Mount Hunter’s Southwest Ridge
The last few yards my screaming lungs could not keep up as I raced to the summit snow, capping Mount Hunter. Hunter, little brother to Mount McKinley, towered over a vast landscape of rock and snow. McKinley would have bested Hunter by 6000 feet, but today, as most days, it was lost to the clouds. We were as high as we could go; the pathway that drew us from Oregon had at last vanished into thin air.
We laughed and whooped, slapping each other on the back. For two-and-a-half weeks we had been striving towards this moment: on skis, snowshoes, and crampons. All the others had been here before. Jeff Thomas had a passion for collecting information and finding new routes. Alaska’s pioneering and exploration had always held a particular fascination for him. He had first seen the southwest ridge of Hunter two years earlier from Mount Foraker and from his vantage point fifteen miles away had pieced together a probable line of ascent. Malcolm Ulrich, veteran of several Alaskan climbs, found the idea of a long ski approach and virgin climb very exciting. His sober, dry humor kept us laughing at sodden moments. My husband, Alan, loved exploring remote new areas. Bushwhacks seem to be his specialty. Certainly an expedition from 600 to 14,000 feet covering roundtrip 150 miles would allow us to become intimately acquainted with the ice-bound peaks of the Alaska Range. I had been drawn by the same reasons and welcomed the chance to escape hectic urban life for basics.
Off to the south, the Kahiltna Glacier wound through the mountains into a broad valley where a river flowed back and forth like a lazy ribbon. When we first began, we wandered up the valley on skis under gray skies. Light rain and wet snow shrouded the mountains, but one day a vague shadow appeared in front of us, growing closer and closer until finally we could see it was a long wall of snow and rock barricading the valley, stretching four miles from one side to the other. I had never seen anything as awesome as the Kahiltna Glacier.
Thirty-five miles of glacier stretched out in front of us. We followed it into the heart of the mountains; on the eighth day left the main glacier. With cold toes inside dank boots, we skied up a side glacier as it snaked back into an icy amphitheater beneath the southwest ridge. The cirque was bounded by Mount Hunter to the north and east; “Thunder Peak” (10,920 feet) cast its shadow from the south. Here we would find a cache of food, climbing equipment, dry socks and relative security. With little left in our packs save a handful of food and a cup of fuel, I hoped our supply of goodies was not buried.
Alan had described the cirque as safe from avalanche because of its size, almost a mile wide, but why then had he and Mal so named “Thunder Peak” when they were here last spring if not for the rumbling loads of ice that frequently crashed down its precipitous walls? The further up the cirque we skied, the more apprehensive I felt. Signs of the cache kept eluding me and I began to realize how big this “pocket” glacier was. Eventually Alan let out a whoop and took off flying for a little huddle of red with a willow-wand flag. We had arrived at Base Camp.
We spent four days eating, reading, and sleeping. We dried our boots, filled our stomachs and slowly turned our thoughts to Hunter. The objective was to climb the southwest ridge, apparently never before tried. By following a long couloir, we could gain the ridge crest at about 9500 feet. The crux appeared to be halfway, a mixed snow and rock buttress. We planned to go light with two climbing ropes and food for eight days, but thought it would go in four.
The weather was difficult to read and put us off a couple times. Finally one morning Jeff poked his head out and said, “I still can’t tell … let’s go anyway.”
For 2500 feet we went up the steep couloir, sweating and cursing the packs. Slippery clods of snow packed under our tortured feet. The couloir wound neatly around the upper rock bands and set us upon the ridge crest as the sun went down.
The thousand feet we gained the second day were on the hard, brittle ice of the slope above Col Camp. On easier ground we had crevasse problems and spent time extricating Malcolm from one.
The next two days in succession we teetered up the ridge on front points. It appeared deceptively easy until the top two inches of snow was swept away to reveal boiler-plate ice, but it was best to have the snow obscuring what I did not want to see too clearly.
We found we could stick to the ice and skirt the rock we had seen from below, but above this the easy ground we kept hoping for never came, just more ice and confusing boulder problems frozen in the ridge. Imperceptibly the sun moved closer to Foraker and the air cooled. Each time I moved, it took longer to warm up, shorter to cool off. By evening of the third day, we were in the middle of the ice-rock buttress. No way to descend without losing everything we had gained, no fixed-line security. Go for broke? Who wants to sit on a pigeonhole ledge all night! We talked ourselves into another pitch. Incredulous, Jeff found a boulder to bivouac under, the only such place on the ridge and this one with room for a banquet.
After hours of fumbling around before I could lie down, the Northern Lights flared, lashing curls of luminescent color. The moon rose and shone over the most beautiful mountains I have ever spent a night in.
Ten more pitches on the ridge next day and we were off the ice. We made another open-air bivy on a snow platform, but the weather was changing and by morning spindrift was everywhere. Churning clouds below us threatened to consume us and sent swirling fingers of vapor clutching at the ridges. This was our summit day. The amount of food left dictated we do it now or go back down. From below we had estimated four days to get to the top and back, but we were still headed up on the fifth. We now began to chant in earnest an Alaskan formula: “When in Alaska, multiply by four.” This went for distance, time, and quantity. So far we had underestimated almost everything including the brittle ice that lay beneath the innocuous snow.
Blue ice glistened above and my heart sank at the thought of more ice. Luckily we could weave around it, skittering up firm, crusty slopes the last 1500 feet to the south summit.
A whole new world existed on the other side. Vague and indistinct, fabled peaks rose out of the ice and rock below: Moose’s Tooth, Huntington, and humble P 12,380 which Mal and Alan had climbed the year before. McKinley was lost in the clouds and somehow that was fitting.
We were only a short time on top before we scuttled back to High Camp. As the weather showed signs of further deterioration, we dug a snow cave and spent the night in relative comfort.
We emerged next morning from the warm, humid environment of the snow cave to enter blowing snow and chaos; with only two days of food remaining we started down. When I thought about how far we had to descend, I felt panic but taking it one step or one rappel at a time, it was possible to cope with.
Four frail humans huddled around a screw, all connected to the icy ridge crest in uncomfortable stances, stamping feet to shake up the blood. Alan was first down and chopping bollards all day. I helped him string ropes and watched as he disappeared into the gloom, two dark ropes engulfed in the obscurity of blowing snow. All day we fumbled with mittened hands, concentrating on ’biner formulas, trying not to make mistakes.
Slowly and carefully we made our way back down the ridge to Camp II. By late afternoon the sky had cleared and having descended this much of the climb, we all breathed a little more easily. We spent the night at old Camp II and nerved ourselves for the final obstacle: backing down the couloir.
The day began innocently enough in bright sunlight, but worrisome clouds wisped around the ridges and licked at “Thunder Peak,” then rose, not quite dissipating. By the time we began our rappels on the ice slope above Col Camp, the snow started to fall in big flakes. Buoyant feelings foundered and my grim thoughts matched the sullen weather. Gone for me was any remnant of euphoria or lightness. The gray swirling snow was oppressive and evil. We stopped for a moment at the old camp on the ridge crest at the head of the big couloir, tempted to stay, but the lure of being off the mountain that night and fear of an enforced stay hurried us on.
Two more rappels gained us entrance to the couloir; from there we descended roped and belayed. We leapfrogged 300 feet at a time before placing a fluke in the rotten snow and letting the other pass. As I played out rope to Alan, light powder-snow sloughs spilled over us like waves of water washing around our chests and gave us a panicky feeling of suffocation. Though terrified, I knew that with luck we could get down. With tenuous control over the situation, we hugged the walls and crossed main runnels quickly.
The hourglass of the couloir was the worst point. Twice in ten minutes we had seen monster avalanches scour this funnel. We could only hope that Mal and Jeff, below us and out of sight, had gotten through fast enough. When we entered the hourglass, Alan and I pulled up our anchors and raced downward. We were almost out of the main track when a huge load of snow hit, sweeping us 500 feet before spitting us out on the avalanche cone at the foot of the couloir. Shaken, but unscathed, we stumbled back to camp to find Jeff nursing a twisted ankle. He too had ridden an avalanche.
We had taken the risks of climbing light and had succeeded, but the climb left me feeling humbled. This time the mountain had been benevolent.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Alaska Range.
New Route: Mount Hunter South Peak, 13,966 feet via the Southwest Ridge, April 16 to 22, 1978, summit reached on April 20 (whole party).
Personnel: Alan and Shari Kearney, Jeff Thomas, Malcolm Ulrich.