Alaskan Ascents 2014 Mt. Bona Trip Report
by IMG Climber Tom Allred
Mount What? might as well be the name of this peak considering the reactions I've heard from most people these last few months. As in, "you're going to climb what mountain?" "Where is that?" and "Why aren't you climbing Denali?" Even most Alaskans have never heard of it. Nor would I expect them to; it's very difficult to see from any road and is located in a remote place relatively few people have ever been.
Mount Bona is the fourth tallest mountain in the United States and the country's highest volcano. It's located in the St. Elias range in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias National park and preserve, which is the largest national park in the country, and combined with the adjacent National parks in the US and Canada, makes up one of the largest protected areas on earth. Forgive all these superlatives, but they really are necessary to explain the scale of this place, which is simply massive on a level I've never experienced before.
For this trip, due to my limited glacier travel experience, lack of partners, and of course also due to my love of hot food and drinks that I don't have to make myself, I joined a guided group led by IMG, thus any of the really amazing route finding on this trip (of which there was plenty) was all the work of the three highly skilled and accomplished guides that led our trip. Rounding out our group was myself and seven other clients who all had various levels of experience but who had all spent at least some time learning the basics of glacier mountaineering on previous trips.
My trip started with a ride to DIA with two big duffel bags full of equipment. The nearly six hour flight to Anchorage had an interesting characteristic where it got progressively darker, then, progressively lighter as we moved north, despite landing after 11PM. Being at 60°N in mid May means the sun sets, but it never quite gets dark, so I had little trouble finding the B&B and reading the instructions for getting into the room.
The two hour time change made it easy to wake up early, but there was little to do most of the day. We met with the guides in the afternoon and went through our gear check as well as the general plan for the next 11 days.
To summarize, the plan was to drive to Chitina, fly onto the Klutlan glacier via bush plane at around 10,000 feet and double carry to set up camps at 10k, 12k and 14k until we head for the summit. If time and conditions permitted we could also attempt the adjacent mount Churchill at 15,638 ft. Weather, of course, was expected to be our biggest factor and in a little less than 24 hours we would certainly learn that lesson. We all went to dinner at a local Anchorage brewery and then headed back to get some sleep since we had an early morning pickup the next day.
We had to be up, packed and ready for the shuttle, operated by Ultima Thule Outfitters, due to arrive at 5 AM and take us to Chitina. The drive to Chitina was a beautifully scenic 5 hour journey that ended at a sparsely populated dirt airstrip on the Copper River. For the whole trip the weather looked a bit ify, but the plane arrived shortly after we unloaded the van, and our pilot, the legendary Paul Claus, took the first group to go "take a look at it". Little did I know that this would quickly become the motto of this trip.
The first half of the group loaded up their gear and took off for Mount Bona with the understanding that if conditions wouldn't permit a landing they would probably end up at the Ultima Thule Lodge for the night. When the plane returned a little over two hours later to pick us up, Paul told us that he was able to get the first team in, and flew us directly onto the glacier. After unloading our gear and watching the plane fly off, the lead guide Erica came up and spoke a sentence that I don't think I'll ever forget; "Welcome to 7000 ft on the Russell Glacier. We're going to on-sight a route up the north face of Bona." I knew the weather was sketchy, but I assumed we'd either land where we planned or spend the night at the lodge until we could. Now we were dropped on the complete opposite side of the mountain on a route that as far as I can tell hadn't seen humans since Andrew McLean's 2007 attempt. There was nothing else to do but set up camp and see what the next day would bring.
Once I'd had the night to contemplate our situation, including it's 3000 additional vertical feet and much longer approach, I woke up to hot drinks and a hot breakfast. Today's plan was to break camp and move up the glacier to establish a base camp at the foot of the mountain. With the weather the previous day, I'd barely gotten a look at the mountain, and in the short glimpses, it appeared to be a massive icefall from the summit to the valley glacier but it was really difficult to understand without any objects for scale. I'd get no help this day because it was snowing hard and it wouldn't stop for over 24 hours.
