Author Archives: hmix

World of Ice

I am back in base camp after an excellent acclimatization rotation to ~19,500 ft on Khan Tengri. I should be prepared for a summit bid following the current storm. Major storms have been hitting over the last few days and likely won’t subside until the weekend.

Nuts and Bolts update:

I am very healthy and happy here in base camp. People here on the South Inylchek Glacier are very friendly. A first for me in Central Asia…there are Americans here! How exotic! Also, a couple professors which is super cool. There are teams from Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Poland, Spain and other individuals from all over the world. This year is shaping up to be a festive one, as it is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Given the incomprehensible losses of the former Soviet Union during the war, it is a major objective here to commemorate this anniversary with an ascent of Peak Pobeda (Russian for Victory).

I am very power and internet limited here, so for now I hope the following photo essay can tell part of the story.

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Return of the Snow Leopard

Families flock to Ala-Too Square for a choreographed light, music and fountain show.

Families flock to Ala-Too Square for a choreographed light, music and fountain show.

Greetings from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan! My five year love affair with the high mountains of Central Asia continues. This time, I return to the Tian Shan, the Celestial Mountains, to attempt Peak Pobeda. Known for some of the world’s worst weather, Pobeda is certainly the crown jewel of the former USSR’s five 7000m “Snow Leopard” peaks. I was hoping to write a more thought out piece but I have had too much to do in the mere 24 hours since my arrival. But I am in excellent physical, mental and emotional health, and I look forward to the journey ahead. I will have plenty of time ahead for reflection, writing, relaxation, and of course, good old fashioned suffering. It will be an adventure.

Nuts and bolts: The Journey from Here

In two hours I depart for Karakol, near the banks of the great Issyk Kul. The next day we’ll drive to At-Jailoo (jailoos are summer pastures) in the extreme northeast of Kyrgyzstan. The next day, early in the morning before the braided rivers swell with glacier runoff, I’ll begin a six day trek up the Inylchek River and South Inylchek Glacier. Once there, I’ll spend a few weeks climbing and acclimatizing on a few peaks including Khan Tengri (7010m) before attempting Peak Pobeda (7439m). More to come…I’m off to catch this jeep!

How to (and how not to) follow along

I’ll be out of good contact starting now. I will carry a SPOT messenger with me to post OK messages periodically, but I can’t make guarantees about the frequency or quality of my communication until August 16 or so. I expect to check in within at least 8 days (my arrival at base camp) and weekly-ish after that. To track my progress, click the “Where’s Hari??” link at the right of the header.

Thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream Grant and Osprey Packs for supporting this expedition!!!

Take care,

Hari

Kyrgyz folk singers were excellent

Kyrgyz folk singers were excellent

Boulevards and parks in Bishkek are as beautiful as ever. Definitely the most chill of the big Central Asian cities.

Boulevards and parks in Bishkek are as beautiful as ever. Definitely the most chill of the big Central Asian cities.

Glacial runoff from nearby 16,000 ft peaks rushes alongside every street. For a country with 30% permanent snow or glacier cover, water is abundant. But climate change threatens otherwise water-poor Central Asia.

Glacial runoff from nearby 16,000 ft peaks rushes alongside every street. For a country with 30% permanent snow or glacier cover, water is abundant. But climate change threatens otherwise water-poor Central Asia.

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A mini piggyback

 

So, San Diego continues to be nice...

So, San Diego continues to be nice…

I’m back to my usual summer pattern of getting into my research while simultaneously disappearing into the mountains for a while. This summer’s travels started with a mini “piggyback” – a combo research and field adventure. This time, Sean and I headed to San Diego to give a talk and have some meetings at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scripps is filled with bright and energetic people who somehow manage to get work done despite their idyllic setting.

Scripps' campus puts all others to shame. Good luck studying!

Scripps’ campus puts all others to shame.

After a few days of productive discussion, we headed north to the Eastern Sierra. Aiming for some alpine rock routes in the Whitney region, we shouldered packs with a few days of supplies and headed up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.

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Spectacular bald eagle at Lower Boy Scout Lake

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Baby marmots checked out our camp near Iceberg Lake.

