The Alaska Project

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In 2014 we – Sebastian, his buddies Phil and Andi as well as Daniel (Camera) and Bezi (Audio) – attempted to climb the 4996 m high Mt. Blackburn in the St. Elias National Park, Alaska. The mission objective was to use our super light Dynafit Cho Oyo skis + skins, crampons and ice axes on the first part, Flysurfer PEAK snow-kites on the long ridge leading to the peak and Air G ANI mountain gliders on the way back down. Andi would take the lead in the classic alpine approach (Section 1), whilst Sebastian would lead the group during the kite ascent (Section 2) and finally Phil would take off first with his wing to lead the way down into basecamp (Section 3). With this unique approach we wanted to show that fairly new disciplines such as snow-kiting or speedflying blend in perfectly into classical alpine ski-touring and climbing approaches. Everything looked really nice and well thought through when we sketched the route on a map in Munich … but it all turned out differently than what we planned!

All pictures by Bezi Freinademetz, Sebastian Bubmann and Daniel Bartsch. Replication without prior written consent is prohibited. Please get in touch if you would like to publish some of these images and we shall be able to provide you with better resolution shots.  

After more than 1,5 years in the planning the day had finally come and we were ready for take-off to Alaska. With a total of over 650kg overweight luggage checked in, the long journey to the ‘Last Frontier’ began. Eventually the last 6 hours long flight departed from Minneapolis to Anchorage. Arriving super late at night with a time lag of 10 hours, we were pretty much done! But luckily we made it to Anchorage with ALL our luggage on board – not a single box was missing, what a relief…

 

Considering the amount of oversize luggage we were travelling with, we were very happy that our good friend Steve from Alaskan Kite Adventures came to pick us up with a huge trailer at 1 am in the morning. During the 40 mile drive from Anchorage Airport to his house in Wasilla we started to slowly realize that we actually made it back to Alaska after our last big Alaskan adventure in 2012. Once we arrived at Steve’s house, the horizon was already getting brighter as the sun was going to rise in only two hours. That’s such a cool thing about the Alaskan spring – the days are seemingly endless!

The next morning we tried to sleep in, starting to work against the jet lag. Well, that didn’t really work. It sucks when you are awake until early in the morning, then finally find some sleep just to wake up again around 7am. Anyhow, first on the list after crawling out of our sleeping bags was Mocha! There’s thousands of small coffee shops all over the state of Alaska and most of them serve great coffee including super tasty Mocha (some blend of Espresso and Hot Chocolate, which we haven’t come across in Germany too many times yet). Together with Indian Pale Ale (shame on us German beer drinkers!) Mocha became some sort of basic food ever since we’ve been to Alaska for the first time.

As we all have normal jobs, we were not only forced to use up nearly all of our holiday days for this trip, we were also on a very tight schedule. In addition to months of preparation at home, the on-ground shopping for gear and supplies was just as intense. If you miss anything on which you will depend out on the glacier, you are pretty much in the shi**. Sat Phone rental, batteries, camp fuel, tons of food and small items like a thermo jug were on our long list.

It is just crazy how much time preparations and logistics for such a big adventure take in total. But after long days and nights of preparations in Anchorage and Wasilla we finally started packing the boxes, duffles and bags for the flight to Nabesna Glacier. As already back in 2012 we were so grateful for all of Steve’s amazing support. He really made life a lot easier for us over there. And what a base we had at his house in Wasilla! From the small pier in the garden of Steve’s house you overlook glassy Lake Lucile with floatplanes parked on piers like cars in a driveway in Europe … welcome to Alaska! 🙂

Ultimately after four very intense days coping with huge shopping lists and jet lag we were happy that the REAL adventure was about to start … but … Sebastian started feeling dizzy and weak. Even though it was warm (for Alaskan circumstances) he was wearing his down jacket and was still shivering. The next morning brought the inevitable assurance. Seb fell ill and there was no way for him to join the flight, as he had a bad cold and fever. Long discussions and calls were made and finally a flicker of hope appeared on the horizon: Our pilot said that there was another group in the Blackburn area, which he would pick up in 7 days and that Seb could catch a ride with him, if he would make his way to McCarthy airstrip, where the pilot would pass through to fuel up.


