Is this Bold Enough for Alaska?

Out of the mist (Savannah Sam)

The Boston Marathon was held Monday and it was in miserable wet conditions. It was in similar conditions in 1967. During that era women were prohibited from entering officially. Yet Katherine Switzer sneaked into the race with a real bib number. The rainy conditions helped; she wouldn’t have worn heavy sweats effectively concealing her gender from the race officials at the starting line.

Later in the race Switzer was discovered. She was was even attacked by one of the race sponsors in a barbaric attempt to maintain the “integrity” of the race. Instead the race sponsor was shamed and Switzer changed the way we thought of women and running.

The boldest ascents in Alaska did not change the way the world thought of mountain climbers and mountains, but for those knowledgeable about mountaineering and these ascents, they did. In fact, each successive ascent pushed the next ascent passed previously perceived boundaries.

This post is a continuation of a series of posts about searching for the boldest ascent in Alaska. I am searching for what may be Alaska’s greatest climbs ever done.

However, naming an ascent the boldest isn’t my ultimate goal. Rather, I want to use this as an exercise to expand our knowledge about mountaineering history in Alaska and man and woman kinds’ capabilities and limits in alpi.

I have published a few posts on the boldest ascents in Alaska sporadically these last few weeks but I haven’t felt the natural energy and momentum that I hoped it would have. I think this project needs some more “focus” and a little more input from you.

What Makes it the Boldest?

You already helped make a strong list of bold ascents. Now, I am interested in two more things: What are your top three to five picks for the greatest ascents per decade and/or all-time?

Then, I want to know whether the general criteria below calls out the right characteristics and factors to compare one ascent to another.
 

  1. Strength of the Climber(s)
  2. Route Conditions
  3. Technical Difficulty
  4. Mental Hurdle

Do these sound right and credible to you? Leave me a comment or send me a note and let me know. On Monday, I will publish the final criteria and start to roll out the top ascents the following week.

Here we go…

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Bold Alaska: First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

Mount St. Elias without much snow (Richard Droker)

Quick note about Mount Everest before kicking off the review of the boldest ascents in Alaska

You might recall that before Ueli Steck was involved in an ugly scuffle on Mount Everest he was gunning for a new route up to its summit. Up to that point, the only glimmer of originality around climbing Everest was base jumping from the mountain and sending a Tweet from the summit. And, alas, Steck’s new route wasn’t to be. However, in case you hadn’t heard, Brendan Leonard reports that Canadian alpinist Raphael Slawinski is planning a new route up Everest’s northeast face. I’ll be checking in on that later.

Boldest Ascent of Alaska

So now we’re going to tour the nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska by era. We’ll cover them in the 1800s, early 1900s, then go decade by decade from the 1960s to the present.

I believe Alaskan mountaineering is special. The venue is a vast wilderness that has been mapped but explored little by mankind. And even where mankind has stepped, like on it’s biggest attraction, Denali, the possibilities seem only as big as the imagination and there may be more white canvas left. Alaskan mountaineering, compared to other regions’ climbing, has the common characteristic for it’s most notable ascents being described as bold.

I am on a quest to name the boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history. What is the boldest ascent doesn’t ultimately matter, however. But taking a journey in search of the boldest ascent in Alaska will tell us more about this place and what draws us to climb in such brash style than the answer.

Let’s go back to the first candidate:

1897 First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

In 1897, the elevations of certain peaks were not certain and word that Denali was the highest peak in North America only started making its way around certain circles early that year. By the spring, Luigi Amedeo, a.k.a. the Duke of Abruzzi, was en route with a large entourage under his leadership to reach the summit of Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) It was believed that it could be the “roof” of North America.

He and his people traveled across the Atlantic to America, went cross country to Seattle where they chartered a boat, before securing smaller boats to take them to the shore off of Mount St. Elias and hiking the remaining distance.

The Duke and his large team was tempted to storm the peak almost at once after reaching shore and the sky cleared. The mountain lies only 10 miles from the shores of Icy Bay. However, a group of experienced climbers in the Duke’s party convinced the Duke that the mountain’s near-appearance was actually an optical illusion made possible by its size and the gleaming sunlight. The approach should be patient and careful.

The expedition started climbing in late June. They experienced conditions that they had encountered only in winter in the Alps. Simple tasks of route finding, making and breaking camps, and preparing food became tedious activities. Then on July 30th, at 11:00 a.m., after 12 hours of climbing, the whole climbing party reached the summit.

On the descent, the winter-like conditions worsened. It forced an extra night on the mountain. The glacial lake that they skirted to make their route, was now essentially gone and easily passable. After 50 days on the mountain, the expedition reached the woods on August 11.

