This past May, Andres Marin and I made a short, but exhilarating expedition in to the Alaska Range. Our goal was to explore the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier for new routes. Despite its immediate proximity from Kahiltna Base Camp in the Southeast Fork, the East Fork receives little traffic. Based off of several photographs Andres had seen from friends who had previously ventured into the area, we decided to take a look. After much reconnoitering, we found a hidden gem that we had initially overlooked.
Unseasonably warm temperatures in the Alaska Range made climbing on nearly every aspect at lower elevations questionable. Regardless, we skied past the south faces of East and West Kahiltna Peaks, Vince Andreson and Barry Blanchard established several lines in the early 2000s. South facing routes were more or less out of the question, as every steep mixed line was seemingly bare; only defined by traces of slush avalanches and rock fall. Further up glacier, we scouted Mount Andrews, which is a prominent sub peak on Denali’s South Buttress. Going Monk, established by Kelly Cordes and Jonny Copp, is the mountain’s only line, but contains well over 4,000-feet of relief. Other magnificent lines were just barely threatened by one of several large seracs that adorn the upper wall.
Pictured is Marin and Helander's ascent (red) and descent (green) of the FA of Scratch and Sniff on Mount Francis. Photo courtesy of Marin and Helander
We moved further up the glacier, but the conditions were the same. Feeling slightly disheartened, we skied back to our camp under the East Ridge col of Mount Francis. Temperatures were so warm that it didn’t even freeze at night. As we weighed our next move, we looked at the snaking hoards undulating up the well-worn trail of Denali’s West Buttress. Suddenly, I found myself tracing a line up a rocky buttress on the north side of Mount Francis. Although significantly shorter than any line we were hoping to climb, it seemed like a worthy consolation and a fun day out.
The next morning, we left at the leisurely hour of 11 a.m. and began climbing a deep wallow in slush over the schrund and enjoyed some simul-climbing up a right-trending snow ledge lead to a weakness in the first steep rock band. Andres lead an amazing 65 meter pitch up a steep corner and then up a wide left-facing chimney that required an array of techniques, including placing both feet against the opposite wall and moving into an almost completely horizontal body position.
Almost every pitch contained some kind of technical 5-to-15-meter crux section of engaging M5/6 climbing. Just as one option closed, another opened. As the sun set, we found ourselves near the top, but the climbing remained stiff. After about nine hours, we topped out on the pointed buttress. Several rappels on rock gear led to an easy descent down an adjacent ice gully where, after eleven 65-meter rappels we crossed the schrund.
Photo courtesy of Marin and Helader
The next morning we skied back to Kahiltna base camp and concluded that conditions were not ideal for further pursuits. Regardless, we both left with a feeling of joy and accomplishment. While we were unable to attempt any of the intimidating and challenging 4000-foot climbs we had planned on, we discovered that big things come in small packages. Our new route Scratch and Sniff (IV/V M6 5.8 1200') on Stubbs’ Buttress (named in honor of Talkeetna’s world famous cat mayor) contained twelve pitches of incredible climbing on a previously untouched feature, less than two hours from Kahilta Base Camp.
Andres and I have been friends for the better part of a decade. We first met in 2005 while working on Mount Rainier. In the wake of the Liberty Ridge tragedy (where we both lost our good friend Eitan Greene), we felt truly satisfied to share a wonderful day on a steep face together, relishing the exquisite climbing almost as much as the reaffirmed friendship.
This was the appreciation from the media about Sean's ascent of Bridalveil Falls.
Here is the ROCK and ICE report and also a very cool video that The Denver Post made. Also, a cool blog that one of my favorite sponsors PETZL did about our climb. Last but not least, here is the recount that MILLET did.
I had the great opportunity to climb Bridailveil Falls WI5+/6 with Sean ONeil.
He became the first Paraplegic to climb the falls and to climb the hardest ice climb that a paraplegic has climbed.
Sean has a very impressive climbing resume with 3 ascents of El Capitan, an ascent of half dome, amongst many other big rock climbs.
For me, climbing with Sean was one of the most inspirational things that I have wittnessed and something that I will always be thankful for.
This awesome adventure would not have been possible without the help and support of: Paradox Sports, Timmy ONeil, Leon Davis, Kevin Zeichmann, Dan Sohner, Pete Davis, Ben Clark, Dane Cronin, Kirk Williams, Hellen Davis, Abbott (snow machine expert) and off course PETZL, MILLET, BLUE WATER ROPES, GU, JULBO, FIVETEN.
Thanks a ton!!!!!
Here Sean is explaining me his new system. We are soooooo stoked to climb and see how it works....
At the base of the route contemplating our climb Bridailveil WI5+/6, one of the most iconic ice climbs in USA, maybe in the World too!!!!
Working out last minute details before heading out to climb the first part of the falls.
Let the climb begin, all sorts of rope systems we had to use. Basically, we used big wall ice climbing techniques.
Time for Sean to try out his new ice climbing system. That blue ice was very hard to penetrate, but it was very awesome for the eyes :)
Mid way up the route Sean is climbing like a machine, the ascent was recorded for a movie that a very prestigious outdoor film making firm is going to make. The short film will be out and in all the major outdoor film festivals.
