Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ascending the dome — Climbers summit 2nd volcano with little planning

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Editor’s note: This week, The Redoubt Reporter continues a series about three seasoned outdoor enthusiasts who attempt to complete a quest to take on three Cook Inlet volcanoes over the course of three long weekends. Last week’s installment accom-panied these stalwart adven-turers as they crossed Cook Inlet, climbed Mount Iliamna, skied back down to dry ground, and then re-crossed the inlet in just three days. This week’s installment will feature the trio’s attempts to similarly conquer Mount Redoubt.

About five months after the successful 2006 climb and ski-descent of Mount Iliamna by Rory Stark, Tyler Johnson and Craig Barnard, Stark found his body in need of an overhaul.

In 2002 on Mount Hunter, Stark, who grew up in Homer, had been caught in an avalanche that injured his hip and mangled his ankles, requiring three surgeries to one ankle, fusing the bones so that front-to-back movement was still possible but side-to-side movement was not. The ankle injury altered his stride; however, it didn’t keep him off his skis or out of the woods.

In 2005, for instance, Stark and Johnson joined with a pair of other competitors to participate in the rugged Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. They won by finishing in less than two days, the first competitors ever to do so, much to the chagrin of former record holder, the renowned Roman Dial.
But Stark’s compromised body could only endure such punishment for so long, and eventually one of his hips began to give out.

In October 2006, Stark went in for hip-resurfacing surgery.

Doctors dislocated the hip, and then ground down the head of the femur until they could mount a chrome-alloy ball on it. Into the hip joint, they affixed a metal socket, then set the ball into the socket and put the hip back together.

Seven months later, in May 2007, Stark was ready to tackle another volcano. The target this time was 10,198-foot Mount Redoubt, standing in its snowy mantle almost directly across from the city of Kenai.

“We realized that (the ease of the Iliamna trek) was complete luck, so we planned this one out a little better,” said Johnson.

To start with, they decided to allocate more time than they had the year before, so they planned for four days.

Although they still carried no climbing gear, they did pack a map, emergency-locator beacons and shovels, and three 4½-pound Alpacka one-man rafts. They also spent some time researching their route. Then, eschewing McDonald’s cheeseburgers this time, they settled on a diet of mainly burritos from Taco Bell, and a fifth of whiskey apiece.

An acquaintance of theirs with some experience on Redoubt laughed at their sense of preparedness, Johnson said. He also warned them about the crevasses on the mountain and worried about their decision to ski the untried north face, but his arguments failed to dissuade the trio.

Again leaving Anchorage on a Thursday night after work, Stark and Johnson picked up Barnard — a Vermont transplant living in Cooper Landing — and headed south. At about 3 a.m. Friday, they launched their 16-foot Achilles inflatable from the Kenai beach near the wastewater treatment plant and motored west across Cook Inlet toward the Drift River.

Entering the river mouth, they followed the stream course until they noticed a road near the river. They pulled into a slough and tied off their craft, realizing the road likely belonged to Chevron’s Drift River facility, but not realizing the scrutiny under which they had just come.

“We got down the road a little ways, and, man, two or three trucks come barreling down the road toward us,” Johnson said. The trucks belonged to Chevron security officials, who were obviously upset by the adventurers’ appearance.

According to Johnson, a Chevron boss from the West Coast had just landed at the facility, and officials there were already on a heightened terrorism alert because they feared possible threats against a whaling convention in the area. Officials talked of confiscating the boat and all the gear until, as Johnson said, “cooler heads prevailed.”

“We had motored right up a pipeline,” Johnson said, and there was a concern about bombs. Ultimately, though, after a long powwow between officials, they decided not only to forget pressing charges but also — after checking out the inflatable and laughing at all the beer inside it — to escort Barnard, Stark and Johnson in a company truck on up the road and off Chevron property.

In the end, the trio saved five to 10 miles of walking. Still, there was plenty of walking to be done and plenty of cold-water crossings to be had, since the Drift River is a braided glacial stream. Fortunately, the bluebird skies continued and the sun remained warm. On Friday night, after stashing their pack rafts along the upper river, they camped at about 2,000 feet.

On Saturday morning they affixed skins to skis and began to ascend through a series of seracs, icefalls and thinly veiled crevasses. Especially nerve-racking was a notch they recognized as a collapsed crevasse beneath the snow fissures that would parallel the direction of their skis on the descent.

All that day, they covered less than five miles, camping at about 5,000 feet near the base of the main mountain. While Stark and Johnson remained in camp, Barnard scouted the route ahead, noting that the avalanche danger was high while still being able to select a reasonably safe route.

“You always want to ski (down) your ascent line because, if your weather turns to crap, you can kind of follow your tracks for a little bit, and it’s real important to know where you’re going,” Johnson said.
By noon Sunday, following Barnard’s plan, they were on the summit and preparing to head back downhill.

“We hit it just right,” Johnson said of the descent. “Another week and probably it would have uncovered a lot of crevasses, and these (snow) bridges would have been gone.”

As it was, noted Stark and Barnard, some of the bridges began to collapse as they traversed them.
Back at the Drift River, they made camp and readied their rafts for the trip out. A distance they had labored to cover over much of Friday, they floated in only two hours on Monday morning, but when they reached the Achilles they discovered that Monday’s smaller tides had left their boat high and dry in the slough. Consequently, they had to drag the craft over the mud and back out into the current.

“We had to take the outboard off,” Johnson said. “We took out all the stuff. Me, Craig and Rory, we drug that boat. It was probably a little over a quarter-mile. And then we had to go back and get the engine and then we had to go back and get all the stuff. We looked like a bunch of mud turtles out there.”

Eventually, they were back in the main channel with their gear packed and ready to go. They reached the Kenai beach on Monday night as the weather began to turn. “It was just blowing up,” Stark said. “It was starting to get just nasty there. We just beat a storm in.”

On the way north, they stopped off at the home of Johnson’s parents in Soldotna and learned that Johnson’s father had tried to “send” them a care package.

According to Barnard, Johnson’s father bought some food at Arby’s and then flew with a friend over Redoubt on summit day, planning to drop a bag of chow to the three men, but the fliers were unable to spot the climbers, and so the delivery never happened.

Less than a month later, they were ready for 11,070-foot Mount Spurr.

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