The Boldest Ascents in Alaska

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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