Climbing the “Cassin” on Denali – a solitary journeyThursday 8 July, 2010
It’s been snowing for days and I am going bonkers at the Ski Hill (NE Fork) camp (cca 2400 m alt.). Tent bound since the 13th of June I start doubting I’d be able to get on the “Cassin” on this trip and I’m getting sure my acclimatization is wearing out by the hour now… I’ve listened my music, I’ve read my books, I’ve weighted my options all the while the snow was incessantly falling…
Then it’s 20th morning and the sun is shining and the skies are clear. Mark, back at KIA, mentioned something about a break in the weather for the weekend and I guess this must be it. I am weighting my options: go light – no tent, no sleeping bag just the stove, my Sirius down jacket and compressor pants and some bars and gels. Or plan for a three days ascent and go heavy: tent, sleeping bag, food, haul line in case I need to pull my bag, some cams and screws in case I need an anchor… It’s all about weight and weighting my options.
I’ve never done the route and weather proved to change swiftly. I may have lost my acclimatisation while doing book-worm work in my tent for the last seven days. Caution takes over the judgment steering and I opt for the heavy option; and heavy it is. A Firstlight tent, the super-cosy Valandre Odin sleeping bag, the Valandre Sirius Jacket, compressor pants, jetboil, one gas canister, one nalgene bottle, three muesli breakfasts and three servings of freeze-dried food for dinners and a handful of bars and gels. A 50m ice line, four cams, four ice screws and four titanium pins, a few biners and slings, two ice tools and spare blade, crampons, two Kong ducks, MP3 player, camera, sat-phone, topo, and a million of bits and odds one manages to allow to creep in when packing a backpack. The relentless snow meant a deep approach so add to the collection two ski poles and two rental snow-shoes that would go up the route as well. The decision weighted heavily on my soul and the backpack on my shoulders.
Afternoon comes I set off together with Teo and Marius who were headed for the West Rib. I’m hitching a partial ride through the Valley of Death and I’m glad to be doing so. Crevasses aren’t a few and the avalanches pour down on both sides of the valley, sweeping our tracks mockingly. After the ice fall Teo and Marius decide to camp and I carry on alone. I travel convoluted ways combining instinct and imagination and ultimately punch through a snow bridge and raise m heart rate in the process. I extract myself, ‘dust off’ and carry on. It’s a déjà vu. I’ve spent the springs and summers of 2003 and 2004 soloing on the Tacul while staying at the Torino hut and crossing the glacier alone, punching through in a game of nerve wreaking Russian roulette. Just as acclimatisation, the ‘getting used to’ factor tends to wear in time though….
I am nearing the bergshrund and I see a coloured spot on the snow. I move towards it and suddenly realise it might be the body of the fallen Belgian climber Joris Van Reeth. Not a sight I wanted before my climb but it is too late. I am right in front of it. It is a VauDe backpack, face up, half buried in the snow. I sigh of relief then figure out that the body of the unlucky suitor to the ‘Cassin’ might be buried below. I shake away the dark thoughts and hurry to the bergshrund.
Below the ‘Japanese Couloir’ I stop and brew. Since I’m carrying bivy gear and I have no plans to challenge any speed records I’m trying to be consistent to my ‘safe is on’ approach and I decide to climb the major ice and snow sections at night and the rock during the day. My reasoning is that most likely the ‘Japanese Couloir’ would get some ice and rock-fall during the day and after the last week’s snow dump and high temperatures slush is not what I want to be soloing.
It’s 4 am on 21 June 2010. I set off for the route. I burry my tools into the deep snow over the lip of the ‘shrund and try to pull over. The lower part crumbles under my feet. I still cling on. Then I hear a thud and I know. I am too heavy. Both lips of the ‘shrud crumble at the same time and I dive below. Size helps and with arms stretched I wedge in not too far. I clamber back out and reassess the strategy.
I dig a ‘seat’ for the backpack, tie the rope to it, gingerly cross, lightweight, the ‘shrund and go all the 50m till the rope stretches. The ice is either very brittle or sugary. I don’t enjoy much the climb here, at least not as I hoped that the ice would be. I dig in to place a screw in healthy ice, set my Kong ducks and begin to haul. The backpack goes under the lip of the ‘shrund and remains, obstinately, stuck. I down-climb to it, hack with my ice axe, climb back up and resume the hauling. This time successfully.
