Spring Break was upon us UAF folk. Galen had been playing the role of homeless climbing bum for a few months down in the warmer part of the US, but at the mention of potentially good weather and definitely existing snow, he drove day and night (or at least a night) from California to make it to Alaska for my week off. We had little news about snow stability, but weather was improving towards the weekend so we decided to go with the old standard: The Castner Glacier.
The Castner Glacier is in a much-reviled part of the eastern-most subrange of the Alaska Range, a subrange affectionately known as “The Deltas” (unaffectionately known as “that place that sucks”). The Castner is a much-degraded glacier that was formerly much higher in the 60’s and 70’s (300′ higher in places), before dramatically bowing to the whims of human-induced accelerated climate change. The Thayer Hut is located about 7.5 miles from the road above the Confluence of the Silvertip, White Princess, and M’Ladies Branches of the Castner. Each of these branches leads to a host of climbing opportunities, like Old Snowy, Blackcap, and White Princess, or as I call them, “projects” because I never complete them. Yet the inexplicable draw of this valley calls me back year after year, only to ravage my carefully constructed plans time and time again. I had hoped this trip might break the continuous stream of unaccomplishments I had experienced in this valley. As I write this two years later, I still hold that hope for a future trip.
Weather didn’t start off very good. The approach was very windy.
The second outing of my hauling sled, upgraded with a single attachment point instead of one on each hip. Much more comfortable on the hip muscles. This upgrade earned it the designation “MRK II”. I had been skiing with a pack almost every day for a few months, I offered to take the sled most of the trip.
The trip up the moraine was long; I always forget how much time it takes to slog up (I know it’s around 7 miles). Luckily for us, the crux of the slog, the Fin, was mostly covered in snow so we were able to cruise right over it instead of traversing the slopes around it.
After about 6 hours of slogging up the valley I had a desperate and terrible idea. Our gear collection was still in its poverty phase and we only had my 3 season tent for shelter. I felt it might get battered by the wind if we just set it up. Instead of taking time to build snow walls, we would utilize our resources, so we took a few hours and built a snow cave. People, including myself, have these romantic ideas about sleeping in snow caves. Usually they hold these views until they sleep in one. Properly constructed, a snow cave can be a warm and safe place, out of the wind and insulated by feet of snow in each direction. Improperly constructed, they are a frozen hole good for shivering most of the night away.
In retrospect, building a snow cave into a windward formation was not a good idea. A few snow walls would have taken less time to build and we would have stayed drier.
There also would have been more room in the tent. As we finished our ramen and mashed potatoes and a couple tablespoons of butter, we prepared for a night in our newly constructed paradise. This paradisal image quickly blew away as the evening winds picked up and snow started flirting into the cave. We attempted to plug the entrance with the sled and our packs; while it stifled the invasion to an extent, we did wake up with about a centimeter or two of snow on our already-starting-to-be-soggy sleeping bags.
Begin day two. We got out of the newly christened “Shithole” and started the process of boiling water. The first pot took an annoyingly long time, about 45 minutes for a liter. It was quite cold and we came to the realization there needed to be some sort of barrier between the stove and the snow. Probably why they included those pieces of foil to go under and around the stove. And also why shovels have detachable heads, I assume. With the sun returned and the skies cleared, we regained some motivation. We continued up valley and got off the moraine and onto the glacier proper, roping up at the Confluence. We skied up the White Princess Branch through a crevasse field; I had hiked up the valley the previous summer and knew “generally” where to go in order to avoid most of the crevasses.
The best way I’ve found up this part of the glacier is to start far right of the only rock visible at the Confluence, and head left towards a series of chutes up-glacier from the hut plateau (plateau near the base of the ridge separating the Silvertip Branch on the left from the White Princess Branch in the center). From here stay left of center as you travel around the corner, linking exposed rock to exposed rock.
As we ascended the glacier we experienced a fair and uncomfortable amount of “whoomphing”. This is the technical term for, as well as the sound snow makes when a weak layer collapses somewhere in the snowpack, often occuring when overlaid by a hard wind slab (which was present). We (still) had no formal avalanche training, but had done a bit of reading in preparation and whoomphing is definitely a red flag, meaning avalanche danger is high. Especially bad was the 360 degrees whoomph we set off near the crest of a glacial roll that circled around us.
