Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pushing my comfort zone in pursuit of... a prissy White Princess

To clarify: White Princess is the second highest peak in the Delta Range, a sub-range of the Alaska Range. My friend Eric suggested climbing it together. We were both in Fairbanks for a few weeks and had vague hopes of climbing something big and remote. I mean we were in Alaska so we should do something, right?

We ended up choosing between the Mt. Prindle Wall, a ~1,000 ft granite wall in the interior, and White Princess, a heavily glaciated "walk-up." A route on the Prindle Wall, with notoriously bad weather and a 10 mile approach, seemed like a stretch with the limited climbing gear we had packed and borrowed (can anyone say dirty A2 on a single rack?). We picked the Delta Range and White Princess because it seemed more unique to Alaska. But we also believed it to be relatively easy with a straight forward approach from the road, something truly rare in Alaska.

Local climbing guides for the Interior, mostly out of print and don't expect much detail.
On Tuesday, after sleeping in, we drove east to Delta Junction and then south towards the Alaska Range. We got a last minute calorie boost from leftover pesto-sausage pasta, and a stop at the Buffalo Drive In in Delta Junction for milkshakes. On the way out of town we picked up two hitchhikers from Belgium of all places. They were going to the Wrangells to go backpacking and we could barely fit all our gear and four people in the car.

As we drove south the peaks were hidden in dark clouds. We drove up the river valley between the Delta Range and the Hayes Range and it started to spit rain. We pulled over on a gravel shoulder next to the Castner River. The Belgians got out and made some halfhearted attempts to flag down a ride while we threw the final items into our packs and changed into warmer clothes. We then said farewell and started up the overgrown gravel road towards the Castner Glacier, less than a mile away.

There are amazing mountains out there... somewhere.
Some scree sliding got us on to the ice bridge that connected the glacier to the hillside. I was surprised to find tree saplings, small bushes, and mats of moss and lichen growing on top of it. I never thought I would be bush whacking on a scree field that was on top of a glacier. A glacier-top lake had recently broken through the medial moraine, which led to some confusion. We ended up on a lateral moraine that dead ended and had to navigate some extra scree. It started to rain in on-and-off cycles that got continually worse. The wind picked up and started to blow it in sideways. Despite all this we managed to establish a rhythm in the difficult terrain and finally made it to the junction (7.5 miles in a straight line from the car). Here the Castner splits into three feeder glaciers and the ice is finally exposed.

This looks more like jungle travel but it's part of the moraine on the Castner Glacier.
Looks like there is some sun down there somewhere but mostly just rain.

We put on crampons and headed up the M'ladies Branch to the south (the Delta Range has such great names!). We made good time on the exposed and unbroken ice but the rain and wind started to pick up a lot. We covered the 3 miles to the base of the West Ridge for White Princess fairly quickly and hurriedly set up our tent on some relatively flat snow next to a boulder. Once inside we warmed up fast and ate a dinner of instant mashed potatoes, dehydrated re-fried beans, and pepperoni. We looked out at the steep mountains shrouded in cloud and took note of fresh snow on the rock faces not far above us.

Eric heads up the M'ladies Branch in glorious summer weather.
Goofing off in the tent while we make a futile attempt to dry our things.

Given the bad weather we decided to sleep a little longer, waking up at 4:30 and leaving camp at 5:45 in low visibility cloud cover. We crossed lateral moraines and crevasses to a scree gully going up the West Ridge. The small guidebook for the Delta Range has a single paragraph on the route and it starts with the instruction, "route find to the point marked 6500 ft," referring to the USGS topo since the guide itself has no topos. We moved up steep talus and scree topped with a half inch of fresh snow. This eventually got us to the "point." In  front of us was a large snow covered glacier in a cirque. We traversed more scree to the head of the cirque and broke out the stove to brew up some water. We then realized we had forgotten all matches in the tent. We were just over 6500' on a 9800' mountain and only had a half a liter of water. Going back wasn't an option so we decided to put some snow in our water bottle and keep it right next to our back in the pack. Hopefully our body heat would melt enough snow to keep us going.

Great visibility early in the morning while trying to find "point 6500."

Snow on scree, but at least the visibility is improving.

