Spring was once again upon the Alaska Range; school was winding up before the finals blow. I was to lead a mountaineering trip to Silvertip as it’s the only Delta peak I have done, therefore the only trip I was comfortable leading at the time. I only had two people interested, I like to keep trips small anyway as I am a trip leader, not a guide. The Alaska Alpine Club makes this clear from the onset: the leaders will show you the way but will not take care of you. Spring trips are for experienced mountaineers or people who have taken AAC or OA’s mountaineering classs and wish to become experienced mountaineers. The two people on this trip were both in the latter category–after this trip, I would consider going to the mountains with them again.
We had the typical Wednesday night meeting to prepare and plan for the trip. Forrest Wallace and Torv had both just taken the Alaska Alpine Club mountaineering course, taught by the Man, the Legend: Stan Justice. Forrest, a member of the US military, offered to drive us in his big truck. Torv lacked a reliable vehicle and I had van with neither heat nor a rear window, so this worked great for us.
The morning of Saturday, April 19th, we got to the “trailhead” (frozen creek travel) and were skiing by 10am. We noted another car was parked at the Michael Creek parking lot, so we figured another group of climbers were after Silvertip or Item. I pondered how long ago they arrived. As the trip begun that question was quickly answered; we also noted the (at times) 5″ deep ski tracks Said Climbers left the previous evening in the formerly mashed-potato-quality snow. Skiing on refrozen snow over these trenches left us with a feeling of satisfaction for having made the right choice to wake up early instead of skiing late.
Despite the late season, the snow held for the lower section of the creek and the only difficult sections for me were the holes of open water. However, the trip started off particularly hard for Torv and Forrest, two non-skiers. Uneven snow and rocks can be tricky business for ankles to deal with and they found their boots popping out of their skis more than once.
Once we all made it past the giant water hole I lovingly call “The Motherfucker”, travel became easier. This particular water hole usually stays open all winter and can involve the tossing of backpacks over it, as well as a small rock traverse to avoid wet boots. No one fell in and we made our way to the upper part of the creek as the snow thickened considerably.
As the valley opened up before the headwall we spied Said Climber’s tent. In fact, they had two tents. We thought one might have been for their gear, or a shitter. We noted they continuously peed on the skin-track, which we thought was a dick move. As rightful breakers of trail, they do have this right, and I’m sure whole arguments could be had about this topic, but I don’t care to have them.
On the slopes past Said Climbers camp, the snow we were traveling on started to return to mashed potatoes. I pushed the group until we had reached the appropriate elevation and we set up camp near the base of the headwall. Since it wasn’t even 3PM, we decided to make a day of it and create a real solid camp. The first course of action was to ski-stomp out a tent platform and let it solidify, we did this with mechanistic efficiency. Forrest had a snow saw, so he cut blocks while Torv and I stacked them.
We created a snow fortress that was slightly too long, so one of the walls had to be moved. And we veto-ed the idea of a fourth snow wall in front of the entrance, on account of our desire to have a view. Camp was set up by 5:30PM.
Dinner was boiled and devoured, a few sips of whisky were had, and I was out before dark. Around 8PM, Said Climbers skied/snowshoed into our camp and Torv had light conversation. They had just returned from summiting Silvertip and experienced fine conditions. Awesome, I thought, and passed out.
“Revvin’ up your engine, listen to her howlin’ roar…
Metal under tension, beggin’ you to touch and go…
HIGHWAY TO…THE DANGER ZONE! RIDE INTO…THE DANGER ZONE!”
My alarm was going off, it must be 3AM; it was time to start the day.
Somehow, amazingly, I didn’t need to take charge on boiling water and was able to rest a little longer as Torv took care of filling water bottles. We were fed, out of the tent, and skiing towards the headwall by 5:30AM.
After the snow became too steep to ski, we lashed out skis to our packs and put on our campons. Since the snow was very stable and the consistency of crunchy styrofoam, I felt comfortable scouting ahead for the best line, confident the others could follow my tracks. As I ascended the low angle portion of the headwall, the Hayes Range was bathed in pink alpenglow as the sun rose slowly from the southeast. What a glorious day to be climbing.
