Our Alaskan Adventure ? The Cassin Ridge

Our Alaskan Adventure – "The loop"

Gladwin 1 © David Gladwin
The long approach to the Cassin Ridge, Alaska © David Gladwin

Gladwin 6 © David Gladwin
The Approach Plane © David Gladwin
Sometimes I wonder why we put ourselves through some of the things we do. We work hard for short periods of time and live off pennies just to save up enough money to fulfil our obsessions. If all goes to plan, once the hard work is done and money has been saved we can disappear off to a far away place where our dreams may come true. Then we return home before the loop starts all over again.

My obsession led me to go to a remote/crowded! area of the world to pit myself against a mountain.

Why don't I just play chess? Life would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to work as much and my ridiculous contribution to greenhouse gases would be halved. Then I wouldn't be such a hypocrite for complaining that the ice climbing season seems to be getting shorter every year.

Cassin ridge or the kassine ridge as the Americans continuously, and surprisingly, corrected me and my climbing partner Carl or kaile, began with a plan born from a picture. A photo of a beautiful ridge that splits the South face of mount McKinley.

The logistics behind planning a four week climbing trip up in the mountains were incredible. We had to make sure we had enough calories in our bodies to keep them ticking, and able to perform continuously at a level of high intensity. In addition, we had to take into account that everything we brought had to be carried on our backs or in a sled that is dragged up the mountain. Mistakes cannot be made because there is no grocery store to pick up forgotten items. It's just a white glacial wilderness with not so much as a mountain refuge in sight. A roll of duct tape can be the difference between dangerously difficult times and relative comfort.

Gladwin 2 © David Gladwin
Looking at the West Rib (central) on Denali © David Gladwin

Riccardo Cassin
© Cassin
The Alaskan trip started with some fairly hectic travel plans involving 5 flights with one too many overweight bags. It took some serious persuasion of the annoyed security staff, along with finely tuned packing skills to make it through without any excess baggage costs, which had been my sole mission for 36 hours.

Once the somewhat sweaty flights were over (sweaty as I was forced to wear much of my kit, including plastic boots...), finally I arrived in anchorage to meet Carl, and then commence the shopping spree of a lifetime.

The next day Carl and I, weighing around 180 lb, set off with our 140lb bags on our light and fast ascent!

Everything we had seen so far in America was big and the mountains didn't disappoint either.

After having done most of my routes in the Alps, I was amazed at the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. The flight into the glacier really was eye opening. There were seas of glaciers disappearing in all directions, and white peaks jutting from them, giving lines which would make most Alpinists weak at the knees.

Basically, there is a lifetime's worth of routes in each direction you look, and new route potential that makes you wonder what you're doing back at home. I'm not talking new routes that are put up each year a couple of metres to the side of an old classic, as in the Alps. I'm talking whole sides of mountains and peaks that haven't seen a human track. And this area is not even classed as that remote any more.

The plane bounced and skidded as it landed on the ice. It dropped us off and so our expedition life began.

We had a quick chat with the rangers who revealed that the weather looked stable for the next few days, and that there was already a Japanese party on the Cassin who were looking for the first ascent of the year. All my gear was loaded, kinda highly, onto one sledge (Carl's was loaded onto two) and we set off on our trip, sledging and dragging our way up the next few miles of undulating glacier.

The first night gave us a great view of the Cassin and Valley of Death, the glacier which after acclimatizing on the normal route, we would then return to cross, to reach the start of the route we had travelled so far to climb.

It was humbling to finally see the route first hand, after looking at so many topos and pictures. Our enthusiasm somewhat dwindled when after a hour of gazing at the route and its approach, an avalanche came sweeping down one side of the valley, covering the entire valley floor, then starting up the other side!

The next few days consisted of working efficiently at moving between camps with heavy loads, so that we could get up high to a relatively sheltered spot. Once there we could rest and acclimatize, whilst sitting out a storm that was forecast. We planned to sit there until a good weather window arrived, then dash back down to the junction at the first camp, dig up our stash of climbing gear and food, then hit the route.

Gladwin 3 © David Gladwin
Tent entertainment © David Gladwin
The higher camp/village was interesting, with many climbing parties setting up reasonably luxury camps, with tables, chairs and walls built out of blocks of ice. It soon lost its appeal however after being storm bound, in a tent for 3 days straight, whilst outside snow was falling in abundance and 110mph winds blasted us. For those of you that haven't been on a trip like this before, imagine living in an area the size of half a small car, where whenever you move you knock into your partner,. You get changed in there, go to the toilet, and wash in this small amount of space. Now, you might get the feeling of how it is to live in a tent for all this time.

