Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 1

Denali (Faungg 2013)

2008 Giri Giri Linkup on Denali

After warm ups on the Bear Tooth and Mount Hunter’s Moonflower Buttress, Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato, and Fumi- taka Ichimura turned to Denali two properly finish a route and make a linkup of two very difficult routes.

These three Japanese alpinists were members of an unofficial group that called themselves the Giri-Giri Boys that traveled the world to attempt some of the biggest, most challenging mountaineering obstacles. On Denali, they set their sites on a linking up the Isis Face, which had only been climbed twice before, and the Slovak Direct and connecting the summit. Combined, they would ascend 16,000 vertical feet on very steep, tiring routes.

Over eight days, including one spent in a snow cave during a storm. They simul-climbed (climbing with a rope between them but no anchors) the whole Isis Face. They’re attitudes throughout their climbs, as on other ascents, were extremely positive. They recognize the danger of a route, but quickly shifted their focus to note how beautiful everything around them was.

The most dangerous aspect of the ascent, according to Yokoyama in Alpinist, was the descent after the Isis Face via the “Ramp” on Denali. It is a wide feature and maintaining direction can be reasonably difficult.

Through this linkup, this ascent made the first “complete first ascent” of the Isis Face. Jack Tackle and David Stutzman climbed the line in 1982 but did not continue to the summit, rather they stopped at the South Buttress and descended.

Unfortunately, the entry in the 2009 American Alpine Journal was minor compared to the significance of this accomplishment, but there is more information in Newswire from Alpinist magazine.

Arguably this linkup ascent had tangible impact; these same climbers visited Mount Logan in Canada two years later and made an even bolder ascent. This linkup also involved the great dangers of both of these well-known and challenging routes, and incorporated impeccable alpine style. For these reasons, it stands out above all other climbs as the boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history.

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Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 2

Mount Hunter (John Frisch)

1978 Johnny Waterman’s solo Mount Hunter Traverse

After Johnny Waterman’s friends were gone, either from decline in commitment to climbing at a high level or from perishing during climbing accidents, Waterman didn’t relent in his alpine quest. He kept going, finally alone.

Waterman joined the American Alpine Club in part because he wanted to tell his story in the American Alpine Journal. He had long been suspicious of the AAC, as many climbers were of such formal institutions around outdoor sports at the time (after all, the Club hasn’t always been so well marketed, and at one time it was much more exclusive than it is today.) He knew his story was worth telling and the AAC’s Journal was the proper venue.

Waterman climbed across Denali’s neighbor, Mount Hunter, alone. He shuttled gear “expedition style” from one position to the next himself, all 600 pounds of camp equipment and food (which might have been more like 800 pounds.) He ascended the mountain 12 times in shuttling (only 10 on descent), essentially, in his attempt.

Waterman estimated the ascent would take 80-100 days. He grossly underestimated his progress: He climbed and shuttled for 174 days. That’s almost six months. That’s nearly a baseball season. Climbers on paid expeditions to Denali alot a months time to position one self. I asked one adventure history expert if there was anything comparable in terms of time and effort. There is nothing comparable. Other great journies covered greater distances in about the same time but used sled dogs, such as Wally Herbert et al in crossing the arctic via the North Pole from Alaska to Svalbard. Except the Herbert expedition was pulled by dogs and had supplies air dropped. Waterman had neither.

He started the climbing the South Buttress in March with frost-nipped fingers and a missing contact lens. Forty-five days into the climb he hadn’t reached the enormous summit plateau, he realized his rations would be insufficient for the remainder of the journey amd that he was infested with live. (About the lice, Steve Gruhn points out that this ascent could hardly be considered a solo. But then again, the lice never ferried a single load.)

For the first third of the traverse, the weather wasn’t a negative factor. That changed past Camp VI (of a total of 12 camps.) It dampened his mood further. Soon afterward, Waterman took a 40-foot leader fall and confessed that he was surprised that his self-belay system saved him. Then, shortly before reaching the summit plateau, he lost a mitten and took another leader fall. Yet he endured and plodded along with all of his gear.

