Friday, October 13, 2017

So You Want to Climb in Alaska: Advanced Tips for Stepping Up to Bigger, More Remote Objectives

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You've been climbing for awhile and are solid leading both rock and ice. You have been to a lot of the destination climbing areas in the continental US and done a lot of the classic routes. You're excited about the mountains and want to take your climbing to the next level but you don't know where to start...  

You're not alone.

While many climbers dream of trips to the Ruth Gorge, Peru or the Himalaya – few actually go. It's too expensive, they say. I'm not ready. The logistics are too complicated. While it's true that a trip to Alaska or abroad has many risk factors (like the possibility of not climbing due to weather, for one) the rewards can be proportionally immense. What's more, you don't need to be Colin Haley speed-soloing the Infinite Spur to enjoy them! The following is a step by step guide for the rest of us. The skills you need (and misconceptions you don't) in order to take your passion to Alaska and beyond.

The Ruth Gorge at twilight.  From L to R: Mt. Church, Wake, and Johnson.  Photo Credit: Max Neale
Step 1: Get the Right Attitude

This might sound cliché but it's true. The first step towards becoming comfortable on bigger terrain is belief. My brother is a college professor and he once told me about a nearly universal phenomenon he encounters that he calls imposter syndrome. This is when first year graduate students in rigorous academic settings suffer from the delusion that they don't belong. They feel that the work is too hard, that everyone else is smarter than them, and that they must have gotten in to the program by mistake. The same can be true of climbers attempting a big peak for the first time. While there is wisdom in restraint, you will never push your level if you don't actively try things that are uncomfortable. Once you get there, Alaska is just like everywhere else. The judgement and skill you have honed in other ranges will still apply. What's more, your comfort zone will begin to expand as you put yourself in increasingly more challenging and complex situations. We all started somewhere. A simple willingness to give it a shot can ease a lot of the stigma associated with planning a big trip.

The author taking some ski laps on a rest day in the Ruth Gorge.  Photo Credit: Max Neale
Step 2: Get Comfortable on Glaciers

Most American climbers today tend to focus on technically challenging rock, ice and mixed objectives. Why would you hike a big pack uphill for two days to the summit of Mount Rainier when you could be sending WI5? That other thing sounds easy and boring! For many, this is unfortunately true. I say unfortunately because modern technical gear and the evolution of fast and light alpine style ascents has lead to some significant skill deficits among many technically gifted climbers.

This can become a problem when heading to Alaska. On a big expedition, for every hour you'll spend climbing that sick mixed pitch you'll probably spend ten hours slogging through ice falls, climbing steep snow slopes, and camping. If these skills aren't ones that you practice regularly then intentionally honing them before your trip will greatly increase your margin of safety.  So if you're one of those who thinks the hip belay hasn't been used since the 1950's and probably has no place in modern climbing anyway, I suggest you think again and get to work. Take a course, learn about crevasse rescue and haul systems; learn about roping up, body belays, how to place snow protection and get slogging (and no - starting and not finishing the snow climbing chapter in Freedom of the Hills for the umpteenth time doesn't count). When figuring out how to route-find on glaciers there is no substitute for experience. You'll thank me later.

The author on the east ridge of Mount Logan, YT, Canada.  Photo Credit: Dan Sandberg
Step 3: Get Planning

For many, this step is the most daunting. Where to begin? While it is much more complex overall, the beginning planning stages of a big expedition are the same as a trip to the local crag. Pick a route and get beta. For your first trip, it makes sense to pick an objective that is well below your technical skill level. That way, the additional stress of being in a large remote environment will seem more manageable. The Ruth Gorge is a great venue because there are several peaks within a few miles of each other that have great routes of relatively low technical difficulty (the west face of Mount Dickey or the Japanese Couloir on Mt. Barrill are two examples). It is also recommended to pick a few alternative objectives so you can adapt to changing conditions. If you plan to climb an ice and snow route, it's probably smart to have a rock or mixed climb in your back pocket in case your main objective is out of shape.

Once you have your route(s) picked out it's time to get scientific. Do lots of research and make lists. Google Docs is a great tool for this. You can start a multi-tab spread sheet that you and your partner can manage simultaneously from different locations. Make a gear list. Make a projected itinerary. Make a meal plan according to your projected caloric needs. List your expenses. The important thing is to focus on the details and write it all down. On multi-day climbing trips in the continental US it can be easy to wing it. Not this time.

Additionally, it's important to organize a communication and emergency plan. Is there someone who can send you weather reports? Will you bring a Sat phone or an In-reach? What will you do in case of emergency? Make sure you have the contact information for the park service and the flight service stored in your device and independently of it (i.e. in a notebook somewhere). It can also be useful to have a friend or family member serve as an emergency contact. Plan to check in with them on a regular basis. It is best if this person has some backcountry experience and intimate knowledge of your itinerary. That way, if you go missing or need to coordinate a rescue, someone will know sooner rather than later.

There is lots of information out there to help you. Both in guidebooks and on the internet. While the planning phase will probably seem like an obstacle at first (and it is undeniably a lot of work) it can actually be quite fun once you get into it.  Just think, you get to spend your days planning a dream trip to one of the Earth's great ranges and then actually do it! Amazing!

The author preparing for Alaska during a one day
winter ascent of the Gerber-Sink route on Dragontail Peak.
Photo Credit: Chris Simrell
Step 4: Get Training

I won't write much here since there are whole books on the subject (I'm sure all of you probably have an unread copy of Training for the New Alpinism sitting on your coffee table right now as a matter of fact...). Suffice it to say that physical and mental training is important. There can be a lot of deep snow up in Alaska and fitness is often the difference between victory and defeat. Speed is safety and whatever you get on, you want to try to get off of as soon as humanly possible to minimize your exposure to risk. Similarly, depending on your route, there are times when you might have to go for it, even if the protection and conditions aren't great. You should also expect to be extra stressed by the size and remoteness of your objective. As a result it pays to get your head in order before you go. That said, if the mental game is something you worry about, chose an easier route. There is no need to climb any ice or rock at all to enjoy the Alaska range! See previous route recommendations.

The author climbs typical mixed ground on the SW ridge of Peak 11,300.
Photo Credit: Will Dean
Step 5: Get Saving

So finally we come to it. The dreaded question. How much will this damn thing cost? I know you probably spent your last dime on a sick sprinter van but it's also not as expensive as you might think. If you're judicious and plan ahead, $1500 - $2000 is plenty to get you a two-week trip to the range. This might sound steep as that amount of money could buy you six months of van dwelling. It'll be up to each individual to set their own priorities. I know what mine are. The point is that you can probably do it if you want to. Maybe you have to adjust your lifestyle from climbing all the time to working and training most of the time and trying one or two serious objectives a year? Everybody's situation is different. As long as we're clear that you don't have to be a sponsored crusher or a climbing guide to enjoy the Alaskan backcountry.

The west ridge of the Moose's Tooth.  Photo Credit: Max Neale
So gear up, save up and get after it.  As the weather begins to turn cooler and fall sets in, it's the perfect time to plan a big adventure.  And in the spring, when the days lengthen, and new light sparkles on Alaskan granite; reflecting uncountable flows of untouched ice, I'll be there.  Will you?

--Eric Shaw, AAI Instructor and Guide

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