Fund Update: Hans Funds suspends grants

May 14th, 2013 by admin

To all our friends and supporters,

We are under going some organizational changes here at the Hans Fund.  As a result, we will be suspending our grant programs. Please check back for updates regarding grant status. We appreciate your support and look forward to helping you get out in the backcountry SOON.

Regards,

The Hans Saari Memorial Fund

Revelations, Alaska 2010

September 28th, 2011 by admin

It can be hilarious what months of careful planning and weeks of meticulous packing inevitably lead to: four ski mountaineers standing next to a 600lb pile of the bare essentials and the lightest gear that technology has ever offered. And it’s astonishing how that pile of gear, those four skiers, and one very large pilot can disappear into a small airplane. In reality, the deHaviland Beaver is not a small aircraft amongst the fleet of Alaskan bush planes, but compared to the commercial airliners that brought us to Alaska and the mountains that we’d soon fly between, it seemed tiny. Next to our 600lb pile of gear, it seemed downright diminutive. Nevertheless, we were soon airborne – headed for the very end of the Alaska Range and an obscure range called the Revelation Mountains.

The Revelations are incredibly remote and have hosted very few explorers since the first party ventured into them in 1967. The first traverse of the exterior of the range had been accomplished a few years earlier by Joe Stock and company; we would be the first skiers to explore the interior of the range. Our team was Andrew McLean, Noah Howell, Jim Harris, and Courtney Phillips.

Our plan to explore the Revelations was simple; ski as much as possible and eat as much as possible. The weather in the range is notorious for making it hard for human beings to live, much less skiers to thrive, so we tried to keep our expectations low. Rob Jones, a hunting outfitter who operates a lodge near the range, indicated that snow levels were about 60% of normal. We expected this to limit our climbing/skiing options, and we also expected that it would present risks beyond those we are normally accustomed to managing.

Our ride spent little more than 10 minutes on the snow; we began digging our first camp into the shallow show before the engine noise had completely faded down the glacier. As it turns out, the shallow snowpack became a critical factor in establishing our two base camps. Snow depth on the main glacier ranged from 6″ to 36″, where there was snow. The Revelation Glacier is old and fading, with large areas of exposed ice. Above us on all sides, couloirs split 6000′ rock walls in the most dramatic fashion. Low snow or not, the Revelation Mountains present truly incredible ski-mountaineering terrain, easily measuring up to their name.

The risks of climbing and skiing in a range like the Revs are different from the ranges more commonly skied – different even from most of the Alaska Range. The most attractive lines ranged from 3000′ to 5000′ in relief, and all require direct ascent. Because of the variability in snowpack over that much relief, climbing up the couloirs of the Revelations can feel a bit like crawling into the barrel of the Missouri’s 16″ guns and hoping they’re not loaded. Because the range had received so little snow during the winter, we could expect a thin pack over rocks to provide ample opportunities to trigger old slabs, and the difficult terrain management further compounded this. Granting confidence was the obvious fact that the area had received very little snow in the past couple weeks, granting time for instabilities to settle out.

Among the risks of being flushed out of a chute 4000′ long and 40′ wide, other risks were present. Most of the team’s travel occurred on the main glacier that had very little crevassing, but nearly every day we were required to navigate fractured icefalls. Liberating even small amounts of snow on a 40-degree slope in these areas could launch a skier into inky dark crevasses below. Also, adding comedy and amazement to every day were the seracs that capped the walls of the gorge. One in particular, a well- loaded serac overhanging an El Cap-sized vertical wall, regularly launched tons of ice and rock that fell almost entirely freely to the glacier below. The event occurred every 12 hours or so, and shook the glacier impressively at our second basecamp over a mile away. Finally, the wild card in play was snow over water and alpine ice. At times we encountered faceted snow as much as 18″ deep, laying in wait over ice that wouldn’t need too much polishing to be fit for an NHL game.

At times, managing these risks was paramount, and at other times, unconsidered. Dodging the devastation under the seracs was relatively simple; don’t go there, and don’t camp there. The other risks were not so easily mitigated and in the end were eventually accepted. The team adopted the standard protocols of spacing out in the danger zones, skiing one at a time from safe spot to safe spot, and skiing through deposition zones as quickly as possible. Daytime heating encouraged us to avoid slopes that received prolonged direct sunlight – both to avoid being caught in frequent wet slides, and because the skiing in those areas wasn’t terribly compelling. Frequently, within 50′ of the tops of couloirs, hard snowdrifts were easily observed and avoided. Only once did I observe cracking while approaching these features. We received about 12″ of snow in the only storm of the expedition. Other than a significant slide that cleaned out a chute we’d skied two days earlier, we observed very little natural activity after that.

In all, we found the terrain to require every attention we could give it, but the snow turned out to be relatively benign. We moved camp once; an all-day, four- mile epic of downhill trail breaking with skins on in heavy snow deposited by our only storm. We skied absolutely incredible lines, and we gave them names such as The Alpha Couloir, The Boot of All Evil, The Shroud of Turnin’, Jesus Crust Super Gnar, and The Immaculate Deception. The walk out to meet our flight back to civilization included snow-covered glacier, bare glacier, moraine, frozen-river skiing, river bedrock, braided streams swelling with early spring melt water, and a shoe-sucking swamp. I recall that it was about 15 miles, but when you’re having that much fun, who’s counting?

Summary

Project: Revelation Mountains Exploration

Location: Revelation Mountains, Alaska Range, Alaska, USA

Participants: Andrew McLean, Noah Howell, Jim Harris, and Courtney Phillips.

Date: 2010

Media:

Kamchatka, Russia 2008

September 28th, 2011 by admin

Significance of Kamchatka Ski Exploration 2008: The Kamchatka Peninsula is a fascinating destination. Known as the land of fire and ice – it is a narrow piece of land separating the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East. Its main point of entry is the coastal port and city of Petropavlovsk (population 200,000). Most interesting, Kamchatka has only been open to foreigners since 1991. Areas of the Peninsula are still restricted for tourists. Geographically remote, the coastline of Kamchatka has seen little development. One main roadway services the entire region. Our primary objective was to backcountry ski an unexplored region near the village of Milkovo (north of Petropavlovsk). Accessing this area would test our route finding skills, our physical and mental toughness, and our ability to function as a team. Additionally, we wanted to explore an area traditionally used by the local population as a popular backcountry ski tour.

Backcountry Skiing as an Eco-sustainable Tourism Economy: We would like to emphasize the following: Backcountry skiing is increasing in popularity. People attracted to the sport tend to be adventurous and interested in experiencing local culture. They are more likely to support a regional economy by utilizing local lodging, transportation, and guide services with minimal impact. This is the type of activity to counter overuse of the land and resources by other winter activities such as helicopter skiing and snowmobiling. Developing a sustainable, eco-adventure-driven economy where the footprint left behind is minimal is a better alternative.

Organizations: To secure the proper permissions and visa documents we utilized the services offered by www.explorekamchatka.com owned and operated by Martha Madsen, an ex-pat American. For flight arrangements we utilized Julia Providonich with www.discoveryclub.info based in Vladivostok, Russia. We worked with Nalychevo Nature Park’s Gleb Parunov, Recreation and Tourism Development, and Inga Norikova, Ecological Educator, to secure permits required for accessing regulated backcountry and for registering with the Peninsula’s Search and Rescue Service. The time spent between ski explorations we lodged with locals through an established ‘Homestay’ network.

Trip Report: One of the difficulties of visiting the Kamchatka Peninsula is getting there. The Petropavlovsk- Kamchatsky Airport services domestic flights only – those flights that originate in Russia. Typically visitors arrive via Moscow or Vladivostok. Prior to booking our travel arrangements we spoke with Ms. Aaltje Van Zoelen with World Wise Ecotourism Network (www.traveleastrussia.com). She is based in the United States but has worked with tour operators in Eastern Russia to promote the area for tourism, an eco-sustainable alternative for a region rich with natural resources. We utilized a travel agent based in Vladivostok, Russia in securing our flights from Seoul, Korea to Petropavlovsk. Though not impossible to book on your own, it is generally easier to use a Russian organization for flights within the country. We left Los Angeles, California April 1, 2008 and arrived in Petropavlovsk April 4, 2008 flying into Russia via Vladivostok Airlines.

The second difficulty in doing a trip of this nature is ensuring your luggage makes it to your destination as well. Unfortunately, our luggage did not leave North America with us and was delayed by one day – missing our connection flights into Russia. Upon arrival in Petropavlovsk we had two days prior to the arrival of our luggage to orient ourselves to the region, register with the local authorities (as required) and explore the cities and Russian culture.

