Trip: Denali - Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade V, 5.8, AI4, 8,000ft), Alpine Style* Trip Date: 06/09/2018
Between June 2 and June 11, Priti and I climbed the Cassin Ridge on the South Face of Denali approaching via the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier (the “Valley of Death”), spending 6 days on route (including 1 rest/weather day at 17,700ft), summiting on June 9, and descending the West Buttress route. The whole trip was 10 days 7 hours door-to-door from Seattle.
The Cassin Ridge is the second most popular route on Denali, with an average of 9 successful climbers each year, compared to an average of 584 successful climbers each year on the West Buttress route over the past decade. We carried everything up and over, climbing Ground-Up, with 38lbs packs each at the start, no sleds, and moving camp as we climbed, without caches.
It was a Smash ’n’ Grab, meaning we decided to go at the last minute when we saw a good weather window. We watched Denali weather every day since early May until there was about a week of good weather. It took 24 hours from being at work on a Friday afternoon deciding to pull the trigger to being at Kahiltna Base Camp (including packing, Ranger orientation, flights, etc). We climbed Rainier 3 times the month and a half before our trip (Gib Ledges, Kautz, and Liberty Ridge), sleeping in the summit crater the weekend before. Still, we took Diamox while on Denali and had 2 weeks of food/fuel in case we felt altitude on route. Luckily, we had no altitude issues, and were only bounded by our own fitness, weather, and desire to move only when the sun was on us. Overall, weather was windless, clear, and sunny during the days with a few flurries at night.
It was an “old-school” style of climbing, slow and heavy, while most folks nowadays opt to acclimatize on the West Buttress and climb the Cassin Ridge starting from 14,000ft camp on the West Buttress, then climb light-and-fast via the Seattle ’72 ramp or the West Rib (Chicken Gully) in a few days — this was our plan for our attempt last year with Ilia Slobodov, but didn’t get the weather window. Overall, a very successful trip, and we’re so excited to have pulled it off, after 3 years of dreaming of this route.
The route was completed Alpine Style with the following exceptions:
-Snowshoes were cached at Camp 1 in case the lower Kahiltna Glacier was sketchy on the way back. Didn’t really ever need snowshoes. The NE Fork was boot-able. There weren’t tracks going up the NE Fork, but it was wanded to the base of the West Rib.
-We clipped into the existing fixed lines on the West Buttress descent above 14k, but this was unnecessary since it was basically a staircase. We didn’t clip into the existing pickets on the Autobahn above 17k.
Google Street View:
Apparently, nobody had done a 360 Photo Sphere Google Street View of the summit of Denali, so we obliged
-June 2: Arrived at Kahiltna Base Camp at 3:00PM and moved to “Safe Camp” in the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier (“Valley of Death”). We cached snowshoes at Camp 1 and took a right turn up the NE Fork. This “Safe Camp” is the widest part of the NE fork, where you are least threatened by avalanches and serac-fall sweeping the entire valley floor.
-June 3: Hiked from "Safe Camp" halfway down the Valley of Death and climbed the Japanese Couloir and camped on Cassin Ledge with a sweeping view of Kahiltna Peaks and the entire NE Fork.
-June 4: Climbed the 5.8 crux, Cowboy Arete, and Hanging Glacier, camping at the Hanging Glacier Bergschrund at the Base of the First Rock Band
-June 5: Woke up to Colin Haley strolling by our bivy site on his 8hr7min speed ascent of the Cassin Ridge (he approached via the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier). This was a total surprise and very inspiring see him up there! We climbed the First Rock Band that day and bivied between the First and Second Rock Band just next to the rib.
-June 6: Climbed the Second Rock Band and found the crux to be the sustained "Hidden Rock Couloir" at the entrance, which is sustained mixed 70-80deg for about 50m. At the end of the Second Rock Band, a Chilean Team of 2, plus Colin Haley, plus our team of 2 all took the wrong (harder) exit. From the overhanging triangle, we all traversed right about 40ft then went straight up, finding difficulties to M4-M5. We should have traversed right another 40ft or so to find the 5.6 slab pitches and the 5.6 dihedral as described in Super Topo. This ended the technical difficulties of the route. That night, we bivied at Mark Westman’s “excellent bivy site” at 17,700ft. This turned out to be very hard to find and we spent several hours looking around for it. It is way further up and right on the col than expected.
-June 7: Lots of snow! So we decided to sleep all day, acclimatize and waiting out the weather.
-June 8: So much snow accumulated on the upper mountain the previous day that it took us over 12 hours to ascend the final 2,500ft to Kahiltna Horn. We were knee to waist deep almost the entire day. Mark Westman told us later that he was watching us all day through the high-powered scope from Kahiltna Base Camp and he could see the long trench we left in our wake. Presumably, many day-tourists at Base Camp watched us in our embarrassing slog to the top. This was by far the hardest day of the trip! When we reached Kahiltna Horn at 10:30PM, we had no energy to go to the summit, so we slept on the “Football Field” at 20,000ft. The night was beautiful, calm, and cold!
-June 9: Went back up to tag the summit, then descended 12,500ft to Camp 1.
-June 10: Got to Kahiltna Base Camp from Camp 1 at 10:00AM but it was overcast all day so TAT could not come and pick us up.
-June 11: TAT finally picked us up around noon, after we endured the most miserable and wettest night of the entire trip!
Left to Right: Sultana (Mount Foraker), Begguyya (Mount Hunter), Denali
Denali, the High One
Heading into the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier (the "Valley of Death"), the West Rib visible up the center of the peak
The West Rib in the Center, The Cassin Ridge roughly up the right skyline
Closer up view of the Cassin Ridge. The Japanese Couloir is the gash on the right. The Cowboy Arete (Knifedge Ridge) is above, followed by the First and Second Rock Bands
Looking back at the West Rib and the Chicken Couloir
Looking up the Japanese Couloir and the bergschrund at the base of the Cassin Ridge
Looking back at the NE Fork
Looking up at the crux of the Japanese Couloir (AI4)
The Cassin Ledge. Razor thin, great views fo the whole NE Fork, Kahiltna Peaks, and Sultana!
The 5.8 Crux just off the Cassin Ledge
The Cowboy Arete
The Base of the Hanging Glacier, the Cowboy Arete behind
A short overhanging step to get over the bergshrund
Colin Haley approaches!
The crux of the First Rock Band, just above the M-rocks
Somewhere near the top of the First Rock Band
The South Face!
Looking up at the "Hidden Rock Couloir", the beginning of the Second Rock Band, and the crux of the route, in my opinion
Just below the V-shaped overhang in the Second Rock Band
Slog to the top
Denali Summit Ridge
The Football Field on the West Buttress Route and our bivouac
Heading down the Autobahn, 17k camp below on the West Buttress
The Cowboy Arete
Base Camp with Moonflower Buttress behind (North Buttress of Begguyya, Mount Hunter)
-6 screws (1x21cm, 2x17cm, 3x13cm)
-Small Rack of nuts
-5 cams (.3-1)
-2 pickets (didn’t use on route; just for glacier travel)
-5 single alpine draws, 2 double alpine draws (no cordalette)
-2 ice tools each (Nomics for him, X-Dream for her)
-Boots: Olympus Mons for him, G2SM+overboots for her
-MSR AdvancePro2 Tent
-Feathered Friends Spoonbill Sleeping Bag
-2x Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm + 1x shorty closed cell foam pad (for emergency)
-MSR Reactor + hanging kit + 3 medium cans of isopro Approach Notes:
Approached via the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier