Friday, June 13, 2014


A lot has happened since my last post.  I was going to try and talk a bit about Chamonix after I got home, but unforeseen events changed my plans.  Gabe Hayden and I left soon after the first of the year to go spend three months in the fun mecca that is Chamonix France.  We found a sweet pad in Argentiere and set up shop.  Our buddy Gabe Kelley had already arrived and was skiing and baking his brains out.  The three of us more or less survived on banana bread and noodles with red sauce.  Just like college!

It was just a weird year the world over.  The climbing in the valley was less than desirable and the snow pack was questionable.  GH and I tried to get after it early attempting lines in the Argentiere basin and skiing as much as possible.  From a summit standpoint we were very unsuccessful throughout the entire trip, but we got a ton of climbing and skiing in.  The high point being the Gabe's birthday.  The two tall gangly Gabes were born on the same day in the same hospital.  It was cool to celebrate with them on the Mont Blanc Massif.

Gabe Hayden and I started our day catching the second bin up the Aiguille du Midi and skied a fun variation on the Grandes Envers on fresh waist deep powder the entire way.  If that was enough we also skied a fresh avalanche chute down into the valley 8500 total feet of fresh powder under the belt we caught the bus back to the tram.  Our second lap was as good as the first, we caught another fresh chute down in the valley blanche and sped back to the tram for a third lap.  Arriving at the summit of the Midi we ran into Gabe Kelley and decided that a trip down the Cosmique Couloir would be a great way to end the day.  It was every thing we expected it to be and not nearly as scary as we were led to believe.  At the bottom of the couloir we opted to ski an option that took us out onto the terminus of the Bossons Glacier where we found some super committing, high consequence fun.  An involved ski back to town, that included being chased by a dog through trailer park, got us to the bar and a beer deep before the last bus of the evening took us back to Argentiere.

I've been unsure about how to write about what happened next at length.  Gabe and I continued to climb and ski for a few weeks.  Then, weather and conditions really started to come together.  We packed our bags and headed up to the refuge on the Argentiere.  We had grand, but very realistic plans for the weekend.  Our first objective was to climb the Aiguille D'Argentiere and ski the Y-Couloir.  We left early in the morning and were making great time until we neared the summit ridge.  We'd had to rack our skis and put on crampons for the last little bit of the climb.  For packing purposed I ended up wearing my helmet.  As we neared the ridge we triggered a small slab avalanche.

I was knocked unconscious almost instantly so my knowledge of what happened is somewhat limited.  I came to more than a thousand feet down the face and was choking to death.  I had been unable to keep my airway clear and my trachea was packed with snow.  Due to some badass coughing abilities on my part I was able to clear my airway and begin breathing, and find Gabe.  He was several hundred feet up the face and seemed, from where I was, to be stable.  I was coughing up blood still and the entire left side of my body felt like it had been crushed.  It sucked because I couldn't talk and wasn't a hundred percent sure whether I was coming out of it or dying.  Well I didn't die.  After a few minutes I was able to yell to Gabe and get his condition.

"I broke my leg... and I think some other stuff!"  Not the response you want to hear when you are broken, concust and unsure about your own condition.  I swam up the slope towards him falling into crevasse along the way.  My mom hates it when I use profanity in my posts, but I was fucked.  Fortunately, two brothers that had been following our track came to our rescue.  Fred began trying to stabilize Gabe while his brother Pierre skied off to call for a rescue.  These guys were rockstars.  Thanks to them we were rescued without much trouble.  Even though it cost them their weekend in the mountains.  I'm so grateful for the mountaineering community.  Another party that had been in the refuge the night before heard about our accident and recovered our kits and brought them to the hospital.  Gabe was in the hospital for quite awhile before he was stable enough to fly, but we are both doing much better.

I was hesitant to get back on my skis after I got home.  I was still in a lot of pain, and I was worried about my mental state.  PTSD is a real thing and I have had a to come to accept the fact there are things that are out of my control and that I will need to deal with probably for the rest of my life.  Had I not been wearing my helmet I would not be alive.  It is not even a question.  My decision for wearing it had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with packing.  Near death experiences come in all shapes and sizes; maybe a tool pops when you are soloing or a rack falls four feet from your head, but the worst thing that could have happened did and we survived.  It has had a profound affect on how I live my life.  I never thought I was a person that could be shaken but I have been, to my core.

