Friday, June 15, 2012

Mt. Marcus Baker, Alaska

 Part Two
The Summit of Mt. Marcus Baker, 13,176 ft (4,016 m).
To read part one click  HERE

Mt. Marcus Baker, the highest mountain in the Chugach Range towers above the Gulf of Alaska.  The Chugach's are internationally recognized as some of the steepest and deepest skiing on earth.  The area is also known as one of the stormiest snowy places on earth and the 2011-2012 winter broke a record held since 1955. 

After hunkering down for our first 5 day storm we had a brief weather window in which I was able to get a lil bit of skiing in. I skied this mountain we dubbed Hershey Kiss, which actually was a 1,000 ft. run at around 45 degrees.  I located wind slab layer a couple inches down and intentionally set off a perfect wind slab that propagated all the way down the run.  Skiing it wasn’t the best snow but it was steep enough to be fun.

After that sucker hole of a nice day, we got slammed with another storm that ended up burying my MSR 4 season tent.  The tent held and my friend Gavin was able to dig me out in the mourning.  It was now May 8 and we had survived over 10 days of stormy weather. 

The Germans had to fly out and return to Germany on May 8.  The famous lousy weather of the Chugach had deflated us and I wondered if I should fly out with them.  In the end I decided to stay as I was the only photog and we thought we were going to get some much needed high pressure in the next few days. 

After a gorgeous day where the Germans flew out, we wanted to give the mountain another go.  This time we changed tactics and took overnight bags up the glacier in order to camp at the base of the route.  On the way up we got a report of new storm that was supposed to be a couple of days away.  However the next mourning visibility had reduced dramatically and we started to think we were going to be completely shut down.

We skinned up to the base of the route to retrieve a heavy gear cache that the Germans had left behind and waited a lil bit.  The weather only got worse and we finally decided that that we needed to descend before the full fury of the storm hit.

It was a good decision as a very big storm enveloped us as we descended.  Before we knew it visibility had been reduced to a couple of feet and the winds were howling.  We used GPS to find finally find the camp, cold, tired, and dehydrated.  Camp was in disarray and this storm was going to be big. 

The first night gust reached 80-90 mph and my friends Obi’s tent collapsed 3 times.  It was survival time and the camp was sinking.  As glacial drifts reached the height of our wall’s our camp started drowning and my tent was first in line.  The second day, snowdrifts became our enemy and I couldn’t shovel out fast enough to keep the drifts at bay.  I gave up and became a refugee in Obi’s tent.

Everybody went into hibernation mode and we hunkered down for the long scary wait. We were able to set up a cook station in Obi’s tent in order to keep fueled and hydrated.
There is nothing like spending day’s in a tent with intensely miserable experience’s like taking a shit in a blizzard or digging for hours only to see it fill in in minutes.

The weather was slowly beating us down, making us look like half crazed snowy zombies running around shoveling, cooking, and cursing our degrading situation.  Right when we were finally starting to loose it we got a report of impending high pressure.  If we could only hang on till May 14 we could get out of there.

When high pressure finally came life was better.  Although we were physically and mentally beaten down, we really hadn’t achieved anything substantial on the trip.  I felt like we had squandered our 2 small weather windows but we were still up here and had just enough food for one more attempt.

We rested a day and then decided to send it in one long day.  We originally wanted to send at 11:30 pm but it was sooo cold we put it off till ealier in the morning, in the hope that it would warm up quickly.  At 4:00 AM Obi and I were the first ones out of the tent and on our way up the 4-5 hour skin up the glacier.

I broke trail up glacier and it was going to be a perfect blue-bird day.  I could noticeable see that the glacier had changed shape since we first got there.  The snow was hard wind crust, which made perfect skinning conditions.  Cruising up alone I was struck with the immensity of the Knik glacier as my skis swished like a clock beneath my feet.  I looked at my watch and saw that I was making good time.

I reached the base of the headwall at around 8:30 AM and set up an timelapse to wait for the rest of the crew.  Obi was pretty close behind me but the Kiwi’s were pretty far behind.  When they reached us they mentioned that the right side looked a lil easier then the normal route on the left side of the of the headwall.