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Sean gets a little bouldering in before dinner

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At camp below the Whitney massif

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Sunset on Lone Pine Peak

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Sean and I scrambled around after dinner. Last light illuminated the Alabama Hills.

Unfortunately, morning showers and even stronger afternoon thunderstorms prevented us from getting on any of the technical routes, but it was a great trip nonetheless.

Chasing Neutrons

Hari Aaron

Chatting with Stanford’s Aaron Strong, one of the SCU stable isotope lab’s first visitors.

Ask any tenured or tenure-track professor about their first year and you’re bound to get a seasoned, almost gleeful look in return. “Just wait a few years, it’ll get easier,” they’ll say, as they recount the desperate sprint of starting out as a faculty member.

A few months into my first year, I can officially report that faculty life presents a daunting set of challenges. And I’ve had it easy: no cross country move, no job search for a spouse, no young children to raise. But while the honeymoon years of infinite intellectual and recreational freedom that defined my graduate career have come and gone (hey, the pictures on this blog didn’t take themselves!), I gaze out at the landscape of opportunities ahead.

Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with the contrast between the countless problems I can work on and the startlingly short horizon defining the frontier of my knowledge and skills. Part of what’s made the job so all-consuming have been the strategic questions, the big upfront decisions I make that will shape my research trajectory over the coming years. Not to mention figuring out how these “work” decisions will ultimately fit into a happy and fulfilling life. First step, many a scientist’s rite of passage, building my own lab…

Sean and I with the new off-axis integrated cavity output spectroscopy triple water isotope analyzer. Yep, that's what it's called.

Sean and I with the new off-axis integrated cavity output spectroscopy triple water isotope analyzer. Yep, that’s what it’s called. I spent Thanksgiving break building the instrument.

Using a pair of lasers and super high reflectivity mirrors, we detect the ratios of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water vapor based on the wavelengths of light they absorb.

Using a pair of lasers and super high reflectivity mirrors, we detect the ratios of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water vapor based on the wavelengths of light they absorb.

I’m also continuing to refine the “piggyback,” where a work trip incorporates a bit of play. Case in point, spring break was spent with my student researcher Sean, who just happens to be a superb rock climber (wink). Read more of Sean’s exploits here. So we dropped by Yosemite valley for a couple days on the way out to fieldwork in the Eastern Sierra near Reno. I gladly gave Sean all the runout pitches on valley classics including Snake Dike, the legendary line on Half Dome. Hiking out, I noticed a scratchy throat and proceeded to get violently sick for the rest of break and the next couple weeks, but all in all, it was a very successful trip sampling and otherwise.

Sean on one of the fun upper pitches of Snake Dike.

Sean on one of the fun upper pitches of Snake Dike.

Stellar views to the Valley. Not a bad way to start a work trip.

Stellar views to the Valley. Not a bad way to start a work trip.

We snacked on granola on the summit of Half Dome before cruising the hike out.

We snacked on granola on the summit of Half Dome before cruising the hike out. The place was overrun with animals that had hitched a ride in my pack!

Boca Reservoir near Truckee showing effects of the ongoing drought.

Boca Reservoir near Truckee showing effects of the ongoing drought.

Sean sampling a 3 million year old ash, Boca Basin, CA.

Sean samples a 3 million year old ash, Boca Basin, CA.

The Verdi Basin, was by far the most urban of my field areas. We sampled along irrigation ditches and railroad cuts.

The Verdi Basin, was by far the most urban of my field areas. We sampled along irrigation ditches and railroad cuts.

Oh, and I’ll get back up in the big mountains too…I’m just shaking out before the crux!

P.S. Thanks to everyone who’s reached out to me with regards to the Nepal earthquake. Lots of friends over there have been affected, but luckily a lot of the news I’m getting from the ground now is better than I’d feared. Still many are in need. For those who’ve been asking, I’ve been recommending the American Himalayan Foundation as a great organization on the ground that’s currently directing 100% of donations to relief and long term recovery in Nepal.

P.P.S. A few years ago, I came across a couple mountain guides from Oregon who snapped these awesome shots of me in action on Bugaboo Spire in BC. Somehow my email address was temporarily lost, but look what came in the mail!