The Duke’s party’s ascent was done without beta and mostly grit and determination. The Duke was set on climbing the mountain at any reasonable cost. He even set aside his pride in a navigation dispute and made Vittorio Sella, the now famous Italian photographer, in charge of route decisions. That these climbers reached Alaska with minimal knowledge of what to expect, and that they accomplished so much, makes this a truly pioneering and memorable ascent.

Early 1900s

Next week I’ll cover three early expeditions. Let me know which one you think might be the boldest ascent among these:

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

Boldest Ascents of Alaska–Updated List

Following. (Eduardo 2009)

A couple of you — namely Jason Stuckey and Steve Gruhn — suggested several more ascents to add to the list of nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska. So I am updating the original list from two posts ago post with these climbs:

  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Art Davidson’s and Rick Millikan’s 1966 first ascent of Kichatna Spire.
  • 1967 first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston
  • Naomi Uemura’s 1984 solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • Phil Kaufmann’s. Steve Carroll’s, and Patrick Simmons’ 1995 first (and to date only) ascent of Mount Orville.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer’s 1997 solo first ascent of Mount Laurens.
  • Kevin Cooper’s and Ryan Jennings’ ascent of “Stairway to Heaven” on Mount Johnson in 2014.
  • Ryan Fisher’s and Nathan Lane’s 2014 first ascent of Mount Muir from tidewater.

Sorry that this may feel like the most drawn out process… But don’t fear. We’re haven’t even started the fun yet.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

Five Years of Thanks

Our outdoors family (2014)

Five years ago, I was grumpy about living and working in Peaklessburg — I mainly complained about the heat and humidity in the summer and the lack of snow in the winter. Natalie and I didn’t have any kids yet and I wasn’t climbing. Reading about the adventures of great climbers while riding deep underground in a subway tunnel was testing my interest in my career in public policy and advocacy — the reason I was living in Washington, DC.

Five years ago, on April 2, 2010, I started writing here on The Suburban Mountaineer. Today, I don’t call home a derogatory name (Peaklessburg) anymore. Natalie and I have two kids and I climb at the local gym whenever I get the chance. I have made friends with the authors of the books I read during my subway commute and I have made friends with many of the climbers themselves. The subway ride is no longer a place to brood, rather it’s time to be productive and inspired. My job is satisfying and it has its place. I have also realized that the mountains are physical and far away from home but that they are also spiritual and their power can be summoned.

This blog was all Natalie’s idea. She doesn’t get enough credit for the things she does for me and for our family: She’s a creative thinker, an successful entrepreneur and designer, and — at the same time — a remarkable mother of a freethinking Wunderkind and an enthusiastic Schnickelfritz.

So I will get back to my series on the Boldest Ascent in Alaska next week… It has been impossible to write for fun these last couple of weeks; I was busy presenting at a conference all last week and this week I have been busy between follow-up tasks at work and catching up with my family. But thank you checking in regardless, and thanks…

  • Thank you for being a loyal reader.
  • Thank you for commenting and sending me emails, Facebook messages, and Tweets.
  • Thank you for reading my piece in Alpinist.
  • Thank you for subscribing to The Suburban Mountaineer.
  • Thank you for believing that climbing matters.
  • Thank you for bearing with me on this journey.
  • And thank you for embracing your life as adventure… especially if you live in a Peaklessburg.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

Is that Climb Bold or Stupid?

Mount Foraker (Richard Droker 2012)

As part of my series on the boldest ascents in Alaska, I asked several leading Alaskan climbers to give me their suggestions for the boldest ascents for me to consider and share here on TSM. I didn’t define “bold”, and asked for their take instead.

The Example of Devil’s Thumb
The attempt on the northwest face of Devil’s Thumb over the Stikine Icecap near the Alaskan-British Columbia border is a good illustration of the problem with the word “bold”… In 2003, the unclimbed wall had tempted several teams to consider being the first. Before the 2003 adventure, climbers watched the wall and considered their chances against the slope, the overhang, the rockfall, the weather, and the frequent avalanches. Half the would-be suitors usually went home without touching the face, and no one has climbed more than halfway.

In April 2003, Guy Edwards and John Millar of Vancouver ventured to southeastern Alaska and peered up the northwest face like 13 expeditions turned away before them. Only they didn’t turn around and run. Despite the conditions, the storms, the rockfall, and the avalanches they went. I heard Mike Libecki once tell an audience at National Geographic in Washington, DC that this wall might be the only wall that might never be climbed. He explained that the slight overhang accumulates such seracs and they frequently cleave off wiping the wall clean.

Edwards and Millar didn’t come home, and to the best of my knowledge their bodies have not been found.

Bold or Stupid?
John Frieh provided me a his list with a bit of a warning about his choices. He explained that he struggled with the term “bold”: “It is a fine line between bold and stupid,” he wrote.

Perhaps the difference is luck. The luck of the conditions. The fortune of unfortunate events happening away from the climbers. The outcome that was actually an outlier.

Perhaps the difference between bold and stupid is whether you survive. Had everyone on the Harvard ascent of Denali’s Wickersham Wall died in the ascent, there is no way that it would even be considered bold.

So here is the list of the bold and the stupid. I am going to go through several of the stories and rank the boldest climbs in Alaska shortly. For now, let me know what you think.

The Nominees (Updated 4/8/15)

Late 1800s

  • 1897 first ascent of St. Elias by the Duke of Abruzzi

Early 1900s

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

1960s-1970s

  • Harvard Route, Mount Huntington, Roberts, Hale, Jensen, Bernd, 1965.
  • Allen Steck and John Evans 1965 Hummingbird Ridge FA on Logan.
  • Art Davidson’s and Rick Millikan’s 1966 first ascent of Kichatna Spire.
  • 1967 first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Art Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 Solo of the Cassin.
  • Steve Hacketts 1976 solo 3rd ascent of Mount Igikpak (followed by paddling 365 miles back to civilization.)
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, Kennedy-Lowe, July 1977.
  • Johnny Waterman’s 1978 solo Mt Hunter Traverse.
  • North Face (“Timeless Face”) of Huntington, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, July 1978.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, John Mallon Waterman-solo, 1978.

1980s-1990s

  • Southwest face of Denali, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, June 1980.
  • 1981 East Face of Moose’s Tooth by Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, Alpine style by Glenn Randall, Peter Metcalf, and Peter Athens, 1981.
  • Moonflower 1981 FA by Mugs Stump.
  • Andy Politz’s 1984 FA of St. Elias South Face.
  • Naomi Uemura’s 1984 solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • East Face of Mount Hunter by Jim Donini and Jack Tackle in 1985.
  • Wine Bottle, Mount Dickey, Orgler, Bonapace, 1988.
  • East Face, Mount Russell, Charlie Townsend and Dave Auble, 1989.
  • Phil Kaufmann’s. Steve Carroll’s, and Patrick Simmons’ 1995 first (and to date only) ascent of Mount Orville.
  • East Butt of University Peak by Buhler/Sassara in 1997.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer’s 1997 solo first ascent of Mount Laurens.

2000s-present

  • Slovak Direct, Denali, House, Twight, Backes, 2000.
  • Blood from the Stone, Mount Dickey, Ueli Steck and Sean Easton, 2001.
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, House and Garibotti, 2001.
  • Entropy Wall on Mount Moffit, climbed in 2007 by Jed Brown and Colin Haley.
  • Haley and Aartun’s Dracula Route on Mount Foraker, 2010.
  • Kevin Cooper’s and Ryan Jennings’ ascent of “Stairway to Heaven” on Mount Johnson in 2014.
  • Ryan Fisher’s and Nathan Lane’s 2014 first ascent of Mount Muir from tidewater.

I would love to know if you have anything that I ought to add to this list of ascents. Feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via email (on the About page), Twitter, or Facebook.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

What is the Boldest Climb in Alaska?

“Hard to exaggerate how big and impressive Alaska is.” (Steve Wall 2012)

In Alaska, the most memorable news are about things done on a big scale to live up to the big untamed image of thr landscape. Road trips are longer, sometimes involving RVs. Hikes go to remote places, sometimes requiring an air-lift to reach the “trailhead.” Climbs often share the signature feature of being high and very exposed.

A year ago I was taken aback by the style and brashness by so many of the pioneering ascents in Alaska. I thought that a few of my new acquaintances, all climbers with expertise in Alaska, would be able to pitch in and give me some insight into their significance compared to one another. So I reached out to Jonathan Waterman, John Frieh, Mark Westman, and Clint Helander. These climbers are among the leading climbers of Alaska today. I asked them a question that was fraught with some excitement and a bit of tension: What were their thoughts on what were the boldest ascents in Alaska?

The list was nearly overwhelming. At the same time that I received it, I was preparing for the big lobbying day for the members of the trade association that I worked for at the time. All my energy for the necessary research crumbled under the weight of looming visits on Capitol Hill.

Now I am back and so is the list.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to dive in and consider what was the boldest ascent in Alaska.

These are not Ed Viesturs-worthy climbs. These aren’t trade routes or a list suitable for an impressive tick list.

These ascents are stories of someone’s personal limits pushed beyond our own. Foolish to some. That they returned home may make it seem repeatable.

Here are four examples of the bold ascents in Alaska:

  • The Duke of Abruzzi’s 1887 first ascent of Mount St. Elias.
  • The Sourdoughs’ 1910 FA of Denali’s north summit.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 solo of Denali’s Cassin Ridge.
  • Michael Kennedy’s and Goerge Lowe’s 1977 ascent of the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker.

More to come next week…

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 642 other followers