Phil & Andi: Without Seb we departed the next day towards the Chitina airstrip, where we would be picked up by our pilot. Leaving your friend and member of the team behind was a weird feeling, as we planned this whole thing together for such a long time. The drive through the Alaskan outback however was simply stunning – the countryside is so beautiful. After a couple of hours driving we arrived at Glenallen, where we stayed for the night. The next morning we got up early and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise while heading south on Richardson Highway. And then, coming over the top of a small hill we spotted our objective for the first time … Mt. Blackburn! What a giant of a mountain! We have looked at so many pictures, studied maps and pixelated satellite imagery … but we would have never expected such a huge massive back of a mountain arising from what appeared to be tiny hills (each far than a thousand metres high). It was truly a magic moment, seeing this massive mountain with our own eyes for the first time. A short while later we arrived at the Chitina Airstrip, where we camped out to meet the pilot the next day. The adventure was about to begin – but our good friend was not with us which gave us mixed feelings.

 

Back to Seb: After such an endless time of preparations and planning this with your close friends it was really frustrating to see them drive away without you. But there was not much I could do about this but to drink heaps of fresh ginger tea and rest. After about 11 hours of sleep it was another BEAUTIFUL day in Alaska. Everyone said this was the longest period of sunshine they have seen in a long time. At night I received a text from the boys over the SAT phone saying that camp was already half way there and that they were looking very much forward to meeting me out there. That gave me the strangest feeling of anticipation to get out there mixed with anxiety about being able to fully recover in such a short amount of time.


Phil & Andi: Sitting around on Chitina airstrip, waiting for the pilot to arrive felt great. We missed Seb but were also super excited about the upcoming flight, setting up camp, if the weather was gonna hold … so many thoughts but the adventure was about to begin! Eventually we heard a silent humming noise and then we spotted the De Havilland Turbine Otter on wheel skis. The pilot landed right in front of us. It was super loud and dust was flying through the air. We had to hold on to our stuff, while he turned the plane around and switched off the engine. Our hands were sweating as we realized – there was no turning back, this was it! In less than two hours we would be in the middle of nowhere with no one nearby. 🙂
We loaded up the plane with dozens of boxes, bags, skis, kites and other equipment, took our seats and off we were to one of the most remote and isolated places in the world. The flight was amazing. After crossing large areas of tundra and forest we climbed higher and higher, spotting the first massive glaciers below. We then crossed part of our route and had a chance to check out some of the terrain … well … this was anything but what we had expected, yet again. The dimensions were extreme. What seemed to be a small climb up the NW-ridge turned out to be a more than 1000 m tall wall of ice and snow. Huge crevasses and icefalls made it appear seemingly impossible to find a way through this maze. Looking at this monster of a mountain from so close did send cold shivers up and down our spines.
The landing was as soft as butter and a short time later we had unloaded all of our gear onto one big pile. The pilot waved good bye, fired up the turbine and off he was. As already back in 2012 this moment of ultimately being out there all by yourself is a truly magic moment. You feel so isolated knowing that there is no such thing as a quick air rescue. If the weather doesn’t allow a pilot to fly in, you are on your own. Breaking a leg or falling into a crevasse can have severe consequences out here.

After we did set-up the first big wall of snow blocks to protect our camp, we pitched the first of two Hilleberg Atlas dome tents. For leveling the ground we stumped around on our skis, then dug holes for burying snow anchors and finally pitched the tent protected by the wall. After a first night on the glacier we then finished setting up camp during the next two days. It was a mission of its own to set-up such a large base camp but we were on our own and it was crucial to have a place to hide away from storms and severe weather. In the end the walls were about two meters high and the entire camp measured around 12m × 10m.

 

After we finished the camp, we went out for the first scouting mission. Being just the two of us without Seb we needed to be even more careful on this crevassed glacier. We made it to the highcamp spot safely and could have a first glimpse on the NW-ridge. What seemed to be huge from the plane, now appeared to be even larger and steeper than expected. Wow … in Alaska you really feel like a ‘fool of scale’. Everything is further away, taller, more steep and exposed than it looks!
In the end of the day the wind was blowing as well and we took out the kites for a cruise around basecamp. It was super cool to be able to use a kite to tackle the distances. What were seemingly endless tours now were just a matter of minutes at a cruising speed of around 30km/h. 🙂

 

The next day the weather got a lot worse. It snowed quite a bit and the snow was so heavy that one of the tent poles broke during the night. Luckily we brought a few extra for an easy replacement. This downday gave us a first impression of how fast the weather can actually change and how attentive you have to be out here. Always in contact with Sebastian via SAT phone we were devastated to hear what happend to our friend Steve back in Wasilla. All that casted a shadow about the arrival of Sebastian that we were so much looking forward to … we were shocked but also relieved that Steve was still alive and made it to the hospital safely.


