IRS Volcanoes Traverse
I love seeing mountains that I’ve climbed, especially when they look impossibly far away. Three active volcanoes, Iliamna (10,016 ft.), Redoubt (10,197 ft.), and Spurr (11,070 ft.), can be seen from Anchorage, so I’ve been thinking about an Iliamna-Redoubt-Spurr, IRS, traverse. Our route was 265+ miles, and we took 30 days for it. We passed through the Chigmit, Neacola, and Tordrillo ranges and finished in downtown Anchorage. I wanted to start on tax day to be consistent with the IRS theme, but we pulled it back a week due to the low snowpack.
We started as a group of nine, which is huge. I anticipated that the social dynamic would make up for inefficiency due to group size. John Sykes was skeptical. A few months before the trip he said, “Who are these people? Who is Andy Fischer?” When I described Andy to him he said, “Oh. I think I’m having dinner with him tomorrow night.” John had been working with Andy’s girlfriend, Kristin. Classic Anchorage.
I suggested the trip to Graham Kraft (Logan, Fairweather) on Fairweather last year and he said he’d make it a priority. John Sykes (Summer Classic, Winter Classic, Logan) signed on early and did most of the route planning and info gathering. John was particularly excited that the timing would allow his girlfriend, Kate Fitzgerald to join after the nordic racing season. Kate was the first alternate for the US Olympic team this year. She mentioned that she was training for the traverse, which made me nervous, but then she clarified, “Oh no, not physically, I just mean John has been getting me on steeper slopes and doing more winter camping.” Our early start also allowed Lindsay Johnson, Graham’s wife (!?!) to join before the fishing season. Jeff Crompton and Andy Fischer, roommates of Graham’s from college, signed up, and perennial favorites Eben Sargent (Winter Classic, Winter Classic, Denali, Iliamna) and Josh Mumm (Winter Classic, Summer Classic, Denali, Logan) rounded off the crew, because someone was going to have to break trail.
We were an incredibly indecisive group. We always are, but this took it to a new level. There were no alphas, no one wanted to step on anyone else’s toes, everyone was flexible. At best we could get an ‘I have a slight preference…’ from someone. Jeff labelled our group the ‘Doesn’t Matter To Me 9.’ We took votes. We even closed our eyes during the voting so that no one would feel bad. It was all very adorable.
We started with a flight to the base of Iliamna. We summited the day after flying, so it kind of felt like we had just climbed something off the highway, not particularly rewarding. But the weather was great and we could see steam vents, Cook Inlet, and our next objectives, Redoubt and Spurr.
We cruised down the Tuxedni glacier and made quick work of the distance between Iliamna and Redoubt. A storm moved through when we reached the base of Redoubt, dumping three feet of snow in two days. Just as we were losing visibility we stumbled across a tunnel through the glacier ice. The opening had a sheltered pocket that was protected from the wind and made a perfect refuge from the storm. Eben, Jeff, and John did some ice climbing, Graham and Jeff explored the drainage network for hundreds of meters (Jeff is in a glaciology grad program in BC and geeked out the entire time). We could hear the glacier groan and pop during the nights.
When the storm broke we moved up the mountain, but avalanche conditions were bad. We spent two more days camped, waiting for the snow to stabilize. Graham had a birthday. There was a running joke about our ‘tropical volcano’ trip, and Lindsay had organized a bunch of little tropical gifts, a Lei, drink umbrellas, dessert, coconut air freshener, etc. This was Lindsay’s first big ski trip and she packed in style!
Our intended route (NE ridge) looked challenging, and we had heard from Chris Flowers and Billy Finley that cracks and thin coverage prevented them from summiting earlier in the month. The additional hazard from avalanches convinced us to wrap further to the north to try a less exposed route. At ~5500 ft. we felt a collapse and listened… kept listening… as it propagated around us, maybe 4 or 5 seconds in all, longer than any of us had heard before. Then we watched two avalanches that were remotely triggered, between 1/4 and 1/2 a mile away on a fairly shallow slope. The collapse had propagated through several major crevasses to trigger the slides. Someone mentioned the difference between ‘red flags’ and ‘red lights.’ This was a red light. For our notoriously indecisive group, it was the single point of the trip where everyone agreed we would give up on Redoubt and get the hell out of there.