Last moves before reaching the top of the climb. By that time our effort, especially Sean's is 110%.
Sean it is super stoked about his accomplishment. Check out that awesome smile!!!!!
I been using this rope and I juts love it. Not only works just for climbing but also for all kinds of stuff including my laundry system!!!!
BLUEWATER calls it the ROPE CAULDRON. Once again BW just kicking ass with another great product.
It is totally collapsible for transportation. Once deploy, it has room not only for the rope but whatever else you like to put inside. Also contains 3 gear loops and a zipper pocket.
GU products have always been a huge part of my training and performance. From World Cups to expeditions and everything in between.
This year at the Ouray Ice Festival, I saw the benefits of hard training combined with good healthy performance products.
The competition at the Ouray Ice Fest is the most prestigious ice climbing competition in the country and world renown one.
There are two different comps; difficulty and speed. World class ice climbers come from all over the globe to give their best and hope to stand on the podium.
In the difficulty competition you have to climb a very long and complex overhanging route. This kind of comp it is my favorite style.
On Saturday morning it was my turn, filled up with plenty of energy from the Roctane that I took while warming up, I launched my quest of getting to the top. After climbing 80+% of the route I made a technical mistake, loosing my ice axe. I still tried to climb up with only one. The couple thousand people cheering me on, I could feel their energy while I was upside down fighting to try and get at least one more move up. I had plenty of energy, but with only one ice axe, there was only so much that I could do. At the end, I ranked 6 place overall not too bad considering that I was head to head with some of the best mixed climbers in the sport.
Moving from that result, I needed to focus my attention on the next day's comp, the speed comp. It consists of climbing two long ice routes as fast as you can while going head to head against another competitor. The final time combined from both routes gives the overall result.
I started my day with a smoothie that contained mainly fruits and recovery Brew, a session of stretching and visualization of how I was going to do the course, as fast as I could, set for the challenge.
The day went super good for me. It was my time to go and I was ready with my plan. Which was to climb both routes giving 110% effort.
Lots of people cheering, I could hear the judges counting down the time. I heard the clock count down to go and all the noise disappeared, as if no body was there. My surreal state stopped once I hit the bell on the first route. My senses came back and all the sudden, the noise of lots of people came back. Got lowered down, the other competitor had not finish the route, which was a good sign. I had a few extra seconds for me to lower my heart rate. My heart was pounding really fast.
Ninety seconds went fast, and it was time for the next route.
Once again, I heard the GO! And all my senses just focused on what I had in front of me. I climbed so fast that it almost felt like I was holding my breath all the way to the top. Once I swung for the bell, reality came back.
It was time to wait for the results, I knew I had a great run, but so did the other 16 competitors. Especially the Europeans, who are well known to be world class in the speed format.
A couple of hours later, at the award ceremony we heard the final results. When they called first place and my name was on the big check, it was a great feeling. Like a dream come true.
This was possible thanks to GU and climbing partners/trainers Rob Pizem and Steve House.
This year the Ouray Ice Festival was a total blast!!!!
Great times teaching clinics, seeing friends from all over the globe, and the challenge of the competitions were the highlights on this year's festival.
I look forward to this event, year after year. Training hard, I put major focus on fitness to perform at a high level in the biggest ice climbing competition in the country.
The OIF has two competitions: Difficulty and Speed.
On the difficulty competition we had to climb about 20 feet of ice followed by an M9 rock route, over an ice bulge, in order to get to the final structure. This is where very difficult and powerful climbing had to be done in order to finish the route. I was feeling very strong, and with plenty fuel in the tank after reaching the structure I made a technical mistake and one of my ice axes fell off. Leaving me with only one tool. I fought toughly to climb with only one, but the steepness of the terrain did not allow me to continue without my other axe. Meanwhile, the crowd cheered me on for my solid effort and good show. Better luck next year!!!!
The next day (Sunday) was the Speed comp. I was totally focused, and after studying the course I had a plan.
The Speed comp consists of two steep ice routes. The goal is to climb both routes as fast as possible and the total combined time will give the result. You also go head to head with other competitor.
The time had come, it was my turn. I tied into the rope, waited for the sign of the judges, and there I went climbing as fast and efficient as I could. i remember thinking after i finish the first route, "man I climbed fast that route" the belayers lowered me down to the ground. The other competitor had not finished the route which gave me an extra few seconds to rest besides, the 60 seconds allowed. He finished the route, got lowered down. We rested for bit longer and it was time for the next heat. On the second route i focused my energy on climbing as fastest as I could. Besically full throttle. My heart is pumping really fast, but my eyes stayed focused on the goal of reaching the top of the route as fast as possible. It was a surreal time until the sound of the bell from my ice axe hitting the metal wok me up.
I had finished both routes. After all the competitors (20 men and 6 women) had the opportunity to go it was time for the judges to pull the times and get the result. At the award ceremony, not knowing my name was going to be called for first place in the mens division, it was a great surprise, and an awesome feeling standing on the highest step of the podium, along with two of the best competitors in the world Jeff Mercier from France, and Mauro Dorigatti from Italy. Many hours of hard training had paid off and a dream had come true. Can't wait for next year's Ouray ice festival.