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Spurr of the moment

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2000

There is something about uninhabited areas -- especially mountains -- that attracts me. Perhaps that is why I agreed to fly into the base of Mount Spurr and attempt to climb it over spring break in March.

Our team had four people: Mike Mays, a Department of Fish and Game employee for the state of Alaska and proud southerner who often claimed that his Alabama-breeding and regular diet of grits were what allowed him to climb like the devil; Brad Hornung, an Anchorage pharmacist who recently completed a three-month mountaineering course in Canada and was eager to return to the highlands; my father, Ralph Baldwin, who teaches science at Chugiak High School and has spent a number of years in the mountains; and me, a student from Colony High School in Wasilla who plans to eventually shift all her domestic belongings to a small tent.

For Brad and me, it was our first fly-in expedition.

The idea for the climb came during a Mountaineering Club of Alaska meeting in November. The night's presentation was on the early exploration of the Tordrillo Mountains, a glacier-draped, 30-mile stretch of peaks on the west side of Cook Inlet that runs northward starting with Mount Spurr.

There were slides, original video footage, and a book about the range. The speaker was one of the first explorers of the region and told of the wildness and beauty of the area that -- despite more than 20 attempts -- has allowed only nine groups to claim the summit of Spurr.

The ascent of Mount Spurr is separated into two parts. The first part, also the crux of the climb, is getting up and over Crater Peak. It is steepness and exposure, rather than altitude, that make this first part difficult.

 

Brad Hornung, Mike Mays and the author pull sleds up the lower portion of Crater Peak on their way to the summit of Mount Spurr in March.

Photo by Ralph Baldwin

The second part of the ascent is climbing from the back side of Crater Peak to the summit of Mount Spurr. Although weather and avalanche conditions prevented us from doing this part of the climb, our maps showed it as relatively straightforward. From the back side of Crater Peak, we would have roped to cross the glacier, then continued to the 11,070-foot summit of Mount Spurr.

To get our group to the base of Mount Spurr, we chartered a Beaver from Alaska Air Taxi. We chose the Beaver because it had the space and power to transport the four of us and all of our gear (several hundred pounds worth) to a snowy plateau, then take off again in a minimal distance.

Other than this charter to and from the plateau, our means of transport consisted of snowshoes and crampons. Each of us also brought a pair of skis in case there was a storm and the Beaver couldn't land to get us. In that case we would have skied 35 miles to Shirleyville, where there is an asphalt runway. But with the amount of gear we packed in, the ski out would be difficult. Each of us was very hopeful for good weather.

On the mountain

Our first day on the mountain was beautiful. We landed at 2,100 feet under clear, sunny skies and had ample time to set up a large cache with skis, an extra tent and extra food beside the landing zone. Once we had buried the cache, replete with two celebratory bottles of Coca-Cola (for the end of the climb), we snowshoed to 2,400 feet with our sleds and backpacks to make a camp closer to the ridge we hoped to climb the next morning.

Because the ridge was so steep, we decided to carry partial loads as high as we could the second day, pick them up on the third day, then continue up and over Crater Peak that same afternoon.

Before we started climbing on the second day, we saw sundogs, which are only seen in the mountains, and then, quite rarely. Sundogs are small rainbows that appear on all four sides of the sun and are generally regarded as a good sign.

That day, we left a high cache at 5,700 feet. It was a physically demanding day. We traded

off leading, as the leader punched through sev-

eral feet of snow with each snowshoed step. The ridge rose at a steady 35 degree angle and was windblown along its spine. The upper part of the ridge had only a few inches of snow over volcanic pebbles, and crampons were a better mode of transport than snowshoes. We were exhausted by the time we returned to our camp at 2,400 feet that evening.

The next morning we woke to a ground blizzard. There was no depth-perception and visibility was low. Frustrating as it was, the storm provided an opportunity for our bodies to recover. In the afternoon visibility was better, and we moved camp to 3,500 feet.

We had cell phone service from our camp there and called the National Weather Service for a forecast. After learning that the coming day would be clear with scattered clouds, we went to bed. By 4 a.m., we were awake and melting water for breakfast. On the ridge, we found that most of our trail had been obliterated by the winds of the previous day.

Upward

Our progress was slow, but by midmorning we had reached our cache at 5,700 feet. We spent an hour sorting essential gear -- ice axes, crampons, crevasse rescue gear, ropes, tents, stoves and three days of food -- from gear that could stay in the cache for us to retrieve on the way down. When we finally left the cache, each person's pack weighed slightly more than half of his or her body weight.

