Light Traveler

Publication Year: 2002.

Light Traveler

On a long Alaskan single-push ascent, it can feel like forever has come and gone already. Fighting off sleep and dehydration on new and newly freed routes up Denali, the Mini-Moonflower, and Mt. Hunter.

Stephen Koch

Five. That is the number of times I have stopped. Stopped during the coldest, darkest, and most painful time on this journey. Stopped to kick the life back into my dying toes. It feels like I am lifetimes away from safety or flat ground. Here is the upper part of the Cassin Ridge on Denali's southwest face. Here is merely the aftermath of climbing this new route, Light Traveler, with Marko Prezelj.

Marko and I met in February 2001 at the British Mountaineering Council's International Winter Climbers’ Meet in Scotland, a convergence of people from many countries to climb and discuss topics of concern. I was there representing the United States and the American Alpine Club after better-known and stronger climbers had been unable to attend. Though Marko and I didn't have the opportunity to climb together in Scotland, we shared a number of fine moments over libations at the local watering hole.

Once back in the States, I e-mailed Marko and so it was revealed that we both wanted to climb in Alaska, and that our approach to climbing was similar. We both liked to climb alpine style and with minimal gear. We both understood that the lighter you go, the faster you go, and the faster you go, the further you go. Language was not a problem: Marko’s English is excellent. There was, however, a major difference between us: Marko’s greater alpine experience. He has been on the cutting edge of alpine climbing for over a decade. Among many other climbs, he had climbed a new route to the south summit of Kangchenjunga with Andrej Stremfelj in 1991, an ascent that won the inaugural Piolet d’Or award.

I am better known as a snowboard mountaineer, and if something is possible to descend on skis or a snowboard, it isn’t highly technical. Climbing with Marko, I would be able to see what I was capable of as an alpinist, on truly technical terrain, without the added weight of a snowboard.

Jack Tackle had given me the idea and encouragement for a new route on Denali. Jack is not only a huge inspiration but also a legend for his new and difficult routes in the Alaska Range. We work together for Exum Mountain Guides in the Tetons, and I trusted his eye for new routes. As we pored over photographs of Denali’s many faces, we saw that the most logical unclimbed feature was to the left of the Cassin Ridge and to the right of the Denali Diamond. No one had been on the southwest face for 18 years—and there had been no new routes done in single-push style. This was my chance to complete a great climb, in the best style, with a stellar partner. I was ready.

Marko and I flew into base camp on May 26. After finding a deserted campsite we went to work setting up our tents and soon learned that Ian Parnell and Kenton Cool, our neighbors, were approaching their climbs in a fashion similar to ours.

Marko and I wanted to start by attempting a new route on the Mini Moonflower Buttress, a formation that had first been climbed by Parnell and Cool the week before. So we skied across the glacier, where fist-sized chunks of ice covered an area as big as a football field. I kept a wary eye on the hanging glaciers above as I pushed my anaerobic threshold to get through this area.

I gladly offered the first series of leads to Marko. Saying that Marko looks comfortable in the mountain environment is an understatement. He eats up vertical terrain like it is candy. After catching my breath at the top of the first pitch, I told Marko I would feel more comfortable if he put in a bit more gear (another piece!). “I will,” he responded. “But more gear takes more time.” I knew that might mean the difference between success and failure, but not having climbed with Marko until now, I didn’t have the complete trust needed to accept his decisions without question. This would soon change.

Following the rope that snaked around the ice as fast as I could left me breathless at the belay. Yet we were finding our rhythm without even knowing it. The change-overs went smoothly and speaking was hardly necessary. We would comment on the high quality of the climbing or the view, but that was about it. Eating and drinking was done while belaying—we both had Petzl Reverso belaying devices, which allow the lead climber to belay the second with less attention to the rope, since the device locks up when the rope is weighted from below.

The climbing was mostly mixed with good protection in both rock and ice. As the angle kicked back past vertical, I encountered rotten ice. There were no good feet. Every time I kicked, my cramponed boot would slide through an airy mess, leaving all my weight on my frighteningly pumped arms. I was scared I could fall. Fifteen feet below I had equalized a Screamer shock absorbing sling on two pins, but I was above lower-angled rock. If I fell, I would bounce off, and though I would probably only break a leg, that could just as easily mean death up here. I was able to get a decent stick in better ice high above my head, but by now I was too pumped to use it, so I clipped into my teetering tool. As quickly as possible, I punched my fist through the airy mess and slung all of the icicles I could, then added another Screamer to this, clipped it, and gently weighted the contraption with my cramponed foot. This allowed me to reach up high with my left tool for a solid stick.

