Denali – Cassin Ridge (VI 5.8 AI4)

I climbed the Cassin Ridge on Denali from June 3-6, 2022 alongside my friends Kyle Tarry, Noah Kimmes, and Matt Zavortink. The total experience of this climb, the expedition, and my decade-long journey to achieve this goal will endure as one of the great treasures of my life.

The upper South Face of Denali, as seen on our first day on the Kahiltna Glacier. The upper half of the Cassin Ridge is visible here, rising up the middle of the face and slightly slanting left. One of the Kahiltna Peaks is in the mid foreground behind the ridgeline in the close foreground, hiding the left side of the face. Photo: Kyle Tarry

Denali is the tallest peak in North America at 6190m / 20310′ and is widely considered one of the most amazing peaks on Earth, backed up by a number of objective and subjective metrics. The sheer size of the mountain, its remoteness and arctic weather contribute to a legendary status. On the south face, the Cassin Ridge rises nearly 9000 feet directly to the summit. This route is one of the most sought-after alpine climbs in the world, blazing a direct line that requires technical ice and rock climbing. The Cassin is an irresistable challenge to anyone who practices the art of alpinism.

Unloading a plane at base camp, with the amazing Begguya (Mt Hunter) behind. Photo: Erik Richardson
Hauling sleds on the lower Kahiltna Glacier with the boys. L-R: Noah, Kyle, me. Photo: Erik Richardson

Our trip started off with a very scenic plane ride to the Kahiltna Glacier on May 22nd, followed by six days of brutal manual labor hauling expedition loads up the West Buttress route. We averaged 140 pounds of kit and food per peson, splitting the load between sleds and giant backpacks, using skis for floatation on the soft snow. The terrain got steeper and more complex each day as we approached further up the Kahiltna glacier and climbed the lower part of the West Buttress. After an unexpectedly tough third day hauling full loads to camp at 11,000′, we chose to split up our loads for the final push to our advanced base camp at 14,200′. We cached a load at 14 camp, spent one more night at 11 camp, and made our final move to 14 camp on our sixth day.

14,200 camp would be our highest camp on the West Buttress, and we had everything we needed to stay here for nearly 3 weeks – this was a huge milestone! Our strategy was to avoid camping at the traditionally-used 17,200′ high camp, so there would be no more backbreaking manual labor hauling loads. Above this point, we would climb with light kit only. We really settled in at 14k camp, building walls around our tents and digging out a plush kitchen tent. Our timing was amazing; we were in the middle of a truly epic high pressure system, with the entire mountain looking very icy. No significant snow had fallen since we’d been on the glacier.

Erik, Matt, Noah, Kyle and I hanging in the kitchen tent at 14 camp. We spent a LOT of time in there! Photo: Erik
Taking in the views near the West Rib cutoff on our acclimitization run. Photo: Matt

Once settled in at 14k camp, we took three acclimitization trips higher on the mountain with rest days between. First, we scoped out the West Rib cutoff at 16,000′ – this was our planned approach route for the Cassin and we wanted to have the crossover point dialed in. Next, we took two daytrips on the classic West Buttress route. I reached 18,000′ on the first romp and 20,200′ on the second – within a stone’s throw of the summit. Unfortunately, I became badly altitude sick right at the top and wrote off the final ridge traverse when I realized that I was now in a survival situation. Nausea and visual disturbances set in while I sucked for air, patiently waiting on an ice ledge for Noah and Matt to tag the summit and return to me. Six thousand feet of highly consequential terrain seperated us from camp and I was in a decidedly wobbly condition. The “Audobon,” a steep, icy slope below Denali Pass, was especially stressful in my state; someone had died there in a fall only a couple weeks earlier. Noah and Matt couldn’t do much for me, but they patiently stuck with me for the whole descent. There was an impressive bout of vomiting when I passed by 17 camp, but otherwise I felt better as we got lower. Finally, I made it back to 14 camp and collapsed for the night. After one rest day, we had an acceptable weather forecast on our side and decided to launch for the Cassin. Erik decided that the Cassin was not in the cards for him this trip and elected to stay at 14 camp.

