“The fear of the unknown”, some words just stick to my (Sam ) mind. It was that fear we felt stronger then ever that evening. Maxime De Groote, my partner for a lot of the harder climbs, was silent too. For over a week we’re in the Central Alaska Range. To warm up and acclimatise we climbed 2 smaller routes, before we got hit by a period of bad weather. Tent bound at Kahiltna base camp, we’re passing our time by staring at the ceiling, listening to music or trying to read a book. After 4 days in a complete whiteout, the warmth of the sun finally greets us. Soon the forecast shows us what we were waiting for, at least 4 days of blue sky. We make a last scouting trip to check the conditions on the huge face before us and inspect the descent options. It all looks promising so soon we decide to go for the main goal of this expedition: The Moonflower Buttress.
It’s already late afternoon. We feel a bit exhausted from our hike on the heat reflecting glacier but start to pack our bags. The typical decision making discussions soon follows? How many screws are we bringing? A full set of cams? 3 days of food or do we count for an extra day? How heavy is your pack compared to mine? Do we try to make one small pack for the hard leads?
In the early evening, our bags are ready to go and we prepare an extended meal. We’re both silent, and somehow I’m getting nervous with that massive buttress looming at our back. From time to time I turn around. Slowly, as the sun sets, the yellow-brown granite with small white-grey lines of ice turns into an impressive orange formation. From some small talk with Maxime I switch over to my inner thoughts. Luckily, he feels as restless as I do. Our bags are ready to go, the weather is perfect but somehow we’re mentally not ready yet. Not to leave now, neither to leave early in the morning. We decide to postpone our departure until the next day at noon, to give our body and mind some extra time to rest.
It’s difficult to fall asleep if you are nervous. In my mind I’m digging into my past, and suddenly I remember, a small talk with someone else always helped me. Staring at that favorite tent ceiling I’m waiting till it’s late enough to make a call with Yannick, a good friend and climbing partner. We’ve been climbing, skiing and travelling together the last 8 years. We share lots of highs and lows, which makes me feel really connected to him. And maybe we are, as I still remember my ex-girlfriend complaining I saw him more than her…
As usual if he can’t go on a trip, he’s following our progress from home. Helping us out where he can because he has better access to weather maps. Raising his 3 months old daughter, “Zoen” (the Dutch word for Kiss) he will probably be up early. So, that’s why I call him at 7 in the morning European time. A sleepy voice answers the phone. Zoen seems to sleeps longer then I expected. Because I woke him up with terrible news 4 years ago, I immediately let him know everything is still perfect. I tell him we’re ready for the climb and ask if he can send us a last weather update. His sleepy mourning voice replies something like; “If you ready to go you need to go, last time I checked this was a perfect weather window. Good luck…”
Little did he know? In that 1-minute call he said almost nothing but nevertheless his words calmed me down immediately. I simply needed to let him know we’re on the move. Like I needed that confirmation that he knows we’re on that mountain.
Next day, Friday 9th of May around noon, we hike underneath the base of the Moonflower Buttress. We’re surprised to see another climbing party at the shrund of the Bibler Klewin and even more to see a guy coming back from the right-hand side of the Buttress. As he comes closer we recognise him, it’s Scott Adamson, a funny guy with a moustache coming from Zion, US. A few days before we met Scott and shared some funny stories about climbing, America and it’s alcohol policies. Together with Aaron Child and Andy Knight, he climbed a new route on Idiot Peak, a satellite of Mt. Huntington. He and his partners flew over from the Tokositna glacier last week. His friends felt sick and stayed in basecamp but Scott went for a solo attempt on the Deprivation route. Unfortunately he had to come back down as the crux was in loose snow. We have a little chat about the conditions and the fresh snow before he wishes us luck and we move on.
