212th Rescue Squadron

If you need a rescue in remote Alaska, you hope it's the 212th Rescue Squadron who shows up. These are the para jumpers in the Air Force, also known as PJs. They have the skills and the gear to pluck you from anywhere. A famous example of their work was the rescue of Jack Tackle from Mount Augusta by Dave Shuman.

Anchorage PJs are often in my avalanche classes. They are the unassuming students sitting in the back. The ones that are attentive and quiet, until it's go time.  

Bobby Schnell—one of the PJs—and I discussed training together for several years. This spring it happened. With two separate groups, we first practiced rock and ski mountaineering skills near Anchorage, then flew into the Alaska Range to apply those skills. Except for the second trip, where the Alaska Range wasn't happening, so we shifted to plan B. 

Brock Roden on day one at Emendorf Air Force Base, making plans and sorting systems. The PJs have more training than any 10 Mountain Guides combined, but their training is different than guides'. They wanted more lightweight mountain travel techniques to add to their arsenal of skills. 

Multi-pitch climbing on the Seward Highway. Although the Seward Highway ranks among the worst climbing in the US, the views are great and climbing starts at fun, and just gets better from there. 

Ted Sieroncinski, belayed by Bobby Schnell, climbing ChugachChoss above Anchorage. 

Near the top of Sunshine Buttress, a multi pitch 5.7. Standing is Matt Komatsu, the head honcho PJ, who is working on a degree in creative writing at University of Alaska in Anchorage. 

ShaneHargis (pointing) and I instructed together on the first trip. Shane has tons of experience from years of training Marines in Bridgeport California and from LOTS of personal climbing in California. His hands are like meat hooks from years of being crammed in California cracks. Although our training is different, it was very easy to work withShane. Shane and the PJs converted me to the 5:1 up crevasse rescue haul system, which puts less force on the anchor and uses less space.  

The Sterling Hollow Block is a standard autoblock backup for rappelling. One drawback to the Hollow Block is that it gets slurped into an BDATC Guide if used for progress capture, whereas standard six or seven millimeter cord doesn't get sucked in. For ski mountaineering, where skinnier ropes are used, a better belay device would be an Edelrid Micro Jul (if you can figure out the confusing thing) or PetzlReversino, which are designed for skinnier ropes. 

After a couple days of climbing and ski practice around Anchorage, we flew into the Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range. A one-hour flight direct from Lake Hood in Anchorage.

Camp on the Pika Glacier.

Base camp living.  

Christian Braunlich at a hanging belay above the Pika Glacier.

Sonny Carlos rapping back to base.

Winding through an icefall below Italy's Boot.

An early morning crust tour near Italy's boot.  

Brock likes training. 

On the last morning, before flying back to Anchorage, Christian, Shane and I pumped a four-hour lap around a bunch of mountains. 

On the second trip, fifteen hours after reading a horrendous Alaska Range forecast, we were way south, where the rock is dry and Ted and Bear had to make difficult breakfast choices. 

Chris Bailey leading pitch two. A few days earlier he'd never rock climbed. PJs learn fast.

Sieging the crux, PJ style. Bear leading, Matt Kirby cheering from above, while Chris Bailey waits his turn. 

Thanks for an incredible three weeks you guys! 

2016 Denali Ski Base Camps

Among back-to-back trips last spring I had four Denali Ski Base Camps. Each trip confirmed my Denali addiction. It's not the kind of addiction that involves manhauling for days on snowshoes. Rather it's the kind of Denali addiction that involves skiing stable powder in big mountains with passionate people from around the world. 

The first trip started with big weather. That's what can happen in big mountains. Here's Austin Ranz and Philipp Becker storm skiing in the Ruth Amphitheater. They are friends of Brint Markle (not in photo) who I skied with in 2013

After the rager storm, it cleared and the Alaska Range emerged in typical glory.  

Brint testing a prototype of an Avatech snow measurement tool. Brint is the CEO of Avatech, a company that has tackled long-standing problems in snow measurement and information sharing. The company is going huge this year with Mountain Hub.   

Mike Schmid and Bryan Herold, back in the Alaska Range. This was our third trip together including the Western Chugach and a Denali Ski Base Camp in 2015

Mike modeling and testing snow quality for me. He does a good job. 