High on the West Buttress, out for a daytrip from 14. Photo: Erik

On June 3rd I departed 14k camp with Matt, Noah and Kyle. All four of us traveled on one rope to mitigate crevasse hazards on the approach to the base of the Cassin. The initial 2000 foot climb out of camp was smooth and soon we crested over the West Rib cutoff. Next, we descended thousands of feet of crevassed glacier on the West Rib, sometimes requiring face in downclimbing and traversing. Routefinding was made easier by an old bootpack in this section. Finally, we traversed skier’s left and dropped in to the “Seattle ’72 Ramp,” which is a massive icefall that pours over the East wall of the West Rib. Conveniently, descending this “ramp” deposits you nearly at the base of the Cassin Ridge. The Seattle Ramp approach has its own objective hazard issues, but this approach is arguably the least hazardous approach method for the Cassin and seems to be quickly becoming standard for teams acclimatizing on the West Buttress. One of the biggest draws to this approach is the reduced exposure to extreme objective hazard in the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, also known as the Valley of Death. Menacing seracs line both sides of this tight valley, threatening to calve off at any moment.

Matt crossing over the West Rib, en route to the Cassin. Note that we used a rope for this, there is some very real crevasse hazard approaching the West Rib from 14k camp on the West Buttress.

Near the bottom of the Seattle Ramp, I found myself at a dead end after face-in downclimbing for several hundred feet. Spying some blue ice, I placed a screw and belayed the team in. Noah drilled a V thread, combining our two ropes for a 60 meter rappel over very unstable, steep snow bridges to downclimbable terrain. We were in the belly of the beast now. This valley is a scary and beautiful place that I wanted to get out of immediately. As we started the speed walk across to the Cassin, I clinically accepted the risk and stumbled over channels filled with basketball-size ice chunks, the grim remains of recent avalanches. Finally, we reached relative safety below the Japanese Couloir.

Matt rappelling low on the Seattle ’72 Ramp, dropping in to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna.
The start of Cassin Ridge from high on the Seattle ’72 ramp. The Japanese Couloir is the left-slanting, ice filled gully near the toe of the ridge. The Cowboy Arete is also visible, rising out of frame on the ridge crest.

After a brew stop at the bergschrund, things went a bit sideways for a few hours. It was 2:30pm and somehow we thought that we’d be able to blast the first part of the route all the way to the hanging glacier – after all, it’s only 2000 vertical feet away! We were due to be humbled. Our rope system (invented in the kitchen tent a few days earlier) was a major failure and the couloir was full of dense, brittle ice where we expected cruiser neve. We were moving way too slowly and knew this wasn’t going to work. Admitting that we had wildly botched this portion, we did a few V-thread rappels back over the bergschrund and set up the tents.

Myself and Kyle doing camping stuff below the Japanese Couloir with the Seattle ’72 ramp behind. The ramp looks almost friendly here! Photo: Matt

This was the psychological low point of the whole trip – despite all of us feeling rather intimidated by the whole endeavor to start with, we now realized that the Cassin is even bigger and harder than we had imagined. Bailing was seriously discussed. My only meaningful input was insistence that we eat dinner before we make a decision; never bail without eating first! Hunger plays tricks on the mind. After some rallying words from Kyle and a solid meal, we resolved to try again in the morning. I fell asleep to the sound of serac avalanches in the valley below.

Our bivy below the Japanese Couloir. Note the avalanche debris spanning the valley below. Photo: Kyle

In the morning, we set off with renewed energy and optimism. Noah and Matt swapped leads on one rope while Kyle and I elected to lead in blocks on another. I got the honor of the first lead block, tackling the Japanese Couloir: 1000 feet of ice climbing with a steep crux at mid -height. Icy conditions meant slow, tiring climbing, but it also meant that protection was plentiful. We simulcimbed in a few spots but belayed most of the couloir. Long stretches of alpine ice were broken up by perfect blue water ice up to WI3.

Me climbing in the Japanese Couloir. Photo: Matt Zavortink
Leading the rock variation of the Japanese Couloir. Photo: Kyle Tarry

There are two options where the couloir steepens in the middle: 5.6 mixed climbing on the left and WI4 ice on the right. Matt and Noah were on their way toward the ice option, so I took the mixed option. This icy chimney was about as legit as 5.6 gets. I couldn’t help but smile with one ice tool tapped into ice at the back of the chimney, the other tool cammed in a crack and crampons on big granite holds. Mixed climbing at its best! After I ran out of rope and belayed, Kyle led a short mixed pitch connecting us back into the main couloir where I led 3 or 4 more ropelengths of ice to reach the ridge crest. After a break near Cassin Ledge, we climbed one more meandering pitch of ice to the base of the crux rock pitch.

Kyle following the Japanese Couloir rock variation.
Matt, Kyle and Noah chilling at the top of the Japanese Couloir.
Me on the pitch below the rock crux. The Japanese Couloir tops out to the ridgeline 60m below me. Cassin Ledge is out of view, around the corner and under the rock bastion behind me. Photo: Kyle Tarry

The crux rock pitch went smoothly and treated us to some of the best climbing of the route. Noah led first, climbing up through a squeeze section that threatened to send his foam sleeping pad tumbling into the void below. When it was Kyle’s turn to lead, he opted to head out right for a slabby variation on the pitch. The squeeze on the left is more protectable, but the slab seemed less thuggy (and less secure). Both options are 5.8. Kyle belayed me off of two ice screws in the slope above the rock pitch. Snow began to fall as I arrived at the anchor with the Cowboy Arete just above us.

Kyle leading the rock crux. The lower route is littered with ancient fixed lines from the seige-style ascents of the route in the 1960s and 1970s. Thankfully, this style is no longer used on this route. It’s cool to see these relics from a historical point of view, but at the end of the day this is garbage that doesn’t belong in such a beautiful place.
Kyle leading on the Cowboy Arete. Noah is up ahead, following Matt (out of view).

In all route descriptions for the Cassin Ridge, the Cowboy Arete gets a LOT of attention. This fin of snow is usually unprotectable and the snow rarely consolidates to the point where it is secure. In my experience, this is just some of the bullshit you have to put up with when you’re out on a proper alpine climb… don’t worry about it more than you have to, and deal with it when you get there. The key is to keep a cool head, move methodically, and definitely don’t fall off! We simulclimbed the whole arete in one block with Kyle leading, mostly unprotected aside from a screw and a picket in the first few ropelengths. Conveniently for our mental states, whiteout conditions concealed thousands of feet of exposure on either side of the sharp ridgeline. Finally, I stepped off of the arete and onto a flat spot where the Cowboy meets the hanging glacier. Snow was falling and we were tired from the day’s fun. With the Cowboy Arete below us, we were now fully committed to the route. To go home, we had to finish the 6000 feet of climbing above us. I felt a deep sense of freedom as we got the tent up; I knew that we were going to the top, no matter what it took to get there. There was no reason to waste energy on other eventualities.

Looking down at me following the Cowboy, in the relatively mellow middle section. Photo: Kyle Tarry
Our bivy on the hanging glacier at 14,000 feet.
Looking up at some of the terrain we’d need to climb the next day: The hanging glacier and the first rock band.

On June 5th I woke feeling strong and motivated. We had a lot of amazing climbing just ahead! I led out from our bivy site with Kyle, Noah and Matt following behind me. Yet again, the route was more difficult than I expected, surprising me this time with the steepness of the glacier and the methodical climbing required on exposed ice. Kyle led a pitch of truly vertical ice climbing to overcome the ice wall in the middle of the hanging glacier, a very solid performance at 14,700 feet! Another stretch of moderate glacier climbing brought us to the first rockband as the weather closed in.

Me leading out on the hanging glacier, with Kyle and Noah behind. Photo: Matt
Me following the crux pitch of the hanging glacier. It’s hard to tell, but a bulge right at the start required a few overhanging moves to gain the vertical section. Photo: Matt
Soupy weather as we cross the bergshrund to begin the first rock band.
Noah and Kyle leading in the first rock band.

