American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Beauty is a Rare Thing, The Birth of a New Route on the Northwest Face of Denali's West Buttress

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1997

Beauty is a Rare Thing

The birth of a new route on the northwest face of Denali's west buttress, by Steve House

It was under the cover of an Alaskan midnight that Eli and I hurried across the crusty snow of the Peters Glacier to the Father and Son’s Wall, Denali’s most notorious unclimbed feature. As we approached our objective my eyes were drawn to a compelling line on the neighboring Washburn Face*. While the Father and Son’s Wall had many question marks about it, that line on the Washburn Face possessed an uncommonly simple aesthetic that begged to be climbed. Perhaps if the Washburn Face hadn't already had an ascent along its right-hand margin we would have bolted to its base, leaving the enigmatic Father and Son’s Wall for another day.

During the first days of July 1995 we succeeded on the first ascent of the Father and Son’s Wall, but the image of the central route on the Washburn Face lingered. I wanted to make time for a serious attempt with a good partner, but reality dictated that I guide two ascents of Mt. McKinley in 1996. Secretly I hoped that the trips would end with quick successes, leaving me a chance for an attempt.

After guiding a June ascent of the West Rib, I find myself alone, with time, and at 14,200 feet on the west buttress. Circumstance has deposited me here, and, not being one to squander an opportunity, I shore up my bets. I borrow an ice hammer, feed on scrounged Dinty Moore frozen lasagnas, and watch the weather carefully.

The key to success in the Alaska Range is to have enough different objectives to guarantee that you will do something. I plot and prioritize six different options. My third day dawns clear and windless.

After summoning all available information and intuition, I decide on Option 1 : explore the Washburn Face. This is the climb I’ve dreamed of doing, but I don’t have a partner. Still, it is worth investigating. Perhaps if the snow on the glacier is frozen enough for safe solo travel I will go to the base. I might even be able to ascend the initial ice field of the central line and then make a detour over to the Collins-Powers-Walters route.

I jog down around Windy Comer, meeting a few reproving glances from the heavily laden mountaineers plodding their way up. Just before Motorcycle Hill I veer onto north-facing snow slopes and downclimb an ice gully to arrive on the upper Peters Glacier.

Optimism is never without its pestering doubts, but as I near the face my anxieties fall away. I am strong and rested and acclimated. The sky is clear and calm. The Peters Glacier is frozen under an icy skin that my crampons don’t penetrate, allowing me to safely approach the base of the Washburn Face.

From where I stand I can see 1,800 feet of 50-degree ice stretching up from the bergschrund to the steep granite in the middle of the face. White streaks of what might be climbable stuff cascade down through the rock. Above that more gullies and ice slopes connect together for the remaining 4,000 feet in a simple, direct pattern to the tip of the west buttress. Beautiful.

Time to profit from my luck and get a closer look at this face. My tools just reach the other side of the bergschrund. I work my picks against the snow and ice, probing for purchase, swinging and feeling, then clearing away the incohesive stuff. Finally they find the heart and I pull, kick and step up into a rare thing: a virgin face.

Above the 'schrund I cruise on soft, polished ice. Occasional spindrift hisses by to my left as I weave along the edge of the icefield. I try to focus on the rhythm of the climbing, and as I get higher the vastness of this place looms large, blocking the sun from me. As I climb I feel like a willing castaway, paddling out to sea while my homeland shrinks on the horizon.

Nearing the rockband, I stop to look up with increasing frequency and concern. Sun-loosened snow is sloughing from the upper slopes and running down the cracks and dihedrals of the rock, leaving snow stuck to the cliff. There is no ice where my mind’s eye has drawn the route.

I chop a platform and clip off to my tools. My path has ended as easily as it began. I look down and across the face to my contingency plan. The traverse to the Collins-Powers-Walters route looks good and I can still continue up the moderate climbing of that route to the top of the Washburn Face. Not a bad day’s outing, but I had begun to hope that I might have a chance at pushing this new route all the way up. I digest my disappointment.

Then, looking across the copper colored rocks above me, I don’t believe my eyes: smooth, tan water ice flows down a steep corner not more than a hundred feet from where I stand. My heart skips a beat and I nervously trace its undulations for several hundred feet to where it disappears over a bulge. I’m momentarily numbed by the realization of what I’ve found. I force myself to sit and study. During the next hour spindrift slides past me on the left, but nothing falls down my new-found line.

As I move over to the steep corner I remember the stakes and I remember my promises. I won’t climb up anything that I can’t climb down and I will always listen to my intuition. With the first stick of my pick I am awash in confidence. I feel that my path has great merit. In one of the happiest moments of my life I start up. I can do this if I can find a shred of that which I admire most in others hidden within myself. Some call it genius—

“Genius is a belief in oneself and the importance of one’s mission, without which the energy is dissipated in resistations and inner conflicts.”

—(Author unknown)

I am still feeding on the confidence of a few minutes ago. But now I need to flex my discipline and restrain the fear that is crouching in my gut. With each placement of the tools my commitment deepens.

I’m on a smooth smear of gray ice in a granite corner, 200 feet into the rockband. The ice is barely a foot wide here, and nearly vertical. Above me it widens and rolls back to 60 degrees before kicking up to vertical again and disappearing against the sky. Now the climbing is hard for the first time and I can not ignore the importance of every swing and every kick.

I rationalize each advance: “This kind of steep climbing can’t last on an alpine face.”

“The ice is incredible. I could belay off that placement.”

As the runnel steepens I’m forced to use strength. I stem out for a good edge on the rock.

