Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Denali Prep

I just returned from teaching a six day Denali Prep course on Mount Baker with American Alpine Institute. To learn more about the course click the link below.


Denali from the west.

This print can be purchased at http://alasdairturner.com/order-prints/

The conditions we had on this course were perfect preparation for a group planning on spending time on North Americas highest Mountain. We managed to get good weather for the first two days allowing us to hike in and build our first camp under sunny skys, and then walk through the technical skills needed to climb. We covered techniques for hauling sleds, roping up on the massive glaciers of Denali and crevasse rescue techniques.

On day three of the trip we packed up camp and moved to a camp higher on Mount Baker. The weather had started to deteriorate as we were walking to the camp, so we had some practice building a camp in less than perfect weather. This included building a snow wall prior to putting the tents up. Over night the weather deteriorated more and the next day was spent in camp digging out, eating in the cook tent and discussing conditions likely to be encountered on Denali. We also covered traveling on fixed lines and some other technical skills needed for the mountain.

That night the weather deteriorated more still, requiring digging out of the tents at 2am (perfect training for Denali). Continued winds and heavy snow helped us make the decision to hike out the next day and head for Mount Eire on our final day of the course to cover crevasse rescue in more detail. Here we covered the complexities of what really happens when a person falls in a crevasse with a 60lb pack and a 60lb sled. This is a much more complex scenario than most people think, and makes getting out of a crevasse much more difficult. If you are going to Denali and have not thought about these issues then you should probably spend some time training before you leave!

Denali from the west showing most of the West Buttress route.

This print can be purchased at http://alasdairturner.com/order-prints/

Overall this was a great course and we covered a huge amount of information in addition to the regular course curriculum including menus, strategies for climbing the mountain, altitude preparation and illnesses, and tips and techniques for making tent living more enjoyable. We even threw some photography and camera tips in. For more on cold weather photography click here.

--Alasdair Turner, AAI Instructor and Guide

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sea-to-Ski Human Powered

The biggest cultural event in Bellingham is the annual Ski-to-Sea Race. This is a 93.5 mile multi-discipline relay race that starts at the Mount Baker Ski Area. The race legs work as follows:
  1. Cross Country Skiing - 4 miles
  2. Downhill Skiing - 2.5 miles
  3. Running - 8 miles (with a 2,200 foot drop)
  4. Bicycling - 42 miles
  5. Canoeing - 18.5 miles
  6. Mountain Biking - 14 miles
  7. Sea Kayaking - 5 miles (4.3 nautical miles)
In essence the race starts at the ski area and ends in Fairhaven, where AAI has its headquarters.

Check out the map below for more details:

The Ski-to-Sea Course Map
(click to enlarge)

In its nearly forty-years of existence, the American Alpine Institute has never had a Ski-to-Sea team. This is because the race falls on Memorial Day Weekend. The problem with that particular weekend is that it is incredibly busy in the mountains.

Last year, by some stroke of luck, I was able to attend the festivities at the end of the race and realized how cool it was. I decided that it was time to design our summer schedule so that at least the office and the shop staff would be able to be involved in the race. It has taken a lot of work to make sure that all the trips running that weekend are covered without dipping into the office staff that also operate as guides.

The result...?

We have a Ski-to-Sea team!

But we're the American Alpine Institute, so we couldn't just have any old Ski-to-Sea team. We had to have an all human-powered team. In other words, we cannot use a car to assist in race logistics in any way, shape or form.

This means that the skiers, runner, and road biker, will ride up the night before, pulling kid carts full of camping gear. Then afterwards, they will have to assist one another to get down.  This also means that we have people pulling a canoe and a kayak on a bike. And we have them helping one another by dragging dismantled bikes between locations on carts.

Making a human-powered team has really stretched our thinking. The logistics would be way easier if we could use cars. But the race would be nowhere near as cool.

There are only 11 teams out of 250 that are competing without the use of cars.

