2023 Kahiltna Alaska Climbing & Shooting Trip Recap

Colin Haley, Jason Thompson, Anne Gilbert Chase - atop of Lisa’s Peak aka 12,200 SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, Alaska - Colin Haley photo

Flying onto the glacier on May 4th where it had snowed over 1m+ of snow in the days prior it was a beautiful flight in. The mountains were yawning and waking up. For the most part, you are guaranteed good weather when you fly in and fly off a glacier, so automatically there are two “good” weather days you get no matter what. So use them wisely. 

This recent trip to the Kahiltna glacier in Alaska continued the wet season all over the western US. Anne Gilbert and I had ambitious hopes to climb a route on either (or both!) Begguya & Sultana. Even with the five weeks that we had on the glacier, in a “normal” weather season climbing both mountains would be a huge accomplishment. Climbing one mountain would be amazing. Ideally, we wanted three days of good weather to climb & for the snow to shed off the wall of Begguya & four(ish) days for something on the south face of Sultana. We had the course of five weeks to wait in position.

Being in the central Alaska Range is my favorite mountain range in the world. It is such a special place & the experiences I have had since my young 20s have impacted how I perceive our natural and human world. We found low-angle pow skiing around basecamp in abundant supply and fond memories of hanging with good humans. There were a couple of 6-10 hr weather windows that did allow us to go climbing on smaller objectives. Objectives that fit the weather window versus forcing experiences in weather not for climbing. 

Shadow People - 

We figured we had about 6 hrs of ok weather. A friend from Cody, WY, Dane Steadman, and his partner, Grant Stewart had climbed some new terrain earlier this season, in April, on a feature called the mini-moon flower which sits north of the North Buttress on Begguya. We skied up to the base of the route late morning suited up and started post-holing up the apron to cross the bergshrund. I will fully disclose that it took me a good while to surmount the shrund - we noticed that the area’s snowpack was quite faceted and had an unsupportable snow structure this season. It was noted that two climbers died in an avalanche-related accident. And there were several other near misses during the climbing season (including mine, more later).

I digress. 

Crossing the bergshrund I kept the rope moving upwards as AG & I simul climbed the 60-degree ice apron. We used ski boots, she was in Scarpa Alien rs and I wore the Scapra F1 LT. (My preference is the Alien rs but mine are no longer in usable condition).

The moderate climbing for a few hundred meters brought us to a junction, left for the North Couloir, or right for - Shadow People - AG grabbed the rest of the rack off my harness and began trending up and right in snow, ice, and rock. She then brought me up where we realized we had dead-ended ourselves and should have stayed lower and traversed harder right. By this time the snow began to fall and visibility was low. Correcting the route-finding error would have taken a bit of effort, time, and the loss of gear so early in the trip would have been better kept for our main objectives. So, we rappelled. 

Our stoke was high, already moving and climbing in the mountains, a success! And we still had most of the 5 weeks to receive a nice weather window. One would expect that three nice days in a row would come… 

We gathered a cache of our climbing hardware, ropes, and other items for a 2-3 day climb of Begguya up the North Buttress. A few days later under light snowfall, we skied our backpacks up to the base of the North Buttress to cache the items for when good weather arrived.

The carrot at the end of the stick was the story this season. Shifting weather patterns every 12 hrs made for a dynamic weather season, to say the least. Tricky forecasts (HUGE thank you to Clint Helander for sending us informative and entertaining weather updates that were spot on. Clint is finishing up nursing school so he wasn’t able to be in the range this season). Days later a short mediocre window came. The temperatures were warm as the system had brought in some rapidly rising freezing levels. We left camp heading for the North Buttress of Beguya and crossed the bergshrund at 1:15 AM under flat light (no headlight required this time of year) and snowy conditions! WTF 

Starting up the alternative start - the “Mugs” start to the Bibler/Klewin route - we soloed up the snow apron and then traversed steep snow. Climbed through a few short sections of alpine ice where we then put the rope on to simul-climb a few hundred meters of moderate terrain up to the base of the “Prow”. The climbing was super fun moderate ice, rock, and snow. With constant spin drift, I found the general conditions to be very snowy on the route and the range this season. In 2017 the North Buttress of Beguya was in primarily dry conditions making climbing fast and efficient. Lots of snow this season forced time spent digging and brushing out snow & ice to find gear placements. 

AG arrived at the belay at the base of the prow a bit before 6 a.m. Temperatures felt warm. The wall was plastered with snow and rime ice more so than we had anticipated. Spindrift continued to funnel and rain down on us. The warm temperatures are what had me hesitant to climb further with the marginal forecast. I am a bit more conservative than my partner Anne Gilbert and she is typically the one whose vote is to forge ahead if it is safe. But AG agreed to go down. Bailing from routes sucks. Bailing leaves a certain unfulfilled and empty feeling in me. Maybe because I am not able to give it a proper “try”.

We tucked our tails and sheepishly skied back to base camp. A feeling of defeat swarmed AG and me that hot afternoon in base camp. A friend, Matt Cornell, encouraged us in making our decision. Easy for Matt to express that feeling after having had such amazing climbing experiences earlier in the season during high pressure in April. (Check out Matt, and friends’ noteworthy climbs here).