Using local bus transportation we visited old town Petropavlovsk and stayed with Slava Sokolovskiy (local kayak and heli snowboard guide, see www.kkclub.ru) as part of the Kamchatka Ecotourism Society’s organized ‘Homestay’ program. We spent an evening with Slava discussing the sport of kayaking, his experience in Pacific Ocean and his future expedition plans. All agreed it was a great experience to meet other explorers.

From here we returned to the airport and were happy to be reunited with our luggage. Able to move forward with our expedition plans we returned to Yelizovo, a smaller city outside the urban center of Petropavlovsk. Yelizovo was our home base for the duration of our stay in Kamchatka.

Nalychevo Nature Park (April 7 – April 15). Our first ski tour was an exploration of Nalychevo Nature Park. Nalychevo Nature Park is located near Petropavlovsk and a popular winter excursion for local residents. The Park was established in 1995 and is included in UNESCO’s Kamchatka Volcanoes World Heritage List. There are no roads into the park and only three access points/trailheads. Obtaining our permits we met park officials Gleb Parunov, Recreation and Tourism Development, and Inga Norikova, Ecological Educator – who both proved to be very helpful for the rest of our plans.

The park employs a staff of 17, including 12 rangers covering a territory of 280,000 hectares. We were issued park permits and told there was a general route we could follow and likely it would be covered with snowmobile tracks. Typically, skiers utilize snowmobile transportation to access the park. There are numerous backcountry cabins located in the center of the park adjacent to Nalychevo’s natural hot springs. The hot springs are approximately 45 kilometers from the Pinachevo Trailhead – the point of entry we used during our visit.

We secured transportation to the trail head located in the small settlement of Pinachevo. Nikolai, our Homestay host, drove us and skied with us for the first three kilometers. Taking us on a short cut through the trees to where we could join the prominent snowmobile track and find our way into the center of the Park (the location of the hot springs – 42 kilometers distant). The weather was warm and pleasant, and the terrain was relatively flat. We were following the Pinachevo River Valley towards Pinachevsky Pass. Though there were ample snowmobile and cross country ski tracks we only encountered one party of four Russians returning from a cross-country ski tour. There were also dozens of Grizzly bear tracks.

Uneventful but arduous: We skinned approximately nine miles with heavy packs and a sled on day one. We camped alongside the ‘trail’ and continued following the river valley the next day. By mid-afternoon we had climbed above the tree line. From here we could see numerous peaks

accessible from the broad valley. We decided this valley would a good base for backcountry skiing and noted its location on the map and our GPS but moved on: Determined to follow our planned route. At this point a broad ramp began its ascent to the Pass and we followed this obvious platform up, using our GPS for waypoints and the return trip.

Halfway up the pass a storm rolled in and deteriorating visibility caused us to retreat approximately 200 vertical meters down to an area away from any danger of avalanche or rock fall. Snow was falling and we had already accumulated an inch while setting up camp. The following morning we awoke to clear skies and moved over the pass and down into the Nalycheskiye Valley. We decided to set up a base camp in an area approximately 4 miles below the pass based on access to the surrounding peaks. The hot springs – our initial destination – was another six miles down valley and by visual we determined it would not be a good base camp given its distance from skiable terrain. We spent three nights and four days at this camp.

We did ski to the popular hot springs. A series of backcountry cabins available for rent with a full-time ranger stationed at the center of the buildings. The helicopter pad, located at the hot springs, was in use with 10-12 Austrian clients. On our return to our base camp we skinned up a small peak (approximately 250 vertical meters) and descended its east face. The rest of our time in this area did not produce any skiing given weather conditions. We decided to ski out of the valley a day early and return to the Pinachevo River Valley, the area we had first taken notice of several skiable peaks.

Desiring to experience the Park as other tours in the area, we stayed in a backcountry cabin our last two nights. Good weather allowed us to ski two unnamed couloirs and Mount Cupola (elevation 2,150 meters). Cupola is occasionally serviced by heli-ski companies in Kamchatka and had evidence of some older tracks descending from its summit.

Prior to skiing up a main draw that separated the unnamed chutes from Mount Cupola we dug a pit to assess the stability of the snow. We discovered the recent snowfall had consolidated during the warm days and cold night of the past few days. Underneath we found well-bonded layers of ice and pencil and finger dense snow.

It is interesting to note the two nights we spent in the Backcountry cabin we shared it with other Russian ski enthusiasts. The first evening we encountered a local ranger from another Park – Mutnovskaya Sopka and a couple who led hiking and backpacking tours in the summer for French- and English-speaking tourists. The second night we shared the cabin with a foursome of Russians including a guide from one of the local tour operators. Each of the Russians we encountered were interested in our style of touring. One guide even photographed our down booties so he could make some for himself.

Yelizovo (April 15 – April 18). We returned to Yelizovo to plan the next portion of our trip. We were interested in pushing further north into the central part of the Peninsula. Kamchatka’s winter for the 2007- 2008 Season was not strong and many of the rivers had opened early in the season, becoming un-crossable and left us with little hope of touring in the area of Milkovo, as we had originally intended. With this information we decided on touring in the area of Mt. Bakening (pronounced Bah-Keen-ing). Bakening is accessible from Kamchatka’s single highway and sits just south of the village of Milkovo. Additionally, our selected route did not cross any rivers. During these three days we re-supplied, updated our blog and exchanged money. We also met with Nalychevo’s Park officials to provide them with feedback on our trip and our thoughts regarding the sport of

backcountry skiing. They were very interested but wanted to discuss these issues at length and we decided to meet with them after our return from Bakening. They registered our party with Kamchatka’s Search and Rescue Service. We understood this was not mandatory but encouraged and we were happy to comply.

Bakening (2,270 meters)(April 18 – April 23). Part of the experience of traveling in Russia is using local transportation. We decided to take public transportation north to Milkovo. We asked our homestay host to write us a note asking the bus driver to drop us off at the 208th kilometer and to have a south bound bus look for us at the same milepost on April 23rd or April 24th.

In Yelizovo we boarded the crowded bus – including our heavy packs and skis. To save weight we wore our ski boots onto the bus. After approximately 3 hours we were dropped off along a desolate expanse of the road with a kilometer marker reading ‘208.’ The weather was clear and Mt. Bakening dominated the horizon some 11 miles distant.

Bakening sits on the edge of the Ganalsky Range and is considered the roof of Kamchatka. Three of the Peninsula’s major rivers originate on its slopes: the Kamchatka, the Bystraya and the Avacha. At its summit, a large crater gives way to adjacent cinder cones to form a volcanic cirque that extends north and east. Part of Bakening’s appeal is its options: Aesthetic chutes,

rocky ridges and tapered steeps make quick descents to miles of moderate snow fields. The only drawback is the weather: It is pounded by frequent storms rolling in off the Pacific. On average, the region receives 10 meters of precipitation each year

We spent our first night in a broad river valley below Bakening’s summit mass. The temperatures in this region are much cooler than those we experienced in Nalychevo Nature Park near Petropavlovsk. We awoke to a reading of 17 degrees (Fahrenheit) inside the tent. Before leaving the river valley, we noticed a change in the snow pack. As the valley narrowed and we had to negotiate obstacles by ascending the walls of the valley, we observed recent evidence of avalanches and debris piles

above us. We stopped to dig a pit before climbing higher to determine the snow’s strength. Our results disclosed a wind-loaded layer 5 cm deep on top of depth hoar. Our stability test confirmed our sightings – North-facing aspects would be off limits during our visit.

From this point on our route would begin a steady ascent to Bakening’s base – following a series of benches. We gained a position closer to Bakening and the surrounding peaks and found an area in the trees, away from obvious avalanche activity and paths. This became our basecamp.

During our time at this camp we received approximately a foot of snow, witnessed fresh avalanches on most Northwest-facing aspects and saw many old debris flows in canyons below several of the smaller peaks in the area. Winds were continuous and we experienced passing storms mixed with mostly cloudless skies and cold temperatures. These conditions brought us a variety of snow conditions – from knee-deep powder and breakable crust to heavy mash and barely edgeable ice. During storms we skied the birch forest above our camp and toured an area north of Bakening’s base in the direction of Timovskiye Pass. Our last full day in the area Matt and Scott climbed nearby Dalnee Sopka (5,000 feet) while Cathleen staged just below the summit waiting out the winds that had developed high on Dalnee’s slopes. (The snow pit dug on Dalnee’s south-facing slope revealed heavy consolidation with a nice corn layer on top.) At the Dalnee’s base, Cathleen and Matt continued up a prominent canyon onto the north slopes and encountered variable conditions.

