Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Exploring the land of the Kooshdakhaa (Kushtaka)

Kooshdakhaa are mythical shape-shifting creatures found in the stories of the Tlingit and Tsimshian Indians of Southeastern Alaska temperate rainforest. Loosely translated, Kooshdakhaa means, "land otter man".
They are similar to the Nat'ina of the Dan'aina Indians of South Central Alaska, and the Urayuli of the Iñupiat in Northern Alaska.
Physically, Kooshdakhaa are shape-shifters capable of assuming human form, the form of an otter and potentially other forms. In some accounts, a Kooshdakhaa is able to assume the form of any species of otter; in others, only one. Accounts of their behaviour seem to conflict with one another. In some stories, Kooshdakhaa are cruel creatures who take delight in tricking poor Tlingit sailors to their deaths. In others, they are friendly and helpful, frequently saving the lost from death by freezing. In many stories, the Kooshdakhaa save the lost individual by distracting them with curiously otter-like illusions of their family and friends as they transform their subject into a fellow Kooshdakhaa, thus allowing him to survive in the cold. Naturally, this is counted a mixed blessing. However, Kooshdakhaa legends are not always pleasant. In some legends it is said the Kooshdakhaa will imitate the cries of a baby or the screams of a woman to lure victims to the river. Once there, the Kooshdakhaa either kills the person and tears them to shreds or will turn them into another Kooshdakhaa.
Legends have it Kooshdakhaa can be warded off through copper, urine, and in some stories fire.
Since the Kooshdakhaa mainly preys on small children, it has been thought by some that it was used by Tlingit mothers to keep their children from wandering close to the ocean by themselves.
It is also said that the Kooshdakhaa emit a high pitched, three part whistle in the pattern of low-high-low.
Yup this is real!
  Arriving in Haines, AK after spending 21 days in the Alaskan/Northern British Columbian Coast Range Mountains with climbing partner Erik Bonnett. We had a numerous days in a snow cover tent, climbing on splitter alpine granite, challenging slow mixed climbing, summiting, not summiting post-holing while hauling a loaded pack-raft, bushwhacking and pack rafting. During those days there were moments of fear, cold, excitement and you could even say terror, must especially when you pull a football sized block off the wall and start falling beside it for 6-7m waiting for your gear to catch you or 100m from your portage you see a pack a wolves and follow the same game trail they do for a kilometer and a half. Excitement? yes, wanting to vomit?? yes!

So where do I start?? I guess we'll start with how this trip can to be and go from there. Erik and I met working together for NOLS in Patagonia in fall 2012. During our 45 day wilderness course we shared a tent, climbed together and things just seemed to click. After the trip we talked about climbing together more. Most specifically pushing our personal limits climbing in the alpine. The challenge with that was Erik was in a relationship that had him living in Sweden at the time. In fall 2013 that relationship ended and Erik sent me a message basically saying dude lets go do something in the mountains. We came up with 3 options: 
1. Go to the Ruth Gorge or somewhere big in AK 
2. Go in the Waddington Range 
3. Go for this unnamed, unclimbed granite spire on the AK/BC border. 
Note: I had seen this spire 3 times while working for NOLS.

As we started to come up with the plans I thought it wouldn't hurt to try and get funding. So I encouraged Erik to follow up with the Copp-Dash Inspire Award and I talked with NOLS.

Really the only way this trip happened was because we received this award. If we didn't get the award we had planned to go into somewhere big in AK instead.

When the award recipients were made public I was working in the field in Patagonia. I was so excited when I heard the news I couldn't stop thinking about the planning process.

As time turned and things went on everything started to come together. Erik was purchasing food and getting us hooked up with pack-rafts and I was trying to figure out who to fly with and if a Chopper or a ski plane was a better option. Ski plane turned out to be significantly cheaper and or pilot Drake Olson was super awesome!

When I picked Erik up at the airport in Whitehorse Yukon the stoke was high and motivation to pack and head to Haines was dominating our thoughts.

The packing process involved figuring out how to bring as many multi use items as possible to minimise weight and bulk. So a few examples include: Snow shovel as pot lid, sleeping pad as a PFD, pack-rafts as sleds, a rope as a throw bag, etc. 