Although there was some definite unknowns, the route to the right did look easier to me.  Obi and I started up the route finding a huge Bergshrund that stopped us in our tracks.  It was massive overhanging blue ice monster with a dark cavern that beneath it.  We went right and followed it up to the ridge where we found a scary crossing that led to an even scarier knife edge ridge.  On the ridge we soloed another couple hundred meters before it got really steep with blue ice.

The kiwis followed us up to the ridge but decided that it did look really steep and Gavin had limited ice climbing equipment.  They decided to descend and try the left side of the headwall despite the fact that they had come up with the right side plan.  At that point we were wondering if they were right, as it was steep 60-degree ice with death exposure on our right.

Obi and I roped up and put in some equalized anchors with ice screws and started to pitch it out.  With ski mountaineering you mostly bring small ropes due to large packs and route selections where you aren’t going vertical till the descent.  We had only a 30-meter rescue rope and therefore it took some time to safely climb through the crux of the headwall.

I was still feeling very much in the zone and found the view simply amazing.  The south side of Mt. Marcus Baker drops 10,000 feet strait down to sea.  We could see College Fiord and some amazing Chugach spines far below us.  Time seemed to slow as we focused on the moment, the timeless space where you enter climbing bliss.

We climbed up and over the crux of the headwall and were ecstatic to see that the route was going to go.  We had a to navigate a couple of crevasses and then we could hit the football field and up to the summit pinnacle.

We wasted no time in getting up the football field, as I knew the climb was far from over.  Skiing up the football field the feeling that we were probably going to finally summit this thing hit me.  Obi and I took a small break and learned that the Kiwis were slowly making their way up the left side of the headwall.

We were just over 12,000 feet and we knew we had some distance to still go as we started up the final summit slopes.  There was quite a bit of blue ice at around 45 degree’s that slowed us down a bit.  We weren’t however over much exposure and we decided to solo climb up to the ridge that led to the summit. 

When we reached the ridge the angle eased off and we gave a big sigh of relief.  After 25 days on the Knik glacier we were moments away from standing on the summit of Mt. Marcus Baker.  Obi and I wanted to take our final upward steps together and we both summited at the same time. 

The feeling was unbelievable; At 6:00 PM on May 16, 2012, Obi and me finally succeeded in making it to the highest point in the Chugach at 13,176 feet.  The Chugach Mountains are the mountains that I grew up in and standing there I was filled with a immense happiness and a simmering sense of accomplishment.  We had done it!!

Out of our crew of eight we were the only people to make it to the top.  Without hardship success means less, and through suffering a brotherhood is born and eternal memories are created.  Mountaineers call this the “Brotherhood of the rope.”  For me it was that millisecond where everything in time and space makes sense, that moment where you bask in the glory of pure energy and happiness.

On the top of a summit, that pure moment is followed by a one of pure evil.  The safety net comes crashing down when a climber realizes that the journey is only halfway over.  The dangerous descent monster wakes as you realize that you have to get off this summit and down to safety.

The 45 degree blue ice and the fact that Obi wanted to speed fly off the summit intensified that feeling of dread.  At that altitude speed flying can be quite dangerous as the air is thinner and it takes longer to inflate the canopy.

Despite the danger Obi stepped up to the plate and strait lined it from the summit ridge which would become the first speed fly on Mt. Marcus Baker.  After what seemed like a scary eternity, he was able to sit back in his harness and fly away.

After watching Obi land safely, I had the pleasure of skiing down 45 degree blue ice.  As I scraped my way down the ice I prayed that my edges would hold and a ski wouldn’t pop off.  Luckily they held, and I was able to make it down to Obi on the Football field.  Now we only had to descend down the headwall to where we would be in relative safety.

The problem was that the headwall was really, really scary and filled with our nemesis more blue ice.  While we were skinning back up the Kiwi’s finally topped out on the top of the headwall.  At this point it was 7:30 PM and it was getting late.  The Kiwis finally decided to give up the summit and descend while there was still light.

One of the Kiwi’s, Rory thought he could ski the headwall without a rope.  I decided to take pictures of him with the hope that his descent would give me confidence to ski it.  Watching him scraped down the steep 60 degree blue ice and almost started sliding on it, I looked at Obi and said, “There is no way in hell I am skiing that without a rope.”

