Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Trip Report: Alaska Range Mountaineering

Guide Coley Gentzel has just returned from the Alaska Range Alpine Mountaineering course, an expedition that focuses on training climbers for Denali and climbing peaks in the Ruth and Kahiltna glacier areas:

"As per the itinerary, Forest and I met the group in Anchorage for the pre-trip meeting and gear check. After sorting through some 'logistical' issues with the hotel, we finally sorted out a room to meet in and got on with the gear check. Most everyone was pretty well set, but we made a run to REI and AMH for a few last minute items."

"We woke up the next morning to rain in Anchorage and unfortunately, we weren't able to see the mountains on the drive to Talkeetna. Once in Talkeetna, the skies were cloudy and we spent some time reviewing knots, sled rigging, and setting up tents while waiting for a flight. 'Hurry Up and wait' seems to be a common theme with these trips. You never know when you might need to scramble to pack and fly - often you do so a few times before actually getting on the plane."

"We got the word at about 5:30 that Base Camp was clear and we were flying. K2 only had room for two folks on the first flight and so we drew straws to see who would head in first. Patrick Loftus and I were the lucky two and we headed for the glacier with a good pile of group gear. We arrived set up camp, and were expecting to see the rest of the group shortly."

"As it turned out, the clouds closed back in and the rest of the group didn't arrive until the next morning."

"Upon their arrival, we spent most of the next day building an expedition-worthy camp site replete with cook tent and block walls. Everyone, myself included, was reminded of how much work it actually takes to get settled in to a sturdy camp site with a large group."

"Day three was our snow skills day and we found an excellent slope for self arrest, ice axe and crampon use, and glissading techniques. We set up some fixed ropes and practiced with ascenders and passing fixed protection as part of a rope team."

"Day four, we got into the crevasse rescue procedures starting with snow anchors and progressed to more complex hauling systems and eventually two team rescue techniques. Little did we know that the very next day we would be putting this very system into use on our climb of the Radio Control Tower."

"On day five, we set out for a climb of the Radio Control Tower. On the way to the summit ridge, the route traverses through a small ice fall with a few very tricky crevasses. After one rope team successfully made it through unscathed, a member of the second rope team broke through a thin snow bridge and fell about 15 feet into a crevasse. Fresh off of our crevasse rescue training, the teams worked together very well in getting the climber out quickly, safely, and effectively. It was a very valuable experience for everyone and it really brought to mind the need for training, efficiency, and familiarity with these systems. We continued on to the summit of the Tower and enjoyed incredible views on the north side of Hunter and the other peaks above the Kahiltna glacier. The team stayed on the summit for over an hour soaking up the views, eating, and quoting our favorite movie lines."

"On our last day of training, the guides presented two options for ways to spend the day. The first would be to complete a long and complex glacier tour to practice traveling as a rope team with sleds. The second option was to spend the day working on steep snow and ice techniques. In the end we ended up combining the two and did a glacier tour with sleds to an ice climbing area where we talked about tools, techniques, and protection methods for ice and then did some climbing on a slabby serac face."

"We were slotted to fly out early in the morning of Day 7, but the weather kept us at Denali base camp for another day before catching a ride back to town. To pass the time, we got a home run derby going where we used a PVC cache marker for a bat and a base ball made of duct tape. Ray 'the hammer' Muender was the big winner with three long balls. It was good fun and by the end of the game we had quite a following of spectators. Aidan and the May 11 Denali team showed up in camp as well, and so we got to hang out with them and hear stories from Denali while waiting for flights. I think this was a very valuable experience for our team as everyone in the group is considering Denali in years to come."

"We wound down the trip with an outing to the West Rib pub and eventually the world famous (infamous?) Fairview in for food and drinks. I will omit the specifics from that leg of the trip to protect the good reputations of all involved."

"All in all, it was a fantastic trip with one of the best groups of people that I have had the pleasure of climbing with and teaching. Everyone seemed very pleased with the way things went and it was incredible to see how far the team progressed and advanced their skills and abilities in one short week. Of course, we all hope to see each other again soon and get to share more time in the mountains here and abroad."

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