American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mt. Hunter , East Face, The Prey

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002

Mt. Hunter, east face, The Prey. It all happened rather fast. Paul Figg and I arrived in Alaska on May 13, and two days later we were on the West Fork of the Tokositna, watching Paul Roderick’s plane disappearing down-glacier. We were the second climbing party ever to land in the cirque under Mt. Hunter’s east face, the first being Tackle and Donini en route to Diamond Arête. The cirque is a serious place, swept by avalanches and tight for landing. We did as Tackle advised, and, dispensing with any sort of base camp, landed, packed, and racked, intent on goingover the top to the Kahiltna. We had seven days’ scant rations, nine days’ gas, and a bivy tent. Thirty minutes after landing we crossed the bergschrund.

Our aim was to climb one of the two prominent buttresses to the right of Diamond Arête to the east ridge. We chose the rightmost of the two, as the left buttress, although its lower third was split by a compelling icy couloir, had a long section of corniced ridge at midheight.

The first day gave moderate snow climbing, interspersed with short, steep, rocky steps, initially up the right side of the buttress, then across the crest into a shallow couloir on the left flank. We found a good tent site under a serac just below the crest. The next day began with a late start and a deviation onto the crest and the world of frozen froth. We hastily returned to the shallow couloir, vowing to keep off the mushrooms. Back in the couloir we moved together, placing intermediate gear against the threat of being knocked off our feet by the hissing spindrift avalanches. The climb’s crux began, just before midnight, where the couloir petered out in a basin of steep, insecure snow beneath a steep headwall. A worrying struggle got us to a belay beneath a promising chimney/groove system. Three superb pitches of snowed-up rock, thinly iced mixed ground, and excellent steep blue ice, overall about Scottish V, took us onto the horribly mushroomed crest and into the sunlight of our third day. Tired and dehydrated we stopped to brew, but grew paranoid about what the sun would do to our flimsy perch and moved on. The climbing on the crest was grim. Belays were nonexistent, and the ice had far too much air in the mix. We were now level with the east ridge, which was far away to our right. At three that afternoon, 24 hours after leaving our last bivy, we reached a rocky outcrop below the crest, chopped a totally inadequate tent ledge, and got into the tent. Two minutes later we got out and chopped some more.

The fourth day started with the most photogenic pitch I’ve ever seen. On a sunny morning, high on a new route in the fabled Alaska Range, a cascade of blue ice flows between glistening walls of white granite. A pity that we packed the camera up on day two. This cover-pitch led us through the outcrop to more insecure snow. Four pitches later we joined the east ridge as it swept up from our right, and were rewarded by massive views of Denali’s south face.

The climb up the east ridge to the summit was straightforward. We bivouacked once and reached the summit at 8:15 p.m. on day five. We stopped on top just long enough to let our photographs of the west ridge blow away, and then descended to the plateau.

Our descent of the West Ridge route took place nearly entirely in thick cloud and light snowfall. Route finding in these conditions was hard; we often had to sit for hours waiting for a brief clearing in order to set our course. The compass proved essential. On some days we were able to move for only an hour or so. However, our limited food supply encouraged us to keep inching down rather than sitting it out. We eventually reached the Kahiltna Glacier in the afternoon of day 10 and trudged round to base camp and the gluttonous joys of a cache bag full of bagels, eggs, and smoked salmon.

We called the route The Prey (Alaskan 5, Scottish V, 900m to East Ridge).

Malcolm Bass, Alpine Club

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