Monday, 10 June 2013


Right, well I've just got home from my much anticipated trip to Alaska.  To cut a long story short we flew out to Kahiltna Glacier in perfect weather and managed to get a couple of great routes in before jumping on the North Buttress of Mt Hunter, making an ascent of Deprivation with the Bibler Come Again finish to the top of the difficulties (top of the last rock band).  As we descended however, the weather warmed up considerably forcing us to abandon plans for any other ice routes as the whole glacier started to melt out alarmingly.  With the big tick under our belts though, we were pretty happy to hire a car and go on a sport climbing/animal spotting roadtrip for a few days before flying home.  An awesome trip!

Mt Hunter as seen from base camp, the North Buttress is on the left


Will and I have been planning this trip since I realised that I had a month off from uni between mid-May and mid-June.  Alaska seemed the obvious place to go for what would have to be a 'quick-hit' alpine/ice expedition with only 4 weeks to spare.  I had initially been keen to target an ascent of the stunning Cassin Ridge on Denali, a classic alpine test-piece which is committing and high, but with moderate climbing.  Will fancied something a bit meatier however, and informed me that despite a bit of research he hadn't come across a British ascent of Deprivation, a Mark Twight route on the towering North Buttress of Mt Hunter.  I was well aware of the 'Moonflower' buttress and it's reputation but had never really considered it as something that a punter such as myself would be able to climb.  Following some reading, and looking at photos, and studying Mark Twight's topo of the route (you just have to ignore the skull & crossbones', and the "psycho-death-mixed" annotations that litter the page) the climbing all seemed possible and the psyche/trepidation began to build.

An ascent of Deprivation was what we decided to aim for, given the gift of good weather, conditions and ability.  I was pleasantly surprised at how willing organisations were to support such a small British expedition, especially considering it was essentially (as all climbing trips are) a holiday.  I think I speak for both Will and I when I say we really appreciate the assistance from The BMC, The Alpine Club, Bigstone UK/Arc'teryx and Bloc.  There are links to their webpages to the right of the page. [edit: I forgot to mention Crag X, who can can be found at or at 'The Foundry' climbing wall.]

Will plus a large load of gear in front of our Sea Otter

Looking out over big snowy peaks on the flight into the glacier

And We're Off

We left the UK on the 18th May, and after a day of food and gear shopping in Anchorage we headed up to the little village of Talkeetna where 7 climbers (and all their gear) were shoe-horned into a DeHallivand Sea Otter for the short 40 minute flight onto the glacier.   The flight was great fun, and puts not only the size of the mountains, but also the skill of the specialised 'bush pilots' into perspective as they weave through the peaks before daintily landing a fully laden plane onto a makeshift runway on the glacier.  Once on the glacier we set up camp a little up the hill from the airstrip in the vicinity of a few other climbing teams, leaving the pitches next to the runway for the Denali climbers.  The North Buttress of Mount Hunter seems to loom over the base camp despite the base being an hours ski away - an indication of its size - and I admit to feeling somewhat apprehensive when I worked out that I hadn't swung an ice axe in anger since I climbed the Droites with Will in 2011.  Nothing like some huge Alaskan faces to get back into the groove...  We found an abandoned campsite which we easily parasitised, meaning we didn't have to dig our own walls, toilet area or kitchen - and we were set.

Where we called home for the next fortnight

Our kitchen at 'Kahiltna International Airport'

Mt Frances - SW Ridge

On our first day on the glacier we skinned up underneath the North Buttress and the Mini-Moonflower to have a look at conditions and to gague the sheer size of the faces.  The following day we made an early start from BC to climb the SW Ridge of Mt Frances - the small but aesthetic peak (at ~3000m) that lies just north of the camp.  The ridge still contains 1000m of vertical height gain, with a series of rock towers up to 5.8/HS linked by curving snow aretes.  The ridge provided a fantastic alpine day out, somewhere in the region of TD- and would no doubt be one of the most climbed routes in the area if it happened to be located in the Chamonix valley.  We took 8 hours from the glacier to the summit (guidebook time is 8-16h) which we were fairly pleased with considering that we were ploughing a trail through deep, crusty snow for most of its length.  Despite the cloud building through the day it was broken enough on the summit for us to see the descent ridge (the East Ridge) so we hurridly carried on down whilst we could still see the way, making it back to the tents 12 hours after leaving them.

Will on one of the rock towers on Mt Frances (about 5.8 or HS)
Will on the summit ridge of Mt Frances

Bacon & Eggs - Mini-Mini-Moonflower

Following a rest day which, like most of our rest days, involved a breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup (probably the most inspired of our provision purchases) the weather was still stellar so we packed our gear for another warm-up day route.  A bit of ice-climbing practice was the goal, so we made a leisurely start (7:30) and skinned up to Bacon & Eggs - a soaring ice couloir just up the glacier from the Moonflower which had been reported to be in great condition.  We climbed cautiously up a couple of pitches of hard, brittle icefield just above the bergshrund, and were rewarded above with a fantastic series of ice-runnels flowing through imposing granite spires.  A short vertical ice step led us to a huge groove of beautiful ice at 75-80 degrees.  The ice finally ran out after about 7 pitches of climbing when we reached a snowfield maybe 2 ropelengths from the summit cornices.  Happy with what we'd done, we descended from here down an in-situ set of v-threads and were back in camp by late afternoon.  The gully was reminiscent of, and at least as high a quality as the classic ice-gullies on the East face of Mt Blanc du Tacul.  Bacon & Eggs seems to be considered WI4 or 4+ which would seem about fair.

Will climbing the entry steps into Bacon & Eggs

A fantastic ice groove on Bacon & Eggs, Mini-Mini-Moonflower
Will on perfect ice, high on Bacon & Eggs

Getting Ready

The weather was still perfect 5 days after landing on the glacier and we were running out of excuses to not get on something a bit bigger.  Unfortunately the crux pitch of Deprivation, usually a steep pitch of fairly unprotectable snow-ice I believe, had fallen down a week or so before - a risk we took I suppose with being out relatively late in the season.  A fairly strong American team who we were camped next to had previously been up the lower slopes to recce Deprivation, and then made an attempt a day later but were eventually turned back by the 'missing' crux pitch through the first rock band.  They had now turned their attention to the classic Bibler-Klewin or 'Moonflower' route on the North Buttress - the established hard test-piece on the buttress which saw numerous attempts and several successes during our time on the glacier.  We were both keen to try and get on Deprivation as it was the route we'd both been reading about for months, so with this in mind we planned to climb the 'Moonflower' (Bibler-Klewin) as far as the first iceband where we could then traverse across to join Deprivation, hopefully climbing this to the third iceband where we could access the Bibler Come Again finish (this is not the original finish to Deprivation, but it is probably a more logical finish from where Deprivation joins the third iceband and seems to be the most popular way to climb the route in recent years). 

North Buttress: the red line is Deprivation via the route we climbed.  The black line is the Bibler-Klewin ('Moonflower') route, with the variation 'Mugs Start' (which we were trying to find) in blue.  The dashed purple line is the original finish to Deprivation.

Will skinning in to the base of Deprivation

To clarify, although the North Buttress on Hunter is often referred to as the Moonflower Buttress, 'Moonflower' normally means the classic North Buttress route, which was first climbed by Stump-Aubrey in 1981 to the top of the buttress, but is often called the 'Bibler-Klewin' as they were the first team to climb to the summit (in 1983), and their variation on the route is the one which is usually followed (they climbed a slightly different start, and the 'Bibler Come Again' exit in the fourth rockband).

Deprivation - North Buttress, Mount Hunter

We packed as light as we dared and set off early on Sunday morning with food for 2 days and enough gas to melt snow for 3 days (at a push), and crossed the bergshrund at the toe of the buttress at around 5:30am.  The original plan was to climb the 'Mugs variation start' to the Moonflower (as this was the easiest start this year), and then follow the Moonflower to the first iceband.  As it was, we went wrong almost immediately and followed a vague set of tracks into the starting gullies on Deprivation.  Will led off on the first block of pitches and we climbed several hundred metres of brilliant ice runnels, moving together apart from the odd steeper pitch or 80 degree steps.  We were moving well until Will traversed left into the continuation of our route, entering what looked like a large chimney system just out of sight.  He disappeared round the corner before climbing back down out of it to belay on one of the walls.  When he brought me over to join him I immediately recognised the chimney system as being the crux of Deprivation - only the crux pitch was missing - which was exactly the dead-end we were trying to avoid climbing into.  

Moving together low on Deprivation.  Brilliant climbing through a series of icy runnels
Will climbing an ice step low on Deprivation

There was surprisingly little discussion about what to do next, Will handed me the rack with a cheery "your lead",  I left my sack at the belay and set off.  There was a steep ice chimney visible about 40m above, but the ice smear we were on terminated in a series of gently overhanging granite walls which I clearly wasn't going to be able to ascend.  There was a thin crack over on the left wall though, so I placed a screw at the top of the ice and traversed left into the crack - at its top there was a roof and then a steep groove which looked like it might contain ice in the back.  A mix of aid and 'french-free' allowed me to slowly make progress up the crack to reach the roof, but the groove above was steep, smooth and full of soft snow.  I carried on up the groove, but I was in full-on aid mode by now.  With no seam in the back of the groove for good gear, I was aiding for placement after placement on a sling round the tip of my axe picks, with a hammered wire and a tied-off blade being the only reasonable gear I can remember in the groove.  I managed to get stood on a small block at the top of the groove and stood there, scared, with the good ice visible only about 6m above me.  Back into free-climbing mode I somehow made it to the ice above, but not until I'd done some of most terrifying 'frontpoints-on-matchstick-edges-and-crimping-like-a-demon-on-verglassed-seams' climbing I've ever experienced.  Suffice to say that my first belay screw was placed in double-quick time.  As we didn't have ascenders Will then seconded the pitch as best he could, wearing his sack and hauling mine up alongside him which took a huge amount of energy.  Following that I led the short vertical ice chimney above, and then Will led a long hard pitch of sustained poor ice to an overhanging chimney exit which thankfully deposited us on the first icefield at 5pm.  Tired but full of confidence - having climbed the technical crux of the route - we kicked a ledge and sat down for a couple of hours to melt snow and eat a dehydrated meal.

Will following the 'missing' crux pitch on Deprivation; in the steep groove which finished in hard free climbing over to the left of the photo.
Will about to enter the overhanging chimney on the last pitch before the first iceband

We left the ledge at 7pm climbing up and left across the first icefield towards the large ramp system that splits the second rock band, stopping only briefly at 8pm to pick up the weather forecast on our radio - "high pressure persisting".  Unfortunately despite what the forecast may say, the 'big three' mountains in the Alaska Range (Denali, Foraker, Hunter) are all capable of creating their own weather and that night it was the turn of Mt Hunter.  The cloud rolled in, the visibility dropped and it was snowing quite hard as we made progress up the ice ramps above - with retrospect the arrival of this wet snow probably signified the rise in temperatures that started to strip all the lower elevation ice routes over the next 24-48 hours.  Then the spindrift started.  If you listened carefully you might get a couple of seconds warning, as the eerie silence was broken by a faint whooshing sound before the barrage of snow arrived, trying it's hardest to fill your jacket, and gloves, and sack with soggy cold.  I'd got quite wet clearing snow leading the crux pitch and was suffering from the cold through the night as the wet spindrift turned the down in my belay jacket to mush and sapped the heat from me on the belays.

We kept climbing through the night to keep warm, making progress up through the second ice band and onto the rightwards traverse that gains the long diagonal snowfield in the third rockband.  I think we may have gone the wrong way here, taking the hastily drawn line on one of the topos a little too literally and ending up on a narrowing snowfield that stopped just short of connecting to the big snowfield we needed to be on.  An overhanging rock section barred the way to the snowfield which was only about 10m away, yet was out of reach.  The only way to access it was for me to squirm through a flared and snow-filled stomach traverse, aiding on ice screws placed in a detached ice block in the back of the cave.  On the other side a bit of scratching on snow-covered rock gained the snowfield, and Will seconded (carrying both packs again) with the help of a backrope on the other side of the cave.  The pitch had taken me a long time and it was now Will's turn to get rather cold - we were both struggling in the wet and constant spindrift avalanches pouring over us.

Sitting down on the first iceband melting snow

We knew there was a chopped bivi ledge on the third iceband which we were aiming for but we were both shattered from over 24 hours on the go - climbing much slower than we usually would and pitching ground we would normally move together on with ease.  Eventually the snow stopped, and we reached the bivi ledge on the third iceband at about 10:30am.  Here we stopped for some food, melted some snow and slept for a couple of hours until the sun came onto the face.  In the afternoon we ate, drank and soaked up the suns warmth until we felt a bit more energetic.

Leaving the ledge at about 5:30pm we moved together up the icefield for several ropelengths.  As for all of the icebands on the route it consisted of hard ice covered by a layer of snow which made for awkward and quite time consuming climbing.  Once into the fourth rockband we climbed the Bibler Come Again exit, where Will led a long pitch of fantastic icy steps and runnels, and then me leading the final 'overhanging offwidth' pitch which is supposed to be M5 but felt reasonably steady.  From here about 4 pitches easy snow/ice slopes lead to the top of the buttress but we were more than happy to descend after the night of spindrift hell which we'd just endured.  With retrospect, it would probably have been easier for us to climb up to the bivi at the top, and get a descent nights sleep before descending the next day but we were both quite keen to get back to our tent!

Will following a traverse on at the top of the second iceband, looking for the linking pitches onto the upper ramps.

