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Cassin Ridge

By Allen R. Sanderson

Summary : First ascent for the year 2000 of the Cassin Ridge with the Direct Finish to 20,000 feet. Allen Sanderson, Brent Manning, and John Steiger.

They say that the third time is a charm. Maybe so, but perhaps the mountain gods just smiled on us. Having tried twice before to climb Denali I predicted tent bound storm days to my partners who had never experienced climbing in the Alaska Range. I predicted major avalanches. I predicted high winds. I was wrong on most accounts. Of 16 days on the mountain we had zero tent bound days. Our rest day consisted of a 90 minute venture down to a cache while acclimating on the West Buttress. Our expedition was called "Old and in the way" since the average age of the group was over 40. Although I was the kid on the expedition I brought the most Alaska experience to the group. And everyone brought well over 20 years of climbing experience with them. Here is the complete day by day story.

Day 0. Flew into the Kahiltna Base Camp aka KIA (Kahiltna International Airport) about 8pm. We quickly buried a cache of food for the return before heading out. We decided that since all of our gear was packed up we might as well do a bit traveling rather than hang out in the confines of the Kahiltna Base camp. We skied until about 11pm before the wind picked up and we decided to bivy on the glacier.

Day 1. First full day. Skied up to the confluence of the NE Fork of Kahiltna and buried a cache of food for our attempt on the Cassin Ridge. From here we skied on up to around 9600 feet for the night. Cold temps but clear so the skiing was great.

Day 2. Another ski day. Skied up to the 11,600 foot camp. Another day of clear blue skies but with warmer temps.

Day 3. Stormy day. We stayed in the tents until late as it was a bit snowy and windy. Watching my altimeter I saw that the camp elevation was going down which meant a high pressure system was moving in so we got ready to go. Instead of trying to move camp up to the 14,000 foot camp we decided to ski up to Windy Corner at 13,400 feet and drop a cache there as it would make life much more reasonable when we did move up to the 14,000 foot camp. The trip up was cold and windy but the sky was clearing. By the time we got to Windy Corner the sky was clear and the temp was around 15F but it was windy. Around the corner the wind died down so we buried our cache and skied down. By the time we returned to camp the sky was clear with no wind.

Day 4. Clear and cold. We decided to leave the skis and walk since the winds had compacted the snow enough to make skiing unpleasant. After about 6 hours we reached the 14,000 foot camp. There were already about 75+ people there. I knew that 95% of all climbers who come to Denali climb the West Buttress so I was prepared for the massive tent city that awaited me. We found three unoccupied sites a moved in for the next four nights.

Day 5. Rest Day??. Got up late as it was cold, damn cold, real cold. —40F below. But once the sun came up it quickly warmed up to about 15-20F. Finally about 1pm we walked down to our cache at Windy Corner. It was a quick 20 minute walk down, 25 minutes to dig up the cache and 45 minutes to walk back. I noticed that the day before it took me about an hour to do the same distance so I knew I was acclimating well. Everybody in the group except me was taking Diamox to help with their acclimatization. Since we were going up slowly and that in the two weeks previous to the trip I had been up over 10,000k several times I decided not to take it. Plus the side affects where not worth it (Diamox is a diuretic).

Day 6. A mixed day with winds up high. We climbed up to about 16,400 on the West Buttress. The upper head wall had a fixed line which we used since it was a bit icy. Once we reached the ridge the winds just ripped. At times you could hardly stand up because they were so strong. I walked up the ridge a short ways where I could look down on the upper Peters Glacier some 2000 feet below. I took off my glove and reached into my pocket for a piece of candy. I took the candy and threw down the slope to Peters Glacier. The candy was not for me but for my friend Mike who was buried down there somewhere. He fell down this slope to his death some three years ago while going to the aid of another climber who had fallen. His body was never recovered so I wanted him to know that he was not forgotten. We quickly returned down the fixed ropes and to camp.

Day 7. Another day hike. Since we had seen the West Buttress up to ~16,400 feet is was time to see the West Rib. This was suppose to be a fun hike up to West Rib so that we could see the South Face and the Cassin Ridge. But after reaching the balcony camp at ~16,500 feet the clouds came in and no views could be afforded. Thus we turned around and returned to camp at 14,000 feet

Day 8. Down we go. With four nights at 14,000 feet and two hikes to over 16,000 feet we decided that we were well enough acclimated and that any more time at the 14,000 foot camp would make us stir crazy. Thus it was time to go down. Down to the confluence of the NE and NW Forks of the Kahiltna we went. Around 5pm we reach our cache at 8000 feet. We quickly sorted gear and food. We were going from a team of four to a team of three as Peter decided it was too cold for him. Being a team of three would mean less hardware but not much else. Around 8pm we started into the NE Fork aka The Valley of Death. However, everything was calm. No avalanches and so far no major crevasses. We had a bit of trail to follow going in so the route in was not too bad. Finally around midnight we reached "Safe Camp" and bivied.

