Where The Peaks Have No Names

Last light on the Neacola Mountains

Last light on the Neacola Mountains

It was the first really clear day in awhile and the wind was absent. I was still feeling down about not getting any good images this year from the southern section of the Alaska Range, when I thought “Maybe I could get one more aerial shoot in”. So I called up my buddy, photographer and pilot Dan Bailey.

“Want to fly tonight?” I asked with lots of enthusiasm. He was hesitant, I am sure he was very busy and wasn’t even thinking of flying.

“I don’t know, let me call you back.” I sat there waiting. I sent an email to another photographer-pilot I knew, Joe Connelly, but he was out-of-town.

Finally Dan called back and agreed to fly.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Hidden Mountains” I replied.

“Where is that?” He questioned.

“North of Merrill Pass, though we may not make it that far, it’s a long way”. I met him at the airport at 4:30. He went through his pilot checklist, fueled up and we were in the air by 5:00.

Dan’s little Cessna 120 has about four hours of fuel (not counting reserve) and goes about 80 miles an hour. It’s a great plane for photography, it goes slow and low, but it takes a long time to get to the Alaska Range from Anchorage and I knew we would be pushing it.

The flight plan was to go through Merrill Pass and then head north into the Hidden Mountains, a remote collection of mountains sandwiched between the Revelations and the Tordrillos. I have seen very few images from these mountains and only know one person who has been in them. The only peak of any notoriety is Snowcap, which is incorrectly named on the USGS topo map, a common occurrence on those maps from the southern Alaska Range.

Mount Spurr

Mount Spurr

Crevasses, unnamed glacier

Crevasses, unnamed glacier

We flew next to the pure whiteness of Mount Spurr, just glorious in the clean sunlight. As we approached the pass we saw a wall of clouds, hovering around 2000 feet. The clouds stretched as far as we could see. We debated on whether or not to travel through the pass. Before we made our decision about the pass we flew around another known peak, The Tusk, a granite fang that protrudes out of the tundra. I had seen a few images of the Tusk and it looked pretty cool. Because of the tightness of the surrounding peaks, we had to fly above it and honestly, The Tusk, isn’t very impressive from the air, especially with so many huge, looming mountains off in the distance.

Hidden

Peaks 6625 and 6945, just two of the hundreds of unnamed beauties in the Hidden Mountains.

To the south I could see the mighty high peaks of the Neacolas. That was the area I was supposed to have travelled through during my ill-fated July trip, I knew that was where we needed to go.

“Forget the pass, let’s go there” I suggested and Dan agreed.

We flew up the Neacola River towards the Neacola Glacier and peak 9,426, aka Mount Neacola. But then we were side tracked by one of the most beautiful mountains in the entire Alaska Range, Peak 8305. The peak was climbed in 1965 and they called it the Citadel. My friend Dan Oberlatz showed me a picture of that beauty from a ski trip he guided many years ago, it’s sexy shape still imbedded in my mind. The Citadel is the north anchor of a collection of high peaks around the North Fork, Pitch Fork and Neacola Glaciers. The other major monster mountains are Peaks 8908 and 8505, Mount Neacola and the chubby 8105.

The mountain god, Peak 8305, The Citadel!

The mountain god, Peak 8305, The Citadel!

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

But there were plenty of other beauties around, in fact, everywhere I turned their was a nameless, perfect representation of the word mountain. To add more drama to already amazing scenery Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna towered of in the distance.

Peak 8065 and Mount Redoubt.

Peak 8065 and Mount Redoubt.

We flew to the west side of the mountains and ran into the same wall of clouds. As the sun set they became a glorious yellow ocean that stretched all the way to the Bering Sea.

The yellow sea

The yellow sea

Perfect light

Perfect light

We weaved in and out of mountains for an hour until the light left the peaks, only a pink glow remained in the sky. Our absolute amazement of the mountains and the light made our stay out there a tad bit too long and we had to race out of the mountains before it got too dark, we were flying by sight!

Mount Neacola

Mount Neacola

West face of peak 8505

West face of peak 8505

Luckily, we made it to the flats right before dark. We flew in the pitch black of night, with only the lights of Anchorage as our guide. We landed with ease at Merrill Field, exactly four hours after we had left.

last light on Mount Redoubt

last light on Mount Redoubt

I am still basking in the glorious light of that amazing flight. Thanks again Dan!

Also, Thanks to my friend Steve Gruhn who informed me of the names of the peaks that I thought had no names!

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Tokositna Glacier Trip

Can you see the Whale's tail. The large glacier on the upper left is the Tokositna, the other large glacier is The Ruth.Where the two glacier narrow to each other is a lake and a small glacier that descends towards the Ruth, That is backside glacier and its lake.

Can you see the Whale’s tail? The large glacier on the upper left is the Tokositna, the other large glacier is the Ruth. Backside Glacier and lake are where the Ruth makes a hard left around the great granite spires of the Ruth Gorge.