Now on better ice, I was able to stem out onto the rock with one foot. Pulling the bulge felt great, and relief and gratitude washed over me. The anchor that I set up was good. Marko pulled up beside me. We were on our own and loving it.

It was still my lead. I sorted the gear and unclipped. Just as I started climbing I heard something from above. A huge mushroom the size of a small car was smashing the cliff above us, breaking into smaller pieces as it fell. It hit us just as I dove on Marko and the belay. After it had passed, we decided to continue. I flitted from one protected spot to another. We tried simul-climbing, but it didn’t work well because the necessary gear was difficult to get.

Several more pitches of fun, difficult, mixed climbing and deep snow (including a tunneling section that Marko burrowed through) brought us to the summit ridge. It was double-corniced and nasty. Happy with our achievement, we rappelled directly down the face, reaching camp after twenty-three hours on the go.

This climb, which we named Luna after the moon and inspired by Lemon Luna bars, gave us the bond of trust needed to do further hard routes. Our confidence grew. A few days of rest while watching Ian and Kenton attempt the Moonflower Buttress of Mt. Hunter got us psyched for a go. The Moonflower entails difficult ice climbing along with a couple of A3 rock pitches on a huge graniteand ice-covered wall. Sharpening crampons and axes and adjusting the rack had us anxiously ready in the evening.

The Alaskan summer light is a key factor to climbing technical terrain without stopping. One can climb continuously through the night without the need for headlamps. On the Moonflower we would take bivouac sacks and a stove to melt snow for water.

We started climbing at seven p.m. After several great ice pitches, a mixed pitch brought us to the base of the Prow, one of the two pitches of aid climbing on the route. It was Marko’s lead and he quickly climbed up using his picks in the thin crack. When he arrived at the belay, where it is normal to lower off and pendulum, he clipped in one rope for protection, downclimbed and delicately traversed from one ice patch to another without falling. This was the only pitch on which we hauled a pack; on all the others, the lead climber carried his pack. We did not bring jumars or aiders. We were climbing without any extra gear.

With one of the main technical pitches done, it was time to continue as fast as possible. The second would virtually run up the ice, doing anything to move fast and save time. The beauty of leading in blocks is that the leader is rested and ready to lead again after the second gets up and the gear is sorted. Our rhythm was “on” and we kept moving up the massive wall with, to apply a Twightism, a surgeon’s brutal efficiency.

Mascioli’s Mushroom, as it has been called since the death of Steve Mascioli in 1999, was a danger that we were wary of, but we were able to avoid it by climbing mixed terrain to the left of the normal line. This brought us to the Shaft, two pitches of vertical and overhanging ice that is the ice crux of the route. It was my lead and I was psyched. A rope frozen into the ice offered nice (albeit questionable) protection as I clipped sections of it with a quickdraw.

A few more pitches brought us to the next crux: the Vision, an aid pitch originally climbed with a pendulum. I got a small cam and piton in to safeguard my passage and then went for it. My feet were skating off tiny granite nubbins, but I hung on despite the weight of my pack and managed to reach the ice with a great yell of joy. We had done it! We had freed the aid sections of the Moonflower, the route that Mugs Stump pioneered and that had been called “The Nose Route of the Alpine World.” Now all we had to do was get to the top of the buttress, but first we needed to get to the third icefield to melt snow for water.

We had been on the go for 16 hours with only five liters of water between us. We knew there was a good-sized ledge that Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller had chopped into the third icefield. Marko and I decided to push on rather than stopping at a less comfortable spot on the second icefield.

Arriving at the third icefield, we started chopping out a hollow spot to set the stove. It took quite a lot of time and work; the wind was howling and spindrift crept into every nook and cranny. I tried to light the stove. Nothing. Here we were, 20-odd pitches up the Moonflower Buttress with no sleeping bags and a stove that was spitting gas out the pump. My mental energy drained with the blood in my fingers as I tried to fix the stove. No luck.

We discussed our options: go up or go down. We would be descending the route anyway, so it made sense to continue as high as possible without water. We ate everything we could stomach and as much snow as our mouths could melt. I noticed a metallic taste in my frozen mouth and spit blood: I had been chewing my cheeks and tongue.

After paring our gear down to the absolute minimum, we took off, climbing with a sense of urgency we hadn’t had before. A traversing pitch brought us to the exit pitches. From there we slogged up the upper snowfield, arriving at the Cornice Bivy, tired but happy, after 25 hours of climbing.

After a pow-wow, we decided that going to the summit would be too great of a risk; we were already pushing it by going without water for so long. Time to get off the mountain.