Backpack on my back I continue up the couloir. After a while I come across an anchor (probably from here the Japanese lowered Sam Van Brempt, Jori’s partner). Half a rope length above there is blood and tattered rope. I don’t feel like climbing over it. I move upwards though then the proximity of the stains make me slow down. I down-climb. The topo mentions a 5.6 (IV+ UIAA) rock variation. Nevertheless I traverse too much to the left (probably) and I end up on significantly harder slabs. I circumvent the spooky spot, however, and end up on the ice. I finish the couloir digging through funny snow mushrooms on brittle ice. It’s 8 am and I am setting my tent on the ‘Cassin Ledge’. I’ll wait for the night to come to tackle the ‘Cowboy Arete’. It’s bee a long day anyhow so I brew, eat my muesli and chill wit music in my ears.
By 1 pm a helicopter circles around and I witness the attempts of the rescue team to recover Jori’s body. Then I notice two figures at the bottom of the ‘Japanese Couloir’. I will have company it seems.
At around 9 pm my company arrives. Two charming Canadian climbers, Nancy and Felix, set up their tent on the crammed ledge and we start chatting. Then I start packing.
1 am, 22 June. I set off. I am a bit worried about snow conditions on the next section. I climb enjoyable rock sections to the snow arête (‘Cowboy traverse). I find it inconsistent and I cannot make up my mind. Good ice alternates with deep snow and sugary ice. I cannot get used to it fast enough before it switches back and forth. I near the final portion of it and I see the cornices. I move leftwards, lower and continue, stubbornly. Then my leg punches through. It seems the cornice is bigger than I could see. I extract the offending limb and move even lower, on steeper ground. I exit on the glacier and I stop for a pictures, a drink and a few gels. I guess I reached the point of no return. I contemplate the beauty of the landscape and I feel truly happy.
I continue up the glacier and I find the next crux, and I find it disappointing… I was expecting something bigger but in a couple of moves I am over the 70 degrees section and back on the plodding routine. I continue upwards, then I disappoint another hidden crevasse. I reach the bergshrund below the ‘1st Rock Band’ at the same time with the sun. I stop to brew.
I wish… The stove won’t work. I shake it, I punch it I pray to it. To no avail. I find it ironic that it should le me down now, after what I considered to be the point of no return… There is no point in dwelling on it. Practical solutions are what is needed and the only practical solution is to dismantle the thing to bits and take it from there. Easy said than done though – never dismantled a Jetboil before and my degrees are in Philosophy, Anthropology and Classics – nothing more remote from engineering…
Simplicity, however, is on my side this time ad the thing is not too complicated; but it is definitely broken. The seal is busted and the small copper pin that punches into the canister is broken off. It falls out of the device into the soft snow and encourages me to dig and pan for it like a Klondike gold-miner. Found good time later it now remains to be fixed. Teeth, knife and V-thread tool accomplish a perfunctory but useable finished product and some threads form my quite expensive outfit come to replace the seal.
A couple of hours have passed and I am roasting on the glacier but I am happy to be able to brew again. I enjoy some more muesli and I doze in the unforgiving sun.
Finally I move over the ‘shrund and into the ‘1st Rock Band’. I pass the ‘M shaped rocks’ , the mixed sections and I am staring at a wall full of tat, trying to identify the ‘narrow gully’ to take me to the ridge crest. I chose the most leftwards one and I climb it to a small ridge. However the description in the topo and what I see don’t seem to match. I faff around then decide to abseil back and look for another gully. There is no other gully that looks closer to the description and I climb back up to the small ridge. Then I carry on right over mixed ground to steeper walls. Nothing really matches the topo or the description I have and I climb up and down some lines.
By now the clouds are moving in and looks like it’s going to snow. I’m wasting time and I’m beginning to get wasted. One more try, packless, yelds no success. The climbing is too difficult for the route to be here. I haul the bag around a corner and the corer bits the sheat of the 8.1mm. The core sticks out and I wonder what else can crown this wonderful day.
With the bad weather moving in I decide to look for a bivy spot and I can see none. I begin to abseil back towards the M-shaped rocks. Then I hear voices and I come across Nancy and Felix. They have another topo. I have a hard choice to make. I should go lower and bivy. I am tired. It’s getting iffy and the snow started to fall quite seriously.
