Bye Bye Hunter, Bye Bye Alaska Range.
It was bitter sweet flying out of the Alaska range today for Talkeetna. I held back tears knowing I will not be back. The Alaska Range - the most rugged, awe inspiring mountains on our little planet. They are immense, so forbidding, that nothing lives within its inner sanctum of glaciers and granite except a few summer ravens scavenging for climbers crumbs.
The beauty comes from learning how our planet works in slow motion…glaciers carving out valleys, granite walls standing tall as if unaffected by frost while weaker rock falls around them. While the mountains are King, still and silent, the glaciers, ice falls and seracs are alive, loud and dangerous.
Climbers coming here from other mountain landscapes around the world must give the Alaska Range a notch more respect and care. It is unmatched when you add up the extremes in weather and the distance of travel through crevasse fields to reach the climbs. Most of the climbs on these big mountains are difficult…which are given specifically an “Alaska Grade” rating. Most of the mountains are protected from ambitious climber by overhead seracs raining down lethal ice chunks or couloirs acting as bowling alleys for rocks and avalaches.
This was my 10th time coming to the range. Eight of those years in winter spending a total of 100 plus days. Most of those days spent in snow caves while soloing Denali. I finally succeeded on January 11th, 2015.
Since then, I have had my sights on Mount Hunter.
At the time, I met a Japanese climber Masatoshi Kuriaki who specialized in solo winter ascents. He had tried Hunter nine times before having to be rescued off its west ridge due to avalanche conditions. I learned much from Masatoshi…be patient (weather) and don’t cut safety corners…emphasizing he has a young family back home.
I attempted Hunter for the 5th time. Pascale Marceau and I had a good plan this year, and I believed we had a good chance. Last year, I made it to 11,000 on the southwest ridge and knew the route pretty well. The real risk; to access the southwest ridge you first have to ascend a steep granite-walled chute for 2,500 feet right out of advanced basecamp. Last year when we were there, the chute avalanched after every 3 or more inches of snow. Since it had not snowed or been extremely windy in several days, we decided to ascend the chute in the evening when it was cooler and less prone to avalanche from solar radiation. The going went well, until we reach the bowl at the top of the chute, it was heavily loaded with waist deep snow layered perfectly for a major avalanche. Petrified, having lost friends to avalanches, we gingerly backtracked hoping not to trigger a slide.
We decided to ski the two-day trip back to Kahiltna Base Camp while chewing on any other potential climbs given our supplies. At basecamp, inclement weather moved in with strong winds then snow with even more winds at the higher elevations.
Our choice at this point was to go check on the National Park Service remote weather station on the glacier above basecamp and then weave our way through a large crevasse field toward the east ridge of Mount Frances. Frances sits lower in elevation then the surrounding mountains and won’t be subject to the predicted high winds. We were itching to get off the skis and climb.
Mt Frances is named after Frances Randall who was the first Denali Base Camp manager for nine climbing seasons, which earned her the nicknames "Guardian Angel of McKinley" and "Kahiltna Queen" (Wikipedia).
We camped at the bottom of the east ridge waiting for the snow to quit and after a two-day wait started up the ridge. It was a straight forward climb with the exception of multiple ridge crevasses that we had to navigate and the challenges that come with winter. We made the summit late in the day with a light snow creating a halo around the sun. The summit gave us a wonderful view of all the major peaks, their routes and smaller neighbors.
For me, having climbed this humble mountain - the mascot of Kahiltna Base Camp, was a nice culmination of my decade in the Alaska Range. I’m turning 60, let's see what the next chapter brings.
I will miss this place.