Alaskan Testpiece Finally Gets Second Ascent

By Dougald MacDonald ,

Andy Houseman leading the North Buttress Couloir, the first section of the French Route on Mt. Hunter.

Britons Jon Bracey and Andy Houseman have made the second ascent of the French Route on the North Buttress of Mt. Hunter, 23 years after the first ascent. The two men continued to the summit of 14,570-foot Mt. Hunter and descended via the West Ridge for a four-day round-trip. The French Route was the second to breach the 4,000-foot North Buttress, but it has largely been forgotten by most climbers, who associate Hunter’s steep northern wall with the famed Moonflower Buttress.

Bracey described their speedy second ascent in an email:“[We] started up the French Route on the 8th of May in so-so weather. The first day we climbed the couloir under bombardment from some good spindrift. The last pitch exiting the gully was the crux, with sustained overhanging ice. We climbed another two pitches before a bivouac on an icefield. The following day we climbed through the icefields, with good ice runnels and mixed ground in between, and into the headwall. Sustained mixed climbing slowed our progress, and a lack of bivi sites forced us to climb on through the night. We finally reached the top of the headwall at 4 a.m., and briefly dug in for a couple of hours rest before continuing on to the cornice bivi site. Here we brewed up, ate, and rested for two hours.

Houseman battles toward the couloir’s crux overhanging ice on the first day of climbing.

“Still very tired, we continued on to the summit, which we reached at about 9 p.m. The ground after the cornice bivi was quite time-consuming, with one section of steep, rotten ice. A cold night was spent on the plateau below the summit. On the fourth day we descended the West Ridge back to Kahiltna base camp via the Northwest Basin. A great route and amazing effort by the first ascensionists back in 1984.”

The French Route (aka North Buttress Couloir) takes an independent line up the North Buttress, left of the Moonflower Buttress. After numerous attempts by many different parties, it wasclimbed in 1984 by Benoit Grison and Yves Tedeschi in four days, with another two days to descend via the West Ridge in a storm—lightning-fast, considering the date of their climb. However, their achievement was forgotten by most Americans, who had been captivated by the beauty and difficulty of the Moonflower (and, no doubt, by the mostly American cast of characters making the numerous attempts)—the Moonflower Buttress was finally climbed to the summit of Hunter in 1983, one year before the French ascent. The historical guidebook High Alaska goes so far as to call the French pair’s North Buttress Couloir a “variation.”

But Alaska Range aficionados consider the Grison-Tedeschi route a beautiful and inspiring climb. Mark Westman, who repeated the Moonflower to the top of the buttress this spring with Eamonn Walsh but was unable to continue to the summit after two feet of snow fell at their high bivy, said in an email, “The French Route is in my opinion and many others the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall. It took 23 years to get repeated—says a lot!”

Bracey and Houseman’s Alaskan trip was supported by the Mark Clifford Grant, UK Sport, Mountain Equipment, DMM, Crux, and Scarpa.

Dates of Ascent: May 8-11, 2007

Sources: Jon Bracey, Andy Houseman, Mark Westman, High Alaska, Alaska Climbing, The American Alpine Journal.

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Jon Bracey leads beautiful mixed ground on the headwall of the French Route on Mt. Hunter.

Happy lads: Jon Bracey (left) and Alan Houseman on the summit of Mt. Hunter.Photo courtesy of Alan Houseman.

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