On the other hand I am couple of pitches below the real bivy. Three minds are better for route finding and I don’t fancy going back to the ‘shrund. I decide to go up.
Felix leads the narrow gully to the small ridge. Nancy offers me one end of one of her two strands and I tie in. I climbed that pitch twice today. Speed is the key. O the small ridge we discuss options. Right is not one of them – I climbed it out already earlier. Maybe straight ahead? I untie and I set off with Felix close behind. Altimeter shows we are 100m below the bivy. He belays Nancy and we discuss again options when she reaches us. Then we set off again, this time in parallel. Felix is on my right, couple of meters distance. The terrain eases off and right ahead turns into a ridge. Altimeter show we’re 50 meters below the bivy ledge.
Then one of my tools pops off and I peel off with not so kind words coming out unwillingly. The backpack pulls me off, spins me around and I land on my back on a slope. I grab a boulder and I stop 4 or 5 meters below. The fall was no biggie but must have looked scary as hell. Felix is speechless. Nancy asks if I am ok. I stand up, dust off and wave OK. I am tired indeed. I resume climbing and reach Felix at the stance.
Its snowing heavily and the spindrift avalanches are burying us on regular intervals. He belays Nancy and we are waiting for the topo. With the ridge in front of us and the bivy 50m away seems like the reasonable direction. It’s getting cold and I am shivering. Felix the same. As Nancy arrives and we consult the topo Felix sets of. I am ready to follow a few meters behind on the 50 degree slope but he knocks down stuff like hell. I postpone. He leads off half a rope length and announces dead end. He down-climbs for a ways and moves slightly leftwards on easier ground. Nancy and I shiver at the stance and dig ourselves out from the spindrift avalanches. I am getting cramps in my right leg. The rope stretches and Felix stops. Neither of us feels like waiting and I wont solo with someone above knocking stuff on my head, nomatter how easy the ground is. I pick a strand of rope and follow few feet behind Nancy, the final 40-50 m slope to the bivy ledge above the ‘1st Rock Band’ (4785 m).
We settled in for the night and I was quite frustrated to notice that my futile attempts earlier that day were on the wall below the bivy ledge…. The stove working was a good surprise and food was a welcomed addition.
23 June. Lazy morning. Taking pictures. I decide to leave today after rather than before Nancy and Felix. The crux pitches are on rock so no need to hurry. Sun would do me good. The bad weather of yesterday is but a memory.
They set off around 11’ish am and I follow three or so hours later. Getting to the second rock band brings in uninteresting snow climbing but awesome exposure and vistas. Getting into the second rock band however changes things dramatically and I enjoy some of the nicest, fun-filled climbing I ever soloed on a big mountain.
The traverse below and upward from the triangular shaped roof is on nasty ice – as most of the ice I found on this route and it leads me to the most puzzling bit of climbing I did on this route. The topo mentions an obstinate, second, 5.6 (IV+ UIAA) slab next to a steep rock corner. I did found the steep rock corner and the tracks of Nancy and Felix leading to them. I did found, low in the corner, a stuck old, rigid stem Friend. However I did not found the easy slab… The corner offered finger sized parallel cracks for about 5 or so meters with a top-out on a deep snow, 50 or so angled slope. I tried to climb the section and found it to hard to pull on the whole 5 m on finger locks with the backpack on. I stretched a tool above and it sunk in powder snow with no purchase whatsoever. There was no ice left in the cracks below and my Spantiks did not fit in fist-sized cracks. Outstretched on a small foothold on my left foot and with the right bent behind me creating some sort of illusory opposition on the other wall of the corner I felt stuck. I down-climbed and thought. I could climb the thing without a pack on, no problem but if I cannot find an anchor above in the snow slope I’ll be in another tight spot trying to haul my bag. Frustration was swelling inside especially since the topo indicated this as the last technical rock climb of the route.
