Spring of 2021 was my longest trip to Alaska and definitely the most productive of my 13 trips into the range. The plans for it started to get hashed out in October of 2019. I’ll give you all one guess why the trips did not happen in spring of 2020. At least the silver lining was it allowed another year of structured training to prepare.
I was fortunate enough to start off the season with a couple of productive guiding trips into the Central Alaska Range. With strong well prepared clients I guided ‘Ham and eggs’ (V, AI4,M4) for the 4th time, as well as ‘Shaken not Stirred’ (V,AI5) on the Mooses tooth. On my second trip into the range this year I was able to guide the ‘Harvard Route’ on mount Huntington (VI, AI3,M5,A1).
After my guiding finished up I met up with Jackson Marvell for a plan we had come up with 18 months prior. The goal was to spend a month in the range, and attempt single push style ascents of the ‘north buttress’ of mount hunter, the ‘infinite spur’ of mount Foraker, and the ‘Slovak direct’ on Denali. We realized how ambitious of a plan this was and fully realized it was very possible we wouldn’t be able to get any of them done in such a style.
Three days after we landed we headed up the North buttress of Hunter by the ‘Bibler Klewin’ (VI, WI6,M6, A0). The forecast said we had about 30 hours of clear weather. When we started up the buttress the next morning a cloud thinly veiled the feature as it often does, and it snowed lightly most of the day. We continued up, hopeful as the day warmed the cloud would burn off. On the upper reaches of the buttress the weather deteriorated and spindrift blasts became larger and more consistent. The leader would often disappear into the stream of white for 20 to 30 seconds at a time. Eventually despite the difficult conditions we hit the top of the buttress 16 hours after crossing the bergshrund. We both felt good and stopped to melt water for the first time. As we sat there the cloud dropped for a moment and we felt optimistic we could get up the final 2,000’ of snow slopes to the summit. Unfortunately, as sudden as the cloud layer dropped it rose up again. We spent an hour and half sitting wondering if we should go up or begin the 4,000’ of rappels. At 9:30 pm another squall started up and looked like it was there to stay. We decided to begin rappelling back down. As my luck on Hunter would have it after we pulled the rope on our fifth rappel the sky went blue, and it didn’t snow again for two days. This was my 4th trip to try and climb Mount Hunter in 8 years. Although we wish we made it to the summit, I’m thankful I was able to make it to the top of the ‘Moonflower Buttress’ and complete the technical portion of the peak. After rappelling thru the night we reached base camp 25 hours after we left it.
The next day we started our acclimatization by moving from base camp to the 11,000’ camp on Denali. Over the next two days we moved to the 14,000’ camp. We both felt good despite the fast altitude gain and climbed up to 17,000’ on the west buttress. After our run up to 17k’ we took our first rest day of the trip. That day we got word of a three day weather window, and despite hoping for more time to acclimatize we needed to take advantage of the clear weather.
We descended back into base camp and stayed there one day, before starting the long intimidating walk around the East flanks of Foraker to reach the base of the infinite spur. The whole approach the summit of Foraker is looming 11,000 vertical feet overhead, it’s impossible not to notice how big of a mountain it is. The approach took us around 10 hours, and we stopped on the final snow shoulder at 3 am. We slept an hour, and melted a couple liters of water and started up again. We moved continuously for another 28 hours (25 hours on route) before we would rest again. The climbing was time consuming with the rock caked in snow almost every foot was hard earned excavating snow off the rock to find holds and spots for protection. On the sections of snow climbing mid thigh to waist deep trail breaking was the norm. But like all big routes the key is to just keep moving. With big blocks of ‘simul’ climbing section by section of the route fell below us. Eventually we hit a wind protected ice wall at the south summit and set up our tent again. We boiled up some water for dehydrated meals but we both fell asleep before the food hydrated!
Three hours later we woke up and started packing up our bags again to head to the north summit then down the long undulating sultana ridge, up and over Mount Crosson, and back to the lower glacier. While we were walking we often shook off mild hallucinations of voices, or would see the snow surface rise and fall like water. We would shout at each other thru the wind, ’what did you say?” When the reply was, ‘I didn’t say anything’. We knew the voices were in our heads, and wondered how far our other perceptions were from reality. Fortunately we managed to descend without incident and arrived back in base camp 65 hours after we left it.
The next couple days we were content sitting in the tent and it felt like no matter how much we ate it wasn’t quite enough. It was nice to have some stormy weather so we didn’t feel any pressure to get climbing again. Unfortunately, the unsettled weather stuck around longer than we wanted to rest for. We walked into the head of the east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier twice, once to check conditions of the Slovak and once to try and climb it. A few hours before we planned to start up the route a cloud moved in and snow started up. As the snow began to accumulate we decided it was not the day to climb the south face. We skied back to base camp feeling a bit defeated with dwindling levels of stoke as we hit 25 days on the glacier and ten days of mostly sitting since Foraker.
Once back in camp we saw the forecast looked to be too unsettled (for our taste) to try the south face for the remainder of our trip. We began the process of packing up which involved removing our cache of food, fuel and sleeping bags from 14,000’ camp. When we walked from base camp to 14,000’ the cloud layer dropped down to 13,500. It looked like maybe we had a few hours of good weather. For the first time standing at 14,000’ we discussed climbing the west buttress in a single push from base camp. Neither of us could think of a reason not to continue up the mountain. So after melting a couple more liters of water we continued up the west buttress of Denali. We hit the summit 14 hours after leaving base camp, and did a round trip time of 21 hours with removing our cache, and bringing a sled down from 14k.
We had not planned to climb the west buttress, but it was a fun day of moving on a big mountain, and provided us with confidence that we had trained effectively to push all three of the planned routes in a season. There is so much that you cannot control in the mountains, the thing you can control is how you prepare yourself physically and mentally to enter the mountains. Thanks to everyone I climbed with this year for showing up ready to try hard, and have a good time getting rowdy in the hills!