This past April, Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim endured avalanches, rotten rock and tent-flattening winds to author a new route on the unclimbed northwest face on Mt. Deborah (12,339′) in the Alaska Range. Sim calls their route, Bad to the Bone, “The most spooky and unnerving thing I have ever been on.” The pair declined to grade its difficulty, and does not recommend a second ascent.
Griffith, a leading alpine photographer for more than a decade, is a regular contributor to Alpinist. In August, 2014, we published a gallery of his work called Alpine Exposures. Griffith puts what he calls “authentic climbing” at the core of his approach. By their account, Bad to the Bone is as authentic as climbing can get.
Will Sim spotted Mt. Deborah’s northwest face while scrolling through Google Earth, and was immediately drawn to its “clearly beautiful” form and size. The face also appeared to be free of solar aspects and hanging seracs. He contacted long-time climbing partner Jonathan Griffith in November, and they set the objective. Unable to find anyone who had looked closely at the face or taken a photo, they pinned their hopes on Google’s grainy image.
On April 18, a helicopter dropped Griffith and Sim at their base camp on the remote Gillam glacier. That night, extreme winds destroyed their tent. For the next two days the pair dug a snow cave that would become base camp. It took five days for a weather window to appear, allowing them to attempt the northwest face of Mt. Deborah.
As Griffith and Sim crossed the bergschrund below the face in the morning on April 23, two avalanches let loose from the face, narrowly missing them on both sides. Sim remembers, “Jon and I locked gazes for a few seconds. We both said we didn’t like it. Then we kept going.”
Sloughing snow continued to buffet the pair as they climbed. Protection was difficult or impossible to place, and the climbing was thin and technical. Griffith and Sim declined to grade the difficulty. “We ended up having to simulclimb thin and delicate technical sections with a big pack on and at times just a couple of bits of pro, on a mountain that kept threatening to sweep us off it,” Griffith says. “I can’t really give that a grade.”
Halfway up the face, the mountain “really came alive.” Despite subarctic temperatures the previous day, the northwest face began sloughing continuously. “These weren’t just spindrift slides,” Griffith says. The snow was heavy and dense enough to risk carrying the climbers down with it.
To escape the barrage Griffith and Sim traversed right, simulclimbing across thin mixed terrain toward Mt. Deborah’s northwest ridge. Griffith recalls, “When we got off the face, I said to Will, ‘Let’s make sure that’s the most dangerous thing we ever climb together.'”
“Exiting the face was a relief, but we still had a long way to go to the summit the next day,” Griffith says. Sim and Griffith dug a bivouac on the northwest ridge, where they spent the nights both before and after their summit bid. “We went heavier than we wanted to because we’d seen the ferocious weather destroy our base camp,” says Sim. “We wanted to be able to sit something out.”
On April 24, 2015, Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim reached the summit of Mt. Deborah (12,339′) under clear skies.
Despite the avalanches and thin protection on the ascent, Griffith says the descent was “probably the most dangerous part of the climb.” It took the pair a day and a half to traverse a ridge “so crumbly you could just pick it up in your hand,” rappel to the glacier below, and slog back to base camp.
During the descent, the pair was uncertain if flaking schist and thin ice would allow them to build anchors. “In the end [the rappel] turned out OK,” says Griffith. “Just a very slow descent under some huge cornices, [while] trying to come up with some pretty inventive rap stations.”
The pair called their route Bad to the Bone, after listening to the George Thorogood song back at base camp. They felt the name accurately described the route. “The rock [on Mt. Deborah] isn’t granite so it doesn’t form the stunning goulottes or M6 corners that you get in the Central Alaska Range, but instead forms very insecure thin ice sections through unclimbable rock,” Griffith explains. “There is no ‘line’ as such. I think we got lucky; somehow we managed to link up thin ice smears through sections of rock that would have been impossible to climb otherwise…. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”