Day 9. Up we go. Another crystal clear day. This could be good or it could be bad. If it stayed cold we would be okay but if it warmed up things would be moving and staking. Just before the ice fall we passed two groups going into the West Rib. They were planning on doing carries later in the day. Later in the day we thought, it was already noon and warming up. The first part of the ice fall was fairly casual a few big crevasses to jump over but nothing major. The second half was exciting as we passed under and around several seracs that looked very unstable. Finally around 3pm we exited the fall and were in the upper NE fork. Now all we had to do was punch a trail up to the base of the climb at around 11,500 feet. Around 7pm we finally reached the bergshrund below the infamous Japanese Couloir.

Day 10. Japanese Couloir. My lead. The initial part of the couloir was mixed ice and neve. It was not hard to climb. After about 700+ feet of climbing I ran out of ice screws so I started moving over to the rock to belay. John and Brent came up and John took over. Slowly he made his way through the short rock pitch before continuing up the couloir to the top of it. By the time I stared moving again I was cold. Once I reached John and Brent again I was hot. But it was a quick 100 foot traverse over to Cassin Ledge, at 13,400 feet. Home for the night. Every one said that it would be difficult to put two tents on the ledge but we managed to put two Biblers on the ledge with out any problems.

Day 11. The Cowboy Traverse. This was to be John’s day to lead as I knew the exposure would be terrific. John did a couple of pitches of rock before belaying at the beginning of the traverse. The Cowboy Traverse, we agreed was the most exciting, terrifying, and amazing part of the climb. One foot on one side and one on the other of the 50 degree arette. Half way up the first part John triggered a huge slab avalanche on one side, there went my foot holds. Finally the angle kicked back so John belays us up. We chop out a bucket belay as any protection is garbage. John starts off again. Fortunately, the angle of the ridge is such that we can now climb on one side and traverse upwards along the crest. Since there is no protection in the back of everyone’s mind is that if someone falls the others have to jump over the other side. No one falls or slips. Finally we reach a great flat spot at 14,000 feet to bviy.

Day 12. Bergshrund — First Rock Band. My day to lead. The bergshrund usually causes lots of discomfort as in the past you have to traverse to the end of it, rappel off onto an exposed shelf and go around. No longer, as there is now a split in shrund that has filled in as ramp. In less than 20 minutes I was up and over the shrund with the only difficulty being a boulder move over the top which did not even require taking off my pack. After that Brent took off breaking trail through the hanging glacier. Just below the First Rock Band he stopped. Not liking the spot because of avalanche danger I started off looking for a safe belay spot. Brent asked me if I wanted all of the gear, I said no since I was just going up to look for a belay spot. An hour later and several hundred feet up in to the rock band I found a belay spot. Mostly because I ran out of gear and the rope drag was terrible. John came up and lead another pitch before I took over again, leading the rest of the rock band. During the last part of the lead the weather start to deteriorate but I was just loving it. Excellent rock and ice climbing over moderate terrain, high of the mountain. Even the squeeze chimney was fun. After that I gave Brent the lead to break trail up the to base of the second rock band where we bivied for the night.

Day 13 Second Rock Band. The day started with clouds and a flew snow flakes. We packed up and started off for the second rock band. Brent started us off and when he decided the terrain was getting too technical he stopped to belay. (We each had our specialty, Brent was our slog dog, as he has great stamina for breaking trail whereas John was good for rock and leading through the exposed sections, and I was the mixed master). I quickly took over and lead to the hidden couloir. Given that I had so much fun the day before I decided to let John lead the couloir. I think it was more than he was expecting but he got up through the worst of it before I came up and finished the last little section. At the top of the couloir I found a old haul bag from a previous expedition during the 70’s. John lead off again. This was the only section that we did not find any old pitons or fixed line. There was some hard climbing but there always seemed to be a good hold near by. That night we camped under a rock outcropping at around 16,700 feet.

Day 14 Summit day??. The day started out cold and clear but it warmed up. After leaving our bivy spot we traversed out on to the south face. Brent was moving slowly with perhaps a bit of AMS so John played slog dog. After reaching around 17,400 we regained the ridge proper. We discussed going to the summit that day since it was so beautiful but because Brent was not feeling well we agreed to see how he felt when we reached the 18,100 foot camp. As we made our way up the ridge we finally decided to unrope. This is one of those times when it is safer to go unroped since if one fell more than likely all would fall if we were roped together. John and Brent traversed out on to what I thought was an exposed snow slope. I continued up the ridge proper on mixed terrain. After a while I lost sight of them since I was on the other side of the crest of a ridge. The terrain started to ease and I made good progress up to around 18,100 feet where I found the remains of the Korean camp from 1992. They had to abandon their gear when they were rescued. I found ropes and other misc. gear. About this same time John and Brent popped up from the other side. We continued up the moderate slope and into the third rock band. Since Brent was still not feeling well we decided to cut off ridge towards the Football Field at 19,000 feet. Slowly we worked our way up the snow slope until to got steeper. I decided to face in and continue up while John and Brent took a different route up. I felt safer facing in on the 50+ degree slope since a fall would be fatal. Slowly we made our way up to where a side couloir exited to the right. Somewhere in the back of my mind I did not think this would get us to football field especially when I looked at my altimeter and saw that it read well over 19,000 feet. We continued up through the rock band where I had to stop to put on more clothes. Out came the pile pants and my down jacket. I was not cold but getting chilled. The pants and jacket made me feel a lot better. Farther up I got Brent to put on his jacket which made him feel better. A few minutes later I walked over to edge of the ridge and looked over --- there it was the summit. We were doing the direct finish which what I thought. Finally around 7:30PM we joined the main summit ridge at 20,000 feet. 320 feet to go. We did not rush up to the summit. Instead, we brewed up and I tired to call a few friends on my cell phone. About 30 minutes latter we strolled over to the summit. The weather was still clear and we could see in every direction — the mountains gods had smiled on us. But getting up is only half the climb getting back is the other half. Brent and John took off down the West Buttress to Denali Pass while I took my time. I was enjoying myself but I was also tired. Finally around 11:30PM we reached the 17,200 foot camp on the West Buttress.

