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Alaska, Baby Steps: Lessons from Alaskan Alpinism

Alaska

Baby steps: lessons from Alaskan alpinism

Steve House

American culture is obsessed by evolution, the concept of progress toward an imagined ideal. We are entirely dependent on it—to make the next sale, to grow the next stock, to sell the new car. Economic growth is fundamental to capitalism. But what is fundamental to alpinism? To alpinism in Alaska? Western society makes growth and progress integral to everything we do. Does alpinism reject or reinforce the growth-is-progress mantra?

In alpinism, there is no betterment of the world. In fact, it may only be relevant to its participants, a selfish pursuit of a private nirvana. But as a community we look to the actions of the “cutting edge” as a barometer of that progress we need. We eagerly look to read a greater meaning into the accomplishments of a few.

If I choose standards to map progress, I must ask: Are we climbing harder routes in Alaska? I think not. Until the early 1970s, little or no climbing had been done on the big technical objectives in Alaska. That changed with the big-wall style routes such as the East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak (1977) and the Northwest Face of Kichatna Spire (1979), both of which upped the ante in sustained aid-climbing difficulties. Recent big wall routes such as Ride the Lightning (Middle Triple Peak, 1997) and The Useless Emotion (Bear Tooth, 1999) involved severe difficulty, but in light of what was done before, it is hard to see much evolution in technical standards, particularly in light of the fixed ropes, modem equipment and, in the case of The Useless Emotion, the use of drills employed in their creation.

So I turn to style for our coveted progress. The history of climbing in the Alaska Range follows a familiar and predictable pattern of exploration. With major manpower, the primary ridge and face features were climbed one by one using proven expedition-style tactics. That era culminated with the first ascent of Denali’s south face via the American Direct in 1967.

Only more of the same was done until 1976, when the voices of the alpine prophets were first heard in the north. On May 11, 1976, Dougal Haston and Doug Scott bivouacked at 20,000 feet on Denali’s south face. It was their 13th day on the mountain and they had climbed through cold temperatures and stormy weather to complete the first ascent of a new route on the 9,000-foot south face in pure alpine style. Only a month later, Charlie Porter compressed the time-line dramatically by climbing from the top of the Japanese Couloir to the top of the Cassin Ridge in just 36 hours.

The momentum that these two climbs helped generate continued through the mid-1980s. The list of routes climbed in alpine style over those ten years is impressive, both for their difficulty and for their commitment: the East Face of the Moose’s Tooth, the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter, the Lowe-Kennedy, the Infinite Spur, the Diamond Arête, the Isis Face, the Winebottle Route. It seems that alpine style was being solidified, but nothing new was accomplished. The bar had been set in 1976, and many subsequent climbers met the stylistic norm but did not exceed it.

The fact is that the bar was set by climbers who came to Alaska with massive reserves of experience in the Himalaya and the Alps. The effects that they had on the climbing community, however, differed depending on who you talk to. Peter Metcalf, who made both expedition-style and alpine-style ascents in Alaska, wrote: “Charlie Porter, Doug Scott, and Dougal Haston had a huge effect on how we thought about approaching Mt. Hunter in 1977. Reading, rereading, thinking about, and BS’ing about their climbs definitely changed my and my friends’ perception of how it was done. I remember remarking to a group of ice climbing buddies at that time (winter 1976-77) in Boulder, ‘From the way we are all talking, our ability just increased dramatically, thanks to what those guys have done on those routes.’ Suddenly we felt that this was the only acceptable way to do it.”

Michael Kennedy was an active climber in Alaska who wasn’t surprised by Haston, Scott, and Porter’s achievements, but they did confirm his suspicions. When asked about the successes of 1976, he wrote: “As far as those two climbs specifically influencing me in 1977 in Alaska, I’d have to say [that they didn’t]. Those climbs certainly confirmed what for me were nascent ideas, but it seemed perfectly obvious even before then that the big lines would go in alpine style. Messner and Habeier on Hidden Peak in 1975, Tasker and Boardman on Changabang in 1976, all kinds of hard routes going up in the Alps, Peru, Patagonia—there was a lot happening then in the big mountains, so contemplating similar routes in Alaska didn’t seem like such a stretch. The only question was whether I was up to the task!”

Perhaps the true value of what Porter, Scott, and Haston had brought to Alaska was the clarity of their message: The big lines will go in alpine style. The ten years of 1976-1985 were a busy period in Alaska, and climbers picked many of the big prizes in excellent style, solidifying alpine style as the modus operandi of mountaineers.

After 1985, the focus of the North American climbing community shifted eastward. George Lowe, Barry Blanchard, Todd Bibler, Kevin Doyle, Jay Smith, Michael Kennedy, Steve Swenson, Jeff Lowe, and Alex Lowe (to name just a few) all eschewed the Alaska Range for the challenges of the Himalaya. Alaska was relatively quiet, and few new routes were established on the big peaks during this time.

Luckily for the evolutionists, things got rolling again and alpine style in Alaska began a renaissance in May, 1994. That month, two new routes were climbed on Mt. Hunter’s north face within a single month. One was a difficult capsule-style affair called the Wall of Shadows that was established to the left of the Moonflower Buttress route. The other embodied elements of refinement that would bring single-push style to the fore in the years to come. Without a tent, but with sleeping bags and bivy sacks, Mark Twight and Scott Backes spent 72 hours on their difficult and committing route, Deprivation. Pure single-push style was employed in 1995, when this author climbed a new route up Denali’s Father and Son’s Wall with Eli Helmuth, spending just 24 hours on that face. The style was further solidified, if not somewhat by accident, in 1996 when I opened a new route on the Northwest Face of the West Buttress while climbing solo. In an extension of the single-push ethic, Twight, Backes, and I sought to climb a bigger, more difficult objective in June, 2000. Sixty hours of climbing gave us the third ascent of the Slovak Route on the 9,000-foot south face of Denali (see article on page 48 of this journal). In a stylistic comparison, the second ascent (and first alpine-style ascent) was made over a seven-day period by Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore only one month prior.

Single-push alpinism in Alaska is still the realm of only a very few climbers. And in fact, it is not new; after all, it was used on the Cassin in 1976 by Porter (36 hours) and Mugs Stump in 1991 (15 hours). Nor is it isolated to Alaska. In 1950, Erich Waschak and Leo Forstenlechner used it on their 18-hour fourth ascent of the Eiger’s north face. Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet made a single-push ascent of Everest from the north in 43 hours round-trip in 1986. In 1992, Slovenians Andrej Štremfelj and Marko Prezelj made a 53-hour round-trip first ascent of the 7181-meter Menlungtse.

So is single-push alpinism relevant to climbing in Alaska? Is it progress, no matter how incremental? To answer this, let’s go back to two of the primary tenets of alpinism: do more with less, and, speed is safety. Alpine style tries to be true to these dictums. Single-push style commits one’s continued existence to their truth. And the fact that this style has contributed to more recent climbing successes than failures confirms it as an evolution. When we dig into it, we discover that alpinists in Alaska have progressed and refined their pursuit. In so doing, they are taking incremental yet important steps back to the roots of alpinism, engaging the mountains with little more that “a rope, a rack, and the clothes on our backs.”

Steve House makes his home in the north Cascadian village of Mazama, Washington. He divides his time between his three passions: alpinism, guiding, and his wife, Anne. He last contributed to The American Alpine Journal in 2000.