American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Peak 12,380' (Kahiltna Queen), South Face Couloir and Distant Lights

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

Peak 12,380' (Kahiltna Queen*), South Face Couloir and Distant Lights. It’s maddening how many things can go wrong in this game of ours. The weather is a tough opponent, and gets the upper hand at some point. Snow is forever fickle. Personal fitness never seems right. Someone forgets crucial gear. Someone gets some sort of bug. At least one logistic element—transport, permits, or people—proves impossible. Something, usually important, breaks.

Sitting beside Paul Roderick as he skimmed the Cessna over the icefall that guards the upper section of the Tokositna Glacier and headed back to Talkeetna, Malcolm Bass and I couldn’t believe how different this trip had been. The whole thing had gone right. Two new classic lines on the south face of Kahiltna Queen, climbed in a style which for us was new and fun, in a spell of perfect weather, superb cracks, only 13 days since leaving the U.K. We couldn’t think of anything that had gone wrong.

Malcolm and Paul Figg had seen the south face of The Queen in 2001, when they were grinding their way up the east ridge of Hunter. Their photos were encouraging, showing an 1,100m face of soaring granite buttresses split by at least two compelling couloir lines. The face had only been climbed once, in May 1977, when Alan Kearney, Mai Ulrich, and Chuck Sink climbed the broad gully on the far left side of the face to a junction with the southwest ridge and continued to the summit. The couloir lines looked eminently doable, though both had invisible sections that added to the intrigue.

Malcolm and I sat outside the tent staring at the face in late April. To get a better look into the couloirs’ obscured recesses, we’d skied down the glacier toward Mt. Huntington and back up toward the stunted southeast side of the Mini-Moonflower. We were sure the right-hand line would go and planned for a 24-hour climb, taking a skinny rack, twin 7.5mm ropes, duvets, a gas canister and lightweight burner, a kettle, 15 GU’s each, 2 liters of carbo drink each, cheese and nuts, a bothy bag, chocolate espresso beans, and caffeine tablets.

We’d never set off to climb something like this light and fast, but during the 15-minute ski to the base, the advantages quickly became obvious. With Pertex shells over thermals and light mountain marathon sacks we made good time up the 300m snow apron, before skirting sideways into the couloir proper. There was a moment of doubt as the debris funneling down the couloir increased, and we questioned our decision to start climbing at 9:15 a.m. However, up was the safest option, and the climbing got better. Combining moving together and long pitches, mostly on moderate snow surrounded by fantastic rock architecture, we reached the narrower upper section of the couloir and steep mixed steps of classic Scottish 4. From there we broke right onto the mixed upper face, weaving around blocky steps and encountering the spice of bullet-hard ice. The broad summit ridge was heaven, as we’d been on the go for 18hours. A surprisingly easy stroll/stagger led us past an Alaskan-special ridgecrest crevasse to the summit. Scuttling down to where we’d crested the ridge, we tried to sleep in the bothy bag. After four hours of kind of sleeping, kind of resting, we gave up and started to abseil. On the way up, just round the corner from the crux step, we hadn’t noticed a commodious ledge under a protective wall, with a perfect gear crack and perfect bowl shape. We saw it now, and spent three hours sleeping, brewing, and drinking. The rest of the descent was easier, though time-consuming, and downclimbing and abseils got us back to the tent at 1:30 a.m.

We spent the next four days eating and sleeping, with a light storm and a change to colder, northerly winds. This right-hand couloir, South Face Couloir, had been superb. The left-hand couloir was to be even better.

Planning to leave at a more sensible 5:00 p.m., we got bored and headed off at midday. The couloir was narrower, with more pitches of superb ice, again set amid wild architecture. A steep pitchreminiscent of Mad Hatter’s Gully led to a 15m vertical step. Placing two screws,

Malcolm dispatched this obvious crux, and I would have followed in the same style if it weren’t for a pulled tool leaving me with a deep cut above my eye and blood pouring. But this was the trip where everything was going right, so the cut wasn’t allowed to be deep, and the blood had to clot quickly, which it did.

From a broad triangular amphitheater we followed the narrowing left branch, and steep mixed chimneys led to the only loose section, a shattered col (“Crockery Col”), followed by half a pitch of badly stacked washing-up. With darkness gathering, the ground changed as we left the gully below. We spent the night weaving slowly through what from below we’d named “The Great White”—600m of complex rocky spurs, blocky steps, and exposed hanging snowfields. Breaking onto the ridge, this time in brilliant dawn, was breathtaking, and we grinned and gazed. We also were wasted and forsook the short trudge to the summit this time, heading down South Face Couloir to the perfect ledge and another brew-and-sleep fest.

The descent was even slower than last time, with cruddy snow meaning more abseils to swallow our diminishing rack. Exhaustion and auditory hallucinations threatened to spoil things. Flat ground arrived at the right time, and we collapsed into the tent after 40 hours on the go, feasting on anything not sweet, after sucking GUs for so long, cranking up the CD player, grinning inanely.

Then things got even better. A fortuitous radio call saw Paul’s Cessna back within a few hours. Hastily thrown-together gear stuffed in the plane, we were off to beers, Greg’s 40th birthday party in Talkeetna’s sublime birch woods, and more grinning.

Simon Yearsley, The Alpine Club (U.K.)

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