Yelizovo (April 23 – April 24). We returned to Yelizovo and checked in with Nalychevo Nature Park and notified Kamchatka’s Rescue Service of our safe return. During this visit, the Officials with Nalychevo mentioned they were attending a weekend ski mountaineering competition put on by Kamchatka Search and Rescue. Nalychevo Nature Park employees were attending to address future plans for developing Avachinsky Pass, an area of the park the competition was taking place. We were invited to participate and urged to compete so the event could be positioned as an international competition. We were excited at the prospect of meeting other Russian ski mountaineers and search and rescue personnel. We made arrangements, sorted our gear and purchased the requisite supplies.

During our short time in the city of Yelizovo, Cathleen attended a Rotary Club meeting. (She had written for The Rotarian magazine previously about the efforts of an Irkutsk, Russia-based Rotary chapter involved in environmental education and developing a sustainable eco-tourism economy by supporting the construction of the Great Baikal Trail.) Cathleen also scheduled a meeting with Tamara Tutushkina, Head of Foreign Economic Relations and Tourism Division of Kamchatka Oblast (or region) to discuss our experiences as independent travelers and the prospects of using the sport of backcountry skiing to develop a winter-time, eco-tourism economy for the area.

3rd Annual Kamchatka Ski Alpinism Competition (April 24 – April 27). We accompanied the Nalychevo Nature Park officials to a meeting point where we boarded a larger vehicle with other racers. At one of the three access points for Nalychevo Nature Park’s – Avachincsky Pass – we joined the rest of the competitors loading gear onto snowmobiles and boarded a snow cat for the ascent to the Pass – approximately 12 miles distant. We were housed in a privately-owned lodge with most of the competitors (others lodged at the Search and Rescue hut).

Competitors were mostly members of the Kamchatka Search and Rescue service and/or associated with a local ski-mountaineer club. Two of the racers made the 10-hour flight from Moscow for the weekend event. The competition is considered a qualifier for other similar races in Russia, as well as part of a certification process for athletes to gain levels of sport competency. Friday evening consisted of a multi-media presentation from last year’s race, instructions on what was to happen during the two-day race with a question and answer session bringing the evening to a close. The presenters spoke in Russian while Inga Norikova translated.

The race consisted of a team and an individual event. Each course had racers skinning up the north-eastern flank of Avacha Volcano, descending back to a point where access to a smaller peak known as the “Camel” was found. The ascent of the Camel involved ropes and the use of an ascender. At its summit, a short technical traverse and descent using ropes deposited racers to a point where they could make a ski descent to the finish line. Matt and Scott entered the team competition in a field of 12 men and women’s teams. Visibility the morning of the event was approximately 20 feet. Race officials decided to continue on with the event opting to cut out a portion of the ascent on Avacha to a point lower in elevation.

The American team finished in fifth place. An awards ceremony followed after dinner and Scott and Matt were given special mention because of their technical skills and skiing ability. They each received a certificate. Later that evening we joined the other competitors for a late night celebration and international conversation. Again, it was interesting to connect with people from

around the world and discover we were equal in our love for the outdoors and backcountry skiing. The following morning Matt entered the individual competition. He raced well and again finished in fifth place. An award’s ceremony followed and Matt was again given special mention for his skiing prowess and invited back next year to teach the Russians how to telemark.

The Director of the Kamchatka Search and Rescue Service asked us to stop by their facilities the following day for a tour of their compound.

Yelizovo (April 28 – April 30). Our final days in Kamchatka were a mix of meetings and good- byes. We toured the headquarters for the Kamchatka Rescue Service. During this tour our discussion found common ground on the subject of who pays for rescues. It was interesting to find out that Kamchatka’s Search and Rescue also struggles with this as we do in the US. In the end, we both agreed it is not an easy issue to decide.

From here Cathleen met with Ms. Tutushkina in Petropavlovsk. We traveled back to Yelizovo via public transportation and hosted a dinner party for Martha Madsen, Gleb and Inga (Nalychevo Nature Park). During dinner we discussed the sport of backcountry skiing, how it could benefit Kamchatka and Nalychevo Nature Park and Kamchatka’s draw for backcountry enthusiasts. Our conversation shed some light on the sport and we further discussed our ability to return to the Kamchatka Peninsula in 2009 to assist Nalychevo Nature Park in developing this type of tourism by mapping the area, drafting marketing collateral and ski route guides, as well as leading a FAM-style trip for Russian-based tour operators. While this is still in the planning stages it is our hope to finalize this and return to the Peninsula next spring. We also intend to lead a group of North American backcountry ski enthusiasts in the Spring.

Summary

Project: Kamchatka Ski Exploration 2008

Location: Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia’s Far East

Participants: Scott Cordner, Cathleen Calkins, Matt Theis

Date: April 1, 2008 – May 1, 2008

Media:

  • 10/2008 Backcountry magazine ‘Route Finding’ piece written by Cathleen Calkins http://bit.ly/nRiZn9
  • 1/2009 Telemark Skier ‘Parting Shot’ of image taken by Cathleen Calkins of member Matt Theis (will get a link for you on this).
  • 11/1-2/2008 Speaking Engagement/Keynote presentation by Team at National Ski Patrol’s Annual Tri-Advisory Conference in Yosemite Valley
  • 12/4/2008 Speaking Engagement by Team in Newport Beach, California
  • 1/2009 Speaking Engagement/Presentation by Team in Big Bear Lake, California
  • 1/2012 Speaking Engagement Scheduled for Mammoth Lakes, California
  • Scott shows fine art images from the Kamchatka Expedition in the Mammoth Gallery in Mammoth Lakes, California and United Woodcraftsman Gallery in Big Bear Lake. In particular is his image of a lone Siberia Birch on the flank of Mount Bakening.
  • Cathleen is currently writing a feature piece for Snowshoe Magazine (an online e-zine with 2,000 unique visitors per day) for the November 2011 issue and it will feature snowshoeing as a new adventure sport now being offered by various eco-tour operators on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Lenin statute in old-town Petropavlovsk. Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Scott Corder and Matt Theis after finishing 5th in the 3rd Annual Kamchatka Ski Alpinism Competition. Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Sasha, head of Kamchatka Peninsula Search and Rescue and Ski Alpinism Competition official (Sasha died in 2010 during a rescue of two injured search and rescue personel). Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

“Us vs. Them” – Russian cross country skis and our skis lined up outside a backcountry hut in Nalychevo Nature Park. Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Start of 3rd Annual Ski Alpinism Competition. Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Scott Cordner approaches Mount Bakening (see October 2008 issue of Backcountry magazine for a report on this portion of the trip). Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Cathleen Calkins at hotsprings in the center of Nalychevo Nature Park. Photo by Scott Cordner.

Avacha Pass with views of Kamchatka high search and rescue camp in the foreground and Petropavlovsk basin in the background. Photo by Cathleen Calkins.

Altai Mountains, Mongolia 2011

September 28th, 2011 by admin

In May and June of 2011, myself, CJ Carter, and Aaron Rains, all of Bozeman, Montana traveled to Mongolia to explore the country’s outer reaches and, we hoped, ski some of its highest peaks. A mystical throwback to times less complicated, our experience in the Mongolia came as no less than a wild ride through sprawling desert and immense alpine terrain.

We arrived in the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar on May 12, and after a week and a half of some urban samplings and rock climbing north of the city, we struck out for the west on an epic, 100 hour overland journey, arriving in the Bayan-Olgii aimag (provincial) capitol of Olgii after the wildest “road” trip any of us had ever experienced. Crammed into a bus or small truck, we did not miss out one bit on the flavor of travel in Mongolia. We slept in various gers (yurts), drank fermented camel milk and plenty of vodka, ate more than enough sheep and various dairy products, and actually grew to enjoy the salty milk tea we were offered at almost every stop. The people we encountered were kind, hospitable, and content. They lead simple lives, distilled down to their families, their animals, and their connection to the vast and beautiful landscape of Mongolia. They are proud and optimistic- dare I say the average American could take a lesson from this perspective.

A couple days in Olgii had us rested and prepared to venture into the mountains, and we headed out, overland once more, to the rarely traveled and remote Tavan Bogd (meaning “Five Saints”) region of the Altai Mountains, home to the largest glacier and highest peak in Mongolia. Our journey to this magical corner of classic Asia did not disappoint, serving up high excitement and moments of sheer ecstasy as we climbed and skied the aesthetic slopes and ridges of Tavan Bogd.

