Friday, June 4, 2010

May 18, 2010, 6:11 pm - 10,451 Feet of Bliss: Mt Frances

Watch for links to video below, and click on pics for larger images.

I just returned from a mind-boggling and spectacular day of climbing. We summited 10,451-foot Mount Frances, and it was just… beyond description -- but I’ll try.

We saddled up at 7am with packs, ice axes, and crampons that we’d assembled last night, and we crunched our way out of camp.

Up we went, following the snowy trail that Mike and Jason had put in last night before dinner. (In fact, they’d both climbed the full height of the first long, steep rock and ice slope to the saddle that would ultimately take us to the summit so they could cut in big steps and lay a few anchors to freeze in overnight.)

Without that extra work, it might have taken us as long as 2 hours to get to that saddle and the ridgeline, but instead, we barreled up that super-steep face and found ourselves taking our first break in just under 50 minutes, clipping in and out of running belays set at each anchor point, which Tyler had educated us on last night. Denis and I were both on Jason’s rope team today, and we killed it, he said—that was a nice compliment.
Once on the saddle ridge, we watched the sun rise over the summit behind our objective (see video link above, and pic at left), and then we cut leftward up the slope toward an impossibly, ridiculously steep ridgeline that looked, to my uneducated eyes, undoable -- with Jason breaking trail, me behind him, and Denis behind me. Much of today’s climb was beyond 45-degree slopes, some as high as 65 degrees: STEEP!

Side note: It’s so interesting how no slope seems to be too challenging or beyond safe ascent in mountaineering (and with these guys). Never in my wildest regular-hiking dreams would it have crossed my mind that any slope on any part of today’s climb was even remotely doable, but I’ve learned over the last few days that we can spot something, walk right up to it—whatever “it” might be—and get on up!

It comes first and foremost from having expert guides who know what to look for, but also from the extra safety that crampons, ice axes, rope, anchors, and carabiners and good training provide as compared to regular, unroped, non-technical hiking.

But then soooo many things about today just blew my mind. That we got up that first slope at all was just incredible to me, but the fact that we did it so fast was just surreal. Standing below it in the snow of the glacier floor beneath that imposing face, it had seemed “an act of purest optimism to oppose the question in the first place."

But up we went anyway. Not recklessly. In fact, quite methodically and confidently; especially with our guides’ assurance behind us earlier that the snow conditions were damn near perfect for it today. For some reason, I’m realizing, every slope seems doable in crampons. Spikes rule.


Periodically, Jason would say “stop,” and he’d probe for crevasses (which he seemed to find frequently). Again and again, he’d adjust the route--or we’d skirt the crevasse altogether, and we snaked our way upward. The entire ridge to the summit seemed heavily cracked and crevassed, which, to me, was a bit of a surprise, being this high on a peak… but then, I’ve never been on a peak like this before, so what do I know? Haha

While there’s always an air of seriousness about any climb here (as there should be, I suppose, given that lives and injuries literally hang in the balance), today’s mood occasionally verged on scary. Up the broad, punchy ice and snow slope we went, making for the only visible crest a thousand vertical feet or so above our heads.

The snow conditions were indeed generally quite confidence-inspiring (despite some significant post-hole patches here and there where we were breaking through the upper crust and sinking knee and thigh deep into softer snow), but just after we crested that rise and Jason had spent a fair amount of time crevasse-scouting, his trail—which we were asked to follow all day, literally placing our feet where his were—led across what seemed to me like a gaping hole down into deep dark cold blue ice walls.

For a guy like me who really appreciates knowing what to expect--or at least the rules--direction wasn’t always clear enough for me, but on this occasion, it seemed straightforward enough: “don’t worry about it” was the general instruction. “Step across, and put your feet right where mine were,” he called to me from up the slope. I looked down and across the small crevasse and immediately noticed that on both sides, the lip was close to solid ice, and his footprints weren’t even visible, so I took a second to look up the hill to see where they might have exited in softer snow and then traced them back to the lip again to see if I could figure it out… no luck. Hard snow on the other side.

Feeling my hesitation, and probably knowing full well that he’s got me on solid belay anyway, he seemed a little impatient. “Just step across!” But there was no additional information to let me know what he planned in case I needed help. Not knowing where to step exactly (but also not wanting to just go for it and risk doing it wrong, which might inadvertently cause a situation), I felt a little between a rock and a hard place. I did completely trust our guides, though, so gamely, I took my right foot and placed it on part of the snow bridge where my best guess told me his foot might have been.

But instead of staying on top of the crusty ice, or even post-holing through it into deep snow like we’d become accustomed to so far, my leg went straight through the snow and into… nothing. Air up to about my knee. Immediately, I felt the snow bridge sink around me, and I heard some clatter down into the hole below. I wasn’t panicked, but it did make me nervous, since this was completely outside any experience I’ve ever had, and had no idea what to expect, should it happen.

I’m not sure Jason knew all these little things were going on from his vantage point up the hill, and perhaps didn’t realize I’d broken partway through the bridge. All he saw was me do what looked like a post-hole into snow, and pause yet again. The downhill lip of the crevasse was pretty hard ice, and my left foot was still on it with precarious purchase, so that my full weight wasn’t on my right yet… so I backed up slowly, and stood there for a second, shaken a little bit by what had just happened. With conditions as perfect as they were and Jason’s expertise in situations like this, he probably found that frustrating.

