I´ve just returned to Finland after spending 40 days in the Central Alaska Range with Juha Sillanpää. We got really lucky with the weather during our first weeks in the range and we managed to do the 6th ascent of the Grison-Tedeschi (aka French route) on the North Buttress of the Mt. Hunter (4442m). Our luck turned on Denali though. I summited “the great one” in 7h 50 min round-trip from the Basin Camp (4300m) via the West Buttress on the 4th of June, but bronchitis stopped Juha. His high point on the West Buttress was 5800m. Plans for the Slovak Direct, which was our main objective, failed that´s why. Weather didn´t co-operate either. I´d say we had 50 percent success which is pretty good for the first trip in the area. Anyway, I´m going back for the Slovak for sure!
Mt. Hunter, Grison-Tedeschi
Mt. Hunter´s N buttress stands silently near the Kahiltna BC in middle of the Alaska Range. Face looks brilliant mixed-and ice climbing wise and it´s no wonder that it still attracts several teams per year. It has many famous routes on it like Bibler-Klewin, Wall of Shadows and Deprivation, but for many, Grison-Tedeschi is the most logical and committing line. Yves Tedeschi and Benois Grison did the FA in 1984 and it remained unrepeated 23 years until Andy Houseman and Jon Bracey did the second ascent in 2007. Two Slovaks did the third ascent and Colin Haley and Bjorn Eivind-Årtun did the forth in 2009. Kurt Ross and J.D. Merritt did the fifth in 2015. We wanted to try the Grison-Tedeschi because there were too many teams on the Bibler-Klewin. We had come to Alaska to get a bigger adventure and experience than in the Alps and following others tracks wasn´t in plans.
Very few teams whom try a route on the N buttress manage to stand on the true summit. Usually teams rappel down from the Cornice bivy, which marks the end of the technical terrain. But Mt. Hunter is not located in the Alps where such a thing as claiming a route climbed without a summit excits. I continue to say again that in alpinism route isn´t finished until you reach the summit. For many it´s hard to understand. Of course there is no “rules”, but come on!
Talkeetna Air Taxi`s talented bush pilot dropped us to the Kahiltna Base Camp (2200m) on 4th of May. We used the next day building “Camp Finland” and on the 6th we climbed the Mini Moonflower to the ridge as first acclimatization climb. Ice was bullet hard and climbing quite boring I have to say. Just 600 meters of basic axe swinging. Views from the upper ridge were great though, but cold wind made us rappel the route without visiting the “summit”.
Few snowy days later we did our first attempt on the Grison-Tedeschi, but our going was too slow to go further than 300 meters from the schrund. On the 12th we stood under the face again. Big spindrift avalanche came down the couloir as we racked. Morning sun releases snow from the upper snowfields straight down the route, but we were sure that we are able to climb the couloir before day warms it up too much. Schrund was easier this time and I led it much quicker. First 300 meters went fast simul-climbing to the start of the couloir proper.
Conditions in the couloir were okey. Ice wasn´t too fat but it allowed us to move in steady pace. Usually we did 80 meter pitches, but last two steeper ones we pitched properly. Nice to get pumped on ice after two months break from ice climbing. Backpacks weren´t super light either because we carried light sleeping bags and pads. Occasionally spindrift slushes came down covering our clothes with snow.
Brew stop top of the corniced snow arete, which is the best place to keep a break on the route, went quickly. Spirits were high still due to solid pace. Next ice runnel gave some idea what to expect. Climbing was slow and annoying due to hard ice. Juha led the steep ice pitch through the Black Band and did run out of screws top of it. I finished the pitch climbing glassy thin ice which ended to a next traverse.
Icefields felt eternal and we reached the headwall at 10pm. Clouds swarmed around us in colors of yellow and orange. Alaskan night was on it´s way. Headwall is a maze of compact rock, thin ice smears and snow mushrooms. The hardest climbing of the route is right there, in the end. I led three tricky mixed pitches through the night. First one was amazing and steep, second one horrible with powder snow top of rock and third one with more rotten ice and steeper climbing. Route finding wasn´t easy but you just have to trust your feelings.
In the morning Juha led two pitches full of mixed boulder problems and then we were out of the maze. After more than 24 hours of climbing we were in need of food and water. We did find a sheltered spot between two blocks where to brew. Wind picked up and it started snowing heavily. Rest of the day Juha dig a snow cave and I stood on a ledge trying to keep my eyes open which wasn´t an easy task.
Next morning we begun climbing at 10am. Without bivy gear and snow cave we wouldn´t have a change to go up, but now, after 24 hours of resting we felt okey again. Day was calm and warm. Just a perfect summit day. We followed Colin´s tracks to the summit. At late afternoon we were top of the Mt. Hunter enjoying views in every direction as far as eye can see. We had two options: to rappel the N buttress via the Bibler-Klewin or descent the West ridge. We went for the later.
