Hunter’s Diamond Arête
THE WHOLE DAY had been cold, stormy and very unproductive. Three hundred feet of wallowing had been the sum total of our efforts. Dejected and frustrated, Dave and I rappelled back to our bivouac. This was my third time on the Isis face and I wasn’t going down. As Dave and I set up the tent, I silently prayed for clear weather to see our way through this “bad zone.” We were at 11,500 feet on the southeast face of Denali. I knew that if we could figure out a path through the three feet of depth hoar which lay on top of the 55° ice above us, we would be on safe, solid, technical ground. All we needed was visibility. Dave wanted to go down. Years of ski-patrol avalanche work told him that the terrain above us was less than the optimum for two guys trying to do a new route on McKinley.
The morning was crystal clear and we found a line through this frightful terrain, a narrow ice ribbon. During the day, while hanging in belay and watching Dave come up the rope, I let my eyes wander over the expanse from ridge to ridge. Face to face were Huntington, Reality Spur and then Mount Hunter. Its east face instantly caught my attention. An idea flashed. It would be great to do a new route on Mount Hunter!
June 11, 1985. It was three years later. The last two seasons had found me gasping for air on Everest’s west ridge and climbing a wonderful, warm rock tower in the Karakoram. I was back in Alaska now.
I had been acclimatizing and getting into shape on the South Buttress of Denali with Nancy and Randall Feagin. The weather had been foul, the worst in years they say. After 19 days on Denali, I was back in Talkeetna, saying goodbye to the Feagins and hello to Jim and Juanita Donini. During my 48-hour respite from arctic conditions, I performed the obligatory tasks: shower at the Roadhouse, food from every vendor in town and of course drinks at the Fair-view.
With good weather a scarce commodity, Jim and I quickly organized our gear—mine was still drying out at the hangar. Jim needed to purchase a few last-minute items at the Genêt Expeditions store: sun glasses, gaiters, overmitts, etc.
Meanwhile another problem cropped up. After a fly-by made by Jim Okonek, he informed us that a Cessna 185 couldn’t land in the small, tight cirque at the base of the east face of the north peak of Mount Hunter. A helicopter or a Super-Cub were the only options. Fortunately, because of the late spring, Cliff Hudson still had his Super-Cub on skis. No one had landed in this little cirque on the Tokositna and as far as I can tell, no one had ever set foot on the snow at the base of the face. That night, as we dined on moose steaks, Hunter, along with Foraker and Denali, shimmered in the cold twilight of the Alaskan midnight sun.
In the morning, I piled into Cliff’s Super-Cub. How many hours did this plane have on it? Well, Cliff had more and certainly no one knows the Alaska Range from the air better than Cliff. I went in first. It was a spectacular place to be left all alone for a few hours. As I waited for Jim’s arrival, I stared at the face. A sheer rock wall and buttress rose out of this arm of the Tokositna and headed directly for the summit of the north peak. Half way up the 7000-foot-high route, it became an ice ridge, blending higher into the glacial snowcap which adorns Hunter’s twin summits. The lower rock section seemed to be an Alaskan replica of the east face of Longs Peak—the Diamond; hence the name “Diamond Arête.”
Jim and I were ready to roll as soon as the Super-Cub disappeared below the icefall. It was noon on June 11. We were 45 minutes from the base of the route. “My kind of approach,” I commented to Jim. “Just long enough to get warmed up before the spikes go on.”
That afternoon produced five pitches of mixed rock and ice to our first bivouac. As so often happens on big new routes, we underestimated the scale and difficulty of the ground above us. We adopted the standard tactic of the leader hauling his pack on harder pitches while the second jümared. Jim was cleaning the last pitch of the day while I returned to the tent and prepared our first night’s feast, Tartellini with cream sauce.
Day two dawned unsettled. After leading my first pitch of the day up a steep rock step, I set up anchors and started to haul, signaling Jim that he could jümar. As I pulled vigorously on the sack through my single pulley, I suddenly found myself airborne, scraping down the rock from my stance. The anchors had pulled and I had dropped twenty feet into a chimney. Bewildered, I looked up to see that both of the Friends I had placed had come out. Flaring cracks in the frozen rock had loosened under the pressure of hauling. Fortunately, Jim had yet to start, and I promised him to be a good boy and never do that again.
For a number of pitches we traversed an icefield that ended in a steep, narrow chimney system that led up the left side of the rock face. We were on high- quality mixed pitches for the next two days. It was now snowing constantly. Once into the narrowest pitches we had to belay stemmed across the chimney so that the spindrift avalanches could run underneath the belay. Hauling was horrid in these tight slots. On one pitch while Jim was hauling, the pack clipped itself into every piece of protection. Late in the day, I climbed a tedious mixed rotten- rock section which took two hours to lead. By hooking tools in little cracks, I gained a small icefield. Another rope-length up this and it was time to camp for the night. Three hours of chopping a tent ledge on concrete Alaskan ice produced a site. It looked like a good spot as avalanches were running a hundred feet to the north of us while the snow continued to fall. Exhausted from the long day, we brewed up, ate and crashed.
The third day was mostly a loss. As it had snowed hard all night and day, our tent site was less than perfect. Avalanches poured down onto us every thirty minutes. We spent most of the day moving the site fifty feet out of the line of fire. Late in the day we did fix our two ropes above camp in order to get a jump on things in the morning. On the second of these pitches I was trying to finesse my way up an ice-filled dihedral. The ice exploded as I placed my Chacal. I went cascading down the rock and popped onto a badly placed Friend which neither of us had expected to hold anything. I now had more rock to work with and was able to place protection in the newly exposed cracks. As I rappelled back to the tent, I could see that the crux pitches lay just above. A long ice-filled chimney and wall reared above our highest fixed rope. My only concern was whether the ice was thick enough to take protection. So far all the ice over the rock had been very thin.
The fourth day saw us up the ropes and on our way early. Jim’s first lead placed him right at the bottom of the steep ice wall. It took him a long time to set up the belay, much to my consternation. When I arrived at his stance, I understood instantly. It looked like a big-wall belay on the Shield—tied-off knife-blades, brass nuts, runners everywhere. I thanked him for his good judgment in setting all this up as I had a vested interest in the security of the belay for the pitch above.
As happens so often, the crux was in getting out of the belay. Once I was on my way, the climbing was wonderful, steep, but the ice was plastic and thick enough for screws. Hauling was a delight on the smooth ice, in contrast to the nasty mixed terrain of the seventeen pitches below.
We were now at the left comer of the Diamond and entered a new phase of the climb. The remaining belayed pitches were mostly ice covered with snow.
I am sure in drier years this area would have been blue ice. The rest of the day was pitch after pitch of 50° to 60° ice. Late that night we began to chop a tent ledge. At least the 24-hour daylight is a blessing for alpine climbing. It was midnight when we stopped to set up the bivouac. As we set up this camp, our logistical capabilities changed drastically. We had been climbing on two 8.7mm x 165-foot ropes, leading on one and hauling on the other. As I chopped furiously, Jim decided to reset the bivouac anchors. In tearing down the system, he untied and unclipped one rope, believing I was still tied in. Meanwhile, I had untied my end, thinking it was still on the anchors. Jim suddenly fell very quiet. He climbed over to me without saying a word and put his hand on my shoulder, almost paternalistically. “There’s something I have to tell you, Java Man,” he said. My first thought was that he had dropped something—probably the Jümars—but we still had one; no problem. “I dropped the rope. It just slid down the ice like a snake, man. Gone! I thought you were clipped into it.” My only reply was, “I guess we’re going to get up this route because we sure as hell can’t go down.” Sharing the blame 50/50 and knowing there wasn’t a thing we could do about it, we carried on.
Our last day of belayed climbing led us to the ice ridge that runs from the top of the Diamond rock face toward the snow-capped summit plateau. Our main concern was finding a way through the juncture of the snow ridge and the massive ice cliffs that hang off the summit area like icing on a cake. This section proved difficult but not complicated and late on the fifth night we arrived at a bench of snow which became the first camp we could make with the shovel in five minutes. This marked the end of the technical climbing, 4500 feet and 38 fifth-class pitches up.
A long day of taking turns breaking trail up the snow toward the summit of the north peak brought us to about 14,000 feet. It was bitter cold and I had a new problem. Since I had not been able to dry my Goretex down sleeping bag for six days, it had become a frozen clump of garbage. We had given our insulated parkas to Cliff Hudson at the foot of the face. To survive, I spent the night bringing water to a boil, pouring it into a water bottle and shoving it into my bag. How I wished that synthetic bag I had ordered had come on time!
In the morning Jim was feeling much better than I and he broke trail as we headed towards the summit. Our plan was to drop our packs a few hundred feet from the top and scamper up, but when we got to 14,200 feet, winds were howling at 70 miles per hour. Visibility was intermittent and it was frigid. Without hesitation we headed down the start of the northeast ridge, unknown to us and invisible in the blinding, drifting snow.