Other than the rare relief of airdrops, which didn’t provide enough food for his pace anyway, he endured storms, ascended and descended cliffs multiple times carrying, dragging and hauling equipment. 3,600 feet of rope, which he would fix and refix, allowed him to travel even in rough weather, except in new or vertical territory.

Because of Waterman’s solo-expedition style, the dangers and responding to them with skill and resourcefulness, and the significance of this climb, as there may never be one like it again — this ascent is the second boldest in Alaskan climbing history.

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Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 3

Mount Huntington (Bradford Washburn)

1978 First Ascent of the North Face of Mount Huntington

Mark Westman wrote me about the first ascent of the North Face of Mount Huntington:

Unquestionably one of the most dangerous and audacious routes ever completed in Alaska. Unrepeated for good reason. [Simon] McCartney and [Jack] Roberts climbed it in relatively lightweight alpine style, making open bivouacs carved into snow trenches in whatever sheltered locations they could find. Bold is an understatement.

And just a few weeks ago, a friend was ski touring along the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier and messaged me to say, while standing underneath the 6,000-foot North Face, that he thought it was “craziest” climb in Alaska.

McCartney and Roberts may have been crazy but they were steadfast in their determination. They waited for three weeks on the glacier below for the weather to clear before willingly heading up. Mount Huntington had been climbed before, most notably by a French expedition up the obvious ridge, and soon after by a team of four from the Harvard Mountaineering Club via a more challenging line — perhaps the first light ascent in Alaska on a mountain this size. But the North Face took climbers into another realm.

The route had corniced ridges, thin-ice covered rock, avalanching snow, vertical water ice, and frequent falling blocks of snow. It was unrelentingly steep. Sometimes it overhung.

McCartney and Roberts simul-climbed when they “felt safe” and camped in snow caves they dug out into the wall as best they could.

Roberts said that on the wall he and McCartney were fighting exhaustion, frost-nipped hands, and despite any progress his watch never seemed to really tick forward. It was a timeless place. Before the summit, they had already experienced pain, joy, frustration, and relief. The descent dragged on as well.

On the descent via the French Ridge, McCartney took a 50-foot fall through a cornice to the North Face, badly twisting his ankle. They had been going for 44 hours and hadn’t eaten in three days. They lost both of their 300-foot ropes and had to down climb, which tipped the climb from a mere saga to an epic. Injured, without food, and little useful gear, they climbed for days in poor weather, until they reach the glacier.

The ascent was less impactful than it was actually significant, however the pioneering nature and dangers Roberts and McCartney faced combined with they light and fast style, makes this the third boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history.

If you’re interested in reading more about the first ascent of North Face, aka the Timeless Face, of Mount Huntington, take a look at the link to the American Alpine Journal.

Be sure to check back tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time for the second boldest ascent in Alaska. [To jump to the next post, click here.]

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Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 4

Mooses Tooth (Renan Ozturk)

“The Dance of the Woo Li Masters”: 1981 East Face of Mooses Tooth

There are many impressive ascents on Mooses Tooth and almost all of them went up with panache. The sheer walls and Arctic-Alaskan conditions seemed to demand it. However, Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell showed the way and made this pioneering and dangerous climb influence future Alaskan climbs.

In March 1981, Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell climbed what, at the time, was considered the last great problem in Alaskan mountaineering: The East Face of the Moose’s Tooth. Ten previous attempts, including one in 1979 by Stump and Bridwell themselves, faced the nearly 5,000-foot wall and were forced to turn back due to conditions, technical set-backs, or fear.

Stump and Bridwell charged the wall in alpine style in extremely cold conditions with minimal food and gear to reach the summit in five days.

This route was not discussed in detail among most of the experts, but John Frieh made a point that I agreed with after a lot of contemplation, to use my own words: Because of the saga to reach the top by so many before them, and the impact it had on the ascents on this mountain and Alaska, this ascent is one of the boldest ascents in Alaskan climbing history for its pioneering qualities, risks, style, and impact.

