American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Huntington's Phantom Wall

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

Huntington’s Phantom Wall

Jay Smith

“HEY, LADDIE. Had a look lately?”

“Huh?” I moaned, as it felt as if only minutes before I had dropped off to sleep. I pulled my gloved hands out from my armpits and wiggled my cold toes. Then turning to the right, my anchor rope pulled tight and I suddenly remembered where I was. I popped my head out of the bivy sack at once.

Peal Teare was sitting up half out of his sack pointing toward Mount Hunter, an immense cloud now obscuring its summit plateau.

“Hell, doesn’t look too promising now, does it?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said as he fired up the MSR stove.

Our meager accommodations for the night, what there was of them in the Alaska Range during early May, 1990, had been a 3x10-foot slot carved into an exposed snow fin. We were perched 4000 feet above a narrow fork of the Tokositna Glacier on Mount Huntington’s southwest face, attempting a new route on the mountain’s largest and last unclimbed wall. The night, although only five hours long, had been a cold one without the comforts of a sleeping bag and had dragged on with the cold and discomfort seeping into our bones. Before I finally dropped off to sleep, my last memory was of Paul’s toes clicking together as he tried to keep the circulation moving while waiting for the Grabbers to kick in. (These were the chemical heat packs we inserted into our inner boots for warmth. The old lighter-than-sleeping-bag theory! Nice try!)

Within an hour, we had eaten, packed and started the next lead, a 5.10 crack that was packed with ice and now A2. Before I got twenty feet up, it was snowing. By the end of the pitch, the visibility was down to forty feet with the flakes growing in size and volume. One more free pitch on thinly iced rock slabs and Paul had us on the large snowfield at two-thirds height. I continued the next lead without even stopping at the belay and headed for a large rock outcrop for a full rope-length. Small powder sloughs passed to the right and left as I dashed for the security of the stone abuttment. Slamming in a knife-blade, I sat on the snow and brought Paul up.

“I think it’s going to get serious here really fast. What do you think?” he asked as we both turned and stared at the route ahead.

The next section involved traversing the snowfield to the right for several hundred feet before following a 1500-foot fluting which provided drainage for the entire summit snowfield. Just then a powder avalanche shot airborne off an overhang midway across the traverse. We turned to each other and graciously declined the next lead. We gazed leftward to check the options when another slough swept just ten feet beyond us and began to creep our way. Soon we were buried under six inches of spindrift and it was clear this was no place to admire the view. We simul-climbed muy rápido to a larger outcrop in hopes of finding shelter, giving the storm one last chance to stop.

Five minutes of studying the Washburn photo identified the quickest line of descent to Base Camp. To retreat down our line of ascent would be long and dangerous in a storm and place us 2000 feet below and several miles away from camp. No, our best bet was to try to traverse, down-climb and rappel a ramp system which led to the top of the Stegosaurus on the Harvard route. From there it would be about six rappels into the basin we called home. As we discussed, a thunderous roar disrupted our conversation as the largest avalanche yet swept around both sides of our fortification.

“I think we best beat feet out of here while we still can,” suggested Paul.

We began the 2500-foot descent as the storm grew in intensity.

* * * * *

A year later, as we heaped our eight huge mule bags onto the tarmac in Talkeetna, a man carrying a small white poodle strolled out of the Hudson Air Service hangar and stared at our immense pile.

“You boys fly’n into the Kahiltna?” he asked.

“No, we’re going into the Tokositna, Mount Huntington.”

“Well, if ya were goin’ into the Kahiltna, I could fly ya right now, but the Tokositna. Well that’s a bit tricky. Yeh, it’s kinda socked in at the moment. Many of ya?” he asked, eyeing the mountain of gear.

“Just the two of us.”

“Shore have a lot of stuff,” he stated, eyebrows raised.

“We like to travel light. Only the bare essentials.”

Cliff Hudson just shook his head, smiled and said his son Jay would have to fly us in with the more powerful turbo-prop 206 Cessna.

“Come back in the morning and we’ll see what we can do.”

The wings tipped at a dizzying angle before leveling out on the final approach. The view ahead was all rock and ice of the towering walls of Huntington’s west face. No aborted landings here. The narrow cirque left no room for error.

Jay Hudson set us down on the glacier as if he were simply pulling his cab to the side of the curb. Quickly, we unloaded the aircraft and he sped away into rapidly enclosing clouds. We dragged our hefty pile an entire thirty feet before erecting Base Camp. Then, we introduced ourselves to our new neighbors, who were also trying a new route on the hill.