Our main objective was to stay to the right of the sheer north buttress and to get down out of the winds. Jim had just put me on belay so that I could get through a small crevassed area. Suddenly Jim yelled and jumped out of the way of a slab avalanche which had released on its own from the wind loading. This had to be a dead end. We climbed back up the debris and started down another line on the ridge intuitively. Moments later I watched a fracture line rip out from under my front foot for hundreds of feet in front of me. I watched, almost removed from the reality of it. I turned around to Jim. “Maybe we shovel camp here, huh?” We found a drifted-in crevasse and dug a snow cave. A tent couldn’t have survived the winds even if we could have set it up.
The next day with slightly better visibility we continued, weaving our way down and picking a line in moments of clearing. The Japanese had done this ridge in the mid 1970s in ten or twelve days and fixed almost the whole thing. The terrain was broken but not steep. We did just two short rappels during the descent of the upper part of the ridge. But we didn’t know if we were on route or not. At midday on an icy comer I saw some old fixed line. It was definitely Japanese. At least we were on the right place.
Just below, the clouds socked in again. Good mountain sense told us to wait. We dug a small snow hole and brewed up, playing a waiting game with the weather. All day this continued as we worked on the cave. Late in the evening we had resigned ourselves to spending the night, but at 11:30 Jim took one last look out the door. It was clear! Hurriedly we packed and started down. Progress was quick, but the snow conditions were unbelievable. Three or four feet of unconsolidated snow which had slid down from above lay on top of hard névé.
Somehow it never budged. In just two hours we reached the beginning of the knife-edged ridge that led to the col at 9950 feet. From there we had planned to descend the couloir to get to the Kahiltna Glacier. Traversing the ridge in deep unstable snow seemed ugly and so at three A.M. we started at 11,500 feet to rappel straight off the ridge down to the glacier.
Jim made the first rappel and was unable to find satisfactory anchors. Tired and dejected, he came back up and we called it a night. Once again, I was in a survival situation with my bag. It is the only climb I can remember dreading the prospect of getting into my sleeping bag.
A few hours later we started again, this time trying the ridge. It took me thirty minutes to swim 75 feet through the bottomless snow, all the time watching three-foot fractures slide away from me.
It had to be straight down. With better light, a bit of rest and more determination, I managed to set anchors. With our short rappel capabilities, hardware was scant for the 2500-foot descent. We went off single anchors. We had only thirteen ice screws, adequate singly in good ice, but only one rock anchor per rappel was dubious in rotten rock. Some twenty rappels brought us to a snowfield that looked as if it connected to the glacier below, but it ended abruptly in a 1000-foot vertical drop.
We traversed in horrid deep snow onto a parallel rock-and-ice buttress and continued to descend. The heat of the sun brought the north buttress alive. Avalanches poured right off where we had been shortly before. Falling rock and ice turned everything into a veritable war zone. We were somewhat protected on our buttress. We watched as the whole wet surface of the snowfield we had just descended launched over the lip of the ice cliff and fell free 1000 feet to the Kahiltna. I continued setting anchors, now with almost no hardware.
Late in the afternoon I unclipped to straighten out a rats’ nest in the entangled rappel rope. Just as I unclipped my figure-8, a wet slide enveloped me. I was able to wrap the rope around my wrist twice and hang on desperately. Jim thought I had been swept away until I reappeared looking like Frosty the Snowman. The only time in eight-and-a-half days I had unclipped and I nearly got nailed!
At the next anchor suddenly it felt as if someone had struck me with a baseball bat. A grapefruit-sized piece of ice had hit me on the left side of my skull. I had to fight not to pass out. My arms were partially paralyzed and my speech was slurred. Thirty minutes later I felt strong enough to continue, this time with Jim going first to set the rappel anchors. In just a few more rappels we were very close to the glacier but still cut off by a steep headwall with no visible ledge or cracks halfway down. Jim hung the rope single, hoping to reach the glacier in one last rappel. The rope cleared the bergschrund by twenty feet! We cut off that remainder to secure safe passage down the glacier. Our remaining gear consisted of this 20-foot segment of rope, no carabiners, no slings, no hardware at all! It was nine P.M.
We staggered downhill toward the landing site, almost mechanically, until we encountered an unbelievably breakable crust. This was a fitting end to the struggle to Kahiltna Base. We arrived at one A.M. as the shimmering light of the midnight sun reflected off these glorious mountains. I stared at Foraker. The air almost crackled with the cold dryness of the Arctic air. The infectious thought entered my mind without hesitation: Foraker!
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Alaska Range.
New Route: Mount Hunter, 4442 meters, 14,573 feet, via the direct East Face; descent via the Northeast Ridge, June 11 to 20, 1985 (Jim Donini, Jack Tackle).