At this point we had two 30-meter ropes and we prepared to ski rappel down.  The sun was setting and colors popped out of the sky and the slope we were descending glowed a pink hue.  After 2 scary pitches we were in reach of better snow conditions and were able to ski down to safely. 

When we reached the base of the route it was dark and we were all starting to freeze.  We wasted no time getting back to camp in order to warm our frost-nipped digits.  Rory cooked up a tasty diner of Ravoli and we crashed hard at around 12:30 am. 

We had finally made it to the top of the Chugach and now we could go home not utterly defeated. The next day Obi called our pilot and he could come get us at 1:00 pm.  Problem was that we were nowhere near packed after the chaos of summit day.  Scrambling, we threw together our mass of gear that we used in our luxurious base camp.

  We packed fast as there was no way I was missing this flight out of here after almost a month on the glacier.  Before I could blink, we were airborne, flying over the heart of the Chugach Mountain range once again.

Which brings me back to the BearTooth restaurant, ordering a pint of beer and marveling at the modern conveniences of life.  Water without floaties in it, a sink with hot an cold water, and food that tastes soo good that it has descended strait down from heaven.  I look at the name of my beer, “The Fairweather IPA”, and I smile.  I am once again back in society drinking a beer, laughing about past times and dreaming of new grand adventures with good friends.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mt. Marcus Baker, Alaska

Part One

To read part two click HERE

I just returned from an 26-day ski mountaineering and kiting trip to the heart of the Chugach Mountains in Alaska.  Mt. Marcus Baker stands at 13,176 ft the highest point in one of the steepest mountain ranges on Earth.  I was invited on the trip by my good friend Obi as photographer to document the Ataraxia Canopy Expedition in association with Mammut’s 150 Peak project. The area is also known as the center for some of the worst weather on the planet.  We spent 3 weeks in massive storms that collapsed tents and buried our camp.

Massive storms that gather in the Western Pacific and Gulf of Alaska slam the Chugach Mountains every year and 2012 was a record year for snowfall in Alaska.  The timing of the trip couldn’t have been worse.  I had just returned from a 3-week ski film trip down to Valdez and Tailgate, AK. 

I couldn’t however turn down a trip to the highest point in the Chugach during a record setting year in Alaska. I had only 3 days of rest before I found myself flying in a Beaver to 7,400 feet on the Knik Glacier.  We set up camp for the first two days during good weather making sure we had high walls in case of a storm.

The Ataraxia crew consisted of Obadiah Jenkins a local skier, kiter, mountaineer, and 3 Germans, Philip Kuchelmeister, Sebastian Bubmann, and Nicolas Chibac that were also into canopy sports.  Also with the crew was some very capable Kiwi’s, Gavin Mulvay who is a kite master and Rory Camm a very talented backcountry skier.  Rory and a local Valdez shredder named Pete Lowery flew in a couple of days after we did and therefore missed our first attempt on the mountain.

The main mission of the trip was to snow-kite and climb up to the summit of Mt. Marcus Baker then speed fly and ski our way down the mountain.  However, due to a number of circumstances mostly horrible weather the trip would take over three weeks and most of our lofty goals would evaporate one by one.

Our first attempt on Baker was on April 26, and we tried to go fast and light in one fast push up to the summit.  The main problem with this approach is that we had a 4-5 hour skin before we reached the base of the route. 

Despite the long approach, were able to get about halfway up the headwall by around 3:00 PM.  Suddenly, I felt a very hollow sound with my ski pole, and my mountain sense went to code red.  It sounded a classic wind slab over steep ice.  I waited for my friend Obi and we found an unstable layer about 1.5 feet down.  We performed a quick compression test and found it to be a CT12 a typical class 3 wind slab avalanche.

It was approaching late in the day and the solar on the slopes was intense.  Following our instincts we decided to retreat.  It could have been a life saving decision, as we were able to spot huge fractures in the same area after the next storm.

