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Ascent of Mount Torbert on 2013-05-26

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Edward Earl
Dave Covill
John Mitchler
Loren S.
Jill N.
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Sunday, May 26, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Airplane
Peak:Mount Torbert
    Location:USA-Alaska
    Elevation:11413 ft / 3478 m

Ascent Trip Report

Sunday, May 26th:

I woke up at about 4:50 AM and quickly got out of my sleeping bag at our Redoubt Volcano base camp and started organizing. Paul Claus, our bush pilot, was scheduled to arrive around 6 AM to ferry us over to Mount Torbert, so we had to be all packed by then. All five of us scrambled to cram stuff into packs and bags and break down our tents, and we were almost done when Paul’s Otter came into view and landed right next to our camp area.

On board with Paul was John, who was originally supposed to be on our trip but had dropped out of the Redoubt portion. He was now ready to join us for Torbert. We all greeted him, loaded our stuff on the capacious Otter, and were soon off. It was a beautiful day and the 45-minute flight to Torbert featured endless views of thousands of unnamed Alaskan peaks stretching off in all directions.

At about 7 AM Paul expertly landed us on the glacier at 8265’ north of Torbert, a place he has landed before. We quickly unloaded, saw Paul depart, and then set up Dave’s large tent and threw everything we didn’t need for our summit day-hike inside. The weather was perfect again, and if it held our plan was to get picked up by Paul this evening after our hike. The forecast did call for a minor front that might move through later today or early tomorrow, so we did have enough gear to spend the night if needed.

The six of us started snowshoeing uphill at about 8:30 AM, John leading the way up the very gentle valley towards Torbert. The route was easy until a steep “hourglass” ramp section that led to the broad upper plateau. There appeared to be two routes up the ramp, either straight ahead, or to the right. After making our way up to a field of scattered ice blocks, we donned crampons and decided to take the right route, which promised fewer crevasses to cross.

Edward led us uphill, switchbacking up a steep slope, until he was stopped by a huge crevasse. Here we regrouped and got out our pickets, and Edward led downhill and around the big slot, pounding in three pickets for protection. We all followed, and then continued uphill, crossing a few minor crevasses a foot or so wide that we marked with wands. The final obstacle was a wider crevasse with an uphill ice cliff a foot or two high, and Loren went first, leaping up to safety.

The weather had been deteriorating for the past hour or so, starting with cloud buildup, and as we rested above this last crevasse it was now windy and snowing. We discussed this situation—I mentioned to several people that weather was now officially crappy and thought that any more serious obstacles should mean turning around. But there was a general sense that we were above the crux and just the easy plateau remained. I had a summit waypoint in my GPS and offered to lead the team there, and no one objected, so I swapped rope positions with Loren and set off, with the summit only 1.4 miles and 900 vertical feet away.

At first we could sort of see around us, and the sun threatened to burn through the clouds a bit, but it was not long before we were in a nasty and complete white-out of wind and blowing snow. I was later told by my teammates that their visibility was only as far as the person ahead on the rope, but for me it was utterly nothing. I found that to keep a straight bearing I had to stare at the screen of my GPS the whole time—a few seconds of inattention would send me off course. So I was in a bizarre video-game world where I completely ignored where I was walking and the nothingness around me, and focused entirely on moving my feet and keeping the arrow on the GPS screen aligned in the right direction. Sometimes the vertigo and the wind would blow my leg into an awkward footstep, and postholing in the snow was very tiring, but overall the going was easy with no evidence of crevasses or other hazards on the gentle plateau. If there had been a hidden slot I would have gone right in, since I simply was not watching my feet much at all.

I halted halfway across the plateau and we all took a quick rest break—no one was happy but we were close to the top and didn’t want to turn back now. So we plodded onward into the blizzard for another stretch of surreal hiking—I felt a bit lucky to be manning the GPS because I could see our progress on the screen, while I imagined the others were blindly trudging along and hoping we got somewhere eventually.

As the GPS told me we were nearing the top, the slope angle noticeably steepened a bit, and not long after that I saw a indistinct snowy crest ahead in the blizzard—the summit at last. I reeled in Loren, and soon we were all on the summit area. It was 3:30 PM, 7 hours up, much of that time taken in passing crevasses down below.