Suddenly I took a practical decision. I took of my backpack, pulled from the lid a .5 Camalot, threaded a 60cm dyneema sling through it, put the back pack on, put the cam in, climbed to my highest point, grabbed the sling on the cam at its end and pulling upwards, in opposition, I managed to suffle my feet higher, smearing the vertical wall with my cramponed Spantiks. I locked my fingers, pulled myself closer then grabbed a good hold and pulled myself up, letting the sling go. The cam and the sling remained behind orphaned and my soul heavy for having to aid what the topo suggested as a 5.6 slab and the route offered as a steep, finger-crack corner… Of course, there is always the possibility of being off route… I decided not to dwell on it to much, bid farewell to the cam and carried on on boring snow and ice slopes until I saw to my right the tracks of Nancy and Felix joining the tracks of Mark and Jesse, coming from the Slovak route, the day before.
With the night approaching I reached the bivy above the ‘3rd Rock Band’ at 5350 m alt. where Nancy and Felix were just getting cosy. I enjoyed a massive bowl of broccoli soup courtesy of my new friends and proceeded to set up my shelter. In no time, after dinner and brewing I was in the land of dreams.
24 June, around 9am. Morning came and with it a new decision-taking session. Nancy and Felix were breaking the camp and getting ready to leave for the summit. I, for one, enjoyed my solitude on the route as much as the social interludes at bivis with my new friends. I was, however, not in mood to ‘enjoy’ the hordes going down the West Buttress. With no muesli left I wrestled with a frozen bar and decided for a late start. Said goodbye the Nancy and Felix and put on the music.
At 4pm I finished packing my backpack and set off. The feeling for the day, with the hardest climbing as well as the most interesting climbing, behind me, was one of ‘endlessness.’ Everything seemed to last forever. The crest, the ridge, the ice slopes…. It went on, and on and on and on. It became boring. I was feeling fit and in top shape and looked like my acclimatisation held. Not even he slightest headache nor sign of fatigue, of course other than due to normal exertion. Mentally, however I was weakened by boredom… The amazing views of Alaska range helped restoring my upbeat.
At around 5800 m I stowed away my ice axes and pulled out the ski poles. When I turned around the last boulders and onto the final meters to Kahiltna Horn the wind hit me like a freight train and it pulled, out off my hand, one of my ski poles. I watched the poor walking aid taking a flight down the South face of Denali but I was too tired to feel sorry for littering…
At 11pm I was on the summit of Denali trying to stand upright and take photos of myself. It was cold, although my Valandre Sirius Jacket was keeping me warm and cosy, and the wind was one of the strongest I ever encountered. The view was amazing and the feeling was of awe and not a shred of solitude!
25th June, 2am I walked in ‘West Buttress High Camp’ (5330 m alt.). I looked for the cache I asked a friend to leave there for me but there was none. I set the tent, swallowed the last gel and brewed the last cup of water before my canister died. Then I went to bed. In the morning I packed up, drank some water from the rangers and headed down with the direction ‘NE Fork Camp’. Just before the fixed lines towards Basin Camp my right leg went deep through the snow crust and I fell flat on my face. My knee swell and took me ages to get down to ‘Basin Camp’. I looked for the second food/gas cache I asked the friend to leave there and this one wasn’t thee either…. In the end I got fed by a nice guide from AMS, Forrest and I continued my travel downhill. Unfortunately it was extremely slow. Walking downhill was unbearable so I walked backwards on each hill I had to descend. By the time I got to ‘Motorcycle Hill’ I was wasted and dried up. I set up the tent for the night. In the morning I resumed the funny walk – normal walk uphill or on flat terrain, backwards walk on downhill. Got to ‘NE Fork Camp’, packed my stuff, loaded the sled and carried on to ‘KIA Base Camp’, punching through each and every possible snow, sorry, slush bridge. I stopped caring 20 minutes out of ‘NE Fork Camp’. I arrived that night (26th) at KIA where I found Marius and Teo who got there a day before me, after having climbed the West Rib. Next day Lisa fed us real meat and potatoes and Mark and Ralph were the most charming company. We flew out a day later with plans for the Moonlight Buttress next spring…. 
 the climbing here is on a 45 at most 50 degree slope with mixed moves up to 5.4 (III UIAA). If roping up on this section disqualifies my climb as a solo then so be it. Nevertheless the rest of the 2450 m height difference (40 or so pitches) I climbed without the assistance of ropes (mine or other’s).
 this climb would not have been possible without the help of my sponsor, URSUS, my equipment sponsor, VALANDRE and the full support of my FAMILY! Thank you all!