Saturday, September 24, 2016

4. Big Mountain Recon

After quite a bit of packing and repacking (helicopters are small) we finally had everything ready and loaded it on the chopper. I was a little nervous for the flight. My only other experience with small aircraft was with bush planes in Alaska. That experience was pretty bumpy and made me pretty nauseous, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the helicopter quite steady and very enjoyable. The ride in was beautiful and only got more so as we flew through a narrow mountain pass that took us into the heart of the range. The pilot circled around the Tiedemann Glacier so that we could take pictures and scope the various aspects before landing us at Sunny Knob on the north side of the glacier.

The chopper taking off after dropping us at Sunny Knob, the Serras in the background.
Within minutes of setting down I watched the chopper circle above camp and disappear over the ridge. I've been to a lot of big mountain ranges, Patagonia, Aconcagua, Denali, the Alps, but I'd never been right in the middle of such unrelenting alpine ruggedness. The silence was eerie, interrupted only by the almost-regular rumble of massive seracs calving off of hanging glaciers, boulders falling down faces, or avalanches pouring over cliff bands. Most of the time I would look up expecting, from the loud rumble, to see a massive avalanche, but instead the massive roar would have been generated from such an insignificant speck on the landscape that I could not discover its location.

Chris (on right) and I take in the view from the edge of the Tiedemann Glacier at Sunny Knob. Photo by Nick Mestre.
We were in absolute awe, dumbstruck by the sheer size and emptiness of the place. There was some whooping and hollering but then we all just walked around taking photos and staring. There was one other party in the range at that time, at least that we know of. They were also camped at Sunny Knob and had flown in the day before, but they must have started up a route that morning or the previous night. We considered making camp right near their tents on the edge of the glacier, however, after some scouting we decided to move our gear up to the top of Sunny Knob itself where there were some good campsites and heather benches overlooking the glacial vastness.

Me setting up one of our tents on the heather benches of Sunny Knob. Background: the Gnar. Photo: Nick Mestre.
I remember Nick taking pictures that afternoon and saying that he was surprised, and stoked to even see the mountains. With the rain in the Bugs and the long-term forecast looking so lousy a week ago we thought we would be lucky to have any sun or visibility. Nick had been very concerned about our experience level relative to the terrain, and had been very conservative about planning, not wanting to consider most of the big objectives I suggested. However, once we were there the tables flipped. I was the one suddenly feeling humbled and conservative with these daunting mountains in front of me while Nick's enthusiasm turned on and he started getting really excited.

Looking up the Tiedemann Glacier. R-L Bravo Peak, Mt. Waddington in clouds, Combatant Col.
After setting up camp we looked through the guide book and decided on our mission for the next day. We realized that there was a huge amount of potential for the routes right above camp in the Serra Group but, being timid, we wanted to scout the relatively easy descents down the north side of these peaks to the Upper Tellot Glacier. The easiest way to gain the Upper Tellot from the Tiedemann Glacier follows snow slopes and talus up to and over a small ridge. This ridge is home to the Plummer Hut, a small metal shed with some basic sleeping platforms. It is also the beginning of the West Ridge of Claw Peak, which sits right behind Plummer Hut and makes for a nice and easy rock climbing objective. We decided that our primary objective would be to simply find the hut, and from there inspect the Upper Tellot to see how passable the crevasse situation was. If time allowed we would climb the West Ridge of Claw Peak (130m 5.6) behind the hut and head back to camp.

The Plummer Hut.
The alarm went off in the morning and we poked our head out the tent to see thick clouds engulfing the peaks above camp. We went back to sleep, figuring that after our recent lack of sleep this was actually a good thing. We got up later to see that the clouds were thinning a bit in places and decided to head out, hoping that things would clear. Luckily, by the time we were out on the Tiedemann Glacier headed for the slopes that lead to the Upper Tellot, it was full-on sunny and ridiculously hot.

Nick crossing the Tiedemann to the slopes on the left that lead to the Plummer Hut. The clouds are burning off.
Looking back up the Tiedemann toward the Combatant Col.
Though quite concerned about the conditions and the route finding, reaching the hut turned out to be a breeze. The only bad part was a crumbly 3rd class rock band near the top that we could see a way around for the return trip. The Upper Tellot was very encouraging, there were few open crevasses and easy, flat snow covered most of the glacier.  There were also obvious tracks from a previous party leading up the Tellot to the Serra Peaks.

Claw Peak and the Tellot Glacier from the Plummer Hut.
Despite the late hour we decided to climb the West Ridge of Claw Peak anyway. Instead of dropping down to the south facing snow field to traverse to the bottom of the route we stayed on the ridge crest to approach. This ended up being harder than the actual climb and involved some fun step-across moves between rock towers. We jokingly called it the "American Direct," though this insignificant 200 ft scramble had obviously been climbed many times before based on various bolts and tat anchors along the way. We climbed the West Ridge Route itself in two easy simul pitches, snapping some pics in the evening light, before reversing the route and rapping to the south facing snow field to return to the hut.
Nick enjoying the position near the summit of Claw Peak.
We reached the Tiedemann as the sun set, roped up, crossed the glacier, and climbed a loose rock gully on the east side of Sunny Knob to reach camp as light faded. Josh and Chris had just finished cooking dinner. They had spent the day scoping a potential route on Mount Asperity and had concluded that it would require more big wall gear than they had brought on this trip. Since that route was ruled out they had decided to climb the South Ridge of Serra 2, starting tomorrow. This route is a convoluted 1500m rock ridge which goes at 5.9 with several snow gullies up to 45 degrees. Nick and I had discussed this as a good long route for us to try while at the Plummer Hut, and with Chris and Josh headed up tomorrow we decided we should take advantage of another party on route and go too.

The problem was that it was already after 10pm and we hadn't cooked dinner, and we'd already spent the whole day out. Chris and Josh were set for a pre-dawn start. By the time we had eaten, repacked our packs, and got to bed it was 12:30am. We set the alarms for 6am, two hours behind Josh and Chris' departure and tried to get some sleep.
Nick's picture of me descending to the Tiedemann from the Upper Tellot
Sun disappearing behind the Combatant Col.

Sunset on the clouds above the Tiedemann Glacier