Our food planning was set up around the NOLS ration system. Which basically is in pounds of food per/person per/day. So we planned, on packing 1.6lbs of food with the calorie content of a 2lbs per/person ration. This means lots of fats!! So if you're thinking fats aren't good for you, think again... when traveling and climbing in the mountains fats are essential because they provide the long term slow burning energy needed to go for long periods of time. When combined with sugars at the right times you are set to go! Anyway we had a total of 85lbs of food for 25 days.

A lot of the gear and food.

The climbing rack consisted of a double rack of cams .2 to #3, a single #4, 8 assorted pins, a set of cooper heads, a set of stoppers, a set of offset peanuts, 8 single slings, 4 double slings, 9 ice screws, 1 ice piton and we had a small aid rack. We climbed on Sterling Photon 60m 7.8mm half/twin ropes.

Our shelter was a 2 person single wall Black Diamond High-Light tent, our cooking set up was a 2.4L pot, small fry pan, simmer lite stove for base camp and a Jetboil for on the wall. We took 8L of white gas and had 3 assorted butane canisters.

The river set up included a pack-raft, paddle and dry suit 
Yeah I know the drysuit is a bit of a luxury, also running whitewater in 2 degree water is cold and we wanted to ran whitewater as much as we could!

So all said and done we had 105lbs of gear each. Fortunately we planned on base camping for 15 days to attempt our climbing objectives and would be able to put a big dent in the food weight.
Everything we took for a planned 25 days. 210lbs total!

With my truck loaded we made our way to Haines on May 23rd with the thought of potentially getting into the hills that evening. After talking to Drake, our pilot, we decided to wait and see what the weather was doing in the morning. The weather wasn't great in the am so we decided to take part in the Haines 22nd Annual Beer Festival which was excellent carbo loading and just really fun. We flow in the next morning.

We met Drake at his hanger around 7:30am. His psych to get us in there was awesome. He seems to love the excitement of going new places as much as we do. We loaded the plane and were off. Drake showed us a few other unclimbed granite spires in near by cirques, we also flow over a short canyon that seemed to have a large boulder chocked section at the top we would probably have to portage. 

Erik, Drake and Me before
Drake was a little hesitant to land because he hadn't been there before but after a few loops around he found a good spot and we touched down. After unloading and a few photo's with Drake we dragged our gear to where we wanted to see up base camp.

Base camp!
Climbing on day 2 on the lower part of the spire. Photo-Erik Bonnet
Psyched on the Splitter stone on the Spire. Photo-Erik Bonnett

NOTE: So I'm thinking of trying something different here. Basically not going to talk much about the day to day events and focus more on the separate climbing attempts we made, the limited good weather and pack-rafting.

Our first attempt on the spire was via the South Couloir. After our first 2 days there the weather crapped out so we had been mainly exploring the stone close to camp. We decided go for the South Couloir and to climb it at night. We left at 6pm and climbed through the night. Weather was marginal as we climbed. Our packs had a few bars, a puff coat, rain shell and the jetboil. Our rack was 4 screws, single set of nuts and cams from .2-3 BD. The climbing was moderate snow up to AI3 with short steps of M3 mixed climbing for 350m to the col. At the col we were in zero visibility and decided to head down. We rappelled 1 pitch and down climbed the rest. We got back to camp 2am.

Erik climbing in the South Couloir.
Attempt number 2 was 8 hrs later. After some rest we woke to blue bird skies and headed to climb the 700m rock spire. We brought a sleeping bag, jetboil, 8 energy bars, pre-mixed dried potatoes with cheese, butter and spices, granola and a double rack, pins, and our small aid rack. We started climbing around 4pm and got to our bivy ledge around 10pm after climbing awesome alpine granite for 5 full pitches to around 5.10+/11-. Around the same time the weather was turning we decided to stomp out a bivy in the snow ledge, eat, hydrate and sleep and wait to see if the weather improved. After 4 hours of sleeping in one sleeping bag we woke. Erik was pretty cold (Note: I'm a pretty warm person) and it was snowing so we made breakfast and started our descent back to the base and then to camp. 3 full 60m raps got us to the bottom. During the descent we left 2 pitons behind.

Erik following pitch 2 on the first attempt of the granite spire.
Erik on a spicy thin traverse to our first bivy.

