Island in the Skye

For two years we’d been working on plan A. We put together a knockout team, a challenging but doable route and a schedule dialed for success. But in Alaska, plan A rarely happens.

Our plan A bush pilot bailed two weeks before our trip. On to plan B! I called Glenn, James and Paul and they all said, “Sounds great. I’m ready for an adventure.” And that’s why we’ve been adventuring together for so many years.

Joe, pilot Paul Roderick, James Kesterson, Paul Muscat, Matt Sanborn, Glenn Wilson and Elliot Gaddy at our landing strip on the Yentna Glacier.  Glenn, James, Paul and I have been going on trips together for the past 22 years: Denali, Mount Baker, Mount Logan, Mount Marcus Baker, Iliamna Volcano, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Talkeetna Mountains, Chigmit Mountains, Arctic Refuge and now the Yentna Glacier. Matt is a new recruit to the team, a workmate of Paul’s, and Elliot is my business partner at  Alaska Guide Collective .

Joe, pilot Paul Roderick, James Kesterson, Paul Muscat, Matt Sanborn, Glenn Wilson and Elliot Gaddy at our landing strip on the Yentna Glacier.

Glenn, James, Paul and I have been going on trips together for the past 22 years: Denali, Mount Baker, Mount Logan, Mount Marcus Baker, Iliamna Volcano, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Talkeetna Mountains, Chigmit Mountains, Arctic Refuge and now the Yentna Glacier. Matt is a new recruit to the team, a workmate of Paul’s, and Elliot is my business partner at Alaska Guide Collective.

Our camp was perched on a 7,500-foot bench of the Yentna Glacier, surrounded by peaks including the mighty Mount Russell (11,670 feet) at the head of the valley. Denali ranger Tucker Chenoweth calls this location Island in the Skye. His daughter is named Skye. It did feel like an island. There’s no easy escape from this island enclosed by rock walls and icefalls.  We chose this place with the help of Steve Gruhn in Anchorage. Steve’s our man for adventure. Our plan A idea came from Steve, as well as our plan B.  Weather during the trip was mostly light winds and clear skies. Good weather in this region typically comes with north wind, which flows hundreds of miles across the tundra, then hits the mountains where we camped. The air rises and condenses on the summits around us. It’s a rare day without clouds lurking on Mount Russell. Pilot Paul Roderick warned us about the weather in the area. Paul knows.

Our camp was perched on a 7,500-foot bench of the Yentna Glacier, surrounded by peaks including the mighty Mount Russell (11,670 feet) at the head of the valley. Denali ranger Tucker Chenoweth calls this location Island in the Skye. His daughter is named Skye. It did feel like an island. There’s no easy escape from this island enclosed by rock walls and icefalls.

We chose this place with the help of Steve Gruhn in Anchorage. Steve’s our man for adventure. Our plan A idea came from Steve, as well as our plan B.

Weather during the trip was mostly light winds and clear skies. Good weather in this region typically comes with north wind, which flows hundreds of miles across the tundra, then hits the mountains where we camped. The air rises and condenses on the summits around us. It’s a rare day without clouds lurking on Mount Russell. Pilot Paul Roderick warned us about the weather in the area. Paul knows.

We climbed for nine days straight. This was our third and successful attempt on a 9,300+ foot peak. Our first attempts were thwarted by lightning, fog and crevasses. We climbed the 9,250+ -foot peak in the background as soon as we got off the plane.

We climbed for nine days straight. This was our third and successful attempt on a 9,300+ foot peak. Our first attempts were thwarted by lightning, fog and crevasses. We climbed the 9,250+ -foot peak in the background as soon as we got off the plane.

Phones are the new norm for navigation. At least that’s what I was starting to believe. I was more talk than action. It had been a while since I’d done any real whiteout navigation.  On this day a thin, bright fog settled onto the Yentna Glacier and I started walking in a circle of vertigo. I squinted at the Gaia route on the iPhone’s washed out screen, but could see nothing. I raised my glasses in the blinding glare for a brief glimpse and was reminded that iPhones are not reliable for navigation. Not only because they are hard to read in bright conditions, but because they freeze up quickly, the screen doesn’t work in wet conditions and water can ruin them. As Elliot said, “The iPhone works when you don’t need it.”  I got the job done by using the iPhone to set a bearing on my compass. The compass needle is easy to read in the glare. When the fog lifted my track was a perfect straight line from the compass bearing.

Phones are the new norm for navigation. At least that’s what I was starting to believe. I was more talk than action. It had been a while since I’d done any real whiteout navigation.

On this day a thin, bright fog settled onto the Yentna Glacier and I started walking in a circle of vertigo. I squinted at the Gaia route on the iPhone’s washed out screen, but could see nothing. I raised my glasses in the blinding glare for a brief glimpse and was reminded that iPhones are not reliable for navigation. Not only because they are hard to read in bright conditions, but because they freeze up quickly, the screen doesn’t work in wet conditions and water can ruin them. As Elliot said, “The iPhone works when you don’t need it.”

I got the job done by using the iPhone to set a bearing on my compass. The compass needle is easy to read in the glare. When the fog lifted my track was a perfect straight line from the compass bearing.

Elliot working the base camp kitchen of our six-person Hilleberg Atlas.

Elliot working the base camp kitchen of our six-person Hilleberg Atlas.

This 9,200+ peak had three summits. Each looked about the same height. So we bagged them all.

This 9,200+ peak had three summits. Each looked about the same height. So we bagged them all.

Good times anchor! It worked as a hanging belay.

Good times anchor! It worked as a hanging belay.

Glenn way above the Dall Glacier and a bunch of beautiful peaks, all with no record of ascent.

Glenn way above the Dall Glacier and a bunch of beautiful peaks, all with no record of ascent.

Paul and Glenn in the alpenglow at three in the morning on our final summit of the trip; a 10,100+ peak by Mount Russell.

Paul and Glenn in the alpenglow at three in the morning on our final summit of the trip; a 10,100+ peak by Mount Russell.

The normal route on Mount Russell isn’t climbed much because of crevasses.

The normal route on Mount Russell isn’t climbed much because of crevasses.

Flying down the icefall from Island in the Skye to the main Yentna Glacier. A photo of these joining glaciers and wave ogives are on the cover of the Post and LaChapelle’s famous book  Glacier Ice .

Flying down the icefall from Island in the Skye to the main Yentna Glacier. A photo of these joining glaciers and wave ogives are on the cover of the Post and LaChapelle’s famous book Glacier Ice.

Beverages and piles of food at Twister Creek back in Talkeetna.  Thanks guys for yet another incredible trip! Your friendships are among the best and longest of my mountain time. Mountains are just mountains. It’s people like you that make the mountains special.

Beverages and piles of food at Twister Creek back in Talkeetna.

Thanks guys for yet another incredible trip! Your friendships are among the best and longest of my mountain time. Mountains are just mountains. It’s people like you that make the mountains special.