Alaskan Ascents 2011 Mt. Bona Trip Report
by IMG Guide Sheldon Kerr
The Wrangell St. Elias Wilderness is unlike any other climbing destination in the United States. It is massive. Combined with its neighbor, Canada's Kluane National Park, it is the largest protected wilderness area on the planet. A place so remote that you may not simply be the only party on your chosen route, you may be the only party on a particular mountain or in the entire range. No NPS rangers are stationed here to peer into your CMCs; no neighboring parties visit to borrow a cup of sugar (or gallon of fuel); no campsite-destruction trained birds circle overhead. The person who drops you off here is the only person who can pick you up. The feeling I get watching his plane fly away is singularly unnerving. Mt. Bona really gives a sense of what Alaska climbing is all about; high, cold, remote and rewarding.
Saturday the 21st of May
Today the group met up at Anchorage's Arctic Fox Inn. Introductions and a gear check revealed the group to be fit, prepared and enthused for the days to come. We supped at Orso, thinking it would be our last good meal for a while. Little did we know that guide Austin Shannon had such things as breakfast quesodillas and bacon sandwiches in store for the days to come. We coaxed ourselves into bed though the sun was still high at 10:30pm. Tomorrow would begin our journey to the glacier.
Sunday the 22nd of May
This morning we piled our gear and our bodies into the Ultima Thule van to drive to Chitina (pronounced chit-nah), population 123, where we would meet our bush pilot. Granny and Grandpa, the matriarch and patriarch of the famed Ultima Thule bush pilot family were our chauffeurs for the five hour drive. At seventy-something Granny is still running marathons -training at the lodge's airstrip while a grandchild watches over, rifle ever grizzly-ready. Their son, Paul, has taken over both the remote homestead lodge and bush pilot legacy. He met us in the afternoon and informed us that we would be spending one more night on dirt before he could fly us on at 7am Monday morning. We drowned our pre-trip jitters in Alaskan Amber at Chitina's Uncle Tom's Tavern before settling in to our -20 sleeping bags in the +60 airstrip heat.
Monday the 23rd of May
On snow! Paul met us early this morning and flew us right to the Klutlan Glacier. Starting at sea level and landing at 10,200ft is draining, even for this Colorado gal who is proud of her home's position at 9,300ft. The team slowly built camp, ate lunch and harnessed up for an afternoon training session. We rigged backpacks and harnesses for the various crevasse-fall what-ifs, and practice team rescue. After a short walk on the glacier, we sat down in Austin's expertly-crafted Posh cook tent for an early dinner. A few hot drinks later, we zipped ourselves into our mummy bags and called it a day.
Tuesday the 24th of May
Light winds, clear skies and warm air woke us this morning. One of the great thrills of high mountain climbing in Alaska is we get to wake up when the sun hits the tents instead of at a prescribed time. Get up too soon and you will freeze, too late and you fry. Sun o'clock is just right. So up we got and out we went. Probing, wanding and waddling our way up to our next camp at 12,200ft. We dug ourselves a platform, and left seven days of upper-mountain food, fuel and chocolate. Then back to Base Camp for another night of sucking Os before high mountain thin air.
Wednesday the 25th of May
With healthy team members and good-enough weather, we set out for Camp 1. This first day with heavy loads is hard. It is a day where people thank themselves or curse themselves for their pre-climb training, or lack thereof. Our team made it up to our established camp in four hours of tough climbing. By 6pm the weather had deteriorated to inner-cloud spittle. But tents were up, bellies were fed and most retreated to the comforts of nylon and down protection while Austin and I pushed the route up an additional 1,000 ft, earning our dessert.
Thursday the 26th of May
Today was another day of probing and wanding. We set out from Camp 1 to establish a High Camp at 14,250 ft. The route finding on this day was complex but the weather was perfect, 20° sunny with a light breeze. After five hours up and two hours down, we settled in for the night, ready for a rest day or a move in the morning.
Friday the 27th of May
With healthy climbers and good-enough weather, we pushed up to high camp! This day was possibly the hardest of the expedition. Five hours under heavy loads at high altitude to get to our camp on the southeast side of the saddle between Bona and Churchill. Fortunately for those of us mortals, we had an engineer Kyle, the strongest man on Earth, to both design and build our camp (this was the first time I have heard the word "hypotenuse" above 2,000 feet). Two hours of camp building later, we had a flat platform, walls and a Top Chef-worthy kitchen. The weather deteriorated significantly at 9pm, when the guides finished filling the last water bottles in 0° weather. We went to bed relieved to have a bad-weather day coming up.
Saturday the 28th of May
No rest for the weary! We woke up this morning to the most incredible weather I have ever seen in Alaska, or anywhere for that matter. The sky was completely cloudless, the air still, and the sun warm. We left camp at 8am (the AK version of the alpine start), and walked in snowshoes for two hours across the saddle to the base of the steeper Bona headwall. There at the base of the steep headwall, we changed from snowshoes to crampons and took a break. At 10:30am we started up the headwall, which is on the south side of the east shoulder of the summit massive. The crevasses here are much smaller, but less predictable in their orientation across the slope. We stepped into a couple of these “leg eaters” but were able to step over most of them. After three hours of upward motion, and an incredible diving helmet save by Cree, the team summitted at 1:15pm. After tears and slaps on the back were exchanged, the tired but thrilled group made their way back to High Camp by 5pm. Sven treated us to his delicious cache of brie in celebration of our accomplishment.
Sunday the 29th of May
Happy Birthday Kyle! Hopes of climbing Churchill were thwarted this morning when we awoke to our first taste of nasty weather. We packed up camp in windy, white-out conditions and navigated our way back to Klutlan Base Camp, picking up a cache at 12,200 along the way. The walk down was heavy and long, a six-hours with packs brimming over. A weary team stumbled into camp and quickly relocated our lager cache for a much-deserved toast to success.
Monday the 30th of May
Happy Birthday Austin! A day of waiting for our pilot to pick us up. Here's to paperbacks and iPods!
Tuesday the 31st of May
At 8am we were plucked off the glacier and deposited back in civilization (well, close enough). We drove from Chitina back to Anchorage stopping for showers and Thai take-out along the way. Well done, team!
IMG Guide Sheldon Kerr