Attempt 3 was around day 10. We were getting antsy to get on the mountain in some way shape or form so we figured why not try something we can climb in poor weather. The North Couloir seemed to fit the bill so we organized gear and headed out. We had a jetboil, 4 screws, ice piton, pitons and a single set of nuts and cams .2-3 BD. Climbing was fun, yet slow because of the soft snow. There was everything from nice snow to sugar snow to neve to rock with difficulties to AI3 M3 while in the couloir.

Coming to the top of the first pitch on the North Couloir. Erik Bonnett

Erik on the lower section of the North Couloir.
Erik en-route to the summit!

At the col snow was falling but visibility was good, we continued to the summit. After 30m of low 5th class climbing we topped out! had a snickers bar and headed down to the col. 

 Visibility was zero at this point and our descent was to traverse around the west side of the massif to a pass and travel through steep glacial terrain back to camp. When we got to the pass the visibility was still zero so we decided to stop for a brew and eat some food. As we were melting weather lifted all around use and the views that we had were amazing! 
Erik psyched on the view!

We scarfed down our food and water and descended the steep glacial terrain easily to camp. We were back at camp after 12.5hrs of climbing and travel. Our route was the first to reach the summit of the Kooshdakhaa Spire via the North Couloir AI3 M3 Low 5th class 600m. 

After attempt 3 our only objective left was the 700m rock spire, Attempt 4, so we waited a few days for weather to clear up and melt the fresh snow that had fallen over the past number of days and went for it. This time we left bivy gear behind to help us move faster and also started up a slightly different line that had a spiltter crack for 2 full pitches that linked into the upper terrain we had already climbed. 
This time we started climbing around 9am. 
Erik led the first short pitch to the crack. 5.9 15m. 
I took the spiltter hand crack up for 25m before I pulled off, what seemed solid when I tested it, a football sized block and fall 6-7m onto a number 2 camalot. After the ropes came tight I checked in with Erik to see if he was all good and started back up the crack. As the crack changed from hands to fingers I had to excavate the dirt out of the crack to get good gear and holds for a few moves before the crack opened back up to hands which at that point I had to pull through a steep section of hands to the belay ledge. 5.10 40m.

Climbing splitter hands on pitch 2. Photo-Erik Bonnett

So good! Photo Erik Bonnett
Erik following pitch 2.
Erik took the next pitch which was excellent!! It had everything cupped hand, steep hands, tight hand, off-fingers, fingers, face climbing and off-width. 5.11- 40m. 

Erik through the steeps hand section on pitch 3.

Following pitch 3 through the thin hands section. Photo Erik Bonnett
Moving left on excellent granite face climbing. Photo-Erik Bonnett

Squeezing my way to the belay. Photo-Erik Bonnett
I took the next pitch which was a variety of climbing with the first crux being a number 6 (we didn't have a number 6 :) ) off-width, the second a thin traverse and finished up an awesome 5.8 hand crack. 5.10 60m.
Erik took the next to our previous high point 5.9+ 50m. 

Erik climbing with the head-wall above.

From there we did a 20m rap to a small little ledge and traversed right for 15m C1 or 5.11-. 

Erik after the spicy traverse.
We then traded shoes for boots and traveled in snow and 4th class terrain for 110m to where we thought we could get back on the rock and link cracks to the next ledge 2/3's of the way up the wall. 

Erik moving through easier terrain.
Once there the cracks were mostly flared and gear was sparse on feeble granite.

The more feeble rock with poor protection. Photo-Erik Bonnet
I started up and after climbing 15-20m of 5.9 terrain I dead-ended myself in a serious on fused seems and cracks. It was late in the day and we both were mentally and physically tired and decided to retreat. 
Erik heading down.

Our psych had dwindled and we didn't saw much as we worked our way back to out original high point to rappel. After 5 full length rappels we were back at the base of the route. It was there we both said we gave everything and it just wasn't the time.... we will be back! After a total of 9 pitches and 18hrs of travel we arrived back to camp.

We packed up the next day and headed out. Attempt 5. Our next climbing objective was a 150m couloir on a cool granite feature just over the border in Northern British Columbia. I had been to the base of this couloir 2 years prior but condition weren't very good. This time we headed up the couloir in cold/snowy conditions. 
I led the first pitch AI3 M3 60m.
Starting up pitch 1. Photo-Erik Bonnett
Erik on pitch 1.

Erik took the next pitch which was challenging climbing through vertical snow covered rock. He excavated and on-sighted a stellar 35m pitch of M5 climbing. 

