As you can imagine at San Juan Mountain Guides we can never get enough steep frozen water. So as we watch the ice here in the San Juans melt and the trees begin to bud, we book our plane tickets to the Alaska range where winter is far from over. Some call it an addiction others an infatuation. What ever the case our love for frozen alpine environments draws us to the wild granite faces of peaks that, while relatively short in terms of altitude have no shortage of spectacular adventure.
My partner Sam and my trip to Alaska started off lucky. We serendipitously registered on a fee free weekend and were forgiven the $10 park entrance fee, a good omen. After an incredibly scenic flight into the Alaska Range, our ski plane landed on the Ruth glacier one hundred feet from our camp. Alpinists call it plane camping, like car camping complete with burgers bratwurst and a nip of whiskey or two.
Sam and I hit the ground running. After establishing our base camp we packed a light bivy kit and headed up to the Root Canal Glacier below the Mooses Tooth (note: the official spelling of the peak’s name lacks an apostrophe due to a cartographer’s error). Day one we climbed the classic Shaken, Not Stirred (V AI 5) a Jim Donini (Ouray local) line to the west summit of the peak.
After a windy bivy and a little sleeping in waiting for the day to warm up, we launched up Ham and Eggs (V 5.9 AI 4) one of Jon Krakauer’s non literary contributions to the climbing world. We rappelled the route and made the long descent back to the Ruth Glacier where we had cashed our skis. From their we trekked across the flat glacier back to our base camp at the foot of Mount Dickey. It was a big couple of days that ended with my using my headlamp for the first time ever climbing in Alaska to ski back to camp.
We used the ensuing mediocre weather to rest, eat, and make a quick run up mount barill via the Japanese couloir (III 70 degree snow) a very aesthetic snow climb up a gorgeous peak. In addition to Ham and Eggs and Shaken, Not Stirred, and many other routes in the area, the Japanese couloir makes for a phonmenal objective for climbers looking to be guided through some of the most spectacular alpine snow and ice climbing in the world.
SJMG is one of the few companies with the permits and a guide staff that allow us to share these kinds of trips with our guests.
While we climbed the Mooses Tooth, below us, on the Ruth Glacier, we spied a north face streaked with ice. We asked around at camp and no one had ever heard of the face having been climbed. After a couple of days of recon and allowing the weather to settle, Sam and I launched up the face into unclimbed terrain. After climbing for 24 hours straight we reached the summit ridge and completed our new route, Gangster’s Paradise (V AI 4 M6 A2) named for one of the many random songs stuck in our heads as we navigated the verticle maze. It was, without a doubt, one of the wildest and most commiting adventures I have been on. We returned to camp, made and ate some pizza and went to bed after being awake for 36 hours.
For the last leg of our trip we were picked up by our air taxi Talkeetna Air Taxi and flown to the rarely visited Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Despite its proximity to Denali Base Camp this cirque held only two (now three) routes. We climbed a new line, Welcome to Thunder Dome (V AI 4 M5) amidst the sweeping ice flutings on the north face of Mount Thunder. We climbed the roughly 2,000′ face, bivied at the ridge and on day 2 climbed the last 1,800′ of steep snow couloirs to the summit ridge. Due to poor snow and sketchy cornicing we neglected to go to the true summit. After 14 rapelles and 12 of which were v-threads (pay back for my habit of v thread free loading) we were back at the base about two hundred yards from camp.
As with any good climbing trip I Ieft with a tick list longer than the one I came with. I can’t wait to go back next year. Ouray-Cody-Ruth Gorge-North Cascades: yeah, that’s a schedule I can live with…
Ski Mountaineering Guide Tip
Andrew Klotz – AMGA Ski Guide
Spring is here and the snow is stabilizing so it is time to hit the big lines that you’ve been waiting patiently for all winter. This is the first installment of a mulit-part series on getting kitted out for a multi-day ski mountaineering trip. Of course, the ideas also apply to single day outings as well.
Getting the most out of your spring skiing season also means being prepared with the right gear and tools for the job. Particularly with spring skiing, choosing the right gear on the right days can mean the difference between a fantastic outing and a day of “survival skiing”.
In addition to choosing your gear wisely, selecting the right aspect and timing your descent on that aspect is critical to both safety and enjoyment in the mountains during the spring season. As always, be sure to consult your local relevant avalanche forecast and utilize good terrain selection and travel techniques in the context of your objective for the day. Below are just a few considerations when it comes to gear for spring ski mountaineering:
Although fat skis are the rage, I think short narrow waisted skis are the ticket for ski mountaineering. They allow you to more directly pressure your edges and control your skins for difficult frozen morning upskins and give you the same direct edge pressuring confidence for technical descents. I like skis in the 70-80 mm waist range. It is also a good idea to get your skis a size shorter than you normally ride them. First short skis are lighter on your pack and on your feet. Second, they are more maneuverable in tight skiing conditions often found skiing technical lines. Finally, I think a shorter ski will give you more longitudinal control over the tip and tail, again, an important consideration for technical ascents and descents.
Go for a softer three buckle boot, possibly removing the powerstraps. This streamlined set-up makes the long days in the skin-track more comfortable and makes any technical climbing that you might need to do easier as you are able to move more naturally in a softer boot. Yes, you give up some skiing performance, but skiing skill always trumps gear and skill weighs nothing so think about developing skills rather than relying on gear. Make sure your boot has a beefy mountaineering type sole and that your crampons fit properly and tightly. You end up spending a lot of time out of your skis and in your boots so it also a good idea to size them a bit larger and make sure you have a comfortable rather than a performance fit. Consider utilizing a custom foot bed as well for the best fit for your ski boots. There is nothing worse than feeling as though your boots don’t fit right at the top of a big descent. Most reputable outdoor shops offer some type of custom foot bed option.
Adjustable skiing poles can be shrunk down and fit neatly on your pack if you need to use your hands for climbing. Consider replacing your pole(s) with a Black Diamond whippet or two. These nifty devices may allow you to leave your ice axe at home (depending on your objectives) and at least give you a fighting chance in what otherwise might be a nasty fall. As a final note, I prefer aluminum to carbon poles for multi-day trips. If carbon breaks it literally explodes and shatters is essentially non-repairable, whereas aluminum can be field repaird and will often bend or dent instead of breaking.
Make sure your glue is good. Skin glue problems tend to wildly exacerbate themselves on a multi-day tour. Make sure you have some parts and repair strategies for tip and tail connections if these critical elements fail.
As always, travel safe in the mountains and enjoy the gettin’ while the gettin’ is good!!
Lisa, Dale and I headed out to Eureaka yesterday and climbed the uber classic Whorehouse Hoses. Lisa lead the first half of pitch one. (To be fair pitch one is a massive pitch at about 215′ long.) Dale led the second pitch and we finished on the left hand option third pitch. It was a great day with warm temps! Great climbing with both of you!
Check out this video that was recently posted about the Ice Park on Mountain Project. Now that the season is winding down the video brings a nostalgic tear to my eye!
Every year Denver University’s Alpine Club takes a trip down to southwest Colorado to ice climb in Ouray and ski in Telluride. This year the weather ended up working out great for them. The skiers got some fresh powder and the ice climbers got to climb super fat ice in warm temps. As always it was a great time with a super fun group! We look forward to next year!
Mike just came out for a few days of ice climbing in Ouray. We started out in the Ouray Ice Park and then headed out to the backcountry for the next two days. Our first backcountry route was Dexter Creek Slabs just north of Ouray. Right now we have a winning combination; Dexter is in super fat with and has very little snow for the approach. On the final day we drove down to Eureka and climbed the ultra classic Whorehouse Hoses. Finishing with both of the third pitch options made for a great day in the mountains!
Great climbing with you Mike!
Here at SJMG we pride ourselves on having a pretty liberal policy towards teaching our guests to lead climb. Many self taught climbers falsely believe that you hire a guide to put the rope up the routes you want to climb. While we are happy to oblige, we also pride ourselves on empowering our guests to safely and efficiently get the ropes up themselves.
Whether it is top roping or multi pitch climbing, we teach our guests the most up to date, safest, and most efficient bely and anchoring principals and then we strive to help folks apply those principals to a variety of scenarios. With SJMG, you wont just memorize a method and wonder why it isn’t working when you are out by yourself. You will grasp the concepts so that you can apply them to the infinite number of novel situations you will find out there.
