Mark Smiley: East Buttress, Middle-Triple Peak

Words and Images: Mark Smiley, Sterling Team Athlete Sep 18th 2015
Camp at the East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak
  • Mark Smiley
  • Sterling Team Athlete

The East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak has been on our mind for a while. Janelle and I both knew it would be one of the hardest climbs on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America list. Royal Robbins visited this area several decades ago, and described the Kichatna Mountains as "Yosemite meets the North Pole." The range is 85 air miles west of Talkeetna, Alaska. Granite spires 2000-3500 feet tall shoot up from the broken glaciers like something steep shooting out of something icy. If these spires were miraculously transported right next to the Bugaboos, I'm pretty sure the Kain Hut would go out of business. It's that good. What's not good, is the weather. Prolonged storms hit the range on a regular basis. We were going to bat against an El Capitan sized buttress, with seracs at the base and steep snow guarding the summit.

Mark Smiley: East Buttress, Middle-Triple Peak

First, a bit of history. The "classic" route on Middle Triple Peak has only seen five successful ascents. The ascents took place in 1977, 1982, 1991, 1992?, and, to my knowledge, the last successful ascent was in 1997. In 2012, Canadian alpinist, Nancy Hansen, and her partner discovered the bottom pitch of rock had literally fallen off the mountain. Much like what happened on Half Dome last year. The rockfall left a blank section that would need to be re-established. Nancy returned with bolting equipment in 2013, and climbed about 20 meters of this new blank section, placed two bolts, and then got rained on for the next 19 days. Game over

  • Talkeetna Air Taxi lands us on the Tatina Glacier

To tackle a route this big, we divided it up into digestible sections. First, the approach. We landed on the Tatina Glacier and needed to hump 200 pounds of gear, fuel, and food up and over a 1500 foot semi-technical col. An additional 50 pounds of food and back-up gear was cached at the LZ. Knowing that Alaska mountains can dump amazing amounts of snow, we buried an avalanche beacon in our cache, turned on, so we could locate it even if the probe and wands fell over and got covered by snow (glacier life hack). We did two round trips to the top of the col. It was brutal even though we were able to skin within 100 feet of the top of the col. The last 100' was steep and icy and required some actual climbing. Once the second load was on top of the pass we looked over the other side and quickly realized the steepness and heavy loads required a technical solution. We lashed the sleds together side-by-side pontoon style, and used the ridiculous amount of rope we brought to lower the sleds down the entire 1500' couloir. We had come from the LZ to our basecamp in 11 hours. Sleep came easy that night.

  • 100 pounds each. The route starts on the other side of this pass.

Second, re-establish the blank rock section and fix ropes as high as possible on the lower 1200 foot headwall. This was the steepest part of the 3200 foot tall wall. Day two, we ski toured over to the base of the wall to recon the scene. Very large and precarious seracs guarded the route on the right side. Above and left of the approach ramp a hanging glacier looked extremely cracked up. Janelle and I agreed that spending any extra time here was a bad idea. We snapped a few photos and we returned to camp. Two hours later we watched, slack-jawed, as literally tons of ice of the hanging glacier broke loose and cover where we had been with 20 feet of ice debris. A near miss, and a reminder that Alaska mountains can kill you without batting an eye.

  • Lowering the sleds down the steep south side of the access col.
  • Recon mission, in the serac blast zone. Bad place to be, so only stood here long enough to take the photo.
  • Debris covering our tracks.
  • Approach ramp. Where I stood to take this photo got covered in 20' of ice two hours later.

Day three, the sun was shining so we moved through the serac zone as fast as possible. Camp to the base of the wall took 40 minutes. The serac exposure time was about 15-20 minutes even moving in 5th gear. Barf. We located Nancy's bolts, and set up shop to climb a blank wall. This freshly exposed rock was still very crumbly, so hooking was not a great option most of the time. Instead I relied on pecker pitons and drilling bat hooks (1/4 inch wide by 1/4 inch deep hole that I'd attach a talon hook to). I also placed a rivet and another bolt on this section. It took forever...4 hours to be exact. Too long really. A big wall ninja could have done it way way faster, yet we were happy to have completed this piece of the puzzle. Two more pitches of slow-mo aid climbing brought us a little over 300' plum (not clipping any gear) above the snow. One the 1982 topo, this was the top of pitch 5. We fixed the ropes, left as much gear at the top, and rapped down. Back through the serac zone and up to our camp. We had made a significant dent, and we were totally stoked to be this far on only day three.

  • Just past the serac danger zone, base of the climb.
  • Fixing the blank 100' section took 4 hours of aid climbing.

Third, fix another 120 meters of rope on the lower section. We had 5 Sterling Ropes with us. Our 9 mm 90 m static line was fixed already, 9.4 mm 70m for fixing and backup lead line, 9.2 mm 60 m main lead line and for fixing, 61 m 7.8 mm Photon for rapping and hauling packs, and another 30m Photon for glacier travel. In hindsight, we could have done without the 30m glacier line and the 70 m 9.4 mm. But since we had it we wanted to use it. If we could get a total of 320 meters of rope fixed, it would be no problem to get to the first bivy spot, or higher, once we committed to the route.

  • 300 vertical feet of slomo A3 aid climbing.