Running it out on the summit ridge traverse of Bugaboo Spire.

Running it out on the summit ridge traverse of Bugaboo Spire.

What a day! Descending the Kain Route after a day on the North American Classic NE Ridge. Pigeon Spire, which we climbed earlier, and the Howser Towers (R) in the background.

What a day! Descending the Kain Route after a day on the North American Classic NE Ridge. Pigeon Spire, which we climbed earlier, and the Howser Towers (R) in the background.

Big Will and the California Fourteeners

The High Sierra, Whitney to Tyndall and beyond from the summit of Mount Williamson

Whitney, the Kaweahs, the Great Western Divide, Tyndall and beyond from the summit of Mount Williamson

“Going to the mountains is going home” -John Muir

It’s been too long. I joined the machine and got a “Real Job.” I built my own lab this past fall (more on that later!). But the High Sierra are my home away from home. Last weekend I completed a seven year journey to climb each California’s fifteen peaks over 14,000 ft…and each with a twist, be it a linkup, speed ascent, winter ascent or a non-standard route.

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Looking back down to the Owens Valley floor. If you want to climb Williamson, you have to earn it from the bottom.

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No peak was more challenging nor turned me back more than bulky Mount Williamson. It’s not that Williamson is the most technical, nor the most mileage. It’s just one of the bigger, more inaccessible piles of rubble you’ll encounter. Williamson’s routes are nearly Alaskan or Himalayan in proportion as they start from the Owens Valley floor, over 8,000 ft below the summit. They involve miles of up and down trail, thousands of feet of bushwhacking, scree, scrambling or rock climbing. For my fifth (or thereabouts) attempt on Williamson, I opted for the loose, brush-filled, icy boulder-hopping, snow climbing and scrambling sufferfest that is the North Fork of Bairs Creek. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I eat this stuff up!

The lower portions of the Bairs Creek drainage are blocked by willows and icy waterfalls.

The lower portions of the Bairs Creek drainage are choked by willows and icy waterfalls.

My flat-ish bivy site

My flat-ish bivy site

I got a super late start on Saturday because I-5 had been closed the day before due to an accident. I climbed the 1,500 or so feet to the “hard to find” notch, dropped down into the icy creek bed, and ascended thousands of feet of loose rock, willows and thorns to a decent bivy spot at ~9,600 ft. I felt quite good, hydrated well and had a nice dinner of noodle soup before turning in for the night. In the morning, I brewed up, hydrated and boulder hopped thousands of feet up to the crux of the route, a snowy couloir that provided excellent cramponing up to the 13,000 ft plateau beneath the summit slopes. A while later, I was on top, making the first winter ascent of the season and with the high sierra to myself. A fast and relatively uneventful descent (minus  some inevitable thrashing) had me eating a nice dinner in town.

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The headwall guarding access to the upper mountain

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The upper slopes of Williamson...still 1500 more feet of boulderhopping

The upper slopes of Williamson…still 1500 more feet of boulderhopping

Whitney and Russell to the south

Whitney and Russell to the south

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Williamson’s Horns and the Owens Valley 10,000 feet below

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A closer look at the slopes of the headwall

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The Fourtneeners, a retrospective

Thanks to all with whom I shared these magnificent adventures…they wouldn’t have been the same without you!! Here are some highlights from fourteener trips…

Langley (with Mike) We went up this one dry Thanksgiving via a variation of Old Army Pass. The climbing wasn’t the most memorable, but Mike ate a heroic amount of french fries in Lone Pine!

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Looking up at icy Old Army Pass, Mount Langley

Russell, Whitney, Muir (and Keeler Needle) (with John and Dave) What a blast. We went up the East Ridge of Russell…perhaps the finest 3rd class route I’ve ever been on (sorry Keyhole Route on Long’s Peak). I threw in Keeler and Muir for good measure and then had a death march back to the Portal.

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Russell’s East Ridge (right skyline) from the summit of Whitney.

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Traversing back to the Mountaineer’s Route notch during a winter dayclimb of Whitney

Williamson Can’t count the times I’ve said I was going to do this, but I made it up Shepherd’s pass a couple times alone and with Warren, not to mention the honest effort on the Northeast Ridge with Brad

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Big Will from the lower Northeast Ridge

Tyndall One day winter ascent with Warren who also liked big days in winter.