So I know you all want to know who's doing what on our team. So here it is:

  • James Pierson - Northwest Program Coordinator and Guide - Cross Country Skiing
  • Jason Martin - Director of Operations and Guide - Downhill Skiing
  • Daniel Probst - AAI guest and high-end ultra-marathoner - Running
  • Jeremy Wilson - AAI Shop Manager and Guide - Road Bike
  • Tom Kirby - AAI IT Manager and Guide - Canoe
  • Cliff Palmer - Guide - Canoe
  • Dylan Cembalski - Seven Summits Coordinator - Mountain Bike
  • Hillary Schwirlich - American SW and Foreign Programs Coordinator - Sea Kayak

We are extremely excited to be involved in this event and will have a bunch more news about it as it gets a bit closer!

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

There are some pretty amazing acrobatics in this first video this weekend. It's from the recent "9 Knights" event at the Mottolino Fun Mountain in Lavigno, Italy. The crew there built an amazing Snow Castle that had so many different features, the skiers and riders were surprising each other with their different lines. This event not only brought in some amazing athletes, but also called upon some great photographers in the action-sports industry. This video is proof of the high caliber of talent at the event.

Of the hundreds of thousands of climbers throughout the world, there are relatively few who climb 5.14. Names like Sharma, Ondra, Graham, Pearson, DiGiulian, Sarkany & Raboutou probably come to mind. The name Francisco Marin can be found in that group as well. But he has one thing that these other climbers do not, and that is age. Francisco is the only climber known to have climbed 5.14+ at 61 years old. As a life-long climber, he has learned a few things along the way, and as you will see in this next video, he has some pretty amazing insight on what it takes to be a climber.

Whenever you go on a big-mountain expedition, you are always worried about weight. And when you are worried about weight, you make sure everything in your kit has multiple purposes. For Jeremy Jones' big trips into the Alaska backcountry for his films, that ethos of multiple-use extend to his staff and assistants. That's why he brings along a camp manager that could not only cook up an awesome dinner, but also has avalanche and medical training. And it turns out that they can snowboard pretty darn well. This next video will not only get you stoked, but will probably make you hungry too!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Trip Report: Petit Mont Blanc: Couloir versant NE

We had a celebratory "end of winter" BBQ at our place and invited friends over for grilled goods and cocktails as we watched the Bosson crumble away, very representative of the decaying snowpack here in the Cham. Davide De Masi photo:

Despite the rising temps of the day and forecasted for the future, as more cocktails were consumed I was reminded of our pow day the day before on the Tricot. Tom and Caroline were talking about going into the Miage the next day and skiing a line I've had my eyes on for the last couple weeks. Knowing there could still be more pow hiding and knowing that if there was it wouldn't be good for much longer, we decided to head to Italy, the land of milk, honey, and 3,000 ft north facing couloirs the next day. This may have been a cocktail influenced decision, only time would tell but I couldn't wait to get back in this awe-inspiring zone nonetheless. We rode the Bonatti Couloir last year about this time and it was truly one of the most beautiful descents of my life.  This time we had our sites on a pinner line on the Petite Mont Blanc, the Couloir versant NE. I snapped this shot from the Sommet du Mont Blanc last year, the Bonnatti Couloir to the right of our line:

Climbing up the couloir. The snow was firm, consolidated and cold. Pretty ideal for steeps. There were two Scott's ahead of us putting in the bootpack, thanks guys! I usually would've been terrified by someone skiing above me in a narrow couloir like this but the snow wasn't going anywhere and the dense pack wasn't giving off much sluff. We watched them link up perfect jump turns down the steep narrow part of the line and the snow looked great. Davide De Masi photo:

Carolina and I gettin high, as it steepens. Davide De Masi photo:

Me shreddin' the upper section. It felt pretty steep but the line chokes and turns a corner halfway up, tricking you into thinking it's only half as big as it really is. Davide De Masi photo:

Lil C making textbook jump-turns! Get it girl! 