“Step over! I’ve got you!” came the direction… and that was what I needed to know. I believed him, but I still didn’t know what was below me or how far to step, so I reverified visually where Jason wanted me to go, and then took a big step over. And as I did, he hauled on my rope, which lifted me up and over the gap without a problem.

I found out later it was just a little crevasse, but having never had that kind of experience before or even being near a crevasse (much less hundreds of them) I think I was just feeling like I needed more coaching than I got. Nevertheless, I appreciated his professionalism, and that event alone was a major learning experience, made all the more valuable because it was a “puckery” one for me, as they say.

Upward we went, making straight for a huge wall of overhung blue ice clinging to the mountainside (for scale, note how tiny our path snaking up the mountainside toward it is. The only way around was to the left, toward a thousand-foot drop over ice, snow, and rock to the glacier below. Jason methodically cut a platform for us just below the wall as Tyler skirted around the cliff and upward to set a belay for the remaining climbers. The approach to the left required an inward-facing shuffle-step, with the climbers using their ice axe in self-belay, heading straight up and to the left on a 65-degree slope of rotten ice and snow.

Tyler expertly disappeared around that corner, and a few minutes later, Jason’s radio crackled to life: the belay was set. Jason’s rope team (me and my buddy Denis) waited on the platform below the ice face as the guides sent the others up, and finally, my turn came.

It was steep—very steep—but still seemed well within my comfort zone, but it nevertheless required focuse. I edged out off the platform and began the climb up, and as I approached the top of the cliff, Tyler said “Crawl on your hands and knees through that next section there.” Weird… until I realized “that next section” was a sketchy snow bridge over another crevasse, and prudence required that each of us distribute our weight over a larger surface area so it would hold as we crossed. Luckily, it did.

The only remaining obstacles (besides more crevasses) between us and the summit were a few steep snow fields, which we crested without incident. We hit the 10,451-foot summit of Mt. Frances at around 12:30pm, and a spectacular vista lay before us. Mt. Frances is situated in a very central spot, with incredible unobstructed views of all the major peaks in the area, including the West Buttress route and summit of Denali, the imposing south ridge. Tyler pointed out spots on that mountain I know about from reading: Windy Corner, 14,000 camp, 17,000 camp, and others.

In every direction were spectacular vistas:The Kahiltna Queen looked glorious; down the glacier from her, the full weight and power of Mt. Hunter’s electrifying, terrifying west ridge glared at us, now in full view (photo taken from a plane); likewise, the ~12,000-foot Kahiltna Dome in Denali's direction; across the valley, Mt. Crosson stands like an ancient pyramid, while her neighbor, 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker looms large, filling our entire field of vision. I find myself mesmerized by this mountain… and it was then that I resolved to climb it in May of next year.

So here we stand, in 0-degree windchill with smiles on our frozen faces, a full vertical half mile higher than the Radio Control Tower summit we crested a few days ago, happily munching whatever we had.

We shot lots of photos--we even got one of Denis and I with Denali's 20,000+ summit looming in the distance. After many more, and just as many laughs, it was too cold to stand around any longer. The other concern was that the snow conditions below us were starting to change with all the sun of the day on it. Time to go.

I roped up on the summit, prepared to head out, got hung up in the rope, and fell down before starting out. And although stumbling on the rope is serious business, I wasn’t in any danger, but I think it nevertheless took Tyler by surprise. “That’s the FIRST and LAST time you ever do that, all right? That’s not something to take lightly.” And he’s right.

On the way up, at every steep section , I was thinking “Yeah, sure we can probably get up this without too much trouble, but how the hell are we gonna get down?” I soon found out.

All day while climbing, the sun had been heating up the hard snow, and we used that to our advantage to heel-plunge our way down even the steepest pitches in complete confidence. The snow conditions were softening, but still excellent.

Coming back to the ice cliff, we faced inward again and downclimbed with axes in low dagger and continued, but it wasn’t until I was back in camp with everyone that I heard Paul on the way down had actually fallen all the way into a crevasse up to his waist, legs dangling, help in place at the lip by the width of his backpack!

Tyler and Jerry hauled him out, and then later, Ben stuck a leg into yet another one up to his thigh. Even Tyler on the descent in a now-blistering furnace of direct and reflected sunlight stuck his boot into a tiny one and took a roll in the snow, so I feel like I got off pretty easily.

Once out of all that, we reached the top of the saddle we’d first ascended this morning, and with both rock and ice to deal with, the guides laid plans for getting down. They decided the best way would be a long and exciting rappel from the steep, rocky slope’s midway point back to the glacier floor. From there, we followed this morning’s trail back into camp, where Jeff (who didn’t go) and Mike (who stayed back with him) had been waiting for us since we left.
We’ve all been relaxing for the remainder of the day, sucking down water to replenish the huge quantities we lost in sweat on the way down—and eating. 8 hours, 50 minutes round trip climbing… not bad! :-)

Later, I looked back up at what we'd just done and realized I could see what I think is the ice cliff we went around and up, high on the mountain. You can see what kind of exposure there is there... crazy and incredible. What a day. Just… what a day.