Old Snowy and the 8750’s

The weather forecast was spelling out a bunch of bluebird days in the deltas. As Fairbanks mountaineers know all too well, this basically never happens. So Zack Seimsen and I took a Monday and Friday off work to capitalize on it. Strangely enough, the weather forecast didn’t deteriorate and we were even blessed with a strong aurora show happening over 9600′ Old Snowy on the second night.

Thursday, April 15th 2021

Aurora seen over the Devil’s Thumb from the road

On Thursday after work, Zack and I met at the Castner trailhead. We saw a little aurora that night and I’d heard some buzz about the aurora maybe being good, so we decided to pack a tripod.

Friday, April 16th 2021

In the morning, we discovered a new car at the trailhead, along with a pair of skin tracks (someone had come for an even earlier start). We naturally came to the Caster ice cave, which neither Zack or I had ever been to. I was surprised how super awesome it is. I guess I figured that it was an overrated as a result of being popularized, but it actually is super fun. I felt like a kid as I made echos.

Around 10am, the day started to crank up the heat. When traveling up the Castner you want to be on the right hand side (east side) for efficient and easy travel. At about 2 miles into the trip, there is a prominent “lake ridge”, an unmistakable ridge with a lake on the left. You want to get on this ridge because it puts you on a moraine course with minimal wasted elevation gains for the rest of the way. Past this lake ridge, the next 5 miles are boring, the views don’t change, and it feels like forever. It is like this on the way back too, so my recommendation is just to embrace the Castner slog. This was my 5th time doing the Castner slog and while it doesn’t get any better with time, you do grow more indifferent to how monotonous it is. But like all things good and bad; it came to pass, and we reached the intersection of the White Princess Branch, M’Ladies Branch, and Silvertip Branch.

From the intersection, you have lots of choices. The skiers whose tracks we’d been following split and went up the M’Ladies Branch. Presumably en route for White Princess via the south ridge. We would be going up the White Princess Branch, en route for the O’Brien Icefall and peaks beyond! But as far as Friday was concerned, we called it a night before clambering up over the icefall. This was a good choice because we were pretty wiped from the 10 mile day with 40+ pound packs and the pass, as we’d come to learn in the morning, is definitely better done while fresh vs. at the end of a long day. We camped in almost the same spot I’d camped in May 2020 for an ascent of White Princess.

Saturday, April 17th 2021

Some things were consistent on this trip. We consistently woke up at 8am (because that is when sunlight would hit the tent and make us instantly start sweating in our sleeping bags), it consistently got “base layers” hot at 10am, and the weather was consistently bluebird. I didn’t see a cloud the entire 4 days. (did I mention we are in the delta mountains?!?!). Anyways, we were on our way up the O’brien Icefall at 10am. This was our first steep section of the trip and with all the warm weather, we were concerned about avalanches when planning this trip. However, in person, the snow was super stable and ideal for cramponing. The upper half of the O’Brien icefall is actually pretty steep to get up, or maybe it just felt that way due to our ~50lb packs now that skis had to be strapped to them. (a picture of our route will be shown later). At the top of the icefall, we were baking, so we took a good long break in the shady corner before skiing down and establishing our base camp for the next two nights.

From left to right; Middle 8750, North 8750, Double Exposure, and Old Snowy

After making camp, we went for the main objective of the trip: Old Snowy. Old Snowy has a prominent, wide south gully that we planned to skin up to a saddle, bag the peak via the west ridge, then return to our skis and ski down. So we roped up and set off for the base of the gully. It was indeed wide. And it was also quite corny! booting up turned out to be more quick and efficient than skin switchbacks. We stopped many times to try and cool, but it was mostly a futile effort. Eventually we found ourselves curving onto the SW face, so we donned crampons to cut back onto course.

Saddle views!

Once at the saddle, we were poised with a tough decision. It was pretty late in the day, around 7pm. Daylight wasn’t an issue for us; camp was already set up and we could follow our tracks back in the dark. So… we could either ski down the iconic 1500′ Old Snowy gully in perfect corn conditions, or we could spend 2 hours round tripping the summit, and return to an iced up gully that we’d have to strap to our skis to our backs for and downclimb. On this day, we chose to be skiers. But first, we made a short climb to the bump east of the saddle to get a good view. And what a view it was!