Tom sluffing Caroline, lol but not really as the sluff wasn't bad. Davide De Masi photo:

This is where it choked a bit. I think this can be an icy rock step sometimes but it was nicely filled in, just a bit icy on the left but really nice on the right. Davide De Masi photo:

The skiers hauled ass out from the glacier and skated their way down the flattest of flat, manky 2 mile road back to Courmayeur to tell the lifties to hold the last chair for their handicapped, beater, splitboarder accessory. We went immediately to Bar Roma and stuffed our faces with free apr├ęs, all-you-can-eat Italian delicacies, washed down with negroni's.

--Liz Daley, AAI Instructor and Guide

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Route Profile: Sultana Ridge - Mt. Foraker

Mount Foraker as seen from Denali. The Sultana Ridge is the prominent,
lighter colored ridge running up the center of the mountain.

Mount Foraker – 17,400 ft / 5303 m

Route: Northeast Ridge (Sultana Ridge)
Difficulty: Alaska Grade 3
Elevation Gain: 10,500 ft along 9 miles of ridge


Standing at 17,400 ft in the central Alaska Range, Mount Foraker is only 14 miles from Denali and provides a dramatic backdrop for climbers on the West Buttress route. Foraker is the second highest peak in the Alaska Range and the fourth highest in the United States. First climbed in August 1934, it rises directly above the base camp for Denali, but sees far fewer ascents each year.

Approaching Foraker on the Kahiltna glacier.

Setting up camp below Mount Crosson. 

An expedition on Foraker generally requires less acclimatization time than Denali because it is almost 3000 feet lower. The Sultana Ridge follows a pure and scenic ridge for seven miles. Climbing over several smaller peaks, including Mount Crosson, the ridge encompasses the crest of the Alaska Range. Similar in difficulty to the West Buttress of Denali, the Sultana Ridge of Foraker offers true remoteness for Alaskan mountaineering; retreat is more difficult, camps are more exposed, and there is no support network on the route. You will likely have the whole route to yourself!

After passing Crosson, climbers gain the true
Sultana Ridge.

After flying onto the Kahiltna glacier, we will set off towards advanced base camp at the base of Mount Crosson. Ascending the ridge using a couple camps, we will summit Crosson (12,800 ft) and descend 1100 ft to reach the col between Crosson and Point 12,472. If avalanche conditions are safe, we will likely bypass the summit of Pt. 12,472 and traverse it’s southeast face at 12,200 ft. The next three miles of the Sultana ridge are a long series of ups and downs with cornices and crevasses. Eventually, the ridge mellows as it links up with the upper Northeast Ridge of Foraker.

Moving along the corniced Sultana Ridge.

Looking up the Sultana Ridge
to the summit of Foraker.

Due to difficult camp options on the upper mountain, our high camp will be at 12,300 ft. The ridge becomes less steep around 14,000 ft and tops out on the summit plateau at 17,100 ft. Summit day is a 5100-foot push and will reward us with impressive views of the Alaskan tundra, Denali, and the breathtaking Alaska Range. After enjoying the summit of Mount Foraker, we will retrace our steps on the descent, crossing over the summit of Mount Crosson again and returning to the Kahiltna glacier. Our bush-pilot will bring us back to Talkeetna where we can share our stories with other climbers and begin the journey home.

Success! The summit of Foraker offers incredible
views of Denali and the Alaska Range.
Have you already climbed Denali and are looking for more Alaska adventures? Are the Big 3 (Denali, Hunter, and Foraker) on your tick list? Looking to summit a slightly lower mountain before taking on a full Denali expedition?

Mount Foraker is a great mountain and AAI is starting to gauge interest in a Foraker expedition in 2015. If this sounds like a climb you would like to join, please contact us for more information. Our well-known climbing programs can help you sharpen your skills and take your climbing to the next level.

Climb on!