Brewing up and catching some sleep at the bivi ledge on the third iceband

The descent

The descent was more of an epic that the climb in many ways.  We decided to descend the Bibler-Klewin rather than Deprivation, as the former is a more direct route and was already equipped with v-threads from previous descents.  We good off to a good start when the pulled ropes jammed round a flake on the first abseil, "If you go and sort this one I'll get the next one" said Will, something he'd later regret saying.  I re-led the bottom of the pitch to free the ropes, climbing back down to the belay.  From there the descent went quite well until we were descending 'The Shaft' pitches in the second rockband where the ropes were getting wet and then freezing; the ropes were freezing like cables, belay devices and 'biners were icing up and our gloves were frozen into useless claws.  Eventually the ropes jammed solid, they had frozen into the ice in the time it took us to abseil, so Will valiantly prussicked a full 60m up a single 8mm iceline to free them.  Fortunately I had a ropeman on my harness which Will used to jug up - prussic loops were next to useless on the iced ropes so without it we would have been stuck there unable to ascend the rope.  I think one of those will become a permanent feature on my alpine/winter rack.

Will on the icy grooves on the Bibler Come Again, fourth rockband

After Will had spent a couple of hours re-ascending and re-rigging the abseils we carried on descending off the in situ v-threads down the Moonflower.  We were both struck by how good the climbing looked; pitch after pitch of brilliant sustained ice climbing.  I can see why the Bibler-Klewin 'Moonflower' is an absolute classic and whilst perhaps not as difficult as the crux on Deprivation it looks like a more complete and sustained route - definitely something I'd be keen to return for.

At the top of the difficulties, having just climbed the M5 offwidth pitch

Our final stroke of bad luck came after abseiling down a rock wall to an in situ ab station about 50m above the bergshrund.  We pulled the ropes, and had the knot in our hands when the rope above flicked through the last anchor and wrapped itself round a flake, jammed solid.  The pitch we'd just abseiled was near vertical rock wall with few gear placements so climbing or prussicking the pitch wasn't really an option.  We pretty quickly decided to ditch the rope, untying the stuck one and carrying on down using a single rope for a 30m abseil.  This reached a short snow slope just above the bergshrund at about 7am, but there were no obvious anchors or ice anywhere so we built a large snow-bollard.  Will went first and the bollard held up well until he started the free-hanging section over the bergshrund when, suddenly, the rope shot through the bollard and was gone.  I didn't even have time to yell a warning as Will fell over the 'shrund and bounced all the way down the icy slope below onto the glacier, eventually rolling to a halt in a horrible tangle of rope and gear.  

He lay motionless for a couple of seconds as I started trying to figure out how on earth I was going to get down to him (with no rope), but then he picked himself up and dusted himself down.  He was pretty beaten up, and had some nasty scratches on his hand where he lost a mitt, but was fortunately essentially unscathed.  He then climbed back up the snow slope to below the bergshrund and threw me up an end of the rope - I'd managed to pound a peg in behind a rock flake which I cautiously abseiled off to cross the 'shrund.

It was about 7:30am when we reached the skis again, wearily packed the rope up and headed back to our tent so we were about 50 hours round trip from the base of the route.  The next couple of days were spent recuperating: eating, drinking and sleeping in the sun.   The American team who were thwarted by Deprivation had started up the Bibler-Klewin the evening before us, but had retreated during the second night due to the snowfall and huge spindrift avalanches which were also hammering us (although the Bibler-Klewin is a more natural funnel so I suspect there was a lot more stuff falling down it than Deprivation).

The next few days continued to be unseasonably warm.  No other teams tried to climb the North Buttress and the ice runnels were shrinking daily on the routes in the Kahiltna area. We attempted to go and rescue our stuck rope a few days later but the snow wasn't freezing overnight and the bergshrund was pouring with water at 7am in the morning so we decided it wasn't worth the risk on a big thawing face.  We flew back out to Talkeetna the next day for a slap-up feed and some beer-fuelled celebrations in the local bar with a couple of Swedes who'd just come back from a successful ascent of the Cassin Ridge.

Me underneath the North Buttress


After returning to Anchorage we had a touristy few days.  We hired a car, spent a couple of days rock climbing at a really good steep granite sport crag about 90 miles from Anchorage, went and saw bear, carribou and moose in Denali National Park and then had a final lazy morning sampling the Anchorage local cragging (which was pretty disappointing compared to the granite crag - think bolted chossy road cuttings).  We flew out of Anchorage about three weeks after we flew in (having moved our flights forward so we could spend a bit of holiday back home) having spent only 11 days in total on the glacier, but it was still a fantastic trip and we were more than happy with our tick!

As well as the ones here I've put some more photos on facebook which can be viewed here.

1 comment:

  1. Great report Ali, scary times with the snow bollard! Glad all went well and you're home safely.