The Phantom Wall

Posted on: June 1, 2007

Paul Teare in 1991 on the first ascent of the Phantom Wall. Teare and fellow ascensionist Jay Smith needed two attempts to climb the route. It has not been repeated. [Photo] Jay Smith

May 1990: "Are you ready?" I asked Paul Teare as I killed my third cup of coffee.

He stood, turned toward the mountain, then cupped his hands around his mouth.

"Here we come!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Far above, Peter Cole and Mark Whiton had settled into their bivouac near the crest of the west ridge. All that perfect day we had watched them climb while we waited for the glue to dry on Paul's cracked boot shell. Now, at 11 p.m., we were off, heading back up the finest granite I have encountered in the Alaska Range: pink and gold, small grained, with deep, solid cracks.

As dawn arrived, we startled the lads, all bleary-eyed, out of their bags.

"Top of the morning to ya," Paul greeted them.

This was our second attempt at a new line up the mountain's unclimbed southwest face. A week earlier, we'd been stormed off about two-thirds of the way up; this time, we gained the west ridge at the end of the Stegosaurus, then followed it for a couple of pitches before diagonaling to the center of the southwest face.

As I belayed Paul, a wave of clouds obscured the summit of Mt. Hunter. Oh shit. Here it comes again.

"Haul ass, dude," I yelled as the wall of clouds flowed down the ridges. At the same rock from which we'd previously retreated, a whiteout of blinding snow engulfed us. Spindrift avalanches swept the face on either side. Without bivy gear or even a stove, we had no choice except to retreat again. At least we weren't alone: by midafternoon, Mark and Peter had joined us in camp for cocktail hour.

We didn't have enough time left for a third try, but in some ways we were fortunate to fail when we did. The route was only worthy to be climbed in its entirety. The elusive "Phantom Wall," as we christened it, floated in and out of the mists, beckoning us to return.

January 1990: The first time Paul and I saw a picture of Huntington's southwest face, we'd just stopped in for a beer at Lake Tahoe's Sugar Bowl lounge, with Dave Nettle and Kevin Haddok. After a day of ice climbing, we were jawing off about other great days we'd had.

Grinning with satisfaction, Dave pulled out a Washburn photo of Mt. Huntington. While he traced the line of his recent ascent with his finger, my gaze drifted across the picture.

"What's that big face to the right?" I asked. Well hidden by the south and west ridges and perfectly framed by towering ice flutings appeared what had to be the largest face on the mountain. A direct line ran up its narrow center.

Dave quickly passed it off as "unknown" and tried to finish the story of his route.

"Has it been climbed?" I interrupted again.

"I don't think it has," he said, perhaps now wishing he hadn't revealed the mountain to us. There before us on the table lay the mountain's greatest unclimbed face!

As we drove home, Paul and I were already making plans for a spring trip.

May 1991: After eight days of storm, the sun set on the first clear day and the avalanches subsided. At midnight we descended 2,000 feet into a narrow chasm at the bottom of the face. We called this "Death Valley"; in the daytime, it could become a receptacle for all the mountain's unwanted trash. We planned to move as fast and light as possible so that we would be well over half height before the sun struck.

A high-speed ski around gaping glacial holes, a snow traverse, a short rap and a 500-foot butt slide deposited us a short stroll from the foot of the face. We roped up for the first steep ice pitch out of Death Valley, then soloed another thousand feet of neve. Thin ice runnels turned to mixed climbing up and right on exquisite granite sliced by a black diorite vein. Picks on tiny edges, crampons on small flakes, a jam, a solid "thunk" of a tool—and always a nut, just when you were beginning to wonder. By evening we were through the crux and had gained a new high point.

This was the shit! A flat, well-sheltered bivy, done in fewer than five minutes... and look, we were still in the sun! The summit was scarcely two thousand feet above, and the weather appeared to be holding.

"Yo, dude, hand me a beer."

Well, almost.

Ka-boom! We jumped to our feet. The south ridge had unleashed a tractor-size block, bulldozing all in its path before coming to a rest in Death Valley. Nothing had moved all day, except us and the sun, but this had justified our concern for speed.

We drifted off to sleep hoping we'd never have to return to the chaos below.

"Let's go," Paul said the next morning as he grabbed one water bottle and a PowerBar and threw them into his empty pack. Everything else we'd pick up on the descent. The weather still flawless, we climbed through rockbands and up narrow grooves between huge ice flutings and overhanging rock walls. When the rope came tight, I followed fifty meters below. After a thousand feet we switched positions and kept simulclimbing until dull crampons forced us to belay the last pitches to the summit.

To be on top at midday, without wind or a cloud in sight: I had to flick my Bic, just to prove it was real. The flame rose straight to the sky. In all directions the shimmering peaks of the Alaska Range glistened like so many silverfish. Two years of effort had rewarded us with one of the finest routes we have ever climbed. Sixteen years later, it remains unrepeated.

Are you men or are you mollusks?

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