Booting two thousand feet of powder-filled coulie.

Mike below a run we called Flat Mike. At the summit, we took photos of Flat Stanley (a paper cartoon character) for his son. While in the chute, Mike took the skier's right gully, below the massive cornice. Watching from below, Bryan and I worried we'd be getting some flat Mike photos if the 40-foot cornice snapped off and steam-rolled Mike. 

Mike doubling down on burgers.

First step into the Alaska Range with four Scots: Al Conroy, Jonny Lonie, Becca Rankine and Tom Collins. 

First tour of the trip with the Scots.

Safe zone to safe zone in pow-filled coulies.  

Mid-afternoon noodle break before another run. 

Next year I want to ski out there, in those shady slopes and chutes. Anyone keen to go exploring with me? 

Becca below an ice cliff. Leading into this line was the epitome of guiding for me: onsight in big complex terrain. A few days earlier, Canadian IFMGA Mountain Guide Cece Mortenson told me how lack of spotters had been a factor in some recent avalanche accidents in Canada, including Robson Moser. Following Cece's reminder to always have a spotter, I used a talkabout radio to leap frog a spotter down above me. At one point I made steep powder turns above this ice cliff, with Jonny spotting, until I found a sneak to skier's right, into this pow-filled glacier-bowl. My only mistake was not getting some ice for our selection of Scotch. 

Becca modeling for my camera and testing snow quality into an unknown glacial basin. This valley exited into rolling moraine and a hanging terrace back to camp. 

We camped near Jim and Sarah Sogi. They live in Hawaii and ski around the world, wherever the snow is good, which means I often see them in Alaska. Each evening we socialized with Jim and Sarah at their nearby luxury camp. 

Booting another coulie to ski it's fluffy surface. I find photos of climbing chutes more captivating than photos of skiing chutes. Perhaps it's because the untracked snow gives that feeling of wanting to know what's ahead. Anticipation is much of the allure of backcountry skiing. 

A few hours after leaving our neighborhood, Oliver Evans, Amy Downing and Ben Crawford (out of photo) summit an Alaska Range peak. Last year Oliver and I skied steep north facing powder in the Western Chugach. This year we planned to ski again, somewhere. As the date approached, conditions looked best in the Alaska Range. 

Base camp. Jim Sogi loaned me this vestibule for my Hilleberg Atlas. 

Powder and corn in early May.  

Beating the afternoon heat. 

The Broken Tooth.

Clouds cloaked our mountains on the third day, so we skied near the rocks for visibility. This was a striking chute that I'd ogled over last spring. 

Amy ready to ski.  

After two runs among the rocks, we headed back to the tent and listened to an entire season of Serial, about an Army deserter in Afghanistan. At 6pm, Pilot Paul Roderick picked us up to return to Talkeetna. 

We stopped at the Ruth Gorge base camp to pick up some French climbers. Back in Talkeetna, we realized the small town was packed with weather-delayed climbers waiting to fly in. Turns out, our flight was the first and only flight all day. Paul is good to us like that. 

Thanks for the fun trips everyone! 

How to Read Glacier Health

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Glaciers are visual indicators of climate, if you know how to read them. With a trained eye, mountaineers can simply look at a glacier and know the local climate trend. After numerous discussions with glaciologists, I've narrowed down a list to five visual indicators that a glacier is unhealthy. 

1) The glacier lacks snowcover 

Snow feeds glaciers. At the end of summer, if a glacier is less than two-thirds covered with snow, then it is an unhealthy glacier. In other words, before the first winter snowfall, the equilibrium line altitude, which divides the accumulation zone from the melt zone, should be no more than a third of the way up from the glacier terminus—otherwise the glacier is losing volume. 

A small, unnamed glacier in the Chugach Mountains. This glacier's equilibrium line altitude is at a good position for a healthy glacier. The problem is, this photo was taken in early July. Two months of summer melt season remain. Many small glaciers in Alaska will soon be gone.

A small, unnamed glacier in the Chugach Mountains. This glacier's equilibrium line altitude is at a good position for a healthy glacier. The problem is, this photo was taken in early July. Two months of summer melt season remain. Many small glaciers in Alaska will soon be gone.

