The Fine Line – by Jess Roskelley, published in August 2017
Cutting it close on Mount Huntington
I was face down in a cloud of smoke, most of the way through a 10-hour day of welding steel and getting ready to run home and finish a drywall project when the phone rang. “Hey, Jess, this is Clint. Want to climb the South Ridge of Mount Huntington?”
As the crow flies in the central Alaska Range, Huntington is about eight miles southeast of Denali, and although it rises to only 12,241 feet, it is much more technical than its 20,000-foot neighbor, sees only a handful of ascents and is steeped in history. Its first ascent, via The French Ridge, was led by the legendary Lionel Terray in 1964. Huntington’s second ascent a year later, of The Harvard Route, by David Roberts, Ed Bernd, Don Jensen and Matt Hale was chronicled in Roberts’ The Mountain of My Fear, perhaps the finest and most gripping climbing tale ever told.
“The South Ridge has never been climbed,” added Clint.
“Yeah, dude,” I said without seeing a single photo. “I’m in.”
Then I remembered a lesson about what not to do that I’d learned long ago from my father, John Roskelley, one of America’s most prolific Himalayan expedition mountaineers. Once, at the dinner table and surrounded by family and friends, my dad announced that he was about to be off on his next expedition. When I saw the shocked look on my mother’s face, I knew she had just learned of the trip herself.
With that lesson in mind, I told Clint I’d call him back after I received clearance from Allison, my wife.
“Allison,” I began, after we were suitably relaxed by a few strategic beers at our Spokane home pub, the Flying Goat. “I got a call from Clint Helander today, and he wants to do this ridge on Huntington up in Alaska in a few weeks. It’d be a quick trip, nothing too long. Do you mind if I go?”
Allison was surprisingly agreeable.
“Go for it,” she said. Her answer came with such rapidity I wondered for a moment if she just wanted me out of the house. Then I remembered that she was planning a paddling trip with her friends. Approving my trip was reciprocity for hers.
I called Clint back, and he asked me to check out photos of the climb just to make sure I was really psyched. The sawblade South Ridge of Huntington looked nasty. It snaked for two miles and had five distinct summits that would each be a super objective in its own right. Besides climbing each peak, we’d have to downclimb or rappel each one to reach the other. Cornices swelled from the ridge line like monster waves.
So, this is why the ridge is still unclimbed, I thought.
I met Clint in 2015 in Patagonia, where, although we were on separate ropes, we summited Fitz Roy at the same time and walked out together. I knew Clint’s name from some of his big climbs in the Revelation Mountains, whose granite spires mark the furthest western part of the Alaska range. Coping with the area’s notoriously bad weather and other elements, such as the long flights just to be dropped at the foot of the range, Clint had become an expert in the region, and for Huntington he’d studied weather patterns and conditions, and pored over photos meticulously, dialing in his proposed route.
Clint, 32, was born in Omak, Washington, a short 160 miles west of Spokane, where I live. He moved to Alaska to attend college and never left. When we met, we hit it off immediately, as both of us knew many of the great lines in our generation of movies, like Unforgiven and Pulp Fiction, an essential quality to suffering through alpine bivouacs.
Clint, like me, is about six feet tall with an athletic build. Although we are about the same age (I am 35), his smile and jovial attitude takes years off of him. Aside from the decade’s worth of routes he has done in the Revelations, he has also soloed Denali, climbed the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter, and gotten the third ascent of the Phantom Wall on Mount Huntington, with Kurt Hicks in 2013. The two had climbed the face and descended in a rapid 22 hours. Encountering white-soup fog on the descent, they had to navigate by following pee stains left by other climbers down the west face. Most important, Clint is a solid all-around climber, as comfortable on Indian Creek splitters as he is on Alaska ice.
THE RACE BEGINS
I arrived in Anchorage the night of April 17. Clint picked me up and I crammed into his Subaru, sharing space with his roommate’s giant dog, Loki, my bags and all the base-camp food from Costco.
