I’m just back from our Mt. Huntington climb. Despite only being 12,241 feet high, Mt. Huntington is a majestic pyramid of snow and rock, steep on all sides, with no easy way up. I’ve heard climbers call it one of the prizes of the Alaska Range. The West Face comprises a huge, El Capitan-size granite face, yet sneaking through it is a steep ice Couloir.
Although it’s 4,000 feet of steep ice and snow climbing, it is relatively straight up, not so much traversing, which can be slow for a blind guy. And also, it’s easier to swing tools into vertical ice than trying to find rock holds without vision. So for these reasons, I thought I had a shot. I first attempted it eight years ago with Mike O’Donnell and Charley Mace. We landed on the Tokositna glacier, often referred to as the “toke and sit there” glacier since it snows so much in this area. However, we only managed one gear drop about three hours up the glacier to the bergschrund, at the foot of the steep climbing, before it began to snow, and it didn’t stop for six days. So the result of that trip was five feet of fresh snow and us sitting in our tents, our only daily activity, stomping the snow runway, so the plane could eventually land again and retrieve us.
I thought that might be it, but this winter, my old friend, Mike Gibbs, and I began to scheme. Mike had achieved a proud ascent of the Colton Leach route up Huntington in 2011 and had rappelled the West Face Couloir during the descent, so he had the beta and was itching to get back there and climb it. So there I was again, this time with Mike Gibbs and a new friend, Dave Shuman. Mike had led me up some substantial climbs in Alberta back in the 90’s when he owned San Juan Mountain Guides. Now he owns Rigging for Rescue – a technical ropework training organization – Mike, along with Dave, train various groups: search and rescue teams, fire departments, military groups and Park Rangers on technical rope rescue techniques. They’re all over North America working with various groups.
Dave Shuman lives in Anchorage and is retired after 25 years in the Air Force. He was a member of the elite Air Force Pararescue “PJ” group. The PJ’s even rescue civilians, and I know some climbers who owe their lives to Dave and his team. Recently, he’s even dabbled in Hollywood as a stunt man in a series of Coors commercials. Dave’s the guy in the red helmet passing beer out the ice window.
Our first day on the Tokositna was clear, so we headed out to set up a higher camp on what is called the “upper basin.”
But turns out, recently a huge crevasse had opened up. The section of the icefall that Mike had successfully navigated in 2011 was no longer passable. Dave said it was a hundred yards wide. We couldn’t find a way across, and after hours of weaving and wandering, we headed back to base camp defeated. The next morning we didn’t want to squander the weather that was holding, so we decided to make a single summit push from base camp. This time we went further left up steep snow and found a snow-bridge across the crevasse, right up against the granite wall of Huntington. In seven hours we were to the base of the steep ice climb, but our weather window ended abruptly with a blizzard. The ice above was being loaded by new snow and it came down on top of us in massive sheets of spindrift, carrying with it larger ice debris.
Nowhere to hide, we got out of there. Mike shot a quick so-long-to-Huntington video before we made the long rappel back to camp.
For the next four days, we played the waiting game as it continued to snow and we hoped for one last window. We were fortunate to have a new technology, a DeLorme, our satellite based communicator. With it we constantly texted friends to get the latest weather reports which contained info like, “big southern flow coming in”… possible Typhoon coming from the Aleutians… snow every day… two low pressure systems may collide to create a week-long system.”
With only two days left, Dave texted an old friend, Colby Coombs, a long-time guide on Denali and Colby wrote back, “Two days of splitter weather. Send it!
That’s just what we wanted to hear. We left for the third time at about 5:15 AM and climbed to the base of the couloir by noon. Then the real mountain reared up. The first three ice pitches were strenuous with lots of tricky weaving around rock and sometimes only thin ice over rock. Some of it was even what’s called, “snice,” a mix of vertical snow and ice and almost impossible to protect for the leader. Mike Gibbs led up through these pitches; each time Dave and I arrived at the anchor, we were in awe of Mike being able to move through this terrain so smoothly.
By midnight we had surmounted the eight pitches of the couloir and traversed into what’s referred to as “the alcove”, just a little corner up against a granite wall with a bit of an overhang. For an hour, Dave and Mike used our shovel to chop an ice bench a couple feet wide. It was very cold now, and we layered up and got into our sleeping bags for a miserable frigid bivy. The ice bench was just long enough to accommodate the three of us huddled together, and just wide enough for us to sit with our legs hanging over the face. Mike rigged our climbing rope between two anchors; it ran horizontally above us. Clipped to it were our boots, crampons, tools, helmets, and most importantly – ourselves.
I don’t remember sleeping much, just shivering with weird dreams. In each of the dreams, I was cold. At one point I said, “Mike, how you doing?” “It’s 6 a.m.,” he replied. “We should brew up and get going.”
It took us three hours to finally be moving, after a cup of oatmeal, some hot-drinks, and a slow process of putting on gear. The bench was tiny, so we had to take turns putting on boots and crampons. I knew dropping a boot would probably mean losing my toes, so it made me extra careful. I was so cold and dehydrated, each time I bent over to pull on my boot I’d be seized by a terrible wrenching abdomen cramp. It took me a bunch of tries before they were on and I was ready to climb.
Out of the bivy, we traversed right around a huge rock buttress. A couple hours later and around the corner, we met the glorious sun. Now, cold was no longer the problem.
The Alaskan sun baked us, and we stripped down to a couple layers. Dave led the ropes, sometimes up ice but sometimes wallowing and plugging through deep unconsolidated vertical snow. I was so impressed by his ability to move through these sketchy conditions.
By 4:00 p.m., we finally topped out on the summit ridge, the first relatively flat ground we’d experienced in 35 hours. Mike told us to stay well to the right of the ridge, since he’d seen a picture of the ridge from the other side, and it consisted of a massive corniced wave of snow hanging out over space. Two last ice pitches remained in front of us, the final being a long traverse around an overhanging cornice of snow and ice. By 6:30 p.m. we approached the summit. Mike took some video of me and Dave topping out on Mt. Huntington, my fourth attempt on this majestic mountain.
After the celebration and a few hugs, it was back to business, rappelling through another cold night. At 7:15 a.m., we staggered into our base camp tent. I was so exhausted, I didn’t even bother getting into my bag, just lay down with my head on my pack proud of Mike and Dave, and what we’d achieved together. The entire push had taken us 50 hours.
Around 11:00, I woke up in a panic and shook Mike awake. “Guys, our plane’s supposed to come in at noon. Mike and I had red-eye flights that evening, so this was our only chance to fly off the glacier and make our flights home.
Dave called on our satellite phone. Word from Talkeetna Air Taxi was that our plane was en route and ten minutes from landing. So the adventure continued as we frantically leaped up, all running around like crazy, throwing gear into duffels.
Then we were sprinting to the plane with all our heavy bags. Inside, the door slammed shut, and the Otter was powering across the snow and lifting up as the clouds lowered ominously and snow began to fall once again over the Tokositna. Mike offered a wry smile and said, “just like we planned boys.” We all had a hearty laugh.
Author: MHW athlete Erik Weihenmayer