Mount Koven, First Ascent*. The word had been going around Alaska for a couple of years that Mount Koven was unclimbed. Mark — and Randy Waitman hiked in one August for a try, and though rotten rock turned them back, they were psyched enough to plan a return trip in March. I had absolutely sworn off winter climbs on the north side of the Alaska Range, but memories of camping at 50 below fade, and as fall moved into winter I was planning to tag along. At the last minute Mark couldn’t make it, and Matt filled his spot.
The north side of the Range within Denali Park is a time capsule, a refuge for exploratory mountaineering. The ban on air support means that we still approach the mountains the way Karstens, Stuck, and Browne did: by foot and dog team. Three days of skiing saw us across Wonder Lake and the McKinley River, up Cache Creek, and over McGonagall Pass to the Muldrow Glacier. Two more days saw us to the base of the route.
The West Traleika Glacier, at the base of our route, is tucked right into Denali’s armpit, and it looked as if we’d never see the sun while we were camped on it. A thin couloir up to Karsten’s Notch was the first day’s work. We found solid snow. The climbing—slammin’ pickets and running belays—was uncomplicated. By late afternoon Randy was leading through a rotten rock band at the top of the couloir.
We reached the knife-edged ridge at Karsten’s Notch as the sun was setting. To the left was Karsten’s Ridge, to the right the west ridge of Koven. By fixing our two ropes and rapping down toward the Muldrow we were able to find a suitable snow cave site.
A late night led to a late morning, and it was afternoon by the time we were all back on the ridge crest. Once there, Matt decided that the chest cold he’d been battling on the ski in would keep him in the cave that day. Randy and I set off together on the harder part of the climb. We found long stretches of exposed, moderate knife-edge climbing that demanded care and protection. Never having climbed together, we figured out each other’s systems and moved slowly.
By 2:30 it was obvious that we weren’t going to make it. The climbing wasn’t very hard, but it wasn’t hiking, either. We agreed that we’d absolutely have to turn back at four to make it back to the cave by dark, summit or no. But at four the summit was close, and an easy stretch lured us on. After two agonizing false summits, we topped out at six. We made it back to the cave a half hour after midnight.
Next on the hit list was the northwest face of Wedge Peak, but we found dangerous snow conditions and backed off two pitches above the ‘schrund. Low food and fuel then forced us to strike out for the road. We skied over Anderson Pass during our only day of really bad weather, then down the West Fork Glacier and the West Fork of the Chulitna River to the Parks Highway, finishing a 22-day, 100-mile trip.
It might have been the perfect winter trip. We made it up our peak, it never got colder than 20° F, and blue skies prevailed. Having experienced this ultimate, I can now confidently promise myself that I’ll never go on a winter climb in the Alaska Range again.
Mike Litzow, unaffiliated
*This climb was made possible by the support of a Peter MacKeith Grant from the Alaskan Alpine Club.