A Spring Adventure
From the Stuckagain Heights trailhead at 5:00 a.m. with a temperature of 18° F, Todd Kasteler and I began yet another epic adventure. Our goal: The Ridge of Suffering. If the name correctly foreshadowed what would lie ahead, we would indeed have our work cut out. Included in our quest were three mountain peaks over 5,000’: West Tanaina Peak, East Tanaina Peak, and Tikishla Peak. According to the topographic map, this adventure would consist of close to 10,000’ of vertical. Most individuals would probably think twice about attempting such a robust goal in summer, let alone in spring with deep snow. Heck, most individuals would probably not think about it at all, ever. Our gear consisted of snowshoes, trekking poles, crampons, ice-ax, and plenty of Alaskan backcountry clothes and water. However, the list would not be complete without Espresso flavored Hammer Gel! Although it may not be as good as a fresh cup of Kaladi Brothers coffee, it is the next best thing when surrounded in a canyon with mountain walls all around you.
Todd and I plodded through fresh deep snow up the Campbell Creek Canyon. It took us three and a half hours to reach Long Lake, almost an hour longer than usual. A winter storm blew through a few days prior and dropped an unexpected, and frankly, unwelcomed gift of snow, thus making the journey more of a slog rather than run. Snowshoes and trekking poles were a definite plus to have today! As we were nearing Long Lake, Todd and I could see the sun beaming down in the upper portion of the canyon. With an already warm day, it was a sure sign that we would soon be stripping off layers, donning sunglasses, and talking about the likely outcome of sunburn. The blue skies and bright sun were an unexpected, but welcomed gift. You could almost feel the world waking up from its’ deep winter hibernation. At one point my senses must have been on overload because I suddenly exclaimed, “Hey Todd, look, it’s a wolf!” I point across the North Fork of Campbell Creek to what appeared to be a wolf sitting down and watching us slog through the canyon. Todd politely remarked, “I don’t think that is a wolf because if it was, it would be a thousand pound wolf!” We both laughed a bit and continued on our way. Even though there wasn’t a wolf watching us, there did seem to be an abundance of animal and bird tracks all around us. Trying to identify what animal or bird made the tracks in the snow, as well as hypothesize as to what we thought could have been happening at the time made the hours tick away like minutes.
Once Todd and I reached Long Lake, we powered up with some Hammer Gel and Perpetuem. The extra energy would be needed for the climb up the steep and rocky ridge wall. With our summit gear on, Todd took the lead and guided a safe route. As we climbed higher and higher, he frequently checked the conditions of the snow pack and surveyed ahead for any dangerous or avalanche prone areas to avoid. Todd’s mountaineering confidence and alpine tips made me feel very comfortable.
The journey to the saddle between West Tanaina Peak and East Tanaina Peak proved to be much more difficult that we anticipated. The recent heavy snowfall turned what should have been a thirty-minute summit bid, into a three-hour epic struggle. Even with snowshoes, we would post-hole the majority of the way up. At the pinnacle of the saddle between the two 5,000’ peaks, Todd looked west towards West Tanaina Peak and expressed some concern with a technical segment on route to that summit.
In light of this uncertainty, we decided to head east towards the “easier” looking summit of East Tanaina Peak. Picking our way along a rocky, snowy ridge we made it to what appeared to be the summit. However, as we approached closer, it was obvious this was a false summit. Todd and I looked farther east and with some dismay realized the summit of East Tanaina Peak was a bit farther, over progressively more difficult conditions. Setting our packs down and having lunch, we took some pictures and relaxed. It was a gorgeous day to see all the nearby peaks and dream about days to come. After lunch, we set out for the summit. Cranking along and being vigilant on some steep snowy sections, we finally stood on top of the summit! But wait; as we looked again farther east, there was yet another point that seemed higher in elevation. We were standing on false summit number two! Damn! I tried to convince Todd that we were actually on the true summit and that the point farther east that appeared (slightly) higher was really just an illusion. He didn’t buy my argument (well, honestly, neither did I really buy my own argument).
After some discussion of whether or not to continue, we both decided it would be too extensive to reach the “purported” true summit. Our adventure was already nearing six hours long, and sadly enough, we had hardly even chipped away at the Ridge of Suffering! I guess you could say the foreshadowing was correct. We were warned by the Athabaskan Indians long ago who aptly named the ridge for its’ suffering, but did not listen. Given the time, swiftly warming weather, and increased probability of dangerous conditions, the safest thing to do was head for safer ground and call it a great day rather than bad day. As you can imagine, turning away from a summit bid in plain sight was extremely difficult. I am sure this feeling with help fuel our passion the next time we decide to tame the Ridge of Suffering. So, in an attempt to temporarily make ourselves feel better, we made up a name and claimed a successful summit of “Mid-Tanaina Peak.”
The descent went rather smoothly considering Todd’s snowshoes were giving him some trouble coming down and my crampons were designed for running. Next year’s REI dividend will be used to purchase a set of crampons specifically designed for non-technical mountaineering and alpine ascents. I will also consider a pair of mountaineering glasses. Todd had a pair that he let me try on. I was very keen on them because they reduced most visible glare from the snow and sun. The glasses even had side shields for added protection. At one point we tried to glissade down, but the snow was so soft and wet that it made it nearly impossible. Once on solid ground, a few more pulls of Hammer Gel and various snacks prepared us for the travel down the canyon back to our vehicles. My running crampons and ice-ax were replaced with snowshoes and trekking poles. The weather was so delightful that Todd eventually stripped his upper body to nothing but a T-shirt and baseball-cap he recently bought at the store. To help my dry aching sunburned lips smile just a bit, I caressed them with layers of lip balm.
I told Todd that we should run back so that we get a work-out in. I didn’t really think about what I said until Todd later made a comment about this. He thought it was funny/sick because we were already seven hours into a workout! Up until that point, Todd and I slogged up a canyon through deep snow for nine miles and then struggled up and down mountain walls for three hours. What was I thinking; we already got a work-out in! The remaining nine miles down the canyon was pleasant. We reached the vehicles and called the time of our epic spring adventure: 9 hours 14 minutes.
March 22, 2006