Bold Routes and Amazing Resources

My favorite climbing guidebook: High Alaska by Waterman (Andrew Szalay)

When I was about to share my final list of the five boldest ascents in Alaskan climbing history on Monday, I realized that one climber that I thought would be included — Jack Tackle — wasn’t a part of the five I identified.

Shouldn’t the boldest routes in Alaska be done by some of the most renowned Alaskan climbers? Think about it. Would you accept my list if it didn’t have a Steve House, a Hudson Stuck, a Bradford Washburn, or a Mugs Stump in one if not all of the ascents?

I say all that to say that I hope to start on Monday, May 18. I plan to post at 3:00 eastern time and each day at the same time that week. It will be a count-down to the boldest ascent in Alaska. Thanks for bearing with me.

I was tempted to skip posting anything this week, but I know how much some of you like book recommendations. Here is a list of resources I have referred to during this project, some of which are books and publications you can access:

The Experts — By far, the input from people like Steve Gruhn, Jonathan Waterman, Mark Westman, Damien Gildea, Clint Helander, John Frieh, Jason Stuckey and readers like you have been the most valuable resource to me. Reading through the resources below only get you so far and certainly don’t put things in position to be compared against everything else. They also identified ascents I wouldn’t have considered, and provided insight that one big visit to Alaska can’t get at.

The Scree — This is the annual publication of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. It’s edited by Gruhn and covers more ascents in Alaska than the American Alpine Journal and in more detail. It’s available to MCA members, and archives are online.

American Alpine Journal — This has long been my favorite annual publication. Every August I start to read through it as quickly as possible, pulling out whatever interests me. It’s available to American Alpine Club members or for purchase on the AAC website, but I think it alone might be worth joining. The online search tools on the AAC website has been very useful.

High Alaska — Quite possibly the greatest climbing guidebook ever written. Waterman wrote this with the help of original black and white photography of Denali, Mount Hunter, and Mount Foraker from the great Alaskan pioneer Bradford Washburn.

On the Ridge Between Life and Death and The Last of His Kind — These two books by David Roberts are full of nuggets about Alaskan mountaineering that I have been pulling on since they were published. I continue to be inspired by them in whole and in parts.

After these, it’s mostly been a handful of recent articles online from Alpinist, Climbing, Rock and Ice, Gripped, and a few miscellaneous blogs.

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In Alaska, What is Bold?

Thank you, everyone, for your input on what are the characteristics of what makes a bold climb, and your suggestions for what is the boldest ascent in Alaska. I want to thank three people in particular: climber, mountaineering historian and author Damien Gildea, the editor of The Scree Steve Gruhn, and climbing instructor Norm Rasmussen who all left some lengthy comments after my last post.

This exercise — of seeking the boldest ascent — could have covered any region. I chose Alaska because it’s special. It’s at the edge of the far north (or is the far north, depending on your mental map). It’s also vast wilderness with few towns and outposts. There are no porters. Bush planes are the mode of reaching the backcountry. Predators are bigger than just Giardia. And the mountains are big, cold and famous for routes with knife-edge exposure.

But to get at what makes the boldest ascents, we need to state what bold really means and what characteristics the greatest bold ascents must posses.

What is Bold?

In its simplest terms, bold is about accepting risk and taking action with confidence. As John Frieh pointed out earlier, the risk and confidence could be interpreted as being foolish. In Alaska, a bold ascent needs a little more explanation.

Fundamentally, the danger that accompanies great Alaskan ascents differentiate bold ascents from ordinary ascents. The danger or risk on ascents are different, as Gildea pointed out. The danger might be a route under a serac. The danger might be self imposed, such as going ahead with a long route with an extremely light rack. And the risks and bold qualities of ascent for a siege-style ascent are going to be different for an alpine-style ascent or a single-push climb. I genuinely appreciated Gildea’s clear perspective on this definition. It was very helpful.

In addition, there is an element or breaking ground into the unknown, either in terms of danger, route, rate of ascent, equipment, and general adversity. The pioneering spirit varies from one ascent to another, and this might be a great separator. Gruhn is spot on with this point. Rasmussen carried on the notion of pioneering in a different way: Some ascents challenge perceived limitations. While breaking new ground in a pioneering fashion is essential, if it changes the way we actually think about what the climb accomplished on a human level it stands out even more.

So for our purposes a bold Alaskan ascent is a pioneering ascent that carries significant risk, relative to the route and style of the climb. The boldest of the bold ascents challenged conventional thinking and may have defied what we thought about humans in the mountains.

The Factors

To compare the ascents, however, we need the definition to provide factors for considering each ascent. These are, unfortunately, subjective. If you ever wondered how in the world the Piolet d’Or committees come to their decisions — ones you and I frequently disagree with — then try naming one ascent the boldest ascent in all of Alaskan climbing history. But for exploring the history, this is the best exercise that was compelling to me.

Please keep in mind that these factors are not standards but matters that must be considered and balanced with one another:

  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?

These factors should help with my other objective, of considering the boldest ascent in Alaska of all-time.

What’s Next

As soon as possible, while balancing a busy work season at Habitat for Humanity, family and personal responsibilities, I will roll out the top five boldest ascents in Alaska. I am going to roll them out over a five-day period while sharing a profile each day and naming the boldest ascent in Alaska on day five. In the meantime, please follow some of my thoughts on this on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #BoldAlaska.

[To read the next post in this series, click here.]

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Bold Alaska: First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

Quick note about Mount Everest before kicking off the review of the boldest ascents in Alaska

You might recall that before Ueli Steck was involved in an ugly scuffle on Mount Everest he was gunning for a new route up to its summit. Up to that point, the only glimmer of originality around climbing Everest was base jumping from the mountain and sending a Tweet from the summit. And, alas, Steck’s new route wasn’t to be. However, in case you hadn’t heard, Brendan Leonard reports that Canadian alpinist Raphael Slawinski is planning a new route up Everest’s northeast face. I’ll be checking in on that later.

Boldest Ascent of Alaska

So now we’re going to tour the nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska by era. We’ll cover them in the 1800s, early 1900s, then go decade by decade from the 1960s to the present.

I believe Alaskan mountaineering is special. The venue is a vast wilderness that has been mapped but explored little by mankind. And even where mankind has stepped, like on it’s biggest attraction, Denali, the possibilities seem only as big as the imagination and there may be more white canvas left. Alaskan mountaineering, compared to other regions’ climbing, has the common characteristic for it’s most notable ascents being described as bold.

I am on a quest to name the boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history. What is the boldest ascent doesn’t ultimately matter, however. But taking a journey in search of the boldest ascent in Alaska will tell us more about this place and what draws us to climb in such brash style than the answer.

Let’s go back to the first candidate:

1897 First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

In 1897, the elevations of certain peaks were not certain and word that Denali was the highest peak in North America only started making its way around certain circles early that year. By the spring, Luigi Amedeo, a.k.a. the Duke of Abruzzi, was en route with a large entourage under his leadership to reach the summit of Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) It was believed that it could be the “roof” of North America.

He and his people traveled across the Atlantic to America, went cross country to Seattle where they chartered a boat, before securing smaller boats to take them to the shore off of Mount St. Elias and hiking the remaining distance.

The Duke and his large team was tempted to storm the peak almost at once after reaching shore and the sky cleared. The mountain lies only 10 miles from the shores of Icy Bay. However, a group of experienced climbers in the Duke’s party convinced the Duke that the mountain’s near-appearance was actually an optical illusion made possible by its size and the gleaming sunlight. The approach should be patient and careful.

The expedition started climbing in late June. They experienced conditions that they had encountered only in winter in the Alps. Simple tasks of route finding, making and breaking camps, and preparing food became tedious activities. Then on July 30th, at 11:00 a.m., after 12 hours of climbing, the whole climbing party reached the summit.

On the descent, the winter-like conditions worsened. It forced an extra night on the mountain. The glacial lake that they skirted to make their route, was now essentially gone and easily passable. After 50 days on the mountain, the expedition reached the woods on August 11.

