American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley's Northwest Face, Father and Sons Wall, The Great White Fright

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2004

Mt. McKinley’s northwest face, Father and Sons Wall, The Great White Fright. Having barely survived the crux of any Alaskan trip, we dragged ourselves from the acrid atmosphere of the Fairview and flew to Kahiltna base camp. Exchanging hangover for altitude, we caught our first glimpse of the Father and Sons Wall while acclimatizing. After 10 days of bad weather, with plenty more forecast, we were looking for a short sharp hit.

With a predicted weather window of 24 hours or so, it would have to be light, fast, and sexy. Packing two duvets, a bivi sac, a stove, six tortillas, and 20 chocolate bars, we set off from 11,000' on the West Buttress. Five hours later we had descended and crossed to the base of the 6,500' Father and Sons Wall. Ours was to be a great-looking line of unclimbed ice runnels linking three rock bands, but first we had to dash a few hundred feet up the enclosed gully that splits the

vast walls of the Father and Sons to the left and the Washburn to the right. For those few minutes we would be at the mercy of the “Howitzer.” This huge serac wall, teetering 6,000 feet above, had been silent; indeed there seemed little evidence of recent shelling. I was in front and looked up as I heard a distant rumble.

“Oh my God!” An almighty plume had already gathered, as chunks of serac ricocheted down the gully. Subsidiary plumes and missiles were firing out of the vast white chaos as it gathered speed and volume. We were in Hollywood, part of an impressive and quite realistic spe- cial-effects and stunt sequence. It was like that bit in the movie, K2.

I ran to the side with adrenalin-fueled speed, but there was nowhere to run, kid, nowhere to hide. I thrashed at the rock wall looking for a crack and hammered my axe in as far as possible. A quick glance down and Paul had run to the side and was scaling a vertical ice smear protected by a small rock rib, but he was in the narrows.

A glance up and “Oh boy, it's a biggun.” The avalanche filled the gully, the surging mass reaching maybe a hundred meters up the flanks. I braced; this was it.

It seemed to take forever to arrive; I suppose 6,000 feet is a long way to come down. A rush of wind hit us before the real onslaught. And then a myriad of internal vortices, velocities, and vacuums pulled us and sucked the air from our lungs as we were pummeled and sandblasted. But no big hits. It lasted an age, and even once it had passed, a fine tail of powder whipped around us for some time.

Looking down, I saw a crusted snowman starting to make his way up the slope toward me. There was never any doubt about continuing, as neither of us fancied descending the gully and crossing the debris in the basin below. The quickest way out was up. Besides, we had barely swung an ice tool yet.

The remaining 6,000 feet went in a blur of squeaky ice runnels, tricky mixed pitches, the odd slush-puppy icefall, and finally a calf-wrenching treadmill of blue ice.

With only a couple of brief rests, we reached the top of the face not a moment too soon. Terribly aware of our exhausted state, we were not keen on being caught by weather, which was quickly deteriorating. Sleep deprivation and fatigue had been haunting us, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to shrug off the hallucinations, head spins, and general apathy. So the last thing we needed was ferocious heat and knee-deep breakable crust, but there you go.

Eventually we reached the West Buttress, and after a straightforward descent back to our tent, we finished our journey after about 50 hours of almost continuous climbing and 62 without sleep. We graded the route alpine ED, for whatever that’s worth. [Editor’s note: None of the Father and Sons Wall routes have continued to the summit of Mt. McKinley.]

Guy Willett, U.K. and The Fairview

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