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The ‘Gauntlet’: Two Americans make first ascent of Huntington’s Complete South Ridge

Mt. Huntington's South Ridge. [Photo] Clint Helander

Mt. Huntington’s South Ridge. [Photo] Clint Helander

Clint Helander and Jess Roskelley stepped off the plane onto Alaska’s Tokositna Glacier on April 18 and immediately set to work on their objective: Mt. Huntington’s unclimbed South Ridge. Their commitment paid off when they summited April 23–at which point they ran out of food–and returned to base camp April 25 after waiting out a storm to descend the West Face Couloir.

They named their route Gauntlet Ridge (Alaska Grade 6 M6 A0 95? snow, ca. 8,500′) because of the high commitment and the plethora of objective hazards that had deterred ascents in the past.

“We felt like we were running a gauntlet the whole time,” Helander said. He described the intricacies of the route in an email:

Anyone wanting to attempt the South Ridge had to be willing to make a long, committing and dangerous approach. The climbing begins at 5,700 feet and culminates at 12,240 feet on the summit of Huntington. That makes for a base-to-summit gain of 6,540 feet. There’s a substantial amount of additional elevation gain and loss, however. On any given pitch, we were climbing up, then down, rappelling and traversing before climbing back to the same elevation we had just come from. All of those peaks involved at least two or three rappels to get off. For example, Idiot Peak is 10,700 feet. To reach the col between Idiot Peak and Huntington, we made three full-length rappels. Then we climbed up a rock tower on Huntington and made another two rappels before we started climbing again. A cautious estimate is that the total route gain from base to summit is about 8,500 feet.

In terms of why it’s remained undone: ridge climbing isn’t really sexy anymore. Ridges of this type (the French Ridge on Foraker, the South Ridge and Southeast Spur of Hunter come to mind) have more or less fallen out of favor. Most people nowadays prefer face climbing. This route is capped by massive and precarious cornices all the way. The climbing is dangerous, runout, tedious and specialized. The South Ridge is a 2-mile amalgamation of nightmares. If a team got stuck up there in bad weather, there is no safe way of retreat.

The Japanese team was the last I know of who tried it from its base in 1978. I did a tremendous amount of homework to learn about it and even then I had so many questions when Jess and I launched on the route. It was only through my trust in the weather, conditions and my partner that I felt comfortable making an attempt.

Jess Roskelley on an endless up and down traverse to the second tower on Day 2. [Photo] Clint Helander

Jess Roskelley on an endless up and down traverse to the second tower on Day 2. [Photo] Clint Helander

“There are two types of climbers,” Roskelley said. “Climbers who pick an objective, plan, obsess, and bang out the details for the objective. Then there are the climbers who go with [them]. I had not planned on climbing Mt. Huntington at all, certainly not that route. Clint needed someone who was committed and ready to go at any time. I looked at the pictures and immediately thought it looked committing. I was in. I get a lot of drive when my partner is so into a project. It gets me pretty damn psyched.”

We went up there with five days of food, Helander wrote, but in the back of my mind I always was thinking about the alpine-style ascent of Hunter’s Southeast Spur by Glenn Randall, Peter Athens and Peter Metcalf in 1980. They brought six days of food and it took them 13 days to complete the climb. They absolutely epic-ed in the best style possible. I sure as hell didn’t want to replicate their adventure, but it was always in the recesses of my fears.

“I’ve never done a big ridge like this,” Roskelley said. “It’s hard to traverse all that way. It was a different mindset. Usually you can just rappel off. In this particular case, up was the way down. The safest way back to camp was up and over the summit of Mt. Huntington…. I’ve never felt more committed but I believe this can be good. Mark Twight, a hero of mine, wrote, ‘As long as you have a safety net you act without commitment.’ Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and give it everything you have. This is the scariest part for me.”

Helander walks the line. [Photo] Jess Roskelley

Helander walks the line. [Photo] Jess Roskelley

Helander said the weather and snow conditions were about as ideal as they could have hoped for.

Alaska had experienced a month of absolutely obscene high pressure, he wrote. Sadly it arrived too late for me to have success on my first expedition in the Revelation Mountains, but it set the South Ridge up perfectly. The Alaska Range had experienced a low snow year already and this high pressure system gave everything time to slough and set up perfectly. Ice in Alaska Range is almost nonexistent this year compared to other years and other climbers were reporting endlessly deep, faceted snow. When we arrived, it was apparent that it was in a rapid state of compaction as the late April sun allowed it to go through daily cycles of melt-freeze.

