Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mount Iliamna - April 2017

When April rolled around we started looking for a weather window for a fly-in trip. Where to go was the next question - despite great local skiing all winter, the snowpack was thin in the high peaks. The Pitchfork was at the top of the list, but we couldn't justify gambling on an expensive and committing trip to the dry side of the Neacolas.

So, when our weather window arrived, we mustered the troops, crammed into Seth's truck, and drove toward Doug Brewer's airstrip in Nikiski. The plan was to setup a base camp, climb and ski Iliamna, then crank laps near base camp until the weather deteriorated.

Rolling onto the runway, it was hard to believe that it could be winter anywhere.


As the plane climbed steeply above the Cook Inlet, winter came into sight. Mount Spur to the north - this one is going to be a nice weekend adventure.


Mount Redoubt. This is right next to the Pitchfork and the Malignant Couloir at the top of the Wish List.


Approaching Redoubt, its complex of seracs, crevasses, and ice came into focus. Brewer thinks about 10 people have gotten this one. I'm not sure what the number is, but its not easy.


Across the inlet and back over land, Doug pointed out the wandering tracks leading to a lone bear walking thru the frozen landscape below.

Tuxedni Bay

A dendritic drainage feeding Tuxedni Bay - fractals in nature are so cool!


Across Tuxedni Bay, the mountains started to rise around us.


Alex dreaming, drooling, and making mental notes for next year; and the year after that; and the year after that.


More dreams lines:


Coming around a corner of craggy peaks, there was Iliamna.


Steam rose from a vent near the summit and huge jumbled rivers of ice tumbled off the volcano.


As the glaciers accelerated and stretched over steepening terrain they broke into complex systems of blocks and crevasses.

Photo: Seth Kiester

Doug made a hard, banking turn and our planned west ridge ascent route came into view:


Touching down softly at the head of the Tuxedni Glacier, Alex and I jumped out and began setting up a base camp with a nice view of Redoubt and its caldera to the north:


An hour later the plane was back with Zack and Seth - and just in time to interrupt Alex on his trip to the restroom.

Photo: Seth Kiester

We grabbed the remaining gear out of the Bushhawk, Doug taxied north, and moments later the plane was gone. There we were - stoked to be in the huge peaks that make up the northern edge of the Aleutian Range.


We stashed our extra gear and food, discussed the odds of a robbery at the hands, claws, and paws of ravens, wolverines, and bears, and started towards the volcano.


Working our way up, we kept getting teasing peeks of this king line to the south. Dropping from the summit, the couloir opens up before tightening again on its way 4,000 vertical feet towards the valley floor. Alex and I both really hoped we'd have a chance at it once done with the volcano.


The boys keeping the rope tight and getting ready for Zack to lead the charge across a snowbridge. I think he told us to"be ready to hit the deck" - really confidence inspiring.


With the exception of one large snowbridge, travel up the west flanks of the mountain was straightforward. I imagine it would be easier on a normal snow year.


With the travel time to Nikiski, then the Bushhawk shuttle laps, it was getting late. Seth, Alex, and Zack reminded me that it was unrealistic to summit that day and we started to look for a campsite.


At 6,500 ft we found a flattish spot on a moraine high above Right Fork Glacier Creek. Alex and Zack with evening convective clouds rising around their tent:


Of note, there are no truly safe spots to camp high on the peak. You could find a spot protected from the wind, but you'd be exposed to avalanche hazard. Or vice versa. With a good weather forecast camping on the peak was a reasonable option for us. Augustine in the distance with Kodiak Island in the background.

Photo: Zack Fields

At 6 AM we were awake and climbing up the mountain. It sure had been warm during the day, but at night the temperatures plunged, and I woke up to a fully frozen water bottle next to me.


Moving higher, the west flank transitioned into a ridge with chunks of broken ice spilling off either side.


At 9,000 feet we reached the final catwalk to the summit dome. More concerned about a fall than crevasses, we coiled the rope and continued.


The ridge continued to squeeze tighter on either side.

Photo: Seth Kiester

I thought the catwalk was a blast - wide enough to not worry about falling off, there was great exposure as chaotic seracs peeled away from its sides. Past that crux, a short dome brought us to the summit. Behind Alex is the headwaters of Tuxedni Glacier:


There's a legend that Brewer has landed his supercub on top of Iliamna. I don't know if its true, but its fun to fantasize about a plane landing on the big and smooth summit.


Walking to the east side of the summit, we looked down towards Chinitna Bay.


Immediately below us the Umbrella Glacier poured out of one of the summit craters.


Of course, we were fixated on Redoubt.

Photo: Seth Kiester

Overloaded with a million new adventure ideas, the boys started skiing down the summit dome.


At the catwalk I went first down the strip of windboard between faces of ice. Every few dozen turns I'd stop to catch my breath, get scared by the exposure, remember I feel more comfortable skiing than standing, and start again.


9,000 feet in the Aleutian Range isn't a bad spot to wait!


Once everyone caught up, we continued down the firm, yet edgeable snow. Alex:


I didn't ask him, but Seth seemed like he was having a pretty good time:


More turns and more Seth oozing more stoke:

Photo: Zack Fields

Alex and the North Fork of the Umbrella Glacier.


More Alex, this time navigating around more bergshrunds.


Back to our high camp, convective clouds were already building around the peak.

Photo: Zack Fields

We packed up, melted water, ate lunch, and skied towards base camp. Variable wind board with a big pack was a laughable challenge for all of us.

Photo: Zack Fields

The egress down the west flank of the mountain was simple, generally free of crevasses, and even occasionally soft. But, just occasionally enough to catch our edges and make it look like we'd never skied before. Good thing no one was watching.


Now certain that we were close enough to make it back to camp that day it was time to drop our packs and shred corn snow. Zack:

Photo: Seth Kiester

Skiing consistent, soft snow without a big pack - who does that? I guess its fun.

Photo: Seth Kiester

Rejuvenated by the fun turns we climbed the last little pass and cruised down the headwall to our tent.


At the LZ it was time to put up another tent, melt water, and pour calories down our throats. Then go for an evening ski; it was too nice not to.


Falling asleep in the calm weather it was hard to imagine that perfection could ever end - it did. The wind woke us up in the night by pressing the roof of the 4 season tent against us. Alex and I spent the rest of the night taking turns holding up the tent while gap winds raged out of the cold interior towards a storm off of Kodiak.

In the morning our vestibules were packed with snow, sastrugi was everywhere, and what had been creamy pow 12 hours before had turned to wind slab. It was time to call it quits while still ahead.

A couple hours later, in the air over the Cook Inlet, it felt like summer again.