Finally prepping for my next trip into the Alaska Range. Returning to the central Alaska Range, not too far from my March, Kahiltna Glacier trip. I will be landing on Backside Lake, the terminal moraine lake of the Backside Glacier. I plan to trek over to the Tokositna for a few days, heading up glacier towards the base of Mount Huntington. Then return and a spend a few more days on Backside Glacier and possibly the Ruth Glacier. I will also be doing some guiding with Alaska Range Project sponsor Alaska Alpine Adventures on the tail end of the trip.

This area is locally known as the Whale’s Tail. A unique area of rolling tundra in-between the Ruth and Tokositna Glaciers.

In partnership with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation and with guidance from mountain legend and scientist Roman Dial,  I will be contributing to two different scientific projects. I will be collecting water samples on the Backside Glacier, the terminal outlet water from the glacier, Backside Lake and down stream from the lake. I will also be searching for ice worms on the Backside and Tokositna Glaciers.

We had a really late, cold spring here in south-central Alaska, followed by a record warm June! I have no idea what the conditions will be like or the snow level, which will determine how far up the glaciers I will get. The Backside Lake just opened up last week.

I will bringing my two lens system, the Nikon 24-70 and the 70-200 f4. The body will be the D800E. I will also have my good old Gitzo Mountaineer with my trusty old Linhoff Head.

Kichatna Mountains and the Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Peaks (triple peak on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

Cathedral Spires (triple peak is high one on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

At the southern end of Denali National Park and Preserve is a spectacular collection of granite spires. This fierce group of mountains is rumored to have the densest population of granite towers in North America.

There are a variety of names giving to this cluster of monster peaks: Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Mountains, Kichatna Mountains, Kichanta Spires. On the USGS map they are called the Kichatna Mountains. They were first discovered in 1899 by explorer Joseph Heron who named the three dominate peaks he could see from Rainey Pass as Augustin, Gurney and Lewis. On the Southern end of the Kichatna Mountains is a cluster named the Cathedral Spires, which includes FlatTop Spire and the most sought after mountain in the area, Middle Triple Peak.

Mount Augustin

Mount Augustin, Kichatna Mountains

Dead center of Kichatna Mountains is the mighty Kichatna Spire and to the north are Augustin and the other peaks seen and named by Joseph Heron. Climbers didn’t begin climbing in the area until the 1960’s. One of my favorite climbing stories from that area is Conrad Anker’s account of the second ascent of Middle Triple Peak.

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In April I did a fly over of the Kichatna Mountains with my friend Dan Bailey. It took about an hour to get there from Anchorage in his little Cessna. Neither of us had been there before and we were impressed. It was beautiful day, windless and clear. It was a little hazy but the peaks themselves were nicely lit.

Because of their density, the spires are difficult to photograph from the air. Many are hidden from view. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the Triple Peak. It was a little nerve-racking flying amongst them, especially with both Dan and I having our windows open, cameras sticking out. I would have to frequently remind Dan that there were giant mountains in front and to all sides of us.

The Citidel, Kichatna Mountains

The Citadel, Kichatna Mountains

We realized later that it would have been better if we stayed farther away from the peaks. We should have circled all the way around them. I generally prefer to be on the ground or on a adjacent peak when photographing mountains, but it is nice to get a bird eyes view ever once in awhile and there is a perspective that you can only get from the sir.

The Kichatna Spire

The Kichatna Spire

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The beautiful summit of Kichatna Spire

All the images were taken with my D800e and the Nikon 70-200mm F4 lens.

Kahiltna Trip: Part One

Into The Mountains

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

It was snowing when I woke up and all I could think was “How many days do we sit around Talkeenta, waiting to fly, before we call it quits?” I kept checking the forecast, it looked bad, really bad. Chris and Sy arrived in a car packed to the gills, yet, somehow we managed to squeeze two more sleds, another duffel, pack, skis and myself inside.

We left town in a whiteout, counting how many cars were in the ditch along the way. As we headed north we began to see changes in the weather, a little blue here, a little there and then wham! Blue sky and Denali, clear as could be. Our speed picked up and our conversations became more positive and full of excitement.

We arrived at K2 Aviation around 11:15. “I am going to take some tourist up first and will check out the conditions.” Randy our pilot, told us. “Go into town and eat, come back in a few hours”. We hated the idea, it was clear, we need to go now, is all we could think. We over stuffed ourselves at the Roadhouse and rushed back to hanger, weighed our gear and stacked it next to the plane. We were excited, we were ready.

Randy returned and gave us the green light. We packed the Beaver and loaded up, Sy taking the shotgun seat. Some developing clouds made us nervous but as we left the foot hills and approached the mountains, all fears vanished. We flew over our route, which was important because there is only one way through the Kahiltna icefall, a skinny smooth path. I photographed the route, which was obvious from the air.We flew between the towering walls of Hunter and Foraker and then took a quick right to the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest glacier in the entire Alaska Range. From Kahiltna Pass, it slithers 44 miles (71K) down between Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker and their numerous off-springs. The South East Fork is where the Kahiltna International Airport and base-camp is for those attempting the popular routes on Denali and Foraker. From Late April to Mid July, the place is hopping, with constant air traffic and hundreds of climbers and their tents scattered about.