Matt Cornell - hosting a glacier gathering.

After a few more days of non-climbing weather and high winds forecasted for the coming days, we decided to spend time building red blood cells at higher elevations. Leaving base camp with 5 days of food & fuel we skied up the Denali’s west buttress approach on the Kahiltna glacier. Moving to 11K camp we spent 1 night. That evening the light was beautiful with the western sun setting. By morning we woke to gale-force winds and snow that accumulated overnight. 

We awoke to a low “audible thud” We both questioned what it could have been but didn’t investigate. Later, AG stepped out of the tent and met a Polish climber who had lost his sled while skiing as he came down motorcycle hill. The 15kg sled slammed into an empty tent platform on our uphill side, luckily we did not have that runaway sled slam into our scene!

During our move to 14k camp, the skies were blue and the solar warm but the winds gnawed at the tips of our noses. Bluebird stormy - the skies were blue but the wind made it quite a stormy day. About an hr before 14k camp, the winds calmed. This allowed us to get our tent set up and prepare for the real winds that were to fill the following three days. 

The evening we arrived we did get to watch our French friends skiing the bottom portion of the Orient Express couloir coming down from the Summit back into 14k camp. The light was glorious. The four French skiers continued to ski the Sultana Ridge and float their boats out the river to the Pacific Ocean and Anchorage. Truly epic adventure those boys had! The film that will come out at some point will be highly entertaining I am sure. 

We hunkered down with moments when we could go and stretch our legs and continue the acclimatization process. We were able to go up with our skis to 15,200 ft and ski some fun chalky snow. We didn’t feel that we needed to any higher than sleeping 4 nights at 14k camp to be acclimated enough for 17k ft on Sultana. 

Little did we know that this wind storm was intense at all elevations. Many teams were stuck waiting out this snow & wind storm even at 7,200 camps low on the Kahiltna. It feels very junior varsity to admit but Anne Gilbert and I had our radical North Face dome tent being used as a cook tent get completely blown away! The tent bounced and flew uphill on the glacier towards the North Buttress of Beguya. Gone. An old friend, Elias “the Spaniard” de Martos, watched the tent take flight in a complete whiteout and tried to run after it but was gone and off into the glacier ping pong ball. (thanks to Elias and Colin Haley for rescuing our season and camp!) Meanwhile at 14k camp AG and I received a text that just said our tent at base camp had blown away. AG imagined the worst, our trip over. I was the yin to her yang in this case. Later, when we returned to base camp went fishing for two days and found the dome tent which is repairable!

Lisa’s Peak -

On June 1st Colin Haley, Anne Gilbert & myself left base camp at 3:45 am. The temperatures felt more like May 1st not June 1st. Sultana was lit up with soft pink morning light. Lenticulars quickly built on Sultana first and Denali next. Colin had spotted a 60-degree snow climb on the south face of a mountain referred to as Peak 12,220 (Colin did express an idea to refer to the mountain as Lisa’s Peak - after Lisa Roderick who managed basecamp for 22 seasons!). 

Approximately 1,000m of movement on 60-degree slopes brought us up to the false summit we then traversed and broke trail across the ridge which took us about 40 minutes to the true summit. As we traversed this ridge Denali looked angrier and angrier. We reached the summit in a windy whiteout. The lenticular cloud that sat on Denali continued to descend and chase us back down to the glacier. We down-climbed nearly the entirety of the route returning to our skis as snow began to fall. We skied in a whiteout back to camp. 

More snow days were spent getting our shoveling conditioning on.

The SE ridge of Sultana, Alaska.

Mt Frances -

The SW ridge of Mt Frances is considered a moderate fun route. Anne Gilbert and I had never climbed the SW ridge although we both guided the east ridge some 13 years ago, which serves as the descent route. We woke to surprisingly nicer-than-expected weather around 8 am. It had snowed most of the night producing 3-4 inches of snow in basecamp. Colin decided to go and acclimate up at the 14k ft camp. He left and AG and I felt antsy to go climbing! We chose, randomly and last minute, to check out the SW ridge with the 16 hr weather window that had been forecasted. 

Skiing down heartbreak hill in our mountain boots and silveretta’s we made sweet pow turns. Arriving at the base and beginning to climb the south-facing approach snow slopes at 12:30 pm. 

As one could imagine the post-holing was brutal in the facet garden and slopes that were not supportable mid-day. We continued soloing sections and pitching out sections of the super fun ridge. The skies were crystal blue, it felt amazing. Looking down on all the little ants going up or going down the west buttress track of Denali. As mid-afternoon set in the sun began to weaken the snow structure on some slopes. We were on a sharp ridge keeping us out of harm’s way. But thundering loose wet schmoo piles sped down the mountain. Eventually, we reached a point where we were in non-technical snow terrain little ways beneath the false summit.. We chose to take the rope off as we had been doing all climb. Anne Gilbert had been out front breaking trail and I eventually caught up to her and offered to break trail. We moved fluidly uphill. The booting was perfect, a firm bed surface with pixie dust snow on top making trail breaking easy. The slope angle quietly began to steepen. I pulled into a bit of a rock outcropping and waited for AG to join me there in a safe spot. I was suddenly concerned with the snow’s stability. As she was too. 

