Ryan Jennings and Kevin Cooper of Colorado have established an impressive new 4,000-foot alpine route, Stairway to Heaven (Alaska 6 A1 M6 WI4 AI5+), on Mount Johnson, the Ruth Gorge, Alaska. The route, on the direct north face, was a culmination of a nearly 20-year dream, accomplished by two seasoned alpinists.
Jennings, 40, tells Rock and Ice
, “To never go attempt your grandest dreams, those you spent years training for, seems a travesty. So we determined we had to find a way. We had to go.”
He and Cooper, 47, spent 81 hours on the climb, which took place from May 1 to May 4.
More than 20 peaks, 3,000 to 5,000 foot granite monoliths, line the 35-mile Ruth Glacier. On Mount Johnson, only a handful of routes have ever been climbed including a guided ascent by Gary Bocarde in 1979 via the south ridge and the Elevator Shaft in 1995 by Doug Chabot and Jack Tackle. The direct north face had been attempted by the Alaskan veteran Andi Orgler in July of 1990 as a rock climb, but lacked protection.
Jennings and Cooper had hoped to attempt the line in May of 2003, but were shut down by anchor failure while rappelling their warm-up route, Shaken Not Stirred
on the Moose’s Tooth, injuring both and ending their trip.
Jennings and Cooper continued to dream of the route, but returning was a hard decision.
“We are both getting on in age and both have children,” Jennings writes in an e-mail to Rock and Ice
. “I personally have gotten to a point in climbing where I contemplate risk versus reward every time I head out.” He and his partner took a big-picture perspective. “Kevin and I started setting our sights on our biggest lifelong goals in an attempt to focus our remaining energy and utilize all that we have learned over roughly 15 years climbing ice together.”
The weather was on the team's side this season, with minimal snowfall and above-average temperatures. The two allotted two and a half weeks to attempt their line.
They were delighted to find the face covered in névé, and to spot a vein of ice on the corner system at the top of their line: prime mixed conditions. Their first challenge was to navigate the large serac field where the American climber Seth Shaw died in 2000. After reaching the base on day two, the team climbed 150 feet, fixed a rope, then headed back to the base camp. The next day, they jugged to their high point and geared up to face the second challenge—a huge roof. Jennings traversed under the roof and exited left, climbing around the roof on an M5 section. When they returned to base camp, 300 feet below, both men knew that a long traverse lay above the roof, and retreat options from there were unknown.
Beginning on May 1, a weather window opened up for three days, so Jennings and Cooper set out at 3:30 a.m. They gained their high point quickly and made the committing 300-foot snow traverse above the roof.
On the next pitch Jennings set out on the névé, with little protection. The “Névé Highway” stretched on for 1,200 feet and involved long stretches of simul-soloing. Eventually, Jennings reached a belay under a large snow mushroom.
Cooper led on and the two simul climbed 450 feet of ice at WI4, then bivied for a couple of hours. The next day Jennings led a chossy M6 chimney, shredding layers in the process, and Cooper followed with an M6. Two pitches—an AI5, M5 and an AI4—followed before an exposed bivi they named “The Highway Bivi.”
With only two hours of sleep they took off again on what would be the final day. On pitch 11, which they named “Névé’s Nightmare” (after Cooper's daughter Neve), snow was melting and protection scarce (AI5). An AI4 pitch allowed them access to the next section of rock that they had seen from base camp. Two M6 pitches followed, then the money pitch of the route, with good rock and easy aid. (They believed it would go free at M7.)
They were now 900 feet below the summit, and simul-climbed beneath the Northern Lights.
Back on the ground the next day, they received a care package left with others for them by Jack Tackle, who had just left the area. Jennings was lying in his tent wishing for a PBR when one arrived in his hand.
Jennings writes, in summary: “I was full of gratitude for the years spent training coming to fruition, for having such a developed partnership with a great and equal partner, for our families and friends who all came together to help make it happen, for the heavens being so kind as to allow us safe passage and certainly for being blessed with the ability to believe in ourselves, our abilities and our decision making skills.
“I was and am still full of gratitude and peace.”
The climb was supported by a Mugs Stump Award grant.