Idiot Peak, Tokositna Glacier, Alaska
“Does everyone have a good feeling about this?” Scott said, before we were about to rappel and down climb over 2,000 feet into the formidable “Valley of Death” on the Tokositna glacier. To our knowledge, we (Scott Adamson, Andy Knight and Aaron Child) are the only team that has made this descent to access climbing in that valley. [Correction: Jay Smith and Paul Teare descended into the valley on two occasions in the early 1990s. See Smith’s response, below.–Ed.] Our goal was to put up a new route in the center of the west face of Idiot Peak–the south subpeak of Mt. Huntington–first climbed and named by Will Mayo and Chris Thomas in 2005 by the 1,200-foot Mini-intellectual (5.8 WI4+R/X).
In the past, most parties have climbed to the top of the access couloir on the Harvard Route and then traversed under the Phantom Wall on a sizable ledge to access either the Phantom Wall or Idiot Peak (as Mayo and Thomas did in 2005). But that approach bypasses 2,000 feet of climbing that would make the objective more challenging, so down that rabbit hole we plunged.
As we rappelled and down climbed the chest-deep sugar snow and blank slabs, we realized that we would probably not be able to escape that same way. They don’t call it the “Valley of Death” for nothing, judging by the massive amounts of debris at its low point. Navigating the initial icefall was wild. Scott narrowly escaped a big crevasse fall when a snow bridge collapsed under him.
Reaching the bottom of the main face, we soloed 2,500 feet of 60- to 80-degree snow and WI2-3. A long water-ice ribbon in a left facing corner made up our first technical pitch, which led to an M6 crux protected by suspect gear. Higher up, Andy took the lead up a coating of clear water ice in the back of a squeeze chimney–something none of us had experienced–that accessed hard ice- and mixed- climbing (WI5+ M5) and a good ledge above.
Scott started up an extremely brittle, 30-foot column of ice only to discover its complete detachment from the rock wall behind it. He made a tension traverse out right 20 feet and began to free climb up thin mixed moves, finally resorting to aid up thin, flaring cracks to avoid an ugly fall onto a single Pecker. In a good, fat year, this column would be exceptional, if attached.
We soon came to a crossroads. One glacial ice path led right, and a steeper path led left. We couldn’t see where either of them ended up so we took a gamble on the right-hand ice. Above, we found WI4 ice and a blocky mixed chimney that yielded more glacial ice and “Thank-God Mushroom Bivy,” one pitch below the ridge proper, around midnight. Merely a pillow of snow with a connecting walkway the size of a sidewalk, it is one of the most unique bivouacs each of us has experienced. Waking above the Valley of Death with much of the Alaska Range in view will be a memory not easily forgotten. Our progress only slowed with one big gendarme at the beginning of the ridge the next morning, but it devolved into snow wallowing soon after. The summit itself was heavily corniced, so standing on top of the mountain itself was sketchy–a mere tap of the ice tool on the apex of Idiot Peak had to suffice.
Inexplicably good weather left us feeling lucky that we completed our main objective so quickly, and without any major setbacks, especially considering the massive commitment level. We could have easily been stuck in that valley amid spindrift and snow slides off the Phantom Wall for over a week if a major storm had rolled in during our descent. Instead, Scott, Andy and I finished Down the Rabbit Hole (VI WI5+ M6 80 degrees, 5,000′) in alpine style over four days this April.