Mt. McKinley, Infinity Direct to Upper West Rib. Valeriy Babanov and I landed at Kahiltna International on May 23, with ambitious plans for new routes on Hunter and Denali. The weather was unsettled, so we figured our time would be best spent by acclimatizing on the West Butt. Two days later we were ensconced at the 14k camp. Weather turned us around on two separate summit attempts, leaving us with wounded pride from being denied on the normal route. Things were getting tiresome, but we finally summited on our third try, in -40°C temperatures, making the round trip from 14k in 9.5 hours. Now, finally, to quote the inimitable Scott Backes, “We could get off the Butt and go climbing.”
After resting at the airstrip for a couple of days, we packed light packs and skied up the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna to the base of the West Rib (our chosen line lay on the recessed face left, i.e., west, of the Rib). The start of the route is a bit of a terrain trap, and we were hoping to start shortly after midnight, but during the evening a thick fog settled over everything. In the end this may have been for the best, as at least we got a good night’s sleep. We crossed the ‘schrund (3,100m) at the un-alpine hour of 11 a.m. and swam up through thick spindrift over interesting thin ice. Escaping the garbage chute couloirs as soon as possible, we gained a slight rib which, we hoped, would offer safe passage up the face. The climbing was never desperate but always interesting: steep deep snow, calf-burning ice, short sharp rock steps. And it went on and on and on, much like this report. Clouds kept moving in and out, but for the most part the weather held. It was not until we topped out at the base of the Upper West Rib (4,700m) at 1 a.m. that we received the full blast of the storm that had been moving in over the last few hours. We had originally hoped to rest and brew for a few hours before continuing up the Rib, but under the circumstances we decided to declare the route finished (Infinity Direct, AI4) and to traverse off to the 14k camp. Even bailing was not devoid of interest, as we blundered among ice cliffs in wind, snow, and that weird Alaskan twilight, but eventually around 4 a.m. we stumbled into camp. Locating a tent belonging to some of Valeriy’s Russian friends, we had little compunction inviting ourselves in for what was left of the night: five people crammed into a three-man tent.
There is not much more to tell. The following day we postholed down to base camp through more crappy weather (realizing how much getting around without skis really sucks). When the weather finally improved a couple of days later, we borrowed skis and toured up the Northeast Fork to retrieve ours. We flew out that evening to veggie burgers in Talkeetna and were back in Calgary on June 12. After this first taste of Alaska I will definitely be back for more (hopefully next time there will actually be ice on Hunter).
Raphael Slawinski, Canada, AAC