Back to Seb: Another 11 hours of sleep later I felt already so much better and Steve convinced me to drive to Hatchers Pass with him to paraglide. I wish I’ve never said yes. So, we drove there, it was a nice breeze blowing up the mountain. Chris, Tommy and some other Alaskan pilots already launched from that site earlier in the day. Their cars were still in the parking spot but they seemed to have covered some distance and were nowhere in sight. I took of first and did a few laps before Steve launched to join me in the air. I watched him take off and then the unthinkable happened … he must have hit a spot of really bad air and turbulence, about 15 m from the ground, very shortly after takeoff. His wing went into deep stall and he couldn’t get it to recover. I saw him impact on the hillside and flew right over there to see if he was alright. When I flew over him, I saw him laying on his side cramping in pain. When I heard him yell “I broke my back!” I was shocked … it didn’t look that bad when I saw him going down but in that moment I realized that it was very, very serious. After I managed to land on top of the hill, I unhooked my harness, left everything where it was and ran to Steve as fast as I could. It was a terrible experience … there we were in the middle of nowhere with no one to help. I was so scared to move him, as clearly his spine was injured. But since he was pretty much sitting with his butt on his feet I had to straighten out his legs somehow to make sure the blood flow wouldn’t get caught off. First thing after that I stabilized him and called a friend to call 911 but then eventually called 911 myself. No idea why … I was in shock myself and you really act in the heat of the moment in such a situation I guess. Thank god, about 10 minutes later, Chris, Tommy and the other guys came back to pick up their cars and ran up the hill to help us. Another 10 minutes in and the heli landed. It was a great relief to finally have a doctor on site and I must say the guys did a fantastic job, really calm and professional. Until they arrived I had placed myself downhill of Steve to stabilize him in the position so he could rest against my back. Once the docs had stabilized his neck we carried him over to the heli. Lifting him up and into the heli he said something I will never forget. Even in such a f***ed up situation that guy asked Tom to look after me that I would get a ride to McCarthy to meet our pilot there, so that I could make it out to the Blackburn area. Steve’s such a great guy and seems to worry more about other people than about himself! In that moment I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. It turned out Steve had broken three dorsal vertebraes, one was simply crushed. He had to undergo a 9 hour surgery. The next day I could finally visit him. It was HORRIBLE to see him so broken and in so much pain. But it was also a great relief that he was still with us after such a severe crash and the doctors said there was a chance he would recover movement in his legs. It was great to see so many people visiting and caring about him, massaging his legs and feet to keep the nerves stimulated and trying to support him through this awful phase.

In the hospital I ran into Scott, another pilot who we’ve already met last time in AK, back in 2012. With Steve being in the hospital, the 80 mile dirt road drive to McCarthy was no option anymore, as I had no car and no one to catch a ride with. Flying into McCarthy was hence my only option to still make it to Nabesna Glacier. I was in contact with Jim, another pilot who flew us to Knik Glacier back in 2012, but his Cessna 185 would burn heaps of fuel and it would have been a pretty expensive ride. Luckily Scott offered to fly me in with his mechanic’s Cessna 150, which burns way less fuel for a very fair price. That was a big relief and I finally knew that I would make it!

On the next day I drove to Wasilla airport where Scott picked me up with the 150. Well, I guess I didn’t think about the fact, that a 150 takes on way less extra load than a 185. Even though I left behind, what I could, my gear piled up to the roof. This plane was absolutely packed and staff kept on falling to the front with a massive pile of gear behind our seats in this small two seated aircraft. 🙂 We took off and had a great two hour flight to the tiny runway of McCarthy, where we camped out next to the plane. I actually got to enjoy my own private lesson from Scott and flew the plane myself nearly half the way to the airstrip.

 

The next day was my big day. I could hear the turbine Otter coming in and spotting the plane gave me cold shivers. It was time and within less than one hour I would be out there and meet my friends for this sick adventure. A little delay, but I WAS ON MY WAY!!! 🙂 After loading up all of my gear quickly into the plane we took off towards camp. What a flight … approaching the mountain from tiny McCarthy village was a stunning flight over moonscape like glaciers that were pushing millions of tons of dirt piling up to form enormous moraines. Eventually we climbed higher and higher and I spotted our base camp for the first time. And what a basecamp that was! Wow! The guys made a great job of it and I was fairly ‘lucky’ to have bypassed all that stomping, digging and pitching. 🙂


Phil & Andi: Finally, after days of whiteout and some scouting around the camp we were looking forward to seeing Seb coming in. The clouds were still moving in and out – but the plane was able to land around noon. What a great day, being reunited again to tackle this massive peak. 🙂

 


Reunited: After a week of illness, Seb was still not back to 100%, which was why we decided to do a little scouting mission to the other side of the valley and then haul up gear to the highcamp before making a move on the mountain. This acclimatization exercise should help him to get fully back into shape and prepare us for to utilize any small weather window for a swift attempt on the mountain. As it had snowed a lot over the past days the snowpack had to settle, which meant we had to stay clear of the steep NW-ridge anyways.

