The Alaska Alpine Club holds a yearly tradition that serves as a graduation course of sorts for the spring mountaineering class. The students meet at 7AM sharp in front of the Patty Center at UAF, drive three hours south, and ski up the Castner Glacier to spend a weekend in the cold practicing mountaineering skills. This weekend ski mountaineering the class has learned, including rescue techniques and winter camping. The job of the instructors is to allow them to test this knowledge safely. In 2014 we had around 38 people on the trip, the following year had 40.
This was the second year Grant, Torv, and I have led this trip. All of us are previous or current officers in the club, having held Secretary/VP/P positions in past years. The class of 2015 was Rick Roth’s first year assisting with the Castner class. Rick, a senior employee at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, brings a level of professionalism and showmanship that climbers generally lack. Torv lives in Fairbanks and coordinated getting the students out of town.
Grant, Rick, and I woke up around 2AM Saturday morning at my place in Palmer; around 11AM we were driving into the very-crowded Castner Creek Parking Lot. Most of the students had already started skiing with skins up the creek; my group applied kick wax and kicked our way after them. Donning skins at the base of the moraine a mile from the road, we skied to and past the students in the front, pointing them in the proper direction on the north side of the valley. It took a while but eventually we found the proper location with enough room for everyone to camp as well as ice cliffs. We set up our tent overlooking the others as the ground blizzard of students arrived and set up camp. This was the maiden voyage of my Trango III tent, so we did not construct snow walls so as to test wind resistance. We dug out the front vestibule so we would not have to crawl in and out of the tent. This is a technique that makes a huge difference in winter camping comfort, as does digging out the back vestibule for roomier cooking and snow storage. Digging out the back vestibule also assists efforts to keep the tent from catching fire during cooking, a problem people usually only experience once.
That evening Rick and Torv demonstrated proper techniques for setting up a Z-pulley system that would be used to extricate someone from a crevasse. The idea is to use pulleys to create a 3:1 power ratio that allows rescuers to pull someone upwards after they have fallen into a crevasse. Assuming the person is conscious, they will be simultaneously attempting to ascend via rope trickery. The crux is passing the lip of the crevasse; the rope will have dug into the snow and the climber’s weight holds it firmly against the glacial ice. This prevents ascension devices attached to the rope from passing the lip.
After folks practiced Z-pulleys for a few hours, we released them to their own antics as a storm set in. Since there was plenty of building material some folks hunkered down in snow caves instead of tents. Torv visited our tent later in the night so we could have a brief safety meeting after dinner, and we had another in the morning for good measure.
As the sun rose on a cloudless day, some folks decided to leave camp before the sun hit our camp. This is an unfortunately common occurrence on these trips. The main problem people run into on their first winter camping experience is the cold. They do not stay hydrated because of the misconception water will cool them down; to the contrary, it keeps blood circulating warmth to the extremities. Another mistake people make is remaining in their sleeping bags throughout the morning. Experienced mountaineers will rise in the morning and ski around for 10-15 minutes to get blood flowing while one person stays to melt water. By the time the skiers are warmed up, they can return to their sleeping bags and take over water duty whilst the other warms himself up. A final tip I have for staying warm is to eat a fatty meal before going to sleep; a favorite in my climbing circle is Hot Buttered Ramen, my preference is with dried mashed potatoes. The water for boiling the ramen will melt the 1/3 to 1/2 stick of butter and the mashed potatoes will absorb the water and transform the meal into a thousand calorie delicacy. I eat at least one stick of butter per mountaineering trip.
For those who did not leave camp, the second day was dedicated to practicing rope ascension. My job has been traditionally setting up the anchors for ropes on which students practice escaping crevasses. The first year we led the class to an area with a small ice cliff that did not allow for the students to pass the lip of the “crevasse”. That cliff has since melted away in the southern sun. In 2014 we chose an ice cliff on the opposite side of the moraine that should serve the class for years to come. Not only does it have a nice ramp above the cliff for students climb after the lip, it is significantly higher; the lip is approximately 50’ above ground level in places. We set up ropes at less-committing area for folks who did not want that experience. The sun never reaches ground level, prolonging the life of the cliff and better simulating the dark cold of crevasses.
Glacier ice is extremely dense and brittle, as well as dirty and rock-filled. Old-school ice screws, courtesy of Club Mentor Stan Justice, are used as anchors in the ice for the ropes. I use three screws per anchor for extra safety. Rick and I got the ropes set up and people began to ascend, supervised by Grant and Torv. We traded off supervising duty to go warm up in the sun. Some people took ski laps nearby and explored moraine ice caves Any questions students have about mountaineering we address as best we can, sometimes with different answers. Throughout the class we make it clear there are many ways to solve climbing problems and it is useful to know more multiple methods.
Around 1PM we started pulling ropes and encouraged students to ski around in the gorgeous sunny weather. A great direction to ski is towards the Confluence, about 5 miles farther up the valley. The best way to travel up the valley is on the southern side of the moraine, the remnants of the flat M’Ladies Branch. The other two glacial branches that meet at the Confluence are much more crevassed and broken up, which leave moraines with lots of hills. Groups of people skied off up and down the glacier as the rest packed away their camps. Grant, Rick and I made some lunch before packing our tent and gear into our backpacks.
