Met de herfstvakantie in zicht had ik (Maxime) een aantal dagen vrij. Ik rekende op mijn ‘vaste’ klimpartners maar die lieten het last-minute afweten. Mijn schoonbroer (Wanne Libot) had tijd en was vooral heel gemotiveerd… De plannen waren gesmeed. Geen ijsklimmen maar wel Zwitserse rots!
Afgelopen weekend was ik (Maxime) met mijn vriendin, Line voor een verlengd weekend in Zwitserland. We genoten van de laatste nazomerse zonnestralen, van prachtige uitzichten en van fantastische rots! We klommen er een mooie multi-pitch op Cheselenfluh-Stepfen in Stöckalp vlakbij Luzern.
Er zijn er al 2 achter de rug maar ook komende maanden geven Sam en Maxime een aantal presentaties omtrent hun Alaska expeditie. Klik op de data voor meer informatie.
23 April 2015 20u – De Raat, Schooldreef 5, 8020 Oostkamp – Westvlaamse Bergsport Vereniging WBV
De expeditie werd ondersteund door:
Zoals je op de blog kon lezen vertoefde Maxime en Sam afgelopen voorjaar in Alaska. Net als bij voorgaande expedities wordt ook van deze trip een film gemaakt. Het eindresultaat zal nog meerdere maanden op zich laten wachten maar hier is alvast de trailer.
Deze winter geven Maxime en Sam enkele lezingen, daarover binnenkort meer.
De blog artikels kan je hier nalezen:
De expeditie was mogelijk dankzij de hulp van:
14.000ft, Beal, Black Diamond, Cassin Ridge, climbing, De Kampeerder, Denali, expedition, Goal Zero, Julbo, K2, Kahiltna Glacier, Mammut, Maxime De Groote, Mountain Hardwear, Petzl, Sam Van Brempt, sledges, West Buttress, West Rib
The wind is blowing fresh snow in our faces. Layers of ice start to stick on my cheeks and slowly, I begin to lose all feeling in my nose. These are the moments when you really start to wonder what you’re doing up in the central Alaska Range.
On the 17th of May we left the Kahiltna airstrip late in the morning. Maxime and I started walking on the low angled Kahiltna Glacier. Within a few hours, we arrived at Ski Hill Camp just in front of the first steeper step. We ate a quick lunch in companion of another Belgian climbing party who, before heading on a 6 months cycle journey, wanted to climb Denali’s West Buttress. While they pitched their tent we moved on. We wanted to make as much progress as possible and came up with the not-so-promising plan to get directly to the 11.000ft camp Now, in the afternoon, it’s a complete whiteout. We don’t know where we are exactly. We just follow the trail that is followed by the thousands of West Buttress Denali climbers. As fresh snow slowly fills the old traces, we just look out for the small bamboo sticks planted into the glacier by previous visitors. We spend a lot of energy pulling our heavy sledges. During the years, I managed to slim my pack down to the lightest and most essential gear, but somehow, thanks to my ever-growing photographical kit, the sledge is once again way too heavy. From time to time we take a small pause. I turn around and Maxime is only slightly visible, as a silhouette disappearing into the mist. I take a deep breath before we continue, wondering why I came back to this place.
I’ve been in Alaska before. In May 2010, I teamed up with Joris Van Reeth. We knew each other from Mount Coach, a program founded by KBF, the Belgian Mountaineering Club. Just like the Mountain Academy and Alpine Mentors, Mount Coach trains young climbers to all round alpinists. For me the biggest change in, and influence on my life. Together, we experienced 3 busy years in the Alps, one expedition to Khan Tengri and were ready for what felt like our next step. A technical line on a 6000 meter peak like Denali! In 4 days Joris and I brought all our gear up to the 14.000ft camp from where we did some acclimatization climbs on Denali. Finally we were ready and descended the wickwire ramp to the South side of the mountain. We spent one last night at the base and on the 7th of June 2010, we started climbing up the Japanese Couloir. Simulclimbing the gully we arrived on the first steep wall. Joris climbed over it, ran out his rope and made a belay to switch leads. Without me hanging on the rope, the belay ripped out and Joris landed 60 meters lower headfirst into the rocks. He died immediately. By coincidence, a Japanese climbing party appeared underneath the desolated South face. They climbed up and helped me to bring Joris down. They lost motivation for their own attempt on the Cassin and went back to the airstrip. They asked me if I would join them and walk safely down the crevassed North East Fork. But I didn’t feel comfortable leaving Joris behind. Besides, I was in contact with the Denali Park rangers and they tried to get a helicopter into the range to pick us up. Bad weather came in faster than expected and I had to wait 4 days before the helicopter managed to fly me out. They took a big risk by rescuing me and decided to come back for Joris when the weather cleared. Due to a big fresh layer of snow, we unfortunately never managed to find Joris. He is still resting over there and today there is simply no chance someone will ever find him…
To keep the story short, I will walk over the fact how it feels to lose a close friend in a climbing accident. Although I experienced loss before, I never stood so close to an accident. Nevertheless I think I can say I hit my biggest low ever and slowly had to find my way back up. The fact that I had 4 lonely days to clear my head before I had my first decent contact is something I would never recommend but was helpful in a way. Later, I wrote some small things, trying to explain my feelings, my thoughts and the way I (re)act. As I like to be completely aware about those inner thoughts and feelings. I still remember me sitting in the helicopter. The late evening sun was enlightening the highest peaks. Although I was absent and I didn’t know what to say to the rangers neither the pilot, there was a inner peace. Now that I was in a safe position, I just wanted to wander around in these mountains. That moment, I already realized backing off on climbing was no option. Soon, from meeting climbing partners, I started rock climbing and got back into skiing, alpinism, expedition climbing and so on. In the summer of 2009, less than a year before the accident with Joris, I lost good friends on the Peruvian mountain Tocllaraju. It was only after my visit to the Cordillera Blanca in 2012, I felt some kind of relief for the first time. More than ever I wanted to go back to Alaska too. Besides I realised that coming back to that place brings me some peace in mind. There is an ever growing curiosity about what and how intense I will feel if I am at the massive South face, the north east fork where Joris is resting, the 14.000 ft. camp where he spent his last 3 weeks or the Cassin ridge itself. It’s like every year around the month of May, my thoughts get drifted to that place.