Returning from camp our spirits were still high, we had given Baker a good run for our money and we had gotten close to finishing the climb.  Additionally, it was early in the trip and we thought we had plenty of time to summit this mountain.  What we failed to take into account was that we would get a series of storms that would shut us down for over 18 days.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Meribel, France

The crew Jo, Guillaume, & Anthony on the top of Aiguille De Péclet, 3,502 M

When I arrived in Meribel, France I knew it was a skiers dream.  I came to the French Alps on a photographic skiing mission and when I first saw the size Trois Vallées I was amazed. With 183 lifts and 600 kilometers of skiable terrain, It really was the mecca of all ski resorts.

I came to Meribel, to meet my good friend Jo Maubet who works as a professional ski instructor also know as the ESF (École Du Ski Français).  Jo lives in a chalet right under the gondola in Meribel which he shares with some other local shredders, Guillaume, Anthony, and Thomas.

The first two weeks were glorious as we received about a meter of powder snow.  Europe is having an awesome snow season this year and I was glad to catch in on it.  There is nothing quite like storm skiing in Europe as it never gets tracked out.  

I will let the pictures speak for themselves.  Here is my first photographic journey to the French Alp:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Valdez, Round 1

Our group out finding the goods near Nicks.

Snow is back on the menu in Valdez.   The La Nina winter in Alaska has been a crazy season of incremental weather.   Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska I know that La Nina winters are always unpredictable.  The snow conditions this year gave been less then ideal with high winds and a high-pressure system from hell sitting over Alaska for more then a month.

Heading up to Tailgate Alaska everybody was praying for snow.   I have been looking forward to skiing Valdez and camping out in Thompson pass all year.  The snow conditions in February and most of March was downright.  We stared at the snow forecasts for endless hours trying to see if this new low-pressure system was going to dump any snow. 

We loaded up the sleds and took off for Tailgate this last Friday to cloudy skies but no snow.   As we arrived, we could see the wind crusted slopes with the dust on crust.  The parking lot was less then half full but people were starting to dig in.

My friend Joe Shimek and I took the sleds up to Nicks to check out the Berlin Wall and Python.  The coverage was less then Ideal but it was good to recon the area.  We headed back to camp and started and continued to dig in.

Snow forecasts were being talked about around camp and that low-pressure system was about to finally hit the Thompson pass area.  We woke to snow on the tent! 

Hoots and hollers could be heard around camp as the snow continued to fall the entire day.  Every body started digging in.   Snow Kenzies and tents started popping out everywhere and spirits were high.

I had yet to get any ski runs in so we headed up to Bro Bowl to get a couple of snowmachine runs. The lighting was horrible but the snow conditions were improving drastically.   Although you could still feel the wind crust the snow was piling up and conditions were finally improving.

On March 28 the snow continues to fall.  Tailgate is in full swing and people are starting to show up after hearing that we are getting some snow.  Checking the weather forecast from the ABA parking lot you could see that the current low-pressure system is going to be sweeping up and hitting Valdez head on.  The snow temps are quite warm however and it will be interesting to see how the stability plays out.

If we get more then a foot or two it could produce some underlying layers to trigger into a avalanches.  We are digging and continue to wait this storm out.

2 days ago we went Ice climbing down in Keystone Caynon.  The Ice is in good condition and it was nice to get on some WI 4.
Am ABA guide, Dave shows us how it is done.

I decided I wanted to vertical with my Camera and shoot the ice climbers from above. I sat in my harness for about an hour snapping some really good shots.

Yesterday, was a big day for us.  We decided to try to ski Python.  My buddie Joe broke off a slab pretty high up and it was a bit scary.  Luckily we had our safe zones dialed and nobody got caught.
Me up on the top of Python getting ready to drop in.

The entire day is worthy of another blog post coming soon.  Till then enjoy this picture of it.



Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Na Pali

Na Pali Backpacking, Kauai, HI 

The Start of the Kalalau Trail
 The first thing you see as you start hiking into the Kalalau trail is 3 signs that simply state, be warned, you may meet a untimely death in a multitude of different ways.  Judging by the massive swell that closed Kēʻē Beach, I knew they weren’t joking.  This was the start of a storm that produced a 20 foot swell that hit the North Shore of Oahu almost causing the “Eddie Aikau”, the big wave contest to go.