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A moment of reflection high on Tyndall

Split Mountain Tried once before I soloed the St. Jean Couloir in winter. Wish I hadn’t lost my camera after the ascent!

St. Jean Couloir, Split Mountain

St. Jean Couloir, Split Mountain

Middle Palisade I ran the stellar East Face route in 7:28 round trip, which I think due to some strange technicality may be the fastest known time. It’s hard to imagine given how fast the 14er records are these days that this wouldn’t be hours faster. Nonetheless, a fine day in the mountains on one of the nicest peaks in the high country. Brainerd and Finger Lakes are the gems they’re talked up to be.

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Finger Lake below Middle Pal

Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, Mount Sill (with Warren) The Palisades Traverse is still the longest day I’ve ever had in the mountains, a full 26 hours (2 sunrises in one day!!!). What a spectacular adventure. We didn’t summit Sill, but I climbed the North Couloir after graduating undergrad only to break my arm tripping on the trail at First Lake (sorry Dad and Sue!)

Looking back on North Palisade, Starlight and Thunderbolt. This was the second sunrise of our 26 hour continuous push.

Looking back on North Palisade, Starlight and Thunderbolt. This was the second sunrise of our 26 hour continuous push.

Free soloing high on Starlight

Free soloing high on Starlight

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White Mountain Peak Casually ran this in 2:58 car to car, also a fastest known time. Same as Middle Pal, I’d be shocked if some Yosemite hard man hasn’t run this faster.

Shasta (Tried a couple times, first with Leor, turned back due to insane winds) Finally got the weather right after my first expedition to Nepal in 2010. I soloed the Casaval Ridge in 27 hours…Stanford to Stanford. Just 11 hours on the route proper. One of my finest days ever in the mountains. Sunrise from the Catwalk was among the best I’ve ever seen.

Sunrise during an 11 hour winter solo of Casaval Ridge, Mount Shasta

Sunrise during an 11 hour winter solo of Casaval Ridge, Mount Shasta

What can clay tell us about the past?

How hot was it in Colorado yesterday? Ok, how about 20 million years ago? Hmm, that one seems trickier to answer. I recently took a stab at this and other questions in North American paleoclimate in the final chapter of my PhD, which has been accepted in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, a leading geochemistry journal. I’ve been somewhat reluctant to write about this as it’s not exactly the most accessible work I’ve done, plus I’ve been trying to run away from the last remaining scraps of my PhD in search of fresh research topics!

Anyhow, here’s a go at some of what I’ve been working on since 2008. Telling the conditions in the geologic past has always been challenging, but our foundation of knowledge has always been observational science. For many decades, paleontologists have studied fossils to determine information about ancient climate and environments. One metric involves analyzing the shapes of leaves, then using statistical models to determine things such as ancient temperature and rainfall.

34 million year old fossils, Florissant Fossil Beds, CO. University of California Museum of Paleontology

34 million year old fossils, Florissant Fossil Beds, CO. University of California Museum of Paleontology.

I belong to a community of scientists who use the chemistry of ancient sediments to learn about the past. Harold Urey’s discovery of deuterium (hydrogen with an extra neutron) not only won him the Nobel Prize in 1934, but also gave birth to an entire field of stable isotope paleoclimatology. As it turns out, many natural processes preferentially take one isotope (forms of an element with different masses) over another in what is known as isotopic fractionation. For example, photosynthesis preferentially uses “light” carbon-12 in CO₂ over the heavier carbon-13. One of the best things from a climate standpoint, though, is that most isotopic fractionation is temperature dependent, meaning that we can calculate temperature if we know some more things about the system. Most famously, our best records of climate change over geologic timescales come from ancient fossils of tiny foraminifera buried in ocean sediments. The chemistry of their shells, made out of calcium carbonate, tells us about the temperature and amount of ice on the ancient earth.

Here’s where the clay comes in…clay minerals form as weathering products in soils. The clay forms in equilibrium with ancient water, and preserves the ancient isotopic signatures of oxygen and hydrogen, allowing us to study the ancient climate. I’ve been using the peculiar chemistry of smectite, a particular type of clay that weathered out of volcanic ash from enormous eruptions to tell the temperature history of western North America.

