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Shadows of Doubt, Mount Hunter

Shadows of Doubt, Mount Hunter

Michael Kennedy

CLICK! A SIMPLE SOUND: the snap of a crampon heel-bail against a plastic boot, hanging over the side of a portaledge 1000 feet above the Kahiltna Glacier. Just one of dozens of precise mechanical movements we’d have to make every day. But for me, the banal act of putting on crampons possessed a strange, symbolic significance, for it signaled my continued willingness to engage the labyrinth of vertiginous, ice-veined rock above, to put all thoughts of home and comfort aside. Climbers often talk about the difficulty of stepping into the unknown, but I had no doubts about what to expect on the Wall of Shadows, this new route on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter. The puking agony of blood creeping back into frozen digits. The bad anchors, the unavoidable avalanche slopes, the storms that boiled up from nowhere. The dreary physical numbness of 16-hour days, wondering which way to go, where to bivouac. The grind of doing too much work on too few calories, your body eating itself just to survive. Most of all, though, I dreaded the anxious, dreamless nights.

As I swung my other boot out over the void, I came to a crafty little realization: if I dropped a crampon we would have to go down. But I knew that now wasn’t the time to bail out. We were too close to the ground—just a day into the route—and it would be far too easy to climb back up. Best to wait until retreating would be a true epic, then we wouldn’t want to return.

Although Greg Child, my partner on this adventure, gave lip service to the darker fears and doubts all alpine climbers seem to dwell on, he seemed awfully enthusiastic about our project. “I figure we have to keep going until something stops us,” he said. “And if it does, we’ll just have to get ourselves back down.”

In May 1993, we’d climbed the Nettle-Quirk route on Huntington’s West Face together, then attempted the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter. Warm conditions and my premonitions of doom turned us back that year, but our eyes were drawn to the monolithic wall left of the Moonflower. An inobvious line of sinuous ice smears and steep ramps loosely connected by devious rock pitches seemed to offer some possibilities, and even as we retreated from the Moonflower we laid plans to return.

May 13, 1994 saw Greg and me back at the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip, the epicenter of Alaska Range mountaineering, well-prepared for a long siege. Others had arrived before us, and we settled into what we came to call the Ghetto. Not a strict geographical construct but rather a state of mind, the Ghetto was occupied by a shifting band of miscreants gunning for various routes, real and imagined, on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter. Unlike the 1300-odd Denali aspirants who would pass through the airstrip in the summer of 1994, none of us knew if we’d even get onto our routes, let alone up them. Perhaps that was part of the bond we felt.

At least four parties had their eyes on the Moonflower, and they presented a serious collection of talent. Montana-born Joe Josephson, a Canadian Rockies ice wizard, and Steve Mascioli, who'd tried the Moonflower three years in a row, were first in line, followed by Jeff Burton and Chris Caldwell, two North Carolina climbers we’d met on Huntington in 1993. Later, New Paltz locals Mike Dimitri and Brett Wolf, and Salt Lake City climber Bill Belcourt and New Hampshire ice expert Randy Rackliff flew in for a look. Ken Wylie, a Canadian who’d come to Alaska alone after his partner bailed out of their Ruth Gorge trip at the last minute, played a valuable supporting role, as did Annie Duquette, the base-camp radio operator who informally adopted all of us.

Only Bill and Randy eventually succeeded on the Moonflower, making an efficient and uneventful ascent from June 1-7. Joe and Steve made three concerted attempts, reaching the top of the first ice band 15 pitches up on the third, while Jeff and Chris, after retreating from the Twin Runnels, flew over to the Tokositna and made a three-day ascent of the Harvard Route on the West Face of Huntington.

The grand masters of Ghetto existence, however, were Scott Backes, a Minnesota climber who’d been around almost as long as I (although we’d never met), and Dr. Doom himself, Marc Twight. They had arrived on the Kahiltna in late April with several weeks’ worth of food and an ambitious hit list, including the same route Greg and I coveted. Worse yet, they were supremely capable and might actually do it before we got there.

It was comforting, then, to arrive in Alaska and learn that the weather had been abysmal; Marc and Scott hadn’t gotten up a single route, nor had anyone else on the Kahiltna. “Thank God you’re here,” Scott told us as we stumbled onto the glacier out of Jim Okonek’s Cessna 185, dragging six heavy duffels of food and gear. “Marc and I agreed that if we hadn’t done this thing by the time you guys showed up, we’d let you have it.” They’d tried the route a few days before during a short respite from the nearly constant storms, but had retreated after climbing the first six pitches. From what they told us, we could now safely dismiss that start and look for another.