Our previous year’s two attempts on the route had given us much insight as to the snow conditions needed for a successful ascent. Since it had been snowing relentlessly for nearly a month, there was little need to hurry. Avalanches poured down every conceivable path as the sun struck the face for the first time in a week.

Eight days after our arrival in Base Camp, Huntington appeared to be coming into fine form. Yesterday, it had cleared in the morning and we prepared for the route while avalanches rocked the region. By late afternoon, the walls grew silent and we knew that our route had shed its new coat.

The “Phantom Wall,” due to its hidden nature in the confines of a lower fork of the Tokositna, had been overlooked completely, not easily visible from any vantage point. Or perhaps it was because of the approach required to reach its start, 2000 feet below Base Camp, the closest available landing strip. But most likely, its immense size and committing nature had been the greatest deterrent. The 6000-foot funnel-like face would be a death trap if you were caught in its belly during a storm.

We knew that the key to success was to be fast and light, though this time we opted for sleeping bags since the morning air temperature was dipping below -15° C.

At one A.M., we cached our skis after an exciting high-speed chase by headlamp on crusty snow and a crevasse-strewn glacier. Ahead, our track from previous days had been covered by avalanche debris. We tumbled through, made a rappel into a couloir and down-climbed into “Death Valley.” God, what a place! Monstrous cornices perched thousands of feet over this tiny area not much wider than a football field. This was no place to dawdle. We broke out the rope and quickly made for the schrund across thousands of tons of fresh rocks and debris.

The first hard bit had changed radically from a year before. Instead of easy ice to the right of the hanging glacier guarding the entrance to the face, we now had to climb its flank. I swung my picks at the rock-filled, fractured and overhanging ice. With feet scraping on verglas-covered slabs, I wished I had grabbed the screws from Paul before embarking on the “easy” wake-up pitch. My feet popped only four times before the sidewall eased to vertical. I tied off my tools and belayed Paul up. A few delicate moves and he had us on easier ground. Now was our chance to make up for lost time. We simul-climbed unroped up huge gouged grooves in the ice face till our calves screamed for relief.

By ten A.M., we had surmounted one more difficult ice pitch and climbed together across the second snow band to the start of the large rock face at just over mid-height. This section could become a shooting gallery with us being the clay pigeons. We were glad the sun had still not hit its top.

Paul climbed quickly up the black diorite vein which formed the route amongst steep, smooth walls, one tool in ice and the other hand laybacking on some dubious flake. Crampons on edges, then snow, then ice. This was mixed climbing at its best. It was never too desperate, but never with much protection. It called for techniques one could never learn from books. Simply great and all free!

We passed our old bivouac site just after midday. Up a short aid section and then we continued up more mixed ground. Paul shot past and we were soon climbing together again above our previous high point to the wall’s only safe bivouac. Basking in the evening sun on a perfectly sheltered platform, we stretched out, brewed up and feasted on Raman. Just one more day! We weren’t asking for much, just another 24 hours and we’d be done with this mountain.

Crrrack! The sound of cannons popped our bubble. “Bloody hell! Check it out!” Paul screamed as he jumped up for a better view.

“Whoooa!” was all I could manage as we watched truck-sized granite blocks roar down from high off the south ridge. They dislodged all in their path and then terrifyingly engulfed the bottom-most section of our route. It was the only thing, other than us and the sun, that had moved all day. But it presented a convincing argument that Death Valley was no place to gawk.

The dawn was crystaline. Our prayers answered, we were climbing by eight A.M. No packs, no water, a skeleton rack and one Powerbar each. We again climbed 50 meters apart. Protecting only occasionally, we had unquestioned confidence in each other’s judgement and ability. We were a good team, having endured many alpine faces together before.

Miles above, the ice hardened. Our dull crampons and tools forced us to belay. Three more leads up the final flutings placed us on top with a vista for a king. For hundreds of miles peaks rose in the distance and not a single cloud was to be seen. We rejoiced at our luck and the excellent climbing we had enjoyed. Basking in the sun and our glory, we remained thirty minutes before starting down.

The descent went smoothly till a wee landslide missed us by several feet and swept down our next rappel. Increasing our speed tenfold, we were back in camp for supper and our last two beers.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range

New Route: Mount Huntington, 3731 meters, 12,240 feet, Southwest Face, May 20-21, 1991 (Jay Smith, Paul Teare).

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