Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Denali adventure part 4 – The Cassin Ridge

When I got back from the south face adventure I was really tired. But on Denali the time is always ticking and the weather windows can be short and sparse. The biggest reason people fail on their objectives is that they run out of time and I did not want this to happen to us. I had already done what I came there for, but I also wanted Magnus to get his objective done so I tried to rest as well as I could.

The forecast foresaid a four day weather window before a low pressure and I needed to get my rest pulse down to at least be able to perform on 80% of my potential. On my rest day in camp my rest pulse where around 85-90, and even though we where on high altitude that meant I was really over trained.

So I could have waited for my body to be at its strongest and missed the window, or I could rest as hard as I could for one day and then go for it on the next. I chose the later. So after sleeping in on the second day in camp Magnus and myself took of in the afternoon towards the West Rib to approach the route via the Seattle Ramp.

After less than an hour we reached the rib, but we where greeted with really strong winds from the east and dark clouds coming in. What was supposed to be a high pressure seemed to be something else. I was tired and the weather was anything but perfect so we sat down up there to gather ourselves and see if it was going to improve.

An hour later nothing had changed. But then we thought that at least we can start down the big glaciated ramp and then walk back up if it didn’t feel good further down. I went first with the map in my hand focusing on my altimeter on my wrist and the next few meters ahead to not walk in to one of the monster crevasses. The visibility was almost zero and at times it was even hard to see each other in the fog. The navigation however was pretty straight forward so we slowly descended the big glacier, but what would have taken 2 h in good weather took 6h in the clouds. We also stopped two times to talk the fairly bold decision trough, to keep on going or not, when we got under the big seracs. Once we where under them it would have been a very bad idea to turn back and expose ourselves for hours under these objective dangers.

My altimeter told me the pressure was not changing, the forecast was really good and warm, and we both had a good feeling for the situation we where in. Its funny how the mind games play such an important role in the mountains. Just because we had a bit of a whiteout we where thinking about retreating. Didn’t we learn simple navigation in first grade? We kept at it, now with stronger determination as ever, we where going to climb this route.

After plenty of down climbing and crevasse hopping we found ourselves in the basin where the route started. Our next objective was to find the initial Japanese couloir as we where under the clouds and everything above us where just white. As we where melting snow at the bergschrund we tried to count formations from the guidebook, to read contour lines on the map and to meditate on the problem (just kidding), but in the end we just had to make a guess.

Of we went up in to the unknown. I had the first lead and as we where planning to climb everything on running belays I wanted to climb the 300-meter icy couloir in one go. Entering the couloir I found pitons and old fixed lines and finally we where sure we where on the right track. As planned I climbed the couloir in one go, just placing a Ropeman after the crux pitch. The calves where burning on the black ice, but in an hour or so we where past the couloir and up on the ridge. Arriving at the first rock crux we where above the clouds and Magnus took over the lead. The views where magical and it felt great moving steadily up the mountain.

Magnus took us up past the razorblade arête and then I kept on going past the first rock band after we had brewed up for a second time. The climbing was really fun with no really hard sections so we where able to keep on moving the whole time. Just before the top of the rock band we got passed by our British friends Jonathan Griffith and Will Sims, who had started e few hours after us from camp and had followed our tracks. They would later break the speed record (top to bottom) in 14,something hours.

We kept on moving at a steady pace, but at the top of the rock band we found a perfect bivy spot and Magnus told me this is it for the day. I felt strong the first day, but as we would see the roles, as always in the mountains, would change.

The night was clear and relatively warm and we slept well without freezing too much. Eating, sleeping, brewing up and eating again took us 9 hours and then we where of again.

Magnus took us past most of the second rock band before I finished with the last cruxes and then we only had the slough left. The great big slough of the Cassin Ridge – 1000+ meters of snow climbing to the summit of the highest mountain in North America.

Most people that have climbed the route remember the last slough with a tormented smile. One has already climbed 1500+ meters of fairly technical climbing on altitude and then gets a bit of a smash in the face. I started of feeling strong, but about half way up Magnus had to take over and lead us up to the summit. We where both exhausted and on the last few hundred meters we walked a few steps before we lied down on our axes resting for half a minute, repeating this procedure for what seemed like ages. But as we kept at it we finally ended up on the shoulder just a couple of hundred meters from the summit.

Magnus had arrived ten minutes before me and as I got up and lied down on my backpack I gasped out; “lets finish this”! Most parties seems to descend from the shoulder ignoring the summit, but in strict climbing ethic we knew we had to get up there to be true to ourselves. If we had suffered for the last few hours, we might as well suffer a bit longer.  And as always suffering in the mountains are relative. We thought we where slower than ever in the end, but we where still almost running past the line of down balls struggling up from the normal route.

Arriving at the summit for the second time in a week we hugged took a photo and then started the decent. Luckily enough the descent from Denali is dead easy and 2,5 hours later we where back in camp finishing a 33 h round trip with a 9 h bivy included. I will always remember the descent though, as I had developed trench foot in my warm mountaineering boots, every step down the mountain felt like I was walking on needles. Magnus wanted to stop and brew up, but I just wanted to end my suffering so I kept at it letting him catch up further down.

The next day I could not walk on my feet and we where both spending most of the day in the tent – happy to have got everything we came there to do.

The low pressure had come in and we planned to get down to base camp to maybe do some ski touring or climbing at lover altitude. But even though my feet where hurting and I was more tired than ever I knew I just had one more thing to do before I could leave – The Messner Couloir.

On the way up towards the Rib

Down climbing the Seattle ramp

Walking around in the fog

Looking back at the Seattle Ramp

Magnus brewing up

Looking down the Japanese couloir

Looking down from the top of the Japanese couloir

Magnus with Cassin ledge in the background

Magnus on the first rock crux

On the Razorblade Arete

Mt Foraker with a hat

First rock band

Jon and Will

On the summit of Denali

Walking down

In camp afterwards, Magnus are telling the stories!

The Chamonix crew: Jon, Will, Nils, Myself, Colin and Magnus!

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