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Astorga and Chase complete first female ascent of Denali's Slovak Direct

Posted on: June 17, 2018


Anne Gilbert Chase, left, and Chantel Astorga on the summit of Denali, June 5, after climbing the Slovak Direct. [Photo] Ian McEleneyAnne Gilbert Chase, left, and Chantel Astorga on the summit of Denali, June 5, after climbing the Slovak Direct. [Photo] Ian McEleney

Chantel Astorga and Anne Gilbert Chase made what is likely the first female ascent, and only the ninth ascent overall, of the Slovak Direct (5.9 X M6 WI6+, 9,000') on Denali (20,310'). They summited June 5 after starting the climb June 2.

Chase commented on an Instagram post that the route "took everything we had and challenged our mental and physical strength many times over."

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Astorga is well versed in the fortitude required for the hard routes on Denali's southern aspect. In 2015 she made the first all-female ascent of the Denali Diamond (5.9 A3/M6 A1 WI5+, 7,800') with Jewell Lund in 2015 (Lund wrote a feature story titled "Ashes and Air" for Alpinist 52 that can be found here). On that trip, the pair went the last two days without food. Astorga connected with Chase the following year, she told Alpinist in an email:

Summer of 2016 I reached out to Gilbert and asked if she had any interest in climbing something like the Infinite Spur. She suggested the Slovak Direct. Last year (spring 2017) we went to Denali and acclimated, and experienced consistent temps of -20F to -30F and strong winds. In early June we finally got a short break in the weather and decided to climb the Slovak. The weather window was by no means perfect and it had the potential to improve or totally fall apart. We climbed for one and a half days and made it almost 3,000 feet (from 11,200 to 14,000 feet) up the route when the weather fully shut down and we got pummeled by snow, strong spindrifts and wind. With nowhere safe to protect ourselves from the elements, we retreated back down to approximately 13,400 feet where we had a protected bivy. The weather continued to deteriorate and therefore we bailed.

The two had much better luck this year. Astorga wrote:

Overall we had really good weather conditions while on route. However, we did experience drier than normal climbing conditions than past parties have reported (i.e. the WI6 pitches were overhanging rotten ice and rock and/or overhanging snice and probably more mixed climbing than normal) The route is very steep, much steeper than it appears and with the right conditions, the slightest bit of wind up high causes the dihedral system that you climb to turn into spindrift alley. Day 2 we accessed the dihedral system and while we couldn't see the summit it was capped with a lenticular producing winds. We had a continuous flow of spindrift coming down and initially we were able to ascend right on the edge of it. Fortunately, the winds subsided and we spent the day climbing technical pitch after technical pitch. That evening at approximately 2 a.m. (I think) we exited the dihedral system and again the spindrift turned back on. We were unable to find anywhere at the base of the rock crux pitch to set up a tent so we chopped out a small bench at approximately 15,200 feet, got in the sleeping bag and sat there until the sun hit us in the early morning. The sun immediately warmed us up, we brewed up some water and set off on yet another few pitches of difficult climbing. At approximately 15,600 feet, you hit a big snowfield that parallels the Big Bertha hanging glacier; this requires trail-breaking followed by a lot of easy but tiring mixed ground, eventually leading to the last technical pitch of the route at 16,500 feet. At this point a small storm had moved in and while the winds were only 10-15mph it was snowing quite hard and the winds were blowing the new snow in every direction. We had now been on the go for almost 36 hours without much rest, our gloves were soaked and we were having a hard time staying warm. In the end we made it to the Cassin Ridge in the middle of the night and found a less-than-desirable place to pitch our little tent and get some rest and awoke to perfect weather conditions for the final summit push. It was an amazing, sustained, and difficult climb that literally keeps you on your toes (ha!) the whole time.

Astorga on the Slovak Direct. [Photo] Anne Gilbert ChaseAstorga on the Slovak Direct. [Photo] Anne Gilbert Chase

Astorga on the sharp end. [Photo] Anne Gilbert ChaseAstorga on the sharp end. [Photo] Anne Gilbert Chase

Chase in the lead. [Photo] Chantel AstorgaChase in the lead. [Photo] Chantel Astorga

When asked how they complement each other as partners, Astorga replied:

Gilbert is awesome! We seem to complement each other well and be interested in similar styles and share our approach to climbing. We met when we were both guiding on Denali back in 2010. Gilbert has reached out and kept in touch over the years, and we finally managed to make a plan together. Our first time climbing together was when we attempted the Slovak Direct in the spring of 2017. After that trip Gilbert, Jason Thompson and I established a difficult new route on the unclimbed southwest face of Mt. Nilkanth, India [a route they called Obscured Perception (VI WI5 M6 A0 70-degree snow, 1,400m)].

Also on June 5, Colin Haley climbed Denali's Cassin Ridge in 8 hours, 7 minutes, nearly halving the previous speed record of 14:40 set in 2011 by Jon Griffith and Will Sim.

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