Mt. Hunter, Wall of Shadows, free to third ice band; and Mt. Huntington, West Face Couloir. “It’s the best day of the season,” our pilot commented as Russ Mitrovich and I flew into the Alaska Range. It was May 12, and we were headed for the Tokositna Glacier and the West Face Couloir (a.k.a. Nettle-Quirk) on Mt. Huntington. We awoke the next morning to a still, clear sky, got our kit together, and left camp at noon. We climbed the initial slopes, before roping up at the base of the couloir. The couloir was perfect 70° ice with an occasional vertical step. We rounded the corner and stopped for a brew in the Alcove. The brew turned into a nap, and four hours later we were off again, summiting in the early morning. A bunch of V threads later we were back in camp in time for lunch. By noon the next day we were off again, flying under perfect blue skies toward Kahiltna International.
Our primary plan was to climb Denali, but the north buttress of Mt. Hunter was undeniably drawing us in. With the weather still perfect, we figured we might as well be climbing instead of towing sleds and acclimatizing on the Big One. We skied up the next morning with packs ready to go, aiming for the Moonflower route. The lower section was totally out of shape, in part because of a huge rockfall and also because of a very warm and dry spring. Our eyes were continually diverted to the Wall of Shadows, which had considerably more ice and looked to be in awesome shape. So off we went. We took the same variant start as Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore, who had made a very fast and mostly free second ascent of the Wall of Shadows the season before. The climbing was perfect, and we were moving fast. We made it to the base of the Crystal Highway, chopped the ice off a sloping rock ledge, and called it home. The next morning I headed up what I thought was the Crystal Highway. Our only topo was a bad picture of thenorth buttress, and it wasn’t helping. Three pitches later the Somewhere Else Wall, which I had hoped to be standing at the base of, was indeed somewhere else. So with tails between our legs we rapped off. Luckily, Kevin Mahoney had just arrived in base camp and provided the missing details, telling us about an awesome bivy at the top of the Crystal Highway.
So, off again for another try. The climbing was comfortably familiar, and we were perched inside the wildest snow mushroom at the top of the Crystal Highway by early evening. We had easily freed a couple of the aid sections lower on the wall, and now the Somewhere Else Wall was the last crux section. The next morning the weather finally turned for the worse, and a thick fog set in. I headed down from the bivy and began traversing left (I traversed in higher than the original start) on a system of ledges linked by blank-looking rock sections. I got solid rock gear in and started teetering across the solid granite on edges only big enough for half of the first tooth of my picks. I kept waiting for the big swing that only came at the end of the pitch, when I finally got my first stick in solid ice. Yee Ha! Another short challenging mixed pitch, and we were on our way to the third ice band. The skies began to dump, and spindrift was building fast. While we were climbing the third ice band toward the last pitches of the Moonflower route, we looked back down at total whiteout. We were a little gripped about finding our way down, and the storm was growing. We decided to bail, and a combination of endless stoppers and V threads deposited us safely back in the horizontal world. A few hours after arriving in base camp we were laughing as the skies unloaded and a four-day storm moved in.