A 19 million year old ash in northern Colorado that has weathered to clay

A 19 million year old ash in northern Colorado that has weathered to clay

My study involved collected hundreds of samples of weathered ash from all over western North America, with ages ranging from 620,000 years to about 30 million years. I separated the clay minerals using a centrifuge (read: lots of dishwashing!) and analyzed the oxygen and hydrogen isotope composition using mass spectrometry.

This is one cool step part of the process. I used laser ablation to literally vaporize rock into oxygen gas and other byproducts!

This is one cool part of the process. I used laser ablation to literally vaporize rock into oxygen gas and other byproducts.

What do our results say? Well, quite a few things, but temperatures in North America follow global prevailing trends. It was quite a lot warmer (~10-15 degrees C) around 15 million years ago at a time known as the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum. This was the most recent time of elevated global temperatures similar to where we may be headed by 2100 with modern climate change. If my results are any indication, continental interiors may warm to a greater degree than global averages.

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Temperature records from clay in western North America. On the left is 60 million years ago, the right is today. The green points are from Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, while the reds are primarily from Nevada and Utah.

Black Kaweah: Earning an adventure

 

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Black Kaweah (L) above Little Five Lakes. It’s so far away it’s not even worth re-living it!

The wild Kaweahs of the southern Sierra Nevada have long been on my mind. Their reputation for remoteness, lightning strikes, loose rock make even approaching these peaks a challenging and rewarding experience. Jonathan and I set off from the Bay Area for Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King late in the evening to miss traffic. By the time we got to the trailhead, it was 2:30 AM and we were delirious. I did my standard bivouac on top of a picnic table, slept like a rock and woke up at 7 to get packing. Fortunately, Jonathan and I were on the same page with our gear…no tent, trail running shoes, and 3oz windbreakers would be our weapons of choice. Offsetting the lightweight clothing, we opted to take a ton of food and a full climbing rope and rack for an shot at the seldom-attempted Kaweah traverse, a notoriously heinous, loose climbing objective. After a long talking to by the rangers, we set off cross country over two high ranges, crossing Glacier Pass and Hands and Knees Pass before dropping down to our bivy spot on Big Arroyo.

Spring Lake

Spring Lake

Foxtail Pine

Foxtail Pine

It was a tough day, but Little Five Lakes are as beautiful as they’re talked up to be! We got to bed early in order to accommodate a 3AM start up Black Kaweah. From the beginning, I could tell my lack of sleep and nutrition were affecting things. Both of us felt the altitude during the night, but as we ascended above the spectacular tarns en route to Black Kaweah, my altitude symptoms worsened. By the time we were scrambling and soloing the challenging rock high on the peak, I was definitely feeling it. Nonetheless, we reached Black Kaweah’s remote and tiny summit and were rewarded with sweeping views of the entire range. We also learned we were the first visitors here since September of last year. Given how remote (probably 20+ miles of mostly cross country travel to reach the peak alone) and challenging the climb, that’s not too surprising.

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Jonathan on the summit. It was cold...glad we brought the puffies.

Jonathan on the summit. It was cold…glad we brought the puffies.

Typical loose, thought-provoking bowling alley terrain on Black Kaweah

Typical loose, thought-provoking bowling alley terrain on Black Kaweah

But the ridge looked far too loose and questionable to be fun, so we descended and charged out of the range, crossing the Great Western Divide at Black Rock Pass along the way. Black Kaweah in a weekend was no joke (carrying a 60m rope all the way up it didn’t make it any easier), but it’s hard to complain with a beautiful, challenging and rewarding experience in sunny California. We got our money’s worth!

The ridge traverse looked too loose and committing for my taste.

The ridge traverse looked too loose and committing for my taste.

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The view west from atop Black Kaweah. We crossed all these peaks.

