Martin Gutmann on The Lost Marsupials, a classic climbed with Lucas Iten and Jack Sasser before they established three new routes in late May above the Pika Glacier, Alaska Range, Alaska. [Photo] Martin Gutmann collection
Lucas Iten and I flew onto the Pika Glacier in Denali National Park, Alaska, on May 16 looking for unclimbed lines that my college buddy, Jack Sasser, had reconnoitered as part of an NPS ranger patrol the previous year. Many routes have been climbed, but not documented, in the Little Switzerland area over the past ten years; we worked with Jack and ex-mountaineering ranger, Gordy Kito, to identifyas many virgin routes as possible, then climb them in alpine style, without placing bolts or pitons. To display our national spirit, Lucas and I registered our expedition name with the Park Service as “Return of the Swiss.” Nine days after we flew into the Pika, which hooks into the Kahiltna, Jack joined us–under the provocatively anti-Swiss expedition name “Not Neutral.”
Before Jack arrived, Lucas and I repeated some of the area classics, including The Lost Marsupials. On May 19 the sun had sufficiently baked the rock to allow for some difficult climbing on the Throne (7,390′), across the south gully from Marsupials. Slightly overhanging, fist-sized jams in beautiful granite cracks provided the first crux; the second involved a thin traverse around an arete onto a nearly-unprotectable friction slab. Pitch after pitch, we were pleased with the climbing on The Lost Schnurpfel (5.10+, 12 pitches).
Three days later we climbed another new route, Swisser than Swiss Chocolate (5.11+, 10 pitches), this time on the steep west face of the Throne. The route starts just right of a massive rock scar and climbs straight through diverse cracks–from offwidths to laybacks–up to the summit snowfields. Two pitches up we encountered a vertical and seemingly blank face. Lucas onsighted this sustained and exposed crux pitch at 7a (approximately 5.11d). Several 5.10 and 5.11 pitches later we reached snow slopes and rappelled down a neighboring route.
Jack Sasser following Got Lucky? (5.11, 14 pitches) on the south side of Royal Tower (8,130?), Alaska Range, Alaska. Although the ropemates considered it the finest climb of their lives, snags while descending forced Iten to re-climb one of the most obnoxious pitches: a wet, barely-protectable, 5.10 offwidth. [Photo] Martin Gutmann collection
On May 25 Jack escaped his Denver EMT job to join us on the Pika. The following day the three of us climbed up from the Crown Glacier to the south side of Royal Tower (8,130′), where we found a giant, unclimbed pillar. At the base of the route we realized that we had forgotten our alpine quickdraws and had to make due with three stubby sport draws. Half way up we fashioned an extra alpine draw out of a Mammut spectra gear slings and two spare biners. As a testament to the route’s directness, the absence of a full set of extendable slings never prevented us from climbing full-length pitches. At midnight, twelve hours after starting, we reached the top of the pillar and the summit snow slopes. We set to rappelling and immediately ran into problems. The ropes snagged not once but twice on the first rappel, forcing Lucas to re-climb the wet, barely-protectable, 5.10 offwidth in his alpine boots. While I had originally led the pitch, it had frightened me so much that I could not imagine doing it a second time. At 6 a.m. we were finally down. Because of Lucas’s nickname “Lucky” we named the route in his honor: Got Lucky? (5.11, 14 pitches).
Later in the trip we made two unsuccessful attempts, one on Italy’s Boot (ca. 7,700′) and another on Your Highness (ca. 7,800′). Although we didn’t finish every climb we hoped to, this trip marked the first time I had made first ascents where every pitch was classic, solid and there were no problems with rockfall–the area has spectacular rock. We all agreed that Got Lucky? was the most enjoyable route we had ever climbed.