I topped out and scouted a line down the other side of the headwall to the Jarvis Glacier while I waited for Forrest and Torv. We traversed north a ways to avoid cornices and found a nice ramp down which we climbed.
At the bottom of the valley we removed our crampons and once again clicked into our skis. Previous trip experience with the conditions this season, as well as current snow observations, made me feel confident in my decision to forego roping up for the glacier crossing. About halfway across the glacier I realized I had left my mountaineering axe behind; Forrest caught up and handed me my axe. These guys are just great, I thought.
We reached the base of Silvertip and skied for a ways, but realized travel would be faster with crampons. After stashing the skis, we continued up.
Nothing of note occurred, the climb went as calm as the weather. It was weird to follow footsteps on the ascent, but the snow stability couldn’t be beat.
We roped up once we reached the glaciated ridge that leads to the summit. I pointed out obvious and not-so-obvious crevasse features we were passing. At one point, Said Climbers had punched a dark boot-hole into a long slight depression in the snow. Long slight depressions are indications of covered crevasses. Up high, rime ice forms out of the air and is plastered onto snow and rock. This allows crevasses to be close and cover with snow. This rime ice is of variable density, it can be extremely solid until, suddenly, it is not. When we approached the summit ridge, I yelled to the boys we were about to do some serious crevasse crossing and were headed “right into the danger zone”. The glacier on the west face of Silvertip tops out right before the summit and there is large break, known as a bergshrund, that is the separation of the glacier from the rock. Fortunately most years this break fills with snow and rime ice. Still, it is good to be wary when crossing this feature and I tested every step.
After some time, the boys joined me on the summit and we did some rope management to assist turning around. I led the group down the ridge, across the ‘shrund, and to the point we could unrope. Only one section involved facing the mountain and down-climbing, and we skipped down the mountain, across the glacier, up and over the headwall with relative ease. Once we reached camp, we ate a quick snack before breaking down camp and beginning the ski out around 7PM. This concludes the wonderful part of the trip.
What followed was a heartbreaking and increasingly-frustrating journey to the truck, on account of my impatience, the rapidly deteriorating snow, and my impatience with the rapidly deteriorating snow. As a more experienced skier, I took the lead skiing down the valley through all its turns and drops and waited once I had reached a point far enough away from the boys. The big upper slopes of Michael’s Creek were easy for me, but difficult for Torv and Forrest. Understandably difficult. This was only their second or third real experience on skis, and the first skiing downhill with a pack. My patience with their skiing speed began to wane and I recalled I had a full bottle of whisky, minus a few sips, in my backpack. As the following day was my birthday, I felt an early celebration was in order especially on account of our awesome trip. I played a game of leap frog with the boys: I would ski ahead until I was well out of sight and drink/nap, then when they caught up I would repeat the process.
The sun set and the day lost its warmth as we skied lower down the creek. The snow did not refreeze, in fact it seemed to become more unstable and the lowest sections of the creek we crossed slowly with great care, or quickly with reckless abandon.
At some point, we all ate shit falling through what we thought was stable snow but turned out to be thin snow over rocks. I made it to the flats at the bottom of the creek before the boys and had a powerful bike lamp that I had previously neglected to use, or even to prepare to use. With no way to attach the lamp to myself, I stuck it in my mouth and double-poled my way to the truck. About a minute from the truck, I took a wrong step and my ski slid beneath recently-frozen crust and I fell nose-first into the snow. My nose was already sunburnt so it stung a little more than normal. I waited at the truck for Forrest and Torv, and got to sleep on the ride back–a rare treat.
Since this trip, Torv has stayed active in the Alpine Club and has become a great asset for helping run the class. Forrest is out of the military and has been active in Alaska, I hear from him on occasion. I consider both reliable climbing partners, and I know at least Torv has more ski experience since this trip!