Mountain Fellowship Fund recipients report on their successful trip to Alaska. After enduring a few hardships, the team came away with a first ascent on Mount Gerdine. Read the detailed write-up below.
In the summer of 2002 Johnny Soderstrom showed the book he had bought about the Tordrillo Mountains of Alaska. He then showed me a series of topo maps of the area with a line drawn through all of them for a long traverse of the range. Knowing that the trip taking a lot of time and planning we decided to plan a shorter trip to see the area in the spring of 2003. After reading through the book it became obvious that the Tordrillos haven’t had a lot of traffic like the neighboring Alaska Range. Because of this it was hard finding good pictures of the area but we came across a picture of the stunning NW Ridge of Mt. Gerdine. With a little more research we found that the ridge had not been climbed and the only other people to have visited the area were a group of volcanologist studying the old Hayes Volcano that erupted nearly 3600 years ago. With this info we thought that this climb would be a good candidate for a grant from the ACC. We both applied for the Mountaineering Fellowship Grant which is for climbers 25 years and younger. Johnny, 24, from Trapper Creek, AK and I, 22, from Fort Collins, CO wrote up a proposal and were very excited when found out the ACC was going to give us each $300 which would cover most of the flight, the trip was a go. As the trip got closer we decided that a third person would make the trip a lot safer, so we roped our friend Zach Shlosar into coming. Zach, 23, from Anchorage, is a good friend that I have climbed with for the past few years.
We were flown into the Tordrillos on April 4 by Paul Rodrick of Talkeetna Air Taxi from Talkeetna. We were hoping to be landed near the base of the route on the east fork of the Hayes Glacier, but never having been there we were not to optimistic about being that lucky. The flight was about an hour with great views of the surrounding mountains. Not being lucky we landed on the main flow of the Hayes Glacier at the intersection of the East Fork around 4700’. Being surrounded by untouched couloirs and rock towers we were immediately making plans for after Gerdine. According to the map we were about six miles from the base of the route. Anxious to get started we cached our extra supplies, packed our sleds and packs and headed up the east fork. About two miles up the glacier we were greeted with our first good view of Mt. Gerdine and our route. From this view the route looked in great shape and safe from the hanging seracs covering the walls on either side of the ridge. Three more miles up we were stopped by the large crevasse field and ice fall surrounding the base of the mountain we had seen from the old photo. Not wanting to route find through this with our packs and sled we decided to call the spot our ABC, it was at 6000’ at the base of the Hayes Volcano reminents.
The next morning we set out to find our way around the cracks guarding the base of our route. After surveying the area for a while we decided to climb a large ski slope on the Hayes Volcano next to Gerdine to get the best view of the area. After an hour and a half of kicking steps we topped out on Point 8300’ of the Hayes. At first we were disappointed to find that there was no safe way around because of the many large cracks, unstable bridges and massive hangers. After a little more looking we were surprised to see that we might be able to descend a gully on the backside of the Hayes and traverse a slope in the middle of the ice fall, weaving through cracks to intersect the NW Ridge of Gerdine. Excited to have a possible route Zach and Johnny stepped into their skies and I strapped on my board to descend back down the Hayes for one of the best runs I’ve ever had, about 1700’ of 35- 38 degree powder with an amazing view of the Hayes Glacier and northern Tordrillos stretching out below us.
We started out early the next morning and made good time following our tracks back up the Hayes and descending the backside gully. With a few large blocks hanging above us we hurried across the slope weaving through many cracks to a short ice wall at the base of the NW Ridge around 7300’. Being in the shade and the cold we were anxious to get moving again so we ditched our ski poles and took out our ice tools. I led the first pitch up the short wall and quickly belayed up Zach and Johnny. With a little more weaving around cracks on a moderate snow slope and a couple more ice steps we came to the base of the prominent ice ridge we had been admiring for days. Johnny took the screws and headed up the blue ice. From camp this pith looked like it would be the crux of the route, blue, steep and exposed. The blue and exposure were right but the angle was fairly mellow at about 60 degrees to make a fun lead for Johnny. From the top of this pitch we could view the rest of the lower ridge. Having been scoured by the wind the west side of the ridge was very hard blue ice running down steeply for thousands of feet to the Hayes Glacier. The north side was even steeper but covered with neve snow. After taking a break in the first direct sun we had all morning we put our packs back on and started up again. The rest of the lower ridge was very fun and straight forward, simul-climbing for about 1200’ with the ice varying between 40-60 degrees.