The extra weight made our steps seem as slow as the movement of glaciers, and each one, a herculean effort. It took us three hours to ascend the next 1,800 feet, which nearly doubled our earlier average of 45 minutes per 1,000 feet of elevation.

At 7,000 feet, we took a break behind a large boulder. We were only 575 feet below the crater rim and would have to cross a broad, wind-pillowed slope before reaching it.

Our main concern for this part of the ascent was an avalanche. We dug a snowpit to check the stability of the slope above us. Our shovel-shear test required a medium effort, and the block of snow we were pulling on came loose approximately two feet below the surface of the snowpack in a layer of facets. We decided that as long as conditions didn't get any worse it was safe to proceed carefully.

Mike felt strong and offered to lead the next section of the climb. Brad belayed him as he moved to the right of the rock we were sitting behind. After his second step he heard a "whumpf." On his third step he heard another "whumpf" and the snow fractured. He jammed his ski poles into the snow above him and held on as several hundred pounds of snow knocked him off his feet.

The fracture line was approximately 30 feet long and 2 feet deep and the slab of snow slid for about 10 feet in large blocks before coming to a halt. It was several seconds before Mike regained his feet.

The way the slope was wind-loaded, combined with its angle and the heat of the sun, made it unstable. Both the fact that there were no places to set anchors and more than a 7,000-foot run-out below us, led us to retreat. It was a difficult decision, but we all supported it.

Snowbound

During our descent back down to 3,500 feet, the winds began to blow. Occasionally, they gusted hard enough to knock one of us off our feet. That night, while we were in our tents, the winds blew a steady 60 mph with gusts up to 80 mph. We got three feet of new snow and whiteout conditions. Brad woke up several times during the night with snow and wind pressing the tent down onto his face.

In the morning, the vestibules on each tent were filled with wet, heavy snow. My father had to crawl out through the snow in the rear vestibule and shovel out the front vestibule before we could enter and exit again as normal. The storm continued and was too violent to attempt to move our camp to a lower elevation.

At times during the storm our two tents seemed like miniature weather stations. Brad and my father recorded hourly observations of the temperature, cloud formation, wind direction and speed, precipitation, temperature and barometric pressure gleaned from their Suunto weather-watches. Twice a day we phoned the National Weather Service to report our observations and receive satellite information about the movement of high- and low-pressure systems.

We descended to 2,100 feet the next afternoon using wands we had placed on the way up. Visibility was still poor, and we sometimes had to wait for a break in the whiteout to see the next wand.

The storm continued into the next day, as well. To pass the time we read Albert Schweitzer's "On the Edge of the Primeval Forest" aloud, and so spent the day in equatorial Africa treating tropical diseases.

In addition to passing time with Schweitzer, we spent a great deal of time preparing meals. It took approximately 45 minutes to prepare breakfast and an hour and a half for dinner, while lunch was a continuous munching all day long. Much of the food-prep time came as a result of it still being winter in the Tordrillos, so all water had to be melted from snow, then boiled for hot drinks and meals. In addition to the typical freeze-dried fare, we had oatmeal, soups and instant pudding.

Homeward

Our final day on the mountain, like our first, was clear and sunny. We could see into each of the glacial valleys that surrounded us and far out over the Neacola and Tordrillo ranges, neither of which appeared to end.

We used the calm weather to pack and wand a runway in the snow for the Beaver to land on. It took the four of us three hours to stomp the 32,000 square feet required in the three feet of fresh snow. We built the runway slightly uphill so that the plane could take off downhill. As I slogged, I calculated: 8,000 square feet or 1.5 square miles per person.

After we loaded our gear into the plane, things began to seem complicated again. In our regular lives there was no such thing as a stormy day when you could lay in your sleeping bag watching the frost turn to water droplets on the inside of the tent and listen to Albert Schweitzer tell of hippopotami in Africa's Ogowe River. I think a small part of each of us wished to stay on the mountain.

So now, at home, we each dream of another mountain -- Sanford, Aconcagua and maybe, eventually, Denali, for the two of us who have not yet climbed it.

Clare Baldwin is a junior at Colony High School in Wasilla. She can be reached by e-mail at zephyr_flight@hotmail.com.



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