On the 13th kiwi Mike Madden and I flew into the Northeast Fork of the Tokositna with Paul Roderick, and three British guys. On the way into the range we dropped off two climbers at the Kahiltna Base camp at which point Paul said, "I don't think we'll make it into the Tok, anywhere else you want to go?" The five of us said no, we would rather wait until we can get into Hungtington at which point I'd resigned myself to beers and burgers at the West Rib, which sounded just fine, as I'd only gotten to Talkeetna last night late, and I'd been on the the road for a crazy month. One night of chilling out sounded great. That was, of course, until ten minutes later, after we'd taken off from Kahiltna base camp and headed over the pass into the Tokositna. I couldn't see much from the backseat, but after numerous steep bank turns, each one bringing us seemingly close to the steep granite walls on the north side of the valley, and Paul had us on the ground at the base of Huntington. No burgers, or beers, I guess.
Mike and I set up camp and the next day we spent skiing to the base of the Access Couloir of the Harvard Route. The Stegasauraus looming big above, and the ice looked nice and deep blue, where it wasn't covered by snow. We'd put a track up the climber's right side of the glacier. The guidebook showed a line up the steep, left hand side, but Mike and I had skis, and the right hand option was a low angle, forty minute skin from camp to the base of either the West Face Couloir (a.k.a. Nettle/Quirk) or the Harvard Route. We put the track up in a near whiteout feeling by braille for the contours and the next day which was clear, we'd seemed to go clear of any crevasses.
Day three Mike and I (team name, "New Zealand Sheep Ranch," although Mike resented any name referring to the sheep love habits of kiwis, I was the one who was at TAT's front desk when it was time to give them an expedition name) woke up around three and noticed a decent pressure drop, and in a hasty decision, driven half by fear of committment, and half but the desire for more sleep, we said hey, lets try the West Face couloir as a warm-up instead, so we went back to sleep until six, then got up and fired up the route. We made good time, Mike led the whole damn thing, he was on fire after a whole season of guiding in the Southern Alps, and by three we were on top of the couloir, though without any bivy gear, and we rappelled the route, and were back in camp by eight for dinner.
The lower snowfield was steep, as steep as anything I've skied, I'm guessing around sixty degrees, and the snow was reasonable for climbing. The route description says to go right at the top of the snowfield, then back left. But we went strait up through an ice couloir, then back left around a rock buttress, then right into the base of the actual start of the couloir. The ice was perfect except for one section that was rotten. There are two basic ways to climb the lower section, either the right hand or left hand variation. The left hand variation has a few steeper steps but both are generally in the AI3 to AI3+ range, with a few places you might call AI4. The upper couloir was pure, blue ice for the most part, ice screws sunk in nice and tight and every pitch went the full length of the rope. Though it is the West Face couloir, it actually has a more northerly aspect, so it doesn't receive much sunlight, at least not in mid-April. The decent was easy, V-threads down the climbers right side of the couloir courtesy of two guys who had climbed it a few days before us. We added a few in areas that had been buries with snow. We downclimbed the initial snowfield, which took about half an hour, then skied back to camp.
Two days later we started up the Harvard Route, with a plan to bivy on the Upper Park, then beneath the Nose, then to fire for the summit and return to camp on day three. The British Team was already on day three when we started on day one, so we expected to see them at some point. We started at a 9 am from camp, because we only had to make the Upper Park in the first day, around 8 pitches of snow and ice. We made it by 3, and found beatiful ice, some of which was covered with snow, a nice mixed ice and rock squeeze through a chimney (thought the topo said to go right here, the squeeze was easy enough and fun), then some rotten snow, and finally the bivy, which had been dug out by the Brits.
Around 5:30 they rappelled down passed us; one of them had gotten frostbite on day two because they had started too late and ended up finishing at the base of the nose at 4 am. So their trip was done. After they left we noticed the pressure dropping and those high dark clouds rolling in pretty quick after the three days of splitter sunshine we'd had. So we bailed, and got back to camp around midnight. We rested the next day, and then as the pressure was slowly and surely ticking its way up the barometer, we made our second go at the route, getting to the Upper Park bivy, and fixing one of the cruxes, the Spiral, that night. The next day we woke up to beautiful pre-dawn skies, ascended our fixed rope and continued on, choosing to take the right hand variation around the bastion, a C1 crack. Near the top of the crack I didn't like what the exit of it was looking like, so I lowered down and climbed and easy but thin AI4 corner ten feet to the right. I probably should have climbed that to begin with. The Brits said the middle variation, which on the topo is described as a 5.9 chimney, was beautiful AI4-5. After Mike ascended our line we cruised 4 pitches of snow and ice to the base of the Nose, I fixed it, we made camp on the beautifully exposed Nose bivy and spent a cozy night in our small tent.
Mike is about 6'5'' so he takes up most of the tent. The next morning we woke up at 5, jugged the lines and continued up two pitches before snow conditions turned us around. We were back in camp by 4 pm. I definitely regret turning around that early. The snow conditions weren't good, and the weather was also deteriorating, but who knows, I guess thats climbing and I'm here to tell the tale with all my digits. The descent is entirely rigged with mostly fixed rock anchors. As long as there are no hangups, climbers can expect the entire descent to take hours for a party of two.
We spent the next 5 days waiting for a pickup, skiing powder, and trying to beat our neighbors at cards. We just got back to beautiful Talkeetna today and so many people have already arrived for the season.
Good luck on your climbs!
Danny Uhlmann with Mike Madden, Team New Zealand Sheep Ranch