Be sure to stop by again tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time to learn about the third boldest ascent in Alaska. [To jump to the next post, click here.]

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Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 5

En route to Denali in 1963 (John Graham and Harvard Magazine)

1963 Wickersham Wall Direct

I wrote that the Harvard Route on Denali, a.k.a. Wickersham Wall Direct, about this route not long ago. It actually surfaces in daydreams now and then. Sometimes it’s haunting.

In the spring of 1963, Harvard University students of the Harvard Mountaineering Club Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan, Peter Carman, John Graham, Don Jensen, David Roberts, and Chris Goetze drove from Boston, Massachusetts across the continent and north to Denali National Park and Preserve. Their objective was the north face of Denali. The artful black and white photography of Bradford Washburn helped inform them of their “preferred” route.

The wall rises from an ice fall, of cleaved glacial fissures, at a mere 5,000 feet, and then rises in a steep, and steady slope for 15,000 feet to the mountain’s modestly junior north summit.

The route was extremely dangerous and it was the first big mountain any of them have ever attempted. Roberts would later explain in multiple places that they climbed in a state of naivety. They thought the whizzing sound of rocks flying past them, the tumbling down the slope only an arm’s stretch away, and the frequent avalanches,  were part of the routine experience. More matured climbers might have retreated or may not have started up at all.

Still, all of the climbers escaped uninjured and the first — and to date only — ascent of the Wickersham Wall Direct remains unrepeated.

It is without a doubt one of the boldest ascents in Alaska and on an iconic setting, which is why it is number five.

Be sure to check in tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time for the fourth boldest ascent in Alaska. [To jump to the next post, click here.]

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The Boldest Ascents in Alaska

Welcome to Alaska! Resurrection Bay of the Kenai Peninsula (Teddy Llovet)

Today we start to countdown the top five boldest ascents in Alaska. Asking the question “what is the boldest ascent in Alaska” has been part of a quest. The goal is not to crown an Alaskan Piolet d’Or actually, but the exercise yields insight into two subjects that I have always been interested in: Alaska and human achievement in the mountains.

Bold is a unique characteristic of historically significant climbs, and Alaska’s climbing history, I felt, had an unusually large pool of climbs that could be considered bold. With input and insight from several leading Alaskan climbers and experts on Alaskan mountaineering history, including Steve Gruhn, Jonathan Waterman, Mark Westman, Damien Gildea, Clint Helander, John Frieh, and Jason Stuckey, we formed this lengthy list of nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska.

What is a Bold Ascent

We also worked hard at appropriately defining what made a bold Alaskan ascent. It’s a pioneering ascent that carried significant risk, relative to the route and style of the climb. Furthermore, the boldest of these ascents challenged conventional thinking and may have defied what we thought about humans in the mountains. As a rubric, we identified these four factors to consider:

  1. Pioneering — Did the ascent break ground on a new route or technical challenge?
  2. Dangers — What were the risks the alpinists faced and were they extraordinary?
  3. Style of Ascent — Was the ascent done in siege-style, fast and light, or traditional alpine?
  4. Impact — Did the ascent change the way people thought about adventures in the mountains? Although, because climbs don’t always have influence over our collective daily life, I think “significance” might be a more suitable term that identifies the right climbs without being concerned about the outside reach of the ascent..

Making the Cut

What might be just as interesting as the top five list I’ll share over the next few days, is the list of ascents that didn’t make the grade. The list ascents nominated don’t all meet the rubric. In some ways, the style of the ascent addressed the dangers too much, or the ascent was dangerous but it wasn’t pioneering, and while it had an impact, it was outweighed by almost all of the other climbs on the list. Here are two examples that are great ascents regardless of this trivial exercise:

