There are so many choice words that could be used, and in the last three days _have_ been used to describe Mount Hunter here in Alaska. Perhaps the most appropriate (with a nod to Wildsnow being family friendly) is “Bastard Stepchild of the Alaska Range.”
Okay, I know that’s probably inappropriate for such a beautiful mountain with some of the most famous alpine climbing routes in the world. Nonetheless, we’re all in agreement that this is the hardest peak we have ever carried skis (and snowboard) up and hacked our way back down. As much as this mountain is noble, it turned out to be our nemesis. After 41 hours out of camp, I can say confidently that I probably won’t be back. We’re done, as in getting the climb and ski back down — but more in the sense of being over-cooked like Ramen boiled until it turns to paste.
Day 1: (May 5th) We fly into Kahiltna base camp, dig a cache, and sleep for a bit. Everyone who saw four of us get out of the Otter bush plane were mystified that we could possibly pack that thing to the brim with a 4-man expedition, but 45 days worth of junk will do that.
Day 2: (May 6th) We wake up and it’s time to go see what this mountain is all about. Sleds packed with plenty of food and supplies and we are walking down glacier. I think this walk was the most uphill I’ve ever encountered on a down-glacier walk. Four miles or so down and we are set up staring at our first hazard, the infamous icefall, “gateway” to the Ramen Route on Mount Hunter.
Day 3: (May 7th) Storm day. Cumulatively we read 4 novels. Evan and Aaron go for quick ski to see how best to approach the icefall. Not much to say here outside of commenting on just how good Aaron is at tele turns on his split-board with Dynafit toe pieces.
Day 4: (May 8th) We go for a full exploration of the icefall and successfully make it to the top after climbing the hardest pitch at WI4.
Day 5: (May 9th) we retrace our wanded steps to high camp and (unsuccessfully) try to sleep all day. Our 9:30 pm departure has us skinning towards the base of the Ramen Route before it’s even dark out. We skin to the base and through part of the wet slide debris from the previous storm. Eventually skinning is futile and it’s time to put the crampons on for a while–a really long while. The Ramen is a mixed bag of conditions as we climb up its 3300 painful feet. Not wanting to go easily, it alternated between bullet proof snow, black ice and some of the more exhausting facet swimming I’ve ever been a part of. We pass midnight and yes we are still front pointing up the never ending, ever steepening couloir from hell.
Day 6: (May 10th) We are still in the Ramen. We’ve just finished swimming through a small section of facets that would give Colorado a run for its money, and we round the corner and the snow is getting more and more firm. Suddenly it’s not snow anymore and we find ourselves having to swing our tools instead of plant them, and it’s game on. Somewhere around 4 am we finally top out on the west ridge. What a booter that was. I think that’s the longest any of us have ever taken to climb 3300 feet in our young lives.
But it’s all good, the hard part is over right? Ha! After setting a running belay across the icy ridge we arrive at the normal col that serves as high camp for many west ridge climbers. When you read the guide book for the west ridge, it describes the route up as having one main crevasse to cross. Ha again! We ran into some black wands at one point and were wondering if we might be in luck to have it wanded to the summit already, but in the end they dead ended in a giant cluster of wands at the 12,000 ft level. We found out later that they have been there all winter since (some Japanese dude, Lou can you research?) has been trying to solo Hunter in winter.
After more blue ice, pow post holing and winding in and around crevasses we finally come out to a small flat spot in the ridge that has sunlight. It’s glorious. We sat there in the sun for probably 30 minutes, saying “well that section up there should be the last hard part.” If only. Went to one more funky little traverse on super icy conditions and then around and through a huge crack and up a snow bridge to gain the 13,000 foot plateau. For the sheer sake of a change of motion we put skins and skis on our feet as we approach the north side of the summit ridge.
(You can read back on all Big3 Expedition posts here.)
Every one of us is mentally drained from being up for something in the neighborhood of 20 hours already. One look at the north face and all of its blue icy seracs and we know that it probably isn’t a go. There is plenty of talk of throwing in the towel and just going back down the ridge, but we do remember Lorne and Andrew had skied off the south side. So off we go contouring around trying to find something that wasn’t blue or black to ski on. We almost give up. But looking at the clock and knowing our timing is going to be terrible for skiing the south facing Ramen route, I suggest that rather than go bivy later at the col, that we just dig out a shelter and nap for a while here in the sun, and then see if we could regain a bit of energy for a summit push. After a couple of hours we wake up still in the sunlight and somehow motivate to move onward.
One thing I have done a poor job of describing here is our mental state. There has been little pushing us forward and a whole lot pushing us back. Around 6 pm we are skinning again up what we all swear is our last attempt at getting this beast of a mountain done. After about 500 feet we switch to spikes and contour our way up and around the south side of the peak and after about an hour we find ourselves putting one foot in front of the other with a solid 4 second rest step between each.