Now, 4 years later, I’m finally back at the Kahiltna Basecamp. While our experience grew during the years, our dreams and objectives changed. Needless to say, the Cassin always sticks to my mind. But it slowly changed from a physical test piece into a mental challenge and confrontation. Although I wanted to come back somehow it didn’t feel exciting to come back for only a try on the Cassin Ridge. That’s why Maxime De Groote and I opted to climb the Moonflower Buttress instead. The Cassin Ridge became a back-up plan, in case we had some spare time. After spending only 2 weeks in the range, we managed to climb our hardest route ever: a 4 day round trip on the “not so in condition” Moonflower Buttress. Back in Base-camp we take some days of recovery rest. Maxime suffers from a severe toothache and even the maximum amount of painkillers can’t help anymore. He needs to fly back to Talkeetna to see a dentist.
Later that evening I walk into Lisa’s tent to get an update about Maxime and the upcoming weather. Lisa is the one who is running Basecamp. Arranging the flights in and out, helping climbers on their trip, broadcasting weather reports and so on. As she has been doing this for several years, she still remembers the accident of Joris and the young guy who was waiting below the mountain. Gently she asks if it was me back then. We start talking about the accident. “So, then you met the Japanese team?” she asks. Wondering what she means, she points to two tiny down suited men standing before a small tent, melting snow for their tea. It turns out that it is in fact the same climbing party that helped me lower Joris down back then. After 4 years they decided to reattempt the Cassin ridge. As I never managed to get in contact with them I am more than happy to finally talk with them. It turns out I even visited their small hometown in Japan two years ago on a skiing trip.
2 days after he flew off, Maxime arrives back into the range. As he knows he can always please me with food, he brought a liter of cold coke and a pizza. It takes roughly half an hour to fly over to the Kahiltna airstrip so the pizza is cold too. But I’m more than happy to exchange a cold pizza for all the sweets and freezed food we had since we arrived. We take the rest of the day to rearrange our bags. The next morning we are on our way to the 11.000ft camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.
By now, late in the afternoon, fresh snow cleared all the traces, we can’t find the 11.000ft camp and the whiteout makes it impossible to navigate to the exact location. We get tired, loose the motivation to walk on and decide to pitch our tent just next to the path on the glacier. As we zip open our tent in the morning, we finally get a view on the environment. 11.000ft is only 2 hours ahead of us.
Arriving at the 11.000 ft. camp, the wind picks up again and starts to blow clouds into the valley. The weather update in the evening doesn’t sound promising. It’s clear that we have to stay for at least another day in this camp and on the downside there is not even a small 2 day good weather window looming at the end of the forecast. Another hauling day finally brings us up to the crowdy 14.000th camp. Since we topped out on Mt Hunter a week ago we thought to be better acclimatized but nevertheless we are glad that we’re finally done pulling those sledges.
As we knew in advance, from here on we have only a week for further acclimatization and climbing the Cassin Ridge. Call us naïve, but we’re just hoping for the right window at the right time. We go for a small talk at the ranger camp and run into Dave Weber and Mark Westman. Both guys have a long history as ranger and climber in the range. As we tell them that we want to go up for some acclimatization, they remind us about some changes in the National Park mountain rules. Climbing on the crowded West Buttress, not only do we need to bring plastic shitbags up to 17k ft, we also need to bring a CMC (clean mountain can). There are no crevasses to throw away poopbags so from this year on, it’s no longer allowed to go to the toilet up there without bringing your poop back down. Not too thrilled to drag this 10-liter bucket on the mountain. We’re only partially joking and suggest to use our reactor stove as CMC. Unfortunately they don’t want to make an exception, so we change our plans and decide to climb the West Rib, as the CMC rules don’t apply on this less crowded route. The cold, one of the downsides about climbing Denali, makes every morning really hard. Especially with all this bad weather and the unpromising outlook. I wake up, staring to the rime plastered tent sealing and I only think about leaving theses mountains as fast as possible. It just seems so useless, pushing forward knowing there is only a slight change to attempt the Cassin. We stay in our tent and wait till the sun shines over the mountain. While the temperature rises so goes my motivation and for the rest of the day time flies. Spending several hours melting snow and cooking till early evening the sun disappears again.
The weather reports don’t give any sign on a perfect weather window but we don’t have the time to wait for it. One day around noon, as soon as the clouds clear, we gear up and walk to the base of the west rib cut off. It is easy climbing but at this altitude we feel our hearts pounding in our chest. Early evening we find ourselves high on the mountain. Beneath us, a thick layer of clouds is coming up. Like small islands only the higher ridges and mountains squeeze themselves through it. We reach a platform around 17.000ft, the so-called balcony camp where we pitch our tent for the night.