The weather had something else in mind. Nine days of stormy weather to be exact. Everyday we would unzip the tent door, peek outside, and then fall back into the sleeping bag. The descriptors were words like, ping pong ball, milk jug, full-on, pissy, gnarly, grey bird, etc. We would sleep as much as possible, which was roughly 13 hours per day, and played a lot of cribbage. If you have to be trapped in a tent of that long, a notable perk is being with someone you can have sex with. Our Goal Zero Nomad 20 and Sherpa 100 solar kit kept our phones and iPad fueled which helped a bunch with the stoke. That is until we watched the movie, Everest. Very very poor life decision to watch that movie while on a scary mountain with your spouse.

  • Clear midnight skies but very icy rock climbing.
  • View from the tent. Serac wall had to be walked under to and from the route.
  • View of the approach to the base of the route.

The evening of day five the clouds cleared, our hopes rose, and we packed our bags. In the eternal evening Alaskan twilight, the mountain looked extra coated with snow and rime ice. The next morning, we red-lined through the serac zone a third time. Once at the base of the route we discovered the fixed lines were totally iced up from the storm. I started jugging up only to have my jumars slip on a regular basis. I made it up to the first anchor and looked higher, more icy ropes and pervasive vergas (thin smears of clear ice) on the rock. My trepidation grew. Am I getting soft or what? I rationalized the decision to rap back down by stating even if we made it up the icy ropes the pitch above our high point would be all iced up. We would wait for another day to push the route higher. We rapped back down and returned to the tent. Turned out it was a good thing as that afternoon the horrible weather returned with blowy snowy clouds.

  • One final push on a nice weather morning
  • Our high point, top of pitch 5 on the 1982 topo, 300' off the ground. We beefed up the anchors and "folded".One final push on a nice weather morning

The next window came three days later, day 11. Once again we red-lined under the seracs. Once again our tracks had been covered by avalanche/serac debris. I wondered how many more times would be able to walk under this hazard before it would bite us. The chorus from "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers was playing in my head on repeat as I broke trail. Things were not working out for us on this mountain. We jugged the fixed lines again, looked at the weather, our food supply, our rate of ascent, and our stoke. It would also take four more passes under the seracs in the best case scenario to make it happen. Neither of us wanted to accept that risk, and it was time to "know when to fold 'em". To say it was depressing would be an understatement. So much work to get to this point. On a day that was nice enough, we made the decision to bail. I considered leaving the fixed rope in place for a future attempt, but then I realized it would be at least 100 years before the glaciers recede to the point where the seracs are not an issue. So we pulled the ropes and walked back to camp. Alive and well, relieved we would not have to wait in another nine-day storm.

  • Double carried back up the col.

That evening, we packed our bags and post-holed our way back up the couloir with all our non-camping gear. The next morning we did another load, and then started lowering the sled pontoon down the other side. The silver lining in all the stormy weather is it left a bunch of nice powder for us to ski. Once we were about 800 vertical feet above the flat glacier we lined up the sled pontoon and let it go! The thing mocked down the slope at 60mph and finally stopped about a 1/2 mile away from us. The sled-free turns were some of the best of the trip, which helped with moral. Nasty weather kept us on the glacier another day and we flew out the following morning, back to the land of amazing smells, birds singing, green grass, and a shower.

  • Back at the LZ, we skied in the runway and waited for the TAT cavalry.
  • Garage sale or drying session?
Helpful things we learned about the route, and suggestions for future attempts. It can be done!
  • Footwear: Single boots are likely warm enough, like the La Sportiva Batura GTX 2.0, it was difficult to step out of the aiders with the big double boots. A techy approach shoe might be really good for those bottom pitches. The 200' above the blank section would go free at 5.10R is my guess.
  • Ropes: I'd take a 300' 9 mm HTP Static, 60m 9.2 Sterling Aero Dry, and 60m 7.8 mm Photon, optional 30 m glacier rope. You could fix 500' of rope and then get sendy.
  • Seracs: That is what shut us down. We have walked under many seracs to get to routes, but the difference is we had to walk under this active set again and again, and that stress got to us. Best case is you can crush the aid climbing and fix all 500' in one day. Then come back and get on the route and send. That way you are only exposed for two round trip missions. Exposure time is 15 min each way.
  • Timing: So few people go in here it's hard to know when is the best time. Good weather does happen, I'm told. Much later in the season than June 10, and the crevasses would be a significant hurdle on the approach and descent.
  • Gas: We were able to melt a bunch of snow in a sled with black garbage bag, and only cooked one or two hot meals per day. Only used 1/2 of white gallon of gas in 13 days!
  • Aid Gear: 5 Knifeblades, 2-3 of each size pecker pitons, set of standard nuts, two talon hooks, two skyhook (one big one small), and cams were enough to get up to where we stopped. The bat hooks I created were hard to find even the next day after drilling them, so a hand drill and a couple bits are recommended.
  • Weather: had the most reliable forecast, but reality was generally worse than what it predicted
  • Safe camping: The first flat spot on the other side of the col is where we camped at 5400 feet. It was 40 mins walking to the base of the route. If you camp at the lowest part of the Sunshine Glacier you are exposed to falling hazard in a big way.

Hope that helps. You can do it. Get 'er done.

Always more at Smiley's Project.