Coloradoans Risk Massive Runouts to Top Johnson's North Face

Posted on: May 30, 2014


Kevin Cooper heads up Mt. Johnson's North Face in the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. Over the following days, Cooper and partner Ryan Jennings would climb 4,000' of sparsely protected neve and rock with little rest to establish Stairway to Heaven (AK 6: A1 WI4 AI5+ M6). [Photo] Ryan Jennings

In April 2003, languid smears of ice oozed down the North Face of Mt. Johnson (8,460') toward the Ruth Glacier, where Kevin Cooper and Ryan Jennings were skiing away, back toward their base camp, resolute in their plan to climb it by a new route. But first they'd warm up on Shaken Not Stirred, a popular and straightforward AI5 on the west side of the Mooses Tooth.

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They made an uneventful ascent to the col between the central and west summits and descended. Lowering down the penultimate rappel, their anchor suddenly blew. The boulder, encircled by fixed tat and appearing to be an attached horn of rock, had melted out in the season's warm conditions. The pair fell 1,000 feet, not stopping until the slope eased. Cooper badly bruised his knee; Jennings' ankle had broken. Their trip ended, and for the next 11 years they would work to become alpinists skilled enough to contend with the challenges awaiting them on Johnson's North Face.

"Since then the line has haunted our dreams," Jennings wrote recently. "I often I felt I would have left something out of life if I never gave it an attempt." Gaining funding from the Mugs Stump Award, they finally got that chance this year.

By the time Doug Chabot first salivated over the obvious parallel corridor of ice on the right-hand side of Johnson's North Face in 1992, the "Elevator Shaft" was already notorious. An avalanche of ice and snow had dragged Charlie Sassara and Dave McGivern off the foot of the mountain during their short-lived attempt in 1987. McGivern had to unwrap the rope three times from Sassara's neck before resuscitating him and retreating. Two years later, Jim Sweeney fell 90 feet, fractured his hip and weathered an eight-day self-rescue with his partner Dave Nyman that included, "multiple avalanches that buried them numerous times, crevasse falls, solo glacier travel by Dave, loss and destruction of gear, and a plane crash," Chabot recounted in the 1996 American Alpine Journal. "They managed to survive on tenacity, Dave's astonishing heroics, and a large dose of luck."

When Chabot and Jack Tackle stood at the base of the mountain in 1995, conditions were the best that Tackle had seen in his three attempts. "So what do you think? Are you game?" Chabot remembers him asking. "[S]ince Jack was sitting next to me I tried to play it cool, and looked through the binoculars for 20 minutes before responding," Chabot wrote. They must have carried with them their own ration of luck, as they climbed up and over Johnson without injury or (severe) mishap. But instead of hard blue ice, the duo found much of the route entombed in rotten snice.

Mts. Grosvenor, Johnson and the foot of Mt. Wake. The top of the Elevator Shaft is just visible below and to the right of Johnson's summit. [Photo] Ryan Jennings collection

"A few times we had to simul-climb because the leader hadn't found an anchor in 60 meters. Picket placements were a joke: the snow was unconsolidated, and creating an anchor with them was a trial of deception," Chabot wrote. "By seeing the webbing disappear into the snow I faked my brain into thinking they were solid, but the reality of it was I could have buried a piece of webbing instead of the picket and gotten the same result."

After the Elevator Shaft project had been solved, it wasn't until 2007 that a team climbed a different avenue up that right-hand fringe of Johnson's North Face. Japanese alpinists Fumitaka Ichimura, Yusuke Sato and Tatsuro Yamada climbed The Ladder Tube (V 5.10R A3 WI4+ M5, 3,000') in a whirlwind of Ruth Gorge climbing that also resulted in new lines on Mt. Bradley and Mt. Church. "Perfect alpine ice" off the glacier linked them with the upper reaches of the Elevator Shaft. They continued 1,300 feet along the ridge to Johnson's summit.

Indeed, as few as one recorded attempt has been made on the center of the wall. In the summer of 1990, Austrian architect and talented alpine climber Andi Orgler, "noted for his stance against the overuse of pegs and bolts at a time when they were proliferating," Lindsay Griffin wrote for Alpinist, tried it in the summer as a rock climb and found no protection. He worked himself into a position from which he could not continue nor retreat, Tackle told Jennings. He could contrive no form of protection but to drill a hole for a single copperhead. He rappelled from the mountain, but reportedly vowed to one day remove that "disgrace" from the wall he could not climb. He perished in a hang-gliding accident in 2007.

Jennings climbs out of their "Hideaway Bivy" to start Neve's Nightmare pitch, a long stretch of steep, runout alpine ice with some M6 at the start. [Photo] Kevin Cooper

Eleven years after their massive fall off of the Mooses Tooth, Kevin Cooper and Ryan Jennings are now ages 47 and 40, both married with children. But the direct North Face of Johnson still tugged at their thoughts. "Attempting to climb arguably dangerous routes weighs heavily on balancing the needs of a family with the desires or our dreams," Jennings said. But "[w]e may likely never find another mountain as attractive and therefore, in our minds, worthy of the risk required."

What follows is Jennings' report of their return to the face.

Upon close inspection, we saw a meaty roof extending horizontally for 300 feet that guarded much of the lower wall. The featureless rock above seemed devoid of protectable features. We knew breaking through or around this roof would be key to a possible ascent and perhaps our greatest obstacle. We also knew the blank slabs above could only be navigated in perfect conditions, with neve or ice that would yield either solid picks or solid protection. Prior to the trip I gave us a 5% chance of completing an ascent, and I believe many others gave us the same.