Eleven hours of rappelling brought us to bottom of the face. Though we had not made it to the summit, we were elated at our achievement and skied into camp just as everyone was getting up. Ian and Kenton prepared pancakes, an exchange that would become a regularity between us.

We were really tired and needed several days of rest. Had our expedition ended there, we would have been thrilled. Two good routes in the Alaska Range is a good season, but a new route and freeing the Moonflower felt superb. Our confidence soared.

Ian and Kenton set off up Denali to try a new route on the Father and Son’s Wall. Steve House and Rolando Garibotti were waiting for good weather to try a single-push repeat of Foraker’s Infinite Spur. Having people around climbing in a similar style was really inspiring. It felt like family. We were taking greater risks because climbing in the best style mattered. We were climbing on the shoulders of the great pioneers of the range: Stump, Tackle, Cassin, Haston, Scott.

In order to acclimatize better we planned to climb to the top of Denali. Slogging up to the 14,000-foot camp was the most unpleasant part of the journey so far. I don’t like carrying or dragging much weight, but it was necessary if we wanted to spend much time up high on the mountain. Marko was ahead of me as we headed up to the 17 Camp. He reached it and passed me on his descent while I was still going up. At 17 I met my friend Forrest McCarthy, who invited me in for dinner with his clients. After dinner he offered me a place to sleep, which I gladly accepted. The following day I hiked to Denali Pass and climbed the ridge up to the plateau, and on the following evening from 14, Marko left at 3 a.m., reached the summit, and got back at 10 a.m. He was not going for a speed record—but might have beaten it anyway. He climbed the entire way in his down pants. “I was farting the whole way,” he said later, “and was happy to have the company.” When he took off his pants the “company” was still around.

The weather was continuing to hold. A four-day storm was forecasted but nothing happened. Every day was sunny. We rested, ate well, and caught up with friends over many chess matches and big meals.

Finally it was time to go. Our plan was simple. We wanted to leave 14 Camp, climb the rib to 15,500 feet, descend the Wickwire Route to the base of the southwest face, and climb a new route up the face to the top of the wall where it meets the upper Cassin Ridge. From there, we would continue to the summit. We left at 7 a.m., taking basically the same rack we had on the Moonflower Buttress but with a second pump and a bit more fuel. We had one 60-meter 9.6-mm rope with a 50-meter 5.5-mm haul line that could be used to rappel if necessary.

Getting through the lower Wickwire was both tricky and dangerous. Two scary crevasse crossings, some downclimbing below seracs, a rappel over a bergschrund, and a sprint under the big southwest face seracs brought us to the base of the wall five hours after leaving 14. We simul-climbed for about 600 feet to the bottom of our chosen line. The granite was of the highest quality I had seen anywhere.

As we got ready to start, my stomach was acting up, so I relieved myself, but the cramps wouldn’t go away. This is what happens when someone is really scared, I thought, but I didn’t feel scared; I felt excited. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else on this planet at that moment. That would soon change.

With my stomach feeling like it did and the route looking as steep as it did, I kindly offered the sharp end to Marko, who readily accepted. The route went straight up into a chimney that stopped and then to a left-facing corner with a huge roof. The wall looked smooth for the feet, and there wasn’t much ice, either.

Watching Marko on this first pitch didn’t help my stomach any. He skillfully worked his way up to and around the big corner. Once around, he let out a joyous and relief-filled scream. Marko later said this was the “hardest free pitch I have led in the mountains.” He hauled his pack and I followed. I wished he had hauled my pack, too, for that pitch took more out of me than the diarrhea had. Can you say “flash pump”?

Marko led another two difficult pitches. There was a drip of water at one of these belays with which I wanted to fill our bottles, but the need to dodge careening ice chunks from high above made it difficult. The drip was good enough to drink from if I pressed my lips to the wall, but every time I tried I got a mouthful of silt and pebbles. I filled a couple of bottles so things could settle out before it was time for me to climb.

Marko handed me the rack and off I went. After about 30 seconds it was time to drop my pants again. My stomach was still not right. I hadn’t shat myself in the mountains, and now was no time for that with well over 7,000 feet of climbing and a descent to go before any real cleansing would be possible. Fear was not part of my makeup at this point, but I was frustrated with my bad stomach and loose bowels. The only thing to do was to climb.