My friends in Juneau were patient and supportive.  I eventually put the skis back on went on an amazing spring tear skiing a bunch of lines I had not previously.  A likely first descent in Salmon Creek Basin, The North face of Hawthorne Peak, Cairn Couloir, a ridge line off of Observation Peak and the iconic Davies Creek Couloir.  It didn't feel like that big of a deal when we skied Davies, but looking back the style and descent was actually pretty goddamn neat.

Ed Shanley and started long before dawn and did the three hour approach to the couloir then climbed the 3700' gun barrel in another 3 hours and change.  Ed had descended the line once before after an ice climb and had heli guided it twice before.  The upper 1200' portion under the cornice is as steep and real as it gets here in Southeast AK.  Instead of opening up on a big face below, however, it continues into another 2500' of tight couloir.  We rested at the bottom of the line for awhile before skiing home.  Davies in a day is something I will be proud of for a very long time.  Not only because of the physical accomplishment, but because my love of the alpine out weighed my fear.  It reminded me that these days in the mountains with good friends and grand plans are why I'm alive.
 Gabe Hayden, Gabe Kelly and Sandy Miller apres ski at the pad
 Gabe Hayden enjoying some cold smoke
 The snow isn't that deep, I'm just really short
 Gabe Hayden moving off the ice and into the fun on the Charlet-Ghilini
 The infamous 3700' Davies Creek Couloir
 The man himself, Ed Shanley post holing up the gun barrel (an inescapable 3700' couloir is an interesting objective to attempt immediately after surviving a near fatal avalanche)
Vertigo and cold shakes vanish instantly in the moment.  Ed drops in.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Mendenhall Towers (at least the part people care to share)

