American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mt. Hunter, Southeast Spur, Third Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Mt. Hunter, Southeast Spur, Third Ascent. Jeff apple Benowitz and I started up the initial couloir of the Southeast Spur on May 24. Once on the ridge proper, a few pitches of snow and mixed climbing brought us to the base of a 350-foot headwall. The first pure aid moves looked down an impressive and airy 2,000-foot drop. Jeff dangled from an A1 overhang, then swam up a corner gushing with water. We found a small ledge and called it home. Our first night on the route had us almost spooning because one quarter of the Bibler was hanging over the great beyond. After more A1 with occasional free moves and easy mixed climbing, the second day brought us to the top of the headwall. Jeff snapped the hammer off his ice tool. I accidentally trundled a rock that chopped 65 feet off our rope. The remaining 135 feet had many mushy spots of questionable strength. Commitment was not a big problem from there; bailing would have been as difficult as continuing.

A section called “The Court of the Lords” traversed horizontally with steep snow walls and small rock outcroppings. While we had much better conditions than the previous parties, we encountered everything from plastic ice to unconsolidated corn snow. We reverted to a night schedule because the snow was even worse during the day. Using a Fairbanks belay (the rope threaded between protrusions on the ridge), we weaved across the sharp and often heinously corniced ridge. Pickets or deadman-type devices proved mostly worthless in the unconsolidated fluff that graced a lot of the ridgetop; they were, however, far superior to ice tools when mining up steep, shitty snow, and we used them the same way we would use the shaft of an ice tool.

We groveled up to stand on the South Ridge. Officially, we had completed the Southeast Spur, but it only marked a middle point in the climb. The South Ridge lay ahead. Waterman had done the first ascent of the South Ridge, too. It resembled a troupe of cone-hatted gnomes who had been tortured, strung on a line, and frozen in hell. There was no respite in sight for us.

The famed “Happy Cowboys Pinnacle” was only a few difficult rope lengths away from our initial camp on the South Ridge. Snaking, fluttering blades of snow and rock radiated out in all directions along this stretch of ridge. Small portions of the pinnacle needed to be scooted across cowboy-style; Jeff led a foot-wide piece of snow with vertical sides by straddling it and spurring his way forward. As it is theoretically safe for the second person, I walked the tight rope upright. An enormous adrenaline buzz fueled me as we polished off the next section of ridge and made camp within sight of the end.

On the ninth day of the trip, we tackled the final obstacle, the “Changabang Arête,” a 900- foot arête composed of all the alpine mediums. There were rock moves, some sloppy ridge, and several hundred feet of orgasmic ice. The order of the day was traversing up and left over castle-like fortifications of snow and ice that steepened to near vertical, with one section of overhanging styrofoam snow. Eventually, it was Jeff’s lead again. I begged it from him. The rest of the route consisted of moderate, solid blue ice.

I belayed Jeff over the abrupt lip that separated the South Ridge from the 13,000-foot summit plateau. We shared a bagel and a hug. It was a quick transition from the steep ice of the arête to the horizontal expanse of the plateau. We could only begin to ponder how it had felt to John after nearly three months of solo climbing. On a day when the rest of the universe huddled in clouds, we waltzed to the top sans shirts for some hero photos. It took us seven more days to reach base camp via the north summit. We descended the West Ridge to the Northwest Basin route and back to base camp, where Base Camp Annie greeted us warmly. She was happy to see us.

Rick Studley*, unaffiliated

*Recipient of an American Alpine Club Mountaineering Fellowship Grant

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