We slowly broke down camp and loaded up our gear to head out. This was the first time I or most of the other clients had ever traveled with sleds so there was a lot of messing around learning the sled rigging before we really got on our way. This was by far the heaviest carry of the trip, and with packs weighing well over 60 lbs and sleds with another 30+ lbs progress was slow. It also didn't help that visibility never exceeded a couple hundred feet, and we had to travel over 3 miles up the glacier to find a good camp at the foot of the icefall. Then it was time to set up camp, eat and "take a look at it" in the morning.
We finally awoke to a clear morning camped at around 8100 feet at the base of the icefall. The guides had been hoping for a route up the face, but unfortunately the icefall was extremely broken and there was no easy route through the debris, much of which consisted of precariously looming seracs the size of small office buildings. There was no choice but to head west, to the northwest ridge and hope for a bit better, though longer route.
We packed up a relatively light first carry to a camp hopefully around 10,000 ft and headed nearly due west, putting more distance between us and the summit with every step. After a couple hours we came upon a 30° hourglass shaped ramp between two small icefalls that looked like it led up to where we wanted to be, so after a number of switchbacks led us to a beautiful flat area around 9,000 ft, which was still too low to do us much good so we continued for another couple hours and built a cache around 9,700 ft. By then it was already after 4PM so we headed back to camp for dinner and sleep.
I keep remembering the adage that frequents military training: "the only easy day was yesterday". Our goal was to move the rest of camp up to somewhere around 10,000 ft. This meant heavy packs for everyone since most gear couldn't be cached the previous day. We did cache some stuff before we left, making the sleds unnecessary from this point on, but it was still a lot of weight to carry.
Once we reached a camp at 10k, myself and a couple others were volunteered to go back down to our cache from the previous day and bring it up to camp. Though it was only about 300 feet below us, it took over 30 minutes to bring up the gear. This was the heaviest pack I carried the whole trip and was easily 80lb+ followed by a lot of digging tent platforms and anchors in uncooperative snow. I went to bed tired, but more concerned about our chances to make the summit. It was already Day 5, and we were just now at the altitude we'd intended to start at. From here on up it didn't look like the route got any easier, either.
Route finding day. From 10k, we'd need to pick our way through the western edge of the icefall to gain a ridge around 12,700 ft for our next camp. This was not easy since visibility was decreasing quickly in the morning and the icefall was a complex jumble of blocks we could only see from one angle. By noon, we had turned around 3 times after being confronted by impassable crevasses. The remaining option took us towards the heart of the icefall and looked like it would dead-end into even bigger crevasses, but we had to "go take a look at it". To my surprise, after weaving between seracs and crevasses we made it through the tricky part of the route and established a cache at 11,500 ft. It only took about 45 minutes to get back down to camp at 10k since with all the turnarounds, we were really not that far away.
Rest day for us lazy clients, the guides headed out at turbo speed to see if they could finish the route up to the 12,700 ft saddle. I spent most of the day sleeping, reading and snacking on the 3.5 lb bag of M&Ms I'd lugged up to 10k. The guides returned at about 3PM with the great news that they had put in not just one, but two routes from our 11,500 ft cache. This was huge since it meant we'd still be on schedule for a summit on Day 9. This combined with the satellite phone delivered forecast of beautiful and clear weather for the next three days made me think we might actually get a shot at this thing after all.
Move to 12,700 camp. Knowing the route was put in was a huge weight off my shoulders, however my backpack replaced that figurative weight with a literal one. We broke down our 10k camp, cached some more stuff and moved uphill. Everything looked familiar up to our 11,500 cache from two days ago. Fortunately the guides had brought a lot of the cached group gear up the previous day so there was only a few extra pounds of personal gear to add to our packs. The route wound into and switchbacked up an amazing 1,200 ft bowl that seemed to scream ski descent, and we soon found ourselves setting up camp. Fortunately, the weather seemed to get clearer and more pleasant as we ascended and got above the daily clouds that covered the lower elevations. With a good forecast coming up, I went to bed early believing we had a chance to get the summit.
