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salbrecher

best of cc.com Cassin Ridge TR

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Denali’s Cassin Ridge had, for me, long held a place as a route that was too technical, too big, too scary, and just too hard to even think about trying. Road trips down south, ice seasons in the Rockies, and winter aid in Squamish, slowly began to change my perception of the route into something climbable.

I jokingly mentioned the route to Nick Elson after a day of dry tooling in Squamish and to my surprise and excitement he seemed just as keen to try the route as I was. Nick is a solid rock and ice climber and I knew his ability to climb 5.12 (in the gym…) would be our secret weapon on the 5.8 crux’s…

I left the Rockies in February to go tree plant on the coast and make some money for the trip. While coastal planting is great for the wallet and physical conditioning it can be horrible for my psyche. In 50 days of planting over 40 were raining and our cut blocks were either just below or just above the snowline. I prayed my frozen feet and hands were a side effect of the creatine I was taking to try and put weight on for the trip. Nick miraculously sent our applications and fees in and the date was set for a May 10 arrival. I left the coast on May 5th and in a flurry shopping and packing (throwing everything in my van) Nick and I set off from Vancouver on the 4 day drive to Talkeetna.

Once in Talkeetna we went to the Ranger station and prepared ourselves for a stern lecture on the dangers of climbing and the importance of safety. I nervously sat as the ranger pulled out our resumes and eyed them closely. To my surprise he looked up and said “looks like you boys have a lot of cold weather climbing experience, lets take a look at the route shall we?” The Ranger in fact, almost seemed to have more confidence in our ability to climb it then we did! Maybe he had our resumes mixed up with 2 other climbers? He took us through a slideshow of the route with pictures from the year before that I must admit, made the route look quite challenging.

 

Acclimatization

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Once at base camp we sorted gear for our cash and packed up 14 days of food fuel to acclimatize on the West Buttress route. After dinner nick quickly became nauseous and promptly vomited into the vestibule. He reassured me this was standard practice for him while acclimating at “altitude”. Base camp is at 7200ft. We spent the next 5 days getting to the 14000ft camp and taking care not to push to hard. Once at 14k we set up shop for the week and dug in. Other than 110kph winds (160kph were recorded at 17k) we had an uneventful week at 14k with 2 short day trips up to 17k on the upper West Rib to Acclimatize. We spent the week reading, writing, eating, cross wording, and listening to American radio on my mp3 player. 2 weeks after leaving base we were acclimatized as we were going to get and sick of sitting in our tent day after day; despite the quality of entertainment in people watching at the 14k camp. It truly is an international jungle! There’s ALWAYS something going on up there. Helicopters flying up to pick up injured climbers, tents blowing away, team breakdowns, a guy who fell down the orient express (miraculously was uninjured), fixed line drama, craziness! With the weather forecast predicting a high pressure system building we happily packed up camp and headed back down to base camp to grab our gear and food for the Cassin.

Base Camp

As usual, the forecast ended up being wrong. Well, sort of. It was originally forecast to be good, but the next day was changed to a “strong” low pressure system, but actually turned out to be sunny for the next few days with a forecast of snow in the next few days. We frustratingly waited for that elusive 4 day forecast of high pressure from the north, it never came. We made use of a sunny day and climbed the SW ridge of Mt. Francis. A beautiful 4000ft IV 5.8, 60 degree snow route 15 min from base camp. More dustings of snow kept us in camp as we impatiently read the last few of our books; a depressing book about hunting and killing cocaine lord Pablo Escobar and the first 2 adventures of Harry Potters. We got our break just as it appeared Harry had discovered who had opened the chamber of secrets…

 

