A Six Year Dream
The moment I first saw it six years ago, I was captivated by Mount Huntington. I was on an assignment in Alaska, and while flying around the Alaska Range, I took a photo of its unmistakable pyramid summit. It rose above the clouds as if it were a painting. I returned often to that photo and promised myself I would climb Mount Huntington one day.
The mountain stands 12,241 feet tall and our proposed route, the West Face Couloir or Nettle-Quirk, offers 4,000 feet of technical ice, snow, and mixed climbing. I credit the Alaska Range with lighting the climbing fire inside of me, and as I arrived in Talkeetna it felt good to be back in that special place and to have made good on my promise.
Allen, my close friend and climbing partner, and I had trained considerably for this climb. From ice climbing trips to Ouray, a car-to-car mission on Mount Rainier, climbs and backcountry missions in the Cascades and around Colorado, we were antsy to test ourselves on one of the North America’s most beautiful mountains.
Talkeetna, the Chamonix of the Alaska Range
Arriving in Talkeetna is always a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s a melting pot of climbers from all over the world, and it’s fun to see those who have just returned from their own respective endeavors on Denali or elsewhere in the range. You can tell who has returned by the sun scorched and wind burnt faces, the raccoon eye tans from goggles and sunglasses, and the rats nests of hair and unkempt beards. They can usually be spotted heading straight for the lively local tavern, the Fairview Inn.
We checked in with the Walter Harper Ranger Station, letting them know of our schedule and proudly wrote our expedition name on the permit: Pirates of the Carabiner. If climbing anything other than Denali, there isn’t much red tape involved. A $15 Denali National Park entry fee is the only expense outside of the air taxi. A small price to pay for nearly limitless access to world-class climbing!
A weather window opened up, allowing Allen and I to catch a flight to Huntington from Talkeetna ahead of schedule. We were stoked to be flying with Paul Roderick the Director of Operations for Talkeetna Air Taxi. Paul is an avid climber and skier and arguably the most legendary Alaskan bush pilot and one of the few that possesses the experience needed to land a plane on the Tokositna Glacier.
As we entered into Alaska Range airspace, Mount Huntington’s summit pyramid was peaking above a layer of clouds, similar to when I had first seen it years before. I took it as a sign of good luck. Paul landed on the Tokositna after G-loading the plane as we dropped into the glacial canyon. Gear was offloaded and Paul offered a few words of advice about the ambiguity of the weather before firing the Cessna 185 back up and taking off in a cloud of snow.
There are few feelings in the world like the one of being alone in the mountains. The hum of the plane faded away and was replaced by an immersive silence broken only by the thunder of an avalanche or serac fall. It was clear and sunny, and we pitched our base camp in the shadow of the enormous tower of rock and ice above us. This was our first time using a dedicated cook tent (MSR® 2P Ultralight Tarp Shelter) in addition to a sleeping tent (MSR® Remote 2), and it would prove to be imperative for our sanity in the days ahead.
The Climb Begins
Though we planned to get an early start the next morning, weather pinned us down and quickly turned our day into a constant snow shoveling ritual—a customary rite of passage in the Alaska Range. An attempt to move higher the next day was thwarted by worsening conditions. We were forced us to retreat to base camp but not without navigating a maze of crevasses in a whiteout. I punched into one, feet dangling in thin air, but managed to get myself out without the snow bridge collapsing.
Back at camp, the base camp blues set it quickly. The Tokositna glacier is notorious for its foul weather, and it’s not uncommon for teams to get pinned down without ever taking a crack at the mountain. On the fourth day, there was a momentary break in the weather and I saw a small swallow fly above and circle our camp. We were so far from any living thing and I could hardly believe it. Again, I took it as a strangely reassuring sign of good luck. The next day we had reports of an incoming high-pressure window, and we finally geared up and set off, ready to finally test our skill and resolve. As Allen broke trail through deep snow, I found a feather of the swallow in one of his footsteps. Another sign! I put it into my pocket and followed Allen’s boot pack.
After about 1000 feet of gain, we switched leads below a bergschrund. I basically swam upwards through classic, steep and deep Alaska sugar snow that seemed to suck my energy dry. Above the bergschrund we simul-climbed steep, but thankfully firmer, snow up to the base of the West Face Couloir. It was Allen’s lead, and thankfully so. I was feeling absolutely wrecked and I didn’t know why. The lower mountain had kicked my ass a bit and I was surprised to be feeling the ever-familiar effects of altitude sickness. Likely due to some combination of dehydration, overexertion, and a dash of altitude. We all have our good days and bad days in the mountains, and this— of all the times to have one— was one of those bad days. The weather was poor and it was extremely cold; our high-pressure window had not yet arrived.
