Apocalypse Peak FA and the Piolet d’Or

West Face of Apocalypse Peak (Photo by Clint Helander 2013; made available by permission.)

In between responsibilities (fleeting nanoseconds, really), including coordinating an advocacy campaign at work and still unpacking from the move (yes, we’re still unpacking) I’ve been brooding about this year’s Piolet d’Or. I look forward to learning about the nominees and who they choose to honor every year. But this time, not only did I disagree with their choice, the recipients probably don’t feel as honored. I wouldn’t.

I’ll fill you in more in a moment, but there was some positive news that I’d like to tell you about first, especially if you’re as into the possibilities of climbing mountains in Alaska as I am.

Alaskan First Ascent
Clint Helander — the current expert and first ascentionist in Alaska’s Revelation Mountains — and climbing partner Jason Stuckey climbed the range’s largest unclimbed peak, Apocalypse Peak (9,345 ft./ 2,848 m.). They named their route on its 4,400 ft./ 1,341 m. West Face “A Cold Day in Hell.”

After several false starts from Talkeetna, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick found the weather window that would allow them to land in the midst of the Revelation Mountains, a sub-range of the greater Alaska Range, approximately 80 miles west of Talkeetna.

After spending two nights on the mountain, they rated the route up to WI5. The final leg included a signature Alaskan traverse with plenty of knife-edge exposure leading to the summit.

The Revelations have only recently started to be explored. In the 1960s, author and alpinist David Roberts lead the first expedition there. Roberts named most of the mountains himself, including Apocalypse Peak, which he described as “fearsome” in On the Ridge Between Life and Death.

Congratulations to Clint and Jason, and a special thanks to Clint for being generous in allowing me access to his photos.

Jason Stuckey coming up the crux pitch of A Cold Day in Hell (Clint Helander 2013; made available by permission.)

Indecisive 2013 Piolet d’Or Jury
All six nominees, save one, was a major traverse and included an ascent or descent of a previously unclimbed face. The jury, lead by British alpinist Stephan Venables, emphasized this and it’s mentioned in each press release and English-language news story. That indicates to me that the judges identified the commonalities but couldn’t, wouldn’t or refused to find what differentiated any of them. (I found several aspects.)

The jury named all six nominees recipients of the 2013 Piolet d’Or. Not just two plus an honorable mention, but all of them. They included some very impressive routes:

  1. A French ascent of Kamet (7,756 m.) in India.
  2. A British climb of the so-called Prow of Shiva (6,142 m.) in India.
  3. A Russian team that climbed light, except an enormous food-stuffed haul bag to traverse iconic Muztagh Tower (7,284 m.) in the Karakoram.
  4. An American team that tackled the southern features of Baintha Brakk (7,285 m. and a.k.a. The Ogre).
  5. A noble British traverse of the Himalayas’s longest ridge on an 8,000-meter peak — the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat (8,125 m.)
  6. A committing six-day Japanese ascent of the south pillar of Kyashar (6,770 m.) in Nepal.

It’s hard to disagree with the jury in that each climb is worthy of note. In fact, just reading up on the alpinists from these ascents is thoroughly fascinating. But sharing the honor of the title of 2013 Piolet d’Or winner devalues the competition.

I celebrate alpinism and climbing in general on this blog and I do so through my personal perspective; it’s subjective (though I insist it’s more often correct than incorrect). What I choose to feature — like Helander’s new climb — is about as much matter of taste as it is about respect. I select certain climbs and climbers to honor here. Why I choose one over another is up to me, and if people knew my rubric for making these pages I might get criticized. Still, I make decisions and I usually stick by them.

If I were working with Stephen Venables and rest of the 2013  jury, I would have advocated for the Mazeno Ridge traverse to be given the award outright. Of the ascents, it was the largest in scope, in length and elevation. So congratulations Sandy Allan and Rick Allen: You win my Piolet d’Cuivre.

Michael Ybarra

On a side note, I’ve been in touch with the Michael’s sister, Suzanne, about some of his work outside of climbing. People in our circles usually only remember Michael for being a charming, yet badass climber. He was also a gifted researcher and writer. He walked a line of the Suburban Mountaineering life like few contemporaries.

For those of you that work day-to-day and live an alter-ego life on expedition vacations or weekends at a crag, this might be insightful. More to come…

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Meru and the Piolet d’Or


The Magic Line Up the Shark’s Fin. (All rights reserved)

The international judges collected by Montagnes magazine gave the 2012 Piolet d’Or to two climbs and gave an honorable mention to a third. You probably already knew that, since the awards were given in March. One climb I thought ought to have won wasn’t even mentioned and one that was actually awarded I don’t find completely worthy.

So I have been bothered by this for half the year, it would seem. It’s clear to me that judges made a mistake. I’ve become more convinced with time and reading up on the other ascents.

The award was given to Slovenian amateur alpinists Nejc Marcic and Luka Strazer for their ascent of K7 West (21,702 ft./6,615 m.) in the Karakorum and American veteran alpinists Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson for their ascent of Saser Kangri II (24,665 ft./7,518 m.) in a remote part of the southern Himalayas. The honorable mention was given to the late alpine hard man Bjorn-Eivind Aartun and his climbing partner Ole Lied for their ascent of Torre Egger (8,809 ft./2,685 m.) in Patagonia.

