French mountain guide Fred Gentet reports on new routing in the Alaska Range
A friend of the Black Diamond Europe family for more than a decade, French alpinist Fred Gentet lives for the mountains. Fred is both a respected mountain guide as well as an accomplished climber, and he calls Chamonix home, where works a as a guide and trainer for the French Federation of Alpine Clubs. Fred plays an integral role in training up and coming French mountain guides both in the Chamonix valley and abroad, and this year he and three training guides made their way to the Alaska Range for an expedition that marked the end of a two-year training program. Below is a trip report and photos Fred sent us from the trip, where the team established a new route called The Bear Skin (WI6+, M5, A1) on the Bear Tooth.
The team arrives at Talkeetna on March 23rd from Anchorage. Through a short scenic flight over the Buckskin Glacier and the Ruth Glacier, we are able to check snow and ice conditions in different faces of the mountains and take pictures to analyze the different possibilities. We finally decide to go for faces over the Buckskin Glacier where we think we might be able to open new routes on the Bear Tooth.
The observation flight is quite an experience for me since Paul, the pilot of Talkeena Air Taxi, does his best and made me sick. Satisfied, he laughs at me and adds a poetic comment—"American breakfast!"
On the following days weather conditions are poor. Paul can finally drop us on the glacier on March 26th. He is quite surprised by the amount of bread that we are bringing with us to the base camp, forgetting that French people (including climbers) love bread!
The team is composed of 3 young and talented climbers of the French Federation of Alpine Clubs (FFCAM) and me. We climb the first 6 pitches, which were made of thin ice slabs covering a steep rock face. To facilitate the ascent we decide to leave our climbing ropes installed in the section.
After these first two long days going back and forth form the base camp to the face, we decide to enjoy some rest at the base camp for the next day. The weather is sunny and still very cold (-4 °F) when we leave the base camp to start the gully ascent. We hope that we will be able to exit the first gully in three full days.
On the second day, we decide to leave our heavy equipment at the bivouac, we know that we had only 2 days left of good weather forecasted. Therefore we want to be as light as possible to try to exit the gully by the end of the day. After 18 hours of climbing around half past midnight in the gully we sadly have to accept that we will not be able to make it. We are really getting frozen; the technical difficulties are very demanding and climbing at night makes any further ascent impossible.
We are truly disappointed to be forced to stop in the middle of the line after 2 bivouacs and 900m of climbing. We therefore return to the base camp realizing that we will never be able to come back to the Bear Tooth. There are too many runouts, the ice in the gully has been severely damaged by the four of us and we have decided to remove the ropes that we had installed on the first part.
Mike, the meteorologist, was right indeed since 4 feet of light snow are falling in two days. We feel much better at the camp than in the gully! The snowfall gives us some time to think calmly about was just happened and to recharge our batteries! We take the decision to return there, the line is really worth it!
The next day we leave the camp at 3am with 4 days of food. We are so motivated that we are over the first ice slabs at 11:15am. The weather forecast mentioned temperatures around -20 °F but unfortunately real temperature is closer to 35 °F generating a decomposition of the gully. Now comes another moment of doubt—we have to wait almost 3 hours before we can restart climbing.
When we get to the bivouac at midnight, we have no room to install our BD tents. A short and uncomfortable night ensues since are up at 4am to finish the gully. By the end of the day, we finally reach the shoulder, and this will be another emotion of the ascent. While searching for the right location for the bivouac, I start a monster avalanche by breaking a cornice.
For the summital wall we decide to take a gully which is a very logical diagonal line. To exit the gully, we must make a hole in the cornice with our shovels to reach the final ridge. We still have difficult sections with the snow to climb on the ridge. It's so typical from Alaska, cool!
We need the entire day to reach the summit from the base of the summital wall. When we get to the top, our emotions are intense, the "win" is nice and some of us start to shout!
I have a look on the Mont Dickey where I've done the Roberts Pillar 4 years ago with another team. It is now 9.30pm and time to think about the descent. Icing on the cake, we are enjoying a truly emotional moment admiring Northern lights on our way down. We leave the glacier 19 days after our arrival. For sure it will be a great memory!
Special thanks to Black Diamond Europe who plays a large part in my success!!!
Chamonix, May 5th 2012