When we flew into the Range, I was ecstatic to see that the South Face of Peak 9460 was as bare as I had ever seen it. I knew it would be perfect! As soon as we reached base camp after successfully climbing the South Ridge, it snowed 1.5 feet. There’s no way we could have climbed that thing with that much snow. I believe we nailed it in as good of conditions as it could possibly ever form.

Helander said he first noticed Huntington’s South Ridge in 2013 when he climbed the Phantom Wall on the mountain and then later took a flight-seeing tour of the Alaska Range with his family.

“We landed on the West Fork of the Tokositna beneath the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Hunter. From there the entirety of the South Ridge of Huntington absolutely dominated the skyline,” he said. “As soon as I got home, I researched it and, much to my chagrin, it had never been climbed. I simply couldn’t believe it!”

Roskelley tiptoes on steep cornices before down climbing a vertical snow section on Day 2. [Photo] Clint Helander

Roskelley tiptoes on steep cornices before down climbing a vertical snow section on Day 2. [Photo] Clint Helander

Helander shared the following account of their ascent:

We flew into the East Fork of the Tokositna Glacier at 8,200 feet on April 18. It was kind of a surreal experience. We flew with my buddy Conor straight from Anchorage. Our bags were already packed, so after setting up our basecamp tent we roped up and started hiking right away.

We left camp at 4:45 p.m. on April 18 and walked down the East Fork of the Tokositna Glacier and around Peak 9550. A giant, nasty icefall spills into a narrow glacial basin nefariously called Death Valley from the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Tokositna. We took a snow ramp above the icefall and sprinted under a serac to reach a couloir that deposited us into Death Valley. We spent the next couple hours navigating through a wild crevasse field until it got too dark to see. We camped on a small island between gaping crevasses.

April 19: We backtracked when we dead-ended in the crevasses and were soon on the lower shroud of the South Ridge, where we had to sprint under another huge serac that hung from the ridge. We started climbing the South Face of Peak 9460, which is the first tower on the South Ridge from the lowest point of the face at 5,700 feet in the late morning. The rest of the day was spent climbing up the middle of the face in absolutely sweltering conditions. We took off our long underwear, gloves and hats and climbed in just our T-shirts and soft-shell pants. The heat took a lot out of us, but we climbed until we reached the 9,000-foot level and chopped out a narrow bivy as the last of the alpenglow faded.

April 20: We awoke at about 6:30 a.m. and were moving by 8:30 a.m. This day was the emotional crux of the route. Rappelling off Peak 9460 was extremely committing. The rock was very loose and overhanging. It began to lightly snow, but we pulled our ropes since we were confident that it was only a brief, localized system. Another rappel allowed us to access steep snow and ice flutings. Several pitches of mixed climbing and traversing put us past one of the route’s technical cruxes and now we were sure that we didn’t want to retreat back that way. We climbed under two gendarmes and eventually gained the corniced ridge. Vertical and technical snow climbing put us on the broad South Face of Peak 9800 (The Second Tower). I had read in the 1979 American Alpine Journal that in 1978 a team of 13 Japanese climbers from Sapporo had spent several weeks attempting the South Ridge, but gave up after reaching the top of the Second Tower. We had seen no sign of them at all and, given that in those days they climbed predominately in expedition style, I expected to have seen tons of fixed ropes and gear. As the light faded and our wet clothing began to freeze solid, I pulled up to a nice ledge on the Second Tower. There, I found a huge cache left by the Japanese team: old aid ladders, pickets, a gallon of white gas and about 30 pitons!

Roskelley begins an incredible section of mixed climbing on the third tower on Day 3. [Photo] Clint Helander

Roskelley begins an incredible section of mixed climbing on the third tower on Day 3. [Photo] Clint Helander

April 21: We made quick time to the summit of the Second Tower and just below the top I saw the last sign of the Japanese [attempt] in the form of a piton anchor with a loop of ancient white rope. I continued my long simul-block over and down the north side of the second tower and eventually down climbed a steep snow and ice chimney while back-placing protection for Jess. He and I climbed endless technical traverse pitches that day on the west side of the ridge. By the end of the day, we were actually lower than we had been when we started, but we had rappelled and climbed up, then down climbed, traversed, rappelled, climbed up and traversed some more. We hadn’t covered as much lateral ground as I had hoped, but we had solved what I thought to be the technical crux of the route under a pointy feature I called “the Nipple.” As the night faded, we chopped out a tiny platform half on the ridge, half on a cornice at the base of the Third Tower. That night we were lulled to sleep by a beautiful showing of the aurora borealis.