You see, the thing is, ice climbing can be quite safe. With solid climbing skills, and a true understanding of how the systems work, a climber can make good decisions that will get him or her to the top of a climb comfortably and in control. Gone are the days of numb fingers, quivering forearms, and heart-pounding fear. Even though falling is still not allowed for ice leaders, modern ice climbing should be fun and relaxed. Let us show you how!
(bonus points if you can name these routes. Hint: they are all in the San Juans)
Enjoy these links to help make your climbing safer and right some common ice climbing misconceptions:
Petzl Ice Anchors Test
Marc Beverly anchor testing article. Includes V-threads, A-threads, and re-bored ice screws
Ice screw strength analysis
Fall on Ice with Will Gadd’s analysis
I recently had the opportunity to climb with three great guys – Kevin, Brant, and David – all of whom were long time friends prior to the trip, and had previously had some mountaineering experience on Mt. Rainier and Denali (Mt. McKinley). Their mountaineering experience led them to become curious about gaining more technical climbing skills and ability, to perhaps qualify themselves for future objectives such as Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier or other technical alpine routes in Alaska.
Being that none of the three had any previous ice climbing experience we naturally started from the beginning. From learning the use of ice specific crampons to swinging a technical ice tool. Our progression started with top-roping in the South Park climbing area at the Ouray Ice Park – and began with a few laps on lower angled ice to solidify the nuances of footwork and techniques associated with proper balance on the ice. We then progressed and integrated the use of ice tools – first one tool, then the second tool.
Over the years we have found that utilizing this progression is very helpful for developing the kind of “good habits” with regard to ice climbing technique that allows climbers to advance quickly in terms of their climbing ability on ice. Our established and time-tested curriculum is well known for helping people to become better ice climbers in a much faster time frame than they may have anticipated or expected prior to committing to the sport.
Our second and third days climbing were spent in the Scottish Gullies area of the Ice Park – working on developing steeper and steeper ice techniques, as well as other associated technical skills and knowledge. A winter storm made for some classic and picturesque climbing the entire weekend.
Kevin, Brant, and David are considering coming back later this summer for our Kautz Glacier Climb on Mt. Rainier or next winter for one of our Ecuador Volcanoes Expeditions as they continue to gain experience in the mountains and prepare themselves for more climbs, trips, and fun in them there hills.
I had the pleasure of spending four days here in Ouray with Steve and Brad who are both preparing to climb Mount Rainier’s ultra classic Liberty Ridge. The Ridge is no small under taking. 6,000′ of steep snow and ice including a few hundred feet of 70 degree alpine ice at 14,000′ with a five day pack makes for a steep, committing, and phenomenally aesthetic climb.
Steve and Brad are not new to the mountains. Both have a variety mountaineering ascents under their belts including Rainier, Denali, Whitney and others. Both came to Ouray to dial in their ice skills so that after a few days of climbing with a heavy pack, they will have a solid foundation of ice skills to fall back on to get to the summit.
Both gentlemen progressed quickly from having never climbed ice to styling their way up the frozen waterfalls in the Ouray backcountry. Along with a heavy regimen of cardio training both men will no doubt be ready to face the challenge of Liberty Ridge.
What is your next objective? Let SJMG help you train for it!
The avalanche hazard is fickle as ever in the San Juans. However, for those who know where to look, there is terrific alpine and tree skiing to be found. Yesterday, a few of the SJMG guides went for a tour in the Commodore Basin area near Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray, CO.
We skinned up the east ridge that forms the north edge of the basin. The ridge narrows and steepens to the point that we took our skis off for a bit and chose to boot our way up instead. Eventually we put the skis back on and skinned to the summit of point 13,510′ between Trico and Telluride peaks (not the ski area which is on Palmyra Peak).
We enjoyed a combination of alpine hard-pack, powdery trees and surprisingly little breakable crust as we skied the roughly 2,500′ shot back to the road. Not to shabby for a crack o’ noon start that exemplified why the San Juan winter is so idyllic. World class terrain and convenient access create an unbeatable winter playground here.