During the next day we toured around the glacier and found a nice little spot for flying. On the way up we even found little flowers in between the rocks! How amazing of nature: You are in the middle of a desert of snow and ice and even in such a spot there’s life. 🙂

 

In the afternoon the wind kicked in, unfortunately from the wrong direction – blowing downhill. Still we got our kites out and cruised around Nabesna Glacier all the way over to the approximately 3000m high north face of Mt. Blackburn. It’s such a daunting feeling, when you kite for several kilometers towards this wall and it raises higher and higher right in front of you. We have seen quite some huge icefalls in the last days, which is why we stayed clear of the bottom of the wall.

On the next morning we brought up a first load of gear – food, gas, small tents, kites and other material. It was pretty exhausting to pull the sled and huge backpacks all the way up through the steep icefall. Arriving at the highcamp location we buried everything and marked the spot with a probe and by GPS. Luckily we made it up and down again safely without a crevasse fall. These cracks are huge – the biggest one we had to cross had no visible bottom and was nearly 10m across – really scary stuff.

The next days we carefully checked the weather forecast to identify a sufficient weather window to move up to the highcamp and climb the mountain from there. Waiting for the right weather window we did spend the time scouting the area, repeating crevasse rescue as a team and were even able to fly down a small hill one of the days. Every time it seemed like an opportunity and a big enough weather window we raced up to the highcamp spot. Unfortunately each single time by the time we have climed to 9.000ft (around 3000m) fog was hovering over the ridge, making it impossible to continue climbing into the steep icewalls. So we had to wait again. Waiting is terrible, especially when you have clear skies in base camp and a huge cloud covering the route above the highcamp spot.

Finally it seemed as we had one last chance with a small weather window predicted and skies clearing up already the night before. We were all excited and went to sleep early. After getting up at 5am in the morning, we swiftly progressed up to the highcamp spot. No clouds, no fog or snowfall anywhere in sight. After a short break we proceeded into the ridge and started to climb. On this spot of the hill we had a great view towards the west, where we saw … clouds forming and a large dark line of high clouds in the far distance. Well, even though this did make us think, we kept on pushing forward. Only half an hour later though, clouds started to form at the height of the highcamp spot below us. Shortly later the clouds became thicker and we knew – this was it! We would not be given a large enough window to safely climb up and find our way down again. What a frustrating moment … after downclimbing back to the highcamp spot, we decided to take a little break, pack up our gear deposit and ski down into basecamp. There was not much talking, as we were all realizing that we would not be given another chance of climbing the mountain with another weather system coming in and so little time left until our pick-up date.

The next day we kited a bit around basecamp and flew over the icefall, which was amazing. But all in all we were just really sad that we couldn’t climb this beautiful mountain. One day later we packed up everything and were waiting in the sun for our pilot to come in. Spotting the tiny plane coming over the ridge gave us a mixed feeling of relief and sadness that we had to leave again. During the short flight we were all really emotional and sad to leave, there was not much talking.
Back on the ground however we were welcome by the Alaskan spring, which was fully underway. A warm breeze, blue skies and blooming flowers all around us. Being back in sneakers and a t-shirt, walking on solid ground felt amazing. And the first shower after weeks was incredible. Not to forget our first real breakfast. Whilst oatmeal certainly is great, it will take a week max and you will be fed up with it – promise! Bacon and eggs tasted like a dream after feeding on oatmeal for weeks. 🙂

 

All in all we were happy to be back safely and even though we did not succeed in the end, this was one of our greatest adventures so far. It’s always a great experience being out in the Alaskan wilderness all by your own. You will instantly feel the consequences of your own actions – nothing like back home where you call the pizza home delivery when you did forget to shop groceries.

Coming back into Wasilla, also Steve was released from the hospital. It was tough to see him in a wheelchair, but he was so positive and ambitious that all it would take time and endurance to get back on his feet. By now Steve has regained movement in his upper and lower legs, although his ankles still are not 100% back so he needs some stabilization for them. We also want to express our gratefulness to everyone who has helped with the fund-raiser which did allow Steve to finance physiotherapy, which clearly helped a lot!

One thing we know for sure after this great adventure came to an end – we will be back to feel the Outside-Effect!! 🙂

Check out our full expedition video here:

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