Erik working his way through physical and tricky M5 terrain.

Moving through some challenging mixed terrain. Photo-Erik Bonnett
Close to the belay after some awesome mixed climbing. Photo-Erik Bonnett

I headed up the next pitch AI3 M3 60m again. When Erik joined me he still felt mentally drained from his stellar lead so I headed up again. The pitch had actual water ice that led up into what seemed like a possible top-out into easier terrain. As I got higher the snow was sugar and as I excavated the snow off the ice it became steeper and deeper to the point I was excavating 2-3 ft of sugar snow with random chunks of ice falling down onto Erik at the belay. 
Heading up into the sugar. Photo-Erik Bonnett

Soaked, from excavating snow for about 30mins to an hour I decided to bail and Erik went up for a look he also bailed and we tried the right line. 

Erik took the pitch and climbed another impressive pitch to M4. At the top of this pitch we decided to retreat. 
Both a bit frustrated with the slow challenging climbing we didn't talk much until at the bottom... 3 rappels and 20-30m of down climbing. We arrived back to camp after 12hrs on the go.

Our climbing finished after this attempt. Though our success of reaching summits was low we successfully pushed our personal limits mentally and physically while exploring new alpine terrain! This was our main goal.

As for weather during these past 15 days - we had 3.5 days of sunny rock climbing weather - 7 days of snow falling with accumulation up to 10cm in a single snow fall. The other days we were generally in the ping-pong ball of low to zero visibility. The final 6 days out to Haines was a variety of sun, cold winds and rain.
A bit of low viz travel. Photo-Erik Bonnett
Pack-rafting is an awesome mode a transportation! This was the first time I had been in a pack-raft and was keen to see how my previous river experienced transferred. It seemed to transfer easily and the paddling was excellent! Our transition from climbing to paddling was smooth and we were scouting the river(unnamed tributary of the Chilkat) to see what we could run without hesitation. We ended up paddling 2, 100m sections of class 3 water in the alpine before having to pack things up and start the descent through the bush. 
Pack-rafts are awesome slides!
Almost of the glacier. Photo-Erik Bonnett
Erik running some alpine whitewater!
Alpine whitewater! Photo-Erik Bonnett
Once on the Chilkat River we headed up into the glacial lake to check out the Chilkat Glacier. After a bit of exploring headed down stream. As for the Upper reaches of the Chilkat we paddled 3 or 4 sections of awesome class 3 whitewater with loaded rafts before things became swift flat-water for the remainder of the river, minus the canyon, for 60km. 
Pack-raft loaded and loven' it. Photo-Erik Bonnett
The canyon was pretty intimidating! The entrance is about 3-4m wide and has a massive house sized rock blocking the view down canyon.  We saw a pack of 6 wolves 100m before the canyon! We portaged the river on the right on the most active game trail I have every seen. Wolf, Bear and Moose tracks and scat all over the place.... probably the most nervous/scared I was on the trip!
This is the game trail.... for real 99.9% animal warn! Bugs were pretty fierce too!! Photo-Erik Bonnett

Last morning out. We floated to the Chilkat Bridge 6 hrs later.
River living is awesome by the way!
Enjoying the amazing 5 star wilderness camping! Photo-Erik Bonnett
Side note: Haines is awesome! Obviously the Beer Fest was sweet, but more importantly how friendly the people are! Here is one example: As we were drying our gear by the Visitor Center we were invited to go line dancing in the town hall. It was so fun and after went out to the local Bar for a few beers and some live music.

Now we are back in Whitehorse hanging out at the NOLS Yukon branch looking at photo's, writing short trip reports/thank yous to our supporters and organizing a slide show for the Alpine Club of Canada Yukon Section that will be held at Baked Cafe Thursday evening from 6-8pm.
Look at all the f@$king beauty!
 Big Thanks to the folks at Black Diamond Equipment, La Sportiva, Mountain Hardwear and Patagonia, and with in-kind support from Adventure Film Festival, Alpinist Magazine, The American Alpine Club and Sender Films that make the Copp-Dash Inspire Award possible, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) for there support, the NOLS Yukon branch for allowing us to use the space to stage for our trip, Alpacka Rafts for making awesome super-light rafts and Fly Drake for getting us into the hills!!


 La Sportiva Logo - Click to return to the home page.

National Outdoor Leadership School 

 Alpacka Raft

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