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Mt. Hunter, SW Ridge

Denali National Park, Alaska


Not Even Close!

Author: Gary & Lynn Clark

Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark, Rich Strang, Chris Horley, Sam Gardner

I discovered long ago that big routes don't always go down in the first attempt. So it is to be with Mt. Hunter, the reputed "hardest 14er on the continent." We organized the trip for late May 1998, completing final packing and food preparation only to delay for two weeks then finally cancel altogether due to one of the worst weather seasons on record. This year we repeated the entire exercise with an attitude that we were going to Alaska even if just as tourists. We had to complete travel by May 21, which was earlier than we'd have liked, or lose our airline tickets from the year before; another example of the airline companies dictating our travel plans with their ridiculous and arbitrary rules. However, driving was not an option.

May 6: Our team of five assembles at Albuquerque Int'l Airport. To our surprise and relief, Sam is at the gate. Right up until the evening before, he was fighting against the demands of his business to be able to take this trip. By nightfall we are in Anchorage, our heads still ringing with flight attendant announcements. The commercial air travel experience seems deliberately designed as an ordeal and assault on the senses. We check into Day's Inn in Anchorage.

May 7: The Denali Overland Taxi arrives right on time at 6:00am, and we are on our way to Talkeetna in pretty decent weather. The driver suggests a stop for breakfast or last minute shopping, and additional stops for photos as we arrive in Talkeetna, all beyond the call of duty. The DOT is highly recommended. We dump our duffles on the porch at Talkeetna Air Taxi (also recommended) and inquire about the flight schedule, well aware that parties are often stuck here for many days waiting for acceptable flying conditions. The news that we can go as soon as we are ready is exciting. By mid-afternoon we are sitting on the Thunder Glacier. I marvel again at this aspect of Alaska mountaineering - world-class mountains accessible within 36 hours of leaving home in the Southwest!

There is a period of shell-shock at a moment like this - months or even years of planning have created a mental image of the place and we certainly know what to do once we arrive, but instead we just stand and gaze around with our mouths open for a while, brains reeling with confusion over the magnitude of it all. By the time the second plane load arrives, however, we are at grips with the situation. We decide to leave a cache on the glacier and make a light exploratory carry up to the base of the initial 2300' "S" couloir. We are encouraged to note that a set of tracks is already in, and a visit from a neighboring party confirms that a team of 6 from the British Army is already a day up the route. We are not encouraged to learn that they took more than 9 hours to climb the S couloir. This implies either that conditions are poor, or that they are not very strong or competent. We hope for the latter.

The carry goes well, and we return to move the rest of the gear up to a plateau safely below the avalanche runout for the S couloir and an adjacent one; a nice camp with good views of the objective for tomorrow morning. We are well-prepared with advice on the initial couloir, which I'll repeat here - Don't even think of climbing it if the snow conditions are not good. You will be in avalanches, and may be injured or die (both have happened to other parties). We set the alarm for 4:00am and crawl into our bags after wondering once again whether we can leave some more gear behind. The couloir will be a serious grunt with the 8 days of food, fuel, and full winter gear we must take up. Nobody is looking forward to it with these ridiculous packs.

May 8, 5:00am: Caching our skiis at the base of the couloir behind a huge boulder, we begin the StairMaster routine. I start up gratefully in the Brit's steps; however, within a rope length they disappear under slough. So much snow comes down this thing that no steps can long endure. We'll be punching new steps all the way, a depressing development.

