Markus Stofer on Mt. Huntington's French (Northwest) Ridge in 2003. Stofer, Bruno Hasler, Iwan Wolf and Urs Stocker made a twenty-four-hour "speed ascent of [most of] the French Ridge," as Hasler noted in The American Alpine Journal, turning around fifty meters below the summit because of high objective hazards. When Kelly Cordes and Scott DeCapio completed the first one-day ascent of the mountain in 1998, Cordes commented, "I now understand why so many people stop at, ahem, 'the end of the difficulties.'" [Photo] Bruno Hasler
Posted on: June 1, 2007
In my youth I remember a vision of a place savage, yet fragile, so sublime it existed completely beyond human experience. I called it the "Realm," a wilderness that once perceived is destroyed forever. It wasn't until 1991, on my first trip to Mt. Huntington, that I stumbled on it as if by accident.
We'd come to try a new route on the west face, but for more than two weeks storms had pummeled us, unrelenting. An earthquake covered the range with a two-inch layer of gray dust; now it was a dark stripe under six feet of snow. We dug in eight-hour shifts. My Therm-a-Rest melted a sarcophagus in the ice. I was going mad. We had to climb.
At first, each time the weather broke, we'd throw ourselves at the wall until the sun or the onset of the next storm cycle peeled off new sheets of ice and debris. Once, out of sheer frustration, I jugged our lines alone, only to be forced beneath an overhang when the sun hit the face. I hung all day in my harness until nightfall made it safe enough to descend.
Eventually I devised a wicked tactic: on our next push, to help us focus, I hid all our dope at our high point, at the top of seven fixed lines. But if the endless storms on the glacier had been bad when we had the weed, without it our mindset turned desperate. It only took a brief sucker window to tempt us out of the tent and up the iced lines in a mad dash.
The snow began to fall again, and the world turned dark and icy wet. I imagined Michael Covington below us on the glacier with his three clients, looking up at the clouds, wet flakes sticking to his long, gray hair. He probably knew we had gotten ourselves into trouble. But at least our mission was accomplished: we grabbed our stash and almost immediately started to rappel.
As I descended into the storm, the frozen rope started moving faster through my Figure 8. Then I saw the end flicking, untied and untethered just below me. My frozen gloves couldn't arrest my slide. I'd backed myself up with a jumar on the rope above, but the teeth failed to bite. I pictured the free fall: 1,000 feet into the bergschrund. At the last moment the teeth caught, the rope bounced gently, and I stopped amid the quiet, thickly falling snow.
I didn't climb Huntington on that expedition; I survived it. Yet between the storms and icefall, I'd found a place of dreams and ambition, separate from any other mountain I'd ever attempted.
When you stand on one of the isolated glaciers at the foot of the 12,240-foot Huntington, life is lichen and breath, impermanent, while the surrounding peaks seem to present a world outside of time. South of Denali, hidden from the crowds of the Kahiltna Base Camp and the Ruth Glacier, within a maze of glacial tributaries and spurs, the peak's slender, pyramidal form rises in unbelievable perfection. The west face soars straight out of the Tokositna Glacier before arching to the south; as many as eight white ribbons, maybe half of which have been climbed, link lines through its golden granite. The east face, which begins at the terminus of one of Alaska's most remote basins, holds only one route and one variation among its striated ledges and buttresses. To the north, the mountain's largest and most symmetrical face climbs dramatically out of the northwest fork of the Ruth Glacier, some half-dozen seracs precariously perched above any apparent line of weakness. Only one party has ever climbed it. On the other side, separating the Southeast Spur from the immense Phantom Wall, writhes the seemingly endless dragon's spine of the south ridge. In my imagination I've traced perhaps 100 pitches along this feature, the entirety of which no one has ever accomplished.
May 26, 1964: Lionel Terray and Jacques Soubis on the summit of Mt. Huntington during the first ascent. Wrote Terray, "On this proud and beautiful mountain we have lived hours of fraternal, warm and exalting nobility. Here for a few days we have ceased to be slaves and have really been men. It is hard to return to servitude." [Photo] Maurice Gicquel
After our 1991 expedition, as I read through other stories, I discovered that a climb on Huntington has a way of fading from memory as soon as we attempt to capture it in words: a vision of untouched splendor, a feeling we remember only as a shadow. For me and for numerous Huntington climbers, the mountain remains an ideal that has shaped us more than any other experience.
First Ascent: The French Ridge
Huntington's tale began, as so many Alaskan mountaineering classics have, with some of the late Bradford Washburn's photos. In his 1956 black-and-white picture, the mountain's northwest ridge traces a thin sun-shadow line, at once delicate and sharp, between the glaciers and the sky—an image so beautiful it immediately seized the imagination of the climbing community. Late in the summer of 1957 the indomitable Fred Beckey, wearing fishing boots with glued-on Vibram soles, attempted the ridge with Tom Hornbein, John Rupley, Herb Staley and Wes Grande. "We had no clue how to get to the [north]west ridge," remembers Beckey, "but scoped out a way that was pretty safe." Unfortunately for their efforts, their chosen route placed them on the col between the Ruth and Tokositna glaciers, well west of the first technical step. Also complicating matters, their gear "was seventeenth century," Beckey explains. "Each person had only one ice axe (no ice tools like everyone parades around with at roadheads these days).... We just were not ready for what looked like a long and serious and difficult commitment."
Meanwhile that elegant ridge had come to haunt the illustrious Lionel Terray, who checked in with Washburn from year to year to make sure the mountain was still "virgin." In 1964 Terray and his eight-member team finally arrived at the base of what they thought would be a warm-up: after Huntington, they intended to climb the defining feature of Denali's south face, the future Cassin Ridge. Instead, over three weeks, the Frenchmen endured polar cold as they cut steps up steep, hard ice—some of the most difficult, as Terray later wrote in the 1965 American Alpine Journal, of his entire life. Terray himself took a bad fall, smashing his right elbow, and had to retreat to base camp while his teammates continued. "Lonely and miserable," he decided at last to follow them; he ascended the ropes using only his left hand.