American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East Face of Mount Huntington

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

East Face of Mount Huntington

Robb Kimbrough, Colorado

EVEN THE BAD WEATHER doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm as John Tuckey and I arrive in Talkeetna on April 13. After all, we are here to make our bid for the big time. Throughout our climbing careers we had always been content to do the established classics, such as the previous year when a month of very enjoyable climbing had seen us up the southeast ridge of Foraker and the Cassin Ridge of Denali. Our success and style on these routes convinced us that we were now ready for a noteworthy first ascent. Our goal this year was the central pillar on the east face on Mount Huntington.

Bad weather keeps us in Talkeetna for a few more days and we begin to worry that someone might climb the route before us. After dreams of the route all winter we are anxious to give it a try. At last the weather clears and off we fly. My steely resolve turns to mush with our first view of the Ruth Gorge. Nothing but huge granite walls plastered with snow and ice. Doubts creep into my head, but I push them away after deciding that I had been climbing other people’s routes long enough.

We land at the base of Mount Huntington’s north face and set up shop. After several days of bad weather, it finally clears and we head off with all of our gear and ten days of food. The climb up to the Rooster Comb-Huntington Col, which we thought would take about six hours, turns out to be a twenty-hour ordeal of “swimming” up through waist-deep, steep-to-vertical, unconsolidated snow. After a night on the col, we head down towards the Tokositna Glacier in a white-out. We spend nine hours groping through rock bands before arriving at the bottom, exhausted, wet, and thinking that this was a bit much for just the approach.

After three more days of unsettled weather, it finally comes: a morning so clear that we have no choice but to start climbing. We leave our tent and one day’s food behind as we plan to return to the Tokositna via Huntington’s southeast ridge. The end of the first day finds us bivied on a tiny ledge chopped out of the ice at the top end of the initial left-leaning ramp. Much of the climbing was through unprotectable soft, deep snow and we are both exhausted and disheartened.

The morning comes and I discover the glory of climbing on an east face. The sun is bright and beautiful and my spirits rise with the temperature. If you could figure out how to bottle the feeling the sun gives you after an open bivouac, they would probably make it illegal. The day is spent climbing through difficult mixed ground as we head up and right towards the ridge. After another night on a tiny, hacked-out ledge, we finally gain the ridge crest. It is great to be on the ridge at last but we again encounter endless deep snow. John’s route along the side of the ridge looks like a tunnel in an ant farm.

Progress is slow but by late morning the next day we are at the base of the 800-foot buttress that is two-thirds of the way up the pillar. We set about trying to find a line up the buttress, but after several pitches we have had no luck. From the glacier it looked as if there were snow and ice runnels that we could connect together, but all we find now are pitches of steep rock with hanging belays. The “runnels” are nothing more than a thin plastering of snow. We have brought a substantial amount of rock gear, but it seems as if it would take a full big-wall rack to climb this in a reasonable amount of time.

With darkness and snow both falling, we rappel down and chop out a cramped ledge under an overhanging rock. The weather, route, ledge and dwindling food supplies all lead to really low morale. It stops snowing during the night but even the sun cannot work its magic this time. We spend another half day searching for a route on the other side of the buttress, but still no luck. There might be a line, but we can’t find it.

We decide to give it up and start the long traverse back around the base of the buttress. We join the 1980 British route and climb the couloir that leads past the buttress, ending in a bivouac at the top of the couloir that takes our last meal. All that is left now are a few odds and ends.

The next day we traverse around to the south ridge and follow it to the summit, arriving in an almost total white-out. It somehow seems appropriate that we won’t even get a view from the top. To reach the summit of Huntington is a definite triumph, but it is somehow anti-climatic because of my hopes and dreams for the route we had tried. In my quest for the route I have forgotten the mountain and what should be a moment of joy becomes just a time to turn around and start down.

We wait out a stormy night a short way below the summit before continuing down. Very poor visibility makes route-finding through the hanging glacier a hit-and-miss proposition; night finds us still on the glacier. We are finally able to dig a cave and use the last of our fuel to melt snow. The weather improves the next day and by mid afternoon we reach the basin on Huntington’s southwest side. From here a moderate 1000-foot couloir will take us to the Tokositna. It finally seems over.

Over is just what I want it to be. I have always really enjoyed climbing, but not this time. The constant pressures of difficult climbing, exposed bivouacs, dealing with the unknown and generally feeling strung out had taken the fun out of this. To top it all off we hadn’t totally succeeded. I guess I am just not cut out for this extreme of climbing.

We cross the glacier in the basin and head down the couloir, with John going first. A couple of hundred feet down the couloir is a 100-foot headwall and when John reaches the lip of it he begins to set up a rappel. As he searches for anchors, I continue down in his steps.

Suddenly I hear a yell and turn around to see John disappear. The snow he was on had caved off and carried him over the headwall. I brace for the shock but the rope just picks me off my feet. I feel myself tumbling down to the headwall and launching out, but then I black out.

I awake to the sound of John calling my name as he scrambles up the snow to me. I know who I am, but not where I am or what has happened. It takes several minutes of my asking questions and John’s giving answers before I become coherent. My first realization is that my right ankle is badly broken. My second is that help is a long way away.

John seems mostly unhurt, so after splinting my ankle and getting me into my sleeping bag, he heads the mile up glacier to the base of the Rooster Comb-Huntington Col to retrieve our tent and food. When he returns he sets up the tent, moves us in, and fixes our first real meal in a couple of days.

The next day John first moves camp and me a couple of hundred feet to an area less exposed to avalanches and then we take stock. There are people on the other side of the col, but they don’t know where we are. We lost three of our four ice axes in the fall and we have about two and a half days of food and some fuel.

Since John feels he can cross the col alone to get help, the next morning he heads off and I settle down to wait for a few days. I while away the day until late afternoon when I hear someone outside the tent. I open the door to see John coming slowly towards me. His first words are “I couldn’t do it.”

As he collapses into the tent, John tells me of the attempt. He had found an easy way to the top, but when traversing along the crest he again found treacherous soft snow. When attempting to get below some very bad snow, everything came loose and he tumbled 1000 feet back to the Tokositna. He lay unconscious at the bottom for several hours and awoke disoriented, suffering from a concussion. After some time he took stock of his situation and came back the mile to the tent. Looking at the rock bands he had tumbled through, I am amazed he is alive.

John is still moving slowly the next day, but wants to give it another try. The last ice axe was lost in his fall but he feels he can still climb up our side of the col and use flares and a whistle to catch someone’s attention below. He sets off again but at the end of the day returns with more bad news. He had made it to the base of the col, but when he sat down to rest he had passed out and slept the entire day. Neither of us had realized how much he was still suffering from his fall.

As John tells his story, things look really bleak. It is very hard to be passive and just sit around and wait to be found, but all we have done so far by taking an active approach is make things worse. As the evening rolls on, John seems to recover from his concussion. His speech returns to normal and his usual spark is showing. We decide to move camp to the base of the col to save John the extra two miles a day of travel. We are basically out of food and don’t know how many times he will have to climb the col before he gets someone’s attention.

We are blessed with continuing good weather, so the next day John packs up his personal gear and heads up to the base of the col. There he stamps messages in the snow, clears a tent site, and drops off his gear before starting the climb, using a snow shovel for an axe. Meanwhile, I pack up the rest of our gear and spend the rest of the morning crawling up the glacier.

After setting up camp, I collapse into the tent. Once I hear lots of yelling but can’t tell what is going on. John returns that evening feeling that he might have been noticed by someone, though he couldn’t tell for sure because it is so far down the other side to the glacier. Nonetheless we celebrate with a cup of tea, a real luxury since we don’t feel we can waste fuel to boil water.

John heads to the col again the next day. I am going through my daily routine of melting snow on the rainfly when I hear the sound I have been waiting for: a plane! I look up to see Doug Geeting’s plane come over the col and I begin to wave the rainfly in the air. As Doug circles in acknowledgement, I laugh and yell hysterically. What a relief! Doug circles long enough to see that John gets down from the col safely and then flies off. When John gets to the tent, this time we are both all smiles. A helicopter arrives a few hours later and we are off to Anchorage. It is the first time in my life that I have looked forward to hospital food.

Since my return from Alaska I have had time to think about the climb. Even before the accident I had pretty much decided that climbs like that were not for me. I don’t really feel that the accident was related to doing a difficult new route, since it happened on easy ground on an established route. There is no doubt that being a party of two in an isolated area made the situation worse after the accident, but a party of two is probably the only way to do the route.

When I am able, I hope to climb again. But when I do go back into the mountains, I doubt if it will be to climb isolated, difficult new routes. Climbs like that should be left to those who enjoy them. I will return to the mountains to find the beauty, challenge, and close friendships that I have always enjoyed in the past.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

New Route: Mount Huntington, 3731 meters, 12,240 feet, via a new route on the East Face; summit reached on May 1, 1983 (Robb Kimbrough, John Tuckey).

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