The Elevator Shaft
A wild ride to the summit of Mount Johnson
by DOUG CHABOT
The first time I saw Mount Johnson (8,460 feet) was from a plane in 1992 as I was heading to the Ruth Glacier to guide a 12-day mountaineering trip. On its north face was an enormous shaft of snow and ice that split the monolithic granite for 2,400 feet. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The pilot informed me that this shaft had never been climbed, but it wasn’t until our group was stormbound for days that I learned from Bill, the other guide, the recent events that had taken place on it. The unclimbed route was appropriately named the Elevator Shaft. Little did I realize that in three years I would be attempting it with Jack Tackle.
Mount Johnson had only been ascended once. Gary Bocarde guided a party to the summit in 1979 via the south ridge and, though there were rumors that it had been attempted many times, it appeared that it had been tried only four times, twice by Jack. In 1987, Charlie Sassara and Dave McGivern were hit with serac blocks and avalanche debris in the cirque at the base of the route, dragging them both down the glacier and wrapping the rope three times around Charlie’s neck. Dave had to resuscitate Charlie, and a few hours after he regained consciousness they retreated back to the Ruth Glacier.
In 1989, Jim Sweeney and Dave Nyman also barely survived an attempt. A few pitches up, Jim took a 90-foot fall and fractured his hip. Their eight-day self-rescue consisted of multiple avalanches that buried them numerous times, crevasse falls, solo glacier travel by Dave, loss and destruction of gear, and a plane crash. They managed to survive on tenacity, Dave’s astonishing heroics, and a large dose of luck.
Jack Tackle attempted the route in 1993 with Kim Miller. They finished only two pitches before it started to snow, turning the Shaft into a firehose of spindrift. Up to that point the climbing had been A4 rock and horrible ice, with a bizarre tunnel and hidden room formed by the enormous chockstone that plugged the Shaft. They managed to get the tent up in the cave, where they sat for 18 hours waiting for the snow to subside before retreating. Jack returned in 1994 with Bill Belcourt, only to be denied a chance at the route by an enormous cornice overhanging the entire route.
In April of 1995, Jack asked me if I would like to give it a go with him that spring. Feeling privileged, I accepted, but worried about the seriousness of the route. When I shared the idea with my friends, they all expressed the same thought.
“Isn’t that the route that totally worked Sweeney and Nyman?”
“What a death route!”
Was I an idiot? Maybe — but Jack had an uncanny habit of successfully completing new routes on his third try. The Isis Face on Denali and a route on Mount Barrille were two of his notable third-try achievements. And this was to be Round Three on the Shaft.
Before I was to meet Jack in Talkeetna I climbed the Cassin Ridge with Bill McKenna. Descending to 14,000 feet on the West Buttress, we ran into Dave Nyman, who was contemplating a ski descent of the Wickersham Wall. I tried getting some information from him on the Shaft, but there wasn’t much to give. He wished me well, but wasn’t overly optimistic.
On May 28 I met up with Jack in Talkeetna; on the 29th we flew into the Ruth Glacier, viewing the route from the air. What a sight! The Shaft looked climbable, but from 1000 feet up that was very subjective. We scanned for cornices that overhung the route, but didn’t see anything obvious. At the top of the Shaft a large headwall appeared to bar access to the easier snowfields and summit. We had no idea if it was climbable, but if worse came to worst Jack figured we could rap down the smaller sister shaft on the opposite side of the notch.
The pilot left us at our luxurious basecamp. Great food, real coffee, and heavy, comfortable gear accompanied us in the event we got stuck in a dreaded Alaskan storm. During our first day on the glacier, we put in a ski track in the soft snow to the base of the route, negotiating a tricky icefall that had looked benign from the air. After a few hours of prerequisite meandering we got a good look at the route.
“So what do you think?” Jack asked. “Are you game?”
“THIS IS SERIOUS!” was all I could think; but since Jack was sitting next to me I tried to play it cool, and looked through the binoculars for 20 minutes before responding. Jack said that these were the best conditions he’d seen it in. The cruxes looked obvious: one down low and another midway up. The low crux was the one Jack had climbed in 1993. The upper one was more mysterious: a huge chockstone plugged the shaft. Could we climb around it? Was that snow or ice up there?
There was no, “Let’s see. If I do all the odd numbered pitches, then I’ll avoid any crux sections.” Jack volunteered to do the lower crux pitch, which meant that the upper one would be mine. How comforting.
But the route looked doable, and was spectacular enough to make me want it. The Shaft angled to the right, becoming a funnel for anything that fell down the face. A very light snowfall would turn the climb into a bad dream. We both agreed that if it started to snow (a very grim thought), or if we saw any rockfall or cornice chunks whizzing by, we would retreat.
We were committed. We skied back to our basecamp and began packing. We brought five days of fuel and three days of food. The next morning we got an early start so we could take advantage of hiking in our frozen ski tracks. We arrived at the base of the route in early morning and set up the Bibler in the only spot in the cirque semi-safe from avalanches and icefall. This was the place where Sassara was strangled, a thought that plagued my self-confidence. Not wanting to hang out, we opted to fix our two 60-meter ropes on the route. We crossed the bergschrund at the base and soloed up to the start of the ice, where I roped up and led a pitch to the beginning of the first crux.
Watching Jack climb the next pitch was inspiring. The ice ended not too far from the belay, and Jack had to stem up a small chimney. That was the easy part. He then began to climb up vertical snow, swinging his tools above his head in search of solid placements. After finding hollow ice he would move up a foot or two, and then clear the snow over his head again. He used only two marginal Spectre placements as pro. He repeated these exhausting sequences again and again, clearing the snow and moving a foot, arms tested from repetitive swings. To get to the small ledge above him he would have to pull over the snow roof he created. Way dicey!
