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Three parties establish three new routes on Xanadu's west face

Posted on: September 15, 2017


The west face of Xanadu. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collectionThe west face of Xanadu. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collection

The central west face of Xanadu in Alaska's Arrigetch Peaks—sometimes referred to as the Half Dome of the Arctic—was untouched until this year when three parties established three routes in July and August. Jon Krakauer and Bill Bullard made the first ascent of the peak by climbing the lower west face to the southern arete (5.7) in 1974. For many years after, only a few other teams attempted new routes, focusing on other parts of the mountain. According to various records, including the American Alpine Journal, it also appears that the peak had not been summited since the 1974 ascent, though a couple other parties had come close. The new routes range from a 5.13+ and an A4+ aid route that were established over many days, to a 5.11+ that was done onsight in a day after a previous attempt that was halted by a storm. The third team also completed a new route on the Albatross prior to their success on Xanadu.

The new activity began in July when a team of four that included Zeb Engberg, David Bain, Gabe Boning and Billy Braasch aided a route that they eventually freed and named Golden Petals (V 5.13+ or 5.12 A0, 14 pitches). The first pitch contains the crux, a V10 boulder problem. The rest of the pitches are mostly 5.10-5.11, but there were many runouts and a pitch of mandatory 5.12 free climbing.

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Engberg submitted a report in which he and Braasch wrote:

Xanadu itself sits as the centerpiece of the Arrigetch range. Although its summit is not strictly the highest peak in the region, its ever-present mass, the aesthetic geometry of its walls, the sheer steepness of all of its facets, and its situation at the headwaters of the Arrigetch Creek give the peak a feeling of utmost prominence within the range. Its eastern aspect is shadowed, stark, and glaciated, whereas its western side appears fertile for climbing. Because the west-facing wall of Xanadu is difficult to access from Circle Lake, it feels desolate yet sublime....

Gabe Boning contemplates the seeping Butt Crack pitch of Golden Petals (V 5.13+ or 5.12 A0, 14 pitches). [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collectionGabe Boning contemplates the seeping "Butt Crack" pitch of Golden Petals (V 5.13+ or 5.12 A0, 14 pitches). [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collection

Months before our trip, Jon [Krakauer] vividly described his vision of the climbing on the west face: beautiful and bold face climbing through vertical and occasionally overhanging granite flakes. His hypothetical route up the west face turned out to match reality closely.... Though we didn't achieve the big wall Holy Grail of sequentially free climbing every pitch in order, we did manage to free our route. Starting late one night, Gabe and David swung leads, free climbing from the second pitch through the eleventh. Over two consecutive windy and cold days at the tail end of our trip, Billy and Zeb free climbed the route starting at the second pitch. All pitches were both led and followed cleanly without falls. Finally, on the last climbing day of our trip, Zeb successfully led Silvia's Seam, the crux free pitch on the route. This V10 boulder problem required thin granite edging, unlikely foot pastes, and wizardry.... Nearly every pitch would have been a classic on its own.... Knowing that we'd need to leave something fixed in order to rappel, we decided to leave behind high quality anchors [that] should last decades. We placed a total of 17 bolts spread out over the 16 anchor and rappel stations on our route.

Krakauer congratulated the climbers with an Instagram post on July 31, in which he wrote, "Climbing this wall was first envisioned by the late Mugs Stump when he saw a photo of it in my house more than 30 years ago. Mugs would be stoked that his vision has finally been realized."

The team was supported by the Dartmouth Outing Club's Chris Vale Adventure Fund and the Copp Dash Inspire Grant.

Zeb Engberg advances his queenside pawns as David Bain bravely walks his king forward. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collectionZeb Engberg advances his queenside pawns as David Bain bravely walks his king forward. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collection

Une pas mes

Meanwhile, Silvia Vidal, a Catalan climber who is known for soloing difficult big walls in remote areas, was shuttling loads and establishing her new route to the left, Une pas mes—"one step at a time"—(VI 5.10b A4/A4+, 11 pitches).

Silvia Vidal pauses for a selfie while cleaning a pitch on her route Une pas mes (VI 5.10b A4/A4+, 11 pitches). [Photo] Silvia VidalSilvia Vidal pauses for a selfie while cleaning a pitch on her route Une pas mes (VI 5.10b A4/A4+, 11 pitches). [Photo] Silvia Vidal

"I walked the approach to the wall 20 times from where the seaplane dropped me off," she said.

It amounted to a total of approximately 330 miles of shuttling loads that were half her body weight.

She spent thirty-six days carrying gear and supplies to and from the wall, and 17 days on the route, all without a phone or radio to receive weather forcasts or call for help. She didn't even have a complete map of the area.

"The orientation, the circumstances and the faith helped to find the path of the approach," she said. "In June, the little path that climbs the valley is barely visible, and you constantly get lost. In August, the trail is easy to follow and accessible.... To be alone in bear country where there is nowhere to hide during the 36 days of shuttling loads was a major goal for me. Too scary. I [saw] bears and everything ended well, but I had a bad time, not only during the encounters but the rest of the weeks, until I could transform that fear."