Trouble on the West Face Couloir
Allen lead the first pitch on the couloir, a rope length of WI4+ alpine ice with a spicy vert section, while I puked my guts out at the belay and fought off cramping. There was no way to shelter myself from the onslaught of falling ice, and a heavy chunk konked me in the helmet just as I happened to look down, jarring me a good bit. A baseball size piece hit me in the arm, seemingly on a nerve of all places, and my fingers started cramping closed uncontrollably. It was so chaotic that I couldn’t help but laugh. There I was, on a hanging belay, below a 1,200-foot ice couloir, cramping and puking, unable to keep any food or liquids down. “Guess we’re dipping into the reserve tanks,” I thought to myself. We’ll see if all those pushups and axe hangs will pay off.
I followed Allen’s lead and began my own lead pitch when I reached the belay. I attempted to weave up a weird section of mixed rock and thin, hollow ice, but didn’t get far. We rapped off a screw and dropped a little to meet up with the main chute, where Allen graciously took my lead—an act of true kindness among climbers. From there, we began swapping leads and made slow and steady progress up the couloir. Thankfully the high-pressure window seemed to have arrived, and the warmth of the sun plus some snacks allowed some of my energy to return.
We climbed into the night, and at 4 AM dug out a small ledge that both of us could sit on, take a break and melt snow for drinking water. Shivering on our makeshift ledge, we took in the range around us. It was as cold as it was beautiful. Denali towered above us, complemented by the pastel hues of the northern skies. Using our Reactor stove, we melted enough snow to replenish our water and at 6 AM resumed climbing. We gained the top of the ice couloir and began an airy traverse to connect with the upper mountain slopes. At an old belay station with rusty pitons and frayed webbing, we clipped in and decided to dig a ledge and rest inside our sleeping bags for a number of hours.
A huge part of our decision-making process in the mountains comes from what we know of the weather. Over the years I’ve made a few good friends in Alaska and one of them, Joe, was a well-connected pilot from Talkeetna who gave us accurate weather information via SAT texting. Allen and I had both seen and heard avalanches nearly every few minutes due to the recent storm and accumulated snowfall, Moreover we had heard the upper slopes are prone to shedding.
We knew we had at least two more days of good weather, so we gave the upper mountain time to consolidate and rested up on our snow ledge. By late afternoon we were moving again. I lead a traverse, followed by Allen’s lead up an unprotected mixed section. The route has a PG13 protection rating and the minimal and questionable gear placements confirmed the grade, and reminded us to choose our tooling carefully.
The Final Push
Night caught us once again and the cold came with it, although it was worth the peace of mind to climb under safer conditions. We simul-climbed 1,000 feet of deep snow and calf-burning alpine ice, finally gaining the heavily corniced summit ridgeline. The summit stood but a short ridgeline traverse and 300-foot climb away. Neither of us was too enthralled with the idea of summiting and downclimbing and rappelling in the middle of the night, so we carved out a little platform for our Advance Pro tent and squeezed ourselves inside for a few hours of sleep.
As the sun rose, we boiled water for coffee and enjoyed a hot cup of joe on the summit ridgeline of Mount Huntington, with Denali as a backdrop. It was almost too amazing to be true. Allen lead the final push, navigating a bergschrund and digging his way up a difficult overhanging cornice. We reached the top, took a couple of triumphant photos, and celebrated with the last of the Sour Patch Kids gummies. “I can’t wait to eat an extra-large pepperoni pizza,” I stated. “I might eat two,” Allen replied. A Talkeetna Air Taxi plane buzzed by us a couple times, and we were later informed that they had snapped a couple photos of us. A once-in-a-lifetime moment to have captured.
A summit moment is only momentarily enjoyed before being replaced with the desire to descend without incident. We rappelled and downclimbed the 4,000 some feet back to our base camp over the next 9 hours. At times we were able to rap off old pitons and webbing placed by climbers from over the decades, but mostly set and used V threads.
Exhausted and happy, we arrived at our camp just after sunset. We immediately burrowed into our sleeping bags, shared a couple of whiskey shots, and slept like dead men. For me, climbing Huntington was a dream come true, and to be able to climb and experience such wild and untamed places is a privilege that I’ll never take for granted. There is a happiness I’ve found in the mountains that seldom exists elsewhere.