Monday, June 1, 2015

All in: the 1984 French Route

    “At around 11p.m. on a day in late May we skied out of camp toward the beautiful and intimidating face. At the top of “ski hill,” J.D. mentioned, “I’m not nervous because I think we can’t do it, but because I think we can.” I agreed. We stashed our ski boots and planks at the base, then went into business mode.”   -Kurt
    The nerves came in a wave, numbing me out. This isn’t an accident. Nature has prepared an effective stress response over millions of years of trial and error. I was choosing to be here. I knew there was pain in my future. In the moment, when you’re up there in the flow of climbing, feelings are easy to subdue. But on flat snow, I looked up at 6,400 feet of vertical pain and uncertainty, imagining the infinite permutations of brutal futures and their bloody, beaten, and frozen outcomes. I felt tears form, and then flow as I knew for the first time what it really means to be safe, on flat ground. This was my point of decision, and the last time that fear would take hold.
    A week previously, Brett Baekey and I climbed Deprivation in 21 hrs. The crux comes early, and we ‘put it out there’ to make it go in difficult conditions. I lead at a crawl’s pace, taking great care, through thin seams and a section of gravity defying, unprotectable overhanging eggshell ice and Névé. I felt that I had exhausted one of my nine lives.
    The rest of the route flew by: we simul-climbed like never before, carrying the running belay through vertical ice and devious mixed cruxes. Climbing in this way is the ultimate expression of trust, and an unforgiving test of skill. We went to the “end of the technical difficulties”. We wanted to give it hell and slog to the top, but were locked in storm and pummeled by spindrift. The decision to bail was easy.
    24 rappels, core-shots, stuck ropes, and alternating confusion, despair, and bodily dysfunction saw us back to the ground. Clicking into our skis, we were too exhausted to actually make turns. We repeatedly slid, slumped, and crashed our way down three miles of glacier. We arrived back at camp having avoided sleep for 50 hours. We were hollowed out but thankful to have all our digits intact, pink, and warm. Brett developed a sickness and ran out of time in the range. He flew out to start guiding in Colorado. This was an ‘attempt’, but despite that painful fact, it was so far the greatest achievement in both of our lives.

Red: Deprivation('94) to bibler exit. Blue: the 1984 French Route. Cruxes circled. "bivy" marked.

    I wanted another go at Hunter, but via a harder route. I had no direction, and no plans for the summer. I felt no strong sense of future. I could stay in the range as long as my food would last. It was important to me to go to the summit. There are many ideas about what a “true-ascent” is, and I don’t really care to make any declarations on style; it’s personal. I stayed in the range and joined “Team Crevasseholes”, a young crew of Montana and Colorado climbers, equal parts bold and brash, in their well stocked base camp. We drank coffee and talked the talk all day as I recovered. Despite the big words, there was only one of these guys I would put it out there with.
    Kurt Ross, at 24, had already attempted the North Buttress twice. A Colorado Springs native, 6’3” and a fit 195, he could be seen wearing glasses at all times. His voice sometimes has a squeaky quality to it. He would lead serious pitches with care, but still set pace like an animal everywhere else. We met at a dry-tooling comp the previous winter, and the next day climbed traditional mixed routes on Pikes Peak. Our goals and hardline stances about tactics and style were similar. He wanted another go, and we agreed instantly that it would be via the French Route.
    Mark Westman calls it, “the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall.” It’s incredibly sustained, and the crux climbing comes at the end, keeping things uncertain throughout. Take Deprivation, replace all the snow ramps with steep, bullet-hard ice slabs, add a 7 pitch vertical headwall at the top, and replace the afternoon sun with the perpetual darkness of a true-north aspect, and you have the French Route.  Colin Haley describes the route: “First climbed in 1984 by two French alpinists, I personally think it is the classiest line on the North Buttress, first climbing the obvious couloir and then tackling the upper headwall that all the other routes avoid.” It didn’t see a second ascent until 2007. All my alpine climbing thus far had weaseled up weaknesses: This was a true line of strength. It was a leap of enormous hubris and naiveté, but we believed we could hold our own up there, and do it fast.
    We met some Slovenians in base camp, Luka Lindic and Ales Cesen. They looked young, maybe younger than us. Despite their youth, they have honed and tested their skills on the new-school steeps and applied them with success in the greater ranges. They wore faint smiles that clashed with the intensity of their stares. They gave us perfect beta in perfect English, describing crux after crux on steep ice, and blind, improbable route-finding around impasses. They were fresh off an attempt of the French Route, turned around by bad weather, and their memories were sharp.

some of the steeper climbing in the couloir

    We set out around 10pm at the beginning of the first reliable high-pressure, in a window of uncertain length. We climbed in single push style. It works well in Alaska, where the days are long and weather is chaotic. While it seems desperate to deprive yourself of rest and security, it increases the chances of success and minimizes exposure to get up and off a route quickly. It may be the safest way, and the mind altering experience it provides is unique.