The Duke’s party’s ascent was done without beta and mostly grit and determination. The Duke was set on climbing the mountain at any reasonable cost. He even set aside his pride in a navigation dispute and made Vittorio Sella, the now famous Italian photographer, in charge of route decisions. That these climbers reached Alaska with minimal knowledge of what to expect, and that they accomplished so much, makes this a truly pioneering and memorable ascent.

Early 1900s

Next week I’ll cover three early expeditions. Let me know which one you think might be the boldest ascent among these:

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

[…After writing this post, I had a change in heart and direction that makes the series more exciting. Check it out by clicking here.]

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Boldest Ascents of Alaska–Updated List

A couple of you — namely Jason Stuckey and Steve Gruhn — suggested several more ascents to add to the list of nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska. So I am updating the original list from two posts ago post with these climbs:

  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Art Davidson’s and Rick Millikan’s 1966 first ascent of Kichatna Spire.
  • 1967 first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston
  • Naomi Uemura’s 1984 solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • Phil Kaufmann’s. Steve Carroll’s, and Patrick Simmons’ 1995 first (and to date only) ascent of Mount Orville.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer’s 1997 solo first ascent of Mount Laurens.
  • Kevin Cooper’s and Ryan Jennings’ ascent of “Stairway to Heaven” on Mount Johnson in 2014.
  • Ryan Fisher’s and Nathan Lane’s 2014 first ascent of Mount Muir from tidewater.

Sorry that this may feel like the most drawn out process… But don’t fear. We’re haven’t even started the fun yet.

[To read the next post on this series, click here.]

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Is that Climb Bold or Stupid?

As part of my series on the boldest ascents in Alaska, I asked several leading Alaskan climbers to give me their suggestions for the boldest ascents for me to consider and share here on TSM. I didn’t define “bold”, and asked for their take instead.

The Example of Devil’s Thumb
The attempt on the northwest face of Devil’s Thumb over the Stikine Icecap near the Alaskan-British Columbia border is a good illustration of the problem with the word “bold”… In 2003, the unclimbed wall had tempted several teams to consider being the first. Before the 2003 adventure, climbers watched the wall and considered their chances against the slope, the overhang, the rockfall, the weather, and the frequent avalanches. Half the would-be suitors usually went home without touching the face, and no one has climbed more than halfway.

In April 2003, Guy Edwards and John Millar of Vancouver ventured to southeastern Alaska and peered up the northwest face like 13 expeditions turned away before them. Only they didn’t turn around and run. Despite the conditions, the storms, the rockfall, and the avalanches they went. I heard Mike Libecki once tell an audience at National Geographic in Washington, DC that this wall might be the only wall that might never be climbed. He explained that the slight overhang accumulates such seracs and they frequently cleave off wiping the wall clean.

Edwards and Millar didn’t come home, and to the best of my knowledge their bodies have not been found.

Bold or Stupid?
John Frieh provided me a his list with a bit of a warning about his choices. He explained that he struggled with the term “bold”: “It is a fine line between bold and stupid,” he wrote.

Perhaps the difference is luck. The luck of the conditions. The fortune of unfortunate events happening away from the climbers. The outcome that was actually an outlier.

Perhaps the difference between bold and stupid is whether you survive. Had everyone on the Harvard ascent of Denali’s Wickersham Wall died in the ascent, there is no way that it would even be considered bold.

So here is the list of the bold and the stupid. I am going to go through several of the stories and rank the boldest climbs in Alaska shortly. For now, let me know what you think.

The Nominees (Updated 5/14/15)

Late 1800s

  • 1897 first ascent of St. Elias by the Duke of Abruzzi

Early 1900s

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

1960s-1970s

  • Wickersham Wall Direct, Denali, by Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan, John Graham, Don Jensen, David Roberts, and Chris Goetze, 1963.
  • Harvard Route, Mount Huntington, Roberts, Hale, Jensen, Bernd, 1965.
  • Allen Steck and John Evans 1965 Hummingbird Ridge FA on Logan.
  • Art Davidson’s and Rick Millikan’s 1966 first ascent of Kichatna Spire.
  • 1967 first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Art Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 Solo of the Cassin.
  • Mount Emmerich, Fred Beckey, Jack Tackle, and Craig Zaspel, 1976.
  • Steve Hacketts 1976 solo 3rd ascent of Mount Igikpak (followed by paddling 365 miles back to civilization.)
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, Kennedy-Lowe, July 1977.
  • Johnny Waterman’s 1978 solo Mt Hunter Traverse.
  • North Face (“Timeless Face”) of Huntington, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, July 1978.