Thanks to the party upfront we progress rapidly in the knee-deep snow, which is accumulated underneath the buttress. We follow their traces to what looks like the only possible way trough the massive shrund, a 5-meter overhanging snow and ice formation. We climb it with the help of some aid techniques and start climbing the lower ice field. As far as we know, there was Max and Rustie, an Anchorage party and the Dutch couple Marianne and Dennis. Both had plans to make an ascent but they both opted to leave a day later. So wondering who is in front of us, we try to catch up with them. Eventually it turns out to be another American party that flew in yesterday evening. 2 pitches further they turn back because they felt too tired.
We approach the first small gully of ice, which is named the Twin Runnels. Maxime takes the first lead in these runnels and we are both immediately surprised. The runnel is steep, small and in polystyrene snow. Perfect for climbing but placing good protection is almost impossible. Luckily for us, the protection gets better from the next pitch on. Although an occasional nasty move above that last piece of gear keeps our focus high and our progress rather slow! It somehow sets a tone of the day and what we later discover, the whole climb.
It is late afternoon when we reach our belay underneath the obvious rock feature, which is called The Prow. An aid pitch that is more and more climbed free. While Maxime puts on his down jacket for a longer belay session, I fuel myself with some extra food and I gear up. Not that I think I will free this, but I should give it a try. Some nasty moves later and I’m hanging on my gear, continuing with a mix of aid and free climbing. Maxime makes the pendulum into the McNerthney Ice Dagger from where we climb up to the start of Tamara’s Traverse.
Because of our late start today we arrive in the evening. As the sky turns red, the view is more then impressive but as there is no place to sleep, we can’t rest yet. We need to hurry to reach the first ice field before dark. Maxime starts the traverse giving me an exceptional photographic opportunity. Slowly the sun sets and at the time I reach the next belay it is almost dark. We simulclimb the last 100 meters and around midnight we start chopping 2 small ledges under a boulder on the first ice field.
We both feel miserable and tired. While we get into our sleeping bags, fresh spindrift comes down from the mountain and we need to make sure they don’t get wet. We start to melt snow and heat up water but with these cold temperatures it takes ages. I put the gas canister in the hot water for a few seconds so the stove can burn on full power for a minute afterwards and so on. We start to talk about interesting heating systems and wonder why no company found a light system to keep the gas canister warm. As we both try not to fall asleep, we fill up our Nalgene bottles with tea and a vegetable soup. We force ourselves to drink and eat enough so it is around 3 in the morning when we finally fall asleep.
Next morning we didn’t set an alarm but woke up by the morning light. The heat of the sun will be more then welcome but we know the sun hits this face only late in the evening. Cold and tired, we stay in our sleeping bags while we brew up some water and eat some dry biscuits. We’re both staring to the lower glacier in search of fresh traces. Wondering if a strong party made an early start and is climbing behind us. Knowing we’re not alone up here, would give us the motivation we need at this moment.
Knowing we’re both feeling miserable, and it’s easy to take each other down in a form of demotivation. We make some small talk and avoid the topic of an optional retreat. In this position, you don’t feel the joy of climbing and with the sun shining on the lower glacier. It’s just so easy to get back on your steps. I tell myself retreat is no option as long as the weather stays good and the route is climbable. We encourage ourselves to get out of that sleeping bag and it is only around noon when we finally start again. We climb some easy terrain and I take shelter behind a rock formation as there is a hanging snow mushroom the size of a car looming above the next pitch, the 5.8.
We heard some rumours that this pitch is harder then graded. Maxime, without question the better rock climber, takes an awesome lead, tries to move as fast as possible underneath the nasty mushroom and brings me up. Now, we’re standing underneath the feature that gave us the most doubts. The shaft, a 120m steep ice runnel with some overhanging steps. From the first look on the mountain we saw this thin grey line with a snow mushroom hanging in the first pitch. Climbing up this narrow gully I manage to get underneath this mushroom. Getting over it takes ages, placing protection, figuring out the moves, trying to get over it and turning back to the safe place to take a rest. That never ending internal dialog that I should go for it, which was encouraged by Maxime. Although this block of snow only had the size of a big duffle, it really scared us. Knowing we won’t get further without touching, I try to clear the mushroom so it won’t fall down on Maxime. Then suddenly it breaks loose and falls down without any trouble. I manage to climb the first overhang and really psyched I bring Maxime up. He takes the next lead, again with a loose snow-overhanging step.