The morning after arriving at the “entrance” to Tavan Bogd (a lonely settlement at the end of a rocky road) a herder loaded our skis, boots, tents, food, clothes, stove, fuel, and everything else onto the backs of two camels and swiftly began marching the twelve miles from the local settlement to our base camp. Located adjacent to the large lateral moraine of the Potanii Glacier (Mongolia’s largest), our camp location granted us access to the snow with only a 15-minute walk. The moraine blocked the view of the high peaks very close by, leaving us to wonder if we had ever left Montana as we gazed upon Beartooth-esque plateaus to the south.

Weather had moved in by the end of our approach, and we would have to wait until the next day to get a glimpse of the mountains. Dawn brought clear skies, and we anxiously rose and scrambled up the moraine to scope the mountains and glacier. The scale and immensity of the Tavan Bogd region floored us- The Potanii and Alexander glaciers stretched on for miles, morphing into the beautiful faces and ridges of the Tavan Bogd massif. Chinggis and Snow Church dominated the horizon above the Alexander Glacier, while Khuiten, Mongolia’s highest peak, stood proudly over the Potanii Glacier.

We soon broke out the scope and began investigating conditions, only to realize that the rumor of poor skiing conditions was, indeed, fact. High wind and low snow had combined to scour every major feature we had hoped to ski. It was something none of has ever seen to this extent. We held out hope, though, that there would still be skiable lines in the area, for there was still some snow after all- we just weren’t sure how much. Our objective in Tavan Bogd had been to traverse the massif, beginning with Malchin on the north end and ending with Chinggis on the south. The traverse would have been better suited for climbing, and with the amount of ice on the steep faces, it became apparent that the traverse would have to wait for a future attempt in better conditions.

There was still terrain to climb and hopefully ski, though, and within a day or two we set out for Malchin’s north shoulder. At 13,050 feet, Malchin is the smallest of the Five Saints, yet still sports a 2500 vertical foot north face, marking the Mongolian/Russian border. We reached snowline low on the peak, and began skinning through perfect, consolidated low angle snow. Gaining elevation, we transitioned to crampons and began ascending through the 12-inch deep snowpack bonded to extremely hard alpine ice underneath. The higher we climbed, the more spotty the snow became, and the final push to the summit ridge had us front pointing next to giant swaths of ice to our left and right. The only passage for our impending descent was a twenty-foot wide strip of snow that appeared well bonded and, luckily, extended all the way to the summit.

We gained the broad summit ridge and cramponed across hard alpine ice, one foot in Russia, the other in Mongolia, towards the west end of the ridge and the true summit.  Reaching the summit, we were stoked to ride. I watched in amusement as CJ gave a holler and pointed ‘em down a strip of snow of the summit and then skittered loudly across a section of low angle alpine ice, his skis torquing in all directions as he made a controlled slide-for-life towards softer snow on the other side of the ice patch. We regrouped at the top of the north shoulder and began linking turns down perfect, stable windbuff on the rollover, relishing our position on the Mongolian/Russian border.

We had some typical mountain weather for the next couple days, and sat out rain and snow as we stored our energy for an attempt on one of the larger peaks. A visit from the local Tuvan herders prompted a chess match between Aaron and the elderly herder, who made short work of teaching Aaron a thing or two about chess. The herders continued up valley after visiting, and returned later in the afternoon with big smiles on their faces, excitedly motioning that they had seen our tracks on the lower slopes of Malchin.

Our next attempt was on Peak 3884, which divides the Alexander and Potanii Glaciers. The east/northeast aspect looked to hold good snow, and if it was anything like Malchin, we would be set. We traversed the width of the Potanii Glacier in the early morning, marveling at the immensity of the glacier’s scale. A quick transition and we were booting up perfect snow on the lower slopes of Peak 3884, stoked to be making good progress. Halfway up the face, though, conditions changed for the worse. In the lead, I began postholing through various crusts and faceted snow, wallowing at times, finally gaining an island of safety at a small rock outrcropping. Above us, the slope steepened considerably into a choke near some exposed ice. We dug a quick pit, revealing a scary snowpack. The solar energy had picked up in the last hour as well, and we could see signs of wet debris on adjacent slopes. Choosing life over the line, we made a conservative decision and bailed from midway up the peak. Later in the day, we would notice wet slide debris littering the runout of our line.

Solar energy had now become a very real concern, as anything remotely exposed to the sun began avalanching naturally. We were confined to northern aspects at the higher elevations, but this was fine, as the line on Khuiten fit the bill for both of those requirements. Early the next morning we departed camp for Mongolia’s highpoint, and six hours after leaving camp we began cramponing up the headwall of Khuiten’s northeast aspect. The Chinese border lay within spitting distance to the west, and we gained elevation quickly, reaching the summit at 9:30 AM by way of a long, crevassed ridge. Khuiten means “cold” in Mongolian, and the peak lived up to it’s name that day. We wasted no time on the summit (~14,300 ft), and soon began our traverse back to the top of the face. I had my doubts about whether or not the descent would go. We had been ascending blue ice at times on the face, layered with skiffs of snow here and there. Maybe there was enough snow to ski, but would our edges hold on what little there was? The upper face checked in at the upper forty-degree range, and we ultimately decided not to risk what would undoubtedly be a long and fast fall in that zone, opting instead to downclimb. I couldn’t help but laugh at the relative absurdity of our position, halfway around the world and downclimbing with skis on our backs, but in the end, we lived to ski another day.

An attempt a couple days later on the north wall of Chinggis didn’t even get off the ground, as we encountered gushing water on the glacier in the early hours of the morning. The temperatures had soared and weren’t showing any sign of abating, turning the glacier into a maze of rivers and thin ice. We deemed the conditions “out,” and the next day packed out to the local settlement. We were treated to helping a local nomadic family move their settlement up valley for a summer of herding. Their adaptability and tough nature challenged my perspective on what is truly necessary in life.

Our travels through the most classic sector of Central Asia granted us a raw and unfiltered snapshot of humanity’s most basic values and what it truly means to live in the natural environment. We feel privileged for such a life changing experience, and express infinite gratitude to the Hans Fund, which helped pay for everything from logistics and translation to food and transport. Please visit our blog from the trip for more photos and words.

Summary

Project: Mongolia Skiing

Location: Altai Mountains, Mongolia

Participants: Ryan Minton, Aaron Rains, CJ Carter

Date: May 12 – June 17, 2011

Media & Links:

The Potanii Glacier as viewed from the Mongolian/Russian border on the summit of Malchin (13,050 ft), Tavan Bogd, Mongolia. Photo by CJ Carter.

Chinggis and Snow Church rise above the Alexander Glacier under starry skies. Photo by CJ Carter.

Ryan Minton on the summit of Malchin prior to a descent of its north face, with Khuiten (14,300 ft) beckoning. Photo by CJ Carter.

Ryan Minton rides the Mongolian/Russian border low down on Malchin’s north face. Photo by CJ Carter.

Climbing Peak 3884, which separates the Alexander and Potanii Glaciers. Spooky stability tests would turn us around soon after this photo was taken. Photo by CJ Carter.

Aaron Rains and Ryan Minton high on Khuiten’s northeast face. Looks can be deceiving, as the climb consisted primarily of extremely hard alpine ice. Photo by CJ Carter.

Aaron Rains and Ryan Minton downclimbing Khuiten’s northeast face. After deliberating on the summit, it was decided that skiing the face would prove too risky in the icy conditions. Photo by CJ Carter.

Peak 3884, scoured to the bone. Ice and instability turned us back on this face.Photo by CJ Carter.

Tavan Bogd seen from the high steppes of Bayan-Olgii, Western Mongolia. Khuiten is the obvious, broad peak just right of center. Photo by CJ Carter.