April 22: From my photos, I had thought that the Third Tower would be a relatively benign affair, but I as wrong. We used our now fat arsenal of pitons (we had 10 of our own titanium pitons and we took another 15 from the Japanese cache) and made two rappels down the west side of the Third Tower. I set off on a mega simul-block and climbed about 800-feet around and up the third tower. Near the end of my block, I climbed a steep chimney and used a few points of aid before belaying at the base of a beautiful crack. Jess lead the next few pitches of extremely high quality mixed and rock climbing, of which I was incredibly envious! Another long block of simul-climbing took us to the top of the Third Tower. We made two rappels over the cornices and down the north face of the Third Tower to the base of Idiot Peak. As night fell, we climbed several pitches up Idiot Peak before Jess located a sparse bivy scoop on an otherwise steep wall. We couldn’t set up the tent that night, but we tied our legs and bodies with slings and slept on the edge of the precipice in comfort as an even better aurora borealis show lulled us to sleep.

Roskelley settles in for a cramped bivy on Idiot Peak the night before summiting Huntington's South Ridge. [Photo] Clint Helander

Helander settles in for a cramped bivy on Idiot Peak the night before summiting Huntington’s South Ridge. [Photo] Clint Helander

Roskelley races an incoming storm on the upper ridge. Idiot Peak is visible in the upper right. [Photo] Clint Helander

Roskelley races an incoming storm on the upper ridge. Idiot Peak is visible in the upper right. [Photo] Clint Helander

April 23: We had feared that Idiot Peak would be a very difficult and all-day affair, but in one long simul-block I was almost at the top of the face. Jess led another long pitch, traversing along the huge and terrifying cornices. He belayed me over the northeast face of Idiot Peak and I found perfect ice at the foundation of the biggest cornice. Three traversing rappels and some anchor shenanigans later, and we were at the col between Idiot Peak and Mt. Huntington. The perfect weather that had been sitting over Alaska for more than a month was beginning to break down and we watched as clouds swirled in from the south. After a quick brew stop on the lower flanks of Mt. Huntington, we rappelled into a chossy gully and simul-climbed east into a broad snow face. At 11,500 feet, Jess took over and hacked his way up steel-hard ice with rounded crampons and exceedingly dull ice tools. We crossed over the route taken by the 1978 team that climbed the Southeast Spur. The summit serac hung above us, but we navigated around it on new terrain. Just before summiting, the clouds raised around us and we topped out in a whiteout at 9 p.m. We didn’t hang around on the summit for long. For the second time, Huntington had denied me any view from the top (I had climbed the Phantom Wall with Kurt Hicks in 2013 and as we started our way down from the ridge, I looked back and realized that we had missed the true summit by 20 meters due to zero visibility). We down climbed to the summit ridge leading to the West Face Couloir and the whole exertion of the route weighed upon us all at once. We were exhausted, cold and couldn’t differentiate between the corniced ridgeline or the sky. We decided to set up our tent, sleep and wait for better weather to safely descend.

Roskelley and Helander on the summit after completing the five-day first ascent of the Complete South Ridge, which they dubbed Gauntlet Ridge. The two would spend the next 36 hours recovering and waiting for better weather to descend the mountain to base camp. [Photo] Clint Helander

Roskelley and Helander on the summit after completing the five-day first ascent of the Complete South Ridge, which they dubbed Gauntlet Ridge. The two would spend the next 36 hours recovering and waiting for better weather to descend the mountain to base camp. [Photo] Clint Helander

April 24: We awoke and tried to rappel, but instantly we were very cold, so we set up our tent once again and waited for weather to improve. We were out of food except for a couple of bars, but we had gas, so we cautiously waited and tried to sleep and recover. Weather stayed bad all day, so that night we had a dinner of two bouillon cubes each (that’s only 22 calories, by the way!) and slept through the night. We had now been on the go for seven days and people were starting to worry about us since we were still on the summit.

