Colin Haley was in a pickle.
Visibility had dropped to zero, and the heavy snowfall created extremely dangerous avalanche conditions, forcing the climber to stay right on the crest of Mount Foraker's Sultana Ridge, so the avalanches he triggered would sluff away from him down either side of the ridge. When visibility dropped to zero, he had no choice but to simply sit on his pack and wait. At one point he waited for six hours to catch a glimpse of his surroundings, while an Alaska Range storm swirled around him.
Haley, 32, one of the world's premier alpinists, was alone, didn't have a tent or sleeping bag, hadn't had anything to eat or drink for nearly 20 hours, and hadn't slept in two days.
The early-June ascent of Mount Foraker (17,402 feet) had been as casual for Haley as it was astonishing for the world of mountain climbing. Haley had completed the first solo ascent of the Infinite Spur, one of Alaska's most-storied and difficult climbing routes, in a mind-blowing 12 1/2 hours, only two days after climbing the route with Rob Smith, of Boulder, Colorado, in a record-setting 18 hours. He is certainly the first person to have climbed Foraker twice in the same week — in fact, the first ascent of Infinite Spur, by climbing legends Michael Kennedy and George Lowe, in 1977 took 11 days. Haley was finding that the descent, however, was a different thing altogether.
He had left basecamp (7,200 feet) two days before with a solid forecast of almost three days of good weather, which he described as "plenty of time." He had been getting weather forecasts texted to him by close friend and mentor Rolando Garibotti — who himself had climbed the route in 2001, doing the first "modern style" ascent in 25 hours with another legendary climber, Steve House.
Comfortable with the decision to start up the route, Haley left his satellite phone in basecamp and departed for the base of the route. But shortly after he left, the forecast changed, bumping the storm up by 24 hours.
"At that point, I sent him a frantic text message," Garibotti wrote in an email, "hoping he had decided to take his (satellite) phone and would turn it on. We spent the next three days freaking out, looking at the forecast and webcams of Denali, imagining what he was going through and hoping for the best."
It took Haley more than two days to complete the descent, which he described as a "long, harrowing blur." In order to stay alive Haley relied on focus and personal discipline, often choosing to downclimb steep, loose rock in order to avoid pockets of easy, but very unstable, snow.
"What I am most impressed about is his resilience to pull off the harrowing descent," Garibotti marveled. "Once he was in the 'wolf's mouth' he was able to make many good decisions to survive."
Haley finally arrived back in Denali's Kahiltna basecamp after being awake nearly three full days, having completed the first solo ascent of the Infinite Spur and the fastest ascent of Foraker to date.
New Alaska routes in 2016
Among the greatest challenges in mountaineering is to climb something by a route that has never been done, rather than climbing the biggest peak, or even the hardest peak. Often the mental challenge of not knowing what is ahead, or whether a given route will go, can be what turns a party back.
Alaska remains a premier destination for the world's most-talented climbers. And yet, most achievements remain hidden in the depths of esoterica due largely to the very nature of alpine climbing — a private struggle in places that are hard to reach.
One such place is the famously-obscure Kichatna Mountains, a group of peaks situated at the western reaches of the Alaska Range. Despite the difficult access to the Kichatnas, in most years the range sees a visit from climbers, and sometimes those parties are repeat visitors. Two such suitors are Palmer-based Ben Erdmann and Washington-based Jess Roskelley, who returned to the range in March of 2016 after a one-year hiatus (they established the Hypa Zypa couloir on the Citadel in 2013 and a route up the northeast face of Mount Augustin in 2014), but their March trip ended with them being stormed out without climbing anything. They returned in April to try again, this time establishing a 4,000-foot route on the unclimbed west face of the Citadel (8,520 feet) that featured delicate ice and rock climbing up the steep face. Near the summit their route joined the Hypa Zypa couloir (which starts on the opposite side of the mountain), which they followed to the peak's summit. The duo named their new route Westman's World, after friend and Talkeetna climbing legend Mark Westman.
Sport vs. adventure
Colin Haley applies a sliding scale of sport vs. adventure in his climbs. For instance, on his rapid repeat of the Infinite Spur he expected the needle to point toward sport, given his familiarity with the route, but was surprised when the needle unexpectedly swung back toward adventure on the descent.
There was no such surprise, however, for Craig Muderlak, Drew Thayer and David Fay when they found plenty of adventure in the Neacola Mountains — the northernmost subrange of the Aleutian Range — after flying in with six weeks of food and fuel, climbing gear, and a plan for returning to civilization that included homemade wooden skis (that they would burn once below the snowline), and packrafts for floating out of the mountains to Cook Inlet, where they would be picked up by plane.
Despite some trepidation, the trio from Colorado climbed two new routes on a feature known as Dogtooth Spire, made the likely first ascent of a summit near Peak 8909 that they named Spearhead (7,140 feet), and another likely first ascent of a feature that they named the Wing, a sub-peak of Peak 6310. They also made two attempts on one of the crown jewels of the Neacolas, the Citadel (8,305 feet), but were turned back by dangerous snow conditions both times. They spent their last week low on food, making their way, on the homemade skis, on foot, and by packraft, from the Pitchfork Glacier fork of the Tlikakila River over Lake Clark Pass, into the Big River valley and out to Cook Inlet, where they flew home — tired, satisfied and hungry.
