June 13th 2010

Alaska: Moonflower Buttress and Ruth Amphitheater

Well its been a pretty amazing 5 weeks out in Alaska, we didnt get done what we planned but it was a fantastic time nevertheless.

We arrived in Anchorage after a very long flight and nicely jetlagged. We had heard that it had been a very dry year this year up on the Denali Range with only a foot of snow fallen at Kahiltna since New Years. However things were about to change drastically. Within a week of our arrival in Alaska (we got stuck for 4 days waiting for some kit to arrive- some excuse about a volcano in Iceland blowing its top off) it had put down about 2 meters of fresh snow at our first drop off point, the Mountain House. Finally arrived in Talkeetna we got flown out and saw for the first time the range that was going to be our play area for the next 5 weeks.

Entering the Denali Range

Entering the Denali Range, © Jon Griffith

The Bastions of the Ruth Gorge

Mt Grosvenor, Mt Jonson, Mt Wake, © Jon Griffith

Mt Bradley

Mt Dickey, © Jon Griffith

Jumping out of the plane in deep Alaska powder we didnt venture very far before we started to set up our base camp. Thankfully it was a beautiful Alaskan winter day, but unfortunately one of the very few we would have over the next few weeks.

Digging out the pit was no mean feat in this much snow, © Jon Griffith

Our primary objective from the Mountain House was a new line in the Ruth. The next morning we woke up early and excited to head over to our objective and get a feel for not only it but also this whole new area. The weather that day was indicative of the weather for the next few weeks but we strapped on our approach skis and toured over to the face. A couple of hours into the tour and we found our first obstacle to the route which was a 1km stretch of horribly crevassed glacier. Because it had put down so little earlier on in the season and then suddenly so much, the snow bridges were very weak and poorly formed. After some 4 hours of route finding in a whiteout we decided to call it a day and come back with our bigger skis (it was a bit intense on 130cm skis). Touring back up to the Mountain House the weather started to close in fast and we just made it back in time before it broke around us.

Will route finding on the glacier, © Jon Griffith

That evening was spent taking turns digging the tent out and we got introduced to our first Alaskan storm. We were just glad for the shelter of the tent.

Jon coming back in from a tent digging session, ©Will Sim

Jon getting stuck in, © Will Sim

Morning arrived and the tent was under a meter of fresh snow

After digging the tent out we headed back up with the big skis and broke trail (a recurrent theme over the trip) back to the face where we tackled the crevassed section. After a while through ‘Teletubby land’ the weather started to close in again so having worked out about half of the maze we turned tail afraid of getting caught out in another storm in such crevassed terrain.

Off to a bad start with more bad weather, © Jon Griffith

Whittling time away in the tent, © Jon Griffith

A few days of bad weather prevailed but as soon as it cleared we decided to move up an advanced base camp and so loaded up the sleds. We’d never used sleds before and quickly found that not only are they a real pain but even worse when breaking trail through a meter of fresh snow. The going was slow and hard work but it was great to be out of the tent and on such a rare beautiful day.

Will and the Rooster Comb, © Jon Griffith

We arrived at a suitable spot and stashed the gear. Our plan was to head over and finish the maze but it was getting late and we were a bit wary of having to traverse right under the face for the last part after so much snow had fallen. The forecast for the next few days was for lots of snow so we headed back to the Mountain House convinced that after the next weather system had cleared off we would be in a good position to get on the route. By the time that we had started coming back the clouds had already rolled in putting an end to that brief sunny spell.

Barely 6 hours since the sun had come out and the snow closed in again, © Jon Griffith

We were severely blistered up from dragging the sleds through so much snow so we had to sit around for two days and let the wounds fill in a bit (really it was that bad…on the shins and the feet). It was frustrating to sit around but the weather forecast had said that we now had a 5 day high pressure moving in so we werent too stressed for the longterm.

Two days later and we were ready to move off. The weather was still a bit unsettled but we felt confident that it would clear up. Needless to say that the predicted 5 days of high pressure never actually materialised. As we arrived at ABC a massive low front arrived and we watched the baromter plunge.

The problem with these low fronts was not necessarily the threat of more snow but how much warmer it got- the thick cloud band acts as a huge insulating layer and it went from about -5 air temp to +15 in the space of about 30 mins. Nevertheless we were set on getting the rest of the track across the glacier in and to actually get a proper look at our route. Finishing the track off in complete flat light was not a fun affair but a good couple of hours later with some heart in the mouth moments we arrived at the base of our route and got our first proper look at it.

The line follows a deep fault line in the face that forms a series of steep ramps and hard looking mixed and snow secitons. In short it looked amazing. Now we were fully psyched and couldnt wait to get on it the next day.

A hurried ski tour back to the tent and we set about for leaving early the next morning- we just hoped that this low front would shift before then.

3am and the skies were reasonably clear for once. By 6am we were over the shrund and scampering up the first few hundred meters of snow field to the first ice step. Here we encountered out first ‘snice’ climb but overall it was pretty amazing nevee ice and we were now starting to feel really confident. We moved together over this 40m ice pitch which had some short 85/90 degree sections but apart from one short 90 degree snow section it was awesome. The weather for once was perfect.

Jon on the first snice step, © Will Sim

The next pitch bought us to the base of the first crux of the route- a vertical and overhanging column of snow. Now we’ve never climbed anything like this in our lives and whilst I was a bit apprehensive I was also keen to get on it- afterall how hard could it be? The first 8m was a mixture of nevee and sugar snow all on a very hollow piece of snow/ice.

Jon getting stuck into some Alaskan snow, © Will Sim

After this you could finally get a bomber screw into some ice plastered on the side of the wall and above loomed the next 20m of steep snow. I got to within a few meters of the top before I realised that our naive decision to bring only one snow stake had been a bad one. The snow had turned very nasty the higher I got and suddenly turned very hollow. I was using the snow stake as an aid tool by this point but the snow turned vertical forcing me to dig through it. It was then that I realised that it was only about 20cm thick at this point with about 1.5m of hollow behind it. The thought of boring through into the chamber behind did not fill me with enthusiasm but I felt sure that with two pickets to aid off I could get up it. The other issue was that the last hard pitch looked like a really full on snow plug and I was worried that even if I did make it up this pitch we might have to turn around at the top with only one stake. So I down climbed and passed on the bad news to Will. We rapped off a bit frustrated for being so naive about snow stakes in Alaska but set on coming back the next day armed with both of them.

Once again the weather came in in a major way, © Jon Griffith

The ravens had been at our food stash so we had to head back to base camp to re-stock our supplies, in any case the weather had come in in a big way by the time we got to ABC. Once at BC we had to sit out a few more days of bad weather and then headed back up again to ABC.

Jon digging out the tent- almost as much fun as it looks, © Jon Griffith

By the time that we had toured back up to ABC it had cleared nicely so we were feeling positive about the next day.

Will digging out ABC, © Jon Griffith

Will relaxing at ABC with Rooster Comb behind, © Jon Griffith

ABC and Huntington North East face in the background, © Jon Griffith

The Rooster Comb in the evening light, © Jon Griffith

The next morning was perfectly clear and we were treated to some amazing sunrise views. Getting this brief sunny window was awesome and deep down we felt very confident.

Sunrise on the Rooster Comb, © Jon Griffith

Sunrise on Huntington North East Face, © Jon Griffith

Back at the bail point and I headed back up the pitch. In short I got close to the top but ended up taking a 50ft fall through thin air and landing back in the couloir thankfully on my pack which absorbed most of the force. It was especially lucky as I starting falling down head first and managed to avoid hitting any of the rock sides. It was annoying as I felt sure that it would go but I got to a point where the pickets were just not working anymore as the snow was too thin and then everything slipped. Amazingly I got away with just a bruised back and nothing broken so that was good news.

I got a few body lengths higher before I started traversing over and slipped, © Will Sim

Jon in a tangled mess of axes and ropes but otherwise ok, © Will Sim

We still had two more options for getting around this section that involved some hard looking dry tooling but the cracks soon blanked out. Whilst we were appreciating some sunny weather it also meant that the face was sloughing heavily from the previous 4 days of snow- the lack of long stable weather windows meant that we were having to get on the route before it had had a chance to settle properly.

Will trying variation number 1, © Jon Griffith

Will trying variation number 1, © Jon Griffith

Will attempting variation number 2 with the section I fell off on the left, © Jon Griffith

Accepting defeat is never easy but there was a scary amount of stuff coming down the face, © Jon Griffith

The sun was now burning the face apart so we got out of there as quickly as possible.

Jon showing how we both felt about having to bail, © Will Sim

At the base of the route we felt pretty low. By the time we got back to ABC I was already mulling over the possibility of having one more go at it- there was still the option of boring through it or taking the left hand variation which was steeper but might not be as hollow. With Will on board we brewed up and got re-hydrated and ready for the next and last attempt. Unfortunately barely 24 hours since the last snow storm had stopped the day before, the weather closed in again and 4 days of snow later we decided that enough was enough and it was time to call it a day. We had tried but the weather kept thwarting us- the main issue really was not just that it snowed alot but that it was incredibly warm whenever there was a clear weather spell meaning we had to wait for a day for the face to slough and then it would start snowing again. It also seemed that the area we were climbing in tended to suck in bad weather from Denali and Huntington- there were lots of days where it was snowing up at ABC but we could see through the clouds that down at the Mountain House it was nice and sunny. C’est la vie as they say…

Time to pack up…., © Jon Griffith

…and head back to base camp, © Jon Griffith

Packing up ABC, we broke trail in horrible weather back through the maze with our sledges and were glad to have finally made it back to BC. Somehow we managed to negotiate a fresh trail all the way back in some of the worst flat light I have been in without falling into a single crevasse- though there were some very close moments. Here we bumped into a Chamonix friend Dave who had just come back from Peak 11,300 but been beaten by the weather as well. We all sat in our tent and Dave bought over some Whisky and Rum so we drank our sorrows away!

We got back to a tent full of inherited food and booze, thanks guys! Jon getting stuck in, © Will Sim

The next day we got a flight over to Kahiltna.

The Mooses Tooth from the air, © Jon Griffith

Another huge glacial valley from the air, © Jon Griffith

We arrived in a bit of a whiteout but set about making our new home. The forecast for the rest of the week was not great and the next day was spent going around and seeing what people had been up to which was not much. Morning dawned and we headed up Mt Francis in some very Scottish weather. It was a shame not to see a view but it felt great just to be out climbing again.

Will nearing the summit of Mt Francis, © Jon Griffith

The day after we headed up for point 12200 but had to turn around part way up due to some very nasty snow conditions- it felt like we were digging a trench at times there was so much snow. However on the descent the weather cleared spectacularly allowing us our first climbing views since we got to Alaska.

Will waiting for the weather to clear on point 12200, © Jon Griffith

Jon and Will on 12200 with Mt Francis in the background, © Jon Griffith

Will getting stuck into some serious trail breaking with Denali South face in the background, © Jon Griffith

Will and the North face of Mt Hunter, © Jon Griffith

Stitched Panoramic shot of Will and Hunter (LHS) and Mt Francis (RHS), © Jon Griffith

Will on the lower section of 12200 with the huge vista of Mt Hunter on the left to Kahiltna, © Jon Griffith

Psyched for getting a couple of days of exercise in, the next evening we headed off at midnight for the West Face of the Kahiltna Queen. A good three hours of deep trail breaking saw us at the base of the face where we soloed up in good time but couldnt exit off the face onto the summit ridge as we hit a huge area of wind slab ontop of bottomless granular snow. Gingerly we started down climbing back down until we hit some more stable snow. It was a shame not to summit but the focus was the Moonflower and these were just acclimatization runs.

Will on the approach to Kahiltna Queen at midnight, Foraker in the background © Jon Griffith

Will high up on the West Face of the Kahiltna Queen with sunrise on Foraker, © Jon Griffith

Will high up on the West Face of the Kahiltna Queen with sunrise on Foraker, © Jon Griffith

Foraker at sunrise, © Jon Griffith

Will high up on Kahiltna Queen with sunrise on Hunter (LHS) and Foraker (RHS), © Jon Griffith

Sunrise over the East face of Hunter, © Jon Griffith

Will downclimbing the Kahiltna Queen, © Jon Griffith

Will skiing back down from the Kahiltna Queen (middle peak), © Jon Griffith

Will approaching the Moonflower with Foraker in the distance, © Jon Griffith

Will passing beneath the Moonflower and Mt Hunter, © Jon Griffith

Mt Hunter, © Jon Griffith

At this point the first teams had started up the Moonflower. An incredibly strong French team were single pushing it whilst opening the route and to their credit they not only did the route, they summited, and then descended down the West Ridge. It was a really incredible feat and we were really happy for them. 36 hours up and 17 down- it was quite amazing to watch. A couple of other teams had also now started up but the highest any of them had achieved was the first ice field.

The weather was starting to clear up now which felt fantastic after all the bad weather at Mountain House. We were going to take a rest day but the forecast said that a low was going to arrive the following evening. As we had essentially spent 4 weeks now with minimal use of our arms we were a bit worried about how weak were going going to be on the Moonflower so we headed off to climb up part of it and then rap off just to give our arms a work out. The lower section of the route was in great nick so we were pretty psyched for the actual climb.