Two hours into Jack’s lead I began to wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. This looked twisted; worse yet, the next lead was mine. I didn’t want to end up struggling for survival like Sweeney and Nyman. But I managed to push these thoughts out of my mind as Jack pulled the roof and got his first rest in a while. Near the end of the pitch Jack tunneled again. All of a sudden his feet pointed skyward, followed by the rest of his body as he disappeared into a mysterious hole. Ten minutes later he poked his head out of the hole.
“Off belay,” he called. It was a sight out of a Monty Python sketch.
The next morning we ascended the ropes to Jack’s high point. The roof of the cave he had found was a chockstone that filtered all the snow over it, creating the vertical snow pitch. It was the same room that he and Kim had retreated to in 1993. But this time, instead of climbing A4 around the chock, I was able to exit back out of the hole and continue up the vertical thin snow for another 15 feet until it ramped out at a friendly 55° to 60°. The snow was so thin that my feet kept punching holes back into the cave where Jack belayed.
The next six pitches of snow and rotten ice were moderately angled with just one steep 80° section. Of the marginal protection, all of which could be easily removed by hand, Spectres instilled the most confidence. We found ourselves wishing we had more than two. The granite sides of the Shaft had few weaknesses, making gear placement and anchor building quite a task. A
few times we had to simul-climb because the leader hadn’t found an anchor in 60 meters. Picket placements were a joke: the snow was unconsolidated, and creating an anchor with them was a trial of deception. By seeing the webbing disappear into the snow I faked my brain into thinking they were solid, but the reality of it was I could have buried a piece of webbing instead of the picket and gotten the same result. At the top of pitch eight Jack was able to place the first honest ice screw. And to think that we thought that this would be an ice route!
As we approached the second crux we could see that we’d be able to climb behind the enormous chockstone. This came as a relief, since it was my lead and climbing over the chockstone looked out of my league. To make matters brighter, the ice at the belay was blue and solid.
Stemming up through the ice chimney was the most enjoyable climbing yet; I even got a great screw in for protection a little ways up. As I exited the tunnel and turned a small corner, however, my excitement waned. The ice petered out to a smear. I quickly found myself dry-tooling with my right tool while my left tool occupied the only remaining ice. A tied-off short Snarg and then a Spectre in a crack offered marginal protection. Soon, snow replaced ice, and I balanced precariously, digging with my left tool for something remotely solid to move up on. My arm angled deeper into the snow. Looking down, I realized the pro beneath me wouldn’t hold the 40- foot whipper I was beginning to think I might take.
I clawed my way up the snow, then ran out of anything solid to climb. My arm probed deeper. I was up to my elbow, then my shoulder, searching for purchase. I reached as far as I could without popping my feet off when my tool broke through the snow on the other side. Another cave! I shimmied in in an instant and stood on firm ground. After hauling up some rock gear from Jack and building a solid anchor, I headed out on the last 20 feet to the top of the chock and much easier ground.
Most things in Alaska look smaller, shorter, and closer than they really are, and the Shaft was no exception. At the top of the pitch we figured there were only three or four more ropelengths to go. The climbing wasn’t difficult, so we simul-climbed 100 yards before belaying again. We were tired, but at the start of the 17th pitch we could see that we would reach the notch above. So much for our recon from the air — we could also see a huge cornice that overhung the entire climb.
I led up the final pitch of the day, heading to a break on the right of the cornice only to be slowed to a crawl when the ice ended and steep cohe- sionless snow took its place. Jack froze patiently as I took over an hour to complete the lead.
As I topped out onto the notch two welcome sights came into view. The first was a large, flat, protected spot for the tent. The second was an arching crack that split the headwall directly from the notch. In the last 600 feet of climbing there had been no break in the walls of the Shaft, so seeing this line was like winning the lottery. I looked at my watch. It was 5 a.m. We had been climbing for over 22 hours. We were both whipped, but the prospects for tomorrow looked better than ever.
Early the next afternoon we ventured over to the headwall. Jack began the first pitch and made efficient use of our small rack, nailing knifeblades in a band of crumbly granite. He was in prime form, muttering a litany of profanities as he moved up onto every shaky piece.
The next two pitches went free, and we scrambled to the ridge crest in diminishing weather. Poor visibility and the possibility of walking off the edge led us to set up the tent in a protected rock outcropping. In the morning we poked our heads out of the tent to a warm, calm, crystal clear day. The summit was less than an hour away. In a rare mountaineering moment, we spent much more time than necessary on top.
The descent down the south ridge was mostly scrambling, but the route- finding lower on the side glacier had its challenges. On more than one occasion we both fell in up to our waists. On the flat and wide Backside Glacier we radioed an overhead plane and got word to K2 Aviation of our location. The next morning Jim Okonek arrived in great weather with his new Super Cub and shuttled us back to our basecamp and then Talkeetna.
Jack’s “three times and you’re in there” history had remained true to form. The Elevator Shaft was one of the best climbs either of us have done.
Summary of Statistics:
AREA: Alaska Range.
NEW ROUTE: The Elevator Shaft (Alaska Grade 6, 5.7 A3 AI 5+) on the north face of Mount Johnson (8,460 feet), second ascent of the peak, first traverse, May 31-June 3, 1995 (Jack Tackle and Doug Chabot).