Monday, August 18, 2014

Desolation Sound

Once I was back in the Seattle area I quickly started linking up with old friends.

I was very happy when good buddy LT Phil Kunze was assigned as the Commanding Officer of 87-foot patrol boat USCGC SWORDFISH in 2012. After two years of regular trips between Bainbridge Island and Port Angeles (only an hour and a half) visiting with Phil & Andi, eating lots of cinnamon rolls, and shooting lots of guns, his tour came to an end with his Change of Command ceremony on August 5th. It was a nice affair; Phil and his crew were recognized for two years of hard work in front of gathered family and friends. And the best part - I didn't have to salute anyone.

I then went to a Seattle Mariners vs Atlanta Braves game with Raf. Raf and I shared a windowless office the equivalant size of a broom closet for 3 years at the MSST. And we're still friends, so that says a lot. Raf is a rabid baseball fan and the Braves are his favorite team, despite being from New York and despite living in Seattle for the past three years (I've yet to satisfactorily figure that one out).  Sad for him, the Mariners won. We caught up at our favorite Seattle pub after the game and I was able to meet his new girlfriend.

Back on Bainbridge Island, I ran into a number of my former Scouts: Jake, Dave, Mitch, Will, Scott and many fellow Assistant Scoutmasters. We swapped stories, mine from Alaska and theirs from a "high adventure" camp in Florida known as BSA SeaBase. The boys went sailing and snorkeling for a week thru the Florida Keys.

Not to be outdone by a bunch of teenagers, I shipped aboard Sailing Vessel PETRA, a 33 ft sloop owned by my former landlord Rick. He wanted to head north into Canadian waters and needed an extra hand to increase safety while crossing straits.

We started our voyage from Port Townsend, WA in the fog common to Pacific Northwest waters in the summer. It was eerie to be motoring along and hear the foghorns of much larger ships without being able to see more than a hundred yards or so. But more concerning were the smaller boats that we were able to see on radar yet for some reason decided not to make proper fog signals. They ghosted past without a sound, white sails barely visible in the gloom.

We anchored up the first night in the San Juan Islands. Day Two had us clearing Canadian customs in Bedwell Harbor and then continuing to Ganges Harbor on Saltspring Island. Ganges is a busy little place - lots of boats were taking advantage of the many artsy shops, supply stores, and restaurants that were within walking distance of the docks. We were able to hear the live music from the bars out in our slip. In Ganges we pressed our final crewman, Rick's son Will, fresh off a seaplane straight from Boy Scout summer camp.

Crowded Ganges Harbor
After Ganges we had to make a substantial crossing of the Strait of Georgia. We were fortunate to have great conditions for sailing and had a "sporty" run in 2-3 ft seas under sunny skies with 15-18 kts of wind.

Captain Rick at the helm under sail across the Straits of Georgia
Once across the Strait of Georgia, we motored north along the eastern shore, known as British Columbia's "Sunshine Coast." It certainly lived up to its name with fair and sunny weather. On Day Five we finally entered Desolation Sound, rounding Sarah Point in dramatic fashion and revealing the hidden mountain vistas in all their glory.

Entering Desolation Sound
Desolation Sound is infamous in Northwest cruising circles for great scenery, cozy anchorages, and (due to some quick in the tides and water depth) the warmest saltwater north of Mexico. The reputation is well deserved and spot-on. Some of the anchorages were so tight that we had to use a technique known as a "stern-tie" to shore to keep the boat from swinging too much at anchor. And the water was 72*F, making for a delightful and refreshing swim. We even enjoyed some fresh seafood - a bucket of clams for steaming and a pot full of "squat lobsters" - alien looking creatures that had about a dime sized dollop of tasty meat in their little tails.

We found great spots to drop the anchor in Tenedos Bay and Roscoe Bay. Roscoe Bay was guarded by a bar that was completely uncovered at low tides. Before we ventured in, Will and I launched an oceanographic voyage in the little dingy, checking water depth the old-school way with a leadline.

Roscoe Bay anchorage
Our favorite location was Teakerne Arm. We weren't lucky enough to snag the primo spot by the waterfall but we enjoyed the sight nonetheless and were able to make the hike up to a beautiful (and fairly warm) freshwater lake for fantastic swimming.

The best real estate in Teakerne Arm
But our consolation cove was still pretty nice. PETRA is green hull in foreground. Note stern tie. 
At the end of eight terrific days onboard PETRA, Rick dropped me off on Cortes Island. From there I was able to link a variety of Canadian public transportation together to make my way back to Seattle. From there I'm off for some more backpacking and climbing in North Cascades National Park.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Alaska to Seattle

After my St. Elias mountaineering trip I was met by longtime Coast Guard buddy Trevor Clark. Much like Jason, Trevor is the type to join any adventure at the drop of a hat (he climbed Mt. Fuji on a 24 hr layover in Tokyo). Our plan was to road trip thru Canada and enjoy the sights while leaving enough time for climbing something toward the end. So we had to put in a couple long days behind the wheel off the get-go to give us the time to slow down later.

