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Eroica, Mount Hunter

Eroica, Mount Hunter

Roy Ruddle, Alpine Climbing Group

WHEN JONATHAN PRESTON AND I met for the first time at an Alpine Club symposium in North Wales in November 1988, we were both very keen to visit Alaska. Our friendship and mutual trust were cemented during the first half hour when we found out that we had both attempted a particular new route in Peru on a little known peak called Trapecio, Jonathan in 1988 and I in 1985.

I had been inspired by Mount Foraker’s unrepeated French Ridge in Donald Goodman’s history (AAJ, 1987) and after I had shown Jonathan one picture, that became our objective.

We flew to Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier’s west fork at midday on May 17 thanks to Doug Geeting, John Rowland and Tom Waite, just 36 hours after leaving London; we set about settling into a routine and developing a good feel for our huge objective. To warm up, we chose to attempt Mount Hunter’s west ridge but had to turn back early on the third day when we were confronted by a slope in prime avalanche condition. It groaned and cracked as we stepped on it.

After a day’s rest, we still felt in need of a true shake-down route and therefore skied, under very low cloud cover, into the valley below Hunter’s south face. We remained in our tent by the base of the southwest ridge until seven P.M. on May 24 when suddenly the clouds lifted and exposed Mount Hunter’s 5000-foot south face. On the left side of the face, a slender, narrow line stood out, being both elegant and safe. A series of ice slopes and gullies led to a 1200-foot rock buttress which joined the summit plateau at 12,000 feet at the same point as the southwest ridge. There was no need to confer about the objective as the line appeared out of the cloud. All that remained was to pack our gear and decide when to commence climbing.

The following day the weather was ominously unsettled with alternate patches of blue sky and heavy cloud. Our plan was to leave late in the afternoon and climb as much of the face as possible in the night—“less daylight” would be more accurate—when objective danger would theoretically be at a minimum with the snow and ice harder. At five P.M. we ate a huge meal, packed and waited in a state of readiness in our tent, pondering whether we should go or stay put, bearing the weather in mind. At 9:30 P.M. optimism and “nothing ventured, nothing gained” philosophy won.

We skied up the valley for an hour to a point where we could cut switchbacks up onto an elevated tributary glacier leading to the avalanche runnel at 7500 feet from which we intended to start. Leaving our skis parked upright, I forced the trail up the runnel, starting in knee-deep 30° snow and ending, an hour later, with a struggle through 50° chest-deep powder to a thin ridge crest, which provided instant exposure. Jonathan pushed through and we were soon moving together up perfect névé slopes, crossing to a slender gully between baby séracs on one side and granite outcrops on the other. Together we raced up the gully, pausing briefly at the top to arrange our first belay before negotiating a powdery bulge at 9500 feet. Above, we squirmed our way around crevasses and between séracs to a 40° ice slope leading to the base of the rock buttress. At 5:30 A.M. we were at 10,800 feet.

From our camp on the glacier we had both examined the final rock buttress carefully through my 200mm camera lens. It appeared that we should be able to tackle the buttress directly up reasonably angled snow gullies. Now that we had reached the buttress, we found that the snow in these gullies was a few inches of fine powder, sitting on smooth granite. Accordingly, we traversed right, looking for an alternative. After 150 meters, Jonathan belayed me below a feasible- looking upward line. I tried it and admitted defeat after 30 runnerless feet when the snow disappeared and the rock assumed a rock-climbing-shoe friction structure.

I resumed our crablike movement, willing to traverse all the way to the central sérac band and to tackle that directly, but still hoping for an easy line up. Jonathan found it, and after 150 meters he led up a steep gully to a small col. He sat down on a wide snow ledge on the col. He was about to remove his sack to put a brew on when the ledge fell off and left him dangling on the rope, inspecting what was left of the cornice. Once he was safely connected to rock, I followed. Giving the cornice a wide berth, I led up sustained mixed ground. A combination of solid placements and tiptoeing across slabs brought me to a balancy traverse to the right across a wall, with my front points resting in a horizontal crack and nothing for my hands. Above, I squirmed into a bottomless leaning chimney and nudged my body up, jamming knees and sack in opposition while I sought placements for my axes. There was no room for feet or crampons here! At the top of the chimney, I ran out of rope and adopted a bridged- cum-bi-chacal-pick-belay posture while Jonathan climbed halfway to give me 75 feet more slack. This enabled me to reach a proper belay, bridged across the next groove. Above, Jonathan bouldered over two short overhanging walls before dropping into an icy gully. There he gobbled a full pack of chocolate Hob Nobs in record time to re-energize his exhausted body.

I led the gully, sprinting a few steps at a time and front-pointing on adrenalin to combat my exhaustion, until I ran out of rope. Jonathan continued, past my axe-pick belay, to a small rock outcrop from which I pushed on to the complex forked bergschrund. Unable to exit right, I attempted to pad across the snow bridge covering the left exit. Just as I thought I was on solid ground, a huge hole opened under me—but nothing that a quick foot cum belly flop wouldn’t fix. At 2:30 P.M. I suddenly found myself at 12,000 feet on the summit plateau, a few yards from two domed tents!

As I belayed Jonathan from a snow stake, Dave Karl, a member of a four-man American team repeating the southwest ridge, emerged from a tent and stared at me.

“Where the devil did you come from?” Satisfied that I was not an aparition, he wandered over to share the brew he had just made, most welcome after seventeen hours of continuous climbing.

While Jonathan and I dug our tent in, Dave’s partners returned from a successful bid for the south summit. We retired to our tent to eat and brew endless cups of tea while a snowstorm raged outside. At 6:30 A.M. on May 28, we emerged. The weather was very unsettled and a summit attempt seemed extremely foolhardy. We elected to descend the southwest ridge with the Americans.

A 150-meter traverse brought us to the start of ten abseils. Unfortunately, Cory Brettman was the first man down, which meant that our ropes stretched six feet short of his second and third anchors. (Cory was much heavier than either of us.) Jonathan had the worst job, down-climbing to each anchor, holding onto our rope, while I remained clipped into an ice screw, ready to catch him if he should slip! By the fourth anchor point, we managed to get Cory to reduce his abseil lengths to normal proportions.

After ten hours, the descent was complete. We retrieved our skis and prepared to return to Base Camp. The following evening it began to snow, continuing almost without a pause for eight days. When the weather did clear, the slopes giving access to Foraker’s French Ridge were laden. With each ray of sunshine, avalanches rumbled and we knew that for 1989 at least our chances of repeating that ridge were gone.

At the end of June we returned to England, feeling overjoyed at our ascent of Eroica and planning to return in 1990 to what is, in my opinion at least, the finest place on earth. We were both sad that we were unable to reach Mount Hunter’s true summit, but having joined the southwest-ridge route on the summit plateau, above all of both routes’ technical difficulties, we stand by our claim to have made the first ascent of the south face.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

New Route: Mount Hunter, 4441 meters, 14,570 feet, First Ascent of Eroica on the South Face; Ascent ended at the Junction of the Eroica and Southwest- Ridge Routes at c. 12,000 feet, May 25 to 28, 1989 (Jonathan Preston, Roy Ruddle).