Classy New Climbs in Alaska's Huntington Group

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2014-05-11-00.09.10

Will Mayo headed into the business on the first crux pitch of Scorched Granite on Mt. Huntington's west face. Photo by Josh Wharton.

5/21/14 - Two new routes have been climbed on Mt. Huntington and its smaller neighbor, "Idiot Peak," each in unique and compelling style.

On the storied west face of Mt. Huntington, a 12,241-foot neighbor of Denali in the Alaska Range, Will Mayo and Josh Wharton climbed an ice smear that had been suggested to Mayo by Mark Westman, the longtime Alaska climber and Denali National Park ranger. The ice snakes up the center of the west face, starting above the lower section of the Colton-Leach Route. After seeing Westman's photo of the possible route, Mayo started calling around for a partner; he thought he had struck out until Wharton called back and said a planned trip to the Kichatna Spires had fallen through and he was free to climb in the second week of May.

To get to Alaska, the two men flew in Mayo's small private plane, leaving Colorado very early on the morning of May 9. After 19 hours and five stops ("only for gas and coffee," plus Canadian customs), they were in Talkeetna. The very next morning they switched to Paul Roderick's plane and flew in to the Tokositna Glacier.

Josh Wharton (left) and pilot Will Mayo sporting oxygen mustaches for the 19-hour, ca. 2,500-mile flight to Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo by Josh Wharton.

Josh Wharton (left) and pilot Will Mayo sporting oxygen mustaches for the 19-hour, ca. 2,500-mile flight to Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo by Josh Wharton.

The two started their climb the next day, soloing the first 800 feet of the Colton-Leach to reach the start of the smear. Then followed the crux, an M7 mixed pitch led by Mayo. They continued up more superb ice, mostly simul-climbing, and reached the French Ridge (northwest ridge) in late afternoon. The often-testy ridge was in cruiser condition, and two long simul-climbing pitches brought them to the top at 7:30 p.m. They descended the West Face Couloir and were back at camp by 11:30 p.m., just 13.5 hours after leaving.

"In a way, it seemed like we cheated the mountain," Mayo wrote at his blog. "The conditions were so good it felt like we were on the West Buttress of Denali. For decades the upper snow slopes of Mt. Huntington have stymied some of the best alpinists in the world, yet for us it was cruiser. It almost seemed wrong."

Right or wrong, the two men had complete a new route on Huntington, Scorched Granite (4,200', M7 AI6), just two days after leaving home in Colorado. Read more and see loads of photos at Mayo's blog.

This was Mayo's second trip to the East Fork of the Tokositna, where, in 2005, he did the first ascent of "Idiot Peak" with Chris Thomas. This ca. 10,700-foot sub-peak, immediately south of Huntington, was the target of Utah climbers Scott Adamson, Aaron Child, and Andy Knight, who had scoped a new line to attempt in mid-April of this year. Their route on the west face, Down the Rabbit Hole (5,000', VI WI5+ M6 80°), was notable as much for its committing location as the climbing itself.

Scott Adamson ditches his pack for a cruxy lead high on Down the Rabbit Hole, the new route on "Idiot Peak." Photo courtesy of Aaron Child.

The "rabbit hole" was the long and likely irreversible rappel descent from the top of the Stegosaurus ridge (a seldom-climbed feature on the original Harvard Route up Huntington's west face) into a forbidding corner of the Tokositna dubbed the Valley of Death. Previous climbers on this side of Huntington had traversed a bench to Huntington's Phantom Wall or to Idiot Peak. The three Utah climbers continued down another 2,000 vertical feet to reach the very base of Idiot's west face.

The approach took a full day and was highlighted by an overhanging ice pitch and a near-miss on a monster crevasse fall. Once on the face, the three soloed 2,500 feet of steep snow and moderate ice climbing to reach the real technical difficulties, starting with a long ice ribbon leading to a spicy M6 crux. More tricky mixed climbing (including an icy squeeze chimney) and ice leads led to the "Thank God Mushroom" bivouac at midnight. After a well-deserved rest, they reached the south ridge in one more pitch and followed the east side of this ridge with technical ice traversing under cornices to tag the summit.

After another pitch along the ridge line, they began a series of rappels, only to realize they still had to climb another 800 feet to return to the traverse ledge under Huntington's Phantom Wall. All this ate up enough time that they bivouacked a third night one pitch below the traverse. The following morning they climbed back to the Harvard Route and rappelled and downclimbed to base camp.

"Inexplicably good weather left us feeling lucky that we completed our main objective so quickly, and without any major setbacks, especially considering the massive commitment level," Child said. "We could have easily been stuck in that valley for eight days if a major storm had rolled in."

Sources: Will Mayo, Josh Wharton, Aaron Child, American Alpine Journal