Summit day. Since this is Alaska and it doesn't really get dark, we headed out at a nice Alaskan alpine start time of 8 am. The weather was crystal clear this morning, but we still had a long climb of roughly 4000 vertical feet and around five miles to go at altitudes I'd never experienced before. The biggest difficulties started shortly after we left camp and ascended a 2000 vertical foot slope that reached around 45° at its steepest. Thankfully most of the snow was neve which made for excellent cramponing, but it still took nearly three hours to ascend this hill. At the top we were at 14,700 ft which was a new altitude record for me, and we still had a long way to go. The hill continued at a much more gradual angle to a sub-peak to the west of Bona at around 15,500 ft; a peak I call "Bona petite".
From the summit of this peak, the rest of the route to the true summit comes into view and despite having only around 1,000 vertical feet left, there is a long distance to go with several climbs and benches to cover as well as some serious crevasses to find our way around. More importantly, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped dramatically, and everyone was throwing on layers and covering exposed skin as frostbite was becoming a real danger. As we continued down off Bona petite and into its saddle with the true summit, the guide on my rope dropped waist deep into a hidden crevasse. Fortunately his pack stopped him, and he was able to climb out, but it was a reminder that the crevasse danger didn't go away as the cold and wind picked up.
The weather continued to deteriorate as we ascended, the route was becoming narrow and options for avoiding crevasses were becoming limited. We knew the margin for error was becoming pretty thin. At just over 16,000 ft visibility had dropped to about 60 ft, we had reached our planned turnaround time of 4PM, and there was a massive horizontal crevasse blocking our ascent. Too many factors had added up and it just didn't make sense to try to continue on. We were forced to turn around just 400 ft from the summit.
The descent was not simple either. The air temperature had dipped below zero with 20+ mph winds which gave us a wind chill around -30°F; cold enough to be a real danger to any exposed skin. Also we had to drop and then re-ascend 15,500 ft Bona petite before we hit the steep downcliming back to camp. At about 15,000 ft we exited the massive lenticular cloud that had been building all day, and we were able to see down to camp again. The view was hazy, and we'd been smelling smoke all afternoon from what I later learned was forest fires in the Kenai peninsula several hundred miles away. The downclimb was long but uneventful, and we reached camp almost exactly 12 hours after leaving in the morning. It was disappointing to turn around so close to the summit, but there was really no other choice. I was really feeling good all day, and I feel confident that with better conditions we'd have made the summit easily.
We still had a lot of food and supplies down at 10k camp so the plan was to head down there for the night, then get to the landing zone at 7k the following day. We slept in a bit and started down around 10AM for a relatively easy day. The worst part was that the weather was absolutely perfect all day without even a wisp of spindrift off the summit. I really wanted to go make another attempt, but I knew the schedule wouldn't allow it, and I don't know if I could handle two, or more likely three 12+ hour days in a row.
We descended from 10k pretty early and had lunch back at our 8,100 ft camp at the base of the icefall. I had a whole new perspective on its size after being at the top of it. It was 8,000 vertical feet of massive blocks ready to tumble down the slope. That's more than the summit of Pikes from Colorado Springs, or Blanca from Alamosa and all in under two miles.
After rigging up sleds again, we walked down the Russell Glacier, this time able to actually see, and re-established camp at our 7,000 ft landing zone. It felt like ages since we'd been there, and I guess it kind of had been.
It was the final day, and I was pretty concerned about making it out on time. I awoke several times in the night to the all too familiar sound of graupel tapping on the tent fly. I opened the door to fog as thick as any we'd seen on this trip so far. Fortunately as the sun came out, it burned off most of the clouds, and we were able to call for a pickup.
Unfortunately the weather then slowly degraded all day. Paul Claus was able to pick up the first group and drop them at the lodge, then pick up the second group and fly back to the Chitina airstrip. We then loaded up the plane with supplies for the lodge, and he flew back to pick up the second group and get them to Chitina. All this took some time, and we still had a 5+ hour drive back to Anchorage. We barely ended up making it in time for the guides' flight back to Seattle, and then dropped everyone else back at the B&B, where I was able to finally get a shower for the first time in 10 days, some dinner and went back to the airport to catch my midnight flight to Denver.
IMG Climber Tom Allred