Slog, slog . . . the monotony is relieved only by noting that we are making at least 500 feet per hour, which is pretty good progress. We rotate leaders when necessary and take only a single break for food and clothing. Chris takes a snow slough around his feet which is unnerving, but not really dangerous. The climbing is not only physically, but a bit mentally fatiguing as well - the sun is well up by about 10:00, so the snow starts to get slushy and unstable in the upper half, which steepens noticeably to beyond a completely comfortable angle. As we approach the final 500 feet, a route-finding decision looms: nobody ever mentioned that the couloir forks at the top, and it is not clear which fork is the best from below. I make a call, and it turns out to be the correct one - take the right fork! The left fork looks good initially, but it turns into a belayed rock climb at the top. Instead of a rock climb, we have a final narrow slot up a bit of ice to gain the upper slopes. This slot is 55-60 degrees for about 20 feet, but is solid, so we don't belay. It's still not over, though - several hundred meters of upward trudging leads upward from this crux, then we drop down to the notch where we plan to camp. It is only about noon - we've done the thing in 5 hours, but are in no mood to continue. Not only are we plenty tired, but the next stretch is very steep snow that has had direct sun for hours. We prepare camp, having the benefit of the British team's platform from a couple days before. A good day, and we are optimistic - everything is ahead of schedule to this point, and tomorrow is supposed to be the easiest day.

May 9, 5:00am: The so-called "Horizontal Section" - don't be deceived, this day starts with about 800 feet of some of the steepest snow climbing of the route. Up left from camp over a bergshrund, traverse right across another crevasse, then around a steep and exposed corner to gradually ease off to the level ridge. The rest is cake; some of the most beautiful and pleasant ridge-running I've ever experienced. Have your camera ready. By mid-morning, I pull into the British Army camp - matching tents all in a row, and people in all of them! They hear my boots crunching on the snow and stick their heads out to begin a lengthy conversation. I can see two climbers high on the knife-edge above and soon learn their story.

The climbers in camp have just returned from an attempt on the mixed section which is the technical crux of the climb. They made very slow progress, finally retreating in the face of unstable snow conditions and the difficulty of proceeding with heavy packs. One fellow in particular was quite impressed with the seriousness of it all. He would pop his head out the end of the tent to deliver a quick dissertation on the difficulties, then pop quickly back inside, repeating the exercise each time some new insight occurred to him. It became quite visually comical after a while and we referred to him from then on as the "Jack in the box" guy. (No deprecation intended - he and all the rest were really nice blokes and we thoroughly enjoyed our interactions with them.)

The notch at 10,700' was the site of our planned camp 2. However, I am keenly aware of two facts; first, we had made the 1000 feet of vertical progress between camps 1 and 2 in just 2-1/2 hours. Hardly an efficient use of time. Second, the report from the British Team is seriously demoralizing. I've learned to recognize "turning points" in climbs, and this begins to smell strongly like one. It doesn't help our momentum to be hearing that (1) the conditions are impossible (2) there is no way to carry packs up the thing, (3) there is no protection, so a fall would be death, and finally (4) the route has not been completed successfully since 1993 (there is no way to confirm that.) We caucused and decided that we'd need to have a look ourselves before giving up. The two climbers we could see above were their strongest and most experienced members in the process of attempting a single push to the summit with light packs. When I learned that, I opined that they would certainly not make it - they were just coming to grips with the ice ridge, and were already well into the day. I'm reasonably certain a summit push has not been successfully completed before from this 10,700 foot camp. The altitude gain is within reason, but one must contend with over 1200' of belayed climbing before the upper easier slopes are reached, then retrace this section with at least 10 rappells at the end of the exercise; a bold and committing proposition. We elected to wait in our tents until the two returned; not only would they have up-to-date advice, but hopefully would have renewed the anchor slings and punched steps we could use as well.

At about 6:00p, one of the Brits in camp calls out as he points upward. We can see the advance guard retracing their steps through the clouds that are now moving in. They rappel quickly and efficiently over the mixed terrain, clearly competent in their element. The others confirm that these two are equivalent to professional alpine guides in experience and skill. Within a few hours, we have our "beta" as they confirm that the initial snow was unstable, but within reason with light packs; the knife-edge section is good solid ice, and they left a number of ice screws as rappel anchors. They now plan to start very early the next morning for another summit attempt. We all retire to our bags as it begins snowing lightly.

May 10: Snow all night, continuing into the day. The entire British team packs up to go down, explaining that they have just enough food to attempt it today, but not beyond. We wonder at the advisability of a descent in the snow storm - the wands are in, but the death couloir waits. We cook in the tent, drying our gear while cutting our two books into sections so everyone has something to read, and going outside only to visit the dumpster or shovel snow. A desultory day, but not totally unwelcome after the non-stop frenzy we had all been in for the previous week in getting ready for the trip and arriving at this point. We can all use some sleep. However, as the snow built up, we realized that an attempt on the morrow was becoming unlikely as well.