Hanakapi'ai Beach is gorgeous and deadly

The first rest stop that you reach on the Kalalau trail is Hanakapi'ai Valley, a notorious deadly place due to its rip currents and the heavy traffic from uneducated tourists.   The group took a small break to watch the surf and enjoy a few snacks.  Because time was limited we had to continue to the first campsite at Hanakoa valley. 
Our campsite the first night was in Hanakoa Valley.

Greg Stafford a small speck upon the Sea Cliffs of the Na Pali

The next morning we headed out to one of the most paradisiacal beaches on Earth, the Kalalau Beach.  Right off the bat the trail got very exposed and a bit scary as it traversed a right through the middle of a 800 foot sea cliff. My good friends Alex and Julia who were out on their first real backpacking experience were a bit nervous about the crossing and subsequent exposure.  When it rains here it comes down in buckets and I could see how this part of the trail could be very dangerous. In about 2 hours we popped out on this ridge and before us lay the open expanses of the Kalalau valley.  It left my jaw and shutter open as I reveled in the beauty of the valley.  
Backpacking into the Kalalau Valley.
The next day we were in for a 11 mile march, up and down a series of 9 times. The trip back was long and hard, but is always fulfilling as your body is cleansed by sweat and effort.  You always have to push yourself a little to become stronger.  Coming up on the final 2 miles our bodies ached and we were ready for the end to come. The final stretch of backpacking out to the trailhead is always filled with aches and pains.  This is usually the most unpleasant part of the trip.  In hind sight however it is always the part that you remember most.
The backpacking group.  Left to right: Julia, Alex, Greg, Laura, & Brian.

Backpacking the Na Pali is an unforgettable experience and truly is one of the worlds most scenic backpacking destinations.  

Check out our Spot GPS track of our trip with pictures below:

Share your Adventures with SpotAdventures

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Hawaiian Odyssey

In the last two months I found myself skiing deep Cascade powder pillows and traveling to 2 different Hawaiian Islands.  I saw some incredible sights such as the Na Pali coast from the land, air, and sea.  I got the longest ride of my life on a long board, and felt the tremendous power of the ocean.  Although I took many pictures, it was more then a photography trip as I discovered my love and respect for the Hawaiian Islands.

Born and raised in Alaska, I have always had an unspoken connection with Hawaii.  My dad was actually born in Honolulu during World War Two.  After visiting Oahu and Maui in December 2009, I knew that I would be coming back to Hawaii.  So after a month of backcountry skiing in Central Oregon, I flew over to the Oahu to stay with my old Ashland roommates and great friends Alex &  Julia.  Every day we would head down to the beach for some bodyboarding or surfing followed by great food and one of the best deserts in the world, mochi ice cream.

One of our favorite beaches was Makapu'u, one of the best bodyboarding places in Oahu.  After getting slammed countless times I started progressing and found myself in the green room a couple amazing rides. Another highlight was taking the long boards out for some great rides on the South Shore of Oahu.

Floating on top of a wave is one of the most surreal experiences, one that I will never forget.  Surfing has become injected into my blood and I know that it is a sport that I will continue to love as I grow older.  The Ocean is alive and is in many ways connected to the mountains.

Probable the highlight of the trip consisted of traveling to Kauai for the first time.  I can't even to begin to describe how much fun this trip was because I was joined by some amazing friends.  One of my old mountain biking buddies, Brian and his girlfriend Laura flew over to visit us and we all wanted to go over and backpack the Na Pali coast.

Backpacking the Na Pali Coast was definitly a highlight in my life and I don't think that we could have a better trip.  We got three days of amazing weather and we stayed in one of the most amazing spots on this Earth, The Kalaulau Valley!!!!

Seeing the green spiny sea cliffs rise thousands of feet from Kalaulau beach is something that I will never forget.  The last day we decided to march all the way out, 11 miles of continuous ups and downs.  Although the backpack was a little heavy with photo gear the exercise felt awesome.

After the backpacking trip I decided to spend some more time on Kauai with my buddie Jake Barefoot.  I went on some amazing tours including an Open Door Helio and Sunset Cruise of the Na Pali coast.

The rest of the trip was filled with surfing, eating, and a bit of partying to top it all off.  It was great trip and I will be putting together a photo essay and story of the Na Pali coast in the next couple of months.

Till next time, Keep Exploring!