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Facing Reality on the Ruth Glacier

Denali (20,320′), showing The Reality Face (AI5, 5,300′) up the eastern aspect of Reality Peak (13,100′). Jens Holsten, Seth Timpano and Jared Vilhauer established the line May 21-24. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

On May 21-24, Jens Holsten, Seth Timpano and Jared Vilhauer climbed a new line up the east face of a 13,100-foot satellite peak of Denali, which they call Reality Peak, between the Isis Face and Peak 11,300 along the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier. At the summit, their line, The Reality Face (AI5, 5,300′), intersects with Reality Ridge (AK Grade 4+: 5.5 A2, 13,000′, Thuermer-Florschutz-Metcalf-Stoller, 1975), which continues to the top of Denali after joining with the Southeast Spur.–Ed.

Sheer silence hung over the glacier, and a fluted ridge met the falling sun. A creeping shade line marched toward the cook tent as we finished the dishes and tidied the kitchen.

Jared and I had spent all day skiing up and down the west fork of the Ruth Glacier looking for an inspiring, safe line to give our all. Our original objective was sporting a new look; its summit snow slopes cracked open to reveal a hanging serac that might, just might, sweep our route clean were it to cut loose.

Seth Timpano climbs towards the ice runnels that define the midsection of The Reality Face. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

Surprised and a bit bummed, we kept scoping for something that wasn’t so threatened. Jared’s little black book lead us up another fork of the glacier and under the 4,000 foot east face of what we would later call Reality Peak. One “safe” line existed in an otherwise chaotic landscape of ice cliffs, snow mushrooms, and soaring granite walls. After a few pictures we glided back to camp to meet our friend Seth, who was due to fly in that evening. Now, gathered in the rapidly chilling evening, we had a decision to make.

“What do you guys want to climb?” said Seth. “I’m down for anything. I just want to have a solid adventure.”

Jared explained what we had seen that day and put in his two cents. “I don’t want to climb under that ice cliff, even if it might not hit the route. If you guys want to go with Plan A, you should. I’ve had a great trip.”

Jens Holsten on a steep pitch about 3,000′ into the route. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

A tough choice had to be made, but it was clear to me that we needed to stick together. I took my glasses off and looked Jared and Seth in the eyes. I wanted our mission to start on an honest foundation. “To tell the truth, both routes scare me. One has a hanger over the whole route, the other is a funnel for the entire mountain.”

I fidgeted in my seat as we broke down the details more and more. “I think the route on Reality Peak has a fair amount of danger, but no more than what we’ve already accepted coming to climb big routes in the Alaska Range.” Jared was right. We were here to commit ourselves to something greater than our imaginations. We hadn’t come for the ease of it, but rather for the epic challenge of climbing a big route in alpine style.

A view of the climbers’ high bivy. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

“I’m in. Let’s go for Reality Peak.” The choice felt right in my gut. Seth added a “Hell yeah.” High fives sealed the pact before an icy, down-glacier breeze sent us crawling into the tents.

The next afternoon we donned our crampons and stashed our skis as shade took over Reality Peak’s east face. “I can get us started,” Jared stated, already clipping gear to the loops on his harness. We flaked the ropes, finished sussing out the packs, and started up the wall. The following 17 hours were filled with ecstasy and torment. Crisp snow, flowing ice runnels and one-swing sticks were balanced with dehydration and exhaustion. A cramped and foggy bivy stalled us at 12,000 feet for nearly a full day. When the clouds parted we attacked the final 1,100 feet to the summit. Of course, the ridge climbing was steeper, longer and scarier than we expected. The exposure, although camouflaged with misty clouds, made the ridge feel like a monster swimming just below our boots.

When the weather cleared, the trio left the tent and started their journey to the top of the peak. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

Our time on the summit was spent snapping photos, sucking the last water trickles from our bottles and maintaining a stern focus. An intense down climb to our high camp awaited, followed by 4,000 feet of “rope riding” as Jared called it.

Three days earlier I had been indecisive and fearful of coming to this place. At the top, a peace filled me. I had made my choice and was living with the beautiful consequences. As we reversed our steps along the ridge, the high peaks of the Alaska Range floated on an ocean of clouds. Jared used a shovel to chop away another pesky fluting. “There’s no pro here and the snow is steep sugar.” He was right, but it didn’t matter. I kept saying it was like a root canal. It’s no fun, but you have to do it. You bite the bullet and you get it done. Step by step, moment by moment.

Jens Holsten climbing on the final ridge before the summit. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

After down climbing the ridge, we brewed, ate, and then broke down our high camp and started rappelling. A powerful sun caught us on our descent. Early in the cold and then suddenly hot morning, I kept glancing upwards while waiting for the others to rappel. Snow mushrooms clung inexplicably to the granite walls above, and ice chunks tinkled down the grooves in the steep couloir we were descending. If something fell from above there was no place to hide. My breaths became meditative. I needed to stay calm. Most importantly, I had felt a good energy from the moment Jared and Seth invited me on the trip a month ago. Instinct had guided me here.

Racing the sun on the descent. [Photo] Jared Vilhauer

“Off!” Jared’s voice seemed small as we made the final rappel. “I’m going to keep moving! Can you deal with the ropes?” he yelled. Before I even said yes, he was jogging toward the safety of the buttress where we had cached our skis. Seth slid down the cords and began his own trot to salvation. I clicked into my rappel device, zipped over the ‘schrund, tied the green rope to my harness, and tugged it through the final anchor. I heel-plunged one last slope.

After stripping sweaty layers, a silence ensued as we individually gathered ourselves. Finally, I stuck out my hand to Jared and then Seth. “It was a pleasure guys,” I said through chapped lips. Tired smiles overcame tense, concentrated faces and we laughed at the prospect of a wobbly ski back to camp. “I’m going to crash for sure!” Seth joked. “Pizza, french fries, pizza, french fries,” I chanted, reminding myself of a simple mantra that would help me survive the journey home. Within moments of clicking in, Reality Peak fell far behind us.

[Artwork] Jessica Campbell