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.