Climbers can be a bit like fishermen. Sometimes the real challenge of a first ascent isn't the climbing, but the knowing — Alaska is a big place and not every big beautiful, unclimbed peak, ridge or buttress is known to climbers. So if a climber thinks that they have a secret, they hold it close.
Zach Clanton is obsessed with Alaska, with mountains, and with flying, which has paid dividends in the form of first ascents in the Hidden Mountains, a small group of peaks located between the Tordrillo Mountains and the Revelations. In 2016, he found a range of unclimbed granite spires during an exploratory trip with Reese Doyle and James Gustafson. They climbed one new route and part of another.
But they didn't climb everything they hoped to, so Clanton was cagey with the details about the climb; but he claims that he'll happily tell when the time comes.
"My dream … is to put up classics that will contribute to the climbing community and be something people will be inspired to go repeat because they're so damn awesome. Not so scary and dangerous it'll never get repeated."
Turning toward the Wrangells
Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright also wanted to go somewhere they'd never been, so they pulled out the maps. With at least 12 Alaska climbing expeditions between them, the team from Bend, Oregon, realized that they'd never been outside of the Alaska Range, with most of their efforts focused on the Central Alaska Range. With a new adventure in mind, they began to look closely at the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. They became focused on the steep west buttress of Celeno Peak (13,295 feet), an unclimbed 6,000-foot wall in the Twaharpies group, not far from McCarthy.
Zimmerman and Wright boarded a plane flown by Jay Claus, the only person, along with partner Kevin Ditzler, to have climbed Celeno Peak previously. They were dropped off on the Canyon Creek Glacier. Over the next four days, they worked their way up the steep face, with the technical and emotional crux of the route coming on the second day while climbing through band of very steep, very rotten rock that Wright climbed in a terrifying three-hour effort. The pitch culminated, near the top, in a dislodged rock damaging one of the ropes and crushing a carabiner.
They summited May 15 and named their route West Face Direct. They descended via the first ascent route, which Claus had pointed out to them on the flight in, and flew out shortly after.
Steep ice and rock
In mid-April, Andy Anderson and Kim Hall flew to the Tokositna Glacier in the Central Alaska Range amid reports of considerable storm snow accumulating in the area. Alpine climbers must be adaptable to changing conditions, and the two rejiggered their plans, canceling their ambitions to climb the funnel-shaped Phantom Wall on Mount Huntington, and instead looking for a route that would be more accommodating. Newly focused on routes that wouldn't collect or shed a lot of snow, the pair from Salt Lake City climbed a new route on Mount Providence (11,250 feet), which they called Outside Providence, and another on Thunder Mountain (10,920 feet), that they called Thunderstruck. Both routes featured steep ice and rock climbing, with a substantial amount of wallowing up steep, unconsolidated snow. Neither of Hall and Anderson's routes reaches the true summit of the respective peaks, however, both stopping at ridgelines below the summits.
One of wettest places on Earth
Most climbers speak of Southeast Alaska with a slight tone of regret. Good rock makes for good climbing potential, but that atrocious weather endemic to the region stops most people's plans.
There are some climbers, however, with the resilience to ride the emotional rollercoaster of trying to climb in one of the wettest places on Earth. In June, Chris Moore, Cooper Varney, Will Wacker and Tyler Bozton completed an ascent on an impressive line on the Central Tower of Rapa Nui (7,015 feet), part of a cluster of granite towers they accessed from Haines.
Rather than have their goal be to simply summit the tower, the four men added a layer of difficulty by attempting to "free climb" the entire tower — meaning that in order to ascend the rock, they use only their hands and feet, rather than moving up by using hardware placed into the rock (a rope is still used to arrest falls). They did not entirely accomplish their goal, however, as there were two short, steep sections they were unable to free climb. They named their 1,200-foot route The Northern Belle.
Far north granite towers
When most climbers think of Alaska, they think of giant ice and snow climbs above glaciers and, indeed, most of the routes featured here are just that. But one unlikely exception is the Arrigetch Peaks, a stunning group of steep granite towers situated in the otherwise-gentle Brooks Range. With only a few small glaciers, the climbing in the Arrigetch is more like climbing granite towers of California, albeit with fewer people, 24-hour daylight and many more mosquitoes.
Washington-based climbers Katie Mills, Nick Pappas and Todd Torres climbed a new route on a prominent feature on a peak known as the Albatross (5,565 feet), up a long buttress to a corner high on the peak. The corner splits the summit tower up the middle, casting a shadow that earned the climb the fitting name The Eye of Sauron. A few days later, Torres and Pappas climbed a long ridge route to the summit of a previously unclimbed peak, which they named the Shiv. Their route, Go Big or Go Home, was mostly moderate climbing with a short section of difficult climbing that required Pappas' full attention.
All told, it was a relatively slow year for first ascents in Alaska. Perhaps it was due to a combination of weather, conditions, and few parties traveling to Alaska this year with big ambitions. But come spring of 2017, climbers worldwide will once again be sharpening their crampons with dreams of adventure in Alaska's vast mountain ranges. The mountains will be waiting.
Seth Adams is a climber and freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks.