The Cassin Ridge by John McCune

The Cassin Ridge by John McCune

Scarpa Athlete John McCune spend 17 days in Alaska last year looking to climb the Cassin Ridge, a stunning alpine route Kahiltna glacier.

Read on for Johns adventure in Alaska.

The Cassin Ridge, Denali

The Cassin is one of the most sought-after alpine routes in North America. It is a striking central line up the biggest and most beautiful wall of the South face of Denali. My climbing partner Brian and I had climbed a few routes In Chamonix in summer 2021 and discussed a possible a trip to Alaska in spring 22.

In the autumn I had a 3rd knee surgery and so after a frustrating winter of rehab and physio I was particularly excited to go on a micro expedition in the spring. Brian was training hard in the New York gyms while I was trying to get my legs in shape in Chamonix.

The advice given to us was not to underestimate the size and altitude of the route, and the potential for awful weather. It can be normal to spend weeks in a blizzard waiting for a weather window. We formed a plan for 4 weeks in mid-May to mid-June, thinking this should be plenty. We met in Anchorage and gave ourselves two days to finalise gear packing and buy all our food for 3 weeks living on the glacier. We opted for a mixture of ‘real food’ and freeze-dried meals. We then moved up to Talkeetna where took an air taxi to the Kahiltna glacier.

One of the hardest parts of the trip was about to begin. Pulling sledges. It’s one of those things that some people practice, but I was just ready to wing it and figure it out on the trot. Trying to get up the mountain as fast as possible while the weather was good was our tactic.

The weather was good and stable, and we weren’t sure how long it would last. We used skis to travel on the glacier which I think is much nicer than snowshoes. We single load carried up to 10,000 ft camp which was where the slopes got steeper and I reached the limit of what I could physically drag uphill before my ski skins couldn’t grip anymore and I was sliding backwards. We did have a lot of food and fuel. So from this point of steepening, we double carried up to 14000 ft camp.

Once here we focused on melting snow, staying hydrated and gaining red blood cells. After 2 rest days we went for a wonder up the normal route on West buttress. This was partly to see how we’d manage with altitude, and as the weather was fine, we thought we’d keep going. It’s a cool journey this route and I loved seeing all the different parts of the mountain. We went all the way to the summit which I think was pretty good going after just 5 days from landing on the glacier. The west buttress would also be our decent after climbing the Cassin, so it was good to have it figured out.

It’s actually a beautiful route with some nice ridge sections and beautiful exposure. We had the summit to ourselves, and the view was mind blowing. Back down in 14000ft the next plan was to rest and wait for a weather window. The weather was fairly good, but we were waiting for a big storm that was predicted to come in a few days. After 5 days of waiting for this storm to come and the high winds to drop we were starting to get a little frustrated. It was becoming a bit like Groundhog Day, waking up and doing the same things, checking the forecast and seeing the storm pushed back a day. It seemed to never come and tired of doing nothing, and with a strong expectation of a good 3-day window we got our stuff ready to go.

Day 1.

From 14000ft camp there is a fairly logical approach down a hanging glacier called the Seattle ramp to the start of the Cassin. It’s very practical because you can leave all your main camping gear at the camp and pick it up on the way down. Descending down this ramp is quite committing, but its much safer than going up the hugely serac threatened North East Fork glacier. There is still serac danger and a lot of huge crevasses. It feels like you could get dead ended very easily, but with a little cunning and careful down climbing we managed to descend safely all the way to the head of the NE fork where the route begins. We managed to get here in 4 hours and with plenty of daytime hours left I was keen to push on up the Japanese Couloir and make our first bivouac at the Cassin ledge.

The Japanese couloir is a 300m ice gully. It’s technically not too demanding but the ice was hard and brittle.

Brian’s calves were finished for the day after so much front pointing on the descent down the ramp. I felt good so I offered to take some extra weight. I pulled through the vertical ice crux with an extra heavy bag on and had a moment where I looked down at our single skinny rope and thought it would be a very stretchy and long fall. We had taken a single 60m 7.9mm rope with the intention of doubling it up on cruxes if we needed too. With a bit of mild pump developing, I started wondering why it wasn’t doubled up. I reminded myself that the whole route was well below my climbing limit and calmly kept going. A few more pitches led to the crest of the ridge line. The Cassin ledge where we would spend our first night was just to the side. We found ourselves on this wonderful flat haven, wide enough to pitch a small tent and at the start of one of the best alpine routes in the world. We had a solid weather window and I felt very relaxed and excited for what was next.

