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Alaska Season Update
Posted on: May 25, 2008
Ira Conn and Bean Bowers atop the summit of South Troll (6950'), Little Switzerland, Pika Glacier, Alaska Range, Alaska. The Little Switzerland area is characterized by many fine alpine climbs on peaks of much lower elevation than the giants of the Alaska Range found higher up the Kahiltna Glacier. Weather conditions throughout the range contributed to a fine early climbing season with many significant repeats and a few new routes. [Photo] Courtesy Marc Ewing
Partway through the Alaska Range climbing season, with the activity on the Ruth Glacier and the lower peaks of the range winding down and the Denali season starting in earnest, a number of strong ascents attest to relatively good conditions throughout the area. Significant snowfall across most of the region, followed by a fairly long period of stable weather, has contributed to relatively easy travel, most significantly on glacial approaches, where crevasses have largely filled in. This snowfall has also, in many cases, contributed to increased amounts of ice on routes throughout the range—like the west face of Mt. Huntington (12,240’), which, according to Alaska Mountaineering School’s Greg Collins, “three or four years ago looked more like conglomerate—big boulders sticking out of thin, unstable ice.” The excellent conditions allowed for a number of significant ascents in recent weeks, as well as some good efforts in less-traveled parts of the range.
As Scott Backes pointed out in Alpinist 9’s Mountain Profile, Mt. Hunter’s relatively low elevation (14,570’) allows “the boundaries of possibility to be crowbarred open… serious altitude sickness is rarely a problem on the mountain, which lets climbers push the boat out a bit farther then they would on Foraker or Denali.” In the three seasons since Backes penned his observations, however, warmer-than-usual conditions have left its most coveted aspect—the 6,000-foot north buttress—bereft of the ice necessary for ascents. 2008 has marked a welcome return to good alpine conditions on the buttress, and such alpine testpieces such as Moonflower Buttress (Alaska Grade 6: 5.8 A3 AI6, 6,100', Stump-Aubrey [to last rock band], 1981; Bibler-Klewin [to summit], 1983) and Deprivation (Alaska Grade 6: ED+ 90 degrees, ca. 6000’, Backes-Twight, 1994) have seen a number of ascents (as reported in May 19’s NewsWire here, and in May 20’s Newswire here) as a result.
Heavy snow on Crown Jewel, a peak in Little Switzerland, the common name for the Pika Glacier, in the central Alaska Range. The area is located at the head of a group of small peaks and glaciers that feed into the lower Kahiltna Glacier, ca. 35 miles south of Denali. [Photo] Courtesy Marc Ewing
Marc Ewing crawling out of the one crevasse the snow managed to not conceal, during the descent of Mt. Frances' (10,450') northeast ridge. Mt. Hunter's (14,570') impressive north buttress can be seen in the background. [Photo] Courtesy Marc Ewing
Other parts of the range are reported to be in good nick as well. Alpinist Publisher Marc Ewing, on a twelve-day trip with Kent McBride, Bean Bowers and Ira Conn, made ascents of the Middle Troll’s South Face (III 5.8 45 degrees, 1,300’) in the Little Switzerland area, as well as an ascent of Mt. Frances (10,450’), a peak lying just north of Kahiltna Base Camp, via its Southwest Ridge (IV 5.8 60 degrees, 3,600’). The twenty-four mile ski up the glacier from Little Switzerland to the Kahiltna Base Camp was characterized by “great, firm snow conditions, little to no crevasses to deal with—our only problem was the lack of wind, as we had intended on kiting.” This team, like every other in the region this season, reported “the most ice on the north face of Mt. Hunter—ever.” The team also attempted a route on the Mini-Moonflower (a sattelite pillar of Mt. Hunter), but retreated after six pitches due to “awful spindrift”. Ewing reported “beautiful climbing weather—cold, but really stable conditions with no wind (in Alaska?) for the entire trip.” His team also witnessed a second, apparently unreported ascent of the Moonflower Buttress on Mt. Hunter—estimated at “40-odd hours roundtrip”—by two climbers from Maine.
Greg Collins, returned from guiding trips on Mt. Dickey, Mt. Russell (11,670') and Mt. Huntington, is “excited, this year, about guiding on Denali.” Previous years—-with little winter precipitation leaving areas dry and heavily crevassed—have made traversing many of the huge icefields surrounding the mountain significantly more hazardous, for both guides and clients. This will not be the case this season. Gauging the exact amount of snow this year is difficult, with a few meteorological stations covering a area twice the size of Texas, and regional and terrain differences creating numerous microclimates. As Collins says, “There aren’t a lot of weather stations up here, and when you’re walking around with thousands of feet of white surrounding you, it’s hard to tell if you got ten or twenty more feet of snow [that week].” But the conditions are easier to ascertain on the steeper faces, and this year’s good early season indicates that conditions for some have been superlative.
Avalanche activity on the north side of Mt. Hunter. [Photo] Courtesy Marc Ewing