When the group that had wandered up the glacier returned, we were delighted to find they had skied at least a mile or two up the glacier. You see, my group had taken the next day off from work so that we could attempt Triangle Peak on Monday, located near the Confluence. After saying our goodbyes to some friends who were taking the class, we began the very-familiar journey up the Castner Glacier, facilitated by two miles of packed trail. We made good progress despite our later-than-planned start, and by the time we reached the final 2 mile stretch to the Confluence we were skiing under starlight and the best Aurora Borealis I’d seen since my time in Fairbanks.
We made camp past the Fin on the windless and clear night. We did run into a problem with my MSR XKG stove; I had recently replaced all the worn parts, but the instructions for the pump seal indicated it should be installed incorrectly. I followed the instructions because I forgot the original orientation of the seal. While Rick was trying to melt water, I heard him say the stove wasn’t working properly and I thought it was due to the cold. It was sitting on bare snow and I insisted he needed to put it on a shovelhead to insulate it, and he told me no. As the stove continued to not work, I repeatedly insisted on using a shovelhead as a base.
“Fuck your fucking shovelhead!” This was the first time I had ever seen Rick angry, so I silenced my mouth and went to pee and look at the aurora. He fixed the stove seal, I passed him a pipe, and we all chilled and laughed as the water boiled. We got to bed a while after midnight.
We awoke around 9 next morning to brilliant sunlight peaking from behind White Princess’s Southwest Ridge. We had eaten our breakfast and were packing our gear for the day when we felt the whole earth shudder for a few seconds, followed by something collapsing within earshot. After a moment of confusion, we identified the event as an earthquake on a glacier. That’s a new one. We later found out we were about 4.5 miles from the epicenter, a magnitude 4 earthquake.
Grant and Rick skied down the moraine and up the M’Ladies Branch of the Castner Glacier while I took the second morning dump (there’s always two). Catching up with them, we planned our ascent.
We would traverse the east face and work our ways up and north until we gained the North Ridge, after that we would follow it up and south until we reached the Sphinx, a rocky outcropping meriting the name. From the Sphinx we would leave our skis and continue up the ridge to the summit with crampons.
The first order of business when we were on the slope was to establish snow stability; at this point Rick was the only one with official avalanche training, so he quickly dug about 5 feet down and carefully prepared the test area.
He used his cord to isolate a column of snow for the ECT. As he was explaining how the test worked, Grant asked if you “just start wailing on it” with a shovel and proceeded to do so before Rick could answer. The column did not collapse under Grant’s blows as we directed various swear words at him.
“What? Does that invalidate the test?” Grant asked.
“YES!” Rick and I cried in unison.
“It’s a controlled test that takes into account measured blows with increasing power every 10 swings.” Rick explained.
“Well, despite Grant’s fuckery, it doesn’t appear to have done much. Let’s proceed with the test, Rick.” Rick did 10 wrist taps, followed by 10 elbow slaps, and finished with 10 shoulder slams. The snow only consolidated. Rick had to use his shovel to pry the block of snow off the slope and it came off as one solid chunk of snow.
“So….we’re good, you guys.” There was no chance in hell of this snow sliding today. We got back into our skis and hurried up to the ridge crest.
From here we swapped leads a few times, with awesome views of mountains: Shand, McGinnis, Moffit, Item, Silvertip, White Princess, and M’Ladies. What a glorious day to be a mile high.
We skied below a giant spire of rock just below the Sphinx, and upon reaching the nameworthy formation the snow conditions had begun to change.
We also spied a massive MASSIVE cornice, at least as big as my old Fairbanks cabin, hanging ominously from the summit.
We had at least half a mile of steep, corniced ridge to climb and the snow had turned into mashed potatoes. It was 3PM when we decided to turn around due to time and the threat of the Death Cornice, so we ate some food and lit our remaining Roman Candle.
We had fantastic views of the Broken Glacier on Triangle, as well as a great view of the beautiful White Princess. It is one of the three royal mountains in the area, the other two being Snow White and Little Princess.
Around 4PM we started to make our way down the mountain, cramponing the hard slope directly below the Sphinx. From there we skied our way down the mountain; Rick, with his ski boots, removed his skins and shredded the powder. Grant and I only had mountaineering boots so we could not make ski turns easily or quickly. We kept our skins on but still gained pretty good speed down the slopes. I wish I brought my splitboard.
We got back to camp around 6PM and ate dinner (Hot Buttered Ramen) to fuel our ski out. In the spring when the snow hardens in the sun it can be a quick trip to exit the glacier; unfortunately we did not have that luxury. We stumbled into the parking lot around midnight and Rick took the first driving shift on the way home. Grant took over at Glen Allen, I took over from Grant at Caribou Creek. We arrived in Palmer around 6:30AM and I texted a coworker I would be in a bit later than expected. At 9:30AM Tuesday I was pounding coffee in my other life as an office worker, thinking merely 12 hours ago I was skiing hundreds of miles away. We didn’t reach the summit, but that hardly seemed to matter as I basked in the physical and mental sensations of the exhaustion that comes after a great trip to the mountains.