The First Ascent

Posted on: June 1, 2007


Climbers on the third step, during the 1964 French first ascent. Here, in the "Lacework" section, expedition leader Terray fell and fractured his elbow; the next day, a cornice broke and nearly swept away Maurice Gicquel. When Roger Robinson, Ed Newvill, Cindy Jones, Bob Newman, Todd Rentchler and Charlie Campbell made the second ascent of the route in 1976, they added an 1,800-foot direct start with less avalanche danger. [Photo] Maurice Gicquel

"Once you've decided, you have to go!" Lionel Terray declared.

Bradford Washburn had shown Lionel photographs of unclimbed summits in the Denali region and traced out lines, his pencil running over aretes, rising with elan up glacial rock faces and jumping from summit to summit. Our eight-member expedition was supposed to climb Huntington as fast as that pencil had, and then move on to the Rooster Comb, leap up The Mooses Tooth in a single bound, and finish our campaign, victoriously, on the south buttress or the southeast spur of Denali. And all that in only twenty days.

I'd rented a room in Lionel's house when I was a geography student in Grenoble, and we'd gone climbing together a few times. Twenty-eight years old, I'd never climbed outside of the Alps, and I imagined Alaska as a terrain of trappers, prospectors, Inuit, dog sleds—the world I'd read about in Jack London's novels. My gratitude was boundless. I worshipped Lionel.

May 7: "You are here representing French alpinism," Lionel told us at our Huntington base camp. "Try to prove yourself worthy.... Remember that there's no rescue here and that if you have a serious accident on the mountain, you're screwed."

Left in charge of the cuisine, I soon found out our stoves barely worked in the cold. Lionel made us drink arbutus juice every morning to prevent frostbite.

May 10: "Move your butts," Lionel told us. "If you don't get to the summit quickly, the fixed ropes will become dangerous." As we'd fixed lines up a couloir of wind-loaded snow, Jacques Soubis set off an avalanche that we barely escaped. Our jumars could hardly bite into our frozen five-and-a-half-mil ropes. The ridge would clearly not be the pleasant little outing we'd imagined.

May 12: Marc Martinetti cut steps; he was unable to place a single screw in the hard Alaskan ice. A granite slab appeared, and he offered it to the excellent rock climber, Maurice Gicquel. When I followed, the last piton Maurice had stuck in an icy crack came out in my hand. Above the slab, the climb turned to ice again; without crampons, Maurice had to rap and yield his place to the stronger Lionel.

May 15: Lionel balanced precariously up cut steps on a vertical icefall. In those days, the French mountaineering authorities considered frontpointing to be poor form. We were using long, straight-shafted mountaineering axes, and our non-rigid crampons vibrated on the hard ice. Nonetheless, Sylvain Sarthou told us later that day, Lionel had climbed "like a machine."

May 17: "We'll have to save this one for Lionel!" Marc had said, laughing, the day before, when we stopped at another icefall. Past the vertical ice, Lionel disappeared from his belayer's sight. Suddenly, Jacques Soubis felt a heavy tug on the rope. Thinking that Lionel was signaling him, he started up. In fact, Lionel had fallen and was now sliding toward the west face without any belay. By a miracle, Sylvain and Jacques Batkin (called "Farine" because he worked in a flour mill) had just attached Lionel's trail rope to a snow picket, and the thin line saved both Lionel and Soubis' lives. Lionel, however, had fractured his elbow.

May 18: My birthday. For a present, Marc, Paul Gendre, Maurice and I secretly hoped to reach the summit, but no sooner did we touch the Lacework than a cornice fell, opening a beautiful window onto the Ruth and the 1500-meter toboggan ride we could have taken back to base camp. A little farther on, Marc's eyes became too inflamed to see, and we gave up.

May 19: Stormbound again, we all crowded into the mess tent at base camp, lit a candle for warmth and covered our bodies with all the clothes we could find, even wrapping our legs with bandages.

"I must be an idiot," Terray said. "Why did I chose a mountain like this to climb at age forty-three! At least in the Himalaya, at base camp we could walk with our feet in the grass!"

May 23: Lionel had been ruminating over his injured elbow in base camp; around 8 a.m. he called to say he would join us at Camp II. He pulled himself up the fixed rope, alone and one-handed. When he arrived, even the snow that covered his beard and glasses could not hide his joy.

May 25: We had all agreed that Farine and Sylvain, who had always volunteered for the heaviest tasks, should have the first shot at the summit. At 4:30 p.m. Sylvain, his voice trembling with emotion, radioed that he and Farine were on the top. We shouted so loudly the snow cave should have collapsed.

May 26: Our dream would not have been complete if Lionel had not stood in the midst of his team joking and laughing on the summit of Mt. Huntington—as he did this day, along with the rest of us. The last national expedition of the Federation Francaise de la Montagne had reached a magnificent conclusion.

In base camp, several days later, Lionel had pictures taken for our sponsors of himself in his undergarments wolfing down bonbons, cheese and sausages. Paul celebrated by filling our snow cave with wood and setting it on fire. There was no question of another ascent. Most of our axes were left as anchors on the mountain; I was lucky to keep mine. Some of us slipped a piton or two in our pockets, as souvenirs, while Sylvain, the gourmand of the team, filled his water bottle with leftover candy.

Lionel, Marc and Farine died soon afterward. The rest of us have continued to spend time in the mountains. Now and then, at home, I still take out my old axe and hold it in my hands, remembering Huntington and Lionel.

—Translated from the French by Katie Ives

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