I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna but was never interested in climbing the western routes on Denali and had no interest in being in the mountains with literally hundreds of others climbers. This is the main reason I decided to go in March, solitude. Our goal was to climb up to Kahiltna pass and ski and photograph the entire length of the Kahiltna, getting picked up at the Pika Glacier.

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The Beaver sank into the deep snow as it slowed to a halt, Randy spun the plane around quickly, pointing it down hill. It was sunny and beautiful, the temp was a balmy -5F. Before we knew it, The beaver was gone, just a roar echoing through the mountains. The north face of Mount Hunter was amazing, huge and so close, its beauty made it hard to focus on getting packed and moving up the hill to establish a camp. I was excited, it was clear, there could be good sunset light, maybe even aurora?

Unloading the Plane

Unloading the Plane

We passed a strange cache site and wondered if someone else was out in the mountains. All the famous solo climbers were gone for the season. We found a great spot with straight shots of Denali, Foraker and the fantastic Mount Hunter. Sy and Chris dug in, allowing me the opportunity to photograph. They would dig a few feet, probe for crevasses and dig some more. Within a few hours we had a fortified camp and hot water was brewing. A stiff breeze was coming down the glacier and the temps were creeping lower.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn't get enough of that mountain!

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn’t get enough of that mountain!

All was quiet except for the thunderous avalanches that would pour down Hunter’s north face. I positioned my camera, mounted on a tripod, right at the area that was most active and waited. Then perfectly, while I was looking through the viewfinder a huge ice avalanche erupted, I got the entire sequence. However, when I went to take another photograph, the camera said “This card cannot be used”, and the Err signal kept repeating. I turned off the camera, same thing. I switched over to my second card slot, back to normal.

avalanche #1

avalanche #1

Avalanche #2

Avalanche #2

avalanche #3

avalanche #3

Avalanche

“That was weird” I thought to myself.

We decided to do a quick ski down the glacier to warm ourselves up a little. On the way down we saw the soloist heading towards his cache, he was moving painfully slow, dragging a sled with huge poles suspended from his shoulders (they were in case he fell into a crevasses.) We waved and continued our ski.

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

Epic Failure

The sun began to dip behind the massive Foraker and the temperatures plummeted. -10f, -15f, -20f. The funny things was, we were all warm, full of excitement and warm from our ski and hot drinks. I started taking photographs of the fading light on Mount Hunter and then, Err, what? I turned off the camera and started again, Err. I took the card out and reloaded it, Err. “What the Hell!” switched batteries, Err. Sometimes the camera would fire and then make a strange noise then Err. No images were being recorded. The camera was fried! I was panicking, couldn’t figure out what was going on. The batteries were warm, fully charged. It was the camera itself, was it just too cold? I took the hand warmers I had, stuck them to the camera, put it in the case and shoved in my sleeping bag, hoping that it just needed to warm up a little.

The light faded fast and Denali began to turn red. I pull the camera out, Err! “F#*@” I paced around camp, trying to figure out what was happening.

“Hey Carl, you still have your sun glasses on.” Sy informed me. I took them off and opened my plastic glasses case, snap, it shattered into pieces.”It must be cold.” I thought to myself.

I had brought a few freezed dried meals that a friend left me last summer after he had climbed Denali. I usually don’t like freezed dried meals but I wasn’t really craving anything and I figured I get one of the out-of-the-way. I sealed it up tight and put it inside my DAS parka. We sat quiet and admired the emerging stars and the glow of the rising moon.

All of a sudden I looked down and I was covered in Kathmandu Curry, the freezed dried meal had leaked. I was really a wreck, everything was going wrong and we had just got there! In a few minutes I was able to just brush off the now frozen food on the outside of my pants, though the inside of my jacket and numerous layers were still wet and smelt like Nepal.

I went into the tent, I had to figure out what was happening with the camera. Okay, I took the cards and the battery out. I let it sit. Put the battery and the cards back in. Checked the photos I had already taken, good, I hadn’t lost anything. Tried to take a photo, Err.

“Okay Carl, step by step, we have been a pro for twenty years, we can figure this out” I assured myself.

” It’s not recording images, why? Maybe its the shutter or the aperture on the lens is stuck?” I took the lens off. Put the camera in full manual and fired a few shots, shutter was working. Looked on the back and reviewed the images, they had recorded, okay. I put my other lens on (I had, at the last moment, decided to rent a second lens, the 70-200mm f4, to shoot details of mountains). Switched the lens (my 24-70) to manual focus. Fired are few frames, it was working.

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

I rushed outside and shot a few, hastily composed night shots, the camera worked. The images had been recorded. The night was mind-blowing. The near full moon lit the mountains up like daylight, we all watched in awe.

“Its 11:30!” Chris said. With those words the spell of the night and mountains broke and we all began to feel the cold. We rushed into our tent and settled in for a cold, restless night.

Next:

Part Two: The Storm