“Climb smart, Steve. Technique. Relax and breath and climb smart.”

I look down at my feet to step up; the face is laid out below me. Fields of snow-streaked ice and bands of wet rock fall unbroken to the virgin white glacier. Now fear finds a hold and I visualize myself skidding down the ice, slamming into a rockband, and spinning out away from the mountain.

Curiosity has caused me to visualize my death before, but never while in the mountains. I consider my life, needing to see the value it has. I’m surprised that now, in my most selfish moment, my need to live is defined in terms of other people. I see my sister in her wedding dress. I see my wife linking perfect powder turns. My friends are grouped around a picnic table in Yosemite, laughing, brewing coffee, pouring over the guidebook. I see myself in terms of the people I’ve known and I understand that I will be safe.

Fragile threads of ice dribble down fine, steep rock and return me to the moment. Newly focused, I look back down at my feet, kick at the small depressions, and step up. Several moves later I am past the last vertical stretch that I could see from below. I chop a step, clip to my tools, and survey this unexplored place. I need to get to the steep-walled couloir on my left, but my access to it is blocked by a huge chockstone.

On the right is Door Number One: an 80-degree patch of ice that might connect with a long leftward traverse. Next is Door Number Two: a vertical smear of thin-looking ice that would bring me to a shorter traverse. Door Number Three is a short mixed passage that would join the couloir directly.

Feeling the mounting stress of the game-show contestant, I choose the most secure looking option and start up the steep ice leading to Door Number One. After 60 feet of climbing I am denied access when the traverse is blocked by a crumbly gendarme. I begin to downclimb carefully. Just as I’m easing into an awkward placement I hear the horrifying scream of rockfall. It explodes off the ice slope to my right. I cautiously continue climbing back to my stance.

This alcove offers no real protection for my racing heart, so I quickly choose another route. The mixed climbing behind Door Number Three is slightly sheltered but the climbing quickly gets hard. After a couple of delicate moves I am thoroughly sobered. Realizing my insecurity here I again downclimb carefully.

A deep breath and I start up my last option; if this doesn’t go I’ll be downclimbing all night. The thin-looking ice yields solid tool placements and quickly I am into a beautiful green groove that takes me up behind a small gendarme. From here I can see into the base of the couloir that is filled with 60-degree snow and intermittent chockstones. Once I get there I will be on easy street.

But immediately before me is a traverse on snow-covered rock. I test the first hold and ease myself onto a small patch of snow, succumbing to a concentrated trance of careful movements. Once across, my relief is tempered by the realization that I won’t want to repeat that traverse.

The terrain is less serious now, and I cruise up the snow and around the chockstones with quick, solid movements. After 200 feet the couloir joins a large 50-degree gully that was part of the route I originally envisioned. I’m suddenly comforted by the knowledge that I’ll be going to the top of this face. My commitment is complete and I recruit a steady pace of pied troisiéme to finish the job.

As I climb up, my mind sifts down to wonder what, besides serendipity, built the bridge between the conception and the fruition of this plan. It wasn’t a conscious quest for a harder route or the pursuance of some existential notion. It had to do with the honest pursuit of an aesthetic line and the accrued frustrations of guiding Denali. I spent the last six weeks carrying the big loads, cooking the big meals, and making the tough calls. I enjoy my clients. They are good people with big hearts. They love the mountains even though their lifestyles limit the time they can spend there. But sometimes I wish to leave their tortoise pace behind and run up the routes, burning all the fuel in my jets. I want to hit the wall and keep going without anyone to offer hot tea, encouragement, or a helping hand. I refine weeks of frustration into high-octane motivation.

This motivation powers me now. I stop where the couloir doglegs right. The fading afternoon warmth supplies drippings to fill my water bottle. Hydration and motivation realized, I head off, gunning for the top. The couloir traverses up and right for several hundred feet. I follow it to the first flat spot I’ve seen since the glacier, 6,000 feet below.

The sun dips behind the north summit and a southern wind picks up. Finally I reach the distinct snowpatch that forms beneath the crest of the 16,000-foot apex of the Washburn Face. As a reminder of what mountain this is the easy-looking snow slope drags on for an hour before I finally push over the top.

Elation, exhaustion, and trepidation mark my arrival on the tip of the west buttress. The wind gusts hard enough to knock me around a bit and I try to hurry, remembering 1992 when two climbers struggled and eventually died of exposure on this ridge.

The familiar sight of flapping tents at the 16,000-foot camp dissolves my remaining anxiety and I’m off down the fixed lines. I am tired, but still moving and finally fulfilled, by the mountain, and by myself.

Journal entry, June 24, 1996

I am frightened of what I did yesterday. It was complete adventure, outcome unknown. I won’t go that far again, not alone: crampons, two tools, two liters of water, three Stoker bars, harness, daisy chain, and a spare pair of gloves. 7,000 feet of unknown alpine face. The line. The geography of the mountain and me. I found weaknesses in the rock and strength within myself.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

NEW ROUTE: Beauty is a Rare Thing (7,000 feet, Alaska Grade V, 5.8 90° ice) on the northwest face of the west buttress, 14 hours round-trip from the 14,200-foot camp on the west buttress, Steve House, solo, June 23, 1996

*ln recent years it has become common to refer to this aspect as the Washburn Face, but Bradford Washburn is adamant that the name be stricken from use. Climbers are encouraged to avoid Mr. Washburn’s wrath and refer to the aspect by its proper name: the northwest face of the west buttress.

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