“We’ll repack all this food and organize our climbing gear at the house,” he said. “Tomorrow we should leave here early, pick up anything else we need, and meet my buddy Conor at a private strip outside of town. He’ll fly us in.”
We checked the forecast on our way to the airstrip and learned that our 10-day window was suddenly down to five or six. That made things tight—once we were climbing, we couldn’t afford to waste time climbing off route or sitting out weather. If it snowed, we’d be screwed.
Conor McManamin is a lifelong Alaskan who learned to fly from his father and has flown for 20 years. He also builds log cabins and is a brilliant musician. For a guy only in his mid-30s, he is accomplished and has played a major role in Clint’s ascents in the Revelations.
Conor landed us at 8,700 feet on the Tokositna Glacier at 2:00 p.m. on April 18. The air was warm and, more important, there was no wind. We pitched our base-camp tent between the take-off and landing zones, threw everything we weren’t taking on the climb into it, loaded our packs, and hustled off.
Until Clint had called, climbing Mount Huntington had never crossed my mind—Mount Hunter, yes, but not much else in that range. As I labored under my pack, I wondered why I hadn’t targeted this giant, awe-inspiring pyramid, and was humbled by the distance we had to cover if we were to succeed on the South Ridge, go over the summit and return to the airstrip.
The Alaskan midnight sun was still high in the sky at 4:45 p.m. as we descended into “Death Valley”: a giant crevasse field that was the gatekeeper for our adventure. The heat of the day was on us, and it took us a couple of hours of descending to reach the west side of Huntington.
We continued through a crevasse field so diced and sliced that 20-feet of straight snowshoeing felt like a blessing.
“That’s a hell of a serac sitting over our path,” I said. “Better pick up the pace under this one.”
Clint led through the labyrinth of icy vertical graves into the summer twilight. We pitched our tent on a large island of snow surrounded by deep crevasses.
We got up late the next morning, but by 10:30 a.m. we had hiked around the corner of a buttress below the southwest face and reached the base of the South Ridge. It was so hot we both took off our long underwear, adding even more weight to our packs. We were now at 5,700 feet and below the beginning of our route to the first sub-peak on the ridge. Between us and the summit lay 6,541 meandering feet of ice, mixed rock and steep snow.
The south face of Peak 9460 was a long steep snow slope with rock bands. If it had snowed any time in the last couple of weeks, this slope would have been perfect terrain for an avalanche. I expected the snow to be soft and knee-deep, but to my surprise even in the heat of the day it was firm in the permanently etched half-pipe runnels it had carved down the face. At around 9:00 p.m. we reached a perfect bivy site more than halfway up Peak 9460 and, dehydrated and chilled in our sweat-soaked clothes, collapsed on the wide platform.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Growing up with my father was an adventure. When I was one year old, my parents took me to India and Nepal. While I was in middle school and high school, my dad, who guided treks for Geographic Expeditions, took me out of class to trek in Bhutan and climb Stok Kangri, a 20,000-foot peak in India’s Ladakh region. The travels with my parents gave me a world view, exposed me to other ways of life. It was an education in itself.
As a kid, I met many of the world’s best-known climbers. We had dinner with Jeff Lowe, hung out with Royal Robbins, and visited casually with Reinhold Messner. Sir Edmund Hillary even stayed at our house. Yet I knew nothing about what these great men had done. All I knew was that my dad would go climbing for months at a time and my mother would worry, rushing home when she picked my sister and me up after school in case there was a call.
As I got older, my dad and I climbed throughout the Pacific Northwest, but he also encouraged me to participate in other sports. I wrestled, ran cross-country and raced my mountain bike. Dad encouraged me to carve my own path in life. He never, though some might expect it, urged me to climb. I was in my mid 20s before I developed a passion for alpinism, and then I learned another benefit of having parents who knew what I was going through in the mountains: I could talk freely with them about the dangers of climbing and my fears.
The following morning we reached the top of Peak 9460, where we found one rock with a couple of poor piton placements for a rappel. The rappel was our first crux of the ridge—the mental crux because once we pulled our ropes there would be no going back.