1980s-1990s

  • Southwest face of Denali, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, June 1980.
  • 1981 East Face of Moose’s Tooth by Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, Alpine style by Glenn Randall, Peter Metcalf, and Peter Athens, 1981.
  • Moonflower 1981 FA by Mugs Stump.
  • Andy Politz’s 1984 FA of St. Elias South Face.
  • Naomi Uemura’s 1984 solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • East Face of Mount Hunter by Jim Donini and Jack Tackle in 1985.
  • Wine Bottle, Mount Dickey, Orgler, Bonapace, 1988.
  • East Face, Mount Russell, Charlie Townsend and Dave Auble, 1989.
  • Phil Kaufmann’s. Steve Carroll’s, and Patrick Simmons’ 1995 first (and to date only) ascent of Mount Orville.
  • East Butt of University Peak by Buhler/Sassara in 1997.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer’s 1997 solo first ascent of Mount Laurens.

2000s-present

  • Slovak Direct, Denali, House, Twight, Backes, 2000.
  • Blood from the Stone, Mount Dickey, Ueli Steck and Sean Easton, 2001.
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, House and Garibotti, 2001.
  • Mount Augusta’s North Face by Jack Tackle and Charlie Sassara, 2002.
  • Entropy Wall on Mount Moffit, climbed in 2007 by Jed Brown and Colin Haley.
  • Linkup of the third ascent of Denali’s Isis Face and the fourth ascent of the Slovak Direct by Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato, and Fumitaka Ichimura, 2008.
  • Haley and Aartun’s Dracula Route on Mount Foraker, 2010.
  • Kevin Cooper’s and Ryan Jennings’ ascent of “Stairway to Heaven” on Mount Johnson in 2014.
  • Ryan Fisher’s and Nathan Lane’s 2014 first ascent of Mount Muir from tidewater.

I would love to know if you have anything that I ought to add to this list of ascents. Feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via email (on the About page), Twitter, or Facebook.

[Read the next post in this series, here, which includes the updated list of nominees.]

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What is the Boldest Climb in Alaska?

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Denali Rising Stark. (All rights reserved)

In Alaska, the most memorable news are about things done on a big scale to live up to the big untamed image of thr landscape. Road trips are longer, sometimes involving RVs. Hikes go to remote places, sometimes requiring an air-lift to reach the “trailhead.” Climbs often share the signature feature of being high and very exposed.

A year ago I was taken aback by the style and brashness by so many of the pioneering ascents in Alaska. I thought that a few of my new acquaintances, all climbers with expertise in Alaska, would be able to pitch in and give me some insight into their significance compared to one another. So I reached out to Jonathan Waterman, John Frieh, Mark Westman, and Clint Helander. These climbers are among the leading climbers of Alaska today. I asked them a question that was fraught with some excitement and a bit of tension: What were their thoughts on what were the boldest ascents in Alaska?

The list was nearly overwhelming. At the same time that I received it, I was preparing for the big lobbying day for the members of the trade association that I worked for at the time. All my energy for the necessary research crumbled under the weight of looming visits on Capitol Hill.

Now I am back and so is the list.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to dive in and consider what was the boldest ascent in Alaska.

These are not Ed Viesturs-worthy climbs. These aren’t trade routes or a list suitable for an impressive tick list.

These ascents are stories of someone’s personal limits pushed beyond our own. Foolish to some. That they returned home may make it seem repeatable.

Here are four examples of the bold ascents in Alaska:

  • The Duke of Abruzzi’s 1887 first ascent of Mount St. Elias.
  • The Sourdoughs’ 1910 FA of Denali’s north summit.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 solo of Denali’s Cassin Ridge.
  • Michael Kennedy’s and Goerge Lowe’s 1977 ascent of the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker.

More to come next week… [Read the next post, Is That Climb Bold or Stupid?]

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