Monday, June 17, 2013

Mt. Fairweather, Carpe Ridge

Indeed, this contains some good pictures.  Mark does well that way.  However, the vast majority of "media" we collected is in video.  And that is held in reserve for later publishing.  Thanks.  

It's all my parents' fault.  There I was, a kid who liked to read.  We were a family planning to vacation in "the last frontier", shortly after the Exxon Valdez crashed.  Mom and Dad fed me a steady diet of books about the great white north.  My vocabulary, childhood dreams, and bed-time stories included endless references to bush planes, sled-dogs, big wilderness, coastal mountains taller than Manhattan is wide, bald eagles, wild rivers, sourdoughs-and-cheechakos, gold mining, and national parks larger than most east-coast states.  

Mid way up Mt. Fairweather's Carpe Ridge.  Mark Smiley Photo.
And my adult life has been sprinkled with a steady diet of the northland.  Since graduating high school I have made nine separate trips to mountainous terrain north of the 49th parallel.  And I see no reason to stop anytime soon.  That landscape "speaks to me", to say the least.  

Back in early March, Mark and Janelle Smiley invited me to join them on their spring trip to the Fairweather Range of Glacier Bay National Park.  Mark and Janelle are on a quest to be the first couple to climb the "Fifty Classic Climbs in North America".  Mount Fairweather's Carpe Ridge is on that list. I met Mark when he and I both took the AMGA Alpine Guide Exam in 2012.  This winter they found some extra funding, acknowledged the need for more video footage to please the sponsors, motored through a long list of preferred partners, and when they got to the bottom without any takers, they called me.  

The best trips in the best mountains of our best state start with some flight time. Mark Smiley Photo  
Just getting to and from the end of civilization was its own adventure.  From Haines we employed the services of "FlyDrake".  Drake's his name, and flying is one of his games.  He's also a race car driver, skier, opinionated conversationalist, and concerned mountain-logistics specialist.  In order to get us and almost a month of supplies to the Fairweather Glacier we needed two 45 minute flights in Drake's Cessna 180.  I went in first, presumably the expendable one.  

Mount Fairweather is a horribly ironic moniker.  Like Greenland and Iceland.  What's with explorers of the northland and their sand-bagging?  Fairweather, with 15,300 feet of relief separating the stormy Gulf of Alaska from the arctic desert of Canada's interior territories, collects foul conditions like Sierra climbers collect sunburns.  Fair weather does happen, and when it does nothing stands in the way of motivated climbers.  Poorly acclimatized 3rd wheel?  Check.  The meathead mountain guide chasing the world-class lungs powering team Smiley?  Check.  The same guide having drank, slept, and flown his way from tropical Florida in mere hours?  Check.  
Jed Porter Photo
When you can fly you can climb.  When you can fly right away, you can climb right away.  I landed in Juneau at 10 pm, we caught the ferry to Haines at 7 am, and by noon a drowsy Drake peeled himself from a temperate tarmac nap to introduce himself.  "Jed?...  Jed, get your shit together and lets get you the fuck out there".  No time for pleasantries or delay.  Get it while the getting's good.  

We all convened at 4700 feet on the Fairweather Glacier, did what it took to get repacked, lightly rested, fully fed, and ready to launch in the darker hours of the middle of that very night.  On a Thursday I was snorkeling in Florida's inland Serengeti, Friday I ate Mexican in Dallas and Indian in Venice Beach, Saturday I landed in Juneau, and by Sunday evening I was packed up for 11000 feet of steep and glaciated coastal climbing.  

Janelle and I at the waterfall.  Not the sort of waterfall climbing one expects in the Arctic.  Mark Smiley Photo.