Cassin Day 1

At 8:00pm that night Nick and I went as usual to the base camp manager’s tent to listen to the nightly forecast. To our surprise it was calling for sunny weather for a few days then a chance of snow and then clearing later in the week. It wasn’t the strong high pressure we wanted but it was the best forecast we’d had in a week. We also felt that after a week we were beginning to lose our acclimatization and if we didn’t go now we’d have to reacclimatize at 14k and drop 5000ft down the west rib to the base of the route; instead of going up the quicker but more dangerous Valley of Death. We quickly took down camp and discussed a few last minute gear details. 1 pot or 2? Shovel or no shovel? Fleece jacket or not? What do we need 2 pots for? 1 pot would do for our bowls as well. Nick wanted nothing to do with the shovel but it seemed I had an irrational attachment to my shovel and so ended up bringing it. In the warmth of the evening sun I left my fleece jacket and brought just the shoeler, gore-tex, and down. Neither of us brought over boots. Decisions I would later regret. For rack we brought 6 cams, 5 nuts, 7 screws, 3 pitons (#5, #6 bugaboo and a ¼ angle), and 8 slings. We brought 5 days of food and fuel for a week. My meager food was the least I had ever brought for 5 days. My food bag had 45 gu gels, 10 yogurt granola bars for breakfast, 5 sesame snaps, 5 fruit bars, 2 Cadbury chocolate bars a pack of soup and 3 dinners. We left base camp a 9:30pm and set off towards the valley of death. The valley is so called for the kilometers of serac lined valley that threaten to crush anyone who enters. In the few minutes we were at a lookout overlooking the valley from the 14k camp we saw a serac collapse and the powder rush over one of the safer spots on the route, the so called “Safe Camp”…

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Hard snow and a trail to follow allowed us move fast through this dangerous, awe inspiring valley. Once at the safety of the west rib couloir we set up the tent for a few hour sleep and to brew up before heading up the first crux, the Japanese couloir on the Cassin Ridge. 5 hrs later and not so refreshed we hiked the short distance to the base of the Japanese couloir and Nick started up what was one of the tougher pitches of the route; a short vertical section over the bergshrund on extremely rotten ice was a difficult and eye opening pitch. We had assumed we would be able to simul-climb the 9 pitches up the couloir but the amount of ice and rocks being knocked down the narrow gully and attention demanding nature of the climbing forced us to pitch out 9 calves burning, pick dulling, energy sapping pitches to the first and very small Cassin Ledges camp at 13600ft.

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This small rocky ledge is about 4ft by 10ft and just fit our bibler tent.

 

Cassin Day 2

The next morning nicks lungs felt like they were being squeezed in a vice, and he was in obvious pain. Not exhibiting any other signs of pulmonary edema and not wanting to go down we took a rest day and hoped the problem would heal itself We ate a half dinner to conserve food.

 

Cassin Day 3

Nicks lungs felt sufficiently good enough to continue and other than a large amount of blood in his shit that morning (still no clue what that’s from) felt good to go. One mixed pitch led to a 5.8 pitch that would take us to the start of the cowboy traverse.

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The cowboy traverse is a 7 pitch knife edge ridge that starts steeply at 45 degrees with steep drops on either side. The last 1/3rd of the ridge is a less steep corniced ridge that requires traversing at 60 degrees. This ridge is extremely difficult to reverse and once completed commits one to the 6000ft of climbing to the summit. Conditions on this feature vary from year to year and even within the month. It can be unprotect able snow or calf burning blue ice that takes bomber screws. Luckily we found it in nearly perfect condition with a few inches of bonded snow on top of ice screw protect able ice. The small amount of snow on top of the ice allowed us great rests and secure climbing and we were able to simul-climb the arête in 2 leads to allow us to swap gear. The winds were now picking up and snow began to fall and we decided to pitch camp at “the most spacious camp on the whole route” , a flat spot at the top of the arête and at the base of the snowfield leading to the first rock band.

 

Cassin Day 4

A short pitch through a shrund took us to a snowfield that led to the base of the first rock band. 3 mixed pitches took us to a difficult mixed/mostly rock pitch (off route) followed by another distressingly steep mixed pitch (possibly off route). My technique of pulling on gear came to an abrupt stop when no gear could be placed to pull on. After much thrashing and swearing and a disturbingly long time later I belayed nick up. We simuled up the next 2 pitches to the top of the first rock band where a short snow slope led to, as the guide book says, a “small exposed bivy” at 15700ft. A small ledge had already been chopped and even after some more chopping by us the tent still hung distressingly over the edge by a good 10 inches. While chopping the ledge Nick put a fist sized hole in our single wall tent, possibly to increase ventilation, I assume. We anchored the tent to screws and axes and tied, mostly, everything in, including ourselves. Strong winds and snow kept us awake most of the night. Lack of snow to build a wall now left us exposed to any winds that ripped across the mountain.

