American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Count Zero on Huntington

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

Count Zero on Huntington

Clay Wadman, Unajfiliated

In 1991, I SAT IN BASE CAMP with my friends Gordy Kito and Ritt Kellogg while Jay Smith and Paul Teare climbed the Phantom Wall. (See AAJ, 1992, pages 50-58.) We had been stormbound for ten days when they arrived. The weather remained unsettled and we slowly strung out every bit of rope we had. We had the support of a grant from the American Alpine Club Fellowship Fund and the thought that someone was interested in our success pushed us on.

After 27 days on the glacier, we had climbed eleven pitches and fixed seven ropes on a prominent buttress on Huntington’s west face. The climbing was difficult (5.9, A3+) up steep, snow-covered granite. With time we grew to understand the buttress with more detail. It seemed to grow in its beauty as well as its mystery. It was hard to grasp its size or to guess under which snow-laced features we might find a bivouac.

In the end we retreated. I remember watching Ritt’s enthusiasm crash as we returned to camp after pulling the ropes. He had never had a moment of doubt that we would climb the buttress. He always remained quietly psyched, bounding with energy. A sad postscript was Ritt’s tragic death on Mount Foraker this summer. He was a person with a truly good heart. The mountains will miss his laughter.

* * * * *

By May of 1992,I had made all the proper sacrifices: job, relationship with all the usual sort of Mark Twight memorials. All the signs looked bad. It had been a brutal season for Denali. The weather was bad. I felt exhausted and unfit. To top things off, my partner Bruce Miller had smashed his index finger while working on a flagstone patio. His finger swelled so much that on the drive to Seattle we drilled a hole in the nail with a 1/16" bit to relieve the pressure.

From that point on, things turned around. We were in the air less than an hour after arriving in Talkeetna. Once again we flew with Jay Hudson, landing on the glacier on June 1. The weather had been bad in May but seemed to be clearing now. The buttress was dry and upon closer reconnaissance appeared to have thin ice runnels plastering some dihedrals to the left of the line Gordy, Ritt and I had tried. About 1000 feet up, the two lines intersected at our high point of the previous year.

On our second day, we fixed three pitches, stringing out all our rope. Climbing up the series of exfoliated flakes with rock shoes and a chalk bag, we reached the bottom ice runnel. Two days of weather kept us in the tent. I welcomed the chance to sew up the last little tears in my gear, to eat and to rest before the climb.

On June 5, we woke to clear skies. We had packed and repacked, trying to limit our loads to an absolute minimum. With three days’ food and five fuel cannisters our commitment was set. Leaving the security of camp at eight A.M., we were at the top of our ropes by ten o’clock. After jümaring in double boots,

I was able to clamp on my crampons at the top anchors and traverse up into the narrow runnel. Bulging to 90°, the ice laced the deep north-facing comer above us. The comer rose for 50 meters before it stopped. Some rock climbing linked us to a second comer system. We resorted to hauling after a brutal struggle up the first lead. Steep, sustained ice climbing with short mixed sections took us to a sling belay at the high point of last year. As I belayed, I looked towards the quick draw and pin that I had rappelled off twelve months earlier. At that time, I was certain I would never return.

Now, as the sun set, we were breaking into new terrain. The next pitch, the crux, climbed through the bottleneck of the buttress. This golden overhanging section of the wall is split on its left side by a sort of hanging comer system. Once above this, we entered a straight-in gully that divides the prow of the buttress. Bruce took a fall on this pitch when a crystal broke on the edge of the crack into which he was camming his tool.

As night set in, we established ourselves in the upper gullies. Vertical ice interrupted the flow in places, but the ice stayed thick and consistent. By three A.M., we had climbed nine pitches. Too exhausted to continue, we carved a minute platform for our tent. Perched 1500 feet off the glacier, the pre-dawn colors of the sky began to reflect on Hunter’s northern flanks several miles to our west.

By eight A.M., we were up and moving. Clouds had moved in and it was snowing steadily. Our best guess was that we were close to the top of the buttress. After simul-climbing 450 feet of 60° ice, we found ourselves on a knife-edged cornice. What had appeared from below to be the rising snow-fields of the Colton-Leach route was in fact a deception. Below us, the far side of the buttress dropped away in a giant gash to the steep ice gully of the Colton-Leach route.

