Historic Enchainment on Denali
Posted on: May 27, 2008
A narrow perspective of the east face of the south buttress of Denali (20,320'), Alaska Range, Alaska. The Isis Face (Alaska Grade 6: M4 5.8 A1, 60 degrees, Stutzman-Tackle, 1982) roughly follows the prominent discontinuous ridgeline, which makes up a small part of Denali's massive southeast face. In an eight-day push from May 11-18 three Japanese climbers, Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato and Fumitaka Ichimura, made the third ascent of this 7,200-foot route. Upon reaching the top of the route, they dropped down the Ramp Route (Alaska Grade 3: 55 degrees, 9,300', Kajiura-Nakamura-Nishimura, 1965) on the west face of the south buttress to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, then climbed 9,000 more vertical feet up the Slovak Direct (Alaska Grade 6: 5.9, 100 degrees, Adam-Korl-Krizo, 1984) to Denali's summit. Their successful enchainment was tempered by apparent tragedy, however, as two of their friends remain missing on the mountain. [Photo] Jack Tackle
From May 11-May 18, Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato and Fumitaka Ichimura—three Japanese alpinists who comprise part of the so-called Giri-Giri Boys—linked up two of Denali's more difficult routes, the Isis Face (Alaska Grade 6: M4 5.8 A1, 60 degrees, 7,200' [to South Buttress], Stutzman-Tackle, 1982) and the Slovak Direct (Alaska Grade 6: 5.9, 100 degrees, 9,000', Adam-Korl-Krizo, 1984), in a continuous, eight-day push. The success was tempered by apparent tragedy, however, as two of their friends remain missing on Denali (read the May 28, 2008 NewsWire for more information).
Starting on May 11, the three Japanese approached up the Southwest Fork of the Ruth Glacier then began up the Isis Face, which takes an elegant snow and ice line through rock buttresses to top out on the South Buttress (Alaska Grade 3: 60 degrees, 10,500', Argus-Thayer- Viereck-Wood, 1955). After climbing the lower sections of the Isis, they bivied in "a huge and comfortable ice cave," reports Yokoyama. Weather pinned them in the cave the next day, but on May 13 they continued with the climb, reaching the juncture with the South Buttress, then dropping down the Ramp Route (Alaska Grade 3: 55 degrees, 9,300', Kajiura-Nakamura-Nishimura, 1965) to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and the base of Denali's 9,000-foot south face in the evening of May 14.
They began climbing the Slovak Direct the next morning at 7 a.m. Three days later they reached the juncture with the Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5: 5.8 AI4, 65 degrees, 9,000', Alippi-Airoldi-Canali-Cassin-Perego-Zucchi, 1961). As numerous climbers over the years have discovered, the upper sections of the south face, while not technically difficult, can be exhausting, and the Japanese climbers found the trailbreaking at 20,000 feet after days of hard climbing difficult. Nonetheless, they summited the next day, then continued all the way down to Kahiltna International Airport at 7,000 feet, where they arrived on May 18.
The missing climbers, whose names are being withheld while their families arrive in Talkeetna, are also part of the Giri-Giri Boys. They had planned to climb the Cassin after first traversing Kahiltna Peak, but for unknown reasons gave up the traverse and repositioned themselves on the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna. They are believed to have begun climbing sometime around May 14 or 15, but while Yokoyama sighted tracks on the upper part of the Cassin, he was unsure if they had been made by his friends. Maureen McLaughlin of the National Park Service reported that good weather in recent days allowed NPS aerial spotters "to make several flights under optimum observation conditions... but the climbers were not seen."
The enchainment, which marked the third ascent of the Isis Face and the fourth of the Slovak Direct, linked more than 16,000 vertical feet of difficult terrain over eight days—an enchainment so impressive that some have called it one of the greatest feats in Alaska climbing history. But according to Yokoyama, the technical difficulties came from unexpected challenges. "The most difficult part of the route was descending the Ramp," said Yokoyama in a phone interview, "because it is so dangerous. It's pretty hard to find the correct line of descent. The Isis Face is such a beautiful line, but it was much easier than we imaginged: we simulclimbed the entire route, swinging leads. The Slovak Direct was just fun: the ice was good, the rock was solid, so we enjoyed the climbling." On the Slovak, each climber would lead two pitches before switching leads.
Over the last few years, the Giri-Giri Boys have been quietly pursuing some of the great remaining mountaineering objectives around the world. Last year Ichimura and Sato, along with Tatsuro Yamada, established three new routes in the Ruth Gorge (see the May 18, 2007 NewsWire for more information). This spring they spent a month on the Buckskin and Kahiltna glaciers until May 11 when they flew to the west fork of the Ruth, where they began the Denali push. More information about their ascents and an update on the missing climbers will be posted on Alpinist.com as soon as it is available.
Editor's Note: Issue 24, on sale June 1, features a twenty-four-page mountain profile on Denali. To learn more, check out the May 2007 High Camp.
Sources: Katsutaka Yokoyama, Rolando Garibotti, Paul Roderick, Jack Tackle, Maureen McLaughlin