May 11: We wait all day in improved weather, watching small spindrift sloughs but no major slides on the route. Thunder Valley booms with big slides all day as we scramble to record them on film. The plan is to accomplish a reconascencse climb at the earliest opportunity with light packs. This should answer several questions - first, can we climb this thing at all with current snow conditions, and given that, might moving to a higher camp be possible with full packs? Finally we can wait no longer - even though it is evening and the snow is too warm, Rich and Chris decide to go explore. The rest of us watch from below, figuring we can catch up in short order using their tracks if they succeed, or dig them out if the slope slides. We wait until Rich is to the belay anchor for the first technical pitch, then Lynn and I start up from camp. Soon we are all four sharing the belay stance as Rich leads the first mixed pitch. Although it took them 2-1/2 hours to lead this in the unconsolidated snow, we did it in their tracks in an hour! (The next morning Sam soloed it on our firmly frozen tracks in 20 minutes just to get out of his tent for a while.)

The first technical pitch is a short enjoyable chimney with good ice that took a solid screw, then fun stemming on granite to gain easier snow slopes above. I lead it on just the single screw, running out the rest of the rope to the second belay point in the comfort of Rich and Chris' tracks. We are having a great time and the climbing is of reasonable difficulty, but we are taking way too much time. Chris starts the second pitch at 8:00pm, hoping to put in more steps for our next attempt. He soon bogs down in deep snow, puts in a picket, and calls down that he's retreating. I decide to have a look and lead up in his tracks, planning to traverse the slope on his advice rather than continue straight up to where he got in trouble. I depart his tracks, take about two steps, and realize I'm on about the most dangerous slope I've ever seen - 50-60 degree bottomless snow warmed all afternoon by direct sun, with a runout over a cliff. This is a no-brainer decision, and I declare the exploratory climb over.

Now for the descent back to camp. Should be a quick and easy rap to the ledge, then plunge step back down; we're only 500' feet above it, no problem! . . . At 11:00pm we arrive back in camp, wondering where the time has gone. Well, not wondering too much, since I had to reclimb then downclimb the crux to retrieve a stuck rappel rope, and everything was done with a party of four sharing a pair of ropes. I am now seriously discouraged. We have taken 5 hours to negotiate a round trip of 500 vertical feet with one team member still in camp! Putting together a successful stategy for a summit attempt is going to require some creative thinking.

May 12: Although the plan had been to recon the day before in preparation for a summit push early on the 12th, it isn't going to happen that way for several good reasons. First, we hadn't gotten to bed until after midnight. Second, our gear is a mess, with frozen ropes and wet clothing littering our tents. Third, it's snowing again. Another rest day. We finish reading the books while melting snow and trying to come up with a strategy. Here are the facts: (1) This will be the fourth day at this camp; we are weary of it, and supplies are starting to dwindle; it is either up or down tomorrow but staying here is not an option. (2) I had made a serious error in planning to share only two ropes among 5 people. With 13 rappels, this would entail 65 person-raps in series at the end of a very long climb - a time-sink of sobering proportions. (3) One of our two stoves arrived at camp 1 missing a key part and is useless. We are spending about 5 hours melting snow for water bottles and cooking a single meal. Any team going to the summit would need a stove, since a snow-cave bivouac (perhaps even two) sans sleeping bags will be mandatory. Splitting the party is thus out of the question. We go to bed with heads buzzing with all the implications. We decide that, even with the improbability of success, we'll give it a try if the weather report is good. At 8:00p, we get the news from Annie at Denali Base Camp over the CB radio - "a low pressure region will be passing through, accompanied by snow and increased wind." This pretty much seals our fate, but Rich and I are highly perplexed. We both have shiny new Suunto wrist watch/altimeter/compass/thermometer/vegetable-slicer-dicers, and the barometer has been consistently rising ever since we arrived at camp! The apparent elevation is now 10,250, down 400 feet from when we arrived! Neither of us can comprehend how the weather can be anything but perfect, and the conversation in camp even deteriorats to a discusssion of whether barometric pressure makes any difference to the weather in Alaska ("the mountains make their own weather, etc. . . . ") We are starting to lose it.

May 13, 7:00am: We rise to weather that exactly mimics the morning before - generally clear, but with a solid bank of dark gray clouds moving in from the south. Yesterday this soon developed into an all-day snow storm. If we were going down, we needed to get on with it before the couloir closed below us. This is one of the peculiar challenges of this climb - although the initial couloir is technically the easiest part of the climb, it looms large in the planning and logistics. Climb it at the wrong time of day or too soon after a big snow, and you might die. Getting stuck above it waiting for a big dump to consolidate could make you very hungry, thirsty, and frustrated.

We stand around a while considering all the pros and cons, then reluctantly start down. Someone jokes that the weather will now certainly take a turn for the better. A scant hour and a half later, we are back at camp 1. The clouds have dissipated, the sky brilliant with sunshine, and we are embarked on one of the best weather periods ever experienced in the Alaska Range. We briefly discuss going back up, but the momentum is gone. By the time we've recovered our cache and repacked, someone remarks that the sun is now on the couloir with a vengeance. Why don't we just spend the rest of the day here, and go down in the late evening? Seems like a good idea, so we set up the tents to get out of the sun and get ready for yet another nap. This is turning into a very relaxing vacation. Why go to the Caribbean to lie on the beach when I can log 12-14 hours of sleep a day in the Alaska Range?

By the time evening arrives, someone notes that the camp is now fully set up, and it would be a pain to pack it all up and carry it down for only a couple of hours, then have to set up again - why don't we wait until morning, when the couloir will be optimally frozen?

May 14, 5:00am: Up early with visions of rapid unplanned descents dancing in our minds. We fix a belay/top rope for the top chimney, then unrope and move cautiously but steadily downward on good snow. We reach the glacier in about 2 hours, grab our skiis and the other junk we left at the bottom, then head down to base camp. The plan is to ski back toward KIA (Kahiltna International Airport, or Denali Base Camp) as far as practical that day. For once things go according to plan. We drop off the Thunder Glacier, then turn right onto the Kahilta Glacier, headed for the south fork. This route puts Mt. Foraker to our left and all the sub buttresses and ridges of Mt. Hunter to the right, and is easily the most spectacular ski tour I have ever done. We make about 5 miles and put in a nice camp on a level area of the Kahiltna to watch the sunset and enjoy the evening.

May 15: On to KIA, arriving about noon. Finding the air strip doesn't take any sophisticated navigation - planes are arriving and leaving at about 2 minute intervals, and the valley reverberates with constant engine noise - a regrettable result of the fact that easy access is thus rendered for us and the hundreds of other climbers in the park. Chris is able to get immediately onto a plane headed for Talkeetna. The rest of our group waits for a shuttle to the Ruth Glacier. While waiting, we observe two parties doing their final packing and eventually departing on the long trail toward the West Buttress of Denali. It becomes obvious to the most casual observer that party A has never skiied roped before, nor had any experience with sleds. As they start down the initial slope tied in at about 15-foot intervals, their sleds predictably slide around them and tangle in their feet, resulting in a tangled heap of climbers, packs, and sleds reminiscent of a Keystone Kops scene. Party B has some seriously overweight people, and at least one who does not know how to tie into the rope. We are flabbergasted but try our best to avoid showing it. However, when I turn to look at the rangers who are also watching the spectacle, the look on my face must betray my thoughts, because one says simply "We've seen much worse than that." Apparently a West Butt climber stepped out of the plane once wearing wing-tip oxfords, explaining that he had "supergaitors" to go over them. These proved to be plastic bags.

By 6:00p after a spectacular shuttle flight ($75, well worth it) we have a new camp set up at the base of the Moose's Tooth, hoping to start up the West Ridge tomorrow. There are several other tents in place and we soon meet the residents. It turns out that everyone there has some connection to our party; either we share mutual friends or know each other by name already. I had never met Brian Cabe, but we had exchanged e-mail just before the trip! Brian had just come down from the Moose's Tooth, and reported the conditions as abominable. I climbed it in bad conditions 5 years ago, and wasn't interested in repeating the experience, so we opted for plan B (or is it C or D by now?)

May 16: Ski to the Mountain House in the Don Sheldon Ampitheatre where there is another air strip that rivals KIA. Continue to a high camp on the glacier behind (West) of Mt. Dickey.

May 17: Route finding is no longer obvious on this "regular route" on Dickey. The approach we are using is falling a bit out of favor, due to serac fall danger and a proliferation of crevasses. We are well warned about the objective hazards, but are getting tired of failure - we need a summit. The route to Pittock pass and then up the south ridge turns out to be a great antidote. It's a perfect day (again), the snow is crisp and steep, the seracs and crevasses we must thread are picturesque, and by noon we are reveling in a nearly unbelievable summit view. The Moose's Tooth is in profile to the NE, and Mts. Hunter, Huntington, and Denali are arrayed in a broad panorama in the direction we climbed. Surely there can be few better summit views in the range, or even in the world. We descend to camp after an hour or so on the summit, then pick up the camp and ski back to the landing strip below the Mountain House. We wait for a promised flight until 8:00p, then give up and begin preparing camp. As soon as the platforms are dug and the stove started, the plane arrives, and we are shortly back in Talkeetna. Now for priorities: let's see, there's beer, food, and a shower, in that order.

May 18: After the shuttle back to Anchorage, the team scatters to the four winds, each pursuing their own priorities - Rich grabs an early flight back home to Santa Fe, Sam goes to visit a friend in Anchorage, and Lynn and I rent a car and head for Seward, simply because we've never been there.

May 19: We take an all-day tour on a tourist boat to Kenai Fjords Nat'l Park, seeing orcas, otters, sea lions, and lots of cool birds. Lynn loves it; I'm a bit seasick. As the boat cuts it's engines at the far end of the tour to float and wait for the glacier to calve off into the ocean, one of the boat crew asks where I'm from, then says "Well, you sure don't have any glaciers down there, do you!" He's right, we don't, but I still have a hard time begin totally enthralled by the spectacle for some reason. Fortunately we had paid for the "all you can eat buffet" on board. After two weeks on freeze-dried, we get our money's worth. The staff must have thought we don't have food in New Mexico, either.

May 20: Alex Lowe is in Anchorage to give a slide show. In shameless hero worship we acquire an authographed poster and have photos taken with him, then attend his slide show on his Baffin Island climb. An excellent show (and I have high standards for such). We learn that he was on Mt. Huntington while we were on Hunter. There were other big names in the Range this season as well - our pilot brought food to Jim Bridwell on our flight to the Thunder Glacier, and I noticed a duffle in the storage shed with Jim Donini's name on it. With the weather we had, these guys probably got up some impressive stuff. For our part, we had the disappointment of an objective not climbed, but the trip was so perfect in all other respects that it is hard to call it anything but a success. Good weather, good companions, good climbing and skiing, awesome scenery and photography, and we met some great people. It doesn't get much better.

Synopsis and observations:

Five climbers reached ~11,250 ft on the SW buttress in 9-1/2 hours of climbing spread over 6 days. Skied with sleds back to Denali Base Camp on SE Fork of Kahiltna, where transport was arranged to the Ruth Glacier, base of Moose's Tooth. Moved camp to 6750' on west side of Mt. Dickey, which 4 of us summitted May 17.

The SW ridge of Hunter is a beautiful but challenging climb. The first few ascent parties established 3 camps on the ridge; however, our party did not consider carrying full packs to the third camp a reasonable option, due to the technical difficulties and snow conditions. A very capable party able to pack light could clearly pull this off. If we attempt it again, we'll probably opt for a snow cave bivouac as high as practical, in hopes of accomplishing a summit push in two days from the notch at 10,700'.


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