Once on the glacier we were grateful to find the face will covered in neve and the upper corner containing a vein of ice the majority of the way. A full rack helped establish us 150 feet up the wall, to which point we fixed a rope and returned to base camp.

Cooper climbing the short M6 section on Pitch 14 with the summit ridge in sight. "I thought for sure Kevin would have to aid this section," said Jennings afterward, "but he was motivated—grabbed the rack and fired through it quickly." [Photo] Ryan Jennings

We returned to our highpoint the next dry day on the Ruth Glacier. I threaded the lead line under then over hanging snow mushrooms and through good protection along the underbelly of the giant roof. As the overlap petered out, so did the protection, forcing a traverse to a right-facing corner that had been hiding a perfect nut crack.

"We have gained access to the snowfield! There is hope!" I yelled down to Kevin.

Finishing the pitch, we once again fixed ropes to the ground, tying two together to make the distance, and returned to camp where we waited for a three- to four-day weather window. We were now 300-plus feet above the bergshrund and well positioned for an attempt at the wall, but we knew the next section would require a long traverse above the big roof where retreat options were unknown.

Back on the wall May 1, Kevin ventured across a hanging 60-degree snowfield that held a few pieces of gear and ended in a well-protected cave below and left of the thickest-looking line of neve. After waiting for several hours in our "Safehouse" cave, I struck out up the steep neve, placing a good piece first and a less inspiring piece 40 feet higher. The third, an incredibly hard-to-place picket pounded vertically a few inches into the neve smear, would be the last of this 700-foot AI5 pitch. I tried to place another picket 100 feet higher, but it was worthless and I gave up trying. I was wasting too much energy on something that wouldn't hold a fall anyway. By the pitches' end, our nerves were frazzled, our emotions were high, our calves screamed for relief and personally I wanted nothing more than to go down.

Cooper and Jennings back at the base of Johnson after 81 hours on the wall with minimal sleep. Their route ascends the corner just above and right of Jennings' helmet. [Photo] Ryan Jennings

The next pitch gave no emotional relief. A long stretch of down- then up-climbing without protection. Kevin dismantled his anchor, and we simulclimbed, tied together yet not attached to the wall at any point. My stomach churned watching the rope arc out freely between us. The angle did not ease for hundreds of feet, and it was growing dark by the time I spied a small corner of rock above me where we anchored.

Kevin finally found solid ice in the next pitch. I passed him more ice screws and hoped I'd soon hear him call out an "Off belay! Several hours and 450 feet of WI4 higher, Kevin finally found an alcove big enough to dig out two body-sized platforms where we would sleep for a couple of hours before continuing up in the bright dawn light.

The next "day" of climbing lasted 40-plus hours, broken up by a two-hour nap. I started Day 3 with our eleventh pitch, named "Neve's Nightmare" after Cooper's daughter Neve. It melted away at my feet, my crampons sliding through the mushy surface to the rock behind. Slush ran freely down onto Kevin's belay. A day later, this pitch would not have been climbable.

Mt. Johnson showing, from left to right, Stairway to Heaven (AK 6: A1 WI4 AI5+ M6, 4,000'), Elevator Shaft (AK 6: 5.7 A3 AI5+, 2,400') and The Ladder Tube (V 5.10R A3 WI4+ M5, 3,000'). [Photo] Carl Battreall/photographalaska.com

Higher up, the rock turned almost as bad as the ice. Blocky, crumbly, unconsolidated stone fell away with every tool placement. Big blocks pulled out, solid gear was hard to come by, and it was only getting steeper. Our training in Redstone, Colorado, proved invaluable here, where we would swing tools until they stuck in the mud and crumbs. We even celebrated an anchor Kevin built out of one Lowe Ball and one #00 in an isolated vein of solid granite.

Everything that led up to the moment we reached the summit seemed destined. I have never felt so connected to fate. But a storm was brewing to the West and the wind was cold. We took the mandatory summit photos and descended the South Ridge to the Johnson-Grosvenor col and down to the glacier.

Upon our return to camp, neither Kevin nor I could walk or touch our feet to anything. We crawled into the tent on our hands and knees and laid in pain from trench foot for an hour. Our tents had melted out during our time on the wall and camp was a disaster. Kevin eventually left the tent to try to clean up camp, looked up and saw two figures approaching. Shauna Cooke and Steve Job of Steward, Alaska, approached with a care package from Jack Tackle and Fabrizio Zangrilli. A minute earlier I had stated, "I would give anything in the world for a beer right now." Among other items, the care package contained a carton of cookies, some salt and pepper chips and two PBRs.

Sources: John Frieh, Ryan Jennings, 1996 AAJ, publications.americanalpineclub.org, alpinist.com

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Comments
bharder

The back story to this climb is compelling enough, getting swept down that thing and coming back years later to send this massive line. Probably better to leave the family angle out of it as you're certain to get flamed by some. I'll levy no judgement on that one. It's a burden all climbing parents shoulder. But the absurd nature of your success on this crazy ass line is mind bending. I cannot imagine how desperate you guys must have felt at times continuing up under those circumstances. Hope to see and read more about this one. Chapeau. Now go kiss your children again.

2014-06-03 00:22:19
chewtoy

women

2014-05-30 17:22:56
chewtoy

If you were woman, someone would comment on "risk in the face of parenthood."

Given the highest std of the climb, the juxtaposition of town anchors and the lack of wall anchors, and the back-story, I look forward to reading a full-feature article on this climb.

and ya winning that frenchie prize

2014-05-30 16:08:13
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