Although every pitch was difficult so far, way out of our comfort zone and really close to our limits. We need to say, unlike the lower polystyrene twin runnels, we had no problem placing good protection almost everywhere. Standing in a split, Maxime works himself trough the second overhanging step and the third pitch of the shaft is back for me. It’s another steep one, my arms getting pumpy, I simply don’t manage to climb the whole length and have to give the last 15 meters back to Maxime. With the last rays of sun we reach the second icefield and start digging for a place to sleep. We climbed roughly 10 hours for only 8 pitches! We are exhausted, feeling terribly slow. But with the crux behind us, and weather still good to go on, we don’t let it bother us too much.
We manage to get a good sleep and wake up early for our third day on the mountain. From the ground we never had a good view on the “Vision” and the “Bibler Come Again Exit” leading trough the 2 last rock bands. And even up here, the right way looks unfamiliar. We follow the most obvious line and soon arrive at the start of the Vision. Due to a stuck rope, it takes a while but eventually we’re looking into the final ice runnel leading to the third ice field. The sun hits this field early so it feels great to finally enjoy the full heat of the sun. We climb trough the ice field, up to the right and start to search for the weakness in the last rock band, the ice runnel leading to “The Bibler Come Again Exit”. It’s over here that I made a big mistake.
Climbing up a small thin layer of ice, I place one last good screw underneath a steep step and try to climb over it. One axe in perfect ice just above the step, I start looking for my other axe placement but only find snow. Eventually my axe finds a hold. And, you know that feeling, when you place your axe and just the sound just tells you it’s not right. I was well aware of that moment, but instead of trying again, I tested it with my weight and the axe kept in place. Time to come high up, holding almost all of my weight on the lower axe using the other to stay in balance. And then, the bad axe rips out. I’m way too high above my good axe. While I’m falling backwards, I hold my only good axe at its head. Obvious I rip that one out too!
Suddenly, I find myself hanging 2 meters lower upside down, on that that tiny 8mm Ice Line. Looking to a glacier 1500 meters beneath me, I scared the shit out of Maxime and feel frustrated that I trusted that situation on such a route. I made a short but perfect fall and I didn’t hurt myself. Lowering myself back to the belay point of Maxime we take a short rest. Afraid doubts will take over, I soon go for a second try. This time, we climb over it, Maxime leads another length and we are standing underneath the last difficult pitch of this amazing route. We still don’t know if it is really “The Bibler Come Again Exit” but it was the most obvious feature.
Finally, we’re on top of the difficulties, a point of return for a lot of climbing parties but with the weather still on our side we opt to move on. We start the 10 pitches on calf breaking 50 degree blue ice. Too tired to simulclimb it safely, we pitch it all out. As usual we lose track of time and reach the top of the buttress when it’s almost dark. We find the cornice bivy. A perfect cave blown out by the wind but standing here, underneath a huge cornice we didn’t fancy to sleep and make a traverse to the other side of the ridge. Later on we discovered that this is a well-known bivy spot but we’re surprised to find a boulder that forms a good platform for what hopefully would be our last night on the mountain.
The effort of the last days makes us fall asleep easily. But didn’t necessarily make us have a goo night. From time to time we wake up by the cold or the fear of falling down this boulder. When the sun hits our faces early in the morning we pack our bags and start following the ridge to the summit. Navigating trough seracs, climbing loose snow and following the ridge we slowly get higher. Despite our acclimatisation trips a good week ago, we still feel the altitude. We arrive at that point, which from a lower position looked like the summit, climb up and as usual, we see a new summit appearing in front of us. After a few disappointments we arrive on a flat spot with no option to go higher. We’re finally on top of Mount Hunter.