Dylan Cembalski
Alaska Programs and 7 Summits Coordinator
AAI Guide

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Route Profile: Triple Couloirs, Dragontail Peak, AI3, 5.8, Grade III-IV

Situated on the southern edge of Colchuck Lake with Aasgard Pass to its east, Dragontail Peak stands as a guardian to the Enchantments area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  Topping out at 8,840', it is a giant of the Stuart Range, second only to range's namesake.  With dozens of routes winding up the peak's bony ridges and deep couloirs, it is a true alpine playground.

The Triple Couloirs Route is a classic alpine snow and ice route, with even a little mixed climbing thrown in for good measure.  The route is typically climbed in the spring, but can also be done in the winter if the avalanche conditions are stable enough.  The first ascent was done by Bill Joiner, Leslie Nelson and Dave Seman in May 1974.  As you will soon see, the cruxes of the route are not necessarily the Couloirs themselves, but the transitions between the Couloirs.

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Dragontail Peak.  James Pierson.

The approach starts by driving south out of Leavenworth down Icicle Creek Road for 9.2 miles to the Bridge Creek Campground.  In winter, the road is plowed to here, so plan on walking, snowshoeing or skiing in the 3.5 miles to the Stuart Lake/ Mountaineer Creek trailhead at 3,400'.  The trail winds along the east side of the creek for about 2 miles before crossing over to the west side.  After another mile, the trail forks.  Take the left fork and cross back to the other side of the creek.  After winding generally southeast, you finally arrive at the north side of Colchuck Lake.  It is approximately 5 miles from the trailhead to here.  There are numerous campsites along the western banks of the Lake.

To start the climb, head counter-clockwise to the south side of the lake then head up hill and just a bit east of the lowest point of the north face of Dragontail (the prominent snow finger at the bottom of the first photo).  You will warm up on 40-50 deg. snow and ice for about 800' of the First Coulior before you are forced to make a choice between three options.

Climbing through the First Couloir.  Scott Schumann.

Your first option is to climb the steep ice runnels for about 3 pitches to the base of the Second Couloir.  These runnels are 70 - 80 deg. and the difficulty and thickness of the ice varies greatly depending on the snow conditions.  Be sure to bring some pitons along if this is your desired route.  

At the base of the ice runnels between pitch 1 and 2.  Coley Gentzel.
The second option is to continue up the First Couloir for another pitch or two, then heading up and left for two more pitches.  From this point, you can downclimb (5.8) or rappel over to the base of the Second Couloir.

Midway through the climb, with Colchuck Balanced Rock
in the background.  Scott Schumann

Your third option is to continue on to the top of the First Couloir.  By doing this, you essentially bypass the Second Couloir and come out on a broad snow slope on the Northwest Face.  The entrance to the Third Couloir is found behind a large tower at the top of these 40 - 60 deg. slopes.  However, because this variation does not ascend the Second Couloir, it is not, technically, the the Triple Couloirs route.

Nearing the top of the Second Couloir.  Scott Schumann.

If you take either Option 1 or 2, you are rewarded with over 600' of 40 - 50 deg. snow and ice.  Eventually, you exit up and right then start into the Third Couloir, which is another few hundred feet of 40 - 50 deg. climbing.  This brings you to the northeast face of the summit with the top of the peak up and to your right.

Transitioning from the Second Couloir up into
the Third.  Andrew Yasso.

A short snow scramble from the top of the Third Couloir up
to the summit of Dragontail Peak.  Andrew Yasso
The standard descent from Dragontail is to head east to Aasgard Pass and follow it back to Colchuck Lake.  According to the Nelson and Potterfield guide, the climb should take 5 - 9 hours one-way from the lake.