Day 2.

Our second day started with a beautiful section of mixed climbing graded 5.8. The granite was beautiful and easy to protect. From here we went up the famous cowboy arête. This is a stunning skinny ridge line with immense exposure on either side. Climbing this first thing in the morning was good as the snow was still quite firm. Its technically quite easy but its impossible to protect so it feels wild. We moved together with no protection, apart from the snow picket which I placed once.

I’d never carried one of these before and here it didn’t feel like it would do much. After the arête there’s a big flat bivouac spot at a hanging glacier, but it was much too early to camp, so we had a snack break and kept going up. A lot of the route is fairly easy steep snow climbing interspersed with short technical sections. A steep berchsgrund here shortly halted our simul-climbing with a vertical wall of rotten ice.

Again it felt quite steep with the heavy bag, but it was fun to be hanging on my arms on good hooks. We continued simul climbing for another few hundred meters to the first of the 3 rock bands. We climbed a few icy gullies and technical rock steps in fun short pitches and weaved our way through the intimidating terrain. After the 1st rock band, we found an amazing snow ledge carved into the steep slope by a previous team 10 days before us. We thought there couldn’t be a better place to stop and put up the tent. At 5pm, with the sun still out and high in the sky we pitched up and enjoyed the incredible situation. The forecast was still good. We had loads of food and we reflected on the days fun steady climbing with another mind-blowing view.

Day 3.

Next day we pushed through the second and third rock bands. I thought the second rock band was the most enjoyable section of climbing with some brilliant mixed chimneys and little goulottes of blue ice. It was quite technical and I had to pay close attention to route finding, but it was east to protect with Ice screws or rock gear in the walls.

With the other massive mountains of the range, Foraker and Hunter, now at eye level or under us we knew we were getting really high and definitely noticing the altitude. The 3rd rock band is bypassed on the right via an easy couloir and then route follows fairly easy ground, but in deeper snow. It starts to get really tiring. There was still 3000 ft of climbing. High on the ridge at 18300 ft we decided to have one more camp. The winds were stronger on the upper mountain, and it was still more sheltered where we were.

We were in no rush and we were in good spirits and it was a really beautiful camp spot. We made a ledge under this massive boulder and relaxed in the afternoon sun, enjoying the freedom of less exposed terrain where we could take off the rope. It was surreal knowing we were the highest people in North America and in such a comfortable and beautiful place.

Cassin Ridge

Day 4.

The 4th day we finished the Upper ridge. It feels enormous up there and I was so impressed by how massive the mountain felt. The pace was slowing as we approached the top, breaking trail in soft snow and sucking thin air. The wind was stronger and we wore everything we had. With wind-chill it was -40. We dropped our bags where joined the west buttress route. Feeling light and incredibly happy we finished the section of exposed ridgeline and bagged the summit for the second time. It was an incredible summit day and in a very surreal light we enjoyed the vistas once again of the vast Alaskan wilderness.

Familiar with the West Buttress route we cruised down confidently. It was nice to pass friends from camp coming up on their successful attempts too.

Cassin Ridge

We arrived back into camp mid afternoon and started making a feast of the tasty food we had left. Lots of cheesy tortillas and a whole packet of bacon.

The next day we began moving down the mountain. We reversed the sledge hauling process, which was possibly more of a faff than pulling them up. Trying to ski down the sled is a nightmare as it constantly slams into the back of your legs. We figured out the best way was to tension them between us and walk. Which sadly was more efficient than skiing.

We spent an afternoon descending to 10000ft camp and ate and rested for a few hours and then continued the rest of the way through the night. This brought us back to the glacier runway where we had arranged our flight out. After 17 days on the mountain it was impressive to see how much snow had melted on the lower glacier. They had to move the runway back higher up the Kahiltna Glacier. We flew out 10 days ahead of schedule and moved our flights to go home.

Cassin Ridge

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