First 1000 meters went without problems. Conditions were good enough for fast walking and we admired the beauty of the range. Alpenglow made the evening one of the most beautiful ever. At the begining of the Ramen couloir things started go in wrong direction. I launched an slab avalanche while seeking for ice for the rappels. Luckily Juha belayed from the ridge, but it was too close this time. Night was just horrible because we couldn´t find ice from the lower couloir. Ages of down-soloing brought us to the NE basin.
It wasn´t over yet. Next task was to find a shortcut to avoid the lower icefall. Rappeling a vertical and very wet couloir brought us to the glacier which was full of crevasses, scree and boulders. It looked almost undoable at first. Terrain was messy and quite nasty to navigate. Finally we did find a suitable way through. Once on the safe zone of the Kahiltna glacier Juha said: “Don’t say you like this shit”. I answered with a grin.
Denali, West Buttress
We spend 5 days in Base Camp resting and packing for the Denali. On the 21st of May we set off towards the highest mountain of the continent. Sleds and backpacks were full of food and gear for 5 weeks on the higher ground. After the first hour of pulling we had used every bad word we could figure out. We are climbers, not polar skiers! It took three whiteout days on skis to reach the Motorcycle Hill Camp at 3300 meters. We single carried everything up to there. Weather was just bad and snow generally deep. Of course weather got even worse and we remained stuck at the camp for three days. Then we did our first carry to Basin Camp, spend another day at Motorcycle Hill Camp as 40 cm of new snow fell and then on the 29th we just pushed through the storm to the Basin Camp (4300m) with rest of our gear. Nine days from BC!!
Since we had already summited Mt. Hunter and spend almost a month at lower elevations we kept only one rest day before heading up the West Buttress to finish acclimatization. On the 31st of May we walked up to High Camp (5200m) with camping gear in 4 hours. Evening was stunning and warm. We had a small climbing tent for the night which proved to be quite tight with all the down gear. After midnight Juha got enough and decided to sleep outside. I stayed in a tent. It was around -25 degrees at night.
After 10am we geared up and headed towards the summit. Our pace was slow but it all want okey enough to the Denali Pass. After that Juha really battled to move forward. At 5800 meters he felt too weak to continue. I was feeling well, but in that moment only sensible thing was to get Juha down safely. I know that first time at altitude can be awful and you don´t know what to expect.
At Basin Camp we had a discussion that we should try to do single push via the West Buttress to be sure we are ready for the Slovak. I wasn´t too keen to waste energy for another go on normal route but went with Juha anyway. On the 3rd of June we attempted again, but at 5000 meters it was clear that everything wasn´t fine. So down we went again. Weather window was closing and I knew that if we can´t finish acclimatization now, it would be over for the Slovak. For a route that hard you need to be healthy, have 110 percent of focus and motivation to make it. It was time to reconsider the plans. In the end Juha got bronchitis and started eating antibiotics.
Anyway I wanted to do something, so on the 4th of June I packed warm clothes, some energy bars and gels and 1l of water to my pack and begun walking up the West Buttress once again. Starting time was 6:50am. In 5 hours and 15 minutes I reached the summit of Denali. Day was perfect and I didn´t need any of the down clothes. After mandatory pictures descent waited. At 2:40pm I reached the Basin Camp. Round-trip time was 7h 50min. I could have been faster still, but now I just kept the normal pace. Actually the more I do these trips to higher mountains I notice that I really love breathing thinner air and can preform quite well in the altitude. Rarely even in the Alps your pace is 380m/per hour, but now I was above 4300 meters all the time and had spent less than a week above 4000 meters before the summit day.
After the summit I was getting slightly anxious as possibility to get to the Slovak was minimal. There were 4 other teams planning to have a go on the Slovak too. All I could do was to ask them if I could join, but again, if you have never climbed with them before, the Slovak hardly is the route where to try a new partnership. In the end all of them said no and I understand that well. Idea of soloing the Cassin ridge was there too, but conditions weren´t good enough for that. Too much snow fell to make soloing a good option. I can´t do it in a day if there´s 50 cm of new snow.
I´m super motivated on these trips and my focus is totally on climbing, so it´s hard to accept the reality that you can´t even try a objective. That´s the name of the game but it happens way too often. Mt. Hunter was nice, but the dream is to climb the Slovak. Nothing else can fulfill that. If you have to stay one week longer and skip your flights I´ll gladly do that. That´s the motivation you need to succeed on these things. Maybe you need a bit of luck too. This year only Luca Moroni and David Bacci had the stoke and will power to pull it down. My greatest respect to them!
Maybe in the end I learn that 4 week work camp on Denali happened in purpose. At least we were able to spend time in the mountains that we love so much. Alaska Range is a spectacular place!