Light was still shining as I led. My second pitch was the “Shower” pitch. It started out innocently enough, a fine-looking vertical column with a blob of ice and snow at the top and roofs. Soon, however, I was forced to move left into vertical terrain with thin cracks. My pack was weighing me down. I hung it on a piece of gear and continued into the wetness. What started out as a drip that I thought could be avoided turned into a constant unwanted and potentially dangerous companion. My shell was in the pack, along with my belay jacket and balaclava. I was climbing in a Schoeller top that was getting soaked. By the time I made the belay my jacket was icy armor, not good with the sun setting and the pack not hauling well. The pack kept getting stuck during hauling, which meant that Marko had to manually help it. Marko was furious when he arrived, yelling, “Stephen, this was stupid.” I was taken aback and hurt because it had been a difficult and serious lead. I was wet and cold and yelled back, “Stephen not stupid” and “Good job Stephen!” with, according to Marko, a cynical smile that made him realize he would have said the same thing if he were in my position. He immediately got where I was coming from and all was good again. I told him I hadn’t hauled many packs and apologized. The temperature dropped in the Alaskan twilight but we were able to ward off the cold with movement.

We were moving so well on these pitches that neither of us put on our belay jacket. We ate and drank while belaying so as to not slow our progress. Climbing in blocks of three pitches each was working well and we were both getting good, difficult leads.

After the first several pitches the angle eased, but still there was not an easy pitch. Pitch after pitch, the climbing continued. Working our way up this endless wall into the unknown was thrilling.

We had been climbing through the night and now looked for a place to brew up. Our water was gone and we needed to hydrate. But we weren’t finding any places to brew. It was cold now and stopping would mean no movement. No movement means getting cold to the core. The belay jackets wouldn’t be enough, so we just didn’t stop. It wasn’t really discussed. Thirsty? Check. Tired? Check. Hallucinating? Not yet. Still enjoying the climbing? Check.

Marko was leading again. I really wanted to stop and brew. I was so thirsty and didn’t want a repeat of the Moonflower dehydration session. Still, there was no good place to brew. We were looking for any flat rock or place to hold the stove. We didn’t want to stand and watch the water boil. If we were going to brew, we wanted to at least be sitting.

The stone wasn’t lacking much, even in the darkest twilight of the Alaskan night. The rock was made for drytooling. My warm feet were making me happy. Cold toes had always been a problem for me. Before this trip I put thermo-flex liners in my plastic shells. This combination, along with overboots, had me smiling with joy, the joy of knowing that on many other occasions I would be swinging my feet to force warm blood into drained toes. Not now. Everything on this expedition was going perfectly, from the landing on the airstrip to our freeclimbing the Moonflower, to now warm feet. The energy needed to swing a big leg like mine would be needed for breaking trail up higher.

I put my shell on and followed Marko up the first of two triangular icefields. After traversing leftward, we climbed together on easy terrain until Marko could find a belay. The rock quality deteriorated for several hundred feet, and I knocked off several rocks that narrowly missed Marko.

The pitches seemed endless and all we wanted to do was to find a place to brew up. We were going on 27 hours of straight climbing with our original five liters plus a couple of additional bottles from the drip. This was not enough to keep properly hydrated, but even double that wouldn’t be enough to keep hydrated with the energy we were expending at this altitude.

I led up snow-covered rock for 200 feet, where the angle eased. I wasn’t going to stop until I found a place to rest and brew. Big boulders were sticking out of the snow, but they were all downsloping. Finally I decided to head for the biggest one I could see with the hope that it would meet our needs. It did. I climbed around to the top and sat down, bringing up the rope for Marko hand over hand (there was no place to anchor).

We each kicked out a place to sit, Marko below and me above with the stove. The first thing we made with our precious water was tea, black tea that neither of us wanted. We desperately needed to drink, but we had brought black tea instead of herbal tea. It was triple strong and we dumped it out. Hydrating is the number one thing we needed to do, and we had just dumped out drinkable liquids. Sometimes you just don’t argue with yourself.

Sitting on our packs in the sun with zero wind, we enjoyed our spectacular position on this magnificent mountain. I thought about the other climbs done on this massive wall. The Denali Diamond, the Roberts-McCartney, the Cassin Ridge, and Mugs’ solo of that route. These climbs and climbers set the path for us to follow. We were taking things a step further with the first new route done in single-push style. Below us we viewed the Valley of Death, waiting to see the inevitable serac avalanches sweep across. I kept melting snow, filling bottles. We drank. Finally, we ate: potatoes, garlic, sharp cheddar and tuna; two Ramen, six soups, many GUs and candy bars, two hot chocolates, two coffees for Marko, GU-2-0 drink supplement with electrolytes, bagels and cream cheese. Yummy in the tummy!

I would nod off for moments here and there, but neither of us were in a comfortable or safe enough position to sleep. I wasn’t thinking about much more than trying to keep the pot from spilling over in the soft snow. Our fuel was down to about a third of a bottle. We would get one more brew stop. The warm sun filled us with energy and warmth, but now it was time to go.

On our way again at about 4 p.m., we realized the sun had softened the snow. Our crampons were balling up terribly. Every step required a blow to the crampons with the axe. We were roped together and swapping leads. After a few hours we got back into technical climbing. Marko led off on another beautiful mixed pitch. The Cassin Ridge was over to our right and the upper southwest face was to our left. Fatigue was setting into my head rather than my body; I was tired of belaying, tired of climbing, and ready to be done.

I pulled out the stove, only to discover that all the fuel had leaked out of the bottle due to the increased pressure from our rapid ascent. I hadn’t let the pressure out after our earlier cooking session. Again we were nearly out of water and getting dehydrated.

The Alaskan night was upon us and we had to climb to the Upper Cassin on our own, as we had done on the entire route. We were not climbing on the backs of others who climbed days, weeks, or years before. We had no ledges chopped, steps kicked in the deep snow, or topo in hand. It was Marko and me, alone. There wasn’t a third person to help break trail, talk with on belay, split the load with, or to snatch a nap while belaying. There was no napping while belaying. We had dived into the exciting unknown of a new route. Commitment was complete. If something went wrong, we had only ourselves to save us. Our margin of safety was small, but we would have had it no other way. We did not use any of our eight pitons. We had no jumars. We were going to climb the route, not jug. We hauled the pack on only three pitches.

Several more moderate mixed pitches and we were at the top of our route, where it meets with the upper Cassin. We left our 10-pound rope right at the top of the last pitch. Didn’t even coil it; I just belayed Marko up and untied. I didn’t have enough emotional energy to feel bad about it.

We had to keep it together. No water again. Low light, now breaking trail. We were on our own and feeling like the mountain was ours. We only had to get off it to feel good about it.

Marko got ahead while I stopped to swing my feet. My toes were cold. It would have been easy just to climb, not heeding the cold toes. But I knew better. That would have been lazy and we had done too much great climbing to get sloppy or lazy. It would have tainted the ascent to get frostbite.

We were climbing with our belay jackets and balaclavas now. There were no places to stop and rest, and, even if there had been, we wouldn’t have been able to use them. It was too cold to stop for more than a few minutes.

The light got low and all turned into a blue-gray haze, both inside my head and out. My peripheral vision was going, as was my ability to judge near distance. A couple of times I had to catch myself with my spike as I fell forward. If we had listened to our bodies, we would have fallen asleep every time we stopped, and then died from the fall.

After swinging my feet warm, I would begin hiking again, only to slowly have my toes get cold after an hour or so. The swinging was taking valuable energy away from me, but I would have to have enough. I have kept my feet warm in many cold situations; this would be no different. It seemed like forever had come and gone.

Marko waited and again we were together. He would lead, breaking trail for a while, then it would be my turn. No words needed to be spoken; we were saving our energy for upward movement. The thought of not being able to finish didn’t creep into my head. I was suffering like never before, mentally and physically shattered, just wanting to get off this mountain. It was relentless and never-ending; the snow would go from neve for a few moments to breakable knee-deep the next. We didn’t want to have to think any longer. Just get us off this face!

Finally, slowly, we worked our way up the Cassin to the summit ridge. Sunshine! Flat ground! Marko was sitting on his pack. I dropped my pack, sat down with a sigh of relief, and was startled as Marko knocked me over with a huge bearhug. We had done it. Our new route was nearly complete. All that remained was a fifteen-minute walk to the summit.

We were wobbly on the flat ground for the first few steps. On top we snapped a few quick photos and then were off. Forty-three hours of climbing, 48 including the “approach.” It took us three hours to get back to 14, where we were treated to egg burritos and liquids from friends.

We were back. From where? A new route? Or an experience that Marko and I alone hold inside us? I have tried to explain certain aspects of the climb to people, but to go deep, I am not yet ready or able. Marko and I know what went on, and that is good enough for me. Now you know a bit about our adventure.

Summary of statistics:

Area: Mt. McKinley, Alaska Range

Ascents: Mini-Moonflower: first ascent of Luna (2,200 feet, V M7 WI6+ AO).

Mt. Hunter: free ascent of the Moonflower Buttress (4,500 feet to cornice bivy, M7 WI6).

Mt. McKinley: first ascent of Light Traveler (8,500 feet, M7+ WI6).

All ascents by Stephen Koch and Marko Prezelj.