Hunter’s Northwest Face
Get worse, stay the same or get better—Foolproof Denali Weather Forecast
OPERATING THE KAHILTNA BASE Camp for the month of May provided an ideal job between climbs. People from around the world embarked on pilgrimages to the snowy summits of the Alaska Range. Some returned with a better grasp on their abilities, while others returned frustrated, demanding instant taxi service. Each morning as I gathered weather data, the crowned heads of the Alaska Range played with the sky. Every now and then, the sky would clear: Denali dominating the north, the subtle and elusive Foraker to the west, and the north face of Hunter to the east. Of this spectacular horizon, the northwest edge of Mount Hunter drew my attention most. A new line to climb existed, but how safe was it? I added another column to the weather log, noting avalanches and the position of the sun on the diamond-shaped northwest face.
In the third week of June, having observed the face for seven weeks, I felt a reasonably safe route could be climbed in a two-day push to the summit plateau. To share an adventure with a friend is the essence of a fun climb. My partner, Seth Thomas Shaw, is very much a “top-hand” and is always keyed for excitement. We adjusted our sleeping habits in preparation for continuous 24-hour climbing. By the time we were ready to set off, a four-day storm rolled in. Our imaginations had plenty to ponder. It was time to be patient, as impatience brings worse weather.
Jim Nelson and Mark Bebie skied into camp after climbing the Infinite Spur on Foraker, ready to celebrate and reminisce on their experience. The energy of a successful climb creates a contagious exuberance, which coupled with a few glasses of home brew can motivate even the laziest of climbers. Suddenly, the route seemed to be in shape and the weather stabilizing.
By packing light, we hoped to travel more quickly. With food for five days, we had the idea of scaling the face in a 48-hour dash. In the event of inclement weather, we would have to choose between retreat and several low-calorie bivouacs. As the route appeared to be steep, we planned on mixing wall and water-ice techniques for rapid progress. The leader would lead on a single 100-meter 9mm rope with a day pack; the second would follow on ascenders with the heavier pack. The rack was pared to a minimum: 8 screws, 2 pickets, 5 pins, 7 nuts and 20 carabiners. With the light rack we found reliance in each other and our skills; not in a sack of hardware.
The first 1500 feet were (and always will be) susceptible to sérac-triggered avalanches. One must spend little time in the gambling den or great losses can be incurred. A three-tiered bergschrund separated the ice from the snow slope. ST is a magnet on 5.11, yet the loose, overhanging snow had him wriggling like a husky in a snow drift. Several rope-lengths later, we met the first rock band, the designated tea spot. While we brewed, the weather began to deteriorate. The snow cascaded down and doused the tea. A sign to get moving.
Two pitches later, the spindrifts had not abated. In fact, they were becoming large enough to spoil the fun. We found a granite ledge on which to set up the tent. Wet as mops, we flopped into the tent and began rationalizing about the situation. It was best to make no decisions until the storm was over; going down was as senseless as going up. Fortunately, twenty hours later the sky cleared, exposing Denali and Foraker. The sun sneaked around the ridge and began drying us out. Our spirits rose as the crisp blue sky enticed us to further adventure.
The main rock band provided the setting for inspirational climbing in the eight-P.M. sunlight. Three pitches of interesting climbing gave way to the final icefields. Seven 100-meter rope-lengths beyond the bivouac, we stopped for tea. As we savored it, Jim Okonek flew a pattern above the southeast fork of the Kahiltna. Seeing a plane was a welcome sight. Our spirits were boosted. A few more pitches of steep ice and we stood below the cornice. One last unknown before the sanctity of the summit plateau. ST, in a happy manner, tunneled through the big lip.
We set up our tent and promptly were lulled into a deep sleep. Our second bivouac in three days lasted 26 hours as a snowstorm had pinned us. At nine P.M. on July 3, we left the high camp for the final 1300 feet to the summit. The climbing was easy and we enjoyed our position in the Alaska Range. The weather was clear and still. Hunter cast a long shadow to the southeast. On the eve of the Fourth of July, we took a moment on the summit to ponder the Valdez oil spill. The disaster has raised the awareness of oil consumption in our nation, and new guidelines have been established to protect marine environments. Yet, as a nation, our ravenous appetite for oil is slowly but surely taking its toll on the atmosphere. Will the Alaska Range always be blessed with clean air?
The west ridge of Hunter, our descent route, is not a casual snow plod. Tricky crevasses and cornices reminded us that concentration was required as we went downwards. A slip could speed up the rate of descent past the point of enjoyment. Twenty hours after standing on the summit, we bivouacked for the last time, as the glacier was too warm for safe travel. A clear night froze the surface and we marched back to the landing strip. We stood in awe of the mountain, happy to have shared a secret with it.
Summary of Statistics:
New Route: Mount Hunter, 4442 meters, 14,573 feet, via a new route on the Northwest Face, Summit reached on July 3, 1989 (Conrad Anker, Seth Thomas Shaw).