On our first evening we drove the Taylor/"Top of the World" Highway. Beautiful sunset views of the foothills of the Alaska Range really did make us feel "top of the world." Regrettably the US/CAN border was closed so we just had to camp along the side of the road and wait for customs to open in the morning.

Top of the World Highway. Credit Trevor Clark
It was a short drive from the border to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. There is a free ferry that takes you across the mighty Yukon River.

Yukon River ferry. Credit Trevor Clark
Talk about a gold rush - Dawson City went from 0 to 30,000 people in 1898. It still has a great frontier vibe, complete with dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. We toured the museum and the Robert Service and Jack London cabins before hitting the road.

Downtown Dawson City. Credit Trevor Clark
Robert Service Cabin. Credit Trevor Clark
We overnighted in Whitehorse and had the best beer of my time in the North. Thank you Yukon Brewing. The "Midnight Sun" Espresso Stout was quite interesting, perhaps even acceptable for breakfast??? We opted to drive on the Cassiar Highway vice the more famous AL-CAN. It was more remote, less trafficked, scenic, and more direct to Seattle.

Cassiar Highway. Credit Trevor Clark
British Columbia has a great network of Provincial Parks. Kinaskan Lake was one of our favorites.

Kinaskan Lake Park. Credit Trevor Clark
I took advantage of the lakefront campsite to break out my Alaskan souvenir - a one man, packable, 5 pound inflatable raft - for its first test drive. They are really popular in Alaska and as soon as I found out about them I immediately became intrigued. The ability to carry a raft opens up many adventure possibilities - watercourses go from obstacle to superhighway while on foot. We'll see if I can't help promote "pack rafting" in the lower 48.

Packrafting. Credit Trevor Clark
Things subtlety changed once the Cassiar Highway met the Yellowhead Highway. You could feel that we were no longer in "the North." Towns were larger and closer together. Traffic picked up. Prices dropped. It was still quite scenic and an enjoyable drive, but I quickly started to miss the massive wilderness expanses of the Last Frontier. I guess that just means I'll have to plan a return trip.

We continued thru Smithers (quaint) and Whistler (pricy). A map reading snafu (and poor Canadian highway design) caused me to end up in downtown Vancouver during morning rush hour. Not fun. There was a substantial wait to cross the border back into the US. Trevor and I joked about the need for a "returning US citizens" express line, complete with confetti, the Star Spangled Banner on perpetual repeat, and a flock of screeching bald eagles to welcome us back to the Motherland. All we got was a curt nod, but we were still happy to return to the land of miles per hour and gallons. Driving for days on the speedometer's less obvious kph markings and doing two calculations at the gas station (one for L/gal and the other for US/CAN currency) to determine how bad I was getting ripped off was annoying.

We drove sufficiently fast to have 3 days for climbing at the end of our trip. We originally wanted to do something in British Columbia but limited information and subpar conditions led us to pick an objective in North Cascades National Park. Fresh off my mountaineering trip, I offered to lead up the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak, a classic alpine climb (with a sweet name!).

Forbidden Peak. Credit Trevor Clark
We overpacked and had a quad crushing approach hike up an insanely steep and eroded trail. We set up camp, made dinner, and then quickly went to sleep in anticipation of our early wake up for the climb itself.

Trevor crossing stream
Sunset from high camp. Credit Trevor Clark
We had to cross a small glacier, ascend a drippy rock and snow gully, and then had solid and straightforward but exposed climbing along the ridge itself. The summit photos were lackluster due to a large forest fire in eastern Washington that filled the Cascade range with smoky haze.

Early morning over Boston Basin. Credit Trevor Clark
Glacier snowbridge. Credit Trevor Clark
Summit break. Credit Trevor Clark
The guidebooks were absolutely on point when they suggested that "there is no easy way off Forbidden Peak." Between numerous rappels and technical down climbing the descent took just as long as the climbing. It didn't help matters that an evening thunderstorm rolled in. A mountain ridge top is not where you want to be when lighting strikes.

Trevor on rappel
Matt on rappel. Credit Trevor Clark
The storm approaches!
The following morning we packed up and returned down the same steep trail. Descending punishes the knees and joints more than your muscles and there's not a lot you can do about it. We rinsed the sweat and dust off in an icy river and headed for Seattle.

I dropped Trevor off at the airport. Ever the adventurer, he planned our road trip to coincide with a bid up Mt. Rainier with some other friends of his. As of this writing, he told me that they made it. Congrats buddy, third time's the charm.

