I rappelled to the end of our ropes, slammed in a couple of screws, and yelled “I’m off!” up to J.D. While I threaded our next rappel, the rope didn’t move. I screamed a few more times, pulled aggressively on the lines, then gave up. I slumped onto the slings attaching me to the face and dozed off, as I had done at every other moment where my wakefulness couldn’t help move us forward. I was happy for the chance to take weight off my feet. Keeping them sealed in soggy boots for the last few days waterlogged my skin, making them feel blistered all over. After some indeterminate amount of time, J.D. buzzed down the rope and we continued.
“Make sure you yell loudly when you’re off.”
Somehow, after three full days on the go with only a couple hours of rest, we didn’t feel totally out of control. Of course we were extremely tired, but we could still think clearly enough to problem solve our way through the terrain. It’s scary to think about how we would have dealt with a bad storm or messy fall, but pushing ourselves this far didn’t feel reckless in the situation as it was.
We were descending the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter after climbing the Garison-Tedeschi (A.K.A. French Route) on the North Buttress of the mountain, a route which Mark Westman calls “the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall.” We decided to try the French Route instead of another because we figured it might be more intact than any other line on the face after the long spell of warm temperatures that we’d been having on the Kahiltna. We were also encouraged by the hard-man Slovenians Luka Lindic & Ales Cesen, who had climbed the route to the top of the buttress a couple weeks prior. The only real beta we had on route were the finger-point directions that Luca & Ales sprayed at us in camp.
At 11pm on May 29th, we skied out of camp toward the beautiful and intimidating face. At the top of “ski hill”, J.D. mentioned that “I’m not nervous because I think we can’t do it, but because I think we can.” I agreed. We stashed our ski boots and planks at the base then went into business mode.
J.D. made short work of the schrund then gave me a quick belay across. We simul-climbed through the traversing ice and snow which lead to the base of the prominent gully that aesthetically defines the route. I lead a shorter simul-block, then we started to pitch things out. Unlike other parties who have climbed the route, we pitched out most of the gully, which didn’t really feel much slower or more strenuous than simul-climbing might have been. We cruised through a handful of easy ice pitches. J.D. put the rope up for a scarcely protected one, and I sewed up an overhung one above that. Some easier climbing brought us to a great rest stop on a snow arette at the top of the gully, which finally allowed us to escape the grapple-spindrift that had been bombarding us throughout the gully. We sat for about two hours brewing, eating, sharpening, and dozing off as the dim twilight turned into daytime again.
The next stint took us through a couple rope-lengths of thick ice between protruding rock, which foreshadowed what the easier terrain on the upper headwall would be like. A long traverse right brought us to the base of the crux of the lower portion of the route. I placed too many screws on the first half of the pitch, so I was forced to run-out some desperate climbing to the lower angle terrain above, where I could find a rock anchor. We took turns zig-zagging around rock-bands left then back right then left again on ancient bullet-proof ice that required four or five exhausting swings to stick a tool.
The sky dimmed into twilight again as we timidly approached the base of the upper headwall. We were both quite unsure about whether our entry point was the same as previous ascents. I still am. J.D. lead a block of three tricky mixed pitches while I super glued my eyelids open so that I could belay and sleep at the same time. The glazed look on J.D.’s face made it evident that it was my turn to take a block. A well protected but burley off-width lead to the ramp that we probably should have been climbing the whole time. A couple more pitches of involved but easier climbing and a tricky right-facing corner that J.D. crushed into rubble finally lead us to easy ground.
We found a flat spot under a rock between the top of the headwall and the cornice bivi where we could finally make a formal bivouac. I oggled J.D.’s extra pair of socks while he changed out of his wet ones. Endless pots of water and some man-spooning made us sharp again. We didn’t sleep for more than a power nap in length, but the short break was transformative. We started moving again sometime in the evening.
The trudge to the summit wasn’t technically difficult, but it was physically draining. It was worrisome to consider the long descent ahead of us. Colin Haley claims that the “crux of any climb on the North Buttress of Begguya (Hunter) is the upper third, from the cornice bivi to the summit.” As we approached the summit pyramid, clouds began to swarm around us, obscuring our vision of the West Ridge descent. We tagged the summit at around 3am on June 1st.
We had the option to stick to our original plan to descend the West Ridge to the Ramen Couloir, or to go back down to the top of the North Buttress and rappel the Bibler-Klewin route. The latter option was more of a sure thing, but the former one was supposedly quicker and easier. 200 meters before we reached the summit, I had no intention of venturing into unknown terrain with low visibility on the West Ridge, but the sky suddenly cleared as we crested the top so we decided to go for it.
We ran down the ridge, carefully navigated an icefall, made five or six rappels into the top of the couloir, down-slogged for aeons, then finally reached the valley floor where we rested for an hour in the sun. It felt great to let my swamped feet dry in the sun, but hurt my soul to shove them back into my boots to start moving again. I think I would have achieved the same effect by coating them in maple syrup and walking on a bed of fire ants.
The lion’s share of the very cracked portion of glacier on the Southwest side of the mountain can be avoided by walking up a snow ramp and making a few fixed rappels into a narrow canyon over steep ice. During our late season attempt, we were not enthused to learn that this ice had become a torrential waterfall. Pulling our snagged ropes out of the falling water soaked us to the bone.
The seven mile long zombie-slog that followed was an exceptionally weird experience. After 75 hours on the move, my grey matter was melting. Tribal drums and piano music played in the silence. I could see dozens of faces and figures in the features of the rock face next to us. Whenever I squinted toward the foot of a ridge in the distance, it would turn into a helicopter. Without flotation, we broke into crevasses up to our hips and wastes numerous times. When we finally neared camp, I thought I was imagining the team of guided West Buttress climbers pulling sleds. It was an epic struggle to walk faster than this party, even though they each toted over 100lbs of gear.
In the two days that we rested before returning to the base of the buttress to retrieve our skis, six feet of snow fell. Once we did go, they were nowhere to be found. They were completely concealed by the powder that had fallen, and possibly slough from the face. We probed the area for two fruitless days before giving up. Ouch. I was originally planning to go up Denali after trying Hunter, but without skis my timeline was truncated. We flew back to Talkeetna to party at the Fairview instead. The route was by far the biggest, most wild, and most memorable route that I’ve ever tried. It was a huge step up for both J.D. and I, requiring every bit of our experience and skill.