Boldest Ascent in Alaska: No. 2

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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