Sam Magro traverses out of the slot on the north face of the West Tower, Mendenhall Towers, Alaska. He and Ryan Johnson, who received a 2008 Mugs Stump Award grant for this objective, made the first ascent of The Great White Conqueror (V M5 AI4 A1, 14 pitches, 2,500′) from March 27-28, 2008 after waiting ten days for a brutal storm to subside. [Photo] Ryan Johnson
Sam Magro and Ryan Johnson, 2008 Mugs Stump Award recipients, put up The Great White Conqueror (V M5 AI4 A1, 2,500′), a new fourteen-pitch line on the north face of the West Tower, Mendenhall Towers, Alaska, in 33 hours round trip from March 27-28, 2008.
Magro and Johnson met in Yosemite’s Camp 4 in October 2007. After a casual night of drinking, Johnson, from Juneau, Alaska, pulled out a picture of the Mendenhall Towers, a formation he had been eyeing for a few years and asked Magro if he would be interested in joining him. “I couldn’t resist,” Magro said. “It was stunning.”
The pair flew in on March 14 and set up base camp. They had one good day of weather to scout the route and get organized before a relentless ten-day storm hit. “It was an absurd amount of snow,” Magro said. “We took shifts shoveling snow away from our tent, but it got to a point where we couldn’t get it out fast enough. The wind was howling, and we were getting at least two feet a day. We decided to give in and went subterranean.” On the twelfth day the weather finally improved.
During their first attempt on the climb, the pair found sugar snow and rime plastered on rock where they expected solid ice. Magro said the protection was almost nonexistent because they were climbing a knifeblade seam that was covered in moss surrounded by pure slab. When Johnson was leading about 140 feet up, a whole corner system peeled off, and he fell about 40 feet.
“He was a little frazzled, and we both started to reassess our line of choice,” Magro said. “It was like this big mountain was just punting us off.”
Johnson leads the opening pitch. The route involved unconsolidated snow and tricky, bulgy mixed climbing through the steeper sections, in most cases followed by lower-angle, solid neve. [Photo] Sam Magro
The next day they went back and Magro led past Johnson’s highpoint. They decided the line wouldn’t go. Beginning late morning on the 27th, the two explored another line to the right, where they found great climbing on neve. They climbed straight, often simuling, until 7:30 that night when they encountered an alcove and decided to bivy rather than complete the route in a push. Magro said the entire route was a series of overhanging sections followed by lower-angle neve. And since the route was in a huge slot, the pair had to navigate over massive chockstones that Magro said were committing and cruxy near the top.
“There was lots of overhanging sugar snow that didn’t give you anywhere to put your tools, but once you got over the bulges there was good neve,” Magro said. “There were some no-fall areas, but for the most part the route had a pretty casual feeling.”
The pair summited at 6 p.m. the second day to 100-mile visibility, and descended the west ridge in two hours. They had planned on trying a few new lines, but the weather turned on them again at the beginning of April.
“It was intimidating knowing that those types of storms hit, so we decided that we really didn’t want to wait out another,” Magro said. “I felt fortunate just to get that route in.”