Maxime feels a slight headache as he gets into our single wall bivy shelter. We brew up some soup to hydrate. While digging into my backpack, searching for our freeze-dried meals, I soon discover I forgot the spoon. This doesn’t seem to bother Maxime as he quickly discovers a candela to use as a spoon. While the sun sets, the colors show the range at its best but the wind is again picking up. The last weather report tells us that the wind will drop the next morning. Hopefully the forecast is right, as we’re eager to move on. Our Supertopo guidebook warns us that this is a bad place to be in a storm. We take everything we can possibly store in our tent and afraid that my shoes will fly off the mountains, I even strap them to the tent.
While the tent fly smashes into our faces, I can’t fall asleep. Maxime and I don’t say a word but I know he ‘s awake to as he reacts to every movement or sigh I make. When it’s early morning, the wind drops and we finally manage to get some hours of sleep. We wake up, still tired, pack our bags and try to heat up with some warm tea. As it is still cold and just standing won’t help we quickly start to our climb over the easy terrain on the upper west rib. The ridge blocks the sun that is coming up in the east so Maxime suggests moving over to the rib itself. As we reach the ridge, we quickly discover this is no good option either. Despite the heat of the sun we receive the wind in full effect. Within 15 minutes we lose the feeling in our hands and feet. A simple look at each other is all it takes. There is no point in trying to reach the summit.
We start to climb down in the direction of the Orient Express couloir and follow this snow couloir to the lower glacier and walk back to the 14.000ft camp. As we reach the camp, the sky is clearing and we get that nervous feeling. Wondering if we were just lame and went down too soon? Later that day, we discovered that all the climbing party’s on the West Buttress made the same decision. We reached an altitude of 18.000ft and know that if we take a day or two rest, we’re ready to get a try on the Cassin. Our days on the mountain are almost over so the only thing we need and are hoping for is a change in the weather. The next day, when we intercept a new weather forecast, we know it’s over. There is no break in this weather pattern, at least not to get a try on an engaged route like the Cassin Ridge. Frustrated that we spent a lot of energy on nothing, we quickly decide to back to the warm summer weather of Talkeetna.
Back at the Kahiltna Airstrip we are waiting for our plane to fly out. We’re sitting on the glacier, in what later turns out the last perfect day for a longer time. Eventually, if we were fast enough, we probably could climb the Cassin in a long day. But we didn’t feel comfortable trying such a route with unstable weather. Looking on the mountains around us, the massive moonflower buttress. It was our best trip ever and I’m sure I will come back to this place…
This expedition was possible thanks to: Read our previous articles:
“The fear of the unknown”, some words just stick to my (Sam ) mind. It was that fear we felt stronger then ever that evening. Maxime De Groote, my partner for a lot of the harder climbs, was silent too. For over a week we’re in the Central Alaska Range. To warm up and acclimatise we climbed 2 smaller routes, before we got hit by a period of bad weather. Tent bound at Kahiltna base camp, we’re passing our time by staring at the ceiling, listening to music or trying to read a book. After 4 days in a complete whiteout, the warmth of the sun finally greets us. Soon the forecast shows us what we were waiting for, at least 4 days of blue sky. We make a last scouting trip to check the conditions on the huge face before us and inspect the descent options. It all looks promising so soon we decide to go for the main goal of this expedition: The Moonflower Buttress.
It’s already late afternoon. We feel a bit exhausted from our hike on the heat reflecting glacier but start to pack our bags. The typical decision making discussions soon follows? How many screws are we bringing? A full set of cams? 3 days of food or do we count for an extra day? How heavy is your pack compared to mine? Do we try to make one small pack for the hard leads?
In the early evening, our bags are ready to go and we prepare an extended meal. We’re both silent, and somehow I’m getting nervous with that massive buttress looming at our back. From time to time I turn around. Slowly, as the sun sets, the yellow-brown granite with small white-grey lines of ice turns into an impressive orange formation. From some small talk with Maxime I switch over to my inner thoughts. Luckily, he feels as restless as I do. Our bags are ready to go, the weather is perfect but somehow we’re mentally not ready yet. Not to leave now, neither to leave early in the morning. We decide to postpone our departure until the next day at noon, to give our body and mind some extra time to rest.
It’s difficult to fall asleep if you are nervous. In my mind I’m digging into my past, and suddenly I remember, a small talk with someone else always helped me. Staring at that favorite tent ceiling I’m waiting till it’s late enough to make a call with Yannick, a good friend and climbing partner. We’ve been climbing, skiing and travelling together the last 8 years. We share lots of highs and lows, which makes me feel really connected to him. And maybe we are, as I still remember my ex-girlfriend complaining I saw him more than her…
As usual if he can’t go on a trip, he’s following our progress from home. Helping us out where he can because he has better access to weather maps. Raising his 3 months old daughter, “Zoen” (the Dutch word for Kiss) he will probably be up early. So, that’s why I call him at 7 in the morning European time. A sleepy voice answers the phone. Zoen seems to sleeps longer then I expected. Because I woke him up with terrible news 4 years ago, I immediately let him know everything is still perfect. I tell him we’re ready for the climb and ask if he can send us a last weather update. His sleepy mourning voice replies something like; “If you ready to go you need to go, last time I checked this was a perfect weather window. Good luck…”
Little did he know? In that 1-minute call he said almost nothing but nevertheless his words calmed me down immediately. I simply needed to let him know we’re on the move. Like I needed that confirmation that he knows we’re on that mountain.
Next day, Friday 9th of May around noon, we hike underneath the base of the Moonflower Buttress. We’re surprised to see another climbing party at the shrund of the Bibler Klewin and even more to see a guy coming back from the right-hand side of the Buttress. As he comes closer we recognise him, it’s Scott Adamson, a funny guy with a moustache coming from Zion, US. A few days before we met Scott and shared some funny stories about climbing, America and it’s alcohol policies. Together with Aaron Child and Andy Knight, he climbed a new route on Idiot Peak, a satellite of Mt. Huntington. He and his partners flew over from the Tokositna glacier last week. His friends felt sick and stayed in basecamp but Scott went for a solo attempt on the Deprivation route. Unfortunately he had to come back down as the crux was in loose snow. We have a little chat about the conditions and the fresh snow before he wishes us luck and we move on.
Thanks to the party upfront we progress rapidly in the knee-deep snow, which is accumulated underneath the buttress. We follow their traces to what looks like the only possible way trough the massive shrund, a 5-meter overhanging snow and ice formation. We climb it with the help of some aid techniques and start climbing the lower ice field. As far as we know, there was Max and Rustie, an Anchorage party and the Dutch couple Marianne and Dennis. Both had plans to make an ascent but they both opted to leave a day later. So wondering who is in front of us, we try to catch up with them. Eventually it turns out to be another American party that flew in yesterday evening. 2 pitches further they turn back because they felt too tired.
We approach the first small gully of ice, which is named the Twin Runnels. Maxime takes the first lead in these runnels and we are both immediately surprised. The runnel is steep, small and in polystyrene snow. Perfect for climbing but placing good protection is almost impossible. Luckily for us, the protection gets better from the next pitch on. Although an occasional nasty move above that last piece of gear keeps our focus high and our progress rather slow! It somehow sets a tone of the day and what we later discover, the whole climb.
It is late afternoon when we reach our belay underneath the obvious rock feature, which is called The Prow. An aid pitch that is more and more climbed free. While Maxime puts on his down jacket for a longer belay session, I fuel myself with some extra food and I gear up. Not that I think I will free this, but I should give it a try. Some nasty moves later and I’m hanging on my gear, continuing with a mix of aid and free climbing. Maxime makes the pendulum into the McNerthney Ice Dagger from where we climb up to the start of Tamara’s Traverse.
Because of our late start today we arrive in the evening. As the sky turns red, the view is more then impressive but as there is no place to sleep, we can’t rest yet. We need to hurry to reach the first ice field before dark. Maxime starts the traverse giving me an exceptional photographic opportunity. Slowly the sun sets and at the time I reach the next belay it is almost dark. We simulclimb the last 100 meters and around midnight we start chopping 2 small ledges under a boulder on the first ice field.
We both feel miserable and tired. While we get into our sleeping bags, fresh spindrift comes down from the mountain and we need to make sure they don’t get wet. We start to melt snow and heat up water but with these cold temperatures it takes ages. I put the gas canister in the hot water for a few seconds so the stove can burn on full power for a minute afterwards and so on. We start to talk about interesting heating systems and wonder why no company found a light system to keep the gas canister warm. As we both try not to fall asleep, we fill up our Nalgene bottles with tea and a vegetable soup. We force ourselves to drink and eat enough so it is around 3 in the morning when we finally fall asleep.
Next morning we didn’t set an alarm but woke up by the morning light. The heat of the sun will be more then welcome but we know the sun hits this face only late in the evening. Cold and tired, we stay in our sleeping bags while we brew up some water and eat some dry biscuits. We’re both staring to the lower glacier in search of fresh traces. Wondering if a strong party made an early start and is climbing behind us. Knowing we’re not alone up here, would give us the motivation we need at this moment.
Knowing we’re both feeling miserable, and it’s easy to take each other down in a form of demotivation. We make some small talk and avoid the topic of an optional retreat. In this position, you don’t feel the joy of climbing and with the sun shining on the lower glacier. It’s just so easy to get back on your steps. I tell myself retreat is no option as long as the weather stays good and the route is climbable. We encourage ourselves to get out of that sleeping bag and it is only around noon when we finally start again. We climb some easy terrain and I take shelter behind a rock formation as there is a hanging snow mushroom the size of a car looming above the next pitch, the 5.8.
We heard some rumours that this pitch is harder then graded. Maxime, without question the better rock climber, takes an awesome lead, tries to move as fast as possible underneath the nasty mushroom and brings me up. Now, we’re standing underneath the feature that gave us the most doubts. The shaft, a 120m steep ice runnel with some overhanging steps. From the first look on the mountain we saw this thin grey line with a snow mushroom hanging in the first pitch. Climbing up this narrow gully I manage to get underneath this mushroom. Getting over it takes ages, placing protection, figuring out the moves, trying to get over it and turning back to the safe place to take a rest. That never ending internal dialog that I should go for it, which was encouraged by Maxime. Although this block of snow only had the size of a big duffle, it really scared us. Knowing we won’t get further without touching, I try to clear the mushroom so it won’t fall down on Maxime. Then suddenly it breaks loose and falls down without any trouble. I manage to climb the first overhang and really psyched I bring Maxime up. He takes the next lead, again with a loose snow-overhanging step.
Although every pitch was difficult so far, way out of our comfort zone and really close to our limits. We need to say, unlike the lower polystyrene twin runnels, we had no problem placing good protection almost everywhere. Standing in a split, Maxime works himself trough the second overhanging step and the third pitch of the shaft is back for me. It’s another steep one, my arms getting pumpy, I simply don’t manage to climb the whole length and have to give the last 15 meters back to Maxime. With the last rays of sun we reach the second icefield and start digging for a place to sleep. We climbed roughly 10 hours for only 8 pitches! We are exhausted, feeling terribly slow. But with the crux behind us, and weather still good to go on, we don’t let it bother us too much.