John Svenson's "The Mendenhall Years" was the last real article chronicling the climbing activity in the Mendenhall Towers.  His last recorded ascent was in 1984.  Since then there has been a tremendous amount of climbing that has gone unreported.  Much of this was done by Jacek Maselko and friends.   Jacek is a notorious sandbagger and has no real interest in promoting any of his climbs.  That being said he and I both agree that since people (like myself) are attempting to create climbing histories for the region the information should be accurate.
I am certain that this will not be a complete history by any means.  If you the reader has something to contribute I would appreciate if you did.  If it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside to keep your adventures and memories to yourself then by all means do.  Know that I am not doing this for my benefit but to help others plan out adventures in the mountains I have grown to love so deeply.
The first known activity in the towers went unreported (appropriately).  In 1969 it is believed that the only tower to have been climbed was the West Tower.  The simplest and most logical line of ascent is the West Ridge.  I have no information on this climb so for now I attribute the first ascent of the ridge to John Svenson and Scott Fischer 1984.  The highest point on the massif is the summit of the main or third tower.  The first ascent was done by local enthusiasts Joe and Kay Greenough, Dick Benedict and Craig McKibbon in 1972.  Using the South Couloir and West Ridge of the Main Tower they established what is now referred to as the Mountaineer's Route.
Variations of peak names makes the next bit of history a bit hazy, but in 1972 John Svenson and Van Sundberg climbed a "spooky" couloir on the Third Tower claiming the first ascent of said tower.  At the same time the Greenough team made the first ascent of the Fourth Tower via a winding route on the South Face.  John had gotten his feet wet and was to return for a block buster year.
1973 was a big year for the Towers.  As usual the number of ascents was relatively small, four for the season.  Svenson, Mike Clark and Rick Daday made the first ascent of the West Tower's East ridge as well as the Midget.  It was the first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of the Main Tower by Svenson and George Fisher (1976 a party consisting of Malcolm Moore, Craig McKibben, Brian Cox and Sharon Moore claim to have made the first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Main Tower and the South ridge of the Third Tower, commonly thought to be the Main Tower.  Who knows what is going on there?) and the visionary first ascent of the South Pillar of the Main Tower by Svenson and Clark that should have opened the climbing world's eyes to the possibilities available in the endless crack systems of the Towers.  It didn't.
Svenson returned in 1974, once again with Fisher to climb the North Side this time.  Bigger, darker, wetter and by all accounts chossier the North Side of the Mendenhall Towers is no joke.  There chosen line was the North Dihedral beneath the large gendarme referred to as the Rabbit Ears.
Fast forward to 1979.  Jan Ebeltoft, Dick Wilderger and Svenson climbed the North Wall of the Fifth Tower making it's first ascent only to find their friends Mike Clark and Carrigan Daugherty topping out the South Buttress.  So much for solitude.  The winter of 1979 also saw the first winter ascent of the Main Tower via the Mountaineers Route by Morri Whitney and Dick Ellesworth.
There isn't much out there about the 1980's.  Maybe people were too busy bolting and shopping for Lycra.  1980 saw another of the prouder features climbed.  Ed Fogels and Scott Visscher climbed the mega steep Southwest Buttress of the West Tower. Two years later Dick Ellesworth and Bruce Lela completed the West to East Traverse of the massif possibly making the first ascent of the Sixth and Seventh Towers (unlikely in my mind.  I have seen other route lines drawn in from an earlier period with no credit).
Enter into what I'm going to call the Polish era.  From 1984 until 2001 there was quiet period where people were either shopping for Lycra or quietly crushing.  Having spoken with Jacek and others I know it to be the latter.  More information about ascents is coming but for now here is what I have.
1984-2000.  Just right of the South Pillar of the Main Tower Maselko and Steve Cashen climbed a fantastic line.  On the Fifth Tower Cashen, Maselko and Sefan Ricci climbed a face to the ridge.  That ridge was carried to summit of the Third Tower solving the main problem of the East to West Traverse.  Maselko along with Chris Chiles climbed a new line on the lower South Face of the West Tower gaining the ridge.  They then carried that ridge to the summit of the Main Tower.  River Jamal Elkin and Maselko climbed the North Face of the midget from the Southern saddle as well as a couple of routes right of the Mountaineers route on the Main Tower.  It is unclear if any of those routes top out.  Maselko also climbed some chossy South facing routes on the Sixth and Seventh Towers and some awesome routes around the base of the Fifth Tower.
Finally. in 2001 people started spraying again!  Dave Sorric, Maselko and fellow Pole Ryszard Pawlowski established "Rain Heavy at Times" on the North Buttress of the Main Tower and "Who Needs Cable" on the North Side of the Rabbit Ears.  This was the first ascent of the Main Tower from the North it has not been repeated to date.
After having a slow education on the standard routes I showed up in the winter of 2008 with Sam Magro and made the first ascent and first winter ascent of the North Face of the West Tower.  By 2009 my loud mouth brought in Blake Herrington and Jason Nelson.  Over a ten day period they climbed four routes and made three first ascents from the South.  "Resisting a Rest" and "The Iron Curtain" were the first direct lines on the Curtain.  "Resignation Arete" (named in honor of the eighteen month term Sara Palin served as governor) climbed the obvious South Buttress on the Fourth Tower.  It should be noted that, from a technical stand point, these were among the hardest lines done to date.
In 2011 Gabe Hayden and I snuck in an amazing first free ascent of Svenson and Clark's line on the South Pillar of Main Tower.  A strange weather event in October of 2012 allowed Gabe and I to sneak in an odd line in on the West Face of West Tower.   Most recently Gabe, Jason and I did a direct line up the South Face of West Tower.
Last summer was a blockbuster year in the Towers.  The South Buttress of the Fifth Tower was climbed 9 times!  The Mountaineers route saw some love too.  If you are interested in visiting the Mendenhalls and don't want to try something new those are both great lines, but don't be afraid to try the West Ridge of West Tower or the Southeast Buttress of the Main Tower they are classic as well.
Again this is just a draft. I'll be updating and editing this constantly.  I am working on overlays, but I will not be including topos or grades.  I think I have already done enough to take away from the mystery and adventure that can be found in the towers.

