American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Thunder Mountain, Deadbeat and Ring of Fire; Mt. Huntington, West Face Couloir

United States, Alaska, Denali National Park

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Kelly Cordes
  • Climb Year: 2001
  • Publication Year: 2002

“Sweet Jesus, man, this blows. I hate alpine climbing.” It had become our trip’s mantra. But short memory resulted in Scott DeCapio and I climbing three routes from the Tokositna Glacier, all in pure alpine style, of course. We climbed light, leader and follower both with packs, and all free.

On the night of May 27 we headed for the obvious couloir right (east) of the central-spur rock buttress on Thunder Mountain’s 3,500-foot south face. (The bottom of the couloir is labeled “3" in the photo on p. 205 of the 2001 AAJ.) After soloing 1,000 feet to the first ice step of the couloir’s left fork, we roped up. The next 1,500 feet rose at 50 to 70 degrees, with vertical steps. It was followed by a broad basin leading left, toward the summit, that was unseen from the glacier but offered 700 feet of phenomenal mixed climbing. Even the steep exit bulges had bomber névé. We finished with obligatory scary snow groveling and a short, scrappy Grade 6 mixed crux. A final 200 feet of nasty snow swimming brought us to the summit, eight hours and five roped pitches after starting. Thunder had reportedly been summited only once before, and the topo map didn’t indicate easy ground up top, yet we had convinced ourselves we could simply walk off. Feeling idiotic we rappelled the route as the sun gained the couloir, thus descending in terror, along with chunks of snow, ice, and rock. Relieved, we reached our skis 14 hours after leaving and named the route Deadbeat, after our hero and role model in “The Big Lebowski.” And perhaps after ourselves.

After a meager, failed attempt on the narrow cleft in the rock buttress immediately left (west) of the British couloir route Dream Sacrifice, site of Malcolm Daly’s epic fall and rescue in May 1999 (2000 AAJ, pg. 206), we returned on the night of June 1 to try again. Scoping the route from below, we assumed the climbing leading to the obvious crux rock band would be easy. Time for new binoculars. Between moderate sections we found considerable Grade 6 terrain. At least it was mostly quality climbing… mostly. The crux was a desperate pitch of overhanging roofs and flakes, a full grade harder than anything until then, though with good pro. My joy at having a top rope for Scott’s brilliant lead soon ended. The next pitch, though at least a half grade easier, was gripping—steep and stacked with death blocks. Scott belayed in a narrow funnel below me, the only available spot, hiding behind his 15-pound pack. A worthless, overhanging, shite snow-ice-mushroom offwidth against smooth rock finished the pitch. Moderate ground led to a full- on battle through steep, unprotectable hell-snow and the summit. We were worked, and after 17 hours and nine pitches of character-building effort we relaxed and brewed for two hours on top.

We rappelled and down-climbed Deadbeat in the shade, hitting the skis 24 hours after leaving. I’d been saving a route name from one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. The name seemed fitting: Ring of Fire.

Paul Roderick then flew us to Mt. Huntington, which supposedly hadn’t been climbed in under a day. It was an obvious candidate for a lightweight sprint. But we did know that its summit is notoriously hard to reach. We left our 8,200-foot camp at 10:30 p.m. on June 8, crossed the ‘schrund an hour later, and roped-up at the prominent ice ramp/couloir splitting the west face. Motivated by pizza and beer, we figured if we pulled this off, we could feel good about flying out. The couloir, with fixed pro and bomber moderate ice (a couple of steps of WI4, then easier), was a blast. Five hours from camp, we were starting up the broad summit slopes. These final 1,000 vertical feet proved terrifying, unquestionably the most challenging climbing of the route, with steep, unconsolidated mank snow, worthless ice, cornices, and, of course, no protection. Vertical trenching through collapsing sugar. At least we were tied together for the potential 4,000-footer. Now I understand why folks sometimes stop at, ahem, “the end of the difficulties” on Huntington. We summited at 7:30 a.m. but, not psyched about any descent route, we were unable to enjoy the spectacular view. The sun would hit the face in a few hours, and at this point in the trip we felt worked. Scott’s deadpan statement said it all, “I want my mom so bad right now. I hate alpine climbing.” The downclimbing part of reversing our path was a bit unnerving, but 16 hours after leaving camp we were back, enjoying whiskey and a fresh bag of Twizzlers. In an unprecedented display of will power, I had kept them unopened for a final celebration. “Yeah, ya know, alpine climbing ain’t so bad.”

Kelly Cordes, AAC

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