At about 9600’ we topped out on the lower ridge at a large flat balcony separating the upper and lower ridges. Looking at this from below we hoped that this would be a good place to bivy. After a quick probe of the area we found a good spot to set up the Bibler between a few cracks. Viewing the clouds coming in below us and a lenticular on Denali, we bomb proofed our site by building a large wall knowing we were on a very expose part of the mountain. After watching a beautiful sunset over the Revalations, Zach and Johnny crawled into to the tent as the temperature dropped while I continued to cook outside. By the time I headed in the temp had plummeted to about –15f and I was anxious to warm myself up. Having spent a lot of time working and climbing in the mountains of Alaska the cold and having cold body parts was nothing new to any of us. So when I took my boots off I was surprised to find that my big toe on my left foot was frozen solid. After a bit of debate whether to keep it frozen so that I could descend without the pain and chance of refreezing we decided to thaw it out so that it wouldn’t get any worse while trying to keep it frozen. With my foot in Zach’s armpit we all dozed off in our crammed Bibler. The next morning we woke to blue skies and a painful thawed toe. After a short talk I convinced Zach and Johnny to go for the top knowing it wouldn’t take long and we could descend as soon as they got back. So I stayed in my sleeping bag as they put their packs on and headed up.
To gain the upper ridge they climbed a moderate snow slope for about 400’ to a small bergschrund that was easily negotiated and continued up steeper neve to the ridge proper. The lower section consisted of moderate neve ranging from 30-60 dgrees. About midway they came a large schrud that was only passable by down climbing a short ways to where it pinched shut and climbed around and back up to the ridge. They continued until they came to another schrund about 300’ below the summit. Zach led up through making a few moves on bad snow and continued up a 70 degree section to a short corniced ridge leading to the summit. On the morning of April 7th Zach and Johnny stood on top of Mt. Gerdine with an amazing clear view in every direction that included Denali and the AK Range, the Kichatnas, Revalations, Neacolas, Cook Inlet, the Talkeetnas and Chugach mountains.
After spending about an hour on top they dug a bollard on the summit a rapped down the upper steep sections. The rest of the upper ridge they were able to down climb and did very quickly knowing that they still had a long day ahead of them. When they returned to camp we packed quickly and I crammed my throbbing toe into my plastic boot. With a few variations we were able to follow our line of ascent. After seven v-threads, one left picket, and a lot of down climbing we reach the bottom of the ridge. We then grabbed our poles and headed back across the dangerous slope to the Hayes, climbed back up, descended the front side and pulled into camp as the sun was setting. Back in camp I took my boot off to find my toe a big purple blister. Knowing that I needed to get out we decided to move back down to the airstrip the next day so that we could try to contact a plane and get an early pick up. When we first arrived we loved knowing that we were far from the constant noise of flight seeing tours typical to the AK Range. But now that we were wanting to contact a plane we were wishing for a little more air traffic. After a day and a half of trying to contact a plane with no luck, Zach and Johnny decided to go skiing. To the east of camp there was a rock formation on the front of peak 6330 with seven rock towers in a row with beautiful couloirs between many of them. This formation we named The Seven Dwarves after they had skied the two southern couloirs. On the night of April 10th we were able to contact a transport plane that was able to relay our message for an early pick up. The next morning Paul circled over in his Cessna 185 as we were packing up camp. When he stepped out of the plane we saw that he had brought his video camera to shoot this beautiful new area for himself. We loaded up the plane and flew back to Talkeetna happy with our shortened trip to this fairly unexplored place. We left with a first ascent of Mt. Gerdine’s NW Ridge (AK grade 3, AI3,4000’), the first descents of the Hayes Volcano and the two southern couloirs of the seven dwarves and one purple frostbitten toe.