Hunter’s North Buttress Direct
ABSORBFD in my thoughts, I listlessly watched the craggy peaks go by as Doug Geeting instinctively maneuvered the plane through the passes to the Kahiltna Glacier. I don’t even remember whether the other two in the plane were Americans. Watching the jutting peaks drift by, I imagined myself alone in one of their ice-filled corners, standing on that tiny platform or hanging in that spectacular crack running above that roof. My mind was filled with exploring a big wall alone. Slowly in the last month I had brought myself to this point, with several weeks of running, not just for conditioning but even more for the solitude it gave me and the chance to think. I spent hours poring over photos I had taken a month earlier when Jim Bidwell and I had flown in to check out the buttress. I devoted idle time to going over the route and all the situations I could foresee. Dreamlike, I was soaring through the mountains toward the Kahiltna Glacier, where I would start to climb again. I believe strongly in preparations for a climb, from close route study to one’s personal little rituals. All this was now behind me. I was flying in to solo the north buttress of Mount Hunter, but fate altered this.
After landing on the glacier and waiting until the piles of packs, people and skis were unloaded, I crawled out to be greeted by someone who was possessed by similar madness to what I felt. I dragged my gear out and started setting up my tent. Paul Aubrey had been sending out messages that he was up for something if I needed a partner. I had met Paul a month earlier out here on the glacier during an inhumanly cold reconnaissance of the buttress. At first greeting, I imagine that I was a little cold to him since I was still possessed with the thoughts of being alone. But, as I put up my tent and glanced in turn at Paul and at the towering 4000-foot buttress, the sun melted away my image of being out there solo. I wanted to climb the route and it certainly seemed more likely that I could if I had help. I walked over to Paul and told him that I was ready to start climbing in the morning and that we could ski up to the buttress and discuss the route. After we had a little chance to feel each other out and examine what was expected on the wall, we decided on the partnership. From a couple of mutual friends, I knew that Paul had done some nail-ups in the Valley; technically we could get by. And I didn’t figure that Paul, coming from New Zealand, would be a fair-weather bird in case it got nasty.
We returned to camp for a sleepless night of tea and talk. I packed a food bag and we were ready. We had only one hammock between us. We would chop ledges for one of us, a tiring but warming chore on a frigid night. As it turned out, there wasn’t one natural platform on the whole route big enough to lie on.
We got an early start. Skiing toward the buttress, I could see another party’s porta ledges quietly hanging in the face’s massive darkness. They were trying another start, but it appeared that in several hundred feet they would be joining our route. I wanted to beat them to the big dihedral of the keel-shaped tower, so that we could bivouac somewhere above it. If we got there after them, we would add a whole day to our schedule before there would be an easy place to pass them. As we skied to the bergschrund, two other climbers approached. They were planning another route to the right of the buttress’s nose.
We started up the ice ramps and grooves that laced the first thousand feet. Because I was running out a 300-foot rope, we moved quickly. The ice was moderate to 80° with lots of rock for anchors. At about 1000 feet we found the 400-foot traverse to take us to the base of the “Ship’s Keel,” a beautiful, huge, steep corner. The wall above overhung slightly. We were no longer able to see much of the route ahead as we could on the lower-angled ramps below. The other party that had started the day before was not here. One pitch up the dihedral we found a patch of ice stuck to the rock, big enough to chop a platform where Paul could curl up for the night. I hung the hammock and wrestled off my crampons while standing in étriers. We brewed up and surveyed the difficult rock traverse ahead.
The next morning the tension traverse brought us to the base of the ice tongue. The route was falling into place. From the ground we had not been sure how to gain the tongue. Our discoveries were feeding our confidence. A narrow groove of concrete-hard blue ice ran above to the start of the “Tamara Traverse,” the key to the ice slopes above. Paul had slipped on the traverse lower down and I cautioned him of the outcome of a slip here. The traverse was on 80° ice and the anchors at the end were two screws buried deep in the ice slope’s metamorphic rot. Tediously I worked my way across the spectacular passage. There was a roof above, and the wall below dropped slightly inward. Paul quickly joined me on the icefield and ran the rope to its top as my eyes searched the corners of the awesome shaft that cut through the granite wall above. My mind was somewhat relaxed as I realized that we had finished a major obstacle and that we could not start the shaft till the next day. A hard pitch of mixed climbing brought us to a slope which eased us into the shaft. I fixed a line at its start and rappelled back to our second bivouac. We had several hours of daylight left, but this was the last possible place to stop until the shaft was climbed. The deep chimney twisted upward for 500 feet and I wanted a full day to climb it.
By morning the weather had changed. By midday it would be snowing. I started up the first pitch. The ice was steep: 80° to overhanging. I had never seen ice so steep for such long sections. It was just past vertical for 25 feet and bulged outward at the top. Most overhanging ice I had encountered in the past was airy and brittle, but this was firm up to the bulge. As I moved up the arc, I felt gravity pushing me away from the ice. I had not only to pull up but also push in with my whole body to keep my front points in contact. After a few moves like this, I realized it was ludicrous to try to free-climb. Already high above my last protection, I didn’t know where or how I could get something in before I was over the bulge. I clipped into my Roosterhead and tied off a snarg that certainly would not have held a fall. I moved up alternating from tool to screw until I could reach above the breakover and pull myself onto the friendly 80° ice. I buried a snarg and ran the rope out to the belay. Paul jümared up as I hauled my pack and studied the next pitch. It was steeper and longer, overhanging for 35 feet. The last 15 feet were a frothy, brittle curtain. Luckily a crack that I could reach from the steep ice ran out the left wall. I pulled myself up. Never had concentration made such a deafening roar in my head. I was a shell of forces and movement. My body relaxed as I moved upward on my étriers. Above the bulge, I swung back onto the 75° ice and ran the lead out. My excitement was explosive as I screamed in order to release the fullness. I felt that I belonged there. The next pitch had three steps, each about 20 feet of overhanging ice. The first required some aid but the others moved by quickly as I climbed in a trance. The shaft was the crux of the climb and as I neared its top, my concentration was overtaken by an incredible contentment, a totality of explosive elation and peaceful confidence. Paul came up as I hauled my pack.
“Here, eat one of these,” Paul offered as he handed me a fortune
“Where’d you get this, man? You’ve been holding out on me,” I joked.
Paul confessed that when he watched me pack the food bag, he thought he might starve up there. He had already eaten four bars and started feeling that he had better share the last two for fear of my running out of gas. I chidingly tore open the bar and read my fortune: “You will be successful because you are in love.”
I started up the last thirty feet of the shaft. It had been snowing the whole time we were in it. The sloughs were now beginning to run, bringing darkness as they engulfed me. The short vertical step brought us to another ice band and we headed for the next rock. It was a deep, broken trough. The route-finding would have to be done impromptu as the visibility was poor in the heavy snow. After a couple of pitches up a broken slab, we stopped for our third bivouac, hoping for clearing by morning. I took the hammock and Paul balanced on a very narrow ledge, which took a couple of hours to chop in the armor-plated ice.
The next morning it was still snowing. We were buried by the night’s sloughs. I instinctively entered a deep groove I had glimpsed the day before down to the left. Two pitches later I ran into a roof. A 40-foot pendulum around a corner put me into another groove. It soon angled off under another roof. I nailed up a crumbling white seam, uncharacteristic of the compact diorite around. Several pitches of ice-filled cracks and gullies brought us to the end of this section of rock. We broke out above the storm as we crawled onto the last ice band. Methodically we moved up the slope and chopped out our fourth bivouac below the headwall and the last obstacle of the buttress.
The night was magic. Perched a couple of thousand feet above a sea of clouds, we looked out at the chain of mountain islands. Denali, the great one, was an overpowering presence, its scale misleading in the clarity of the night air. And to the western horizon, miles past Foraker and Crosson, the small cone of Mount Russell rested in its soft blue ocean of clouds. It was clear and cold. We melted snow well into the night, making “tea” from lemon sweets, the only ration we had left after dropping the food bag earlier that evening. It should be one or two pitches to the top of the buttress and then the rest of the day to get down. I crawled into my hammock and sleeplessly gazed out on the surrealistic landscape. I thought of what I’d done to get here, not just in the last four days but in the years past. For some reason, I felt part of some great movement, one of infinite scale, too grand to see but only to feel in the night’s wind. I looked at Paul’s figure curled up inside his sack balanced on a tiny platform. I wondered about his thoughts, something that isolated us. In the vastness in front of me, I felt even more isolated. I was a shell, the same as the figure beside me and the mountains around. I felt an aloneness, my thoughts totally my own, creating a peacefulness of beauty and friendships.
Paul rustled in his sack and I started melting snow for a morning brew. By now the sea of clouds had rolled back. We repacked and started up a series of ice-covered ledges to the headwall under a cloudless sky. I avoided a strenuous-looking squeeze chimney by nailing a thin overhanging crack which took me to the base of an ice-filled corner. The ice was clear and thin. I could see the rock wall through it. The first snarg went in only halfway but carried me another thirty feet to another screw. A break in the left wall took a Friend. It felt good as the last solid protection was sixty feet below, a bashed-in stopper on the overhanging headwall. The ice ran straight up for another 100 feet, thinning as it reached the top. I was getting close. As I moved up, the ice became thinner to where my crampon points were hitting the rock through the half inch of ice. Leaning out, I could see bare rock at the breakover. It was not going to go. Luckily there was another way. To my right ran a horizontal crack to a four-inch vertical crack splitting the wall to the top. From below I had noticed it was full of ice and reserved it as an alternative. After placing a Friend, I jammed out to the right, crampons scraping on the smooth granite. After a fall, I reached the ice-filled crack, sunk in my axe and pulled myself into the spectacular slot. With hands and feet stacked in the narrow ice, I gazed up to its end, and the top. No place to stop! But there was no need to stop. Freedom was my catalyst as I deliberately and methodically made each placement. As I pulled over the top and onto the summit slope, I envisioned a crack like this running for days. Where could I find it? I didn’t want the feeling to stop.
When Paul reached me, I asked him if he wanted to go to the summit of Hunter. The top of the mountain was a mile and a half of steep snow slogging away. And then, the most logical descent would be the five-mile west ridge or the Lowe-Kennedy route. I had intended only to climb the buttress and was glad when Paul agreed to start down. I wanted to see the route again, from a different perspective.
We followed the route back to the “Tamara Traverse.” Rappelling the shaft was airy and brought home the steepness of this section of the climb with most of it hanging in space. At the end of the “Tamara Traverse,” we dropped straight down with four difficult rappels over the undercut wall. One of these rappels was totally free from the overhanging rock, just reaching a stance at the very end of the rope. By late afternoon we were bounding down the slope below the bergschrund to our skis.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Alaska Range, just south of Mount McKinley.
New Route: Mount Hunter’s North Buttress Direct, May 1981 (Paul
Aubrey, New Zealand, and Terry (Mugs) Stump, American).