From left to right: South 8750, Middle 8750, and North 8750

The ski down was great, it was still corny, but just starting to re-harden. Wow; 1500′ is a lot to descend all at once. We took lots of little breaks.

Back at camp, we bubbled with afterstoke and radiated sunburn. I would have to wear gloves for the rest of the trip and the bottom of my nose was especially displeased. Between intermittent sleeps I’d check out the door for the aurora, and around 1am it in came full force. This ranks in my top 30% experiences in terms of aurora strength, but in terms of location; this was the most remote, desolate, and exciting location I’ve ever photoed the northern lights. Bringing the tripod was a good call.

You don’t get shows like this in southcentral AK very often…. or ever, really.

Sunday, April 18 2021

In the morning, we got ready for our secondary objectives; some of the 8750’ers across the way. So from our previous day’s excursion we’d plotted a route through the crevasse fields to the pass between Middle and North 8750. Today, we set forth for that pass. It was windy today, which was welcomed since the sun was oh so hot and it kept my hands (now confined to gloves) from sweating. At the pass, I was taken aback by how far and how abruptly the valley floor sunk from the mountain. Crumbling glaciers held on like flowers resisting wilt. For Middle 8750, Zack and I switched to crampons and went up the north ridge. We roped up after skirting the one and only gendarme early on. In the middle section of the climb we found and jumped one crevasse. The upper section was just snow on rocks. The top was flat and rocky, so we unroped and walked in circles gawking at everything twice, and then a third time just for good measure. This trip had so much good fortune!

Upon returning home, I ran these peaks by Alaska’s unofficial mountaineering historian Steve Gruhn and learned that South and Middle 8750’s first reported ascents were by Dan Osborne and other members back in 1968 or 1969. Their party had started with the southern peak and traversed to the middle one. They intended to also climb the northern peak of 8750′, but upon reaching the saddle (the same saddle Zack and I had left our skis at) their party encountered strong winds where the rocks make a V-gap creating a wind funnel and they decided to turn around. Middle 8750 has also been referred to as Peak A-120 in a Vin Hoeman manuscript on Alaska’s mountains. 

North 8750 didn’t have a recorded ascent… until this trip. After taking our fill of photos, Zack and I reversed our footsteps and went back to our skis at the saddle. Zack wasn’t feeling up for North 8750, but for me it wasn’t an option: I couldn’t be this close to a point of over 500′ prominence and not give it an attempt! So an attempt I gave it via the south face. The snow was a bit saturated, but stable and (with the exception of some snow balling up under the crampons) great for cramponing. Not wanting to keep Zack waiting too long, I worked at it pretty fast and round tripped the summit in under 2 hours. The only better view from this peak was the vantage point on 9350′ Double Exposure to the north. After regrouping with Zack, we retraced our tracks to base camp.

Monday, April 19 2021

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat anxious about downclimbing the O’Brien Icefall. After all, it was a steep one to come up with heavy packs, and also; we hadn’t seen it in two days -what if the avalanche shed cycle had begun? Unlikely, but what if? We determined that we didn’t want to be climbing on it as early in the morning as we had the first time, we wanted to get to the top at noon so the snow would be softer. On the way in we had also noted a possibility of coming down in some more navigatey, but less steep, series of drops.

So after packing up camp we got to the pass and surveyed the alternative. It looked like a go. An the snow was a good softness too. Half way down we put on our skis.

And so, we had the return slog left to do and it was hot, sooooo hot. Our friends from over on the M’Ladies Branch must’ve come back on Sunday judging by their melted return tracks. For us, the snow was one day closer to going isothermal. It hadn’t yet, but a few patches around alders reminded me of some of my May-month miseries slogging out the castner sinking with two feet of saturated slush on top of your skis every step. This exit is my favorite Castner exit to date because it was faster than all the others.

4 thoughts on “Old Snowy and the 8750’s

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