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HUNTER: GRAND REPEAT AND EPIC NEAR-ASCENT
Posted on: May 25, 2007
Andy Houseman picking his way up North Buttress Couloir (Alaska Grade 6: ca. 6,000’, Grison-Tedeschi, 1984), aka the French Route, Mt. Hunter (14,570’), Alaska Range, Alaska. More prominent, but less frequently attempted, than Moonflower Buttress (Alaska Grade 6: 5.8 A3 AI6, 6,100’, Stump-Aubrey [to last rock band], 1981; Bibler-Klewin [to summit], 1983), North Buttress Couloir went unrepeated for twenty-three years until Houseman and Jon Bracey made the second ascent from May 8-11. Eamonn Walsh and Mark Westman were nearby on Moonflower at the time, trying to take advantage of the same weather window. They reached the top of the headwall but were denied the summit by an incoming storm. [Photo] Jon Bracey
After several years' hiatus, the north buttress of Mt. Hunter (14,570') is back in condition (A Mountain Profile of Mt. Hunter appeared in Issue 9. —Ed.). This iconic abutment in the Alaska Range houses half a dozen routes, yet only two ascents have been done on the buttress in the last six years due to bad weather and poor ice conditions (both were of the route Deprivation [Alaska Grade 6: ED4 5.7 A2++ AI6, ca. 6,000', Backes-Twight, 1994]). But none of the more difficult routes, to the left of Deprivation, have seen an ascent to the buttress top, or the summit, since 2001. In that season Moonflower Buttress (Alaska Grade 6: 5.8 A3 AI6, 6,100', Stump-Aubrey [to last rock band], 1981; Bibler-Klewin [to summit], 1983) had two ascents to Hunter's summit (seventh and eighth complete ascents) and another ascent that reached the Come Again exit. Wall of Shadows (Alaska Grade 6: 5.9 A4 AI6+, ca. 6,000', Child-Kennedy, 1994) also saw its second complete ascent that year.
The North Buttress Couloir (Alaska Grade 6: ca. 6,000', Grison-Tedeschi, 1984), also known as the French Route, has gone unrepeated for twenty-three years. While Eamonn Walsh and I had our hearts set on Moonflower Buttress, British climbers Jon Bracey and Andy Houseman kicked off the action on May 8 hoping to make headway on the Couloir. Although the weather was unsettled down low, it stayed dry on the buttress above. By their second day on the wall, Eamonn and I were getting restless after our first failed attempt (we attempted Moonflower on May 1, but a dropped tool and incoming weather convinced us to retreat) and realized this might be the window.
After seven years of lurking around Hunter's base camp, excellent route conditions had finally arrived. Eamonn and I crossed the bergschrund at 5:30 a.m. on May 10 and made good progress, reaching our bivy at 5 p.m., in time to rehydrate, relax and dry gear in the afternoon sun. Lisa informed us via radio that Jon and Andy were on the top of the buttress and appeared to be heading for the summit on the night of May 10.
The next day we enjoyed the amazing "shaft" pitches on Moonflower, but atop this feature we watched with dismay as the weather showed signs of deteriorating. Instead of enduring an exposed bivy on the third ice band, we felt it might be wiser to push to the top of the north buttress where, behind the cornice, we could probably get a snowcave for shelter in the event the storm came early. We rapidly climbed through M5 pitches to avoid pendulums and aided up a short section of rock. At midnight, Eamonn pulled through a nasty squeeze chimney onto the final ice slope.
All at once, the storm arrived in full fury, and the windchill plunged below zero. We pressed on through spindrift up the final six pitches of boilerplate, 50-60 degree ice in one of the most desperate situations either of us had ever encountered. At 5:30 a.m., forty-eight hours after crossing the bergshrund, we rounded behind the cornice atop the north buttress, out of the prevailing wind, and onto a deep, loaded snow slope. It took five hours to dig the snow cave, which we promptly collapsed into, absolutely bagged.
Day one: Andy Houseman grappling with cruxy, overhanging ice on North Buttress Couloir (aka French Route, Alaska Grade 6: ca. 6,000’, Grison-Tedeschi, 1984), Mt. Hunter (14,570’), Alaska Range, Alaska. [Photo] Jon Bracey
The next morning there was two feet of new snow. Going on to the summit across acres of loaded slopes and trying to descend the west ridge was now out of the question, not to mention our dwindling supply of food and fuel. When could we rappel? The weather had cleared up some, but Lisa's forecast over the radio promised "a weather front from the south tomorrow," so with much trepidation, we began the descent immediately. We did twenty-nine rappels through snowfall and spindrift to touch down on the Kahiltna seven hours after leaving the top of the buttress. A Swiss couple approaching the wall met us at our skis—"we came to break the trail for you"—and had thermoses of hot soup, and pastries. These heroes also had come to retrieve Andy and Jon's skis.
By 9 p.m. we had reached basecamp, where we discovered that Jon and Andy had completed the second ascent of the North Buttress Couloir to the summit and descended the west ridge. We compared our frostnipped and frostbitten fingers, but in the end none of it would be serious for any of us.
Here is Andy's report: "On May 8 the initial couloir went nice and quick until the final two pitches, which steepened up with a pitch of overhanging ice. We climbed a couple of pitches from the couloir and bivied. The next day we climbed through the ice fields, linked with some good ice and mixed pitches and into the final headwall. This provided sustained mixed climbing for six pitches; with no bivy sites we were forced to climb through the night. At 4:30 a.m. we reached the top of the headwall and rested for a couple of hours before continuing on to the top of the buttress and the cornice bivy site. Here we brewed up for a further two hours. Partially recuperated we continued on to the summit, reaching it just after 9:00 p.m. A cold night was spent on the plateau below the summit. On the fourth day we descended the arduous corniced long west ridge to get back to base camp exhausted but extremely happy with our efforts." In my opinion, one shared by many, the North Buttress Couloir is the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall. The fact that the repeat took twenty-three years is confirmation.
There are no new routes to report off the Kahiltna side yet this year, but commendations go to the Japanese climbers—Fumitaka Ichimura, Yusuke Sato and Tatsuro Yamada—who put up three hard new routes in the Ruth Gorge last month, and the British pair—Gareth Hughes and Vivian Scott—who did a new route on Mt. Dan Beard (10,260'): Sideburn Rib (Alaska Grade 5: Scottish IV, 75 degrees, 4,500').
Day three: Jon Bracey (left) and Andy Houseman (right) on the summit of Mt. Hunter (14,570’). They weathered a cold night on a plateau below the summit before descending the West Ridge. Following their return to base camp, a storm hit, forcing Eamonn Walsh and Mark Westman to bivy atop Moonflower Buttress's headwall and descend the next day. [Photo] Andy Houseman