2) The ice has lost thickness 

In response to warmer temperatures, glaciers lose ice through thinning, even more so than by receding. From a climber’s perspective, your altimeter or GPS might register elevations lower than those shown on the map. Some glaciers, such as the Taku Glacier in Alaska's Coast Range or the center of the Greenland ice sheet, have increased snowfall in their accumulation zones. This is because the warmer than normal temperatures, while remaining below freezing, allow the air to hold more moisture and produce more snow. 

Navigating by GPS in the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. Maps worldwide show glacier elevations higher than your GPS will read.

Navigating by GPS in the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. Maps worldwide show glacier elevations higher than your GPS will read.

3) The glacier end is a ramp

Receding glaciers have a relatively crevasse-free, sloping snout, like a wheelchair ramp, created by ice stagnating and melting in place. Healthy glaciers, like the Taku, have heavily crevassed, vertical or bulbous fronts. 

The Raven Glacier in the Western Chugach. You can walk right onto receding glaciers.

The Raven Glacier in the Western Chugach. You can walk right onto receding glaciers.

4) Trim lines surround the glacier

Like bath tub rings, thinning glaciers leave trim lines on the valley walls that show the most recent high ice level. As the glacier melts down, a visible line remains on the valley wall between the vegetated and lichened terrain above and the exposed moraine and lichen-free rock below. Like high water marks, trim lines surround shrinking glaciers worldwide. Most obvious are trim lines from the Little Ice Age that ended 100 to 150 years ago. Unhealthy glaciers have trim lines far above the glacier surface. 

Climbing Mount Baker's Easton Glacier with trim lines visible high above the present glacier surface.

Climbing Mount Baker's Easton Glacier with trim lines visible high above the present glacier surface.

5) Moraine surrounds and covers the glacier's end

With less snowfall and warmer temperatures, the glacier conveyor belt slows and moraine accumulates on the glacier surface, sometimes until the ice is entirely covered. Thus, receding glaciers have moraine-covered melt zones, while healthy glaciers have white-ice melt zones. When the ice under the moraine melts, the mud, rock and boulders become ground moraine. Early successional species, such as moss and alder, grow on this newly exposed land in the wake of a receding glacier. In contrast, the vegetation in front of a healthy glacier is characterized by climax forest, with old-growth species, like hemlock.

Moraine in the Western Chugach Mountains.

Moraine in the Western Chugach Mountains.

Big glaciers are hard to read

Big glaciers and glaciers in winter can be difficult to diagnose. In winter and spring, a thick blanket of snow covers most glaciers. During this time, seeing glacier health indicators like moraine and trim lines is more difficult, but still possible. Diagnosing glacier health on some big glaciers, such as the Kahiltna Glacier on Denali, presents another problem. On Denali, most climbers fly to 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna and spend their entire trip on a thick seasonal snowpack where the glacier appears fat and happy. In these situations, observe the melt zone on the flights in and out, looking for trim lines, fresh moraine, and moraine-dammed lakes.

Touring near Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Touring near Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Every season us mountaineers find changing climbing conditions in the glaciated mountains. As glaciers melt down, bergschunds become wider, making route access more difficult. Once on the route, you’ll find steep glacier headwalls normally covered by spongy neve have become black ice. And with less neve, you’ll see more rockfall, such as during the heat waves in 2003 and 2015 that closed Mont Blanc. But as glaciologist Keith Echelmeyer told me, “All change is not so bad—some routes may become more challenging and fun.” 

Nellie Juan Lake with Jeff

If you have an airplane, Alaska is at your fingertips. My neighbor and ski buddy Jeff Conaway now has the bush plane of dreams: a 1965 PA-18, better known as a Piper Supercub. It is equipped with wheel skis two feet wide. It is the most coveted transportation machine in Alaska.

Jeff picked me up at 7am and we drove two minutes to his plane at Merrill Field. Seeing clear skies to the south, we scratched our original plans for the Tordrillos, and went to the Kenai Mountains. 

Avgas isn't cheap, but it's still cheaper than skiing at Alyeska. 

We first flew over Turnagain Pass to admire our roadside skiing. 


Then over Grandview to see a massive pile on the tracks. Although it's been a winter-long glide avalanche cycle, this one may have been a persistent slab, awakened by the warm March sun. 


Above Nellie Juan Lake in the Kenai Mountains, deciding where to land and ski. 