Day 15 Going Down. After a lazy morning at 17,200 feet we started down. I was curious to see what the ridge was like now that there was good weather. (This was now our forth day of clear weather and our ninth of good climbing weather which happens but rarely). The ridge is probably the best part for those climbing the West Buttress. As I went past Washburn’s Thumb I found myself alone both in person and sprit. I paused and found another piece of candy for my friend Mike. I threw it hard and watched it tumble down towards the Peter’s glacier to Mike. I continue on down the ridge to the fixed lines and descended to the 14,000 foot camp and our cache of food. Which I got into and promptly ate a four days worth of jerky. I wanted meat … I was protein starved. After talking with the rangers and others who congratulated us on the first ascent of the year we packed up the remaining food. In most years you can give food and fuel away because people run out. However, with such great weather everybody was leaving early thus there was lots of extra food and fuel to be had. Which meant a lot of it was being carried down the mountain. Rather than carry the fuel I decided to secretly fill a few other climbers cans and bottles for them while they were gone. I wish I could have seen the look on their face when returned. By the time they did we were long gone. Down past the 11,200 camp, clear down to the confluence at 8,000 feet where camped for the night and picked up our last cache.

Day 16 Going out. At this point we had our skis back so we quickly skied down the glacier to the airstrip where we waited for a flight out. Brent went out with two other climbers. Then another flight came in on a scenic tour. I told John he should go since he had never seen much of the Alaska Range. Unfortunately though the scenic flight was on its way home and not around the mountain. Finally another plane on a scenic flight came in. The pilot said he could take one person but no gear. When I said that was fine with me he then asked me if I minded if we flew around a bit. I knew it meant only one thing - a flight around the mountain!! What a way to end the trip. We flew up the Kahiltna where I got great views of the Cassin ridge. Over Kahiltna Notch to see the Wickersham wall. The Muldrow and Harper glaciers. The Trelika Galcier and the East Buttress that was so deadly in years past. Over to the Ruth Glacier and Mt. Huntington and finally out the Great Gorge to Talkeetna where John and Brent met me with a beer.

Technical note

There is never any truly hard climbing. The hardest ice was water ice at maybe 60 degrees in the Japaneese Coluoir. What made it hard was having a pack on with my soft boots. Front pointing hurt!!

As for the rock climbing. We probably did some that was around 5.8 snow covered boulder moves but it was never sustained, e.g. typically a series of one to three moves at most.

Mentally the hardest part was the cowboy traverse. A 50 degree arrette that dropped off 70+ degrees on both sides with no pro. We set off two slab avalanches while on it. A little disconserting to set the slope beside you go sliding off into the void below.

Physically the hardest part was the last day from 18,500 to 19,500 a long slope of great neve at 50 degrees but it had about 1-2 inches of soft snow on top. We did it unroped so you always wanted good ax placements. It took alot out of me.

Reader's comments

My partner Joe Puryear and I climbed the Cassin just a few weeks after Allen and his friends. His technical comments are right on the nail, but I wanted to mention something- pitons are not necessary! We did the whole climb on 6 cams (up to #2 camalot), 6 nuts and 7 screws. Didn't even take any pins, going on beta from friends who'd been up before. They were right...leave 'em behind and go light. The rock pro is excellent but the ice screws are really what get you through. (note, though- I did booty several baby angles from the old Korean camp at 18,000. There's still some BD #3's and 4's in a blue bag if anyone's interested!) We did the route in 73 hours schrund to summit, thanks to nice weather and going light. Hope that break in the hanging glacier bergschrund lasts, it sure saves time and headache. And surely, the icefall below the West Rib was the scariest part of the whole trip! No matter, the route is well worth the effort and toil!
Contributed by Mark Westman (denalimark@hotmail.com) on August 12, 2000.
Fred Wilkinson and I did the Cassin Ridge immediately after Allen and crew, almost cathching them on the descent in 56 hours shrund to summit, 72 hours 7000 ft camp on SE Fork to 14200 camp on West Buttress. Go light, be fit.
Contributed by Bart Paull (bart.paull@dartmouth.edu< /a>) on September 2, 2000.

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