Greg and I immediately set to work, carrying a load of gear to a cache in the middle of the glacier just a quarter-mile from the start of the climbing. We’d brought along a powerful spotting scope that afforded us an intimate view of the travails that awaited us, and we spent hours peering into it trying to fathom the secrets of the wall.

The scope revealed a thin crack that split the first rock band, then came a traverse left into an ice-filled arch, followed by a wide smear. Dubious mixed ground led to a right-leaning ramp and a steep 400-foot rock wall. After some mixed ground, the route would join the Moonflower at the final rock band. Then the 2000-foot slog up the Northeast Ridge to the summit.

There were question marks, sections we couldn’t decipher until we reached them, but the route formed in our minds. We agreed to play to each other’s strengths: because of his extensive wall experience, Greg would lead the hard aid pitches, while I'd take the slippery cruxes. It took us parts of two days to fix six ropes and get our haul bag up the first four pitches. All we needed now was good weather.

Meanwhile, Marc and Scott started up a new route to the right of the Moonflower, following a system of ice runnels and ledges leading through four major rock bands. We watched them through the scope, and the climbing looked very difficult in places. Their speed was impressive, too. They climbed 2500 feet in 18½ hours, bivouacked, continued up through the final rock band —which included the hardest pitch of the route, with two 95° cruxes on bad ice—then traversed up and around the plateau just below and south of the summit. Foregoing the easy climbing to the top, Marc and Scott climbed down the West Ridge in storm and whiteout conditions late on May 17, aided by some beta from Steve Mascioli, who had done the West Ridge before. Marc and Scott’s route, aptly named Deprivation, had taken 72 hours round trip.

A new series of storms set in and confined us to camp. Huge waves of spindrift obliterated the North Buttress every time the clouds rolled in, inspiring much apocalyptic speculation—and varying degrees of resignation, angst, doubt, hubris, humor, and fear—among the denizens of the Ghetto. Mostly, though, we exercised our patience muscles.

A preternatural calm settled over camp. I wondered about the climb Greg and I had mapped out, how we’d manage certain parts of it. I didn’t feel rushed or anxious—I knew that we would get up on the route, and once we did, we wouldn’t be turning back. Something felt right about the trip. Marc and Scott’s success had been a boost, but more than that, it helped solidify the feeling that had been growing since we’d arrived—a subtle, almost electric atmosphere of solidarity and trust, not just between Greg and me, but among all of us in the Ghetto.

On May 24, we woke to a foot-and-a-half of new snow. But the sky was luminous—clearer than it had been the entire trip—and we spent a warm afternoon making our final preparations. We left camp at seven A.M. May 25 and skied up in the crystalline cold to the bottom of the North Buttress. By early afternoon we’d jugged our fixed lines, sorted out the ropes, and cast off. Two tedious mixed pitches led up to a protective overhang, under which we anchored the portaledge. But first I had to grapple with the wide smear we’d dubbed Thug Alley.

This pitch had looked hard from a distance and on closer acquaintance was still daunting. Burying my doubts, I hooked my way up a steep onionskin of styrofoam-like ice at the bottom, delicately weighting my crampons and ice tools so as to not destroy the thin, frozen veneer. Forty feet up, the angle eased slightly, the ice became gloriously plastic, and placing a couple of ice screws along the way, I ran out the 200-foot rope to a hanging belay. It was one of the best single pitches I'd ever done.

Thug Alley had been one of the major question marks of the route; in a worst-case scenario it would have been too thin to ice-climb, and we would have had to nail it. Comfortably ensconced in the portaledge and sated, at least for now, with soup, cheese, and hot chocolate, our confidence soared. Later, though, my thoughts turned darkly inward, and I wrestled with the familiar demons of ambition and fear, wondering again if I had it in me to give all that this wall would demand. I could barely suppress the urge to flee the next morning, and imagined all kinds of tricks that would get me out of here: drop a crampon, drop the stove, drop a rope, drop the rack. Greg had doubts as well, although like me he kept them to himself. His budding career as a “serious” writer was all-too-sedentary preparation for the rigors we now faced, and suffering from tendinitis, he had been unable to climb for several months. A few weeks before going to Alaska he’d had cortisone injected into his elbows to ease the inflammation. “I was really worried up there,” Greg told me later. “I thought my tendons might totally give out like broken boot laces.”

Despite our infirmities, we got ourselves and our baggage to the top of Thug Alley, then Greg front-pointed up a wall of cold plastic to the next obstacle of the route. A narrow, ice-filled chimney ended in a roof festooned with snow mushrooms. To the right was a steep, sparsely featured rock wall that would require aid, and to the left, a slight break in the roof gave access to a thinly-iced but otherwise blank slab. The ice would go quicker than the aid, we reasoned, so I front-pointed up the chimney and stepped left, crampons screeching against granite. A good pin gave me the confidence to get to the roof, then I was stumped. I could pull over onto the slab, but the ice was thin enough to be almost useless, the pin was 15 feet below the roof, and it didn’t look as if I’d get anything else in for an eternity.

