At 8 p.m. June 14, Chantel Astorga became the first woman to solo the Cassin Ridge on Denali (20,310′), completing the route in just 14 hours and 39 minutes.
Generations of alpinists have considered the Cassin (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8, AI4) a formidable and coveted objective. The route was first climbed by the Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin and other members of the famous Lecco Spiders over 13 days in 1961. Its enormous 8,000 feet of vertical relief, arctic cold and difficulty of retreat make it a committing prize for alpinists from around the world. The first solo went to Charlie Porter in 1976. His 36-hour ascent was considered by many to be ahead of its time. In 1991 Mugs Stump established a new fast time of 15 hours, though he eschewed the summit after pushing through a blizzard to top out the ridge; this achievement brought new attention to the route and opened the door for further speed records. Colin Haley spent several seasons in the area with his eye on the record, whittling the time down to 8:07 in the summer of 2018.
Astorga, who works as an avalanche forecaster in Idaho, said that soloing the Cassin Ridge has always been a dream of hers. On most of her previous Alaska Range expeditions, she has opted to rope up with other high-level female alpinists. This time, however, on her 13th expedition to the range, she felt ready to go by herself. When asked why this trip was different, she responded, “I don’t generally solo big routes, but I do spend a lot of big days alone in the mountains, ski mountaineering, and I have climbed routes on El Capitan in Yosemite rope solo. That time alone in the mountains has always been powerful for me in ways I can’t explain. I guess I simply just wanted to feel what it was like to be alone on a technical route in the big mountains and the Cassin Ridge seemed like a perfect fit.”
To acclimate and prepare for the trip, her initial plan was to spend a few weeks at the 14,000-foot camp on the West Buttress of Denali. Originally she intended to make two trips from there to the West Buttress summit ridge, but the weather permitted only one. Nonetheless, she felt ready.
Astorga carried a 2.5-pound lightweight bivy kit, 10 energy bars, four gel packs, a stove, a single fuel canister and a lightweight rescue beacon. She also brought a 40-meter piece of 5mm rope and two ice screws in case of retreat. Notably, she climbed in a pair of lightweight ski-mountaineering boots with extra-warm liners, and she carried skis.
On June 13, after 19 days of acclimating, Astorga left 14K Camp and ascended 2,000 feet to the West Rib. Then she made the first recorded ski descent of the Seattle Ramp. The ramp is steep and riddled with seracs, blue ice and crevasses that pushed Astorga to the edge of her comfort zone.
“Since I’m a skier and traveling on glaciers alone can be dangerous, I wanted to use skis for the approach to make it safer,” she said. “To my good fortune, a team I trusted had navigated down the ramp a few days before, so I was more or less following their path down. But things got a little scary when, towards the bottom of the Seattle Ramp, I was skiing in a whiteout. [Fittingly, Haley noted in his blog that he benefited from tracks that “were made a couple of days earlier by Anne Chase and Chantel Astorga” on the approach to his fast ascent in 2018.]
“I arrived at the base of the climb in the early afternoon as the clouds gave way to sunshine and slept until 4 a.m. I woke up in go-mode and things were feeling right. I felt solid and in control, mixed climbing through the Japanese Couloir and the First and Second Rock Bands. It was fun!”
To Astorga’s good fortune, the same party that had come down the Seattle Ramp had also put in a nice boot pack on the lower slopes of the route, which helped speed things along. However, as she reached the midpoint of the route, snow had blown in and she had to route find again. She had been on the upper slopes in years past, once via the Denali Diamond and once via the Slovak Direct, as both routes link into the Cassin. She went into cruise control and punched it for the top.
“I never feel great at altitude, more in a dream state, but on this occasion, I felt strong up high,” she said.
Elated, she summited at 8 p.m. on June 14. With the sun still high in the Alaska sky, she quickly made her way back to 14K Camp in 2.5 hours via the West Buttress, skiing whenever she could.
“I think Chantel’s solo ascent is very cool,” Haley said. “It is the first female solo of arguably the most iconic alpine climb on the continent. A route that requires a real big-mountain skillset to solo. It’s notable how quickly she climbed the route. She did it faster than the Mugs Stump record that stood for nearly 20 years.”
Jack Tackle, a renowned Alaskan alpinist, noted that Astorga’s ascent “is one of the most impressive things done in the Alaska Range.”
When asked what the highlights from the climb were, Astorga said, “I think just being alone was amazing for me. It’s not something I’d want to do often, as I really enjoy sharing those experiences with a good friend, but it was pretty special for me. I thought it was a complete climb, a perfect route.”