April 25: We woke up feeling better, albeit very hungry. The clouds had broken just enough to see the top of the Stegosaur feature of the Harvard Route and I was able to quickly and correctly locate the entrance to the West Face Couloir. After 15 or so V-thread and fixed-rock anchor rappels, we crossed the bergschrund at 2:30 p.m. An hour later we were gorging ourselves on candy and all of the other luxurious accouterments of base camp.

An interview with Clint Helander and Jess Roskelley

What was the scariest moment for you?

Helander: The scariest moment for me was definitely rappelling off the First Tower on the second day. When we pulled those ropes, I think we both felt 100 percent committed. Rappelling any of those faces to Death Valley with our meager rack and then retracing our line through the crevasse field and climbing back to base camp would be a roll of the dice with the odds firmly in the favor of the house. If we got caught in a storm up there, well…let’s just say we climbed hard each day to make sure that didn’t happen.

Roskelley: I never felt one single moment of being scared. The climbing was technical in areas but awesome. I did feel a sense of urgency throughout the entire ridge. I know there was no great option for bailing, especially if it snowed… Hanging out in Patagonia for the first time two seasons ago, I knew we would get along great. Both of us like to laugh, I don’t think jokes ever stopped flying around. People handle stress in different ways and it was comforting to climb with a solid climber with a great sense of humor. Laughter takes the edge off of stressful situations.

What was the biggest challenge of the trip?

Helander: I think the biggest challenge of the trip was just having the self-belief to make it happen. To think about it all at once was almost too much. There were so many variables. If we dropped even once piece of gear or broke a crampon, it would go south very quickly. We just tried to focus on being as efficient as possible at all times; moving quickly whenever possible and putting in long days to stick to our goals of reaching certain locations in predefined timeframes. Technically, navigating between the Second and Third Tower was very challenging, slow and runout.

Roskelley: The start of a climb like that is hard to wrap my mind around sometimes. The challenge for me is just getting there and on the ridge itself. The approach can fill me with anxiety sometimes. The unknown. I want to get on that peak in my element and then I feel right as rain.

Besides summiting, what was the best moment?

Helander: My favorite moments were just getting to relax on some airy perch after a hard day’s climbing. I cherished my partnership with Jess and we were always laughing. Our sense of humor matched perfectly and that helped to relieve the feelings of anxiety. Watching the aurora borealis dance over our heads for two nights in a row was immensely special. I remember thinking that I needed to close my eyes and go to sleep, but all I wanted to do was stare at them.

Roskelley: Eating all the Costco food we left at base camp. I was pretty hungry! [And] the northern lights show.

How does this route compare to others you’ve done?

Helander: [This] was far and away the most committing climb I have ever done. I typically am attracted to faces. I’ve climbed quite a few big routes in Alaska like the Moonflower Buttress on Mt. Hunter and some first ascents in the Revelations, but most of those allowed me to start rappelling at the first sign of trouble. There were only one or two potential exit points on the South Ridge and even those were absolute last-ditch options. I’ve never completed a first ascent that required so many things to line up perfectly: planning, weather, conditions, partnership, the approach going smoothly, etc. It was the perfect lightning strike. We don’t get many of those in our lives. I feel very, very fortunate.

Any advice for climbers attempting this line in the future?

Helander: Don’t. No, I’m kidding. I will be totally surprised if this line gets repeated in the next few decades. It is classic in a very twisted sense. The rock is generally exquisite. I would recommend that any future parties do their homework and wait for the perfect weather window. Bring at least 15 pitons and 30m of rappel tat. It could probably be done one day faster now that the path has been established, but with worse snow conditions, I can see it taking twice as long.

Roskelley: Make sure it hasn’t snowed in a while and make damn sure it’s not going to snow while you’re on it.

What’s next?

Helander: It feels weird for my Alaska Range season to be over before May even starts, but I think Jess and I will be riding that high for a long time. I’m excited to enjoy the summer activities of Alaska and I am going to Nepal in September to attempt a first ascent on Panbari [6905m] in the Peri Himal north of Manaslu. I’ll be working and training for that until we leave.

Roskelley: I live in Spokane Washington. Besides rock climbing and enjoying some Pacific Northwest alpine routes, my wife and I have partnered with The Front Climbing [Club] gym out of Salt Lake City and we are working on a getting a brand new 20,000-square-foot gym put in. Spokane has an amazing outdoor community and I hope to make it better with this project. That will take up some of my time for sure.

To see more Alaska stories and photos by Helander, click here.