 

Cassin Day 5

By morning, blowing snow had accumulated halfway up the tent wall on the side against the ledge wall and was pushing us, and the tent, further off the ledge. The wind was now howling outside it was quickly obvious we could not move in these conditions. I boiled a liter of water each and locked ourselves in the tent. By noon the gale winds had blown most of the snow clear from between the tent and the ledge but unfortunately the snow had also acted as a stabilizing force for the tent. The winds would at times nearly flatten the tent and threaten to rip us off the ledge. By evening the snow had stopped but the winds had further increased and the situation was becoming more serious by the minute. That evenings forecast was predicting “an extreme high wind warning for the upper mountain and a strong low will persist over the mountain for the next few days. Fuck. Snow was blowing in the vent hole nick had created and high winds all day and night had shaken any condensation off the walls onto our bags. My -30 down sleeping bag was now a very heavy and expensive nylon sheet; with a frozen ball of down on either side of the baffles. Damage control, Nick and I flipped to see who had to go outside and tighten guy lines make new guy lines, move the tent in, tighten it in and try and prevent the destruction of our sole shelter. I lost. As quickly as possible I tied string and slings and equalized our tent but no matter what I did it still seemed to that the major gusts would flatten the tent if someone wasn’t bracing it.

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It was at this time I noticed we might have a small problem. Our windscreen had blown away. No big deal, I couldn’t seem to find the pot lid either, hmmm. My heart slowly began to race as I realized that our only pot was no longer where it had been and that all three were probably airborne over the south face of Denali. At least that’s one (or 3) things less that I now have to carry. I told Nick in a good news bad news type way and all he replied was “At least we have the stove”. Indeed. That night the wind continued to howl and we both stayed up all night with our backs against the windward wall trying to brace it and find a position comfortable enough to allow some sleep. None would work and we eventually resigned ourselves to staying up and bracing and catching ourselves dozing when a massive gust would come and threaten to throw us off. Neither of us talked much. My mind was racing. My sleeping bag was useless. I put all my clothes on and shivered in my nylon sheet. Both poles were now badly bent in multiple places. If the tent collapsed we’d be fucked. What the fuck were we going to make water in? The mental math of rapping 3500ft with one rope and sparse gear was to unappealing to think about. Not to mention reversing the Cowboy Traverse. Besides, Nick and I are both Taurus’, stubbornness is our strong point.

 

Cassin Day 6

I woke out of a half sleep to find my lungs killing me. They felt like what Nick had described to me on day 2 at the Cassin ledges. I hoped it was from crouching all night to brace the tent but took a dex and diamox to calm my now racing mind. Some time in the morning the wind eased up and we decided we had to move. Our shovel blade would have to do to melt water in. Any water we had to melt from here to the summit would have to be melted in our shovel blade. This time consuming process took over 2 hrs to melt 6 liters.

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We packed up camp and headed up the second rock band. By the time we’d melted water and got moving it was the afternoon and we only went several pitches before getting to a sheltered bivy at 16500ft; the last for several thousand feet. We decided to stop here instead of risk another exposed night above the rock band. My lungs were killing with every breath and I was glad not to be gaining much more than several hundred feet elevation since the last bivy. We camped on an abysmally small ice ledge next to a rock wall but at least it offered some shelter. After repeated failed attempts to heat water enough to cook our dinner and even trying to heat it in the foil container we resigned ourselves to several spoonfuls of cold, slushy, crunchy, Mountain House Kung Pow Chicken. Motivation was gone, food was critically low. I lay awake all night listening to my lungs and my grumbling stomach. The lower half of my body hung off the ledge. Morning couldn’t come quick enough.

Cassin Day 7 and 8

We debated having a rest/storm day but with no dinners, not enough food to last, and a ledge that closer resembled a sloping couch we would hardly be recovering enough to warrant a rest. My breathing seemed so constricted that I didn’t want to spend another night on the mountain. We joked it was summit or fly (as in a rescue helicopter). We spent the next few hours brewing in the spindrift and wind and then packed up with the goal of carrying over the summit to the17k camp on the West Buttress.