Tombstone Range, Canada 2011

September 27th, 2011 by admin

The Tombstone Territorial Park is located in Northern Yukon, with the Tombstone mountain range oriented roughly East to West.  The range is a crest of towers and spires, with large open valleys running parallel, providing access to the high peaks, located just below the Arctic Circle, and just above the Canadian treeline.
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We accessed the range by driving North from Historical Dawson City on the Dempster highway.  The Dempster is the only year round maintained road that crosses the Arctic Circle, and it actually goes clear to the northern coast of Canada.  This road provides access to many, many mountains in central/northern Yukon.
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The hike in was quite grueling, as the lower elevation snowpack was a little less then a meter deep and 100% unsupportable facets!  While wallowing basically to the ground, with the occasional willow snagging the tip of your ski, combined with the zero visibility because of stormy weather, made the approach very demoralizing to say the least.  We wondered if these mountains were actually there, and if an unsupportable snowpack would be conducive to skiing anything, let alone the steep lines we were hoping for.  But as we neared the head of the Valley the weather lifted and the snow changed, revealing the mighty peaks of the Tombstones and raising our spirits.
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All in all we spent several weeks, skiing and moving basecamp around the North slopes of the range, and established a handful of descents – the highlights being a technical couloir tucked in a ridge above Divide Lake, and another stunning splitter couloir below the tower summit of Monolith Peak in the Tombstone Valley. Most of the skiing we did was in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Klondike and the Tombstone Valley.
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Being interior, the range is cold and in the rain shadow of the mighty ranges in Alaska and coastal Yukon.  Although there was enough coverage to find some interesting ski routes, we found ourselves wishing for “just 10 more feet of snow”, so that some of the other lines could go.  It was a very special experience being in a harsh Sub-Arctic range, climbing and skiing lines below the soaring towers of the Tombstones was truly an incredible trip!

Summary

Project: Tombstone Range Expedition

Location: Tombstone Range, Yukon Territories, Canada.

Participants: Drew Pogge, Clark Corey

Date: mid April, 2011

Media & Links:

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Photo by Clark Corey.

Central Lahaul Massif, India 2011

September 26th, 2011 by admin

“Too much snow.”  Accompanied by a slow shaking of the head, this seems to be the mantra of the people of northern Himachal Pradesh, for this spring of 2011.  The past winter is already gaining legendary status, as residents of the Kullu recount the fierce winds that scoured up and down the valley.  The dormant orchards of Old Manali, at 6000’, were buried in numerous snowfalls, while further up valley, above 9000’, the snow depths were prodigious.  People would just point up above the first stories of many buildings, to indicate the height of snow in places such as Solang Nala.

For our group of five skiers from the east side of the Washington Cascades, the repeated reports of “too much snow” are received with skeptical optimism.  Like an over-hyped Seattle weather forecast, the correlations to reality in the mountains, from a valley dweller’s perspective, could be minimal.  Or, conversely, we could be blessed with the good fortune of a prime season for spring ski mountaineering in the high peaks.

One certainty, however, is that the Rohtang Pass will remain closed to vehicles for quite some time.  Having seen the massive drifts and intimidating fans of avalanche debris from nearby peaks, we cannot imagine a plow punching a navigable route through anytime soon.

The Rohtang (“death plain” in Tibetan) is, ironically, by far the friendliest pass over the Pir Panjal, a sort of Himalayan front-range, well known for deep snow, big vertical relief, and amazing backcountry skiing. Beyond the Rohtang La, north of the Pir Panjal, there are still more mountains, filling the horizon on all sides with a jagged sea of peaks.  Prominent in the apparent chaos, and occupying the skyline immediately north, across the beautiful Chandra River Valley, is a knot of mountains called the Central Lahaul Massif.  This is really just a name for a small segment of the Great Himalaya Range, which happens to lie in the region known as Lahaul.  Distinct from much of Himachal Pradesh geographically, climatologically, and culturally, Lahaul, along with the neighboring region of Spiti to the east, exists in a sort of transition zone between the high precipitation mountains of the Kullu Valley, and the high desert of Ladakh.  It is a stunning place of high, arid valleys and intense winter cold.  The ice on the big rivers can form shelves many meters in thickness and the valleys can be buried in dry, cold snow.  The people tend to be Buddhist.  Most villages lie at an altitude above 10,000’, with nearby peaks rising to over 20,000’.  In late autumn, the passes accessing these regions, both to the north, with the Baralacha La and Tanglang La from Ladakh, and to the south, with the Rohtang La from the Kullu, begin their sequential closing.  Thus ensues the seclusion of the local people, who will be cut off from supplies and the flow of travelers for many months.

Since our intent is to make a ski traverse of the Central Lahaul Massif, it becomes clear that, in order to even reach the start of our trip, we will have to first cross the Pir Panjal on skis.   Supplies will be an issue.  While the people of Lahaul are known for their generosity, we are not comfortable with the idea of demanding too much from people who have just weathered a hard winter with very basic food.  We will gladly pay for simple meals of rice and dal, if available, but provisions for the mountains will be difficult to obtain.  Thus, all of our supplies will come from the abundant markets of the Kullu.  Our svelt packs will swell to bloated hogs, which will be carried up and over the 13,000’ Rohtang La.

While the pass will not open for vehicles until June, with the settlement of the spring snowpack, and prevailing freeze / thaw conditions, the precedent has been set for passage over the Rohtang La in the form of human foot traffic.

The neverending task of maintaining and improving the roads of northern India provides work for a large force of migrant laborers.  In the lowlands, many of the hard jobs are held by Bihari people, originating from India’s most impoverished state.  But here in the mountains, much of the road work will be done by Nepali migrants, who get to job sites early, crossing high, snowy passes on foot, with little food and inadequate clothing.  “Many people die every year”, a local friend tells us.

Compared to the Nepalis, walking on frozen snow in plastic sandals, with wooden walking sticks and wool blankets, my friends and I are ridiculously over-equipped.  We are carrying twenty days worth of supplies on our backs in addition to the normal gear and clothing that white folks like to bring into the mountains for extended stays in glaciated, high-altitude terrain.  We move slowly, finding a point of balance and appropriate pace for packs that the locals say must exceed 100 lbs.  We move self-sufficiently, employing no porters, but fascinated people insist on feeling the weight of our packs, hefting them with a groan and a chuckle.  “Too heavy.  I think more than 45kg.”

Although a cold, incessant wind funnels through the pass from the north, the travel is straightforward and gorgeous, with good snow underfoot.  To ease the suffering, and assist with acclimatization, we make double carries to the pass.  This allows time for quick and beautiful ski descents of Rohtang Ri and Dashaur, two 15,000+’ peaks that stand on either side of the pass.  We camp in the lee of a rock outcrop, on the crest of the range, trying to make sense of the profusion of peaks that unfurls to the north.

This biggest winter in anyone’s recent memory has left the high valleys of Lahaul deeply snowbound.  Our original intent is to attempt a west to east traverse of the Central Lahaul Massif.  However, this would set us up to emerge from the mountains with perhaps a solid week of slogging, over unplowed roads and through interminable avalanche debris, in order to return to a starting point.  Instead, we consider a north to south traverse.  North of the Rohtang,  slightly less snowy, more livable terrain trends west, along the lower Chandra Valley from the village of Khoksar, and then north, up the Bhaga River Valley, towards the regional hub of Keylong.  These sections of valley hold much of the regions year-round population and are served by a local bus.  Plows do battle with formidable avalanche paths in order to keep this small stretch of road open.  By utilizing this local bus service, we will be able to start our traverse on the north side of the range, at a small village of 60 people called Darcha, and end-up in the Chandra River Valley, back at the village of Khoksar.

We enjoy a casual morning on the crest of the Pir Panjal, hoping that the eastern sun will soften the 3000’ descent into Khoksar into something manageable with our huge, angry pigs.  A 9:30 am departure proves perfect, and we are fortunate to carve corn all the way down into the magical valley of the Chandra, at about 10,000’.

On the edge of town, on the roof of a snowed-in dhaba, a “police-wallah” sits in a broken plastic chair, surrounded by a lazy pack of mongrel dogs.  He wears a somewhat scary looking cotton mask, to protect from the incessant sunshine.  His job is to record the passport number and nationality of all travelers as they pass through this outpost, drawing nearer to sensitive borders with Pakistan and China.  A glimpse at the wrinkled pages of his haggard looking book reveals a string of Nepali passports, but no others.  In Khoksar, most of the town is still buried in several meters of snow, but a single dhaba is open for business, serving rice, dal, and chai to travelers passing through on foot.  We step down through the cave-like opening in the snow and sit down for a few plates of hot food and several glasses of chai.  We eat as much as we can, grateful for the opportunity to conserve our own supplies for the mountains.