Will soloing up the first ice runnels of the Moonflower, © Jon Griffith

Will soloing the first section of the Moonflower with Foraker in the distance, © Jon Griffith

Jon soloing the first section of the Moonflower, © Will Sim

Will approaching the twin runnels on the Moonflower, © Jon Griffith

Jon leading the awesome ice of the twin runnels, © Will Sim

Will in the twin runnels, © Jon Griffith

A few days later and we felt that it was now or never. The forecast for that day was for snow but we had finally learnt not to trust the weatherman any more in Alaska. At 3am we were up and off at 4.30am. We moved together up to the last pitch of the twin runnels and were making good time.

Jon getting stuck into some amazing ice, the Prow can be seen towering above, © Will Sim

Jon pulling some fun moves in the twin runnels, © Will Sim

The Prow was incredible climbing and I felt was one of the most ‘out there’ things that I had led in the alpine environment. The final exit was particularly interesting as my last piece of pro was well below me and the ice was super delicate and fragile. In any case within 4:30 hours we were both over the Prow and feeling strong.

Jon enjoying some Chamonix style climbing in the Prow, ©Will Sim

Jon in the thick of the Prow, © Will Sim

The traverse/ pendulum over into the McNethery Ice dagger was done without any worries and the dagger itself was in awesome nick.

Jon retrieving the ropes after the pendulum into the ice dagger, ©Will Sim

Jon eying up the rest of the McNethery, ©Will Sim

Up this and it was over to Tamaras Traverse

Jon on Tamaras traverse, ©Will Sim

Up onto the first icefield and we were still feeling strong and moving well. Above us reared The Shaft and at the top of the ice field Will took over the second block lead

Will half way up the first ice field with Foraker and Crosson in the background, © Jon Griffith

Will leading up The Shaft, © Jon Griffith

Will leading up The Shaft, © Jon Griffith

Jon pulling up to the belay after the penultimate pitch of The Shaft, © Will Sim

The Shaft proved to be quite interesting with some pretty engaging climbing and very old brittle ice on it. Every pitch had a bulging section and one pitch didnt actually link meaning we had to do some interesting dry tooling on the rock on the side to get past the overhanging chockstone plug. In short by the time we got out of The Shaft our forearms were bursting from getting our first pump on in well over a month- we could definitely appreciate how weak we had become.

Just below the Vision we stopped for a brew up. The sun had dipped behind some pretty ominous UFO clouds that had been looming nearby for most of the day and the temps suddenly dipped very fast. A cold fresh breeze didnt help matters either so we donned the down jackets and got the bothy bag out. After a few hours of melting water and re-hydrating we decided that our arms really had to recuperate as whilst the climbing above was not as hard it was still engaging and at that moment our forearms were having none of it.

A few hours of very uncomfortable and cold napping and we started to get moving. The wind had whipped up and spindrift was coming down The Vision in big chutes. As a side note we also woke at some point to a loud ‘whoomph’ which we found out the next morning was a huge snow mushroom that hung above The Shaft collapsing in the night. Scary stuff.

Jon, not a big fan of the cold and spindrift below The Vision, © Will Sim

Unfortunately we still felt really boxed in our arms and combined with some very frozen toes and the thought of having to spend another night on the face without bivy kit or food if we continued made us take the easy option of bailing. It was a shame but sometimes you get to a point where you just know that going down is the answer.

Many hours later and we were finally back at our skis. The route was amazing and without a doubt the best climbing we had ever done but doing it single push had been a big gamble that had unfortunately not paid off for us. A bivy on the first ice field would make the route much more amenable without a doubt. Nevertheless it was incredible. Back at camp and we both suddenly felt like it was time to go. Temps were horribly high and we had definitely ‘done our time’ as if it were. We both felt like we had learned a huge amount from our first expedition but that ultimately we had been quite unlucky with the weather at the start. There is alot to be said for feeling ‘fresh’ when you want to get on these types of routes.

A massive thankyou to everyone who helped us out with food and supplies when we ran low and for being so kind to us. We learnt alot about the kind hospitality of Alaskans and look forward to coming back next year. A special thankyou to all the kind people who donated food to us when we were down to only rice and snickers bars- I have lost some of your emails so please get in contact!

Jon Griffith would like to thank the following for supporting the expedition:

The Alpine Club

The Mount Everest Foundation

Will Sim would like to thank the following:

The Alpine Club

The Mount Everest Foundation

The British Mountaineering Council

Marmot UK

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book