We moved out onto the glacier following a snow ridge that appeared to be the downhill side of a mellow bergschrund. We had decided to attempt White Princess with some pieces of static cord totaling 60 feet and gear sling harnesses. We were going extremely light, assuming that no real technical difficulties would be encountered. Luckily we encountered no hidden crevasses and made it across. Here we heard the gurgle of water and spotted a rivulet running over a cliff face. It was searingly cold but we drank as much as possible and filled our two bottles. No longer worried about dehydration, we started up the 40-45 degree snow and ice field above us. Conditions were variable; 2-12 inches of wet, fresh snow, on top of what varied between more wet snow and ice. After 1500 vertical feet we reached a ridge line and began climbing more scree and talus covered in a thin layer of wet snow.

Looking back down on the cirque from a ledge halfway up the snow field.

Looking across at M'ladies Mountain (8,880ft, pretty similar to our highpoint) during a short weather break.

The exposure had grown a lot and Eric voiced concern about the dangers. I felt that despite the bad footing, the slope was still low enough angle to not concern me. We continued and the ridge leveled off for a bit. Then I came around a corner and realized that we might be at the end of the line. Thick clouds prevented us from seeing everything but it appeared to be a short 50 degree talus traverse over a cliff line that probably dropped 2-3 thousand feet to the heavily crevassed glacier below. This traverse led to a knife edge ridge that would have to be ridden horsey style to reach a barely distinguishable tower of rubble higher up. Not one to turn back without investigating all options I started the talus traverse. Eric came around the corner in time to see what he described as me perched on a loose "70 degree" slope over "nothing." As I moved a basketball sized rock dislodged, I calmly moved to the side and let it pass by. Eric saw it silently fly off into the mist and disappear. At this point I was done with the traverse and could straddle the knife edge ridge. I felt that the traverse had been quite easy and within my control. Eric, however, had seen something else and felt that he needed to draw the line.

Eric high on the ridge, the cirque is visible below.

Honestly, at this point I felt like I was drawing on a lot of experiences from this winter to keep my fear of the unknown in check. I had never been on a climb this big, this exposed, or this remote, and the weather was not ideal. However, I felt that nothing up to this point was difficult and could all be reversed easily and safely, although perhaps not quickly. The climb had certainly reached a new level of difficulty but I still felt that I could negotiate the terrain safely. Regardless of that, I felt like splitting up was not an option in this remote setting, so we turned back.

Looking back down the ridge from our highpoint... fantastic views!

We immediately felt more comfortable. The sun came out, although the summit remained in cloud. The descent was fast and we began to consider hiking out that day. Eric seemed more disappointed with our failure to summit than I did. We talked at length about climbing experience and perception of danger. What made me feel totally safe and in control while Eric felt scared and exposed? I feel that it all comes down to experience. If Eric had not been with me on the Castner Glacier I would have been scared and may never have reached the base of the mountain. I had very little glacier travel experience and Eric had very little experience on exposed mountain ridges. Despite our failure I felt that I had gained a huge amount of confidence on this trip and was already excited about winter climbs in the Cascades that suddenly seemed much more doable.

Looking back up the snow field from the cirque after descending.

As if to confirm our decision, White Princess broke out of cloud for a moment revealing massive cornices on most of the ridge line between our high point and the summit. Seeing that I felt we could not have made the summit without putting ourselves in an absurdly risky situation. Especially given the fresh snow, rain, and warm air that had already set off several serac and cornice failures across the valley, accompanied with deep rumblings.

We finally get a look at the summit--our high point is hidden behind the knoll on the right.

Back at our tent by 3:00 pm, we packed up and started down glacier. The clouds moved back in and rain started spitting again (a theme for this trip). We didn't care and felt surprisingly energized. We moved fast and found an alternate route through the broken moraine on the lower Castner, although by now my feet were starting to hate the plastic double boots I had rented. Finally off the glacier, we switched to sneakers and hiked through the riverside brush until Eric yelled, "they've found us!" He was referring to the unofficial Alaska state bird: the mosquito. We broke into a run, jumping through bushes and over glacial boulders. We arrived back at the car with a cloud of mosquitoes in tow and jumped in. Seconds later we were roaring north toward Delta Junction with the windows down to flush the bugs. We arrived in Fairbanks after midnight, ate, showered and slept like the dead.

White Princess emerges from the clouds (back right), teasing us for a few more seconds before we get to the car.