Is this Bold Enough for Alaska?

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 the alpine.

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 Tuesday, I will publish the final criteria and start to roll out the top ascents the following week.

Here we go… [To read the next post in this series, click here.]

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5 thoughts on “Is this Bold Enough for Alaska?

  1. To me a bold ascent includes the element of pioneering – whether of a new area, new techniques, new style, new season, etc. The physical strength of an individual climber doesn’t necessarily enter into the definition, except that it might lead to increased confidence and willingness to push the envelope. I think of Charlie Porter’s and Russ McLean’s 1976 ascent of Middle Triple Peak, via its west face. While McLean thought that Porter’s solo of the Cassin Ridge on Mount McKinley deserved more attention, the five bivouacs in ten days on the west face of Middle Triple Peak were pretty significant in that McLean and Porter ascended a previously unclimbed peak (although it had been unsuccessfully attempted), and used a style of multiple bivouacs on a route, which Alaska hadn’t witnessed a whole lot prior to that. And the climbing was fairly technical, too. And Porter continued the ascent despite being struck by falling ice that nearly broke his finger. I’d say that ascent was pretty bold.

  2. I’m not sure you ever defined ‘boldness’ sufficiently clearly. It’s quite a subjective and relative term. You also need to figure in time – St Elias in 1887 was just about the edge of the world, so the Duke came a long way and was waaaay out there. It wasn’t a short flight from Yakutat and there was no Canadian rescue chopper.

    In climbing terms at least, ‘boldness’ has usually included some objective danger – avalanches, hanging seracs above the route etc. You just assume an element pure luck – or lack of bad luck, as I like to think of it. The approach to the Infinite Spur has this (I believe?) as does the traditional approach up toward the Cassin. The Wickersham Wall looks ridiculous in this sense, as do parts of Huntington.

    On the other hand, ‘bold’ can be a safe line – objectively – but launching up a super-technical route with very little gear and really going for it. You can get yourself so far up, you can’t easily get down. So finish it or die. Some people might call that ‘stupid’ but that’s beside the point, for this exercise. Johnny Waterman’s final climb might be a better example of treading such a line between bold and stupid, where a boldness is matched and maybe overwhelmed by a piling up of both objective and subjective dangers.

    And what is bold for alpine-style, or single-push, might not be bold in siege-style. John Evans does not consider their FA of the Hummingbird to be particularly bold – they were a big group, took their time, plenty of camps and gear (guys were tough as fucking nails back then, had patience and could carry heavy packs). Trying the full-repeat in alpine style would be bold even for the fittest climbers, because of the sheer length of the route and the typically short weather windows. The fast Swiss repeat of the Thunderbird was bold – if you go up so fast, how do you get down (the east ridge is a long way around) and if the weather turns, you’re fucked because you’re carrying almost nothing.

    Weather? 24 hour daylight is an advantage for long, hard routes. No benightment, near-constant visibility in good weather. So a judgment of boldness must take such an advantage into consideration.

  3. Great question. Some thoughts:

    Switzer’s race went against the norms of the day and the social rules that were currently set up (whether they were beginning to change or not and she was a catalyst is another question). However, doing something controversial like that has it’s pros and cons. Comparatively, if local people’s animistic thoughts on mountains fades over time, the people who sneak past political and religious boundaries to climb “forbidden” peaks will be considered to have done a bold ascent. My point being I think a bold ascent would be something that challenges the status quo – a teen or younger summitting solo, or someone with a disability.

    I would also add objective hazards – I suppose it falls under technical difficulty though.

  4. I re-read your initial post and got to thinking that Dora Keen’s ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn with George Handy in 1912 – more than eight years before women got the right to vote in the U.S. – might have changed the way Americans thought about women and women climbers. Her report in Harper’s Monthly garnered quite a bit of attention in that day – and not just from mountaineers.

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