Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mount Balchen's Alchemy Ridge

Here are a few pics from my two-week trip to the Hayes Range with Matt Klick in June 2009, during which time Matt and I completed the first ascent of Mount Balchen's Alchemy (North) Ridge (V AI4 M7) in 14 long pitches. Though the route has a difficult crux pitch, Matt and I would like to ensure that we communicate that this is not the most difficult route in the Hayes. Rather, it is a very sustained mid-level difficulty route with a couple of hard pitches in gorgeous terrain.

We waited two days to fly in to a gravel strip at the base of the Northwest Ridge of Mount Hayes at about 4000 feet after making a food drop. Here is a shot of Robert Wing's Super Cub at the gravel strip. He flies hunters and climbers in to the Hayes Range as part of Wing Air Service.

From the base of the Northwest Ridge of Hayes, we walked for seven miles to our basecamp in the Hayes basin at around 6500 feet. Below: Here I am starting out on the approach from the gravel strip. Photo: Matt Klick

After arriving in basecamp, we did some recon and made plans to attempt the North Ridge of Balchen as our first objective in the area. Little did we know, it would be the only route we would attempt due to bad weather, and we would receive only 5 hours of clear weather while on route. We had 12 days bad weather out of 14 total. We ended up sitting for several days before deciding to make an attempt.

Below: A shot of the North Ridge from Mt. Geist courtesy of Jeff apple Benowitz. We climbed to the col from the Hayes Glacier side, but our photos from that side don't show any of the climbing on the ridge since climbs primarily on the west side which is visible in this photo.

We walked into a sucker hole with eyes wide open, seeing a dense haze of moisture approaching us from the North. In two days round trip, we had about 5 hours of clear weather, with high winds the entire time. The worst punishment was on the upper ridge and summit where we were engulfed in a lenticular w/ less that 50 feet of visiibility at all times, and lots of blowing snow. It was often hard to stay warm due to convective heat loss.

Below: Here I am on the approach to the col. Photo: Matt Klick

Right: And, here is the beginning of the ridge as it climbs from the col.

Below: The sucker hole slams shut and we are engulfed in bad weather. Photo: Matt Klick

Below: Here I am melting water at a brew stop toward the end of the first day, just below the technical crux pitch. It was cold and windy, and hard to keep the Jetboil going! Photo: Matt Klick

Below: Here I am onsighting the crux pitch above our brew stop. This pitch was technical, pumpy, and sustained, with multiple cruxes requiring all the tricks in the book. It was a very fun pitch which overlooked the east and west faces of the mountain from an arete at the top. Matt led a really nice pitch of AI4 mixed directly after this pitch, after which I led another classy mixed pitch with a couple of harder moves. On the route photo at top, these pitches are in the obvious steeper rock areas on the ridgecrest.  Photo: Matt Klick

Below: A few pitches after the crux, we dug into a 70 degree rime slope and spent the night in our bivy bags with no sleeping bags. It was a cold night. We did bring a jetboil, so we could melt water, but the winds were so high it was difficult to light and keep the Jetboil going. And, unfortunately, the weather did not clear overnight as we hoped. Photo: Matt Klick

Right: Entering the lenticular cloud cap as we approach the summit cap of Mount Balchen. The next few hours we were engulfed in high winds with often near zero visibility. After summiting, we returned to the point where the ridge meets the summit snowfield and made six rappels down the east face to the top of the east face snow/icefields, at which point we downclimbed for about 2500 feet of snow and ice, sometimes thin over slabs.

The weather was bad for the rest of the trip, except for our walk out day, which was hot for the first half. The bad weather returned on our fly out day, and we barely made it out of the range as the weather was shutting down.