THE ATARAXIA PROJECT
The project consisted of three main segments. Firstly we completed the Eklutna traverse of three connected glaciers as a « warm up ». Then the show was taken to Thompson Pass, Valdez. Basing out of an RV provided by Great Alaskan Holidays we focussed on the production of great shots with snowmachine and helicopter assistance. During this part of our trip Marvin Ogger from Germany joined the team to d-bag out of an H20 Powderguides A-Star helicopter more than 4000m above Port Valdez sound. Finally the biggest challenge was faced, the kite-assisted climb of Mt. Marcus Baker, more than 4000m high to subsequently speedfly of the summit. After flying out to the giant Knik glacier it took more than three weeks until the weather allowed for the summit run.
Tents collapsed under the enormous amounts of snow deposited in camp storm after storm. Three weeks later and after two failed attempts due to avalanche hazard as well as bad weather, the German part of our team had to fly out in a small weather window in order to not miss their flights back to Europe. Obadiah and the American support crew sat out another major storm dwarfing any preceding one to finally reach the summit, after waiting four weeks for the right weather and snow conditions.
Part I – The Eklutna Traverse
After a short helicopter ride up to the Raven headwall, we descended to the first hut, “Rosies’ Roost”, crossed the Eagle Glacier and climbed on to the Whiteout Glacier and finally made our way along the Eklutna Glacier to descent the icefall at the end, which would mark the end of the traverse. Our goal was to kite most of the distance, however due to lacking winds, we were not.
The nights were the coldest we had ever experienced. Luckily the super thick Ajungilak Altitude Season 5 sleeping bags kept us warm, even in negative 25 degrees Celsius. In order to charge the camera batteries we had to sleep with our Powertraveller battery packs inside of our sleeping bags to keep them warm for charging. During the day the Powergorillas were kept warm with down booties and hot water bottles while charging from solar panels. Extreme conditions require unusual ideas.
The climb up to Han’s Hut looked like a walk in the park. In general underestimating distances is, what every new visitor to Alaska will go through. Well, it turned out to be anything but that. Pulling heavy sleds and carrying large backpacks the 1000m ascent soon turned out to be a challenge. With a major Alaskan snowstorm approaching fast, we had no choice but to fight on and continue climbing. Arriving late at night, we were exhausted and sub cooled. None of us had even been close to a total fatigue like this before in life. Nevertheless the first heavy gusts shaking the shack proved us right to have continued climbing!
However the snow storm brought two good things with it. Firstly we could rest for a day while the storm was raging outside. Secondly it brought wind from the right direction. This raised hope for the following day. If we could continue with an average speed of 25 km/h pulled by a kite, we could make it to the last hut very quickly. The visibility was great and the wind blowing solid, when we left Han’s Hut the next morning. But once again we should not be lucky. The instant we started rigging our kites the wind backed off and finally we could only kite a few meters and that was it. Back to skinning we covered many more miles that day and also took a small speedflying “break” right at the col between the Whiteout and the Eklutna Glacier. We climbed up a major ridge with a massive cornice hanging over the main face of the mountain to find a pretty decent launch site just right on top of it. After reaching enough speed to take of right over this cornice and throw in a few turns in fresh Alaskan powder we landed safely right next to Nico, our cameraman. Again we arrived very late that night. The last hut, Pichler’s Perch is situated right next to the icefall at the toe of the Eklutna Glacier. Our powerful LedLenser headlamps enabled us to navigate around crevasses and up the moraine where the hut was situated. We were exhausted after climbing the ridge as well as skinning for more than 13 km. Crawling up in a warm sleeping bag was the feeling we have worked for so hard during this day.
The following day we slept in and speedflew a little wall next to the hut down to the edge of the icefall. It was a stunning scenery: Cracked ice as large as houses and the isolated hut on top of a border moraine. Nonetheless the most technical challenge still layed ahead of us. There was no other way off the glacier than to belay down a 10m wall of blue ice at the very end of the glacier. Crampons, ice axes and the Mammut 150th anniversary rope enabled us to belay ourselves and the heavy sleds safely off the ice. These seven days flew by and to say the least, we all got a very laid-back first trip in Alaska. We should soon learn that the Alaskan weather could be anything but as nice as it was during this trip!
