POSSIBLY THE SECOND EARLIEST ASCENT IN HISTORY FOR THE CASSIN RIDGE
Two Washington climbers were the first to scale Mount Denali at the outset of the 2017 climbing season, arriving at the top of North America’s highest peak, and lingering for only a minute in the sub-50-below temperatures before making a dash for safety, with both suffering from altitude sickness.
Forrest Barker and Connor Chilcott of Seattle reached the top on April 16. So far, they are the only two who have summited this year in a climbing season that is just getting started. They’re still trying to determine if this was the second earliest ascent of the Cassin Ridge, but they weren’t looking to set a record, just looking to finish.
Barker, 27, and Chilcott, 23, have climbed together before – Mounts Rainer and Baker in Washington, and they’ve each climbed in faraway places around the world, but this hill nearly kicked their butts. They drove themselves hard to be first up the technically challenging Cassin Ridge this season so that they could pick their own way, rather than tread through the steps of hundreds of others that will pack a path to the top over the next three months.
The Cassin Ridge is only for the hardest of hardcore climbers. It is accessed by the Valley of Death, and goes up Denali’s south face, with four pitches of plus-60-degree steep ice climbing, up a gully of snow and ice known as the Japanese Couloir, followed by the Knife Ridge — a blade of hard ice. Then comes a hanging glacier, rock bands, ice climbing, bergshrund, and a mix of other terrain. They only fell into crevasses six times, and only shallow falls…or that’s the story they’ll be telling their moms.
Barker and Chilcott look like they come straight out of central casting for “dirtbag climbers,” those young men (mainly) who live for epic adventure and the pursuit of mountains.
Must Read Alaska interviewed the two climbers who just completed their odyssey on April 21. Before they flew out of Alaska today, we got their story of how they scrambled up the 20,310-foot feat, and then returned to civilization with only a frostbitten pinky toe paining one man and some bloody sputum coughing up out of the other… and how they packed out 30 pounds of their own human waste.
But they tell it best in their own words, offered up over a plate of tater tots at the Spenard Roadhouse in Anchorage…
CONNOR: Eight months ago I was on Rainier and there were some random people hunkered down at Camp Muir (elev. 10,000 feet) during a storm. Forrest and I spotted each other in the group and decided that each other was an actually competent climber. That’s how we met. I’d been traveling around for the year, staying in my car, climbing in places like Yosemite, Europe, Oregon, Washington, Canada.
So then Forrest and I did a hard climb on Mount Baker and tested the water out with each other. I left for Europe, but we stayed in touch and Forrest applied for the Denali permit in December. I added onto the permit a little bit later.
This was the second earliest ascent in history for the Cassin Ridge. – Connor Chilcott
The West Buttress is climbed a lot during the winter and the Cassin Ridge is usually later in the season. We weren’t really sure what the conditions would be.
FORREST: Right when we got there, three feet of snow dumped on us right away. So there was a lot of trail breaking. We were dropped on the glacier with 125 pounds each — 60 to 80 pounds on sleds and 40 to 60 pounds in a backpacks, breaking trail through three feet of new snow. It was physical.
CONNOR: Temperatures were below zero at night, but in the days it might have gotten up to the 20s. We got into Kahiltna Base Camp and spent two nights, and then decided to start up right after the storm to 14,000 camp. We had four to five days between base and 14,000 feet, with no visibility for the first two days. We made it to 14,000 feet on April 9th.
A lot of pros told us not to go this route this early due to the cold. – Forrest Barker
FORREST: It’s a completely different experience when you’re following someone else tracks vs making your own trail, and making those decisions for yourself.
CONNOR: This was my first time to Denali and I wanted to experience it in a different way. It was the need for exploration. This is known as one of the most beautiful climbing routes in the world, so I wanted to do it, but make it an adventure. It was Forrest’s second Denali summit — but the first time up this route.
At 14,000 feet, the weather forecast only showed a three-day window. We originally were going to go up to 17,000 feet and get acclimated to the altitude, but with the weather window, we said, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get.’ We were more concerned about the cold weather than the altitude.
FORREST: Yeah, the cold weather was a bigger threat. We buried most of our stuff in a cache at 14,000 feet and took in our backpacks what we needed for the climb.
And so we went back down on the 11th [of April] and then up the Valley of Death, starting at about 5-6 pm. [The climbers had planned to go further up to acclimate, and needed to come back down to head up the valley.] It was a great weather window. Then we tried to snowshoe up to Safe Camp, but Connor was breaking trail, and was starting to sweat a little too much.