    In our packs were no sleeping bags. We sharing one bivy sack to stick our feet in, and had a cut down piece of foam pad big enough for like 2.5 ass-cheeks. We strove to climb in “night naked” style, to use Voytek Kurtyka’s words. Our day-packs might have weighed nothing. I brought enough food to stay well fueled for about 24 hours, and marginally so for another 12, we knew the climb would take much longer than this. It wasn’t enough to feel good, but could be enough to make it. We brought enough fuel to melt 4 days of water. On approach we could see that the crux ice on Deprivation was already gone, just 8 days after Brett and I tiptoed over it.
    It was important to lead in blocks and made quick transitions for warmth and efficiency. We led and followed every pitch clean, “sending” not because we were trying to, but because we couldn’t waste time fucking around.

    Surreal and beautiful beyond description, we climbed through formations built by the full northern aspect and arctic weather. Kurt led around and through overhanging tentacles of ice in the upper North Couloir. One of my harness’ gear loops broke while leading a hard mixed pitch, and I managed to snatch the gear off it before it could fall into the abyss. Finishing the first third of the route quickly, we arrive at an impossible blade of snow, sticking straight out of an ice wall. It was protected from falling debris, but as exposed to the void as a diving board made of seafoam. We looked up at an endless and complex wave of blue bullet ice capped by zigzagging granite roof bands. We stomped out a place to sit and brew, studying a problem that looked impossible from below.
    Our light kit wasn’t warm enough to sleep at night: we were playing for all the marbles. At any given moment we needed to be either moving or bailing, and doing it quickly and deliberately. As a friend so gently put: “don’t fuck up an’ die”. This kind of system is a finely tuned machine with many moving parts. The failure of any one of these parts can lead to disaster without prompt action. This is ultimate vulnerability and fragility -- but also the pure freedom I have craved for as long as I can remember.

    I led a three pitch block, starting us up the headwall. There was no sign that it would actually go, but retreating from here was something beyond consideration. Because of all the traversing we had done over and around roofbands, retreat down from this point would be impossible. Instead we would have to traverse hard right and descent the Bibler Klewin, as a previous attempt at the second ascent did. The headwall is beautiful beyond description, and it was the reason we were there, so up we went. 7 pitches of sustained, steep, frozen blocks of laser cut granite made up the barrier at the end of the wall. It looked completely impossible from below, but somehow we kept finding stances and easy passages through roofbands, making slow progress.
One of countless sideways leads on this trip.
The first Zig-Zag
One of the best pitches, Kurt found a steep passage through the black band on cold, hard ice and quality granite.
The Second Zig Zag
Approaching the final headwall, where we found 7 pitches of steep mixed climbing.
Leading in the Headwall
another sunrise.

    It was night, again, and I was leading with a wet headlamp, corroding and dying. Thin, ancient ice covered bullet hard rock. The terrain dulled our picks and points into useless steel nubs. Kurt took over, thrutching up an overhanging off-width. The smell of sparks blew through the nostril burning freeze. I fell asleep at the belay, awoken by Kurt struggling against my short-roping. I took over again for the last pitch of the headwall. I was out of caffeine, but the fear of the upcoming lead woke me up again like a sharp slap. A short but fiercely technical pitch, the crux of the entire route, guarded the top of the buttress. We had come so far, but whether or not this pitch would go was our biggest unknown. I grew more awake with each move. I found a French angle piton welded and frozen into a vertical seam. This was the first sign in thousands of feet that we were on route. I clipped it for pro, and stemmed in the perfect 90 degree open book. I felt steel rest on single friable crystals jutting imperceptibly out of the wall--millimeters of contact, proprioception keeping the angle of my joints locked. My calves cramped but I remained steady. I took deep breaths, opened my mind to feel only the acute balance keeping me from pinballing backward over ice and rock, down past the belay, and taking a catastrophic whip on our 7.5mm ropes. At the 34 hour sleep-deprivation mark I found myself in a state of deep calm, even joy. Simple purpose took me through. I pulled the last tenuous moves, built a belay with two ice screws, and knew we put down the last of the hard stuff. I was thankful that the crux lead had been a test of my mind and balance, instead of my wasted and acidified muscles.  
    The Slovenians Luka and Ales stormed the route a week before us. At the top of the wall they were locked in storm and denied their summit push. They worked to dig snow and ice out from below a boulder to create a bivy. Based on their description, we were able to find it and we were thankful for the work they did. We slumped over on our packs at 12,600.

    “I ogled J.D.’s extra pair of socks while he changed out of his wet ones. Endless pots of water and some man-spooning made us sharp again. We didn’t sleep for more than a power nap in length, but the short break was trans-formative.”

    This would be our only real rest. At this point I ate the last of my food and felt a renewed strength. We felt a unified will to summit.
    We went up, and the sun set in violent chemical hues.  We climbed over a corniced ridge employing a “Fairbanks belay”(this is actually an absence of belay; with both climbers giving full attention, if one person falls of one side of an unprotected ridge, the other climber jumps off the other side and hopes for the best.)

Above the headwall, and done with the crux of the route. The South Face of Denali Looms
The summit plateau, and the cloud that engulfed us.