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2 more rock pitches led us to the top of the second rock band and the end of the technical difficulties. All that separated us from the summit was 3700ft of non technical snow and rock. After a long break we set off up steepening slopes on hard wind slab to frustratingly slow knee deep wind drift. We seemed to be going maddeningly slow according to the topo elevations. Nick broke trail through a tough deep section and my wheezing lungs could barely keep up. We stopped around 18000ft to listen to the 8:00pm weather report on our FRS radio. Partly cloudy and 80kph winds above 17k was the forecast. The best it had been all week. After a Chuck Norris joke and listening to some ranger talk we set off with renewed spirits. I drank the last of my now frozen water and had a last GU gel. In the increasing cold and high winds, melting more water on the shovel would be next to impossible. We resigned ourselves to pushing over the summit. Luckily my energy seemed to be increasing and nick and I pushed hard to the summit in the increasing midnight cold. My feet slowly lost warmth and stopping became unbearable. I had to keep moving to keep them from freezing. Landmarks kept coming quicker than expected and nick and I quite quickly found us at Kahiltna Horn at 20000ft; just 320ft shy of the summit! The wind was now howling over the summit ridge our thermometer showed -30C and with the wind at over 90kph the wind-chill was down to over -65C.We ditched our packs and raced the few hundred feet to the summit.

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Nick told me he felt like shit, and had trouble keeping his balance. Not unusual for the amount of food and water we had consumed over the past few days but also a symptom of life threatening cerebral edema. Excitement turned to the urgency of getting down. We got back to our packs and nick flopped on his with a tiredness he’d never shown before. I took out a dex and diamox pill and he quickly took them with the last sip of his water. I yelled through the wind we had to get down and we quickly put our packs on and headed down. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves breaking trail through knee deep snow, I though this route was a highway?! We later found out that no one had summited for 8 days because of storming conditions and high winds. No shit. The pace was agonizing, my lungs would burn if I walked to fast and nick would collapse in the snow every few hundred meters. After a few hours of that we made it to Denali Pass and could finally see the first signs of people! I broke off in knee deep powder and only after several hundred meters realized there was a wanded route to our left that would hopefully offer firmer snow. I began to cut over but the exhaustion forced me to stop every few feet and collapse in the snow. Nick, feeling renewed energy in the lower elevation took over the breaking and dragged my now exhausted ass into the 17000ft camp; 17hrs after leaving our high camp on the Cassin. We set up the tent and melted some water in a borrowed pot and collapsed in the tent for a few hours. My lungs still hurt and after a few hours sleep we packed up to get to the warmer 14000ft camp where we had a fuel and much needed food cash. I scrounged some tasty waffle treats and some chocolate from a party who was bailing and nick and I savored our first non gu food in a while. We continued with renewed energy to the 14k camp and spent a long time just sitting on our packs in the warmth staring at nothing and everything. It was over. For the first time in days I felt relief wash over me. We’d made it.

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Stefan Albrecher

Edited by salbrecher

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Great read and now I will always bring the shovel!I can't image how screwed you felt when your (cooking) pot was gone.

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Fucking Fantastic! That is an amazing TR and I am so happy for you guys! Way to go!!!! rockband.gif

 

When will you be in Vancouver to celebrate?

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Pics should be working now. yes? no? probably not back in van till august or september, i'll be planting and herbiciding up north here. The ft st john peeler bar was the celebration last night...

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you're alive! you guys are really alive! that's fucking awsome! good to hear from you! Congrats! smile.gif

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Way to persevere!!

You guys kept your heads and made it happen.

True alpinist!

 

Jedi

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Hell yeah! Glad to hear you guys are safe. Any frostnip?

 

I guess this is another reason you shouldn't carry a plastic shovel!!

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Cool trip report, just read it again. I'm glad you got hired by the ranger to climb the route! rockband.gifthumbs_up.gif

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you should contact the shovel manufacturer and see f you can get some sponsorshp! smile.gif

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