After a brutal pitch of unconsolidated snow, we reached a final step of rotten rock, climbing up and out of the clouds. Below us, a sea of softly lit clouds stretched out to Mount Hunter. Topping out at about six P.M., we joined the Colton-Leach route at mid height on the face. Below us dropped our “Ice-Breaker Buttress,” an 18-pitch variation to the Colton-Leach route.

Simul-climbing for another hour, we placed our bivouac as high as possible before entering the thinner runnels of the upper face. A good meal in the sun and twelve hours of sleep put us in good shape for the top.

With packs as light as could be hoped for, we left camp at about eight o’clock the next morning. The early morning cold took its toll on fingers and toes, but by midday we were high on the face. As we entered the feature referred to as the “snow arête,” the climbing slowed considerably. What had looked like two or three pitches stretched out to six. We were traversing a series of flutings. The north side of these was unconsolidated sugar snow several feet deep over brittle ice or worse, rock. The south side was calf-pumping blue water-ice. By evening, we had reached the far side of these snowfields, but we were exhausted.

As we debated rappelling, I scouted an unlikely traverse. Linking a thin strip of névé, I was able to push through to a series of exit ramps. Two more pitches took us to the ridge crest by eleven P.M. Now, as night set in, the cold cut through me. On the ridge, a soft breeze off the south face froze every bit of moisture. Continuing up what at that point was the Harvard route, Bruce found a tiny bivouac. By two A.M., we were wrapped in our sleeping bags, cooking our last Ramen. The cold kept us awake all night. Another 18-hour day had made apparent how minimum our supplies actually were. With no safety buffer, we prayed for one more day of clear weather.

After staying in the tent until the sun hit at eleven the next morning, we slowly packed camp. Crystal blue skies laced with far-away cirrus clouds beckoned us on. Tying our jackets around our waists, we simul-climbed the steep icefields leading toward the summit. After crossing a snow plateau at the crest of the French ridge, we climbed three pitches of corniced ridge to the top. We spent half an hour taking in the view and eating our last two cookies before heading down.

In Nick Colton’s account of Huntington, he had said it took them only a few hours to descend. Jay Smith and Michael Covington had separately described the rappels down the Harvard route to us as straightforward. Nonetheless, as we rappelled off ice screws towards the lip of the face below us, I felt terrified, as if something was sure to go wrong. Ancient anchors and slings appeared and I kept thinking of Roberts’ book, Mountain of My Fear. I checked and rechecked my rappel rig.

On our sixth rappel, the anchors disappeared and so we continued straight down, leaving a nut and a sling. Below us, the tremendous south face, the Phantom Wall, yawned for thousands of feet into the dark and chaotic depths of the lower Tokositna Glacier. Then, the next rappel took us to a Japanese fixed line, bleached white and stiff over the years, backed up by a marginal 0.5 tri-cam. Slowly Bruce lowered out of sight on a 50-meter rappel, half of it free-hanging, that took us to an ancient Japanese camp, desecrated by a dozen bolts. We knew we were finally on route.

Night was upon us and in the cold everything began to freeze. Our ropes, drenched from rappelling, turned stiff and my gloves froze. Bruce lent me his extra glove liners, saving me from frostbite. Finally, we were approaching the Stegosaurus. As I rappelled down the final wall, one of the ropes wrapped around a large block. When I flipped it, the entire block gave way. I examined the rope and found it had been cut through to the core in several places. I prusiked back up and we began to do 25-meter rappels.

The night passed. Bruce rappelled on our single rope with the packs and belayed me while I climbed down. We rappelled over the bergschrund off our

final ice screw at three A.M. The walk to camp took an hour, enlivened by a harrowing rappel off a small dead man in deep powder. We rested for two full days before finding the resolve to jümar up and clean our fixed rope.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

Partial New Route: Mount Huntington, 3731 meters, 12,240 feet, West Face. “Count Zero,” an 18-pitch Direct Start to the Colton-Leach Route. Summit reached June 8, 1992 (Bruce Miller, Clay Wadman).

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