  • Mount Augusta’s North Face by Jack Tackle and Charlie Sassara in 2002. — This is an adventure of climbing, but not an ascent. The route was evidently dangerous when Tackle was struck by a large rock — the kind that whistles like a bomb from a B-52 all the way down. Sassara had to go for help, leaving Tackle alone on the mountain nearly 7,000 feet up. Tackle was rescued off his narrow ledge, nestled in a sleeping bag, by a man dangling from a helicopter. This is an amazing story of climbing and heroism but isn’t a great ascent.
  • East Face, Mount Russell, Charlie Townsend and Dave Auble in 1989 — This route was partly inspired by photographs by Bradford Washburn. The route was a massive mixed route including deep rime on the upper section, and Townsend and Auble intended to, rather than rappel or downclimb, to parapent (glider parachute) down to the base. The dangers of the wall and the foul weather urged them to say they that if either of them fell the other would just glide down. They ascended without a tent and only with bivy sacks, and the conditions of the crumbly rock made descending in a traditional manner worrisome. Even once at the summit, the swirling clouds indicated that it was a bad time to fly. They were forced to downclimb a thousand feet and bivied in their sacks, then they endured a five-day “fury” of a storm in which they were mostly exposed (1990 AAJ). At last, after ten days on a mountain that attracts horrible, they jumped and flew down in eight minutes. The journey was an epic of “survival,” to use Townsend’s word (1990 AAJ). For the purpose of this project it was significant for being one of the first glider descents, and it was certainly dangerous, it wasn’t as pioneering as some of the climbs that ranked higher on the list. You’ll see why.

Honorable Mentions

However, we have two honorable mentions that didn’t make the top five list, but that deserve some special highlight:

  • Steve Hacketts’ solo 3rd ascent of Mount Igikpak in 1976 — First, Mount Igikpak is in the Brooks Range. It’s remote. It’s the largest peak in Schwatka Moutains. The first and second ascent were not done in the impressive style Hackett lead. Hackett traveled solo by boat and a pied to the peak. It’s a true Alaskan adventure in the old pioneering sense before bush planes amd helicopters took us to base camp. The danger lurked everywhere as he approached the summit pyramid as it is overhanging on all flanks and relied on old gear from the previous ascents. This could so easily have been called a stupid ascent rather than a bold one. However, his style, the danger, and significance makes it stand out as uniquely bold.
  • Dora Keen Goodwin’s and George Handy’s Ascent of Mount Blackburn’s East Peak in 1912 — Keen Goodwin was a adventurous woman ahead of her times. She was already an accomplished mountaineer when she visited Alaska, but Mount Blackburn was the unclimbed highest peak in the Wrangel Mountains. It would be her greatest ascent. Her first attempt in 1911 was unsuccessful and was far from the summit slope. Her style and determination kept her going until she returned the following season, only earlier and better prepared. She and Hardy used a 3,500-foot high gully sided by ice towers and deep snow. The ascent saw terrible snowfall that slowed progress and added to the danger. Other members of the expedition fled as 20 feet of snow fell over 13 days. She and Hardy made the summit and were later married. She wrote about her climbs and adventures in thr widely published magazines of the day and it played a role, if a modest one, on the women’s suffrage movement which won women the right to vote in the United States a few years later. It’s bold qualities make s it stand out as historically significant.
  • Infinite Spur of Mount Foraker by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 — This ascent has few peers. As Kennedy and Lowe made final preparations, guidebook writer Jonathan Waterman wrote, that the ascent was a “tremendous leap into the unknown” for it’s scale. The route was bigger than Denali’s Cassin Ridge, more sustained and had few if any places to bivy (Waterman, High Alaska). For 11 days, they climbed about 14 hours per day under heavy packs, rarely hauling them. They endured spindrift avalanches, Kennedy took a 20-foot leader fall, climbed under cornices, at one point they bivied under a serac, and low on food and stove fuel they reached the top. They had stretched their physical and mental abilities to succeed. At the crux, Kennedy recalls stepping “outside himself” and visualizing success at the top. The next thing Kennedy recalled was Lowe jumaring up to him (ibid.) Because of the dangers and the challenge they faced, this is clearly among the boldest ascents ever done in Alaska.

Later Today

As bold as these ascents were, there are five more that are even bolder. So check back after 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time to see the number five of the boldest ascents in Alaska. [To jump to the next post, click here.]

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