A ski of a few kilometers on the river ice brings us to a plowed turn-around for the local bus.  Amid the normal stares and questions, we load our gear onto the roof of the bus.  The scenery is mind-blowing but the ride short lived, as a mudslide has crossed the road and the bus comes to a stop.  It is decided that another bus will come pick everybody up across the slide, so with luggage held high overhead, all passengers wade the mud and suspended rocks.  Soaked and slathered to the knees, we await the arrival of the next bus, as more and more locals seem to filter-in from the surrounding hillsides.  By the time the bus arrives, the crowd has swollen.  “You, you, you, on roof!”, shouts the ticket checker and we are somewhat relieved to have the chance for fresh air, unobstructed views, and the slight sense of exposure by riding on the roof.  With perhaps 20 others on the roof, and the inside totally packed beyond standing room, it is a true circus act.  The mood is light, with local people singing songs and faces absorbing warm afternoon sun, as the bus groans slowly through the valley.  The Pir Panjal loom to the south and the Lahaul Range to the east and north, formidable and fluted.

After a stop in the beautiful and friendly regional “capital” of Keylong, we arrive in the gravel plains of Darcha.  The landscape has grown more arid, even in the short trip north.  This is a place where junipers cling to the dry lower slopes of glacier-clad 20,000’ peaks.  The smell in the air is reminiscent of eastern Oregon, but the strings of weathered prayer flags and Buddhist stupas outside of town remind us that we are in a very different part of the world.  More Ladakhi than Himachal, the local greeting of “Joolay!” has replaced the more subdued “Namaste” with the journey north.

In this harsh place, the local people’s greeting is emblematic of their relationship with the land, and with each other.  This is not a place of mossy Zen understatement or shadowed ambiguity, but rather a treeless convergence of four powerful mountain valleys, where alpine sun blazes down on shattered, red sedimentary rock.  In the absence of sun, there is ice and snow.  The people gather in sunny pastures with their livestock.  Women knit gorgeous woolens while lounging in large groups, smiling and giggling at blond beards and burned faces. Never is “Joolay!” uttered in distraction, but always with intent, always with a smile and a shout.  Even after a hard winter, rather than garnering suspicion or a sense of clinging to what little remains, the people extend themselves with hospitality, offering tea and a chance to stay in their homes.  They seem to embody the beliefs of the Boddhisattva, working for the wellness of all beings, offering us sincere blessings for a safe journey in their local mountains.

A few kilometers of walking on river gravel yields to solid snow cover as we enter the valley of the Milang Nala.  With a subtle change in aspect, the snowpack is once again deep, at an altitude of 11,000’.  Glad to have skis underfoot instead of on our backs, we ski south, further into the heart of the Central Lahaul Massif.  The potentially raging and sizeable river is quiescent beneath our skis, muffled into a soothing background noise.  In places, where avalanche paths have converged from both sides of the valley, the Milang Nala is bridged with over 100’ of frozen snow.  It seems that the timing is fortuitous for a ski traverse up this amazing valley, as either an avalanche cycle or a lack of snow bridges over the river could render the travel impossible or at least much less pleasant.  With the current conditions, deep snow, stable on the mountainsides and solid underfoot, the Milang Nala feels like a gift from the ski gods.  In a region known for heinous, barely navigable canyons, this valley is wide, aesthetic, and welcoming.  The biggest obstacle to progress lies in the fact that every step reveals a new and inspiring ski line.  For perhaps 30 km, along the continuous 17,000+’ west ridgeline of the north-south trending valley, there are countless 5000’ northeast facing ski runs.  With kind camping, amidst warm gravel washes and huge boulders, we stop to ski and eat some of our substantial food weight.  We enjoy the freedom of open bivies and perfect weather.  Bare feet in sunshine and the ease of good, flowing water.

While the main valley of the Milang Nala is a sort of Shangri La, we are inspired to explore the true core of the range, the big glacier systems that flow from the flanks of the highest peaks.  Leaving a cache in the valley, we ski east with lighter loads, up onto the forks of the Mulkilla and Taragiri Glaciers.  This is big country, which could demand weeks of exploration.  The highest peak in the Central Lahaul Massif, Mulkilla (called M4 on some maps) stands at over 21,000’, at the head of these glaciers.  While Mulkilla itself does not appear to host a feasible ski line from its summit, the crew is stoked to ski from two 19,000+’ peaks before returning to heavy packs in the main valley.

Another day and a half of slogging delivers us to the heavily glaciated head of the Milang Nala.  Located just north of the crest of the range, this appears to be an area of heavy snowfall.  Inspiring peaks abound, well-slathered with a deep snowpack.  Yet another zone which would require more time than we have to explore fully, we inspect our remaining food supplies and prioritize objectives.  Here, we are finally forced to rest, as we weather our only “storm” day of the trip, which is really just a procession of squalls, interrupted by beautiful breaks in pearly gray clouds.  Highlights of this basin include descents of Sri Lata (18,000’+) and CB 49 (19,600’+).  On these peaks, we find classic ski mountaineering.  Steep skiing, variable snow, and big exposure.

With the looming potential for some unstable weather ahead, we are conscious of our location, with one big pass and an unknown valley yet to travel.  Fatigued from days of cramponing up big mountains, we choose to push onward, south, over the 16,000’ Tempo La.  Here, on the crest of the Central Lahaul Massif, we find views down the Khoksar Nala, and over to the Pir Panjal, where afternoon clouds are building to impressive heights.  We are fortunate, and the Khoksar Nala proves kind to tired legs. Consistently interesting views provide good distraction from fatigue, and pleasant glacier gliding allows for a relatively easy 5000’ descent down to the Chandra River Valley.  Emerging from the mountains amidst the hardscrabble agricultural terraces of local farmers, the river seems to roar a little bit louder than before.  Indeed, many big snow bridges have been washed away.  Spring does not yet have a full grasp on the land, but the smell of soil and swelling of streams makes us think that it’s not far off.

Back in Khoksar, not much has changed in the past weeks.  More dogshit has melted out of the snow and another dhaba is open for business.  We consume massive plates of rice and dal in the afternoon sunshine, thankful for the dissipation of ominous storm clouds.  We watch as locals continue the spring-long process of digging out, leaning on rusted shovels, and smoking bidis.

Exhausted, we find a massive boulder of immaculate schist, just a few minutes out of town.  This will do.  We spread sleeping bags amidst the tussock and lichen across the boulder’s flat top and lie down early for a long sleep.  The last rays of the evening illuminate the gompa across the river before it fades into the obscurity of twilight.  Distant barking of local pariah dogs infiltrates sleep, mingling with a Himalayan blanket of stars, instilling dreams of wolves unseen.  Here, in the valley of the Chandra, we sleep in the open, but are wrapped in the well-being of a special place.  A soft breeze moves down valley.  We sleep in fullness.

Summary

Project: Central Lahaul Massif Travese

Location: Lahaul Massif, Lahaul and Spiti, North India

Participants: Drew Lovell, Phil Marino, Alan Willard, Dan Veenhuizen, Ian Mallinson

Date: Spring 2011

Media & Links:

Our first glimpse of the many buried switchbacks of the Rohtang road. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Phil Marino finding good powder in the Pir Panjal. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Stoked locals! Photo by Drew Lovell.

Camp in the Rohtang La, the evening before descending into the Chandra River valley.  The peaks of the Central Lahaul Massif loom beyond. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Loading the bus outside of Keylong. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Alan Willard skins for another perfect 5000′ corn run in the lower Milang Nala region. Photo by Drew Lovell.

The crew outside the village of Darcha – sitting L to R: Drew, Phil Marino, Alan Willard, Dan Veenhuizen. standing: Ian Mallinson. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Our ascent up the N.Couloir of a peak called Sri Lata (18,000’+). Photo by Drew Lovell.

Dan Veenhuizen drops into the N.Couloir of Sri Lata (18,000’+). Photo by Drew Lovell.

Dan Veenhuizen carefully dropping-in on icy, tricky snow and 50 degree terrain at almost 20,000′ on Peak CB49. Photo by Drew Lovell.

Mount Shkhara, Republic of Georgia 2008

September 26th, 2011 by admin

It was sweet, we were jazzed and can’t wait to go back –

May 17 – flew out of Seattle

May 18 Traveled from Tbilisi to Ushguli

May 19 we did 2 carries that day bringing supplies from Ushguli (about 7’400) up to about 9’200 Spent the night with our host family for a second night.

May 20 Left Ushguli and walked up hill, at 9200 ft it started to rain, again , so we stayed there that night.

May 21 Moved up to 11’650, another afternoon thunderstorm.

May 22 Moved onto the Shkhara glacier were we set up our base camp at 11’500.

May 23 Had our first real day of skiing, under splitter skies.

May 24 went and skied, what we named Ushguli Dome, a dome feature that was a fun ski for about 2500. Then returned to our camp as Wx was moving in.

