A challenging weather year; a merely decent forecast.
“We knew it could turn either way,” says Chantel Astorga of conditions in 2017 when she and Anne Gilbert Chase started up the forbidding 9,000-foot Slovak Direct, Denali, established in 1984 and only climbed by eight parties. On the second day, as the two reached the main dihedral system, clouds moved in, with a whiteout, snow, funneling spindrift and routefinding struggles. They rappelled to the bergschrund where they had spent the night, waited a day, then rapped the lower face. After that, the weather completely shut down.
She calls the whole thing “a really good experience.”
“I don’t like the word failure, but not completing your goal, and handling it, is a healthy thing,” she says, suggesting that everyone needs to know how to bail: “and use your gear wisely and be creative to have enough to get down. It’s good that you can learn it’s not all bad. … Especially when you get caught in weather, it can be stressful, you just have to slow everything down a bit and be as smart as you can.”
As soon as they were down, she and Chase decided to return.
Astorga, a former six-year ski patroller from Salt Lake City, works as an avalanche forecaster for the Idaho Department of Transportation. She and Chase had met as Denali guides. Last June, the two returned and succeeded on the Slovak Direct, established by Blažej Adam, Tono Križo and František Korl. Theirs is the first female ascent, ninth overall.
Q&A with Chantel Astorga
What happened when you returned?
The year before, we had a lot better ice, steep overhanging ice … This year it was steep rotten ice. On steep rotten rock.
It’s two pitches of WI 6 and then the middle of the route has a big waterfall in this dihedral section, it’s full-on water ice, WI 4, ends with WI 6 … There was about a foot of neve on top. Gilbert climbed that second pitch, and she did a really good job but it was quite difficult, overhanging, and you have to dig a foot down just to get a screw placement.
[W]e chopped out a little ledge and sat down for four hours. … The next morning you’re at what they consider the crux pitch, with free climbing and pulling on gear. … [Then] up on the Big Bertha ice field, a lot of walking followed by easy mixed but it’s taxing. So we simul-climbed that but that’s when the storm moved in. Heavy snow, consistent winds, probably minus 20. It was pretty miserable, and we still had one more really difficult pitch to climb, at 16,500 feet … We picked the wrong feature so we climbed some overhanging thing and then did the long slog to the Cassin Ridge.
What did it mean to you both to do such a renowned route?
The people [who’ve done it] are all people I’ve been reading about for a long time and look up to. It was cool to climb something that has this buildup around it and find we were capable of it.
What comes next?
My job ends at the end of April, and I go to the Alaska Range at the beginning of May.
To do …?
I don’t always like to put out into the world what my goals are.
After that [Chase and I] got an AAC Cutting Edge grant to go to Pakistan in August, to Pumari Chhish South (7,350m) in the Hunza Valley. There’s a couple of peaks that have seen no ascents. The south face proper hasn’t been climbed. … It’s a very technical-looking face, so it would be amazing if everything linked up, but it’s also hard to get those things on your first trip. Maybe even your fifth [laughs].
Goals in the mountains?
I’m just trying to do what feels right. If I’m over it in two years that’s fine. Right now I’m super motivated to climb in the mountains.
High and low points or regrets?
Probably one of the most fulfilling things was the Denali Diamond with Jewell. It was the biggest route I had climbed in the mountains at that point, and it was a wonderful experience, and it was all so new.
No regrets. Not yet. [Laughs] I’m sure there’s been plenty of mistakes but I’ve gotten away with them. Things have gone pretty smoothly.
— Women’s speed records on the Nose of El Capitan, Yosemite: In 2011 with Libby Sauter, 10 hours 40 minutes. In 2012, with Mayan Smith-Gobat, 10:10, then 7:26 when they linked the Nose and Half Dome.
— In 2014, with Jewell Lund, climbed Polarchrome (5.9+ WI 5+ 3,300 feet) on Mount Huntington; in 2015, with Lund, first female ascent of Denali Diamond (Alaska Grade 6 5.9 A3 7,800 feet), Denali, Alaska.
—In 2017, with Anne Gilbert Chase and Jason Thompson, established Obscured Perception (VI WI 5 M6 A0 4,500 feet) on Mount Nilkantha, Central Garhwal Himalaya.
—In 2018, with Chase, Slovak Direct (5.9 X M6 WI6+ 9,000 feet), Denali. First female ascent, ninth overall.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 258 (July 2019).