Coastal Alaska gets tens (often hundreds!) of feet of winter and spring snow with 20 some hours of sunlight by late May.  Air temperatures rarely exceed the low 50's ocean temperatures, and drop predictably with altitude.  At about 6000 feet then, lies the freezing level.  Warm systems push that line up, with even summer cold spells bringing frost nearly to sea level.  The beginning of our climb was solidly below the average freezing level.  A good weather window, the back end of which we arrived in, had pushed the freezing levels even higher and left the snow melting, rotten, and bottomless.  Rock was newly exposed, a creek ran through the route, and serac-fall return period to either side was best measured in minutes.  The very first few hundred feet of climbing on the Carpe Ridge is the most exposed to serac-fall and holds the most technical rock climbing. Thankfully the most technical climbing is in slightly less exposed areas.  We raced through the easy-but-exposed bits, scrambled over the rock, and wallowed in isothermal slop everywhere else for that first section.  Finally, at 7500 feet or so, the snow firmed up enough to support us and our overnight packs.  

We set up a camp at 10,000 feet that first full night, bathing in spectacular weather and watching something roil the ocean way below.  The textural patterns we saw on the surface of the sea can not be explained by wind, current or shadows.  My best theory is that the roving clusters of circular and periodic disturbances were breathing and breaching whales.  That's right, I'm going to claim we watched whales from a glaciated campsite two miles up and 16 miles across.  

So far, we had done well to live by the maxim "when it's blue, climbing is what we do".  Fair weather Fairweather days are few.  We had rallied in mere hours from sea level and civilization to 10,000 feet and wild.  We encamped that first "night" at 11am.  We stopped where we did to take advantage of flat, sheltered ground and reasonable sleeping altitude.  In hindsight, dropping our camping gear and suffering on to 15000 feet on that first push would have been a wise idea.  Regardless of acclimatization, rest, fitness or whatever, climbers in coastal ranges are well-advised to stick to the above rule.  As it was, we chose to rest and acclimate.  And we woke to snow and flat light on our summit day.  As we climbed, winds picked up, the clouds closed in, and the rate of snowfall picked up.  
Janelle and I at our whited-out high point.  Mark Smiley Photo

By the time we reached 14,300 feet visibility was poor, snow was coming down, and a fierce east wind blew the rope out in an arc between us.  Over a couple hours, we pushed twice from a sheltered resting spot to the highest crux on the route, the "Ice Nose".  Both times we got smacked down by the wind.  It didn't help that we had taken the wrong route to get to where we were.  On the way up we led off the ridge to its side in an ill-advised effort to avoid some crevassed sections of the wind-swept crest.  Instead we encountered deep snow and then extended steep ice.  We knew that the way we had went was not ideal, but we also knew that, under these conditions, we had to retrace our steps if we wished to make it back cleanly.  In the wind and clouds and snow we could take care of ourselves, as long as everything went according to plan.  However, these conditions left zero margin for error:  kicking off a crampon, or twisting a shoulder, or dropping a glove would result in an "evacuation" effort over extended technical terrain that we simply could not count on pulling off.  Not to mention, of course, the consequences of something more dire.  So we pulled the plug.  Literally more than 90% up the route, we bailed.  Half way back to our high camp, now feeling the accumulated effects of travel and effort and altitude, the weather cleared briefly behind us.  We didn't have it in us to try again up that high.  

We ultimately escaped all the way back to where we had been dropped off.  Over the next nine days of basically poor weather we turned the landing zone into our glacier home.  We took pictures in brief windows when the weather was nice and slept, ate, and played cards when it wasn't.  I read 8 books, watched 2 movies three times each, savored the whole first season of "The Big Bang Theory", and poached the Smiley's entertainment arsenal for additional movies and solar charging.  

Basecamp life.  Occasionally we'd get a few hours of clear weather.  Enough time to watch the big peaks for serac fall and avalanche.  The mountain never failed to respond when we'd shout "entertain us!" Mark Smiley Photo.  Mark came out of Indiana on mountain dreams and scrappy resourcefulness.  And no shortage of athletic ability.  His claim to fame, that he refuses to claim, is that this winter he beat Killian in a rando race.  In a relatively short career (yes, it's all relative.  I mean, our neighbor on the glacier Bill Pilling did his first Alaska expedition, like, before any of us were born) Mark has built a successful guide service, tromped all over the world, and pleases an impressive list of sponsors to bankroll their travels.   Mark's a self-taught photographer, videographer, and film-editor.  He has enough clever and entrepreneurial ideas to ensure that he'll afford to fly to glaciers and come up with clever and entrepreneurial ideas for a long long time. 

 We endured the nine days.  Well, Mark and Janelle endured.  They're burdened with motivation and fitness not unlike thoroughbred horses.  You've gotta get them out to run or they'll slam their heads through the stall walls.  They literally ran ski laps around the base camp most days.  "Crop circling" for fitness became the highlight of the day.  While Mark and Janelle worked hard to reign it in through the crappy weather spell, I lazed around in luxurious torpor.  Despite an agenda that suggests otherwise, I really love to do nothing.  I could lay in a tent and space out for weeks at a time if I didn't start to feel guilty.  Speaking of guilt, I have to confess that I let the sneakiest of Christian burdens interrupt my sloth.  One day I dug a "pull-up" pit:  11 feet of excavation, spanned by skis rigged for some upper-body exercise.  Glacier life is very two-dimensional.  Stepping down into the pain cave for a round of fitness activated the primal climber in each of us, reminding the team that there is life after storms.
Deadly serious cards.  Mark Smiley Photo

Additionally, perched just over a rise in the glacier, was another climbing team.  In a profound coincidence, the very day we flew in, another team of four had landed in the same vicinity.  With the same goals.  Even more coincidental, I had climbed with one of this party way back in 2005.  I've since run into Brett all over the Sierra.  And now coastal Alaska.  Another member of our neighboring team was an acquaintance.  A third lives here in Bishop, but we had never met.  The fourth, Bob, is now a friend too.  We interacted with those we came to call "team high camp" (they perched a gentle 10 feet higher than us, and wisely brought more intoxicants than we did...) periodically through the entire trip.  They'd rally eventually to follow a somewhat similar agenda on our second attempt at the peak.
One day a clear spell surprised us with more than a couple hours of scenery.  We went on a "Segway tour" ski trip all the way to the head of the Fairweather Glacier.  The goal was to reach the col to look down at Glacier Bay.  Alas, the marine layer came back in and we retreated.  Typical.  Mark Smiley Photo
We watched the weather, as religiously as one can do from a remote glacier.  We received multiple satellite text message weather reports each day.  Team High Camp had a weather radio.  In addition to juggling weather conditions on Fairweather,  The Smileys Project had to hash out other components of the most ambitious version of our plan.  If all had gone perfectly, we had info and connections and a rough plan to move over to Mount Saint Elias for a go at another of the "50 Classics".  It was a long shot.  And we knew that.  Weather is poor, these mountains are big, and glacier festering is a limited resource.  Like the friend who avoids exercise because "we're only born with so many heartbeats, I'm going to stretch mine out over a longer life", expedition climbers only have so many days of lying around in sloppy conditions in them.  And we knew that.  What we didn't fully account for, and what proves to be a valuable lesson, is bush flight logistics.  Bush pilots have complicated jobs.  Not unlike mountain guides, pilots are juggling client rewards with risk management.  And tight schedules and high-strung personalities.  In the central Alaska Range, where 99% of Alaska climbers travel, flight logistics are pretty well dialed.  However, escape the protection of Alaska's granite womb and big-business charter flights, and things get more complicated right quick.  We were asking a lot of the bush pilot business.  We flew in with one pilot and wanted to exit to another mountain with a different pilot.  We were hoping to link together two of the biggest and least climbed peaks in the state.  And we wanted to arrange it all via satellite phone.  It was a long shot, and didn't work out.  Something to go back for.

