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With courage and skill, climbers established several firsts in Alaska mountains this year

  • Author: Seth Adams
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published December 24, 2015

First of two parts

Some of Alaska's greatest adventures and physical accomplishments happen in remote mountains far from the public eye. Each spring, as the sun returns and the winter passes, some of the world's finest alpinists flock to Alaska to test themselves against our state's giant mountains and brutal weather in a quest for adventure and exploration.

In May of this year, Alaska Dispatch News published a report of the first ascents -- climbs of peaks or routes to summits that had never been done before -- accomplished in Alaska during 2014 and the earliest parts of 2015. Continuing what I hope becomes a tradition, some notable ascents of 2015 are chronicled here.

Oddly enough, there was relatively little action in the typically crowded area around Denali, but a relatively large number of new routes were put up on the state's most remote and least-visited ranges. Three new routes were climbed in the Revelations, two in the Neacolas, and another in each of the Kichatnas, the Hayes Range, the Stikine, the Arrigetch Peaks, the Coast Range, the Hidden Mountains and the St. Elias Range.

Four different climbs from 2015 were listed in the previous article: two were in the Revelation Mountains -- a British team of Peter Graham and Ben Silvestre climbed the east face of Jezebel Peak (9,650 feet), and Anchorage climbers Clint Helander and John Giraldo did the first ascent of a mountain known only by its elevation, Peak 9,304. Silvestre and Graham named their route Hoar of Babylon, "to keep in line with the area's biblical theme and the British tradition of mixed climbing puns," according to Graham.

Helander and Giraldo unofficially named their peak Obelisk after their first ascent, and named their route Emotional Atrophy. They chose that name in homage to the relentless storms during their time in the Revelations and the toll they took on their psyche. Helander, in an interview with Alpinist magazine, referred to their time in the tent as a "form of solitary confinement," adding that the high point of the trip was "ticking off a peak that I've wanted to climb since 2008. The low point was pretty much every other part of the trip."

Also listed in May's article was a new route on Mount Dickey (9,544 feet) via its giant northeast face by Fairbanksans Jason Stuckey and Chad Diesinger along with John Frieh of Oregon. The trio climbed the giant route out of the famed Ruth Gorge in Denali National Park. They named their route Blue Collar Beatdown, due to the hard labor of climbing thousands of feet through deep snow.

Denali

In addition to the usual crush of climbers attempting to stand on top of North America's tallest peak, Denali experienced other changes this year.

The most notable change was a new official name, replacing "Mount McKinley" with the already widely used Koyukon Athabascan name.

Denali also received a new official elevation following a more precise measurement using GPS. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Denali is 20,310 feet, 10 feet lower than previously measured. Don't expect many climbers to report it being any easier, however.

New routes on Denali have become rare. The tallest mountains always attract the most attention, and climbers have been flocking to Denali for more than a century. Whatever new routes remain to be climbed are likely either very difficult or very dangerous. Most of the notable ascents of Denali are now what are called "refinement ascents." Two significant refinement ascents were done on Denali in 2015, but only one was listed in the May article: Lonnie Dupre's mid-winter solo climb of the mountain's West Buttress.

Dupre battled the lonely darkness in his winter solo ascent of Denali, but Chantel Astorga of Idaho and Jewell Lund of Utah experienced opposite the day before summer solstice, when they completed the first female ascent of The Denali Diamond, a route first established in 1983 and infrequently climbed since, in spite of developing a reputation as the best hard route on Denali. Alaska Range veteran and historian Mark Westman said that "without question, Jewell and Chantel's ascent is, by far, the most significant done by an all-female team in the Alaska Range."

The two women warmed up last year by climbing a difficult route on Mount Huntington, and that experience left them hungry for more. Their impressive ascent was likely the only ascent of any route on Denali's massive south and southwestern faces in 2015, which is the location of some of the longest technical climbs in the Americas.

Central Alaska Range

Perhaps the most-difficult new route of the season was Canadian Alik Berg and American Skiy DeTray's new route in early May on the famous East Face of iconic Moose's Tooth (10,335 feet). Berg and DeTray are an up-and-coming duo whose 5,000-foot first ascent capped an impressive spring of climbing. They climbed five days, the final three of which were spent nearly without sleep. Plus, the last 27 hours of their sleepless binge was spent rappelling back down the face, with DeTray improvising a rappel device out of carabiners after dropping his device near the top of the route. The pair climbed everything including huge rock faces, scrappy ice climbing on thin ice and overhanging snow. They named their route Illusions of the Raven after their hallucinations late in the climb.

Also in early May, Seth Timpano returned to the Denali area to climb his second route on Peak 13,100, a satellite peak to Denali. In 2013, Timpano climbed a new route on 13,100 with Jens Holsten and Jared Vilhauer, calling it Reality Peak. This year, Timpano returned with Willis Brown and Sam Hennessey to climb a steep snow and ice line for more than 4,000 feet to reach the ridge, part of the Southeast Spur of Denali. They spent a day waiting out bad weather before continuing to the summit of Reality Peak. They named their route, which featured several hundred feet of "exceptional" vertical ice climbing, The Devil's Advocate.

In early July, on the north side of the Alaska Range, Gabe Messercola and Ryan Wichelns completed the first traverse from Mount Silverthrone (13,219 feet) to Mount Brooks (11,890 feet) on a high snowy ridge. Previous attempts on this traverse had been thwarted by extensive cornicing on the ridge, an obstacle missing this time due to a dry winter and warm spring.

Revelations

In addition to the previously mentioned ascents in the Revelations, Utah climbers Chris Thomas and Rick Vance completed the first ascent of Seraph (8,540 feet), first attempted by the famed Alaska mountaineer and explorer David Roberts in the late 1960s. Roberts' party named the Revelations and many of its peaks, including Seraph.

Thomas and Vance found that, in spite of the substantial technical difficulties encountered on the route, the actual climbing was the least challenging part of the trip. Their route up the west face of Seraph led to the summit on April 14 and included 2,300 feet of steep climbing that included snowy ridge climbing, steep ice and climbing on rock that ranged from very good to rotten.

The pair's climbing skill, honed in their home range of the Wasatch, was enough to overcome the climbing difficulties, but it did not make the remote Revelations any easier to reach or the weather any better. It is difficult to land on Revelation Glacier due to a huge number of boulders sitting on bare ice, but they made it in two trips with a Piper Super Cub from a nearby lodge, a plane capable of negotiating short runways. Later in the trip, they endured a 40-hour storm during which they had to take turns holding up the tent with their arms so that it would not be destroyed by fierce winds. The pair ended up hiking out and waiting five days at a hunting lodge for the pilot to retrieve their gear from the glacier and fly them out.

Neacolas

Alaska's forgotten ranges apparently are not forgotten anymore. The Neacola Mountains is the northernmost subrange of the Aleutian Range, a group that starts 80 miles west of Anchorage and extends to the end of the Alaska Peninsula. Though well-known among Anchorage adventurers, the Neacolas have, until recently, been overlooked by international climbers.

As if to spite their purported obscurity, two teams of big-name European climbers had successful trips to the Neacolas in 2015. The first ascent of Mount Reaper (7,425 feet) by noted Austrian alpinists Hansjorg Auer and Michael Mayr was completed in May by a route that they named Sugar Man.

With a forecast for only one day of marginal weather, the duo launched up the unrelentingly steep north face. They found loose snow, aerated ice and lots of difficult mixed rock-and-ice climbing on their 2,500-foot route. Though the duo is known for their technical climbing skills, the blank granite and thin ice became too much for them, and they moved off the face to a less-difficult ridge about two-thirds of the way up the wall. They followed it to the summit.

Another significant first ascent was done in the Neacolas by the British team of Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker of a peak that they dubbed the Citadel (8,305 feet). Helliker and Bracey's ascent was part of a large film project put together by British filmmaker Alastair Lee. A helicopter was used to film during the ascent -- no mean feat, given the remoteness of the range and the fickle nature of the weather. In an effort to keep the end of the film a secret, the climbers were cagey with the details of the route (and, for a time, even whether or not they were successful). But the film "Citadel" was released Dec. 1.

Hayes Range

Britons Jon Griffith and Will Sims established a new route on Mount Deborah (12,339 feet), the westernmost peak in the Hayes Range. The pair attempted a line directly up the imposing northwest face, but encountered dangerous avalanche conditions and lacked an obvious line up the face. About halfway up the face that they'd intended to climb to the summit, the pair escaped to the northwest ridge before continuing up a ridge to the summit the following day.

The two, though no strangers to Alaskan climbing, had a harrowing visit to the Hayes Range:

"Mount Deborah is a mountain that is in no way designed for humans," Sims wrote in an email. "From the rotten black shale to its monstrous, gargoyle-like corniced ridges, (the mountain) isn't immediately inviting. Yet the mountain's beauty is something that overcomes all its shortcomings, and lures you in. A real man-eater!"

Sims went on to call Deborah Denali's "wilder cousin," a metaphor justified by their experience. That included having their base camp tent destroyed by high winds the first day of their expedition, ensuring that they spent much of the rest of their trip in a snow cave. They said that the face was the most dangerous thing they'd ever climbed together.

Kichatnas

Not far from the Revelations are the Kichatnas, mountains cursed with many of the same difficulties -- or blessed with them, according to Mike "Twid" Turner.

In the final episode of what would seem to have been a British invasion this season -- British teams climbed new routes in the Revelations, Neacolas, Kichatnas and the Hayes Range -- Turner and partner Tim Blakemore traveled to the Kichatnas for Turner's 11th visit to the range.

"To be honest the Kichatnas has been a bit like my own alpine range for the last 15 years," the cantankerous Brit wrote in an email. "I think the reputation of bad weather, poor conditions and mostly no other climbers puts off American alpinists. Too far from their big Macs and holding hands with other American climbers! For us Brits, it's perfect."

The duo established a new route to the summit of North Triple Peak (8,400 feet) via a 1,500-foot ice route that featured vertical climbing on uncertain ice.

When the two men had reached the top of the long ice gully, they had to tunnel through a cornice for 40 feet to reach the summit ridge. They named their route No Country For Old Men, a nod to their advancing years -- Turner is 49.

Fellow British alpinist Tim Neill, when shown Turner's full email, observed that it was "pretty mellow for Twid."

Coming Saturday: More stories of first ascents in Alaska this year.

Seth Adams is a Fairbanks-based climber, freelance adventure writer and photographer. Mark Westman and Steve Gruhn provided research assistance for this story.

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