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Second Ascent of Light Traveler on Denali

Michael Gardner and Sam Hennessey made the second ascent of Light Traveler on Denali’s southwest face.

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On June 4 and 5, Sam Hennessey and Michael Gardner made the second ascent of Light Traveler (VI M7 WI6) on the southwest face of Denali. The route was first sent in 2001 by Stephen Koch and Marko Prezelj, who took 51 hours to summit from their camp at 14,200 ft. Hennessey and Gardner, however, started from ski hill camp at 7,200 ft and summited in just 36 hours. Light Traveler tracks the peak’s southwest face, and has 8,500 feet of vertical gain.

In a trip report published on Planet Mountain, Hennessey wrote that since Prezelj and Koch’s 2001 ascent, “to our knowledge no one has given serious thought to repeating [Light Traveler].” Hennessey noted that the first ascensionists reported incredibly difficult climbing on superb rock, and that Prezelj and Koch even elected to leave gear at various points along the route out of sheer exhaustion. Prezelj, a Slovenian mountaineer of great renown, with four Piolet d’Or awards to his name, is quoted by Koch in his 2002 American Alpine Journal piece as stating that Light Traveler contained the “hardest free pitch I have led in the mountains.”

“The quality,” Hennessey wrote, “sparked our interest, as well as the fact that the style could be improved upon.” The pair only had the scantest of beta on the route, with no other information save for Koch’s brief AAJ report. The climbers, who both work as guides, arrived in Alaska in late April, but didn’t do any climbing—on account of heavy snow conditions—until May 12, when they each did the West Buttress. Though both were leading different expeditions, “Our trips launched within days of each other,” Hennessey wrote. “It was definitely nice to get paid to acclimatize!” Both summited Denali with their clients on May 28, before returning to Talkeetna to rest and prep for Light Traveler. They arrived at their starting point of ski hill on the morning of June 3.

Sam Hennessey. Photo: Alpine Ascents International

Hennessey reported moderate climbing for the first few hundred feet, writing that the pair simul-climbed this terrain to the base of the first technical pitch. Gardner led the first pitch, and then Hennessey led the next few, with Gardner hopping back on lead for the “Shower” pitch. Koch described this pitch in his report as “a fine-looking vertical column with a blob of ice and snow at the top and roofs,” which eventually leads to vertical terrain on thin cracks. “What started out as a drip that I thought could be avoided,” Koch wrote, “turned into a constant unwanted and potentially dangerous companion. … By the time I made the belay, my jacket was icy armor.”

Luckily, the pitch was dry for Gardner and Hennessey, and was “perhaps the most fun on the route.” Hennessey went on to lead the first few rock bands, which they reached after almost 1,000 feet of sustained climbing. The pair soon “reached easy ground, and simul climbed through deep snow to the junction with the Cassin [Ridge] at 17,500 ft.”

A bit higher up, at 18,400 ft, they ran into two climbers from Wyoming attempting Denali via the Cassin, who helped to break trail for 800 feet. “We took over for the last 1000 to Kahiltna Horn,” Hennessey wrote. “This was honestly the hardest part of the day, although perfect weather made it a bit more reasonable.” The pair reached the summit in “windless, warm conditions,” and then began their descent down the West Buttress, stopping to “chat, eat and drink with various friends all the way down the mountain.”

“Overall Michael and I agree that the quality of the climbing is up there with the best we have ever done,” wrote Hennessey, “with many pitches that would have lines in popular mixed climbing areas. While sustained, the climbing is not desperately difficult by modern dry tooling standards, and more people should certainly climb this route!” -Owen Clarke

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