Fresh traces go down on the other side of the mountain in the direction of the west ridge, probably made by a skiing party that climbed and skied down the ramen route. As we always wanted to make a complete round-trip from our climb, this was the perfect descend or us. It was 10 in the morning, we know we need to descend the mountain as fast as possible but first we want to take enough time to rest. The summit is a huge platform so we easily take of our boots, dry our socks and unpack our bags in search of our reactor stove. As we’re sitting in the sun it is the first time since we left base camp that we manage to melt our water at a normal speed. We have to hydrate, get something to eat and of course enjoy the view. As I was in the range 4 years ago, back then we never managed to see the whole range as we always stayed on the southwest side of Denali and the day we topped out, it was in a whiteout. Now we can see 360° around us what surprised me how big this range is.
Around noon we start to descend the west ridge. First walking on the low angled summit slopes, then navigating through some seracs and finally traversing the exposed ridge in search of the fastest way down, the Ramen couloir. From high on the ridge we start rappelling into the couloir untill the angle kicks back and we continue climbing down. Our hope to reach base camp early in the evening gets knocked down the lower we got. The snow is too wet, too deep and too loose. Several times we trigger small slushes and sporadically stones rain down from higher on. We decide to take shelter underneath a boulder and wait untill the sun gets behind the ridge. We use the spare time to melt some extra water and eat the last freeze-dried food we kept on the side specially for this location, yes a crème brulé!
Late in the evening the conditions are better and we continue the descend. We safely climb down to the glacier and descended further in the direction of the icefall. While we were scouting for descent options a few days ago we already saw the skyteam skinning up trough the icefall. As they found a way trough, we knew we could follow their way out. Walking on the right-hand side we find their tracks back and follow them in the direction of the icefall. This labyrinth is the last obstacle that separates us from the lower Kahiltna glacier and the easy walk to basecamp. We are somehow amazed by how good the snow holds our bodyweight but not for long. Once we reach the crevassed area, we suddenly fall knee-deep through a snow bridge. As we keep on following the tracks of the skiers, they clearly have a better support then us on our feet. We’re cross tens of scary snow bridges and look into deep crevasses. Eventually we end up crawling on our knees or even the belly while the one is securing the other. At the end of the icefall we make one last rappel from a huge snow formation, and we are more then happy to be at the safe zone of the lower glacier.
By this time we are almost 20 hours on the way, and still have a serious walk ahead. Compared to several different climbing partners in the past, I’m not technically not the strongest climber. But when it comes to long pushes on low energy, navigating nasty terrain, I really get into my zone. I give my last powerbar to Maxime and plug in my Ipod, which I specially saved for this occasion. Running low on energy while walking brainless on this massive glacier, nothing beats music to set the pace. Somehow it brings at a new level. You get rid of your tiredness and it seems like you just can walk forever.
It’s 3 in the morning and completely silent when we arrive back in the safety of our basecamp! We hug each other. Finally safe and sound from what was roughly a 90 hour round-trip. Without question this was the hardest climb we ever did! Something to eat, a short confirmation we’re down safe to Yannick and we get into our tent. The next day, we feel the wind pounding on our tent. Waiting for the sun to heat up our cosy space we soon discover it’s not going to happen. I open the zip of our tent with my swollen hands and see clouds rolling over from behind Foraker’s Sultana Ridge. We’re back at the right time, just before the next period of bad weather…
As far as we know, some other attempts and ascents were made this year:
Marianne van der Steen and Dennis Van Hoek climbed untill the first ice field but came back down when we the storm came in. A few days later they did an all-free ascent but due to bad weather they returned after the difficulties.
A party of 3 climbed the lower part of the Bibler Klewin, traverse into deprivation to avoid the Shaft and higher on, they got back to the bibler klewin. We don’t know if they only climbed the difficulties or they reached the top of the buttress or summit
Kyle Dempster did a solo attempt on the Bibler Klewin, returning after the first pitch in the shaft.
Max and Rustie like 2 other American parties climbed the lower pitches but no one of them got higher than The Prow