The 8 pm weather comes over the radio as we are passing the 14,000 foot mark. Hunter just doesn’t quit. The summit ridge endlessly winds around — it goes on and on. Our frustrated drive pushes us to keep walking, and finally I watch as Aaron makes the last few steps to the summit just ahead of me on our rope team, at 8:55 pm. Yes. You read it right. It was still a 24 hour summit push with some of the most stellar weather I’ve ever seen in Alaska to assist us. And I thought I’d done some hard 14er climbs in Colorado!
Mount Hunter isn’t done yet. At this point realizing that we still have to ski the summit ridge, down the south slopes and then skin back up and around to the west ridge, descend the west ridge and then the Ramen Couloir, the math tells us that it might be midnight before we even see the top of the Ramen. 2nd bivy? Why not?
Many of you reading this have never had to bivy anywhere, least of all on the side of an Alaskan giant, burrowed into the ice like a hunted insect. If you have not bivouacked, ever, that’s probably something to be proud of, or at least happy about. For those of you who have done an extreme bivy, you know what I’m talking about.
In our case the bivy was basically digging a hole into the snow, overlaying it with poles and probes and then a tarp and snow. The floor is lined with our skis, packs, ropes, and anything else remotely soft to make something to lie on. Getting into these tight quarters is a one at a time operation. Anton wriggles into one corner, followed by Evan, then me against the opposite wall and then Aaron squeezes between me and Evan. Now when I say squeezed, I mean this is a 4-way man cuddle. My feet are between Aaron’s legs for warmth, just as Anton’s are between Evans. If one person moves, we all notice. And yet somehow, someone is snoring! Sleep comes in short spurts and that 5 am wake up can’t come soon enough.
Day 7: (May 11th). It’s 5 am and we are still on Hunter. Skins on, then crampons to climb back up to the top of the west ridge. There is a bit more motivation in our group now. We have to get the f@$& out of here. Inside each of us is a growing dislike of this beautiful peak. Dehydration does that to a man, or is it just plain fear? We ski down the west ridge to the top of the Ramen Couloir. We opt to play it safe in our haggard state and rather than try to side slip the black ice we do a quick V-thread and rap twice to make it to something that’s sort of like snow and a bit more edgeable. After that it’s 3,000 vertical feet of some of the more sustained steep skiing any of us have ever done. The snow was bullet proof in spots, corn in others and chunder with impassable runnels towards the bottom, oh and don’t forget the bergschrunds.
After weaving our way back through the debris at the bottom of the chute I watch as Anton just lays down with his head on his pack. Finished, done, wiped, exhausted, beat down, and severely sore as we regroup at the bottom, we are so happy to have succeeded where we were denied so many times on the way up. “If you’re going to be dumb, you betta’ be tough!”
As we roll into camp we cap off a 41 hour “day” on Hunter, certainly a personal record for everyone. All of us are severely dehydrated and starved. We make water and gulp like camels straight from the pot. We devour lunch like we’re zombies on the prowl. A few minutes later we’re making dinner. No excess food this time in the meal planning. It’s too hot to head down the icefall, so back to sleep in our Megamid for the night. Lying flat has never felt so good!
Day 8:(May 12) We wake up as the sun hits our tent and while cooking breakfast we pack up to head down to our lower camp. A couple hours of wandering and rappelling and we are back to the relative safety of the Kahiltna. With no reason to be down here we load up the sleds and head back up to the base camp. Nothing like a cold PBR after a push like that. Sitting here it sounds like we may have some weather the next few days, so rest it is, and it couldn’t come at a better time!
Note from Evan: Climbing Mount Hunter taught us a lot about ourselves and our group dynamic. We all had to dig deeper than any of us knew we could to make it to the top. We relied on each other not only for mental support, but to make it through the night on our 13,000 foot bivy after reaching the summit. Bluebird weather aside, route finding through the icefall, climbing icy 60 degree slopes for 3000 feet, navigating the upper mountain, booting through knee deep breakable crust, and crossing countless crevasses on the way up amassed the greatest alpine challenge I have ever faced.
The ski down demanded that we stay calm and be extremely confident with every turn and be able to endure seemingly endless slopes with no rest spots and insane exposure. Mt. Hunter did everything in it’s power to defeat us, but our determination got us through — eventually the Bastard Child of the Alaska range gave us safe passage up and down its slopes.
(‘Ski The Big 3 is an Alaskan ski mountaineering expedition cooked up by four deprived (or perhaps depraved?) guys who never get enough ski and snowboard mountaineering. Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher, Anton Sponar, Jordan White. The idea is to ski Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition. They’ve got six weeks worth of food and enough camera gear to outfit a small army. Should be interesting. We wish them safe travels, we’re enjoying being their blog channel.)