On the bright side, it meant glacial travel was likely pretty safe because most crevasses would be obvious, or covered in a hard slab of supportive snow. We abandoned any idea of trying to push over the O’Brien icefall and instead would look for a route up a peak that involved as little snow travel as possible. We rounded the corner of the White Princess Branch and were overjoyed to see multiple frozen scree lines up Blackcap. We had an objective.
We arrived at our base camp site around 6pm, having woken up around 8:30. To make up for the miserable snow cave, we constructed a mighty snow fortress with three snow walls almost as high as we were tall and reinforced the hell out of them. It was not very windy when we arrived, but winds tend to pick up and roll down the glacier in the evenings.
Proper stove setup. USE THE SHOVELHEAD, Rick. We also constructed a badass latrine, dubbed “The Fortress of Solitude”. This acted as an unofficial 4th snow wall.
The third day started with gorgeous weather and apparently little wind. As soon as we stepped out of the confines of our snow walls, the wind was apparent and biting. The night before we had joked about taking a very glaciated route up Blackcap, and in the morning I watched a piece of a hanging glacier (serac) fall and trigger an avalanche right across our theoretical route.
The route up Blackcap started once off the Castner Glacier. We would have to cross the bergshrund, which is the technical term for the edge of a glacier, in order to access what we called the Ramp. We would follow scree lines as much as possible up the Ramp from 6,500′ to 8,500′ to the Shoulder. From there we would take the final ridge to the summit block, where there was a gully we would have to climb up to reach the true summit around 9,800′. The potential avalanche danger in the gully was the only thing we had worry about, due to the unstable snowpack we found on the glacier. Everything else was relatively safe from avalanches.
The guidebook noted we should not follow the ridge up to the summit; instead we should jot right, towards the black cap, and head up a gully. We did not experience any red flags while we were up here, so we figured we would start our traverse to the gully. Galen pulled a real dick move here, asking if I wanted to pass the lead off to him since, you know, he was single and I wasn’t. Suddenly shattered out of the Zone, I became very conscious of our altitude. Cursing Galen, I passed the lead to him. After a few minutes, we both slowed to a stop, as we were punching through a few inches of wind/sun slab into depth hoar. We kinda figured this might happen, the snow we had encountered en route so far had been fairly thin, but as we worked our way around the summit to the more southern aspect the snow changed. We dug a small hole in the snow and our minds were quickly decided: neither of us wanted to take the chance of a 3,000′ fall down the mountain to the Castner Glacier. The previous year we triggered an avalanche from above that shot down a gully on Triangle Peak, on the same aspect no less.
So we started down the mountain and spent some time (since we had it) taking photos on the Shoulder.
We decided to follow the edge of the Ramp down the mountain, which had a little more snow but not enough, we judged, to be a slide danger. Picking our way through the rocks to plunge-step in the snow, we bathed in the alpenglow for most of the descent.
We grabbed our skis and returned on our trail to camp. Galen and I split a stick of butter and mixed it in with our ramen/mashed potatoes. Galen proclaimed half a stick of butter is the best flavor.
As a sidenote, a few weeks later our camp was still visible. Another climbing party spotted it on their way to the Silvertip Icefield an thought it might be a moulin or crevasse.
We had a fairly cold start to the morning, but when the sun hit camp it warmed considerably. We left base camp around 12:15pm and got to the car around 6:45pm. The sled was a challenging opponent to tow down the glacier; we opted not to rope up because of the snow stiffness and because downhill skiing gets complicated when roped together. I went first. As I picked up speed, the sled threatened to pendulum to my left and tried to cut in front of me. I jabbed it with my pole and sent it the other way. This game continued the entire way down to the Confluence, where the snow angle lessened and the MRK II calmed its shit down.
The snow had changed significantly over the past few days; the sun had scorched the snow and turned it into wonderful snice, which made exiting the valley a relatively quick process. We also found old tracks that had melted out.
We returned to my cabin fairly baked and gorged ourselves on bread and beer cheese.
Below are a few different maps from the imagery available. Red is day one, green is day two, magenta is day three going up. Day four route out roughly follows route in.