The rock bands on the Cassin are what an alpinist’s dreams are made of: golden granite, veins of blue ice, and a position of full commitment at high altitude. The first rock band consisted of high quality mixed climbing with occasional M4 cruxes. Kyle was out front, dispatching pitch after pitch with smooth efficiency. To see my long-time friend and climbing partner performing at this level was deeply inspiring; we’ve grown a lot as climbers over the years. I followed each pitch as fast as I could, my only goal to get the rack back in Kyle’s hands so he could launch on the next pitch. Relentless upward progress was the guiding principle. Matt and Noah were never far away, sometimes disappearing on other route variations and occasionally reappearing to share belay anchors with Kyle and I. Even in this wild place, it sure is fun to climb with your friends… we were party climbing the Cassin!

Kyle placing gear on another mixed pitch.
Kyle on the snowy rib that links the two rock bands.
Noah and Kyle getting into the business of the second rock band.

After topping out the first rock band, we climbed a snowy rib to reach the base of the second rock band. Splitter granite cracks and solid ice passed under our worn crampons and ice tools. Every passing moment was another encounter with the sublime. It was midnight by the time I finished following a challenging pitch with frozen hands and a tired spirit. We were in the middle of the second rock band and it was bitterly cold – we needed to bivy. Kyle and I squeezed three corners of our tent onto a tiny ledge while Noah and Matt resigned themselves to an open bivouac, unable to get their tent up. We all slept tied in to anchors that night.

Kyle following a mixed pitch in the second rock band.
12:01am, me coming up to the belay after a challenging mixed pitch. Photo: Kyle
Our bivy on a tiny ledge in the second rock band. Mt Foraker looking sublime. Photo: Matt

We packed up on the morning of June 6th knowing that we had the most physically challenging day of the route, and possibly our lives, ahead of us. I had managed only 3 hours of sleep the previous night and all of us were feeling the physical toll of the prior days and weeks. We were nearly 4000’ below the summit and still had a 6000’ descent down the West Buttress to contend with, all at high altitude.

My hands and feet went completely numb as I followed the first mixed pitch off the bivy ledge. After reaching the belay, I underwent the painful rewarming process as sensation returned to my fingers and toes. Tears welled in my eyes and froze to my cheek bones as Kyle reminded me that the pain was a good sign that my extremities were not freezing solid. This did make me feel better because frostbite was a real concern at this perilous juncture. Kyle led a final, stellar mixed pitch that brought us to a snow shoulder at 16,700′, marking the end of the technical climbing on the route.

Following a mixed pitch on summit day. Photo: Kyle
Following the final technical pitch at 16,700′, with the route stretching out below us. Photo: Kyle

There’s not much to tell about the final slog for life to the summit. Sometimes we had to frontpoint steeper icy sections, but mostly we booted up steep snow and scrambled loose rock. Kyle and I took a break to dry our socks at 18,300’, even going as far as to sneak in an eight minute nap. We topped out on the summit ridge at 6:30pm. Without wasting time, we began the long descent of the West Buttress down to our camp at 14,200. We spread out a bit on this section and I was the last one to arrive at camp in a whiteout at 11:30pm. I was too wasted to eat dinner, but I didn’t care. My soul nutrition was at an all-time high.

Kyle slogging hard with a long way to go. The summit ridge was still out of view this point.
Kyle and I slogging. This hurt! Photo: Matt
Getting close to the summit. Photo: Kyle
Getting there! Photo: Kyle

After a rest day spent playing chess and packing kit at 14, we descended all the way to base camp and spent one last night on the glacier, not bothering to put the tents up. I got to ride in the copilot seat on the first flight out the next day, June 9th – an amazing way to cap off the trip! This was truly the climbing trip of a lifetime. I’ll be back, Alaska!

Hanging out with Kyle near the summit, waiting up for Matt and Noah.
Open bivy next to the runway at Kahiltna base camp. Photo: Kyle

5 thoughts on “Denali – Cassin Ridge (VI 5.8 AI4)

  1. Well done Nick, such an adventure you’ve had. You and your friends will have stories for a long time to share, glad the limbs thawed out and you have outstanding “soul nutrition”. Love that phrase!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love to see it man! Such an epic trip with your buddies. It’s awesome the time and effort you take to document your adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You finished it! I loved the read. Did not love the camping with only 3 corners of the tent on the ledge or the possibility of frostbite…but so amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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