Vidal rappels with a full load after completing her solo route. [Photo] Silvia VidalVidal rappels with a full load after completing her solo route. [Photo] Silvia Vidal

Une pas mes has 11 pitches. Three bolts were placed for protection (sans hangers) and 12 for belays, with two "clean" belays.

"It's granite, sometimes sandy, therefore small copperheads didn't hold out," Vidal said. "There are some loose blocks and more face climbing than crack systems. There are expanding flakes and [features] that made the solo ascent more complicated, as the ropes were usually stuck and I had to rap down to remove them. Sometimes a couple of times in a pitch."

Fast and free in a day

Adam Ferro on the approach. [Photo] Vitaliy MusiyenkoAdam Ferro on the approach to the Albatross, which is visible in the background. The east face of Xanadu is visible through the clouds to the right. [Photo] Vitaliy Musiyenko

Vitaliy Musiyenko, Brian Prince and Adam Ferro arrived August 3, having received a Mugs Stump Award for the trip.

"I've been looking at the wall forever," Prince said. "There's a photo of it in Colby Coomb's Alaska climbing guide. It didn't go exactly as planned because two other parties went in there for it this year! But all good. Instead of purely focusing on the west face, we got to climb a new route on the Albatross. And the route we chose on Xanadu ended up being more suited to alpine style, in-a-day kind of thing. More our style and it was all we had weather for, anyway.... Coldest weather any of us had rock climbed in."

They climbed their route on the Albatross all free in a day, naming it the Direct Southeast Face (IV 5.10+, 1,800'). Then it was time for the main objective.

Ferro follows a loose, steep pitch on the Direct Southeast Face (IV 5.10+, 1,800') of the Albatross. [Photo] Brian PrinceFerro follows a loose, steep pitch on the Direct Southeast Face (IV 5.10+, 1,800') of the Albatross. [Photo] Brian Prince

Musiyenko wrote: The following day, the weather looked good still, so we hiked over two passes and attempted to climb the west face of Xanadu but got stormed off from about halfway up. We [rappelled] down, pulled our ropes and retreated back to camp. It rained for the next two days and we stretched our food for an extra day by semi starving [ourselves] and planned to go all out, if weather was OK. Woke up at 3 a.m., got over the pass in OK weather, although it was never sunny on the day of our climb. It was super cold [and] windy, and we climbed the last few pitches and the final 400 feet of ridge in a whiteout.

The crux was a 5.11+ finger crack through a roof, which Prince onsighted.

"...We avoided the time-consuming bolting of any kind by running out lengthy sections of face climbing between cracks...." Musiyenko wrote on Facebook August 21. They eventually decided on the name Arctic Knight (V 5.11+, ca. 1,600').

Brian Prince onsights the 5.11+ finger crack over a roof on their Xanadu route Arctic Knight (V 5.11+, 7 pitches, ca. 1,600'). [Photo] Vitaliy MusiyenkoBrian Prince onsights the 5.11+ finger crack over a roof on their Xanadu route Arctic Knight (V 5.11+, 7 pitches, ca. 1,600'). [Photo] Vitaliy Musiyenko

Vitaliy Musiyenko and Ferro on Xanadu's summit ridge after completing a new 5.11+ route onsight in a day. [Photo] Brian PrinceVitaliy Musiyenko and Ferro on Xanadu's summit ridge after completing a new 5.11+ route onsight in a day. [Photo] Brian Prince

All in all, Musiyenko said the climbing on Albatross was "pretty good" and Xanadu was "really good."

But finishing the climb proved to be just one part of what turned out to be a 27-hour day on the move. Because they'd stretched their rations to make the climb possible, they were now out of food.

"After Xanadu we had to hike back to camp, move it down the valley, hike out to the strip, pick up our food and hike back," Musiyenko said. [The] last four hours of that we did in the rain and were completely soaked and cold as hell. We calculated that we did over 30 miles, about 7,000 feet of elevation gain, and climbed the new route on Xanadu that day, which was a 27-hour day."

"[The west face] of Xanadu is shorter than everyone thought," he added. "Silvia said her route up the middle was about 11 pitches, which weren't super long. We did ours in seven mostly full 70-meter pitches with 400 feet of fourth class with one move of 5.8 or so on the final ridge.

The west face of Xanadu: Golden Petals (V 5.13+ or 5.12 A0, 14 pitches) is marked in green on the right, Une pas mes (VI 5.10b A4/A4+, 11 pitches) is marked by the thin red line at center; the third route, Arctic Knight (V 5.11+, 7 pitches, ca. 1,600'), is marked in a thicker red line to the left of the previous two. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collectionThe west face of Xanadu: Golden Petals (V 5.13+ or 5.12 A0, 14 pitches) is marked in green on the right, Une pas mes (VI 5.10b A4/A4+, 11 pitches) is marked by the thin red line at center; the third route, Arctic Knight (V 5.11+, 7 pitches, ca. 1,600'), is marked in a thicker red line to the left of the previous two. [Photo] Engberg, Bain, Boning and Braasch collection

[David Roberts wrote an entertaining report for the American Alpine Journal about a 1969 Arrigetch expedition that can be found here.—Ed.]

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