Thursday, May 22, 2014

West Ridge of Mount Hunter, Alaska

Editors note: This was originally published here, then Feathered Friends hosted it for a while. Now, the FF version is gone, so it's back here. It may return to the original Ff url. At that point, it will live here:

Extra special thanks to Feathered Friends!

Navigating the crux rock band on the West Ridge of Hunter. For Sierra-trained ridgers, this rocky bit was no big deal. Jediah Porter Photo

West Ridge of Mount Hunter, AK

Climbing with Jon A is a guide's dream come true. While I have rambled on about the experience before, dishing out the platitudes over the years (Palisade Traverse '12, Evolution '12. Not documented: Palisade Traverse '09, V-Notch '10, Tetons '13), it still blows my mind to spend time with such a hard-charging, tough-as-nails, mountain fanatic. He is strong and mentally driven. He trains like a fiend and takes direction like a good soldier. Like most mountain fanatics, he tackles life's big questions with action and drive. That being said, I won't embarrass him to say that he needs my guidance just as much as any guest. He has his strengths and weaknesses. Long days of action are no problem. His residence at altitude works in our favor time and again. His pursuit of the finish line is deeply motivated. But he also pushes and scares himself sick and is happy to delegate technical skills and high-mountain risk management to this grateful pro.
Most of the West Ridge of Hunter. This guy's big. Jediah Porter Photo.

Jon and I have been fortunate to tackle big things together. And we've mainly succeeded. Our first climb together has been our only "failure". Not one of our endeavors has been undertaken in perfect conditions, but each success shares common themes. Stepping it up to the Alaska Range this spring, we merely adapted a familiar set of tactics. Safe, friendly, and successful return from each climb we've done, whether it's stormy ice climbing, sunny Sierra traversing, techy Teton-ing, or big and old school classic alpine climbing, can be attributed to the same set of guidelines.

We go light. Each climb we have "stepped it up" until on the West Ridge of Hunter we carried a total of under 5 pounds of group camping gear. That's right: tent, stove, pads, sleeping bag all together fit in half of one pack. Key to this mission is patience, close living, and the Feathered Friends Spoonbill bag. This double bag, and the willingness to do a little snuggling, meant for Jon and I, (as well as for Ian and I on the Winter Palisade Traverse) that we could keep ourselves insulated with about 2.5 lbs. To achieve a similar comfort level with standard gear, we'd each bring zero degree bags. No matter how you slice it, this would mean about 3 lbs each. Score sheet: traditional strategy 6 lbs, Spoonbilling 2.5. Major advantage. Other weight-saving tips: get proper alpine tools. Techy ice tools are too heavy and don't plunge well. Your walking piolet won't swing as efficiently into firm stuff. We had great luck and saved weight with matched pairs of Petzl Sum'Tec tools. Same for crampons: no need for techy ice spikes, but you need more than 10 points and material beefier than aluminum. Pack clothing for action and belaying. Get in the tent for cooking and chilling. Go light and instant with food. Think critically about avalanche gear...
Jon fluffing the double sleeping bag. Hunter high camp, 11,300. Jediah Porter Photo
We leave plenty of time. On most of the trips Jon and I have planned, we've allotted more time than is "standard". We almost always finish early and in this case we finished well ahead of schedule, but we have the option to wait a bit for excellent conditions (or "give 'er a try" in marginal conditions, knowing we can bail, rest up, and try again if need be). Time is precious, but safety is more precious-er. Put time on your side, and decision-making feels far more reasonable. When decision-making feels easy, the resulting choice is almost always safer and more effective.
Topping out the "Ice Face". Jediah Porter Photo.
We go, safely, into questionable weather. While the Alaska Range is experiencing (still… a week after we "sent") an historical high-pressure spell, we didn't have perfect conditions. We slept very poorly in gusty winds on nights 1 and 3. Our summit pitches, up and down, were in a white out. We had fitness, food, caffeine, and knowledge to spare. This cushion allowed us to go a little more vulnerable to weather and such. On other climbs, we've had similarly "marginal" weather. We've waited out lightning in the Tetons, tackled rare Sierra white-out in October, and snuck through a rare rainy spell in the Evolution group. Intimate knowledge of weather patterns, some upper-level decision-making, and a little luck has gotten us through.
Jon and Jed waiting out a Teton thunderstorm under the "suffer tarp". July 2013, Grand Traverse, Wyoming. Jediah Porter photo.

We start well-prepared. Do your route research, make a plan, a contingency plan, and a contingency to the contingency. Know your tech skills, but don't neglect the more subtle risk-management and judgement based knowledge. Tap in, somehow, to the wide world of knowledge out there. Internationally recognized tactics, training, and techniques make a difference.
Buttering up ultra-sender Mark Smiley for some intel. Jediah Porter Photo.

We go fast. Jon is fit. I'm no slouch either. One can never have power in excess. Stopping because the campsite is awesome is better than stopping because you are collapsing. Duh. I've been working with a trainer. Jon trains for 100 mile trail runs. (and is enrolled for a 200 miler. Dude!). But speed isn't just fitness. Sure, if need be I can break trail at 2000ft an hour, for hours at a time. But I can also route-find and hydrate and think at that rate. Learn to walk and navigate at the same time. Sure, it's harder than walking and chewing gum, but it is worth it. "Analysis Paralysis" costs more time than any amount of weight on the pack or heaves in the chest.

We know one another. We know that if we are each quiet for a few hours, we're just in the zone. He knows my stories and drama and quirks. I know his. He's been there as I have motored through a tumultuous personal life. He's come climbing with me while tackling growth in school and family and work. We both know now that if his stomach is protesting on night 1, it'll be all better by morning 2. If one of us is dragging-ass by the end of the day, we can count on an overnight rally. This isn't rocket science, but the confidence and knowledge go a long ways. All the scheduling, gear choices, and tactical discussions are built on a foundation of personal comfort and familiarity. We've each grown in the 5 years we've climbed together. And we'll continue to grow, regardless of how much more we climb together. Each trip we plant the seeds of the next (Don't think for a second, Jon, that I missed the reference… "I guess I gotta do Foraker next") but one sad day one or both of us will "move on". That is part of this journey too. The knowledge that partnership and fitness is ephemeral enhances its value. The mountains are forever, but our opportunity for sending is short. When the planets align, go for it!
Post send bacon cheeseburgers. Kahiltna Beach BBQ! Jon Arlien Photo

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Valdez Video

Just finished this little number. Nothing fancy, just some highlights.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Alaska Gear 2014

In continuing the series of blog posts on the gear I use out and about, I present the list of what I'll use on forthcoming Alaska climbs. The main event is a five or six day alpine-style climb of the West Ridge of Mount Hunter. Check out the Smileys video for a little perspective:

West Ridge of Mount Hunter, AK from Mark Smiley on Vimeo.

I cooked up similar lists for Sierra winter climbing, ski mountaineering, and more traditional backcountry skiing. I'll enumerate here climbing equipment for the multi-day endeavors. Additionally, and unlisted, we'll have a comfortable base camp kit, and some ski gear. So, without further ado...


  • La Sportiva Spantik boots
  • 2 pr Darn Tough Socks
  • Long underwear bottoms
  • Outdoor Research Cirque Pants
  • Patagonia Leashless shell pants
  • synthetic t shirt
  • OR Rumor Hoody
  • Arc Teryx Nuclei Hoody
  • OR Axiom shell Jacket
  • Feathered Friends Volant Jacket (incidentally, we awarded this the OutdoorGearLab Editors Choice award…)
  • IronClad Cold conditions gloves
  • Black Diamond Rambla gloves
  • Black Diamond Jupiter mitts
  • Buff
  • Fleece hat
  • Light colored glasses
  • Dark colored glasses

Tech Gear, etc:
  • Petzl Sarken Crampons. 
  • Petzl Sum'Tec hammer and adze pair.  
  • Rack: 
    • 5 slings
    • 5 cams
    • 5 nuts
    • 8 screws
  • Belay device and associated 'biner
  • 3 more locking carabiners
  • 12 foot 7mm cord
  • Double length sling
  • Petzl Micro Traxion
  • CAMP Blitz Harness
  • Black Diamond Vapor Helmet
  • Rope. Double 60m. 
  • Black Diamond Compacter ski pole.
  • First aid/emergency kit.
  • Two liters of water
  • Half a liter of some hot drink 
  • Iridium Extreme Sat Phone. 
  • iPhone loaded with relevant maps, gps app, emergency phone numbers, camera, route beta, guidebook photos, etc.
  • Food- Just add water dinners and breakfasts.  Fill a 1 qt ziploc with energy candy and bars etc for each day.  About 1.7-2.0 pounds per person per day total.  
  • 21x40 inch chunk of new, flat closed cell foam.  No egg-crate shapes, no ridges.  Just flat foam.  HTFU. 
  • Extra small Thermarest Prolite if I'm feeling extravagant.
  • Feathered Friends Spoonbill bag. This little number will save us pounds and pounds...
  • Black Diamond "Can't wait 'til" Firstlight.  
  • Jetboil and 2 oz per person per day of fuel.  
  • Food- Just add water dinners and breakfasts.  Fill a 1 qt ziploc with energy candy and bars etc for each day.  About 1.7-2.0 pounds per person per day total.  
  • All packed into Hyperlight Mountain Gear's 4400 Ice Pack. 


I've been working, and writing, and skiing my brain out the last couple months. Just not documenting it here. Here's the "catch up".

For work:

I worked every day in February.

Some Alpine guiding.
Venusian with Pieter

U Notch with Joe

Some ski guiding. Dunderberg with Chad:

I taught some avalanche skills.

Level One course at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare
Training Center

And wrote tens of thousands of words for OutdoorGearLab.
March was even more varied:

More ski guiding, this time in the Mammoth area.

Joshua Tree with Chad and Allie

I taught "MultiPitch Efficiency" at the Red Rock Rendezvous.
And then proceeded to be very inefficient on some personal climbing.
I didn't work much in April. But what I did do was badass! A week of ski touring around Valdez, Alaska should be on every skier's list.

You don't see this sort of sight at most ski destinations...

Coco and Torrey brought high-level downhill ski skills and unprecedented toughness to big and wild AK!
The weather in AK often looks like this. Helis are grounded and film crews steer clear. But touring skiers have the run of the place in this flat light.

For fun in the mountains:

I cooked this up back in early February:

I managed to grab some fun missions in March.

Sean, Dale and I skied Banner Peak. In a day. From June Lake. Hard stuff. 

With a little spin drifted down climb in the middle.
The work trip to Joshua Tree wasn't all work...
Nor was Red Rock...
Scott and I scored a short coverage window on some Mammoth area classic lines.
I got wicked sick in the middle of March. Laid low for over a week. I rallied out of bed for a solo mission to Virginia Peak.

Early April brought a round of fresh to Mammoth. Just in time for Meagan's visit. She said it was just as good as Rossland.
And the weather cleared out in time for a couple weeks of family fun on Mammoth Mountain. Thomas Greene photo. 

Finally, Meagan and I escaped to the corners of Yosemite for some Mount Lyell action. We had an eventful trip, to say the least...