We manage to get a good sleep and wake up early for our third day on the mountain. From the ground we never had a good view on the “Vision” and the “Bibler Come Again Exit” leading trough the 2 last rock bands. And even up here, the right way looks unfamiliar. We follow the most obvious line and soon arrive at the start of the Vision. Due to a stuck rope, it takes a while but eventually we’re looking into the final ice runnel leading to the third ice field. The sun hits this field early so it feels great to finally enjoy the full heat of the sun. We climb trough the ice field, up to the right and start to search for the weakness in the last rock band, the ice runnel leading to “The Bibler Come Again Exit”. It’s over here that I made a big mistake.
Climbing up a small thin layer of ice, I place one last good screw underneath a steep step and try to climb over it. One axe in perfect ice just above the step, I start looking for my other axe placement but only find snow. Eventually my axe finds a hold. And, you know that feeling, when you place your axe and just the sound just tells you it’s not right. I was well aware of that moment, but instead of trying again, I tested it with my weight and the axe kept in place. Time to come high up, holding almost all of my weight on the lower axe using the other to stay in balance. And then, the bad axe rips out. I’m way too high above my good axe. While I’m falling backwards, I hold my only good axe at its head. Obvious I rip that one out too!
Suddenly, I find myself hanging 2 meters lower upside down, on that that tiny 8mm Ice Line. Looking to a glacier 1500 meters beneath me, I scared the shit out of Maxime and feel frustrated that I trusted that situation on such a route. I made a short but perfect fall and I didn’t hurt myself. Lowering myself back to the belay point of Maxime we take a short rest. Afraid doubts will take over, I soon go for a second try. This time, we climb over it, Maxime leads another length and we are standing underneath the last difficult pitch of this amazing route. We still don’t know if it is really “The Bibler Come Again Exit” but it was the most obvious feature.
Finally, we’re on top of the difficulties, a point of return for a lot of climbing parties but with the weather still on our side we opt to move on. We start the 10 pitches on calf breaking 50 degree blue ice. Too tired to simulclimb it safely, we pitch it all out. As usual we lose track of time and reach the top of the buttress when it’s almost dark. We find the cornice bivy. A perfect cave blown out by the wind but standing here, underneath a huge cornice we didn’t fancy to sleep and make a traverse to the other side of the ridge. Later on we discovered that this is a well-known bivy spot but we’re surprised to find a boulder that forms a good platform for what hopefully would be our last night on the mountain.
The effort of the last days makes us fall asleep easily. But didn’t necessarily make us have a goo night. From time to time we wake up by the cold or the fear of falling down this boulder. When the sun hits our faces early in the morning we pack our bags and start following the ridge to the summit. Navigating trough seracs, climbing loose snow and following the ridge we slowly get higher. Despite our acclimatisation trips a good week ago, we still feel the altitude. We arrive at that point, which from a lower position looked like the summit, climb up and as usual, we see a new summit appearing in front of us. After a few disappointments we arrive on a flat spot with no option to go higher. We’re finally on top of Mount Hunter.
Fresh traces go down on the other side of the mountain in the direction of the west ridge, probably made by a skiing party that climbed and skied down the ramen route. As we always wanted to make a complete round-trip from our climb, this was the perfect descend or us. It was 10 in the morning, we know we need to descend the mountain as fast as possible but first we want to take enough time to rest. The summit is a huge platform so we easily take of our boots, dry our socks and unpack our bags in search of our reactor stove. As we’re sitting in the sun it is the first time since we left base camp that we manage to melt our water at a normal speed. We have to hydrate, get something to eat and of course enjoy the view. As I was in the range 4 years ago, back then we never managed to see the whole range as we always stayed on the southwest side of Denali and the day we topped out, it was in a whiteout. Now we can see 360° around us what surprised me how big this range is.
Around noon we start to descend the west ridge. First walking on the low angled summit slopes, then navigating through some seracs and finally traversing the exposed ridge in search of the fastest way down, the Ramen couloir. From high on the ridge we start rappelling into the couloir untill the angle kicks back and we continue climbing down. Our hope to reach base camp early in the evening gets knocked down the lower we got. The snow is too wet, too deep and too loose. Several times we trigger small slushes and sporadically stones rain down from higher on. We decide to take shelter underneath a boulder and wait untill the sun gets behind the ridge. We use the spare time to melt some extra water and eat the last freeze-dried food we kept on the side specially for this location, yes a crème brulé!
Late in the evening the conditions are better and we continue the descend. We safely climb down to the glacier and descended further in the direction of the icefall. While we were scouting for descent options a few days ago we already saw the skyteam skinning up trough the icefall. As they found a way trough, we knew we could follow their way out. Walking on the right-hand side we find their tracks back and follow them in the direction of the icefall. This labyrinth is the last obstacle that separates us from the lower Kahiltna glacier and the easy walk to basecamp. We are somehow amazed by how good the snow holds our bodyweight but not for long. Once we reach the crevassed area, we suddenly fall knee-deep through a snow bridge. As we keep on following the tracks of the skiers, they clearly have a better support then us on our feet. We’re cross tens of scary snow bridges and look into deep crevasses. Eventually we end up crawling on our knees or even the belly while the one is securing the other. At the end of the icefall we make one last rappel from a huge snow formation, and we are more then happy to be at the safe zone of the lower glacier.