I rappelled the overhanging face into a couloir stacked with loose blocks, where I realized that when Clint rappelled I’d be right in the firing line.
“Hey, watch out for loose stuff,” I yelled. A fog rolled in, and it began snowing lightly.
I put my pack over my helmet just in case. We rappelled once more until we found a passage we thought could be the best way to traverse the ridge to the next peak. Now we were in the midst of small spindrift avalanches, and we could hear larger ones barreling through the fog.
Several hours of traversing under looming cornices later, we found easier ground that put us on the second peak. It was getting dark, and we agreed to stop for the night at the first good bivy spot. After a 150-foot pitch, Clint anchored and belayed me up.
“Hey, Jess,” he yelled, “have I got a surprise for you!”
When I arrived at the bivy, he pointed at an ice chunk that encased several old aiders, a can of Chevron white gas, and 35 Evernew pitons made by a Japanese company that now manufactures titanium cookware. The gear had been abandoned by a 1978 13-man expedition from Sapporo, Japan, that had spent a month slogging up to the second tower before retreating due to unconsolidated snow conditions.
The gear was a treasure, and we burned several hours chopping it from the ice.
Dawn of the fourth day we took the time to dry our soggy bags and properly rack the gear. We each added seven of the Japanese pitons to our quivers, knowing we might need them for fixed rappel anchors on the ridge ahead. Clint led the first ropelength and we made the top of the second sub-peak, where the real horror began. For hours, we traversed large snow flutings with thousands of feet of near-vertical exposure. Whoever was leading down climbed the 85-degree sections of snow and placed protection. The follower had to downclimb, remove the pro, and risk a long pendulum fall with potentially serious results. It was a rare instance where being second on the rope was riskier than leading. Indeed, this was some of the scariest snow climbing I’ve ever done, and without a doubt was the technical crux of the ridge.
Around 9:00 p.m. we arrived at the base of the third peak, which was lower than the second. Not only had a day’s effort caused us to lose altitude, but we were disappointed by how little distance we had covered due to slow-going technical terrain. In fading sunlight we settled into a bivy that was so snug that Clint and I had to coordinate our movements or stay still.
“Wow! Check out the sky,” Clint exclaimed as we snuggled in. Sherbet greens of the Northern Lights danced against the dark Alaskan sky. The display was a gift, one that most people never receive and here it was, free of charge, right before our eyes.
The weather remained good and after banging in a couple of our newly acquired Japanese pitons, we made two rappels down the west side of the ridge. We had both speculated that the third tower would be rather simple. Once underway, though, we knew we were wrong. Clint set off first and climbed a mega 800-foot block of pitches. The climbing was spectacular, on solid, featured granite. He snaked up a couple of chimneys, one of them overhanging, and belayed me up to a perfect crack.
I torqued my tools into the beautiful vertical crack and set my crampons on tiny horizontal edges that seemed made for climbing. Climbing, I thought, couldn’t get any better.
Soon we were on the summit of the third peak and staring at Idiot Peak, the tallest of the sub-peaks. Clint and I agreed on a doable-looking line up its south face. We hammered in a couple more of our new pitons and made two rappels over the cornices and down the north face of the third tower, arriving at the base of Idiot Peak. The climbing was excellent, and we moved quickly to what we had thought would be a great bivy.
“Hey, Clint!” I yelled. “There’s no bivy here. We have to keep climbing.”
A few hundred yards later, on a steep ledge, I found an indentation large enough for us but not the tent. In fleeting light we rolled off a couple of the big rocks crowding our platform, organized our gear, and cooked. We dubbed the platform Idiot Bivy, and it turned out to be the best night’s sleep for me on the route, complete with another night of the Northern Lights trailing through the sky.
We woke early knowing from our weather report that wind and snow were expected any time. Our route was steep and convoluted. We simul-climbed as we approached the top, passing an amazing cave that would have been a world-class bivy.
