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Mountain Madness Climber

Getting Technical with Alaska Objectives

Aaron Kur­land and I began talk­ing about a trip into Denali base camp last sum­mer while climb­ing in the Cas­cades. Aaron had already tak­en two trips to base camp, one for a Denali prep course and anoth­er for an attempt on Denali. How­ev­er, last sum­mer he dis­cov­ered the joys of tech­ni­cal climb­ing. We planned a trip to climb some of the steep ice and mixed routes locat­ed in the south­east fork of the Kahilt­na glac­i­er, and attempt Mt. Hunter’s West Ridge.

When we checked in with the ranger sta­tion they told us Hunter was in great shape. The next day we flew on with high hopes. After arriv­ing in base camp a strong low pres­sure sys­tem came in. The first storm day we tried to push a route up the west face of the Radio Con­trol Tow­er. We had a fun day climb­ing about 600 feet up a couloir with ver­ti­cal steps and lots of spin­drift com­ing down. 

All pho­tos by Alan Rousseau

Once gain­ing the top of the couloir the avalanche con­di­tions increased and the upper face was con­stant­ly shed­ding. We had got­ten out and swung the tools — it was time to begin rap­pelling back down to camp. Three snow bol­lards quick­ly got us down 210 meters and below the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. From here it was just a 30 minute walk back to camp.

The next day brought an addi­tion­al three feet of snow to mid ele­va­tions (10,000−14,000 feet). So we were tent bound and logged some sol­id read­ing time. The next day was sun­ny and we head­ed out on a ski tour. We went down heart­break hill” and onto the main body of the low­er Kahilt­na. From here we head­ed south for a cou­ple miles to the start of the West Ridge of Hunter. We decid­ed to wait at least a day for the new snow to set­tle out. That evening on 8 o’clock weath­er the fore­cast was clear for the next few days. Since it was already day five, that was our win­dow. The next day was spent in camp pack­ing five days of food and six days of fuel, and men­tal­ly prepar­ing to break trail on the entire five-mile West Ridge of Hunter. 

We left camp at 8:30 pm and reached the base of the West Ridge in an hour and ten min­utes. From here we left our skis and start­ed boot­ing up the steep heav­i­ly crevassed pock­et glac­i­er to gain the ridge. Even with the new snow we moved quick­ly. In two and a half hours we had hit a promi­nent rock fea­ture known as the Cat Ears, or point 9500. After pass­ing between the two ears, we did two 60 meter rap­pels that would have to be re-climbed on the descent. We arrived in the 8,700-foot col at 2:30 am. It was now a time of twi­light in the Alas­ka range and the cold­est part of the night with ambi­ent air temps of ‑20 F. The next sec­tion of ridge looked intim­i­dat­ing and the snow pack was less than inspir­ing. We decid­ed to dig in at the 8700-foot col and bivy for a few hours. By 4am we had the tent up and nice plat­form dug. We ate some din­ner and prompt­ly passed out.

At 12 pm we left our plat­form and had 2 pitch­es of 55 degree ice. From here we climbed into the first of two bowls that would put us at the top of point 9500. How­ev­er enter­ing the first bowl we found deep punchy snow con­ducive to slab avalanch­es. Soon a big shoot­ing crack came off my feet and shot 150 feet in front of me. For­tu­nate­ly the slope angle was not yet steep enough to make it pull out. It was how­ev­er a sign of things to come and forced our retreat. 

We climbed back up and over the Cat Ears via two pitch­es of 5.6, and returned to base camp that evening around 8pm. 

The next day was a rest day in camp, we dried out gear, did some avalanche bea­con drills, and got packed for the next objec­tive — Bacon and Eggs. Not to be con­fused with the Ruth Gorge’s famous Ham and Eggs, Bacon and Eggs is a 1,000-foot ice hose on the micro moon­flower for­ma­tion. We had a great 13-hour day encoun­ter­ing dif­fi­culites to M4 WI4+/5- over 7 pitch­es of sus­tained climbing.

With three days remain­ing in our trip we decid­ed to rest the next day to keep our legs fresh for our final two days of climb­ing. On our rest day we went over some alter­na­tive rap­pel tech­niques, and some more advanced rope man­age­ment tips. 

Our 11th day on the glac­i­er was one of the most enjoy­able of the trip. We decid­ed to return to our first objec­tive, the West Face of Radio Con­trol Tow­er. We had not heard of any­one climb­ing it before, although that is gen­er­al­ly par for the course on small­er objec­tives in Alas­ka. Our West Face objec­tive offered about 300 meters of climb­ing which var­ied from ice to snow and even a wild over­hang­ing hand crack! This route took us approx­i­mate­ly 4.5 hours from the shrund to the sum­mit. We descend­ed the stan­dard route and hiked back to our skis. It was a great sun­ny day, our route pro­vid­ed fun climb­ing up to M5 and AI3. 

Since my return home I have not been able to find any infor­ma­tion on this couloir. With its prox­im­i­ty to base camp it is prob­a­bly safer to call this the first record­ed ascent of the spin­drift couloir”!

Route on West Face R.C.T. Num­bers rep­re­sents an end to each of the 7 pitches.

Our final day was spent ice climb­ing on the Moon­flower Buttress.

Then we spent the after­noon on a relax­ing ski tour enjoy­ing corn snow and blue skies.

Thanks for a great trip Aaron!

~ MM Guide Alan Rousseau