We had radios, so were able to get constant weather reports and updates of the Japanese group that had left 9 days ago with 5 days of food and no sleeping bags. An approach which makes you light and fast, but unfortunately leaves you open to problems if the weather does deteriorate, and you have to sit out a storm midway up the route.

Luckily after a week up high and just as our food stores were dwindling, a possibility of a clearing in the weather looked on the cards for two days time. So we packed up in a white out, and left the circus behind. It was seven miles to the first camp where we eventually located our stash that was buried under a meter of fresh snow. We ate like kings, slept until late evening, then began the approach. The forecast was still not great but we figured that the first 1000m of the route straight up an ice couloir could be climbed in less than perfect conditions, and then if weather was not ideal, we could retreat with a mixture of down climbing and rappelling.

Gladwin 4 © David Gladwin
The Valley of Death © David Gladwin
The Valley of Death soon began to live up to its name, as the valley narrowed and the glacier became incredibly broken up. It felt like climbing on egg shells with the crossing of snow bridges, climbing in and out of crevasses, combined with the looming hanging glaciers above us, on both sides of the valley, seemingly taunting us by creaking and occasionally spitting blocks of ice all around us. We sprinted the ridiculously exposed sections and rested in the 'safer' sections and finally reached the start of the route around 3am. We located the bergschrund, a big gap in the ice where the glacier meets the vertical, and found a section sheltered from ice and snow fall, under its lip on an ice bridge. We put in some ice screws, clipped in and crawled into our bags for a few hours sleep.

The following morning we rose to an overcast day. We departed up the ice ramp into the gully where we soon picked up signs of a previous party, obviously the Japanese, as they were the only party to have been on the route this year.

After a solid morning of calf burning, bullet proof ice, we finally reached the Cassin ledge and the end of the pure ice section. We brewed up and waited for the weather forecast, so we could decide whether to continue and commit to the remainder of the route, where retreat is not really an option. Where the best way down is up the route to the summit and over onto the normal route.

Our gamble and early start paid off as the forecast for the next few days looked perfect, so off we went. The only doubt in our mind was what we might find around the next corner.

Gladwin 8 © David Gladwin
High on the Cassin Ridge © David Gladwin

Gladwin 5 © David Gladwin
On the Cassin Ridge © David Gladwin
The route was everything we hoped it would be, great mixed climbing in chimneys, in cracks, on slabs and with rock which was in the most part very solid and easy to protect. The views were breathtaking, especially each evening when the sun was going down, casting a red tint to the sea of mountains that surrounded us, often with an inversion of cloud sitting just below giving us a feeling of floating. The days were long and tiring but the never-ending days of eternal light helped us.

Along the way we found evidence of a party ahead of us. The spots where they had carved out platforms to sleep, and go to the toilet were obvious, and snow sections between rock bands had the occasional partially covered foot print in it. Increasingly we found gear, either abandoned or dropped on route; nuts and screws, and at our last camp, even ropes had been left. After this camp there was no more evidence of the Japanese.

We reached the summit on a day where we could just about see our outstretched hands, which was a shame but we felt relieved to have reached the summit at all. The previous couple of days had given us some breathtaking views that will always be etched into our minds.

Our hearts go out to the families of the Japanese Giri Giri boys who disappeared while attempting an unclimbed variant of the Cassin ridge. I am sure they understood and accepted the risks involved in this sort of activity, as do we all. But it's very moving when something like this happens so close to home.

After returning from the mountain 10lbs lighter, our first meal consisted of a steak and chips and a pizza, delicious food that didn't involve us laboriously melting snow for hours before cooking and eating it using a single pan.

It was not until the over zealous customs man at anchorage airport asked me to remove my shoes and then swiftly asked me to replace them (apologies Carl, but you really can't smell your own feet) whilst he went through all my belongings, did it dawn on me what we had accomplished.

Two days later, minus my bags that had been misplaced in Amsterdam. I was sitting at home preparing to start work so that the loop could be repeated all over again.

David Gladwin
David Gladwin was born in Whitley Bay, Newcastle and went to Sheffield University to study Maths. He then went on a world tour visiting over twenty-five countries on four continents. He worked mainly as a Ski/Snowboard Instructor in Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland to pay his way, organising many climbing trips to peaks in New Zealand, Africa, Norway, Sweden, and many of the major peaks of the Alps.

His other UKC Article, My Eiger North Face Story, is linked below.

UKC would like to thank David for his excellent articles, which are valued contributions to the site.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by daveyzxcv

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9 Jan, 2009
Nice article. The photo "Looking at the Cassin Ridge (central) on Denali" is actually the West Rib in the centre there, taken from the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. The final photo is on the 'Knife Edge Rige' on the Cassin.
9 Jan, 2009
Thanks Tom, changed. Also, I haven't forgotten the La Grave stuff - it's going up next week. Cheers, Jack