Jeff at Nellie Juan Lake, putting the cozy on Cubby's engine. 

Nellie Juan Lake is surrounded by ski terrain. 


We chose a glacier circuit, sticking to terrain with low consequences if an avalanche should occur. A recent storm dropped 10-15 feet of snow at Turnagain. Turnagain is dry compared to Nellie Juan. 


Jeff above Day Harbor and Prince William Sound.


Smooth and creamy snow.  


A cornice fall avalanche in an unnamed valley. 


On the flight home we buzzed skiers on The Captain's Chair at Turnagain Pass. 


Glide cracks on Cornbisuit. This is the longest glide avalanche cycle in memory. Glides have been in the advisory for over 60 days. Glide avalanches are not predictable. You can't trigger a glide avalanche. All you can do is stay away, like these tracks indicate. 

Thanks for an incredible day Jeff! I think I'll swap in my Toyota for a Supercub. 

Mount Washington Ice Fest

From Rossland, Cathy and I went east to North Conway, New Hampshire. Friends from the area—Maddog, Elliot, Peter, Majka—hooked me up with Anne Skimore and Michael Wejchert, organizers of the Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival. At the ice fest I taught a one-day ice rescue course and a two-day avalanche course. Then I climbed with Anne Gilbert Chase, Jimmy Voorhis and Peter Doucette. Each amazing climbers and inspirational people. 

Anne Gilbert Chase on Super Goofers at Cathedral Ledge. She made this brittle and vertical climb look easy. It wasn't easy. Gilbert is from Bozeman where she is a nurse and climber. At the ice fest she worked as a Patagonia athlete and instructor. 


Gilbert attempting The Roof at Cathedral Ledge. The cracks were verglassed and hideous.


Jimmy Voorhis on the first pitch of the North Conway ultra-classic Repentance. He backed off the de-iced crux 15 feet higher up. I also led this first pitch, but was unsuccessful at talking Gilbert into leading the impossibly hard crux. 


Jimmy on Dropline with Austin taking photos. Steep and pumpy!


Peter Doucette leading Great Maddness on Mount Willard. This route has a New England Ice grade of V when fat. It wasn't fat. These New Englanders are good climbers. 


Me leading Gully 1. I finished in a snowstorm on the right corner. 


Peter fluffing my ego by acting like he is concentrating while following my corner finish to Gully 1.  

Peter leading Thinking of Jane. Overhanging smears of ice, dry-tooling dirt-filled cracks, thin protection.... The route finished through icicles to the top.  


Looking up through Peter's overhanging icicle finish to Thinking of Jane. 


Pumpy for Joe!


Local guide Craig Taylor demostrating the Chauvin Lower, a paradigm shift in lowering technique while belaying in guide-mode. Simply clip a biner from the master point to the loaded strand. This prevents the device from locking and provides a smooth lower. Too simple to be true! To clip the loaded strand, the victim must momentarily unweight the rope or you can do a load transfer with a cordelette. 

The other lowering methods include the normal re-direct to the shelf or a ratchet. The release hole is no longer used for lowering since it is all or nothing and results in accidents. 


Craig demonstrating the ratchet lower. With each crank of the gold biner, he can lower the victim an inch. A good way to get a small amount of slack. 


Peter demostrates the transition from guide mode to a re-direct lower. 

  1. Clove off brake strand (this becomes the re-direct).
  2. Rig the brake strand hands-free to a prusik loop at your waist for backup. 
  3. Rig cordelette from a munter-mule-overhand at the shelf to a prusik on the loaded strand. 
  4. Transfer load to cordelette by ratcheting the auto blocking biner. 
  5. Rig device to lower mode (clip in grey biner and unclip gold biner). 
  6. Change brake strand from a clove to a re-direct. 
  7. Release and remove cordelette. 
  8. Lower. 


My avalanche awareness course on Mount Washington. We visited with forecaster Jeff Lane, in green, who told us about current conditions and the avalanche history of Tuckerman Ravine.  


Wind was actively loading Tuckerman's, so we stopped at Lunch Rocks. This is the hardcore zone in the East. The crew I was with was so passionate about Tuckerman's that it put the feature in a regional perspective.

Thanks for a great week Cathy, Majka, Peter, Gilbert, Jimmy, Austin, Michael, Anne and Brad!