Part II – Thompson Pass
This segment was planned to represent an opportunity for all of us to be more flexible and agile while producing great photos and videos. Using snow machines and helicopters enabled us to produce amazing pictures. A small daytrip to the Tsaina Glacier ended up as a shooting in an ice tunnel. During our three week trip to T-Pass we were speedflying through a tunnel of blue ice, Marvin d-bagged from more than 4000m above Port Valdez and we accessed many mountains with our kites to ski some fresh powder. Being more in touch with the Alaskan residents this trip gave us important insights into their culture and way of living rather than being totally isolated.
Part III – Mt. Marcus Baker
As the first people on the planet we wanted to climb Mt. Marcus Baker with kitesupport and set up a world record for the longest vertical climb with kites. Being aware of the weather situation in Alaska, we planned for three weeks on the glacier to get the right weather window for our attempt. What we sure didn’t know ahead was that this adventure should turn out to be more of a survival trip than an easy success.
After flying in with a 66 years old ski plane we set up camp, which took a while due to its size and the walls we built around it. The first scouting mission towards Mt. Marcus Baker very soon let us realize the actual dimensions of this place. We skinned for nearly 7km up the glacier until we could finally get a glimpse of Prince William Sound. The entire skin until we would start climbing turned out to be 8km long. This place is simply huge! After the scouting mission we were waiting for the right winds to kick in. Unfortunately there was literally no wind at all. Nevertheless various cumulus clouds above the peak indicated a high chance of thermal winds further up the main face of Mt. Marcus Baker, which is why we decided to start climbing without kite support the following day. Hoping to find more wind up there, we progressed really well, until we arrived at an inevitable segment of the first large ridge with really gritty snow below a hard layer. Even though the top layer was still frozen it would have been simply too much of a risk to keep on pushing. An avalanche would have taken us down an almost vertical wall of blue ice ending in crevasses and a massive bergshrund. Shortly after our arrival back in camp a thick layer of clouds started billowing right at the edge of the wall facing down towards Prince William Sound. However, we felt a breeze picking up and increasing quickly! Unfortunately this wind was not blowing up the mountain. Still it was a solid breeze for some exploration of the glacier with our kites. What we did not know, was that these were the first signs of a massive snowstorm, which should bring us sleepless nights of digging and freezing. After a seeming endless time with winds exceeding more than 100km/h the clouds eventually disappeared to reveal an explosive avalanche situation! There was no chance to start climbing right away. It was paradox. Even though we had the best weather we couldn’t start climbing. Loud « woumpf » – sounds made it very clear. Whoever would step on anything steep would have risked his life. Finally after the snowpack had settled, we could start climbing again. Still without the right wind, but we could at least make another move towards Mt. Marcus Baker hoping to catch the thermal winds further up.
According to our pilot Jim, we would have had a 36-hour window for the summit run. It lasted exactly 7 hours before the clouds closed in on us once again to announce the next storm, which should dwarf the first one many times over. Very soon we were facing a race against time to get a chance to climb Mt. Marcus Baker. Unfortunately the German fraction of our crew lost this race as they had to catch their flights back to Germany. Pilot Jim Chaplin of Sportsman Air Alaska flew them out in a tiny weather window shortly before everything totally shut down. The American crew lost two more tents with poles cracking like matchsticks under enormous amounts of snow being deposited in camp. Winds were gusting over 150km/h with heavy snowfalls. But sitting out this weather for nearly a month should come along with a reward. Finally, after waiting for so long Obadiah Jenkins at least got stable weather to ski mountaineer the 4016m high peak and speedfly down the main face. Even though we just got the good news via a sat phone call thousands of kilometers away, the Gemans were stoked to see their buddies claiming this success for the entire team!
During this journey Alaska and the Chugach Mountains in particular have shown us repeatedly who is stronger. One cannot try to conquer these mountains. It’s true wilderness. Mistakes may have fatal consequences. Even though we did not reach our ultimate goal in the end, this amazing adventure for all that was the experience of a lifetime for all of us! Out there it’s simply you and you will immediately feel the consequences of your own action. There is no number to dial, no one to help you out but your friends and family sharing such an adventure with you.
Failure is always a part of mountain sports and we will not take this one as a setback. Instead it is pushing our motivation for the next attempt even further! Stay tuned for more to come from the Ataraxia crew!
Thanks to all of our supporters, in particular Mammut and the 150 Peak Project team in Seon!
The Ataraxia crew