By this time we are almost 20 hours on the way, and still have a serious walk ahead. Compared to several different climbing partners in the past, I’m not technically not the strongest climber. But when it comes to long pushes on low energy, navigating nasty terrain, I really get into my zone. I give my last powerbar to Maxime and plug in my Ipod, which I specially saved for this occasion. Running low on energy while walking brainless on this massive glacier, nothing beats music to set the pace. Somehow it brings at a new level. You get rid of your tiredness and it seems like you just can walk forever.
It’s 3 in the morning and completely silent when we arrive back in the safety of our basecamp! We hug each other. Finally safe and sound from what was roughly a 90 hour round-trip. Without question this was the hardest climb we ever did! Something to eat, a short confirmation we’re down safe to Yannick and we get into our tent. The next day, we feel the wind pounding on our tent. Waiting for the sun to heat up our cosy space we soon discover it’s not going to happen. I open the zip of our tent with my swollen hands and see clouds rolling over from behind Foraker’s Sultana Ridge. We’re back at the right time, just before the next period of bad weather…
As far as we know, some other attempts and ascents were made this year:
Marianne van der Steen and Dennis Van Hoek climbed untill the first ice field but came back down when we the storm came in. A few days later they did an all-free ascent but due to bad weather they returned after the difficulties.
A party of 3 climbed the lower part of the Bibler Klewin, traverse into deprivation to avoid the Shaft and higher on, they got back to the bibler klewin. We don’t know if they only climbed the difficulties or they reached the top of the buttress or summit
Kyle Dempster did a solo attempt on the Bibler Klewin, returning after the first pitch in the shaft.
Max and Rustie like 2 other American parties climbed the lower pitches but no one of them got higher than The Prow
We’re back in Belgium for more then a month now. after a fast update when we just flew out of the Range there was a long silence. I tried to write down the story of our climb and work myself trough the pictures. But soon ended up in hectic job, which gives me almost no spare time for picture editing. Anyway here is the first part of our trip to the Central Alaska Range.
26th of April, we arrived in Alaska. After a shopping day in Anchorage we drove up north, to Talkeetna. Checked in at the Ranger Station and made everything ready to fly into the Mountains. Weather seemed good but still tired from the last days before departure, we could use another rest day.
29th of April we we’re ready to fly to the Kahiltna Airstrip. Together with 2 other teams we’re dropped of on the glacier. A first look up to our main objective, Mt Hunters North Buttress, and a small talk with TAT pilot, Paul Roderick gave us some doubts. The ice was thinner then other years and this year nobody tried it yet. There even was no other team planning an attempt. As we set up our basecamp, the 2 other teams left and heading in the direction of Denali. There we’re some deserted tents, basecamp was not installed yet so when Paul lifted of it was a nice feeling, alone there!
A last short snow shower and the weather forecast gave us 4 days of perfect weather. We did a trip up into the southeast fork scouting for route conditions and our thoughts about thin and dry conditions were confirmed.
On the 1st of May we left basecamp late morning and started the 2-hour hike to Mini Moonflower. Mini Moonflower is a small summit on the ridge between Mt Hunter and Kahiltna Queen. We were hoping to climb its 600 meters North Couloir but were still wondering how to pass the crux without ice. We crossed the shrund easily and started climbing the lower couloir. There was hard blue ice but we managed to find some neve runnels, which made the climbing faster. As the couloir turned into a small gully the route steepened, Maxime led another pitch and made belay beneath the crux pitch.
According to the supertopo guidebook this crux supposed to be a thin layer of 85° ice but now there was a dry section of 10 meters. I started climbing, first straight up till the part where the ice disappeared. Then following the corner system a few meters on the left. Although there were some cracks with good axe placements, it was difficult to place my crampons. With the help of some aid techniques to rest and scout the next steps I got slowly higher. Almost on the end of the pitch but there is a small overhanging rock formation avoiding us to climb straight up. I made a traverse to the right, back to the original route where I could find some small patches of ice. A bit higher up I made belay and brought Maxime up. Maxime freed the pitch thinking it would be something M6/M7.
We climbed 2 other steep pitches and the gully kicked back to a 60° snow ramp leading to the summit ridge. It was already late afternoon when we reached ridge. Motivation was pretty low and didn’t fancy the last 100 meters in loose snow to the summit so we started rappelling down.
Our confidence grew after this climb. The ice was less hard then we expected and our clothing system seemed to suit the job. We took a rest day, organising our base camp and slowly some other teams we’re flying in. Some just started their expedition others came over from another Glacier. One team, who was dropped of for only 3 days, immeadiatly attempted the Moonflower Buttress but lost too much time on the shrund, and didn’t climbed higher then the Prow.
We haven’t been on altitude for a while. We wanted to make a good shot to go all the way on mount Hunter so we decided to do an extra acclimatisation climb. Early morning on the 3th of May we left the airstrip planning to climb Kahiltna Queen by its 1000 meter west face couloir.
This route is dangerous for stonefall when sun hits the face. That’s why we thought to leave really early, hoping to top out before noon and staying on the 12.000ft summit till it’s safe again to descend. Kahiltna Queen is the beautifull pyramid at the end of the Southwestfork valley. 3 hours of skinning brought us to the base of the route. We roped up and simulclimbed the lower angled snowcouloir. Our timing was close but as soon we left the big couloir sun started to hit the upper part and stones started falling down. We were out of the big couloir and climbed to the top ridge. The climbing was never hard and after 5 hours we reached the first summit and traversed to the real summit. 10 meters underneath the summit we returned cause the cornice was too big and scary!
