Two new big-wall aid routes reached the rarely visited summit of Kichatna Spire (8,985′) in the Alaska Range within the past few weeks.
From May 23 to 27, Americans David Allfrey, Whit Magro and Graham Zimmerman opened a route on the northwest face that they named The Pace of Comfort (VI 5.10 A3+ M6 70? snow, 3,100′). Shortly after, on the east face of the spire, British climbers Mark Thomas and Mike “Twid” Turner completed a route they called Thunderstruck (VI 5.11b A3+, 3,900′) on June 8 after 12 consecutive days of effort.
The Pace of Comfort
A lightly edited press release from Allfrey, Magro and Zimmerman describes their ascent:
The Kichatna Spires are a small clutch of exceptionally steep peaks 70 miles west of Denali. In his 1966 report on the spires, David Roberts stated, “no other area combines heavy glaciation, remoteness and bad weather with such an abundance of vertical walls, pinnacles, and obelisks.” During his 1966 expedition to the area, two of his teammates made the first ascent of the highest peak in the range, the 8,985-foot peak via its East Ridge–they named the mountain Kichatna Spire.
In the years since the first ascents made on the peak have represented some of the most technical ascents in the Alaska Range, and only one of these has successfully ascended the peak’s dramatic northwest face. This ascent of The Ships Prow by Andrew Embick and Jim Bridwell in 1979 was on the cutting edge of applying Yosemite big wall tactics to the big mountains.
The other routes on the north side of the peak (off the Cul-de-Sac Glacier) are The Voice of Unreason (2005), which did not reach the summit, and the Wharton-Smith Couloir [aka The Message or the Money] (2008) to reach the 1966 route, which is on the far left-hand margin of the face. Many other attempts had been made on the peak’s northwestern wall, including one in 2008 by Zimmerman alongside Ian Nicholson and Ryan O’Connell.
The team, including videographer Oliver Rye, flew into the Cul-de-Sac Glacier on May 22 in clear weather with an excellent forecast. After setting up basecamp and scoping the route, they got to work on the route’s initial pitches. On May 23, Magro led two 70-meter pitches of sustained rock climbing (C2 and 5.10). That evening they returned to camp with two ropes fixed on the wall. The following day, Allfrey led a 68-meter pitch of technical A3+ beaks followed by a stunning 50-meter C3 leaning corner. Above this, Zimmerman led a 45-meter mixed corner (C2, M6). At this point, they reached the snow ledge dubbed “the triple ledges.” Again, they fixed lines through these initial pitches and returned to camp.
Due to the arc of the arctic summer sun, they climbed late in the day, departing basecamp at noon and reaching the base of the wall at 1 p.m. to take advantage of the sunlight on the wall that lasted from 3 p.m. to 12 a.m.
After resting and packing on May 25, they launched on the route at 10 a.m. on the 26th, ascending their ropes and pulling the ropes behind. From “Triple Ledges,” Magro led a sustained 230-foot A3 pitch. Allfrey then led the two 50-meter pitches of C3 to the top of the upper headwall. On the final moves stepping off the headwall, Allfrey took a 40-foot whipper when a cam placed in poor rock failed. Up to that point, the climbing was sustained vertical and overhanging terrain. Finally, after eight massive pitches of climbing, the terrain leaned back. From there, Magro was able to climb around an M6 chockstone left of the final headwall to reach a small bivy chopped in a snow field on which the team was able to sit out the bright Alaskan night.
The following morning [Friday, May 27], Zimmerman led five pitches of high-quality mixed climbing with difficulty up to M5 to reach the summit ridge under clear skies. Magro then led along the moderate and stunning summit ridge to reach the peak’s T-O-P…at 4:17 p.m.
Their descent went quickly, and they arrived back at basecamp with all of their equipment just before midnight.
The route required all of the skills gained from the team’s numerous expeditions around the world. In Magro’s words, “this climb was a culmination of 70 years of climbing experience between the three of us.”
The name “The Pace of Comfort” comes from a statement made by pilot Paul Roderick when he picked the team up on the glacier. Looking at the weather, he said, “With these kinds of conditions, we’re able to fly at a pace of comfort.” The climbing team felt the same way about their ascent.
In an email to Alpinist, “Twid” Turner wrote:
I had attempted this fabulous pillar in 2000 but backed off due to loose rock. We were back again and found the 30 meters [nearly 100 feet] of loose rock now on the glacier!
The climb followed a fantastic corner crack up the pillar on the right side of the east face. The second pitch took two days to climb through some blank and loose-ish rock over a huge roof to reach the corner. Once in the corner/crack it led pretty much direct up the left side of the orange pillar. This led to alpine mixed rock and snow climbing to the summit ridge.
The pureness of the top half was pretty special. The climbing was over 12 long, consecutive days of effort. Most of the climbing was challenging aid/French free [while dealing with a] mix of freezing and warm conditions. The weather was stellar the whole period except for a thunderstorm one day, which was quite spooky. Six nights were spent bivying on a small ledge. I lost 3.5kg [8 lbs.] in weight over the climb, which shows the great effort we put in! It was a truly incredible summit…and an aesthetic line.
Turner’s report for PlanetMountain.com notes that they mostly protected the route “with nuts, cams and beaks, and while no pegs were placed, every now and then a bolt was added to back up the belay anchor where necessary. The 33-pitch outing [is] ‘one of [Turner’s] best big wall routes out of the 35 years of big walling.'”
The Kichatna Spires, called “K’its’atnu Dghelaya” by Dena’ina Dene (Athabascan) people, first attracted climbers’ attention in 1962 as a result of a hoax authored by Harvey Manning, Austin Post and Edward LaChapelle. The three friends had published an anonymous article in Summit magazine describing the imposing granite peaks as “the Riesenstein” peaks of “British Columbia,” accompanied by a deliberately mislabeled photo of the Kichatnas, with the intention of sending hopeful peak baggers on a wild goose chase in the wrong country. In her 2021 book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, Alpinist editor Katie Ives writes: “Few American climbers were aware of the [Kichatna] spires’ existence [in Alaska] or their potential when Harvey and his friends published the Riesenstein Hoax in Summit magazine…and from 1962 to 1965, mountaineers from across the country struggled to solve the riddle of where the photographer had actually been when he snapped the picture of those enigmatic peaks.”
After Don Jensen and David Roberts connected the dots between the hoax and the mysterious topo lines on a map of the Alaska Range, Roberts asked renowned aerial photographer Brad Washburn, why he didn’t have any photos of the spires in his collection of Alaskan mountains. Washburn replied that he hadn’t thought anyone would want to climb there: “They call that area the asshole of the Alaska Range,” referring to the region’s weather.
Meanwhile, Brownell Bergen (husband of Jeanne Bergen, then-secretary of the American Alpine Club) had independently solved the mystery, after noticing a copy of the “Riesenstein” photo in a collection of Post’s work at the American Geographical Society. Bergen shared the real location of the mountains with his friends, and Al DeMaria, Claude Suhl, Aaron Schneider, Pete Geiser, John Hudson, and George Bloom set out for the Kichatnas in June 1965 to make the first ascents of several peaks. On their way out, DeMaria and Geiser wrote in the American Alpine Journal, “clouds and storm began again to reclaim the ‘Riesenstein.'”
Even with modern forecasting tools, weather patterns and difficult conditions in the region continue to challenge climbers today.