Eventually, freed of the questions surrounding how to execute the two big peaks, we could focus on the one resting mainly invisible outside the tent door.  With a day's notice, the forecast cleared up.  We would have blue skies, light winds, and cold temperatures.  At one point we'd placed the odds of achieving this sort of prognosis as "pretty damn impossible".  But it happened.  We had the prediction, and I don't think I'm spoiling much to say that it held even better than predicted.  Additionally, but possibly needless to say, we were rested.
Perhaps too rested, it took a half-pint of the Catskill's finest arboreal glucose to jumpstart this comatose climber. Mark Smiley Photo, Mike Porter Syrup.   
 In most ways, the route was the same as before, if not in slightly better shape.  Low altitude old snow had consolidated with more time.  Cold nights locked it down further.  Much had melted too.  Up higher, a few feet of new snow had mainly blown off where it mattered.  And metamorphosed to a perfect climbing surface.  On our first attempt we found extended sections of very hard ice.  The week of high pressure preceding our arrival had ensured that high altitude snow saw many melt freeze cycles before our passage.  The fresh coat we encountered on our second go brought welcome and efficient crusts with awesome plunge stepping back down.
Scrambling loose crap is a sure way to crank the blood back into the sugar stream.  Mark Smiley Photo.

Just 10 days earlier, this step was completely covered in snow and ice.  Alaska melts fast when it melts.  Yeah, Mom and Dad, the rope's on my pack.  Hey, did you see that syrup picture?

Waterfalls, slop, sweat down low.  Powder, crisp cold and no diurnal snow changes up high.  These are the beauties of climbing huge routes!  Mark Smiley Photo

Classic cornices.  This probably isn't what my Mom and Dad pictured when instilling Alaska passions in their scrawny kid.  

Classic exposure.  

Classic posing.  Janelle represents.  She was born and raised at altitude and climbs with attitude- the right kind of attitude.  I'd climbed extensively with Mark.  But Janelle didn't know me.  She did what it took to "size me up".  I think I made the cut, and besides, she didn' t have a choice once we hit the glacier. She's self-aware, acknowledging that the pro life takes something away from the pursuit.  Whether that pursuit is climbing to the corners of the continent, or crushing the competition on funny little skis, Janelle more than earns the accolades you'll find elsewhere on the web (I mean, she has her own wikipedia...).  What you won't find elsewhere on the web is that she struggles just like the rest of us with climbing's big questions.  In simply acknowledging the facts of climbing and skiing as a job, Janelle negates any adverse impacts that may have.  Lay it out on the table, let it go, and keep crushing.  

Summit shot.  Duh.  
 We employed basically the same strategy for both attempts.  We camped in the same spot, woke at the same time, used the same amount of time we anticipated.  We had good weather forecasts in both cases.  The difference the second time around was primarily in the actual weather.  And we benefitted at least a little from the scouting we'd done.  Round 2 we stuck to the proper ridge, saving a great deal of effort and techy climbing.  We were certainly better rested for the second round.  We took more food for the successful go, but carried the extra day's ration down at the end.  Our summit day actually took less time than our fruitless run at the same terrain.

In typical whirlwind fashion (I mean, "When it's blue, climbing -or flying- is what we do") we summited in mid afternoon on a Sunday.  We were in high camp that evening, back in base camp by 8am, and drying gear at the Haines airport by 2pm that Monday.  Reentry's a bitch, especially when it goes that fast.  Mark and Janelle are back on the glacier.  They flew back into the central Alaska Range today for another try at Denali's Cassin Ridge.  They'll miss me, I'm sure.  They'll take pretty pictures, struggle with the how's and why's of their strange quest.  They'll probably bicker, and certainly love each other.  My parents, they love each other too.  But their opinion of Mark and Janelle, who knows.  They have a lot in common.  They all have served to stoke this Alaska fire.  But my parents probably thought I'd grow out of it.  Mark and Janelle haven't grown out of it, nor do they expect that I will.


  1. Nice Read Jed. Great Job on the mountain in in your write up.

  2. Hey Jed. Great account of your adventure with the Smiley expedition. Your references to us and our expectations and concerns about your chosen occupation are quite on. Since you once said that because we trust you, you would be safe, it makes it tons easier when you are out in the wild. I remember reading Into the Wild and knowing that you would never do something like that because you are smart about things. Great account. Love POP

  3. That's one great adventure Jed! Nicely written. Can't wait to see the movie!?