Happy to have survived the thunderstorm. Thanks for road tripping and best of luck at Georgia Tech
My plan is to hang around the Seattle area for a few weeks, enjoying the great Northwest summer and taking time to sail, hike, climb, and visit with friends.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wrangell / St Elias National Park

I saved my most extreme adventure in Alaska for last: a two week mountaineering trip in Wrangell/St Elias National Park. Wrangell is the largest national park in the US and at 13.4 million acres is bigger than the country of Switzerland. It is contiguous with two Canadian parks and Glacier Bay National Park and the overall conglomerate encompasses the largest protected wilderness on the planet (excluding Antarctica)! Which means a lot of mountains, some of which have yet to be climbed owing to the remoteness of the range and the difficulty of access.

I've always loved to read about Ernest Shackleton, George Mallory, and other explorers that have ventured into the unknown and I'm inspired by their stories. I would like to think that I would have answered Shackleton's classified advertisement recruiting for his Trans-Antarctica expedition: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success."

There are few opportunities in this day and age to truly have an adventure that hasn't already been done or go where no one has gone before. An unclimbed summit in Alaska is about as close as you can get and it's been a longstanding dream of mine to give it a shot.

After some gear preps and a shakedown hike & skills day, our 6-man expedition departed from the tiny town of McCarthy via a ski equipped plane to the Klutlan Glacier.

We were fortunate to land right next to our unclimbed peak, only designated on the map as 11430ft. After probing to ensure that no crevasses were lurking beneath our chosen site for base camp we built walls of snow to protect our tents from the wind. In the photo below, our planned climbing route would take us left from camp to the base of the snow ramp between the rock bands. We could climb that strip of white all the way to the top.

We had a fair weather window and immediately made plans to climb the following day. We awoke at 0200 and left camp an hour later. 

Roping up to cross the glacier to the base of the climb reduces the risk and severity of a plunge into a hidden crevasse.

The 3000ft climb from glacier to summit included steep snow and ice, up to about 50-55 degrees. The steepest parts required using two sharp ice tools plus crampons for purchase on the slopes; it was my first experience with real ice climbing but I found it very enjoyable.

Our lead guide Scott making the final approach to the summit pyramid.

On top of Peak 11430! A dream realized - the first ascent of an unclimbed peak in Alaska! One of the greatest and proudest accomplishments of my life to date. 

A panoramic view from the top. I've never seen such mountains as I did in Wrangell/St Elias. Rugged peaks and vast glaciers extending in every direction as far as you could see.

Owing to a difficult and complicated descent, we had a LONG day on our mountain, over 30 hours of continuous climbing. We rappelled thru the night. Snickers bars and chocolate covered espresso beans kept me going.

After climbing our 11430ft peak we took a couple days to recover in base camp. Afterwards we had enough time and supplies left to climb another mountain. Pandora Peak, 12040ft, had been climbed before but attracted the attention of the group with its interesting and beautiful shape.  

We moved camp on a bad weather day so we could take advantage of the forecasted good weather for the climb itself. We pulled sleds (not fun) across three miles and up 3000ft of glacier in whiteout conditions. This is real Alaskan mountain weather! 

Our new camp was one of more unique places I've slept - inside a snow filled crevasse. It saved a lot of work, we didn't have to build walls around the tents since we were automatically protected from the wind. 

Lounging at high camp soaking in the views. 

We started our climb in the evening, a decision based on the aspect of our planned route. When you are climbing snow and ice it's safest for the slope to be in the shade, frozen nice and hard. Due to the Alaskan summer it never got dark enough to need a headlamp, so our late start was moot. 

Sunset from the saddle below the peak; Mount St Elias in the alpenglow. At 18000ft and only 5 miles from the ocean, St Elias commands one of the most dramatic vertical reliefs on the planet.  

Summiting after midnight! Pandora was a straightforward and simple snow climb compared to the more technical and steeper icy stuff on 11430. But I've never been on a more exposed summit. We had a small snow patch to stand on with 4000ft drop offs on three sides! One doesn't feel like lingering on a summit like that.

We descended Pandora, napped in high camp, and then took everything down and returned to base camp. We called for our pickup but were delayed 4 days due to weather. There was little to do but sleep, eat, read, and wait. 

When the weather finally broke it was a mad rush to pack up camp and get off the Klutlan. Back in McCarthy it was a scramble for the others to rearrange flights and as soon as the gear was sorted we were on our shuttle back to Anchorage. It's ironic how fast the hustle and stress of "normal" life returns after operating at the glacial speed of the mountains, using only the weather and fitness to determine the day's activities. The goodbyes to my new friends were rushed but I have a feeling I'll be seeing them again. After all, Wrangell/St Elias National Park still has more unclimbed peaks...