Monday, September 16, 2013

First Ascent of Balancing Act 1400' 5.11c, South Face of the West Tower in the Mendenhall Towers Juneau, AK

Well we are back and as this is a recovery day why not spray.  Jason Nelson, Gabe Hayden and I just got back from the South face of the West Tower where we put a fantastic new route. Jason was working full time and had just bought a house in Salt Lake.  I took most of the spring/summer off to climb and only had a few months to work before the fall/winter climbing season began.  It wasn't until September that we were able to meet up, which is a scary time to plan anything weather dependent.  Gabe has spent the entire summer trying to juggle an engineering career, girlfriend and obsession with climbing.  A lot of things had to come together to get us all on the tarmac at coastal at the same time on a sunny autumn afternoon.
We were dropped off in front of the curtain with two days of decent weather in the forecast.  A short walk and we had our sights set on the unclimbed South face of the West tower.  Setting up camp we had the horrible realization that half of our food and all of our beer had been left in the car.  The emaciated Gabe and gargantuan Jason were worried about our slim rations.  I have a fat hobbity physique uniquely prepared for situations such as these so I was not overly concerned.
We launched the next morning climbing two fun and engaging pitches of rock up to 5.10ow before gaining a several hundred foot ramp to the headwall.  From here we climbed five more steep, sustained engaging pitches, with difficulties up to 5.11c, to the summit ridge.  We had a nice break on the summit enjoying the views of the Juneau Icefield and Inside Passage.  An uneventful rappel down our line got us to our tent just before sunset.
Our plan was to walk out.  Monday's weather forecast took a turn for the worse so we hiked out all Sunday. Hiking out from the Mendenhall Towers is a chore in good conditions.  The unusually hot and sunny summer shredded the glacier!  It was the worst I have ever seen it, almost to the point of being impassible (at least for a reasonable person).  We did, however, make it out.  About three hours after getting home the rain began to fall.
We dubbed our route Balancing Act due to the logistics and sacrifices we dealt with in order to get out together.  Big thanks to Jason Nelson and Gabe Hayden for always being down for and adventure. Oh and taking the crux pitches! Also a big thanks to Arc'Teryx and Black Diamond for their continued support of my adventures.
Gabe on pitch 7 Photo: Ryan Johnson
 Gabe and I on the Summit of West Tower Photo: Jason Nelson
 Jason uncovering the goods on the first crux pitch 7 Photo: Ryan Johnson
 Gabe Loving some OW Chimney Photo: Ryan Johnson
 Gabe and Jason enjoying a nice three man hanging belay Photo: Ryan Johnson
Standing below the South face if West Tower Photo: Jason Nelson

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Spring Catch and Release Part 2

I met Josh Varney out at the Satellite in Sea-Tac.  His smile was showing through the back of his head.  He and I had both wanted to go to Chamonix for years.  We had never climbed together before.  In fact we'd just met the year prior at a party in Anchorage.  I was still fighting my chest crud.  I had spent the last 36 hours with my mom and grandfather.  While I was in Anchorage my grandmother and our 14 year old pug past away.  I don't deal with grief very well, so I was pumped to see a fired up Varney beer in hand ready for a month in the alpine.

We arrived in Chamonix just in time for an amazing weather window.  Less than 24 hours after arriving we were bivied below the North face of the Grandes Jorasses.  We launched up what I am going to call 1800Ft of miserable calf burning blue ice only to find the upper wall in very slow aid-like conditions.  We bailed, but we were stoked!

This was more or less the theme of the trip.  Some skiing mixed with the occasional climbing outing. I celebrated my 30th birthday somewhere in the mix.  The highlight of the trip was a quick run up the Swiss Route on the Courtes, a fun 800+m steepish ice line.  The experience was amazing and more than anywhere else this is the place I want to return to most.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Spring Catch and Release Part 1

I said goodbye to mining this fall and took off on a bit of ab alpine climbing bender.  April 1st I flew up to Anchorage to meet up with Sam Johnson.  With the help of the Mugs Stump Award we intended to climb the East face of Mt. Hayes.  Unusual weather kept us in town for more than a week.  When the weather finally did break a severe cold front moved in.  Ignoring the minus sixty degree ambient summit temps we flew out to the Trident glacier with Rob Wing out of Fairbanks.

It was cold.  Extremely cold.  Cold enough that our naked approach to climbing this peak became unacceptable.  We spent a night talking in the tent and decided that the risk to our extremities was too great for our chosen style.  The next morning, as is usually the case, we took one look at our overloaded bags and decided we could do without a few toes as long as we didn't have to climb with those monsters on our backs.  Our efforts were stymied by a huge overhanging-unconsolidated bergschrund.  We tried, in vain, to cross it for a couple of hours before giving up.

