Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Six days with Masa

Masatoshi Kuriaki is a Japanese climber with a Love for one of the hardest human endeavors I can think of. Solo winter climbing in the Alaska Range. For the past 12 years Masatoshi (Masa) has been making trips all the way from Tokyo, to Anchorage and into the range. His record of previous trips speaks volumes about Masa's endurance, patience and mental fortitude. First person to climb (and come back) both Denali and Mt. Foraker in winter with over a decade of attempts mixed in as well as walking 860 miles from Anchorage to Prudhoe bay.

Winter climbing the big peaks in the Alaska range is something few people attempt to do - the lack of daylight and extreme cold is downright scary. Add in extreme remoteness - and a jet stream that can drive the temps to the coldest anywhere. Pick up a copy of -148 and you'll get a feeling for what I'm talking about here.

My good friend Matt and I had the opportunity to accompany Masa on his trip into the range last week for the start of his expedition to climb the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter. We were hired to film his activities and try to learn a bit about what makes him tick and also to capture the feel of the Alaska range in winter... In High Definition.
If Masa succeeds on Hunter (its turned him back 4 times already) he will be the first person to complete "The winter tripple crown" or Foraker, Denali & Hunter.

For someone who likes to spend up to 50 days at a time by himself in extreme mountain environments, climbing the highest peaks in North America, Masa lacks the pretensions that one might conjure about a person who likes to spend so much time alone. He is extremely likable and social. Through his broken English he claims to be both a couch potato and a person who does not like being cold (who does?). Patience and being conservative is what has kept Masa alive through his expeditions.

So with 3 weeks of food for a planned 5 days, 4 sleeping bags for 2 of us, loaned down suits (thanks Feathered Friends!), skis, glacier gear and lots of technology, we headed in with Paul Roderick owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi at the helm of his Turbo Otter.. the big three are out in full!

Masatoshi's route - The West Ridge of Mt. Hunter, the ridge starts at mid level on the left and goes up into the wing on the right, sweet route! Denali in the distance:

View of Mt. Foraker from camp:

Base camp for Denali (& Foraker & Hunter) is a bit of a zoo during the climbing season with lots of air traffic and many many expeditions coming and going, mostly to climb Denali's West Buttress. Winter is a much different scene. Just us, no planes and no other tents yep, just us...

Temps were -20 to -30 at night and -20 to zero during the day, no direct sunlight due to the ridges to the south. But did I mention we had down suits? They were key.

Shooting on the move was a bit tricky at times, this is the day we skied down to the main Kahiltna to get Masa returning from a carry.

The cameras we used was a Panasonic HVX-200 main camera and we brought 2 small sony HDV hard drive cameras. The 200 worked great for the most part, the solid state P2 media worked flawlessly in the cold temps, while the hard drive cameras needed to be warmed up to function. Some things on the 200 did stop working however - the autofocus was first to go necessitating manual focus, same with the zoom servos. The combo of these two lead liner glove operation on the lens barrel. Yep - lots of cold fingers!
An evening lens cleaning session, at these temps any vapor would freeze to the lenses and you'd have to literally scrape the film of ice off. Other things broke like tripods, brittle pieces of plastic and aluminum, but the important stuff still worked.

The muffins from Costco obviously froze solid.. this was remedied by slicing them in half and frying them in bacon fat. All efforts were made to consume maximum calories

Night time was amazing - during the summer climbing season there is 24 hr daylight. being the only people at basecamp and stargazing at -30 was quite amazing. Masa's tent with the north buttress of Mt. Hunter:

And our tent with Denali in the distance.

Masatoshi at the base of Heartbreak hill, his solo glacier travel system consisted of 14' aluminum poles and a host of self extraction gear.. but he's savvy enough to never have had to use most of it thankfully.

We had two days of bad weather - flat light and snow. So we mostly skied around camp and stayed in the tent.. proper reading material is key.

Matt, deep in "the hang"...

Denail's Massive south face, the Cassin Ridge runs right up the middle.

Three people and hundreds of huge mountains... our parting self port

Some pics from the flight out with Paul and his Turbo Otter. Mt Dickey with the Moose's Tooth massif in the back:

Flank of Mt. Hunter:

Masatoshi will be on Hunter doing his slow and steady thing for the next 4-6 weeks. Wish him good luck, he's doing something very hard and very unique with a humble spirit and deep appreciation for the land he travels through.


Jill Homer said...

Awesome! Are you guys going back to shoot again when he's on his way back down?

Marla said...

Those shots are awesome! I really like the shot out the airplane's window.

bmike said...

always, always impressed and inspired by your photography and adventures...!

mike, in not nearly as cold nor snowy vermont.

Vik said...

Great post.....thanks for sharing...I better go make some hot tea!

Lindsay said...

AWESOME!!!! Love the pics with the tents and mountains at night. Also love your reading material. Keep us posted on Masatoshi's trip!

ScottM said...

Inspirational post. Thanks, Eric.

Eric said...

Jill - Nope we're not going back when he's high up or done. $$$ and deadlines of the editors. We likely wont hear much until he's back in Anchorage. He does not keep in touch much, other than listening to country music on a tiny FM radio...

Anonymous said...

great post man. I can't get enough of reading about the terrible things people do to themselves in the mountains in AK.
why, Masatoshi, why??