As hoped we found a good bivy on a small platform in between the two summits. A fantastic view around us and for the first time we could see a less steeper version of Mt Hunter’s north Buttress Although the forecast said it will be good weather for another day. Clouds where coming in from behind Foraker. Hoping it will clear, we got into our sleeping bags and waited. Around midnight clouds were coming close and it started snowing slightly. Time to pack our bags and start the descend. Early morning we where back at the Kahiltna Base Camp. Weather forecast showed us some days of bad weather. This was the perfect reason to take a rest and focus us on our big objective, Mt Hunter!
Our expedition was possible with the support from:
We will write more next weeks but you can find a small English text at the end of this post!
Het is even stil geweest na het nieuws dat we (Maxime en Sam) aan de beklimming van Mount Hunter waren begonnen. Onze excuses daarvoor, zij die onze Mount Coach facebook pagina volgen wisten ondertussen de afloop van ons verhaal. Een uitgebreide versie volgt, maar nu we terug in de bewoonde wereld zijn laten we jullie maar al te graag mee genieten van onze 4 weken op de Kahiltna Gletsjer, Alaska.
Eind April vlogen we met Talkeetna Air Taxi naar Kahiltna Base Camp. Het doel van onze expeditie was een beklimming van Mt Hunter North Buttress, de Moonflower genaamd, en dit via de Bibler Klewin. Een enorm moeilijke ijs en rots route. Yannick had 2 weken geleden al een vlezige quote uit supertopo overgenomen die het karakter van de route een beetje schetst.
We worden op de gletsjer afgezet en krijgen direct 4 dagen goed weer voorgeschoteld. We verkennen de vallei en de mogelijkheden. We beklimmen een satelliettop van Mt Hunter, de Mini Moonflower, via het “North Couloir”. Zo kunnen we wennen aan het ijs en zien we of onze kleren en materiaal voldoet aan de condities in Alaska. We nemen een rustdag en beklimmen het West Face Couloir van Kahiltna Queen. Om te wennen aan de hoogte slapen we iets onder de top tot we in een naderende storm sneller moeten terugkeren.
Enkele dagen verse sneeuw vallen perfect samen met onze geplande rustdagen tot een 4 daags hoge druk gebied nadert. Dit wordt onze kans. Vrijdag 9 Mei, omstreeks 11 u ‘s middags kruipen we in de wand. Wat volgen zijn lange dagen technisch en moeilijk klimmen. the Twin runnels, Leaning Ramp, the Prow, McNerthney Ice Dagger , Tamaras Traverse, the Shaft, the Vision, ijsvelden en de Bibler Come Again Exit… In totaal een 1800 meter klimmen. 80°, 90° tot overhangend ijs en sneeuw-champignons, M5 tot M7 als je het vrij klimt of artificieel tot A2. Een vluchtige blik in de topo en al snel begrijp je waarom deze route als een van de moeilijkere in Noord Amerika wordt beschouwd.
We klimmen tot ‘s avonds laat, eten en drinken pas als de zon onder is en gaan na nachten van amper 4 uur slaap terug verder. De derde avond, Zondag 11 Mei bereiken we de top van de Buttress, veel teams keren hier terug maar om onze beklimming compleet te maken gaan we door tot de echte top van Hunter. Maandagmiddag nemen we een korte pauze op de top waarna we de berg afdalen via de “Ramenroute” en zo onze beklimming tot een gehele rondtrip vervolmaken.
We rusten een 5 tal dagen uit, Maxime lost een probleem met tandpijn op en we besluiten een nieuw doel op te zoeken. 4 jaar geleden bracht ik (Sam ) met Joris Van Reeth een eerste bezoek aan de “Central Alaska Range”. Ons doel was de Cassin graat op noord Amerika’s hoogste berg, Denali/McKinley. Wat een groots succes moest worden draaide uit op één van de donkerste periodes uit mijn leven. Joris verongelukte in het Japanse Couloir. Ik werd gered uit mijn hachelijke positie maar het lichaam van Joris bleef achter. Een lange periode van veel sneeuw zorgde ervoor dat Joris nooit gevonden werd en dus nu nog steeds onderaan Denali’s zuidwand of in de Northeast Fork rust.
Verscheidene zoektochten kort na het ongeval waren zonder succes. Dus zoeken nu, 4 jaar na datum was niet ons doel. Na onze beklimming van de Moonflower zochten we een mooi 2de objectief, en de Cassin leek ons daar best voor geschikt. Een prachtige uitdagende lijn, een mooi eerbetoon aan Joris en de mogelijkheid om terug te komen op een intense plaats. Met slechts 12 dagen resterend wisten we dat we in een uiterst krap tijdschema zaten. We moesten nog verder acclimatiseren en dat zou toch snel een week duren. Dan even uitrusten en het perfecte weer moest zich dus juist in de laatste dagen van onze trip. De kans was uiterst klein maar zeker het proberen waart. Helaas, aangekomen op 14.000ft werd al snel duidelijk dat het gewenst weer zich niet ging tonen. We probeerden nog een poging op de eenvoudigere West Rib maar door koude vingers en tenen zijn we een 600 meter onder de top terug gekeerd. Uiteindelijk zijn we 4 dagen vroeger dan verwacht terug in Talkeetna. Er naderde een forse storm en die zaten we niet graag in een tent uit…
Ondanks dat de laatste week minder vlot verliep dan gewenst kunnen we deze expeditie toch een succes noemen. Ons hoofddoel, Mount Hunter’s North Buttress is immers beklommen, en dit tot de echte top! Met enige fierheid kunnen we zeggen dat er slechts een 15 tal teams ons dit ooit heeft voorgedaan. En dat lijstje bestaat uit best grote namen….
This expedition was possible with the support from:
We just flew out of the range. We’ll write some bigger reports the upcoming weeks, but for now a short write up and some pictures about our 4 weeks long trip in the Central Alaska Range. We flew in end of April, a high-pressure system served us with 4 days of perfect weather. We hiked into the Southeast Fork checking out the Bibler-Klewin on the North Buttress of Hunter and the Mini Moonflower. The Bibler-Klewin looked thin but doable but we decided to start easy. Next day we climbed Mini Moonflower by it’s North Couloir, we took another rest day and climbed Kahiltna Queen by its West Face Couloir. To get in better shape for altitude we tried to sleep on the summit. But bad weather came in earlier so we needed to descend at night.
Some days of clouds and fresh snow later we got the next high-pressure system coming in. Again they predicted 4 days of perfect blue sky. On Friday 9th of May, around noon we crossed the schrund and started climbing. Because of the difficulty, the fresh snow we needed to clean, and the thin or dry sections we weren’t a fast party. We chopped a bivy at the first and second ice field and a slept a third night on top of the buttress. Always climbing till sun sets, then starting to melt snow and get something to eat before we took a short sleep and started moving again. On Monday around noon we topped out on Mount Hunter itself, descending by it’s west ridge and the Ramen Route.
We had roughly 12 days left, everything was melting around the airstrip so we decided to get higher up. Cassin Ridge on Denali was our next goal. We knew we were short in time but if it all turned perfect it could work. We skied up to 14.000ft but bad weather was slowing us down. From here on, the weather forecast wasn’t looking good either. Eventually we climbed up the West Rib, slept one night at 17.000ft and tried to get higher the next day but wind was blowing hard and we couldn’t keep our hands and feet warm. Descending back to 14.000ft we knew we were capable of getting on the Cassin but with a storm coming in and our waiting time that was over we decided to get back down and fly out.
Despite our last week, which wasn’t working out fine, we can speak about a successful expedition. We succeeded on our main goal, climbing Mount Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress to the summit, without question the hardest thing we ever did!
Op zaterdag 26 april zijn Maxime De Groote en Sam Van Brempt voor een maand naar Alaska vertrokken. Doel van hun expeditie: de Moonflower Butress, een erg bekende route op Mount Hunter (4442 m). Een ambitieus project, maar met hun beklimming van de Eiger Noordwand vorige maand bewezen ze dat ze allebei de goede vorm te pakken hebben.
Via satelliettelefoon hebben we regelmatig contact. Maar voor je het eerste nieuws kan lezen nog even deze quote van supertopo over de Moonflower Butress:
The sheer 4,000-foot granite buttress replete with difficult ice, rock, mixed, and aid climbing has less than 20 ascents to the top of the buttress and far fewer to the true summit. For even the world’s best climbers, an ascent is a career defining achievement.
De Amerikanen zijn nooit vies geweest van een beetje drama, maar zo een beschrijving moet jullie nieuwsgierigheid over hun vorderingen toch prikkelen, niet?
Op dinsdag 29 april zijn ze aangekomen op de ‘airstrip’ (een landingsbaan op de gletsjer). De meeste klimmers hebben vandaar nog een 3 daagse tocht voor de boeg naar het 14.000 voet kamp onder Denali. Maar voor hun beklimming van de Moonflower Butress is het basiskamp net aan de landingsbaan, dus geen vermoeiende instijg deze keer.
Na een rustdag om te acclimatiseren klommen ze op donderdag al de Mini Moonflower. Een 13tal touwlengtes met een 90° lengte die er erg droog bij lag. Maar met wat artificiële klimtechnieken werd ook dit obstakel én de hele route overwonnen. Nog een rustdag later zijn ze allebei enkele uren gaan slapen op de top van Kahiltna Dome (3800m).
Zowel Sam en Maxime voelden zich erg goed en genoten van de rust. Het seizoen voor de beklimming van Denali is nog maar net begonnen, dus de horden gelukzoekers zijn nu pas aangekomen.
En waar zitten ze nu? Wat had je gedacht 😉
Dit is een sms die ik op zondag 10 mei rond 8u in de ochtend kreeg:
ZITTEN OP EERSTE IJSVELD BIVAC.14 LENGTES IN 16UUR.POKKEHARD.MA T GAAT.EHEH
Het goede weer zou nog tot dinsdag moeten duren, dus fingers crossed, en binnenkort ongetwijfeld meer nieuws!
Sinds zaterdag zitten Maxime en ik (Sam ) in Alaska. Afgelopen dagen hadden we het druk met winkelen, sorteren, organiseren, pakken en nogmaals sorteren en inpakken. Nu al onze zakken klaar en gewogen zijn is het wachten op de goede moment om ons met een klein vliegtuigje naar de gletsjer te brengen waar we ongeveer 30 dagen zullen blijven. Het doel van deze expeditie? De Bibler Klewin route op de Moonflower Butress van Mount Hunter. Het ziet ernaar uit dat we binnen de 24 uur onderaan Mount Hunter worden gedropt. Vanaf dan brengt Yannick sporadisch nieuws over onze vorderingen.
De expeditie wordt ondersteund door: