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...

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