There’s something about Alaska…


There’s something special, something truly wondrous about Alaska. It’s been said so many times, it would be easy to dismiss praise for The Last Frontier. Especially since I’ve spent the last five or so years exploring some of the world’s great ranges, I didn’t expect to be so taken aback by this place. But the ruggedness, scale, and limitless light and freedom in the heart of the Alaska Range are unparalleled. Everything in Alaska is big: From raging, mile-wide rivers like the Susitna, to the linear post-glacial features that stretch hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to Denali, The Great One, to Talkeetna’s blood-guzzling mosquitoes. Even “Little Switzerland,” our destination for a week of spectacular alpine rock climbing, was a grand adventure.

Foraker looms above the tracks in Talkeetna

Foraker looms above the tracks in Talkeetna

After waiting out a bit of rain in Talkeetna, Brad and I flew up to the Pika Glacier in a single engine plane with one of Alaska’s legendary bush pilots. These workhorse DeHavillands and Cessnas from the World War II era are truly marvels of engineering.

Skis mounted to the landing gear of bush planes like this Otter revolutionized the exploration of the Alaska Range.

Skis mounted to the landing gear of bush planes like this Otter revolutionized the exploration of the Alaska Range.

Landing a plane on a glacier with skis is a pretty mind-boggling and abrupt way to enter the alpine. But aside from the tourist visits by bush plane, Brad and I had a week to ourselves in spectacular wilderness.

Scouting on rappel from the Middle Troll

Scouting on rappel from the Middle Troll

Our first day on the glacier consisted of digging tent platforms and getting a bit set up and dug into the glacier. As we had clear blue skies and 24 hour daylight at our disposal, we quickly made a late lunch and roped up for our first climb, an ascent of the nearby Middle Troll. Upon arriving at the summit after hours of exploratory climbing on sometimes clean, sometimes loose and chossy Alaskan granite, we arrived at the tiny perch of the summit and 360 degree views of Denali, Foraker, Hunter and other Alaska Range giants. In no rush to get down, we soaked in the evening sunshine before returning to camp.

The midnight sun emerges from behind the Royal Tower.

The midnight sun emerges from behind the Royal Tower.

Our second day was a gut check. These are some of the northernmost big mountains in the world, and we spent all day digging in, and averting one mini-disaster after another as we were pummeled by rain and hail. We made the necessary improvements quickly, however and soon had a luxurious living room/kitchen dug in and complete with custom furniture carved from the glacial snowpack.

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Thereafter, as skies cleared, we settled into a comfortable rhythm, waking up late in the morning to dry our boots, clothes and ropes, finally emerging from our tents groggily in the mid-afternoon and climbing late into the night.

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I stand atop the Hobbit’s Footstool late one evening.

The Pika was good to us and after a few more gorgeous climbs, we took the hint and called for a bush plane pickup before the weather soured. On the way out, as Brad in particular aspires to climb historic hard-man routes in the Alaska Range, and I am an aviation nerd at heart, we opted for some extra airtime on the way out. Again, a masterful pilot from K2 aviation danced us in and out of alpine cirques and down deep granite gorges. These guys have the best job in the world and they know it. Thanks Alaska for the warm and sunny welcome!

Denali, The Great One

Denali, The Great One

The Moose's Tooth. The legendary ice climb "Ham and Eggs" ascends the thin ribbon of snow and ice just left of the summit.

The Moose’s Tooth. The legendary ice climb “Ham and Eggs” ascends the thin ribbon of snow and ice just left of the summit.

The broken Kahiltna Glacier from the air.

The broken Kahiltna Glacier from the air.

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Wow.

The Big Bend of the Ruth Glacier. This is miles wide for some perspective.

The Big Bend of the Ruth Glacier. This is miles wide for some perspective.

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.

Talkeetna

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The marquee event of my summer is underway. Brad and I are in tiny (and currently rainy) Talkeetna, Alaska staging for a trip to the Pika Glacier in Denali National Park. We’re hunkered down waiting out a historic storm (three feet of fresh snow fell yesterday at Denali base camp) for our bush plane flight onto the glacier. Fingers crossed, we should have a week and a half (completely to ourselves!!) in magnificent surroundings. We’ve been spending our time hanging out with the locals (population ~800ish, approximately 600 of whom live in the woods in homes accessible only by foot, boat, 4-wheeler or snow machine), chilling in a plane hangar with a guided Denali party, and strolling around town. More news in a bit!

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