I climbed back down and hung disconsolate on the pin. Greg shouted up, wondering if it would go. I glanced over at the wall to the right—it looked unlikely, even on aid—and steeled myself for another try. Twenty-five feet of nerve-wracking, barely-in-balance climbing later I came to an impasse. The angle above increased ever so slightly, and for 15 feet it looked as if I’d have to fully weight my tools to progress. I probed every patch of ice within reach; the picks bottomed out after an eighth or quarter inch. Nothing was substantial enough to pull on.

My left crampon scraped six inches down the slab, catching on God-only- knows-what and sending my heart rate into orbit. I was looking at a 50-footer. “I’ve really screwed up now,” I told myself. I don’t know how I got down those 25 feet, so scared I thought I’d puke. I lowered off a good pin beneath the roof, disgusted with myself, and by the time I reached the belay I was ready to throw off the haul bag and head home. Greg wasn’t fazed. “We can’t let something like this stop us,” he said as he racked up. “I’m sure I can aid my way up on the right.”

Three hours, many upside-down tied-off knifeblades, a rivet, a final aid move off a Spectre in an ice-choked crack, and 50 feet of steep ice later, Greg slumped into another hanging belay atop the Enigma. I'd stopped brooding by then, and seconding the pitch, marveled at Greg’s display of skill and tenacity.

After a doubt-filled bivouac, more mixed climbing, twisting and turning, in and out of étriers, brought us to the bottom of the Crystal Highway, a right-leaning ramp that gave three long, sustained rope-lengths of perfect one-swing styrofoam. We were in a stunning position, dangling against a shimmering mirror of ice 2000 feet above the glacier, a polished, golden-granite wall to our left and the bizarre, bulbous snow formations of the Mushroom Fields to our right. A bulging, inobvious wall leaned overhead. We could see that it would require much aid; in the end it proved to be the crux of the route. We gladly put it out of mind as we burrowed into the portaledge for the night. Morning came all too soon for Greg. I’m sure he would have welcomed a good excuse to go down, but he failed to drop the rack when he had the chance. I settled into my harness and pulled on my parka, happy again to be a spectator. Steadily, he tip-tapped his way up, avoiding huge, fragile blobs of snow with awkward tension traverses, swinging around roofs, bludgeoning knifeblades into bottoming cracks, and skyhooking on icy flakes. Twelve hours and two 200-foot pitches later, he’d cracked the Somewhere Else Wall—as in “I wished I were somewhere else”—and we settled in for our fourth night on the climb.

An ugly, snow-choked overhang guarded the bottom of the final cascade, so in the morning we traversed left to the mixed exit we’d spotted from the glacier. I was tired but energized, totally consumed now with this pitch, this climb, this moment. Inching up, I used every trick I’d learned in the past 25 years, and a few I’d just figured out. An hour of stemming, jamming, pinching, teetering on one front point on a dime-width edge, gloves on and off, tools stacked in the corner crack, an adze cammed against a chockstone, a pick wedged into a crack, and I leaned gratefully back against another set of anchors—atop our 21st pitch—nursing blood back into frozen hands as the electric buzz of adrenaline ebbed away.

Mist swirled all around as we climbed easier mixed ground to the third ice band and trudged several hundred feet to another hanging bivouac below the final rocks. Although we still had a day of hard climbing left on the North Buttress, the worst was behind us, and we’d soon be able to abandon our wall gear for the long slog up and over the summit. The clouds had an ominous look to them, though, and after we crawled into the portaledge it began to snow. We were alarmed when the first big avalanche swept over us, but eventually became numb to the drum of snow pounding against the fly. Clouds still engulfed the mountain next morning, and the snow built up steadily. Encased in our nylon coffin, we passed the day by eating and resting.

The next morning was quiet, still, and oh-so-cold. I cleared the ice from the zipper and peeled back the frozen nylon of the portaledge fly. Denali stood aglow in the distance, not a cloud in sight. Struggling with everything, we slowly disentombed ourselves and packed the bare minimum: sleeping bags, pads, two days’ food and fuel, a pared-down rack. Everything else went into the haul bag, which was sacrificed to the glacier waiting below. The portaledge was frozen beyond dismantling. We abandoned it and started the plod. No turning back now.

