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Spring in Alaska

Every spring, winter addicts travel north to 63 degrees north latitude to get one last winter fix before the long summer detox.  Just three degrees shy of the Arctic Circle the Alaska Range holds winter year round.   I have made this migration for the last decade in pursuit of unclimbed lines or to offer the Alaskan alpine experience to individuals who need their fix.

This spring I landed on the West fork of the Ruth Glacier with Don McAllister with peak 11,300 in our sights.   The first ascent of the peak and the Southwest ridge was in 1968 by Heinz Alleman and Nichlaus Lotscher.  The route has subsequently become a classic.  It offers stellar climbing from every discipline in climbing: steep snow with corniced ridges, rock boulder problems, rock climbing, ice climbing, and fun mixed climbing.  The climb can be done in a one day push or over a few days with spectacular bivy options.

Don and I started the climb the day after we arrived on the glacier, taking advantage of the boot track put in by the previous party.  The conditions were snowy but good.  Unlike the first ascent which was primarily a rock climb it was a fun Alaskan mixed climb.  Over two days we climbed the route with light snow falling.   Once on the summit we started down in a white out and quickly decided to spend another night up high to avoid the blind descent with objective hazards below and above.  During the climb Don’s normal strong early riser self was reduced to ten steps and wheezing.  A testament to Don’s will and toughness was discovered once we returned to town and we discovered that he had done the climb with pneumonia.

I had a few days before my next climb and took the opportunity to get some skiing in.  The objective was the Eklutna Traverse in the Chugach Range.  The traverse starts above Girdwood and goes 40 miles over glaciated terrain to Eklutna.  With huts every 8 miles or so you could take your time and get several peaks in with fun skiing.  Our objective was the traverse and we had two days.   Our first day we completed about 30 miles much of it across mellow glaciated terrain with firm spring snow pack.  We could skate ski with 102 mm under foot.  After a comfortable hut stay we were at the road head by late morning.  The traverse had taken us roughly 28 hours and the only real hazard was crossing Eklutna lake which was starting to melt out.

Back in Talkeetna, I prepared for my final trip of the spring.  The Mooses Tooth via Ham and Eggs. The Mooses Tooth is a rugged peak seen from town as a serrated granite mass.  On the Southwest face an icy couloir splits its face.   Ham and Eggs was first climbed in 1975 by Jon Krakauer, Thomas Davies, and Nate Zinsser.  Despite the fact that the route did not see its second ascent for nearly 25 years it is a classic.  Now parties line up to give it a shot and it is often sought out as the perfect climb to cut your teeth on for Alaskan technical routes.  I was there with the father and son team of Dale and Benjamin Schimdt.  Dale had done the route before as well as Benjamin’s mother Dori, now it was time for the next generation.  We waited a few days for Ben to get over a stomach bug he had arrived with and then we started up.  As luck had it, Dale picked up the bug and had to retreat.  Ben and I continued on the 18 pitches of climbing and made his first alpine climb and Alaskan summit in just over twelve hours roundtrip.  Not bad for a 17 year old who had not been able to eat for three days!

Inspiration comes from many places and is different for everyone.  In Alaska the presence of ice shrouded granite peaks inspires many to dig deep beyond their physical limits to overcome the challenges.  I cannot know what ignited Don to climb through pneumonia, but his will to overcome the unfamiliar physical limitations he was experiencing was inspiring.

Summiting the Mooses Tooth with Benjamin after he was finishing up a week long battle with a stomach bug showed me a glimpse into Ben’s character and his stamina.

Alpine climbing is said to  bring out the best in people, I believe that it is true.

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