We skied up the Drift River and climbed onto the Double Glacier plateau to exit the Chigmit Range. The granite faces and towers were gorgeous. We found an incredible powder run on our exit from the 5000 ft. plateau down to Lake Clark Pass, so we dropped our big packs and spent the day skiing the glacier bowls. Jeff counted 44 tracks from our crew. We mooned several airplanes. It was one of the best ski days I’ve ever had.
Josh, Jeff, and Lindsay flew out at Lake Clark Pass, and the inflight brought our resupply of food. We never had to carry more than a week’s worth of food from this point on. Whoever invented the food drop was a genius. Graham took the most advantage… he had canned peas, fresh bread products, and fresh underwear and long johns in each resupply. All of his underwear and long johns were filled with holes (and unfortunately for everyone, the holes often aligned between layers), so he burnt each set after wearing them. I had pies in zip-lock bags at each drop. We were able to eat the first pie sort of in slices. For the next pie we cut the corner off the bag and squeezed the pie goo out. There were no complaints.
We sat out a few more storm days in the Neacolas, the timing was good because I got sick and had to lay low. The other guys got to ski some beautiful faces. On one of the storm days Eben said (while plugging one of his several nose bleeds), “Just another day lying in the tent, cleaning up my blood and eating crushed Cheez-Its with a spoon.”
We lucked out on another great section of powder to exit the Neacolas to Lake Chakachamna. This stretch was very scenic, big granite faces, beautiful broad glaciers.
Our next food drop was on the bank of the Chakachamna River. We had expected to carry two packrafts for river crossings, but left them on the plane when we saw that snow coverage was still good. We were now on the wrong side of the river from our cache, and without boats. Eben used his engineering prowess and confidence in Thermarest air mats (Eben works for Cascade Designs, makers of Thermarest) to construct a raft. Graham strapped shovel blades to ski poles to make a paddle, and Eben paddled across the river (25 m) towing our glacier ropes. Eben didn’t want to get his clothes wet if he fell in the river, so he crossed in his boxers. He loaded up the cache and we towed supplies across the river. I’m expecting a bidding war from Cascade Designs and Patagonia (boxers brand) for the photos.
After our resupply we started up Spurr. This was the highlight of the trip for me. Weather and snow conditions were perfect. We carried everything to a high camp at 9500 ft, which left an easy jump to the summit. The volcanic vents were pouring out some nasty fumes. Eben spent the night on the summit, the rest of us returned to fresh air back at 9500 ft.
We had route information from Joe Stock for a descent via the Capps Glacier. The route exploits a steep ridge between two steeper ice falls, very cracked up terrain. Eben probed ahead and pieced together our descent. It was kind of nasty, and getting to the flats of Capps Glacier was a big relief. From the Capps we wrapped onto the Triumvirate Glacier and enjoyed the scenic exit to Beluga Lake. John and Kate flew out from Beluga Lake and took our ski and mountain equipment. The flight in brought packrafts, more food, and fresh underwear for Graham.
Transitioning from the frozen Beluga Lake to the running Beluga River was entertaining. Our strategy was to walk to the limit of the solid ice and then scooch on the boat through the fragile slush. But the reality was more like walking until you broke through to the waist, then crawling into the boat and breaking up the remaining slush with the paddle. The process was reversed when we had to climb back onto ice at Little Beluga Lake. After the little lake we were ice free and cruised the river. There was one class IV rapid that we portaged, everything else was runnable. The river banks were lined with sands and coal; we tried to burn the coal to warm Andy after he swam a short rapid.