This is just one of the great alpine ice routes that are available to climb with AAI.  As I mentioned previously, the route is usually done in the spring, so this is a great follow up if have taken our Alpine Ice Course during one of the past summers.  If this gets you excited and yearning for more, give us a call and we'll get a trip set up for you!  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trip Report: Urinal Couloir

Since my last trip report full of epic billowing white smoke, Chamonix conditions changed almost overnight. It's pretty insane how fast the weather and snow changes in these big mountains with various systems coming through constantly. We'd been riding nothing but bottomless blower for almost two months with one or two days of high pressure then BOOM! Tropical meltdown commences. Super warm temps, stable high pressure and violent winds have been warming S/SW faces to climactic mankalanche festivals and have blown all our powder away leaving behind gray ice or sastrugi on north aspects.

In search of good snow Powdherb and I decided to check out a new zone for us, the Couloir Pissoir (Urinal couloir). Not sure why it's called this, no sign of more than usual piss or poo in this part of the Alps. Super nice tour from the Grandes Montets, over two cols then down into Trient, Switzerland. The red line:

We found some nice sheltered snow by the Trient glacier, but up high it was pretty nasty breakable croustillants.

Photo cred: Marq Diamond

The next day my lil buddy and teammate Caroline Gleich and her friend KT Miller had arrived in Chamonix to get rad and shred steeps. Being as though it was "Black Weekend" in Chamonix, where everyone parties super hard till the wee hours AND since the snow was crap I wanted to indulge in the festivities rather than ride some steep death gray ice with them.

The next day was brutal. We decided to go on a tour with massive headaches and upset stomachs. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, how could we not? The sun had never felt so hot, I winced into the reflective snow with a throbbing headache as we climbed an icy slope from Le Tour.

We were headed to ski some GFP off the backside of Le Tour when we started to feel better. Sweatin' out the booze, we decided to climb to a bigger peak in the distance. We looked off the backside and found this sick looking couloir! It looked as though it had already totally slid out at the bottom but the top looked a little rotten. After some boulder hucking and deliberation we dropped in and rode high fructose corn to the Le Tour glacier below. Caroline Gleich iphone photo:

It had to have been around 80 degrees. Me, Caro & KT #gunshow #3girlsonecouloir #sunsoutgunsout

Next day off for a two-day trip that starts in Courmayeur, Italy to traverse the Domes de Miage and ride the Armancette glacier down into Contamine, France. It turned out to be around a 33 km journey. Team of perfect proportions we were, 3:3 chicks to dudes, Americans to Brits, skiers to splitters. We were inherently dialed for success.

After 5 hours of side-hilling and a slight route finding error we arrived at the Robert Blanc hut. I drank some vin rouge and chopped wood. Chris fixed the broken window. Paulie told inappropriate jokes in a funny british accent. KT got the shot. Caroline giggled. Tom ate our dinner. And Daddy Yankee serenaded us over my jambox.

Tom Grant and his general bad-assery.

Climbed up to the Col des Glaciers in the am and rode down ~1,500 ft of epic snow. Not sure how the wind and sun didn't damage this slope. Paulie didn't turn once! Then headed up the Tre la Tete glacier towards the Domes.

Caroline tells epic stories of Equadorian volcanoes while Tom talks Cham steeps.

As we approached the ridge a couple were retreating because of the consistent strong wind with occasional violent gusts. This titillated the desire for adventure as we came closer to the ridge, making it seem a bit more exposed than it already was. It was hard not to au cheval at some stages on this walk as the wind was tres fort. Wouldn't have wanted to tomahawk down the gnarly N face (which are some classic steep routes later on in the spring but 100% not in now).

Tom sends the firm windboard off the summit.

The ~9,000 ft descent into Contamine encompassed about every snow condition imaginable. Firm windboard>soft sastrugi>POW!>cream cheese>total mank>icy cat track>dirt. Thankfully we had an hour until the bus took us to the train back to Chamonix so we could stuff our faces with pain au chocolate, chips, beers and pizza. We saw some epic alpenglow on our route down from the bus.

We were feeling rather gritty and drunk and started taking silly pictures. #trashgirlz

That was enough suffer in the mountains for me for a couple days so we spent the weekend rock climbing on the beach...

--Liz Daley, AAI Instructor and Guide