The Cassin Ridge route on Denali is perhaps the pinnacle of mountaineering in North America, and certainly one of the classics worldwide. Rising uninterrupted for 9000 feet right from the Kahiltna Glacier to the top of the continent, climbing the Cassin involves commitment, fitness, and the skill to climb steep, mixed terrain at altitude.
This past summer, Patrick Ormond from Park City and his climbing partner Elliott Gaddy took on the Cassin.
-When was the climb?
We were in there the last week of May. That was the last bit of good weather for a bit, it started snowing as we got down to the 14,000′ camp, and June typically has more snow, which turned out to be the case. I don’t think any other teams got up this year, there was an Italian team from Ricardo Cassin’s home village who were going to try the route to celebrate Cassin’s 100th birthday this year, but I don’t think that happened due to the weather. Cassin died this summer.
– How long did the climb take?
It took us 56 hours from the base of the route to the summit. We bivied twice on the route, at 14,000′ and at 16,700′. From base camp to base camp took 5 days including a storm day at the 14,000′ camp while descending the West Buttress. We also helped bring another climber back to base camp on the way down, so that slowed us down a bit.
-What were the conditions like?
The conditions were perfect while we were climbing. It was mostly clear and sunny, but occasionally the clouds would roll through and it would snow for a few minutes. The snow was firm, really good for crampons, but the ice was bulletproof and my knuckles were pretty beat from swinging my tools so hard. The temps were great, we never got cold. On the last day, we lounged in the sun until 11:30am before setting from camp for the summit.
-What did you bring for gear?
BD Litehouse tent
Marmot 15 degree sleeping bag
single set of camalots .4-2, set of nuts, 8 ice screws, slings and biners, a couple cordelettes.
60meter 9.2mm rope
La Sportiva Spantik boots
MSR Reactor stove
4 fuel canisters
4 days food
Patagonia R1 hoody
Patagonia Houdini jacket
Montbell synthetic hoody
Patagonia Das Parka
Patagonia guide pants
Mountain Hardwear Chugach pants- puffy pants
Light gloves, heavy gloves, mittens
that’s about it, our packs weighed about 35 pounds setting out from base camp
-Hardest part of the climb?
The hardest part was the commitment, especially committing to it when we were resting in Talkeetna after working a West Buttress trip.
The Cassin is about 9000′ of climbing, and there is no one else around. It’s very different than being on the West Buttress with a couple hundred other people, and feels pretty committing to get started on it. Most teams who plan on climbing the Cassin bail before even getting to the base of the climb. Once we started, everything went well, although I could feel the altitude after resting for a week back in Talkeetna. The hardest part once we started climbing was the burning calves from front pointing for so long on hard alpine ice.
-Was this your first attempt at the route?
This was my first attempt on the route, but not the first time I had considered doing the climb. I’ve wanted to climb the Cassin for a long time, and would always try to find partners every winter before heading to AK for work, and it finally came together. My dad climbed the Cassin in 1978 when I was one, so this was a climb I really wanted to do. It was fun to show him some photos and compare stories.
-What other routes have you climbed on Denali?
I’ve climbed the West Buttress, which I’ve done 5 times. I’ve climbed part way up the West Rib from the 14,000′ camp and done some really good skiing up there.
-Anything you wish you’d brought?
There isn’t anything else I really needed for the climb. I would have liked to go with a lighter pack, but the only way we could have done that would have been to go light on food and fuel, which can come back to bite you if you get stuck in a storm. We did fly in with a large pizza to split the first day. That was a good choice.
-What did you do for preparation- physically?
I ski guide all winter, so that means a lot of trail breaking, which is great training for the Alaska range. Elliott and I were both acclimated from our West Buttress trip, but working one of those is also hard on your body, especially since we sat for 10 days at 14,000′ in 70 mph winds. It’s hard not to feel lethargic after that, and you definitely lose some muscle mass on a long trip at altitude. I usually come off Denali about 20 pounds light, so our rest week consisted of refueling with food and beer.
-Any future plans for the Alaska Range?
I’ve got some climbs in mind for the future. I’d like to climb Mt. Huntington, it’s an amazing looking peak. The Moonflower Buttress on Mt. Hunter is another classic, a 4000′ vertical wall with steep ice and mixed climbing. Those two top the list, but there are an endless number of climbs to do.