    As the terrain opened up and we climbed into thinner air, the weather grew worse. It seemed to be over for us.  We stayed hunched down for a few minutes on flat, windblown terrain with sastrugi carved out of crust at 14,200 feet. Suddenly we could see less than a rope length; we seemed to be inside a cloud. We though it was over. As soon as it cleared we made a dash for the summit, reaching it in time for a perfect sunrise, looking over building clouds illuminated with fiery hues, and taking in an improbable view of Sultanta, Denali, and Huntington. We were faced with a difficult decision. Our high pressure window was imminently closing: in the last hour the clouds had gone from light and feathery to building and columnar in all directions. We were deeply satisfied to top out, but had to immediately decide between the supposed “simplicity” of a west ridge descent or the certainty of reversing our way down the upper Northeast ridge and rappeling back down the Moonflower.  We had never been on the west ridge, and getting royally lost in our state of exhaustion was all but mathematically certain if the visibility locked down again.

    We put it out there all the way up, so we gambled one more time: on a few more hours of visibility. Just enough to find the Ramen Couloir and get down. We descended quickly, with the weather closing in again as we left the upper mountain. We rappelled and down climbed into the western basin. Kurt hadn’t felt his toes or fingers in a while. I was in the depths of a full-bonk nutritionally and well deprived of sleep. I could smell the sick tones of decaying muscle in my breath. We quickly descended 8000 feet, finding warmer air.

The west face of Huntington at right

At the summit, haggard but happy

The South Face of Denali
From the Southwest basin, we trudged our way up, edging onto an exposed ramp to avoid an impassable icefall. Despite the fact that we made it safely up and over the mountain, back down there is where it got “the most real”.
    We found raps that would get us around the icefall. The first was off a stopper knot left years ago. I stepped over a blind edge, leaning back on our thin ropes, and inescapably sunk into a waterfall. The rope shuddered through my icy device. I stopped to pull the ropes out of a snare around a chockstone--all inside a vertical torrent. Icy water shot around a detached skeleton of an ice pillar. I kept my head down to keep breathing. It had to be done, we needed our ropes to continue, but now things became difficult. It was beginning to freeze at nightfall and snow was coming down. I was soaked to the bone.

    After I freed the ropes, I went off rappel and down-soloed through choss to a ledge and stripped naked, putting on the two articles of clothing that had been safe in my pack. I wore my down jacket on bare skin. There were no spare calories, in my pack or in my body, to shiver with. Without immediately stripping and wearing a down jacket on my bare skin, I would have become uselessly hypothermic and our choices would have been difficult. Kurt followed me down to the glacier, and we tied in for a broken maze. We trudged down to the main Kahiltna and around the sprawling massif. My only sustenance came from headphones.
    “The seven-mile zombie-slog that followed was an exceptionally weird experience. After over three days on the move, my grey matter was melting. Tribal drums and piano music played in the silence. I could see dozens of faces and figures in the features of the rock face next to us. Whenever I squinted toward the foot of a ridge in the distance, it would turn into a helicopter. We broke through the snow into crevasses numerous times.”

    We staggered back into camp during the first hours of Monday, June 1st, after a 75 hour push. We tallied 4 hours of sleep, plus maybe another hour accumulated from nodding off at belays, on rappel, or even on lead. When I think now about what it was like, it’s hard to breathe.
    From May 29th to 31st, Kurt Ross and I made the likely fifth ascent of the French Route, aka. Grison-Tedeschi, to the summit of Begguya, or Mount Hunter.  We believe the last full-ascent was by Colin Haley and the late Bjørn-Eivind Årtun, in 2009.
        I am a different person now.  Any part of me that wasn’t capable died as I fulfilled this dream. With time and distance, I have learned that I need this state of commitment, the sensitivity to intuition, and intensity of experience to really live. I’ll seek it out again.

The Southwest Basin in storm after our descent of the upper West ridge and Ramen couloir. Our timing was perfect, the high pressure was over just as we got back to low elevation.
May 13-June 6, 2015.

On this trip, I climbed:

Radio Control Tower,
w/Brett, Dave, Keenan, and Kurt

Mini-Moonflower, Left Couloir to N. Couloir, 85˚ice, 600m.
W/Brett Baekey

Micro-Moonflower, Bacon and Eggs, AI4, 500m.
w/Kurt Ross

Mount Frances, SW ridge, 5.8, 1250m.
w/Brett Baekey

Begguya, North Buttress, Deprivation. AK 6, 95˚ice(AI6 R), M6, 2000m.
    (to the top of the Bibler Come Again exit in 21 hrs) w/Brett.

Begguya, North Buttress, French Route. AK 6, 90˚ice, M6, 2000m.
    (to the summit, round trip in 75 hrs or 3d, 3h.) w/Kurt.

-I'd like to thank the Kellogg family and the Ritt Kellogg Memorial fund for making this trip possible. 


  1. Young people be crazy! Come climbing in the Sierra, it is nice, warm and usually does not involve 3 days pushes :)

  2. Hey man,

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