We were all pretty happy—a nice round of congratulations and hugs followed, and I took out my camera and took photos of everyone, mostly unrecognizable in many layers of clothing and gear. Edward and I walked along the snowy crest, and as near as we could tell, it was a definite summit that fell off in all directions. However, after a short rest, it was clearly time to go--the weather was atrocious, and if we could not get down to our tents soon we would have a survival situation on our hands.

I led off again, using the GPS to follow our upward track downhill. After starting off a bit in the wrong direction, I was able to find our uphill footprints for a while, and intermittently thereafter—a group of six makes a pretty good track that will last a while even in windblown snow. And even though the slope was gentle, going downhill made it much easier. We made it back across the plateau, and then the slope steepened and we headed downhill towards the crevasse zone.

We hit our wands, a welcome sight, and then we took our first rest since the top at the ice-cliff crevasse. We all jumped down across it, then I led us on our track past the three minor crevasses (Dave and Edward collected our wands). At the big crevasse Dave led across, protecting with pickets again, and now we had the steep slope leading downhill to the valley. While we had been away a couple of feet of snow had accumulated, and many of us were worried the slope might avalanche. So there was some urgency as we barreled down this slope, both rope teams in parallel, trying to get down as soon as we could.

At the bottom of the slope I returned to the lead with my GPS and took us again to our upward track, and followed it slavishly back to the tent, past the ice debris and finally into the gentle valley. We took one last break to put on snowshoes and then had a final push in 100% white-out once again—I was staring at my GPS screen so intently that I was startled to look up at one point and see the tent in view ahead. When we pulled in to the camp area I had to stop and collect myself—as the GPS-keeper I had been feeling huge pressure to get our team back safely and had been focusing intently on that tiny screen for many hours. I had to let the emotion of our return flood me for a minute before returning the situation at hand.

And that situation was that we needed a second tent erected as soon as possible in a raging blizzard. So we all helped dig a platform, pitch the tent, and organize gear so it would not get buried. Eventually all the tasks were done and Loren, Edward, and I crawled into our tent like sardines—Dave, Jill, and John had a bit more room, but the raging wind and blowing snow made for an uncomfortable night for all of us. All our clothes were wet, and we were so tired that only Edward fired up his stove to make a hot meal. The rest of us just had cold food and leftover water from our hike.

Monday, May 27th:

We all stirred a bit starting at 7 AM, but conditions were still pretty bad, with high wind and blowing snow. A few of us went outside in the morning to attend to chores and unbury tent walls, but did not stay out long. Once again we made no hot food. Dave called the pilot on the satellite phone early and agreed to check back in early afternoon. I dozed most of the morning.

At about noon we could tell the weather was improving, and Edward went outside and saw clearing skies and greatly diminished wind. At 1 PM Dave called the pilot again with the weather conditions, and Paul told him he would leave now and we should be ready in an hour for pickup. So just like the previous morning, we scrambled quickly, packed everything up, and were ready about five minutes before the big red Otter flew into view. At 2 PM we were all back inside, enjoying a scenic flight back to Palmer.

Postscript:

Just because a GPS allows you to navigate across a featureless icecap in a white-out, that does not mean it is necessarily a good idea to navigate across a featureless icecap in a white-out. It was a cold, windy, miserable, and soul-sapping day, and in hindsight it might have been a good idea to turn around at the ice-cliff crevasse and return in a day or two with better weather. However, we had gained most of the elevation already and passed all the route obstacles, so we felt that we might as well continue despite the conditions. Fortunately we had warm clothes, were in good physical shape, had lots of spare GPS batteries (if needed), and got down the steep slope before any slides.

But I can’t recommend our decision 100%, especially in remote Alaska. And we missed out of a quality summit experience on a nice
peak.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
A DeHaviland Beaver plane lands below the northern sub-peak of Mount Torbert, Alaska (2013-05-26).
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:3148 ft / 959 m
    Distance:7.2 mi / 11.6 km
    Trailhead:8265 ft / 2519 m
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Ski Poles, Snowshoes, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Windy, White-out
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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