Hig had suggested that we time our exit on the Beluga River so that we could jet into the middle of Cook Inlet and ride an incoming tide to Fire Island. That sounded completely insane, so we walked the marsh/swamp/mud along the Susitna Flats toward Anchorage. Travel was pretty good when the weather was nice, but our crossing of the Susitna was wet and cold; a bushwhack through short shrubs but in a foot of water. There were frequent stream crossings that involved steep muddy descents, semi-controlled slides, followed by probing opaque water for a shallow crossing, then a slimy climb back to the flats. The mud claimed a shoe here and there; we joked about needing higher DINs (DIN is a quantification of how easily you can pop out of ski bindings). This was the only part of the trip that could be considered mentally challenging. I was curious how Andy would hold up; he was the only guy that hadn’t done this kind of trip. He was awesome, even-keeled with a fixed grin that cut through the rain, silt, and slime.
Even with resupplies, after 4 weeks we were all dreaming of real food. You know it is bad when you start hallucinating foods in the forms and shadows of rocks and driftwood. We spotted a chunk of foam on the horizon and Eben said it looked like a hotdog. It turned out to be a hotdog. We lit it on fire.
After two days on the flats we reached Point MacKenzie, only 3 miles from downtown Anchorage. There was no wind, the tide was coming in… so we loaded the boats and jumped in for the crossing at sunset (10:00 pm). We were nervous about the crossing due to the complicated and fast currents in Cook Inlet, but it turned out to be a very pleasant hour on glass-flat water. The current pushed us along at 2.5 miles/hour. The reflection of the setting sun on the downtown skyscrapers was awesome.
We took out at the bike trail at Westchester Lagoon, and were met by John, Kate, and Kristin. We went to Humpy’s for burgers. We were filthy, literally dripping with mud. I noticed a woman at a table near us that kept looking over her shoulder at Eben and then overheard her say something about a strange smell, ‘kind of like rain.’ The waitress brought an extra stack of napkins and said, “I don’t know if you guys want these, seems like maybe you aren’t too worried about being clean.” Graham ate too much and got a stomach ache, just like after Logan. Eben came back from the bathroom and described how clean the shoes were on the other guy in there.
We had some downtime in the ice cave. We shared books, including 74.5 Short Story Masterpieces (we were missing a page from the Mark Twain story). Jeff Crompton was inspired to write this short story during our stay in the ice cave.
April 13th 2014, lost in nether regions of the Chigmits, trying to survive:
Out of the alders and into the white out, I trudged forward to the melodic beat of Yo La Tengo’s “May I Sing With Me”, but this euphoric dreamlike state wouldn’t last long. Piles of once conical scoria lay waste scattered about the white surface. The melody ended abruptly and the dull drone of YLT’s “Mushroom Cloud of Bliss” took the stage for what would happen next.
Wind was funneling through half pipe-alleys, and the snow shot through like the passing of distant stars at hyper-speed. I would need to seek refuge, quick, and the wind eddies behind the scattered volcanics wouldn’t do the trick. As I paced forward I saw a hole in the distance, but this wasn’t any black hole, it lay below avalanche slopes of doom, where not even the most daring of snowmaching ABS pack carrying men of men would go. Yet I found myself in the mouth of this black hole, which would nonetheless be revealed as an artifact, an abandoned artery of the glacier in its once more vigorous days of glory. Now this Rothlisberger channel lay waste to spin drift, sublimation, and ice pillars of death collapsing from the ceiling. However, I was cold and wet, and the cave seemed dry.
There was only one way in, and this is where it might sound like a tall tale, but I swear it was a first descent. I ripped my skins and made the drop. The entrance to the cave brought about epic spines of wind sintered-graupel. Turn after turn of goodness, until the daunting breakthrough of “Mushroom clouds of Bliss” brought me to pure darkness, and then…silence…alone. I took to the fetal position and lay still with the word “perishable goods” in my mind, and what I thought may have been some lingering remnants of teenage angst. Perhaps this is because I ironically felt like I was being watched, and somehow judges in this cave of isolation. Was I?
A faint sound in the distance jolted me to my feet. I dug into my pack to find a headlight. The white LEDs were all burnt out, and the flashing red light was the only option left, with what appeared to be the last dying hopes of the energizer bunny giving a few more drums of doom on that god forsaken marching band snare.
Flickers of red light lit up the ice wall. With each flash I could make out the vergent isoclinal folds of the debris-rich ice. Alternating bands of bubble laden ice and flash freeze supercooled water painted the walls. Thrusts of basal till layers brought car sized angular clasts 10m up from the bed, where they have since been exposed from the same thermal erosion that formed this damn channel in the first place. These boulders now lay directly overhead.
A faint whisper of running water beckoned me deeper into the cave. I needed water. After weaving around piles of collapsed roof, I was able to trace the trickling sound into a side cave. A side cave? A distributary. Yep, about 2 feet tall. Shit. Part of the tunnel wove back into the main channel, while a fork lead to the left into, well, basically the intestines of the glacier. Rothlisberger never said anything about these tentacles branching out from the main, then again, he was likely smart enough to avoid the belly of the ice in person.
For what may also sound fictitious, the only way into the left branch was over a 15m drop, and although I had come this far and was mostly aware of the sunk cost fallacy, the sound of the trickling water beckoned me forward. With a whippit, a 70cm mountaineering axe, and some nth generation flat point steel crampons, I strapped up and headed for the depths.
The sublimation cups made for good pick placement, but the ice was brittle, and was still trying decompress from its once 500m of cryostatic overburden. I felt good creeping over the ledge, but within a body length of the top, Elvis leg kicked in thick. The rhythm of the shake brought about Norah Jones and Dolly Patons’ “Creepin’ in”, which was too fitting for the rate at which the ice was creeping in overhead. Anyways, as these stories go, I fell, getting jolted off ledges, expecting to stop, only seeing flashes of the tube at every 0.5 seconds, or at least slightly less than an additional 4.49m2 with each passing blink. I held my breath hoping that I might die first of suffocation before asphyxiation, or better yet, decking out.
With a desperate swing of my axe, the pick sunk into a trapped air bubble, which exploded upon contact releasing 1000 yr old atmosphere rich with pressurized CO2. The pick then preceded to hit rock, spark, explosion. The fiery burst followed me down the shaft like it would in some shitty Nicholas Cage flick, and I couldn’t just duck and roll, like in the Hollywood. Well, you’ve all heard of Jonah and Whale, so you’ll be prepared for what happened next.
I came to a smooth, spongy, pretty wet stop, and the fire seemed to go out on the wet walls of the…stomach lining? Had I come to the ripe age of 27 just to become someone else’s indigestion? Or something else’s? What could it possibly be? A moment later a massive wind funnel came shooting through, carrying what looked like my cocoa peanut butter honey calorie mix. Only it wasn’t wrapped in 2 day rations of Ziploc bags. Shit!
Before I knew it I must have been flying at ~343m/s in a ripe pile of dung. At this apparent Doppler speed I had a hard time hearing myself scream. Yet somehow the smell of feces was able to travel through the air faster than the speed of sound. Weird. As I looked up at the ever-fading sphincter, it dawned on me. I had always heard about this legend as a kid. But it couldn’t be, they said the Flowers’ expedition had already been through on their Handi Kraft to slay the beast. But it was…the Redoubt Ice Worm.
I came to a sudden stop against the cave wall, and with the flash of a red LED, the ice worm turned to me, looked me in the eye and said, “Sorry, too much de-hy Mountain House”. I accepted his apology and offered him some Mac and Cheese Backpacker’s Pantry. I looked at his toes, crooked and cold, saw a piece of Lowes tape covering his left arm, and finally asked, “What are you doing down here?” He said, “Same thing you are. I’ve been weathering this storm for years trying to get the right chance to ski the NE ridge of Redoubt”. Moments later, seven others emerged from the darkness; they had all been doing the same. To this day, I sit, wait, and wonder about the possibilities yet to come. I wait for the passing of the storm.