A steep little traversing section would bring us to less steep and non-avalanche terrain. I tiptoed and started traversing expecting the 3-5 inches of storm slab to break at my feet. I continued out hitting the slope with my ice tool and small plates of snow around me avalanched as I had expected. Well, I was wrong. The snow was way more sensitive than I had expected and didn’t realize how the slope and terrain were actually all tied together more than I could see from my positioning. Feeling the snow avalanche around me, I stood on my feet and had my tools pick in the marginally firm snow. It’s always the second wave of snow in an avalanche that produces the most force I learned during my ski patrolling days at Big Sky. Well, I forgot. The second wave knocked my left shoulder and spun me around and off balance. I performed a spin summer sault move and was able to replace my tool in the snow. AG couldn’t see me (she was less than 4 or 5 meters away in a safe spot) she screamed my name when I disappeared but then popped back up white-washed in snow. All right. That was way too close. We tip-toed up the final snow slopes to the false summit. Remotely triggering another slide that avalanched on the ridge below us. While the slide that rolled me was small it was a close call. As you would expect the weather changed many hrs earlier than expected and we found ourselves in snowy, whiteout conditions from the false summit and down the descent back to base camp. Just another classic high-pressure weather window that deteriorated quickly. 11 hrs after leaving camp we post-holed back in the late evening to our home. 

This adventure on Frances scratched the itch to climb. Still, not the vertical climbing we had hoped to experience higher up on the Bibler/Klewin route or somewhere on the south face of Sultana. We did have an opportunity to climb two new (to us) mountains (Frances & Lisa’s Peak aka 12,200). 

Over the coffee, the following snowy morning AG and I agreed that we had maybe not given the SW ridge of Frances enough respect. While the objective was more than within our ability. Perhaps we were too itchy to climb and neglected to think about the warming snow. (although it wasn’t like we weren’t expecting avalanches) Always learning, that’s the beauty of the mountains, teaching us life lessons, lessons in partnership, and reminding us to stay humble. 

We had hoped for many more climbing experiences in the range this season. But it wasn’t the season (for at least our 5 weeks in the range) to have stints of high pressure to climb long technical routes. Thanks to everyone who made this trip happen on many levels, the pilots at Talkeetna Air Taxi, Clint for the weather, Colin for constant entertainment, Elias for saving our bacon, Matt, Dane, & Cody for the neighborhood block gatherings BBQ, Ryan, Zia, Nadav, & Lauren for all the favors! Great to meet so many new friends from France to Chile and everyone in between the range is a special place and I am forever grateful and blessed to spend any chance I get.

- much love

Anne Gilbert Chase enjoying the sun and rock on the SW ridge of Frances. Begguya and the North Buttress are in the background.

Anne Gilbert Chase climbing granite in the alpine on the SW ridge of Mt Frances

Anne Gilbert Chase enjoying the sun and rock on the SW ridge of Frances.

Anne Gilbert Chase, SW ridge of Frances.

Anne Gilbert Chase, SW ridge of Frances.

Descending the East ridge of Mt Frances

We went fishing and found our cook tent in a crevasse. We later learned of many others who have had dome tents have lost them due to wind. PSA

Aidan Whitelaw not sure about sharing his stash of gummy bear treats.

This was really cool! A group of gals came onto the glacier for several days to paint. The artists unfortunately didn’t have the best weather for painting as many days were just white clouds but in between  were moments like these. Artist: Klara Maisch @klaramaisch check out here IG !

Originally a sales sample from 2016. Anne Gilbert Chase showing her micro puff Patagonia jacket that has been on all of her Alaska expedition + other expeditions across the world. The patches show that the product has been worn well but now it needs a little love from patches. Alaska

Colin Haley and Anne Gilbert Chase beneath the North Buttress of Begguya.

Colin Haley and Anne Gilbert Chase looking up at the North Buttress of Beguya while the early morning sun crests on Sultana in the background. SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, Alaska

Colin Haley and Anne Gilbert Chase climbing up the snow section of the south easterly slopes of peak 12,200

Colin Haley with “Humble Peak” or the often misused name Kahiltna Queen.

Colin Haley traversing a ridge from the false summit to the summit of Lisa’s Peak aka 12,200. Sultana in shrouded in clouds .

Nearing the summit of peak 12,200 and the North Buttress of Begguy in the distance. With only a 10 hr forecast the three of use, Colin Haley & Anne Gilbert Chase, made use of the weather by climbing nearly 6k from base camp. By the time we had returned to the glacier and our skis to ski back to camp the weather had deteriorated to no visibility - we didn’t even get a full 8 hrs of good weather never mind 10 hrs

Look Mom! Thanks for teaching me how to sew when I was a kid!

Expose for the highlights.