Guest Post: Brad’s Pika Glacier Trip Report!

Obligatory editor’s note: Brad and I have returned from the Pika Glacier and “Little Switzerland” and are now in Anchorage awaiting flights back to CA. We had an incredible time and I have much more on the way. In the mean time, here’s Brad’s excellent trip report, written in part for the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream Grant which partially supported his trip. You may remember I received this same form of generous AAC funding for my Snow Leopard Peaks of the Pamir expedition in 2012. Here’s Brad…

The purpose of this trip, for me, was to break into technical climbing in the Alaska Range. The Pika Glacier seemed like the perfect place to do this. I could use this trip to learn about the weather patterns in the Range, figure out trip logistics, and grow my geographical knowledge. My thinking was: “With moderate routes and simple logistics, this should be easy, right?”

There were some complications. Unseasonable snowfall had just dropped 36” of new snow as we flew into the Pika glacier on June 28, 2014. On board was Chris from K2 Aviation, myself (Brad), Hari, and our stuffed Pika mascot named Jackson. As we flew in we saw avalanches everywhere. Warm temperatures after the storms cleared had resulted in alarming avy conditions. We would later watch as an entire snow field slid, at once, over an established route on the East Face of the Throne. “What are we doing out here?” I asked myself.

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There was a high level of avalanche activity during our trip

As our plane flew overhead, we felt the “Alaska Factor.” “What is our safety net out here?” I wondered. We had a satellite phone for emergencies, but evacuations are only possible in good weather. To thrive in this setting requires competence, self reliance, and hard work. Although I’ve visited the Alaska Range several times, I still feel drawn to the wildness of the place, and everything it entails.

We made camp and discussed our options. 

The Trolls

The Trolls

We decided to proceed with caution up the South Face of Middle Troll. We climbed a variation to the standard route with two deviations: a fun 5.9 dihedral above the bergschrund and a great 5.7 chimney below the summit block. Getting over the bergschrund consisted of an 1m wide crevasse on a ~60 degree slope of mushy snow. When prodded, the slope would set loose an avalanche that would tumble into the pit, taking any foolish climbers along with it. We finally made it over using a technique that felt like swimming but looked much goofier.

Crossing the bergschrund and the base of the Trolls

Crossing the bergschrund and the base of the Trolls

On the summit, we sat back and enjoyed the views of the big mountains. With 24 hours of sunlight, we were in no hurry to start our descent.

On the summit of Middle Troll

On the summit of Middle Troll

On the Troll we noticed a troubling pattern: TONS unnecessary amount of rappel stations. Although the Troll could be rappelled using only four stations with two 60m ropes, we found dozens of rappel stations. Some of the stations were even located horizontally next to each other. On this trip we removed over 50m of old rappel station garbage. 

What’s going on with all the trash rap stations? Is it because an ethic of under-reporting means that people don’t know about the presence of good stations? Or maybe it’s just because lots of noobs (like me) go to Little Switzerland? Would it help if the Park allowed hand drilled bolts? I’m not sure what the solution is.

Anyways, on Sunday we were tent-bound in a rain storm. This was the low point of the trip, but fortunately it would turn out to be our only bad-weather day of the entire expedition. One of our single-walled tent flooded. During breaks in the storm we would get out and fortify our camp.

A break in the storm

A break in the storm

On Monday the weather cleared as a beautiful weather system moved in. We climbed the Munchkin. This was a nice, short, and easy climb with an incredible topout. We didn’t get the summit because we were lazy and didn’t want to traverse a sketchy looking snow field. 

View from our high point on the Munchkin

View from our high point on the Munchkin

There was also a fun knife-edge ridge.

Starting on this day of good weather, we also realized how busy our airstrip would be. The Pika Glacier is a preferred spot for pilots to take tourists. They generally land, walk around for 10-20 minutes, and then fly away. 

The de Havilland Beaver is the iconic Alaska bush plane. You can put floats on it to land on water or skis to land on snow. It’s the little brother of the de Havilland Otter but larger than the Cessna 185. It’s also incredibly loud. Loud like when you cover your ears you can feel your chest vibrate. I’m surprised that they allow these things in the Park. Doesn’t this noise bother wildlife?

I’ll focus on the climbing now and stop complaining…

On Tuesday we hiked over to the base of the Gargoyle Buttress but decided not to climb it because of the snow conditions. Not only was the base of this route being showered by avalanches almost constantly, but most of the low fifth class (easy) pitches were covered in loose, unconsolidated snow.

We'll have to climb Gargoyle Buttress next time.

We’ll have to climb Gargoyle Buttress next time.

On Wednesday we climbed the Hobbit’s Footstool by a nice, clean rock route up the South (climbers’ right) ridge. 

We took full advantage of the 24 hours of Alaskan sunlight and gradually became nocturnal over the trip. The main reason for this was to avoid the sweltering temperatures on the glacier during the day. There were also fewer avalanches and tourist planes at night. By our last climbs, we were returning to camp at 2am. This also had the nice benefit of warm temperatures while sleeping and the ability to dry our boots over breakfast (at 2 pm).

The Hobbit's Footstool

The Hobbit’s Footstool

On Thursday we climbed the Lost Marsupial route on the Throne. This route involved high quality granite crack systems with some wandering third class terrain. Some lower angle terrain was snowy. Our upward progress was halted at the summit ridge by enormous cornices.

The Throne!

The Throne!

The base of The Lost Marsupial

The base of The Lost Marsupial

Splitter!

Splitter!

On Friday we packed up camp and flew back to Talkeetna. We took extra flight time to look at the classics of the Range: the Cassin Ridge, the Infinite Spur, the Moonflower Buttress, and Ham and Eggs.

Cassin!

Cassin!

Our original flight out was scheduled for Sunday but we decided to head back early for a variety of reasons. It turns out that a weather system moved into the region on Sunday, so it was good luck that we decided to head out when we did.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Brad’s Pika Glacier Trip Report!

  1. Josh

    Great trip report Brad! Hari, I look forward to hearing from you as well!

    I’m getting ready to head out on a weeklong cross-country backpacking trip tomorrow. I will be exploring the Silver Divide in the John Muir Wilderness. I’ll be attempting a summit of Mount Izaak Walton (class 3 is hairy enough for me!)

    Reply
  2. Vic

    Hari,
    Looks & sounds like you and Brad had a great adventure.
    Hope it really charged your batteries for your new academic challenge.
    Vic

    Reply

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