“I just simply say – don’t spend your time doing something that’s horribly dangerous, just to make a first ascent,” Brad Washburn said late in life, on the occasion of his sixty-seventh trip to the state of Alaska. “Enjoy making the second and third ascents of thrilling old routes… It’s getting whittled to smaller and smaller differences between the new and the old. The new route here is only a hundred yards to the left of the other one. This becomes what the French call a variante. It’s not a new route at all.”
Washburn knew what he was talking about. His first ascent resume featured both epic adventures destined never to be repeated, like Mt. Lucania, in 1937, as well as the West Buttress of Denali, in 1953, which would become one of the most popular big-mountain routes in the world. After Washburn’s climbing career ended, his aerial photography and maps have guided successive generations of climbers up new routes for more than fifty years. If anything, the twenty-first century alpinists’ appetite for virgin geography has only increased since Washburn’s day as this limited resource inevitably dwindles.
Renan Ozturk, Alex Honnold and I rendezvoused in Anchorage the third week in May. Renan and I had spent the last several seasons focused on our own first ascent, The Tooth Traverse. While tip-toeing across the eastern rim of the Great Gorge, we couldn’t help but stare at the uncompromising walls lining the other side of the glacier – surely one of the greatest displays of mountain terrain anywhere in the world. Our goal this year was to climb on some of these features, and we felt more inspired by the efforts of those who came before us then any remaining untouched feature.
We flew into a base camp below Mt. Dickey on May 23rd. “I want to dig something,” Alex enthused as soon as the plane departed. “I’ve never shoveled snow before.” I scanned his face, looking for some trace of sarcasm. Alex Honnold, native son of Sacramento, California, was entirely sincere. He’d never shoveled snow.
Indeed, the addition of Mr. Honnold to the team was a bit of a wildcard. Although a pretty good rock climber, this would be his first foray into big-boy alpine terrain. Renan secretly suspected his background as a free-soloist and speed climber in Yosemite was exactly the sort of skill-set needed to take on the Westside line-up: the rock quality is often so poor, the climbing feels like soloing, even with a rope and rack.
[Alex Honnold on the summit of Mt. Dickey after making the first one day asent of the 1974 Route (Roberts, Rowell, Ward). PHOTO: Renan Ozturk]
“So what are we going to climb tomorrow?” Alex asked our first night on the glacier. With Honnold, I soon learned, this is the constant chorus. Climbing with Alex reminded me that the wonderful thing about alpinism is you don’t have to do a new route to have new adventures. Descending Mt. Braille after climbing The Cobra Pillar, Alex and I had the opportunity to make our first ever rappel off a dead-manned crampon pouch. Repeating The Pearl on the south face of Mt. Bradley, we were forced to cross a narrow gully that catastrophically flushed about once every ten minutes (Peter Doucette and Silas Rossi’s 2012 route The Sum of it’s Parts). We learned such procedures are safest when your partners serve as lookouts for impending sloughs. Alex then sent the A3 crux pitch in something more akin to 5.12 A0 R. Eighteen year-old copperheads can still be trustworthy, he discovered.
Dickey beckoned. But as Alaskan luck would have it, a low grade, low pressure system arrived, leaving us stuck in a soup of snow flurries and second-guessing. Days passed. “Can we do something today?” Alex kept asking.
“Yes,” I replied. “We can read our books.” (I was storming Normandy in the opening chapters of THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT, by Rick Atkinson, Alex was drilling for oil in THE PRIZE, by Daniel Yergin.) Renan, meanwhile, indulged in his timelapse photography fetish. Even if the weather cleared, there was a lingering problem: in three days of climbing, we had destroyed three lead lines. We needed a fourth to be delivered before we could launch up any route.
The fog disappeared after five days of sedentary glacier life. At eleven a.m., a Talkeetna Air Taxi plane landed bearing a new cord for us. Alex needed to be on a plane the very next day, but in a surge of blue-sky optimism, we decided to make a Hail Mary attempt on Dickey. Nineteen hours after setting off up the 1974 route (Roberts, Rowell, Ward) at 10 a.m., we stood on Dickey’s summit. Alex put in a heroic block leading us through the night. It was to my knowledge the first time one of the big, technical routes on Dickey had been climbed in a day. The toe welt of my boots was so ground down that the bail of my crampons no longer fit – but with enough slings and carabiners, I found I could make them stable.
We jogged down the descent route in a few hours. Alex was on a plane back to Talkeetna by six that evening. Renan and I lingered in the Gorge for a few more days to shoot photographs, pack up camp, and hang with new friends. We caught up with Roger and Nina, a hearty septualogenarian team from Anchorage we had met last year in the exact same place. We also had a thrill watching a youthful Austrian team, Gary and Alex, make the second ascent of the Tooth Traverse. We felt honored that these guys found our line inspiring enough that they wanted to invest the blood, toil, and tears to repeat it.
Interacting with such varied stories is one of mountaineering’s deepest rewards. Perhaps, the whittling down of differences between the old and new is something to be celebrated, and shared.
Summary of activity:
The Cobra Pillar (5.10 A1 2600 feet) , Mt. Bradley. 19 hours round trip.
The Pearl (5.11 A3 / 5.12 A0, 4000 feet) Mt. Bradley. 40 hours round trip, second ascent.
The 1974 Route (5.10c A0), Mt. Dickey. 25 hours round trip, first one day ascent.