Our time was almost up.  I had been fighting a chest cold for a few days and I was losing the battle.  I spent the whole night awake coughing.  The next morning sucked.  I felt like crap, Sammy was anxious so with my blessing and support he took off to solo a route on a neighboring face.  Watching him fly up the 7000ft face made me extremely jealous.  I was happy for him, but realistically I felt like shit and just wanted to go climbing and was super jealous.

Sam made great time.  My good-for-nothing ass just sat in the sunshine watching him consume vertical all day.  Then night fell and temps dropped.  Hours flew off the clock and I couldn't see Sam. Midnight passed, the stars were out and I couldn't spot his headlamp.  He was doing the East ridge descent onsight, alone and night.  All the horrible scenarios that I'm sure my parents usually have running through their heads when I am in the mountains were running through mine.  Was he in trouble?   Should I go find him?  If I don't go looking for him now, and he doesn't appear in the morning, is this going to be the moment I go back to when I realize I abandoned my friend?  It sucked.  Then his headlamp appeared.  He was moving slow.  Way too slow.  I threw a hot drink in my backpack and took off after him.  I'd be lieing if I said I wasn't a bit freaked. That is until I saw him.  Turns our the ground he was on was decievingly technical.  He had his usual ear to ear grin and all my worries subsided.

Sam's ascent was amazing.  He soloed a 7000ftish face round trip in something like 18 hours, onsighting a gnarly crevassed descent alone and at night.  Sam is finishing up his Phd this summer and is kinda out for the bigger trips for a bit.  I hope that ascent carries him through until we can tie in together again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First Ascent of "The Fall Line" 1110m M5 65 Degrees

This October, during a rare high pressure system, Gabe Hayden and I managed an interesting new line on the West Face of West Tower in the Mendenhall Towers outside Juneau.  In an attempt to further promote the "hike in, hike out" approach ethic, we opted to hike in from Montana Creek over Grandchild Peak.  This is not a recommended approach route for this time of year.  We were slowed by extremely high winds and insufficient snow pack for skiing.

We had no idea what to expect.  October is generally not a good climbing month in Southeast Alaska.  It is uncommon to see even a single day without precipitation.  We packed for bear; a big wall rack, 12 screws and all the munge pro we could gather.  The North Faces were out of condition so we opted for the West Ridge.  This line has been climbed several times.  Scott Fischer and friends made the first ascent I know of during their traverse attempt, The second was made by the fine fellows who's names I cannot recall, and the only other ascent was made by Mike Miller and Partner.

Gabe and I made our camp in the moraine on the South side of the towers in the moraine to escape the wind.  Leaving from there we skied to the Western Toe and began our ascent.  The first few thousand feet are simple steep snow slopes with some crevasse navigation.  The meat of the climb begins as you gain the saddle between the Rabbit Ears and the West Tower.  From there a fun pitch of M5 dumps you onto the West Face.

Our line probably only makes sense in the conditions we had.  A wind crust covered the rock adding some stability to many of the difficult sections.  We simul-climbed the face in 3 pitches.  Wind in the knife edge summit ridge made for some very precarious climbing.  It was Gabe's first time up the West Tower and again we had perfect blue skies on the summit.

After an uneventful descent we skied/hiked out the Mendenhall glacier to the West Glacier trail (a.k.a. the trail of tears).  We dubbed our route "The Fall Line" 1110m M5 65 degrees in reference to both time of year we climbed and the general interest in the possibility of a spring ski descent.  I'll try to get a composite of our line up sometime.  For some reason this site doesn't load pdfs.

 Gabe starting up the crux pitch
 Gabe Traversing high on the route
Another summit shot!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Western Kokshaal-Too, Ochre Walls and Kyzyl Asker

September 4th, we miss our flight from LA to Istanbul.  September 5th we miss our flight from Istanbul to Bishkek.  September 6th both of our gear bags fail to arrive in Bishkek.  September 8th a sewage pipe bursts in the kitchen of our b&b spewing feces all over.  Sometimes trips begin smooth, sometimes trips begin poorly, sometimes trips begin with frustration, anxiety and poop soaked socks.