The Bibler Come Again Exit to the Moonflower, the last barrier between us and the icefield leading up to the Northeast Ridge, looked hard. I wasn’t in the mood for it. I wanted to sit down, preferably in Annie's hut eating pasta and drinking beer. I wanted off this mountain. Once I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself I actually enjoyed the Come Again. I ran out of energy and rope just below the top, leaving Greg to moan his way up the final off-width. Five pitches of brittle blue water ice covered with six inches of powder followed. Our packs were light, but we were both wasted. We finally reached a perfect natural eyrie below the cornice at the top of the buttress and set about restoring our waning energies with as many hot brews as we could coax out of the stove. An hour of sun did much for our spirits, but nothing for our sodden bags, and we spent a brief night—our seventh on the route—shivering in the Alaskan twilight.

Nothing quite prepared us for what we encountered when we popped up over the top of the ridge the next morning. The sun was a blessing, but a thick layer of snow blanketed the upper part of the mountain. We still had a long way to go. Trudging listlessly along, I wandered too close to the edge, breaking off a big chunk of cornice that tumbled into the depths. Jumping back, I muttered, “Wake-up call,” then returned to my labors.

We traded leads often, but knee- and sometimes waist-deep powder slowed us to a crawl. “This is soul-destroying work,” Greg sighed after a brutal stretch in front. I couldn’t agree more, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Twelve hours after leaving the cornice we staggered onto the flat summit of Mount Hunter, 14,570 feet above the sea and miles from home. It was our eighth day on the mountain.

We dropped our packs, embraced, and admired the view. It was calm and cloudless as far as the eye could see. A few minutes after we’d arrived, one of Doug Geeting’s pilots flew by and tipped his wings at us. Down at camp, we imagined that Marc and Scott and Annie and the others were watching us. It was a comforting thought.

More knee-deep snow awaited us on the descent across the summit plateau. We stomped out a sleeping platform and took advantage of the warm evening sun to rest and dry out. Cold twilight arrived three listless hours later, and Greg and I burrowed soundlessly into our bags. In the morning, four miles of Hunter’s West Ridge and 6000 feet of relief still separated us from the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip, and we knew we’d have to motor to get off the mountain that day. The seven A.M. cold was like a razor, cutting to the bone. My feet stayed numb for five or six hours despite all my efforts to warm them. Worse, I was completely out of sorts, frightened of the crevasses and cornices and avalanches, and unsure of finding the proper way down. Greg took the lead, parting the snowy sea like an ice breaker.

We each poked a leg through the snow and into crevasses several times, and were lucky not to do worse. By late afternoon we were rappelling the steep gully leading down into the northwest basin, a variation that avoids the bottom mile and a half (and some of the trickiest climbing) of the West Ridge.

Conditions were tropical. Wet, rotten snow sucked at our feet and huge séracs leered down at us from three sides. We ran down a huge pile of avalanche debris, rationalizing our folly by pretending that the most dangerous slopes had already gone. We scurried across football-sized fields of freshly fallen ice blocks, some the size of a refrigerator. In several places fresh slides had wiped out the tracks we were following, those of a Colorado foursome who had climbed the West Ridge several days before. For all its popularity as the “normal” route up Mount Hunter, the northwest basin was an incredibly dangerous place.

Two tiny figures had skied up to an abandoned camp near the bottom of the route a couple of hours earlier, then sat patiently waiting, no doubt getting a chuckle out of our antics. As we stumbled down the last hundred yards to the main glacier, they ran toward us, whooping and hollering. “Did ya get some?” grinned Scott, peering into our drawn faces. He and Marc took our packs and pressed cups of hot tea into our eager hands.

The tension of the past nine days gradually ebbed as we sat recounting our climb in the warm evening sun. Greg and I had found what we’d come to Alaska for: the Wall of Shadows was the hardest route we'd done in our combined half-century of climbing. I didn’t want to let go so soon. But the intensity was gone, and the experience already fading into memory. And we’d made it home.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range

New Route: Mount Hunter, 4441 meters, 14,470 feet, via “Wall of Shadows,” left of the Moonflower Buttress route on the West Buttress; Rating Alaskan Grade 6 AI 6+, 5.9, A4; May 25-June 2 (Greg Child, Michael Kennedy).

[Editor’s Note: Two more routes have been climbed on the north face of Hunter. From July 1 to 7, 1980, Irishman Billy Ireland and Swede Ulf Björnborg started up the left side of the avalanche cone on the right side of the face, surmounted two sérac bands and traversed left to where all routes join on the northeast ridge. (See AAJ, 1981, page 156.) From June 24 to 29, 1984, Frenchmen Benoît Grison and Yves Tedeschi climbed a route up the couloir and face left of the Wall of Shadows. (AAJ, 1985, page 177.)]