CONNOR: I got exhausted and cold. So Forrest broke trail, I put my parka on, and we made it to Safe Camp at 9,450 feet. We were breaking trail in snow that was three feet deep.
FORREST: The next day we started up the Japanese Couloir, which is the first ice pitch. Connor is a stronger technical climber, it had been a long day just getting to the Japanese Couloir, which is 1,000 vertical feet of ice.
The sun was going behind the west ridge of Denali and Connor saw what looked like an appropriate spot for us to camp for the night on the Cassin Ledge, but we climbed up and couldn’t find it. It was hard, technical stuff, and we were exhausted.
CONNOR: I led up a hard series of pitches, and it was midnight and I was starting to make stupid decisions. So I climbed down to Forrest, and we found a ledge. Not the Cassin Ledge, but Forrest hadn’t slept well for three days, so basically we said this was our last spot, the next section we had to commit to going up. There would be no going back.
Forrest’s air mattress popped on that ledge, but we slept for four hours. And in the morning I made breakfast and coffee, and we talked.
FORREST: It was a good discussion. We were behind schedule, and now we had an unplanned bivvy.
CONNOR: Yeah, we’d gotten caught out at night.
FORREST: My sleeping pad had popped — was it worth it to keep on going? But we both felt really strong and it was a gorgeous day. It was a great “coffee discussion.” And we decided to continue. Once you get to the Knife Ridge, it is safer to go to the top, so this was a point of no return situation. Go down now or continue all the way up. The latter decision was better. We don’t regret making that decision at all.
CONNOR: Then you have the Rock Crux — just rock climbing, and they grade that 5.8. I led that pitch. And our next interesting thing happened — I flicked my rope to get it out of a little crack, and it dislodged a football-sized rock. I yelled “rock!” and Forrest ducked under his helmet and it smacked him right on the top — and cracked his helmet.
Once we got to the Knife Ridge, it took a long time. It’s a blade of snow that is 70-degrees on each side and goes for 1,000 feet of elevation. We thought it would take us two hours, but it took us six.
FORREST: The quality of the snow was tough. I’ve had a lot of avalanche training, starting from when I was 14 years old. The snow crystals were all facets, it didn’t pack down. We weren’t worried about avalanche, but it offered zero support, no place to put any sort of protection in. Usually you can put a picket into hard snow, but not this. In the back of our heads, we were both thinking, one misstep and down you go, both of you.
CONNOR: One fall on the beginning of that part was certain death for both of us.
FORREST: That put us a whole day behind schedule. We’d climbed for 16-17 hours two days in a row.
CONNOR: So we get to these “M-shaped” rocks that are sort of a landmark, and we go up a gully of ice, and it’s getting dark again. We had a lot of route-finding issues in that gully. And we were at 15,000 feet and looking at -20 again, and so we needed a spot to bivvy.
FORREST: We saw a rock protrusion sticking up at the edge of the ridge. A big cantilever of snow created a nice saddle, but we needed an anchor. We were just short of having enough rope to anchor to a rock about 20 feet away, so we just chopped into the side of the slope, pulled out the tent and since there was no place to put it, we just used it as a wind screen, didn’t use the poles. We didn’t sleep. We kept slipping down all night.
CONNOR: Forrest slept in his boots. I was wearing more technical boots because I was leading the technical parts, and I took my boots off at night. We were sliding a lot and I got out of the tent not thinking at one point and stood in the snow in my down booties and socks and I think that’s when I got a tiny bit of frostbite. I had a hard time that night with cold feet. I was definitely slower in the morning.
We knew we really had to move that day, because we were out of food. We had just one night of food left, and basically just one breakfast to split and one day of pro-bars and energy chews for lunch.
We looked at each other and said, “Today’s the day. We’ve got to make it to the next bivvy and not get stuck out and “benighted” [overtaken by night] again.
That was on the 14th. We needed to move. We quickly finished up the first rock band, then Forrest broke trail on the snow slog, between the rock bands.
Finally we reached the triangle-shaped roof bivvy at 16,000 feet, and we got there at 6 pm.
That night we ate our last dinner, watched a gorgeous sunset on a ledge, without the tent. We were pretty comfy, so there was no point in setting up the tent. We slept a solid nine hours.
The last two technical pitches were next. It was brutally cold, at 16,500 feet and -30 with wind. Our hands — we had immense pain, the “screaming barfies” type pain, but we finished the last two technical pitches and got into the snow slopes in the sun.
