Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 3

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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