfway down the strip stomping and I figured he was doing a pretty good job.

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Hearing the plane’s engines resounding off the mountain walls, we assembled Grant’s gear near where the plane would pull up.  Grant flew out and Brian flew after, I had volunteered to go last both times.  I made sure to keep the stove and a full bottle of fuel with the rest of my gear…  The next hour and a half was pretty.

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When Jim picked me up, he flew me to the northeast side of Mount Hayes and I saw two climbers on a small peak off the glacier; I saw no landing strip.

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I took as many pictures as I could, around 900 over the whole trip (Galen had requested copious pictures of the area).

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I landed at Jim’s personal family hanger where Grant and Brian were waiting with my car, soon after we were back in Fairbanks drinking beer and discussing more climbing trips.

We realized two-man teams are ideal, three is awkward and slow.  When we head back, we think the best time would be mid-March to mid-April with two two-man teams.  That way Team Suffer could lead for a few hours, then Team Misery would take the lead, saving energy if there’s trailbreaking to be done.  We could also bring more fuel, one thing I was concerned about on this trip.  We only really had time for one summit attempt, had we a few more bottles of fuel, more time and food we could have done the ridge assault-style and punched the path a little higher each day with shovels.  Grant and I both had work starting soon after trip, so that was not an option available to us anyway.  I looked at a picture of the ridge from about 50 years ago, it has changed and become less-continuous.  Supposedly the ridge is mostly snice, since it gets a lot of wind it’s normally pretty hard-packed.  Maybe we’ll try again on a year with less snow.

Much thanks to the Alaska Alpine Club; we applied for and received the Peter McKeith Grant, without which our plane trip would have been unfundable.

Alaska Alpine Club Website

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