A McKinley Traverse via Reality Ridge
VISIONS of spectacular mountain spires, steep clean ice, Yosemite-like granite and new routes in an alpine setting filled my mind as I started planning another Alaskan expedition. The south side of McKinley with its incredible array of jagged peaks seemed like a likely place to look for this ideal climb. A visit with Brad Washburn at the Boston Museum of Science and a search through his photo files helped pinpoint good possibilities. As the winter wore on, my temporary inability to climb due to a knee operation somehow made me more confident and summer plans grew ambitious. Even memories of past expeditions did nothing to shake these pleasant fantasies.
After countless flat tires on the Alcan, Henry Florschutz, Angus Thuermer and I arrived at the Anchorage Airport on June 16 just in time to pick up our fourth expedition member, Lincoln Stoller, who like Henry and me, was a veteran of our 1973 Fairweather climb. (See A.A.J., 1974, pages 19-22.) Two hours’ drive north of Anchorage took us to the Alaskan frontier town of Talkeetna where we met our bush pilot, Cliff Hudson. He was confident of finding a landing place for us on the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier.
After two days of anticipation, packing and waiting, the weather cleared enough on June 18 for us to be flown in. Cliff Hudson took Henry and Lincoln first, returning within an hour and a half for Angus and me. We should quickly get our gear aboard, he shouted, since clouds were already moving back in on the Ruth.
Barely off the ground, Cliff asked me to pay up the whole round-trip bill for the group in advance. Cliff assured me that my traveler’s checks were okay if I would endorse them while we were flying in. Apparently Cliff Hudson had just gotten his first view of what we had in mind to climb and had decided it would be prudent to collect now. I spent the next 15 minutes awkwardly signing some 30 or more traveler’s checks on my lap.
When the plane turned the corner of the West Fork, a queasy feeling hit my stomach. Steep walls and fluted ridges rose up at unbelievable angles in numerous thousand-foot sweeps. All were plastered by huge hanging glaciers, menacing cornices and weird snow formations. I was mentally and physically overwhelmed by what I saw. It was hard to find courage and strength when confronting such an awesome adversary for the first time. Flying in, unlike a slow overland approach, allowed us no time to adjust to the massive scale of the new environment. My fantasies were suddenly dispelled by the stark reality of the frozen landscape.
It wasn’t long, however, before we were reconnoitering to determine which ridge we should attempt. Our intention was to do a traverse, climbing semi-alpine style, i.e., fixing and cleaning the climb in sections so we could use our limited supply of rope and hardware several times over. After a rather spirited debate, we chose the unclimbed western leg of the Southeast Spur as our initial objective. This leg rises out of the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier directly across from the west ridge of Mount Huntington at an altitude of 7500 feet and climbs to 13,100 feet before joining the Southeast Spur.
Two days of easy ferrying across the Ruth brought us to our Base Camp site which was set up at an elevation of 7900 feet at the foot of the western leg. The first stage of the attack was to climb and fix ropes where needed up to the ridge crest at 10,370 feet. During the 20 difficult days that followed before we finally reached the Southeast Spur, this became our “Reality Ridge.”
We got off to a rather demoralizing start on June 21. With the temperature above freezing, snow conditions on the initial slopes were so rotten that in over two hours barely one pitch was climbed with Henry breaking through to his neck at times. The snow had no consistency, but rather was made up of what seemed like millions of small marbles stacked upon each other. We decided then that climbing at night in colder temperature with our small Sherpa showshoes would make for faster going. (We had not worn snowshoes the first day due to the steepness of the face and the interspersed rock and ice.) The next three evenings were a repetition of each other. We would awaken each night about nine P.M. only to glance out at a dreary whiteness and the continued falling of heavy wet snow that made climbing impossible.
On the evening of June 24, we rejoiced in the first clear skies of the expedition. Two of us led, fixing ropes, while the other two followed with loads. The climbing on this initial section consisted of steep snow mixed with varying amounts of easy rock and a few little gullies of ice. June 27, moving time, turned out to be the finest evening thus far. The air was crisp, cold, calm and clear, making the climbing in the twilight of the Alaskan night almost magical. At about 9600 feet I turned around to see the moon rising above Mount Huntington while the first orange rays of morning began striking its upper half. At the same time, I could watch the last subdued pastel colors of sunset disappear off the west side of Mount Hunter. This scene alone would have made the climb worthwhile, but it was only a preview of greater glories to come.
The next few days were spent at Camp I, which was set up on a scenic flat spot at the beginning of the ridge crest proper. The last of our supplies were ferried up from a cache a thousand feet below. On June 29 in unusually warm and stormy-looking weather we started to fix the pitches above, which consisted of traversing the ridge over a small hump. In horrendous snow conditions I took nearly four hours to lead two pitches of steep snow interspersed with ice but finally had to call it quits in what had become a full scale blizzard. Fifteen minutes later we were snugly curled up in our two bomb shelters.
By the next evening the storm had blown itself out. Henry led past our previous high point, over the small hump, and back down to a spooky little col that was meringued by large cornices and snow sculptures but offered a good spot for the tents. For the first time we were in an excellent position to view the next thousand vertical feet of the ridge, which was steep and beautifully corniced most of the way with many sections having extreme knife edges. A tight notch appeared at 10,800 feet whose back side consisted of a rock wall capped by steep ice that leveled out to a small col at 11,150 feet.
The first bit of climbing out of our “meringue” camp involved traversing on steep ice beneath some menacing cornices and then up onto the ridge crest, which was so narrow that we could straddle it and look down on both sides some 2000 feet to the glacier below. Memories of photos I had seen of the Southeast Ridge of Dhaulagiri came to mind. While Henry and Angus pulled the old anchors and ropes, Line and I led on, having to cut through a cornice and drop down to the other side of the ridge when our side suddenly slid off into a void. A little further and we were back onto the 45° to 50° face of the ridge’s east side. It was straightforward climbing and traversing on ice overlaid with about a foot of snow. Placing anchors here for the ropes was a tedious job of digging away the snow and trying to get a screw into the often brittle and rotten ice that lay beneath. The last part before the notch was easy rock, but rotten snow lay over it.
On the evening of July 3 under an incredibly clear and cold sky, Line and I packed camp, ascended the ropes and reached the notch after a frustrating battle with substanceless snow. Our personal gear was dumped into a bivy bag that we suspended from a couple of good nuts so we could pack up the rope and hardware. A rope was then fixed on which Line rappelled out of the notch by way of an ice gully. While I had visions of freezing to death in this exposed notch, Line tensioned around to a rock face and competently self-belayed himself diagonally upward, chopping ice from holds as he went. I followed on Jiimars, realizing immediately that the pitch would be too difficult to follow in its present form with a pack. I clipped my Jiimars onto the haul line and cleaned the pitch by means of a pendulum, making for some exciting rock climbing on this ridge of McKinley.
I then took over the lead and headed up an ever-steepening 300-foot snow runnel that after the first 30 feet turned out to be hard ice overlaid with two inches of snow. It finished with 75° ice before I topped out on the ridge crest. A short descent put us in a beautiful but exposed little col which sank about six inches when we reached it (elevation 11,100 feet). Due to the col’s exposure and the ominous looking weather that seemed to be approaching, we decided that a snow cave was in order. It was the only night we spent in a cave. During the whole time we were on McKinley, we never had weather that was violent enough to collapse our tents. But that evening we celebrated the 4th of July in our snow cave with an instant cheesecake, which seemed then like the ultimate creation of American technology.
The climbing up to Camp IV though spectacular and airy was not too difficult, consisting mainly of diagonaling just below the cornices on the ridge crest. The camp was established under continuing fine weather in a depression amidst large séracs and crevasses atop a hanging glacier at 12,190 feet. This unbelievable glacier completely overhung the east side of the ridge, but we deemed that its size made it safe.
The last thousand feet of the ridge was decorated by the most beautiful and awesome-looking ice-flutings and cornices that I had ever seen. Fortunately, the west side consisted of nothing more than moderate ice overlaid with varying amounts of snow. Line led one rather short but difficult pitch that consisted of 85° climbing on honeycombed ice constructed of large air pockets intermingled with hard ice. Though it was impossible to get an ice-axe shaft fully in and the pick failed to provide anything substantial, the wall was overcome with good balance and chopping. At 12,800 feet our ridge blended into the southern side of the Southeast Spur and it was no longer necessary to fix ropes.
Late in the evening of July 9, we packed up loads for a new cache on the Southeast Spur. An hour or so after leaving our fixed ropes, we joyously stepped onto the 13,100-foot summit of the west leg and our Reality Ridge was completed. The weather was perfect and in the orange light of daybreak the views that stretched out below us were like a fantasy come true. Starting from the north we saw McKinley’s East Buttress, then the steep north face of Mount Dan Beard, the rock spires of the Moose’s Tooth, the granite faces of the Ruth Gorge, jagged Huntington, the mass of Hunter, and then the impressive summit of McKinley itself. A 360° splendor! Surely this is one of the most impressive and beautiful mountain vistas to be seen anywhere in the world.
A day later ropes and hardware were cleaned and dumped as we left the Reality Ridge for good. Our fine weather lasted long enough for us to make one ferry from the Southeast Spur up to the South Buttress and back, carrying all our remaining food. It was incredibly warm and calm. Wearing just a T-shirt at 15,000 feet on McKinley is hard to believe! We were amazed to see huge waterfalls cascading down several thousand feet to the Ruth Glacier from the Thayer Basin. Unfortunately, the weather broke the next night and it was three frustrating, hungry days before we could climb back to our now buried food cache.
From the South Buttress we traversed into the Thayer Basin and then onto the Thayer Ridge at 15,720 feet which we followed to an elevation of 18,100 feet. From there we moved along the north side of the summit cone traversing the upper Harper Glacier to Denali Pass and then dropping down to the 17,200-foot High Camp of the West Buttress where we met other climbers for the first time in 38 days. It was from here that the summit was reached on July 24 by Angus Thuermer, thereby completing all expedition business. We were really surprised by the hordes of people we passed during the one day it took us to descend the West Buttress on our way to the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip. It was a contrast to the solitude of the south side.
Forty-two days after being flown in we found ourselves back again in Talkeetna with its flowing water, lush green grass, warm earth, delicious food and beautiful people from Oregon. It was like a rejuvenating and hallucinatory drug on my weary body as I experienced the highest high I had ever felt, being truly high on life itself. We set ourselves adrift in time, as memories of a fine new route and a circular traverse of McKinley lingered on.
Summary of Statistics.
Ascent: Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, by a new route via the western leg of the Southeast Spur of the South Buttress, over the Buttress, Thayer Basin and Thayer Ridge to Denali Pass and thence to the summit, reached on July 24 by Thuermer.
Personnel: Henry Florschutz, Peter Metcalf, Lincoln Stoller, Angus Thuermer.