I racked on the summit of Idiot Peak, and then traversed the steep south side, climbing between massive cornices seeking a place to build a rappel so we could drop to the ridge joining Idiot Peak to our final obstacle, the Southeast Ridge of Huntington, climbed in 1979 by Jay Kerr, David Jay and Scott Woolums, who wisely avoided the series of peaks we had just climbed and descended and instead took a direct line up the couloir between Idiot Peak and Mount Huntington. Once we were on their established route, we figured, the going would slack off.
First, though, we had to get there. After setting a marginal screw backed up by my tools, I had Clint join me. Peering over the side, he discovered a gift of blue ice on the underbelly of the largest cornice. He slithered over the edge and drilled a perfect V-thread.
By then clouds had begun to appear, bringing with them a new anxiety. On the last of three rappels down Idiot Peak, our rope jammed fast. We yanked and swore, but the rope didn’t budge. Left with no option, Clint climbed partway back up and freed the cord.
With the summit of Huntington in sight, we began to believe that there was an end to the ridge after all. Clint led the first block up Huntington, an exhausting stretch of postholing up a snowfield capped by a massive serac.
Although utterly spent, we pushed hard and made great time. Clear of the serac, I changed out my gloves, then to make sure we were on route, I reviewed a picture of the final leg of the climb that I had snapped from the top of Idiot Peak. I set off in diminishing visibility as the clouds thickened. By then I was so tired that my tools and crampons felt as wobbly as those foam noodles kids play with at the pool. After a couple of hundred-meter lead blocks, I reached the summit ridge and belayed Clint. Our route, The Gauntlet Ridge (Alaska Grade 6 M6 95-degree snow, 8,500 feet) was complete, but we still had to descend a complex and technical peak.
“Weather’s coming in hard,” he said. “It might be best to touch the summit, get a few photos, and beat it to the descent couloir. We can set up a bivy, get out of the wind, and get some rest.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Clint grabbed a picket and walked to the summit. I followed. Although we were bundled in every bit of clothing we had, the wind still bit through gaps in our clothing. Visibility dropped to almost zero. After the obligatory summit photos, we walked through the whiteout down the ridge to set up our tent and crawl inside. Within minutes, we had the stove purring for hot brews and were munching on the last of our food, a couple of protein bars. We fell asleep almost immediately.
The storm was still raging in the morning, and visibility remained zero. We had hoped to find anchors or V-threads left by other Huntington climbers down to the West Face couloir. Clint, who had climbed Huntington before, knew the way so we buried a dead man on the edge of the ridge, and he rapped off to find the anchors.
“Jess!” he yelled from below. “I don’t know if this is the route—there’s no sign of any fixed gear, and I can’t see shit. I’m coming back!”
My hands and feet were cold. We were both low on energy, and we hadn’t fully hydrated the night before—we were setting ourselves up to make a classic and avoidable mistake, one that could cause us to simply disappear in the mountains. We agreed to set up the tent again and hunker down until visibility improved.
Although it was nasty outside, the sun filtering through the tent made it comfortable inside, and after a nap we watched “The Count of Monte Cristo” on my phone and tried to forget that we were engulfed by a major storm just below the summit of Mount Huntington. Then a quote from the movie caught my attention: “All human wisdom is contained in these two words, wait and hope.”
Was the line a coincidence? I memorized it for future trips, and we drifted off to the arrhythmic battering of the wind.
The cloud soup lifted the following morning. Moving quickly, we downclimbed to a rappel, where Clint found a rock anchor that set us on a spindrift-lashed descent of some 15 rappels down the West Face couloir. Once at the base of the wall, we crossed the bergschrund and glimpsed our base camp on the glacier through the clouds. It was midafternoon as we hustled down the glacier, passing two teams relaxing at their tents.
“They must think we rose from the dead,” Clint joked.
“Well, it’s been eight days,” I replied. “What else could they think?”
It snowed one and a half feet almost as soon as we reached camp.
In 2003, at 20, Jess Roskelley became the youngest person at the time to climb Everest. This is his first feature for Rock and Ice.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 244 (August 2017).