English is not commonly spoken in Kyrgyzstan.  Correction, English is not spoken in Kyrgyzstan.  To further complicate matters all of the signs and script are in Cyrillic so there is no hope of understanding pronunciation.  Shopping is a blur.  The street Bazaar has been feeling like I am wading through a salad.  Our bags arrive.  We're in a van all day.  We arrive in Naryn.

Let's go! Our driver Sasha's English catch phrase.  Dirt roads in the hippie van lead to creek beds and a nasty bog.  Bogs don't bother Sasha one bit, he drives directly into one and gets the van stuck.  We stop for the night and I have the single worst bout of altitude related illness I have ever had.  We have gained over 2000m in a single day and are at nearly 4000m.  My head is exploding, our van is stuck and Sasha is trying to use two jacks that look like the we part of a stock kit from a VW beetle to lift us out.

Basecamp is awesome.  The sun is out we are wearing jeans and relaxing in the grass.  The the terminal moraine from the Komorova glacier begins just a few feet away.  We spend a couple of days acclimating and decide to go and climb a new line on the Ochre Walls near Sean Issac and Scott Decapio's "Beefcake."  We leave and night get totally lost in the moonless blackness and end up having an open bivy waiting for a the extra lazy fall sunrise.  We head back to basecamp and sleep resolved to hike in the next morning and hike back in the dark.

We cruise to the base of the wall and begin the lung busting lower slopes.  Heavy breathing and thin ice will be the theme today.  We move well and top out with plenty of daylight to descend.  As has been an on going theme with Sam and my partnership we suffer on the approaches but everything else goes extremely smooth once on route.  We dub our line "Mr. Casual" 600m AI5.

Excited to get on our main objective we pack up what we hope will be 12 days of food and start walking toward the pass that will take us into China and the South side of Kyzyl Asker.  The weather had other ideas.  A storm rolled in blanketing the region with several feet of snow and whiting out the glacier.  Two days spent stewing in the tent and we can't take it any longer.  We head out into the white hoping to make some progress.

Some map problems have us running for Kyzyl with light packs, a few days food, a tarp and a couple of canisters of fuel.  Thinking we would have two days of approach, we arrive at the base in just a few hours.  Another horrible bivy, more storm, no tent and we are running back over the pass to gather basecamp provisions.  Finally we are in position.  We have a few days to spare, but we have a full day of perfect weather and decide to launch.

We put nearly 900m of air between us and the ground the first day, the climbing is spectacular.  We spend a couple of hours chopping a ledge at 5300m and settle in for the night.  Sometime after midnight the snow began to fall.  Spindrift instantly consumed the line.  We hid under our tarp for nearly 24 hours hoping the snow would stop so we could move.  With the constant spindrift and frequent larger powder avalanches we were pinned unable to safely move up or down.

It cleared for a few hours that night and we made our escape.  The rappel was plagued by small freezing avalanches. Sam would yell from above, I would duck, the world would go white then we would continue down.  Near the middle of the rappel we heard the sound we both feared.  A loud crack and crashing noise from high on the mountain.  We tucked in, nothing happened but the sound got louder.  I looked at Sam a few feet below me and through myself on top of him and the anchor as the avalanche hit.  This was not just powder, heavy blocks of snow and ice pummeled us.  Unable to move we just tried to stay as close to the face and anchor as possible and both of us could only hope that no bigger blocks of material were on the way to wipe us off the mountain.

We got away unscathed, more or less, and continued to the base.  This is the best line I have tried in the mountains and will return.  I feel fortunate to have gotten off in one piece but I can wait to go back.  We are in Bishkek now waiting to go home.  I am excited to see friends and family.  I'm excited for ice season.

 Shopping in the bazaar is hard because everything is fresh and delicious looking
Lunch time with Sasha
 Sam following a spicy little pitch of ice on the f.a. of Mr. Casual
 Celebrating on top of the Ochre Walls
 Sam leading into the fun on the SW Face of Kyzyl Asker
 Sam taking off into the steeper ice on Mr. Casual
Soul destroying 60 ice to our bivy on the SW Face of Kyzyl Asker