FORREST: As soon as that sun hit, we warmed up. But once we got to 18,500 feet, Connor started to get acute mountain sickness. We had no food left, and we kept on pushing, and I had one little energy “goo” left, and I gave Connor some of it. We brewed up a bit more water and drank it. AMS can give you this exhaustion that you have never felt before. Every step is such a big chore. We were moving slowly with no calories, and making steady progress, but not nearly as quickly as we needed to be making at that point. We got to 19,900 feet, and were looking at our watches. It was 6 pm. Connor was ready to bivvy there but I said, no we can’t. So we went on.
CONNOR: We went up and we reached the top, and the sun was disappearing, so we knew we had to turn on the jets to make it back to 17,000, and at this point Forrest started to cough and have pink phlegm come out of his lungs. High altitude pulmonary edema.
FORREST: I’m a wilderness EMT and work with mountain rescue, so I knew what was going on. I took some dexamethasone to deal with it. It’s basically a steroid, reduces swelling. It doesn’t cure it. The cure for HAPE is to drop in altitude. I couldn’t take a full breath of air, and we were climbing on no calories.
CONNOR: We didn’t even take a picture at the top — couldn’t get the camera out, it was -50 and windchill, probably -90 with the wind. We knew it was -30 at 18,000 feet so if we could drop a few thousand feet…otherwise we’d be looking at any part of our skin getting frost bit, and exhaustion, climbing abilities getting slow, making stupid decisions.
FORREST: Another symptom of AMS — acute mountain sickness — is not the clearest thought process.
CONNNOR: I was looking for a spot to sleep, but Forrest wanted to drop in elevation as quick as possible. The sun was completely gone, and during the next part, we would not be able to stop until 17,000 feet. Should we pull out the headlamps and go on?
So we looked at each other — I was at the end of my rope. I knew a lot of people who have done things like this and I felt we would make some bad decisions. I told Forrest, “We’ll live through the night here, I promise.”
FORREST: Even more than that, we were exhausted, that traverse would have been way too dangerous.
CONNOR: It’s hard to say where the “end of your rope” is. I was at this point in my brain that I knew if we stopped and rested everything was going to be OK.
FORREST: HAPE — High Altitude Pulmonary Edema — can go downhill quickly, so I took some more “dex.” Connor pitched the tent at the bottom of the “football field,” right between Denali Pass and the field, and the wind picked up, howled, and kept collapsing the tent on us. The elastic in the tent poles gave out. The poles bent and we tried to bend them back. They’re kind of S shaped now. If it had been a lighter weight tent, it would have been shredded.
CONNOR: In the morning, we had no food. We had some water, we packed up the tent, and still at 18,500 feet, with high winds, we got on the traverse that is called the “Autobahn” and it was just ankle breaking. It had not been packed down by other climbers so every step tested our ankles.
FORREST: It’s a hard windblown slope, walking perpendicular to the fall line. Your ankles want to bend. We got to 17 camp, and found a backpack there, and searched around, but there was no food. We went to the fixed line on West Buttress and descended.
CONNOR: At Camp 14, we dug out our food cache — it had been buried in drifts by now — and dove into the cheese, sausage and smoked salmon. Yes, we ate and were merry!
Our morals are not to leave anything. So after two days at 14,000 feet, we went and retrieved all our gear. On the 20th we skinned our way to the air strip. Talkeetna Air picked us up. They were kind of surprised because they didn’t think we’d even survived.
We went back to Talkeetna and went first to the National Park Service, and they awarded us pins for the earliest ascent of the season and also a sustainable Denali award for hiking out all our human waste — it was 30 pounds.
CONNOR: Then we went to the Fairview Inn and had whiskey, and we went to the brewery and had beer, and to Mountain High Pizza Pie, and ate a whole pizza. A nice guy — an Alaskan — covered our tab there, and we didn’t know it until we went to pay.
FORREST: I lost 20 pounds. We got dropped off on the glacier on March 30. I started out at 140 and came back on April 21 at 120.
CONNOR: I lost 5-10 pounds.
FORREST: I had more to lose. I work at a desk, and Connor is a guide, so I definitely had more to lose!
Forrest is employed as an emergency medical coordinator for a company that coordinates care in remote areas, such as Africa, Siberia, Antarctica, and for shipping companies crossing the oceans. Connor is a mountain guide who will start his guiding season in Washington State in a few weeks. Connor and Forrest work with “Peaks of Life,” a Seattle-based non-profit that raises money to help pay for children’s hospital bills. They were the first two climbers to participate in Denali’s 2017 Birthday Pack-Out Initiative, packing out all their human waste from the Cassin Ridge and West Buttress.