The K7 West team had never previously climbed in the greater Himalaya. They were young, ambitious climbers on the adventure of their lives. Their new route up the to the western of four peaks on the mountain climbed 1,600 meters and they rated it VI/5 M5 A2. They faced large, looming seracs along the ridge and dehydration over the three-day climb; they descended to BC on the fourth. Being their first trip to the range, they managed to get in several other climbs. The adventure went well and they were successful on a peak that has a glowing reputation for unsolved problems on an enormous scale.

The Torre Egger ascent by Aartun and Lied that earned them the honorable mention was a new line of mixed climbing that was described as “ephemeral” and “imaginative” by PlanetMountain.com. Reading the accounts in Alpinist 39 and the 2012 American Alpine Journal its plain to see why. Their line was relatively direct and they climbed light, efficiently as though the risks we face on our own cliffs didn’t exist, without being reckless. More to the point, the climb was about the climb, and the objective just happened to be somewhat iconic.

The first ascent of Saser Kangri II ticked it off the list as the world’s second highest unclimbed peak. (The first, Ghanker Puensom, is in Bhutan where climbing is forbidden.) It was also one of one of the longest alpine ascents of sustain vertical ice and rock in the Himalayas for a first ascent. The team even devised of a special hammock for collecting snow to pack it and create artificial ledges as no natural rest areas were on the smooth southwest face. After two nights in the two hammocks, they went for the top but had to endure a night hanging in their harnesses — never a pleasant way to catch some shut eye or, er, find relief. PlanetMountain.com said, “A wealth of experience enabled the team to take a very minimal lightweight alpine style approach in achieving the first ascent of the peak.”

The climb that was nominated but received no notable accolades from the judges, including from American Michael Kennedy, was the ascent of one of Meru’s sub-summits, Meru Central (20,702 ft./6,310 m.), often referred to as the shark’s fin because of the shape of the final section. It had been climbed once before by Russian Valeri Babanov — but well to the right of the shark’s fin ridge. The Shark’s fin has been the objective of several expeditions over 30 years; only two teams have stood on the top consisting of four climbers total. Only one team made it up the fin’s knife edge, which included leader Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists, by the way.)

Over 30 years, the ascent of the Shark’s Fin grew to legendary proportions. Failed attempt after failed attempt, only skilled, experienced climbers could even think of being so ambitious. As Chin explained at National Geographic Live in 2011, “It requires every kind of climbing,” meaning rock, ice, mixed and various styles. The three-man team employed a hybrid style to get over physical and psychological “hump” of the fin: Big wall technique with an alpine-light set of gear. That sounds a like an oxymoron and it is to large extent; they aided portions of the route with minimal gear.

The route was coveted by Anker’s climbing mentor, the late, legendary Mugs Stump. He never completed the fin. Anker went three times. Anker took Chin and Ozturk on his second attempt in 2010. After the endless tunneling, days on the wall with less than adequate food, bad weather, it left them wasted. Chin vowed never to come back. The dream was over and Meru’s Shark’s Fin persisted as one of those last great problems.

Some mountains, after failed attempts, grow larger and larger until the wall is thoght to be twice its size. If that has been the case for Anker, Chin, Ozturk and even Stump, then Meru likely grew bigger than Mallory’s unclimbed Everest.

As it is obvious, the team did indeed return and they almost miraculously climbed the Shark’s Fin’s knife edge ridge to Meru Central’s pinnacle. The achievement was emotional particularly for Anker and Chin but also for Ozturk; Ozturk nearly died months earlier in a skiing accident and underwent brain surgery due to the severity of the crash, which also may have risked his life in the high altitude. They didn’t know what his condition would do to his ability to climb or what that would mean for his teammates. Fortunately, only his words, and not his skills or judgment, were occasionally obscured.

The alpinism that I hold in high esteem is about climbing amazing, steep routes in small teams with high exposure and with as little gear as possible. It’s also about the challenge of getting deep within ourselves by attempting ambitious and often intimidating objectives. I think the Shark’s Fin team deserved one of the 2012 Piolet D’Or awards. While I appreciated the Saser Kangri II ascent, it did not present the challenges, test of character, or the intimidation factor that weighed on anyone even contemplating an ascent of Central Meru by the Shark’s Fin ridge.

I realize that the ascent by Anker, Chin and Ozturk was not a bona fide first ascent and that it was a variation of an existing route and that the other winners we’re clearly new routes with one true first ascent. Are first ascents of unclimbed mountains and new routes valued higher than significant variations? Usually not, but this might be the grand exception. And the publicity around the Shark’s Fin ascent in the major climbing publications featured it in dramatic fashion. Still, I believe the climb — and the story — needed no embellishment. It was the climb of the year.

Steve House once criticized the Piolet D’Or for not awarding the most progressive ascents. The judges later recognized that House and his partner were in fact among those worthy. Still, I think the judges made a mistake concerning the Meru climb. The ascents they recognized are admirable at a high level, but Anker, Chin and Ozturk deserved much more. It’s Meru’s Shark’s Fin that will inspire climbers to dream, perhaps more than many others.

Thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter if you haven’t already because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.