May 25-30 were spent in our tent while in snowed and was pretty windy. Although we did get about a 5 hr Wx window on the 28, we made use of it and went and got one of our projects in we called this Strongheart coulior = Ushguli. It is the coulior on the lookers left of Mt Shkhara, which topped out at 15’500. Approximately 13 – 18 inches of snow fell during this period, and very poor visibility.

May 31 we were greated with splitter conditions and had a great day of skiing some pretty good snow.

June 1 our last day of skiing. we headed up our main objective the obvious coulior on Shkhara. The conditions in here were great for climbing, but real firm and icy for skiing. This coulior topped out on the ridge around 16’500. Seth and I down climbed to the ice choke. Tyler put his skis on about 2/3 of the way down the coulior. And he had some really good turns. The coulior had a sustained pitch of about 54- 56 degress.

June 2 we moved back down to Ushguli, where we spent the night with our host family who were very impressed with seeing the images and video as they had no concept of what we were trying to do when we first showed up.

June 3 traveled to Mestia, about a 3 hr drive. where we stayed with our friend and interpreter Merab. Visited the Alpinism Museum, a great time of seeing the history of the climbing in the region, and there heroes from Mestia.

June 4 Traveled back to Tbilisi, about a 13 hrs drive on rough roads.

June 5 – 6 were spent in Tbilisi then flying home.

Summary

  • Everything we skied was between 40 – 55 ish degress. There is an abundance of steep skiing there. and lots of climbing lines there.
  • This trip was better then we could have imagined. We felt like we put a lot of work into the logistics in the beginning and it paid off. As there were no major glitches.
  • The people were absolutely spectacular, we were treated very well. They were really impressed with our accomplishments, as we toasted and drank with many new friends.
  • We were able to get a clearer sense of what and how we might be able to help with the Mountaineering tourism center. As they try to rebuild the Mountain Rescue program there.
  • This will be our next project, to try and give back to these great people. Its fun to try and take this on in the sense that we won’t be starting something, but helping to restore part of their important history, while promoting tourism to this area as they need tourism in their communities.
  • Even with so much bad Wx we were able to capture a lot of cool still images and some video for presentations later this fall.

Summary

Project: Svaneti Project

Location: Svaneti Region, Republic of Georgia

Participants: Jason Thompson, Seth Waterfall, Tyler Jones

Date: May 2008

Media & Links:

Denali South Face, Alaska 2009

September 26th, 2011 by admin

Big mountain skiing is elusive.  There is no other way to look at it.  I recently returned from Alaska where I attempted to ski the South Face of Denali with my friend Dan Corn.  Our attempt was just that, an attempt.

The beauty of big mountain skiing is that even if you cannot ski your objective you experience skiing in a away that is completely different then simply hitting the slopes at the local resort or the quick backcountry strike.  You wake up with a job to do and yourevery decision is based on the work at hand and the safety that is required to pull it off.

The thing about expeditions is that the job starts when you commit to the objective.  You train you body to be fit and resilient, you hone your skiing to be precise, smooth and powerful, and you train your mind to be present in the moment (a critical aspect of expedition life when you have a beautiful family at home).

Our expedition started May 11, my 40th birthday, a fitting gift to myself.   The start was typical Alaskan style, hurry up and wait.  The wind would not allow us to fly but we had to be present at the airstrip in case the wind settled down.   Flying is one of those experiences in life where you have no control, unless you have your own plane, you pay your money and take your chances.  You have to have faith that the pilot is not suicidal and that the plane can handle the load that you squeeze into it.  Crashes happen, in fact earlier in the season there was a Sesna lawn darted into the Kahiltna glacier.  No one was hurt but that is not how you would like to start an expedition.  Our wait was only one day, which gave us a chance to stimulate the local economy, passing the time with burgers and beer and more beer.  Perhaps the flight service gets a kick back from the Fairview.

Like I said before the expedition really starts once you commit and an injury could alter your trip.  Four days before ours was to start Dan was skiing in the Talkeetna mountains doing a first descent.  While skiing back to the car isothermic snow caused an unplanned pole plant right into a buried stump and subsequently a shoulder separation.  Dan, being young and strong, figured by the time we are actually skiing the steeps he would be healed. So once we landed we packed our sleds and started off.

Our stradegy was simple, approach up the East Fork of the Kahiltna glacier set a base camp and acclimatize with a few scouting missions then climb the S. Face and ski it.  The problem with big mountain skiing is that the conditions and the weather always trump stradegy.  The weather was perfect, too perfect, it was warm and the S. Face was getting baked.  We needed a storm to coat the face and by us some time to acclimatize.  The forecast was for more sun and increased winds from the north changing to the south.

The writing was starting to be on the wall as hints of blue ice started to appear.  We had been on the glacier for only four nights but it was time to try.   We packed up and started out.  Our thoughts were to at least scout the face and if we couldgo for the summit and ski it we would.  Our base camp was at 11,300 feet and we both felt pretty good there.  We skinned up to the shrund and strapped our skis to Speed 40L packs and started the climbing.  The climbing was good which did not bode well for the skiing.  Packs were heavy with our bivy gear and skis strapped on but the firm snow under foot was secure.  After about twelve pitches we chose a bivy site to put up out Firstlight tent.  When you are climbing steep snow and ice the bivy options are simple, you pick a reasonably protected spot and start to dig snow and chip ice until you can set up a tent.  That is why you chose the smallest foot print tent you can fit into and the Firstlight was just that.  The problem is without x-ray vision you never know when you may encounter rock.  We hit rock, but we had enough of a ledge to call it good.  With the tent over hanging into space we crawled in and brewed up.

I am an alpinist, I say that because when I day dream my mind wanders to far away lands with big mixed faces and blue skies.  Here I was in Alaska and the conditions were perfect for climbing yet I was torn.  The objective was to ski Denali but the conditions were prime for climbing.  Dan and I talked about bailing on the skiing and taking advantage of the prime climbing conditions.  The reality was 60 degree snow was all Dan’s shoulder could handle, terrain any steeper and he would have limited strength.

By morning we were both feeling the reality set, 60 degree slopes were best skied with softer snow not crust.  Our packs were heavy with our bivy kit and the snow was crust or ice so we decided we needed to change our plan and go around to the West buttress and ski with out a bivy kit and maybe if we were lucky we would get some snow to ripen the conditions.

We started down.  The first pitch off our bivy I belayed Dan as he skied but to call it skiing would be to say pond skimming is skiing, yes you have skis on and you are moving but skiing is more then equipment and motion it is rythem and flow.  Dan would hop turn and scrap awhile then hop and scrap again.  When skiing no fall terrain you have three options, first is to ski and not fall the next is to ski with a belay and last is to put your tail between your legs and rappel.  The sound alone curled my tail between my legs.  Over the next 6 rope lengths we rapped.  V-threads and one stubby screw were left as anchors.

Finally the slope dropped to 56 degrees and that was all it took to put our ropes away and click into our skis.  With forty-five pound packs on and steep firm snow we were not ripping it up like our dreams had envisioned but we were skiing and that put a grin on our faces.

Our end run around the Kahiltna peaks and up to the 14,200’ camp on the West Buttress route went smooth and we installed.  At first there was a bit of an adjustment time for to get use to people.  Our time up the East Fork was true wilderness now we were in the thick of the climbing season with many aspiring summiteers.  As we let our bodies adjust to the thinner air and prayed for snow all we got was a sun tan and wind burned.

Ultimately we had our skis on for about 65 miles and 15,000 vertical feet of up and 15,000’ of down but we only skied 1,000 feet of the South face and we never went to the top.

The hardest part of going home is the questions that race through your mind “what if we…” there are no answers but without the questions there would be no insight and learning for the next time.

Summary

Project: Ski descent of Haston-Scott route on the South Face of Denali

Location: Denali South Face, Alaska Range, Alaska, USA

Participants: Kevin Mahoney, Dan Corn

Date: May 2009

Media & Links:

Mount Russell, Alaska 2011

September 23rd, 2011 by admin

Zach Shlosar, Neil Waggoner and I originally planned on leaving May 1st, but due to Zach feeling ill, our trip was postponed a few days. His illness ended up persisting throughout the trip. On Tuesday, we thought we had the weather window. Paul Roderick, with Talkeetna Air Taxi, tried to fly us in, but we were turned around due to clouds covering the western end of the Central Alaska Range. It was the first time Paul had headed over there this year. That night we stayed in the TAT bunkhouse in hopes of flying in the next day. However, we woke to rain.

