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Cassin Ridge Trip Report

June 2005



In April, 2005, I flew north to Alaska for a 2.5 month trip. The first part of the foray was spent skiing in the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains with my good friend Joe Stock. The second half of the trip was spent shivering on Denali.


On June 3rd, 2005, my friend, the Canadian powerhouse Ian Welsted and I launched. We’d been on Denali for nearly a month by that point and were starting to go nuts. (Well, the truth is that I flew off the mountain for three days to spend some quality time at Chilkoots in Anchorage, but that’s another kind of trip report.) Conditions were far from perfect but preferable to more toiling. We’d summitted the peak back in May and were lurking at the 14,200 foot camp, patiently waiting for a weather window that was not coming. Forty-eight hours was all we reckoned would be needed. No sleeping bags, four small cans of gas, one titanium stove, six screws, four cams, one set of nuts and a Bibler I-Tent. If I’d been bolder, I would’ve listened to Ian and left the tent behind but I’m soft in the middle. Ninety-six hours later, out of food and fuel, totally sleep deprived and amidst the storm of the summer, we crested Kahiltna Horn and descended to our camp. I was glad we brought the tent. Ian still thought it was dead weight.


Five pm. Lift off. Up to the Rib cut off at 15,500 feet through knee and waist deep snow. I knew right then that a 48 hour ascent was out but I was too jazzed to say anything. We cruised down the Rib on 40 degree blue ice covered by two feet of loose powder. Conditions were strange and unsettling but manageable. Five hours later, we popped out of the 60 degree Chicken Couloir and emerged at 11,200 feet in the belly of the Northeast Fork.


Ian took the lead and put in a trough up to the Japanese couloir. To our right, the Kahiltna Peaks bathed in alpenglow. To our left and high above, huge seracs waiting to chop some wayward climbers.


Around midnight, we stopped for a break beneath the schrund at 12,400 feet. Above us, over a thousand feet of 50 – 70 degree rock, ice and snow. We add some layers, power down the Cytomax and Power Gel, and get to climbing. After 70 meters, the rope gets tight and I follow. The schrund was casual this year but the ice was rock hard . We simul-climb most of the couloir and both Ian and have swollen hands and tendonitis by the top. Like conditions on the West Rib, the Japanese Couloir is covered in a fresh layer of loose snow that requires endless excavating. About half way up, the looming seracs in the NE Fork cut loose, fill the valley and obliterate our tracks.


Once on Cassin Ledge, we fire up the stove and laugh hesitantly at our blunt picks and poons. Such is life when you swing wildly at snow and hit nothing but rock. The sun is out and cooks us as we doze against a big chunk of south facing granite. Two hours pass before we awake in the midst of a building storm. We scramble to collect our stuff and move.


Up and across 45 degree, unsupported snow slopes puts us beneath a cruxy, 5.8 corner. I lead through, hanging my pack half way so I can work a narrow chimney. Ian follows and launches up into the howling white. I’m horrified when I second the pitch. Knee-deep snow over steep, exposed blue ice, beneath another big 60 degree unsupported slope. This sucks and I’m positive that we’re going to get lanched. At least we’ve got a rope and belay. Comforting…but not really. We discuss our options; bail with one rope or fail upwards. Conditions are crazy. The visibility is nil. Never have I seen 2 feet of fresh snow stuck to a 60 degree ice face. In the end, up is more attractive than down and we continue.


I lead out, digging to place some extra screws and praying that I don’t bring the house down. After what seems an eternity, we reach the Cowboy Traverse and we’re safe. After a moment to decide the best way to tackle the next 1000 feet of knife-edge ridge, I realize that I can walk the crest. The snow that I was sure would take me out lower down is now a huge aid to our travel. We simul-climb the ridge and get to the 14,000 foot Glacier Camp at midnight. We dig in, fire the stove and shiver till the sun comes up.


Without a sleeping bag, the night is not enjoyable. We linger too long the next morning and don’t move till noon. More deep snow takes us around a big slot and up into the first rock band. My hands and gloves freeze trying to excavate the rocks from all the fresh white. The climbing is slow and we only make it to the base of the second rock band at 16,000 feet before setting up the tent for another unpleasant night.


The next day dawns clear and sunny and neither one of us can stand the thought of a third night in the tent. We climb through endless deep snow and covered rocks. My gloves become totally useless and my leashes freeze solid. The only thing I can do to place gear is leave my gloves fixed to the tools by the leashes and take my hands out, exposing bare skin. In the end, there isn’t much gear to be had after two of our four cams fall off my harness while cleaning a pitch.


After way too much time, Ian and I climb out of the second rock band at 16,700 feet, shed the rope, and begin the steep slog to the summit. He breaks waist deep trail and I cannot keep up. The man is possessed and is obviously disappointed when I tell him that I cannot take another step at 18,200 feet. We dig in again on the exposed ridge leading to the summit.


Ian and I awake the following morning to 40 mph winds beating the tent. Grounded. I poke my head outside and can see plumes of snow blowing off the summit and Football Field. Every now and again we’re hit by a 60 mph gust. Around seven pm, the wind subsides and we bolt. I’m wasted. The food and fuel are gone and I know that if we get pinned now, it will be the end. I own a SAT phone and radio but we opted not to bring them. There will be no calls for help. We move, knowing that every step, no matter how slow, is putting us that much closer to the top. I want to ditch my pack and all it’s contents but hold back. Ian is out front, breaking trail and carrying more weight than me. It’s all I can do to stay within fifteen minutes of him.


Five hours later, around midnight, we crest Kahiltna Horn at 20,000 feet and barely break stride as we barrel down Pig Hill. I’ve never been so happy to be on the West Buttress. Wand to wand, we run across the Football Field and down Denali Pass to a deserted camp at 17,200 feet. The place had become a ghost town since the Park Service advised climbers to descend due to the coming storm – which was by now in full swing. Without pause, we continue down the exposed ridge and fixed lines to our camp and sleeping bags at 14,200 feet. Over.


That night it snowed and blew as hard as any time I’ve seen in my five trips up the mountain. It continued to do so for three days.


Eight days later, Ian went on to make the 4th ascent of the Denali Diamond.


Rack: 4 cams from 0.5 - #2 Camalot

1 set of nuts

6 ice screws

1 50 meter rope



Edited by wexxx

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If we can get Joe Stock to post, then the whole gang will have sunk to a new low. No, actually if we can get John Kear to post a TR, then the four horsemen of the appocolypse should be comin' round the bend.


Nice job WEXX and Joe!

Now where the hell have you guys been?

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Nice TR and pics! The Mt. Hunter photo is now on my desktop.


Good to see what the route is like, outside the perspective of a guidebook. Thanks for posting bigdrink.gif

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Well done. I dont know if you remember me but we were camped by you at 14,000 and at 17,000. I camped in your site at 11,200 on the way back down in may when the storm came in. I think we summited the butt on the same day it was the end May. You two and your buddy. So where is furry blue coat that you where sporting??? Good job up there guys. It was definatly fun talking with you while we were at the various camps. I am glad you made it.


Andy Winslow

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Thanks Andy. Appreciate it. I'm gonna post some more photos with the high fashion.



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