Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mt. Hunter's Diamond Arête 2005

In late April/early May of 2005, Freddie Wilkinson (New Hampshire) and I made the coveted second ascent of Mt. Hunter's Diamond Arête (Alaska Grade 6) twenty years after the epic first ascent by Jack Tackle and Jim Donini in 1985.

We climbed the route on Hunter's East face, then traversed the peak to descend the West Ridge to Kahiltna base in a total of 55 hours, including two ten-hour bivies. We found difficulties up to AI5 M6 on the route, which gains 2000 vertical meters from the Tokositna glacier to where it spits you out directly below the North summit (4400m).

First of all, we had to see if we even could get anyone to drop us at the base of the route. Since 1985, only two parties had been flown in to this western cirque at the head of the Tokositna. One of these had made a failed attempt on the Diamond Arête, followed by a long stay in the avalanche and serac-fall ridden bowl. The other party climbed the British route, The Prey, on the shorter northern part of the East face.

Freddie spoke with Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi who agreed to drop us there with the understanding we would do our best to climb over Hunter and down the other side. The western cirque is not a place a pilot wants to visit too many times in one career. To the left is a photo taken by Freddie of me approaching the base of the route after being dropped off by Paul.

Our packs weighed thirty pounds each including five days of food and six days of fuel. The rack consisted of five ice screws, five or six cams, two pins and most of a set of nuts. We landed at noon on April 29, approached and began belaying the first pitch about 1 p.m. as the sun was leaving the wall. We found a mixed crux right off the deck: technical drytooling with some thin ice placements in a dihedral. Large powder snow mushrooms disguised placements, footholds and protection options. Below is a photo of me climbing the pitch.

Right: Following this, we simulclimbed and pitched up steep snow ramps and mixed ground. Here is Freddie leading out with his typical grin.

Below: After this section, several pitches in a bomb-bay system of thinner waterice and mixed climbing took us to the crest of the Diamond, where we found a bivy.

Below: On the morning of April 30, we left camp at about 10 a.m. I got to lead this stellar moderate mixed pitch directly above our bivy.

From here we simul-climbed 3,000+ feet of fifty- to sixty-degree ice on the arête proper. A pitch through steeper serac ice brought us to a moat between two seracs. I took a fall into the snow moat while soloing a short pitch of rotten WI6 ice, then led a pitch of vertical ice nearby. To the right is me following Freddie's tracks through neve toward the North (main) summit.

After Freddie led us to the summit slopes, we traversed around the summit and began our descent down the West Ridge. We bivied at the base of the second plateau (as you descend) in some seracs just above the start of the ridge proper (ca. 12,500 feet). The next morning at 10 a.m., we began climbing and rappelling our way down the West Ridge, pictured below.

Below: Here is a gorgeous photo of me traversing during our West Ridge descent.

We arrived at base camp under moderate snowfall, at 8 p.m., on May 1, fifty-five hours after we started. As you can see from the photo below, the weather crapped out seriously after we touched down on the Kahiltna.

Lisa and Mark gave us a warm welcome, and we sat down for quesadillas and lemonade at their weatherport. We stayed in a conveniently pitched dome tent belonging to some acquaintances (below) who were out on Mt. Foraker; we later sent them each a burger and fries in thanks! Sadly, Sue Nott and Karen McNeill died the following summer while attempting Mount Foraker's Infinite Spur.

We climbed every pitch of the route with our packs on, belaying about fifteen pitches and simul-climbing many, many more. The technical climbing and exposure, as well as the mandatory traverse and commitment of the landing zone made for a full-value Alaska experience.