Finally, on Thursday we had the weather, and Paul was able to fly us in to our base camp. It was at the 8,500ft level of the Upper Yentna, with an impressive flyby around the West Face of Mount Russell. Soon after landing, we made camp and prepared for an early departure. Due to the postponed start in the trip, we decided to focus solely on climbing Mount Russell, eliminating our proposed traverse out to Chelatna Lake.

Friday, we made an attempt on the North Ridge with a ski descent . We skinned up to the top of point 10,000’. Clouds came in with snow obscuring the view of the ridge and route. The ski back to camp was a nice 1,500ft descent with stable and favorable snow conditions. The next day we skinned up to the saddle below point 10,000’ to get a good view of the mile long knife edge ridge to the North Ridge of Mount Russell. After spending a few nights at 8,500ft., Zach’s illness persisted, and his recovery was not as progressing as hoped.

We sat through building clouds and falling snow Sunday. Monday brought intermittent sun, so we went for an exploratory ski on nearby slopes.
Tuesday morning, we woke to 35mph winds that resulted in ground blizzard conditions that persisted for the next 48 hours. During that time, there was a lot of shoveling out the tent, playing cards, and listening to flapping nylon.

Thursday, we woke to beautiful weather and a wind scoured mountain. Zach’s illness showed no signs of improvement and recovery proved challenging at altitude. Therefore we decided to fly out the next day while we had the weather window. That day we climbed up the backside of an adjacent satellite peak and skied the hanging glaciers down to the Yentna Glacier.

On Friday, May 13th, we packed up camp and flew out midday.

Zach, Neil and I are all are very thankful for the financial support of the Hans Saari Ski Exploration Grant. Your confidence in me is most appreciated, and although the trip did not go exactly as planned, I learned a lot and am very committed to go back and make another attempt on Mount Russell next spring.

Summary

Project: Ski descent of Mount Russell

Location: Mount Russell, Alaska Range, Alaska, USA

Participants: Paige Brady, Zach Shlosar, Neil Waggoner

Date: May 1-13, 2011

Media & Links:

Paul giving us a fly by of the North Ridge before dropping us off at our base camp.  Photo by Paige Brady.

Setting up base camp on the Upper Yentna. Photo by Paige Brady.

Paige at the saddle of the 10K ft point before the knife edge ridge to Mount Russell.  Our turn around point the first day when the weather moved in.  Photo by Neil Waggoner.

The evening light from our base camp on the Upper Yentna. Photo by Paige Brady.

Zach starting the descent to the Upper Yentna.  Photo by  Paige Brady.

Paige and Zach before starting to ski from a satellite peak southwest of our base camp. Photo by Neil Waggoner.

Paige, Zach, and Neil before flying out of the Upper Yentna. Photo by Paige Brady.

Click on map to enlarge.

Mount Chamberlin, Alaska 2009

September 21st, 2011 by admin

In early June, Wrights Air landed photographer Matt Hage and I on a gravel bar along the Hulahula River, just down from Katak Creek. This would be our base camp for the next ten days. We had come to ski from the summit of Mount Chamberlin, the highest peak in the Brooks Range at 9,020 feet. Chamberlin is located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the east end of the 500-mile long Brooks Range. Within the Arctic Refuge are the highest peaks in the Arctic outside of Greenland.

Like all proper Alaska expeditions, we had almost no information, except this was serious bear country. Not far away, in 2005, grizzlies ate two people. We came prepared with a battery-powered electric fence, pepper spray, bear-proof food canisters, a twelve-gauge shotgun and a .44 handgun. We also knew the Brooks Range is famous for terrible snow. During winter, minus fifty-degree temperatures turn the thin arctic snowpack into knee-deep depth hoar. When spring arrives, the snow becomes knee-deep isothermal slop and mosquitoes swarm in black clouds.

As the drone of the Helio Courier faded away, we took stock of our situation. We were at 1,500 feet, 12 miles from the base of Chamberlin and on the opposite side the mountain from our plans. We also saw no snow.

Over the next two days, Matt and I cowered under crippling packs to establish a high camp within striking distance of Chamberlin. As we hiked, we watched three grizzlies run from our scent. We also questioned our sanity to lug ski gear into dry mountains.

At 5,000 feet we set up a high camp in the green tundra below the summit pyramid of Mount Chamberlin. For three days, snow and rain crushed our supplies. We returned to the Hulahula for more armaments. The next day we arrived back at our high camp, hoping for cooperative weather to ski Chamberlin.

On our seventh day, we left the micro tent at six in the morning, skinning up a dying glacier through clouds and mist. At 7,000 feet, we scrambled through snow-coated boulders and kicked steps up a 45-dergree snow face to a winding summit ridge of snow. A hundred feet below the summit, and still unroped, my foot punched through the roof of a crevasse into a cavern of glittering crystals. We tied together with a Dyneema rope, thirty feet apart and continued kicking steps up the twisting snow arête to the summit of the Brooks Range. We saw peaks and clouds to the east, west and south. To the north, the mountains dropped down to the fog-cloaked arctic coastal plain.

We knew that rescue was laughable in this lonely corner of Alaska, so we clicked into our skis and discussed the options. The recent storms had skimmed the small, yet dangerous, crevasses on the Chamberlin Glacier—our planned route of descent. Instead we opted to ski the 40-degree, snow-coated glacier ice along the glacier’s margin.

To our surprise, the skiing was decent. We made controlled turns, watching for crevasses and cornices in the flat light. Past the last crevasse, we carved hero corn for a few glorious turns until the snow deteriorated into isothermal slop. There we struggled down through the erratic snow for the final 2,000 feet to our high camp, feeling lucky to have had any skiable snow.

Matt and I camped for three more days at 5,000 feet, venturing into the midnight sun to get ski photos and into the daytime mist to document the Katak Glacier. We then slogged back out to Hulahula landing strip and waited for the Helio Courier.

Overall, we found this region to be thriving with summer wildlife—bears, caribou, wolf, sheep, birds—and countless species of flowers. The region is generally dry although Chamberlin and the nearby high peaks did attract their own misty weather. (Nearby Kaktovic on the Arctic Ocean averages four inches of precipitation a year. To see current mountain weather, go to: www.uaf.edu/water/projects/champ/mccall/ahab/current.html. The Ahab site is at 7930 feet.)

Summary

Project: Mount Chamberlin Ski Decent

Location: Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, USA

Participants: Joe Stock, Matt Hage

Date: June 2009

Media & Links:

Matt at high camp. Photo by Joe Stock.

Matt on the summit. Photo by Joe Stock.

Skiing from the summit. Photo by Joe Stock.

Glacier Sampling

On this trip we took a two-pound, Trimble GeoXH handheld mapping-grade GPS to sample the surface elevations of the Katak Glacier. At 20 sites, starting from the safest high location on the glacier, we measured the elevation of the glacier surface. By comparing this current elevation—five-foot vertical accuracy—to the elevation at the same location on the 1956 paper maps—50-foot vertical accuracy—we measured an average glacier elevation drop of 89 feet. We also measured an average snow depth of 20 inches. Our findings indicate the Katak Glacier is a remnant from the Little Ice Age and will soon be gone. Please note this was an observational study, not a scientific study.Glaciologists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks are conducting a large scale study of nearby McCall Glacier as part of a larger study on the effect of climate change on Brooks Range Glaciers. See www.uaf.edu/water/faculty/nolan/mccall/index.htm for more information. They have found that all of the Brooks Range glaciers will be gone in 50 years if the current climate trend continues.

On the Katak Glacier below the northeast face of Mount Chamberlin. On the map below from 1956 this face is mostly snow covered. Photo by Joe Stock.

The 1956 USGS map of Mount Michelson (B-2) showing our profile of 20 sample sites on the Katak Glacier. Site C1 was as close to the headwall as safety allowed. Site C20 was the last site that showed signs of ice-cored moraine.

Sampling a site on the Katak Glacier with the Trimble GeoXH handheld GPS and snow depth probe. Photo by Joe Stock.

Site

GPS

Map

Elevation

Name

Elevation

Elevation

Change

c1

6464

6640

-176

c2

6425

6580

-155

c3

6404

6530

-126

c4

6392

6500

-108

c5

6383

6450

-67

c6

6367

6400

-33

c7

6336

6360

-24

c8

6308

6320

-12

c9

6268

6280

-12

c10

6228

6260

-32

c11

6185

6240

-55

c12

6147

6230

-83

c13

6097

6200

-103

c14

6058

6170

-112

c15

6015

6130

-115

c16

5930

6050

-120

c17

5851

5990

-139

c18

5799

5900

-101

c19

5719

5820

-101

c20

5568

5680

-112

Average Glacier Elevation Change

-89 feet


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