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5/30/14 – Coloradans Kevin Cooper and Ryan Jennings climbed the “route of a lifetime” in early May, making the first ascent of the direct north face of Mt. Johnson in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. The two had hoped to attempt the route way back in 2003, but after a rappelling accident during their “warm up” climb they had to head home. Eleven years later the route was still unclimbed, and they headed back to the Ruth Glacier with the support of a Mugs Stump Award.
The ca. 4,000-foot north face of Johnson had been attempted as a rock climb, but blank, granular rock stymied progress. On the far right side of the face, several routes had been completed, beginning with the Elevator Shaft (Chabot-Tackle, 1995). But the main face had never been climbed.
Cooper and Jennings, who had been ice climbing partners for over 15 years, doing numerous first ascents, hoped to find Johnson in ice climbing condition. They were rewarded with the sight of the north face plastered with névé and ice. But first they had to find a way through blank slabs leading to a huge rock band 300 feet above the glacial ice at the foot of the wall. A recconaissance on skis was not promising, but the next day they racked up and headed back to the face, and this time they spied a possible line leading to the roof’s left side. Cooper led a long pitch of thin s’nice (a tenuous snow/ice blend) in a left-facing corner to a belay just below the roof, using mainly pound-in hooks for protection. (“Specters and the large Pecker seemed to be the pro of choice for the entire route,” he said in an email.) The two fixed a rope and took a rest day in base camp, and then Jennings took the lead through the roof. “After some funky upside-down snow mushshroom climbing, he cleared the ominous roof, traversed, then headed straight up steep s’nice, finding a hidden corner that accepted pro when needed,” Cooper said. “We were above the roof that guarded the upper face, and spirits were high as we fixed our second rope and descended back to base camp.”
On May 1 they skied back to the foot of the climb, jugged up the fixed ropes, and committed to the route. A 600-foot snow traverse rightward above the roof led toward the left-facing corner system that runs directly up the face. Here they found shelter in a small cave while the face shed spindrift and ice chunks. Once the morning sun had left the upper wall, they began climbing the “mental crux of the climb.” For the next 700 feet, the two men simul-climbed steep névé with only two “shitty” pickets for protection. After Jennings finally discovered a solid anchor, “mentally taxed, we sat and brewed water for an hour or so, contemplating the next section of run-out névé,” Cooper said.
Jennings then led another 500-foot stretch of six- to eight-inch-thick névé. By the time Cooper reached his stance, it was midnight and they still were at least a pitch short of the corner system and a possible bivy. Cooper led through the night, reaching the corner system and continuing upward for about 400 feet until he finally found a place where they could stop. Jennings didn’t reach the stance until 4 a.m.
The two were now about halfway up the face, having found only five belay anchors in a couple of thousand feet of climbing. After a few hours of rest and waiting for the morning sun to stop sending down falling ice, they started mixed climbing up the corner, finding clothing-shredding M6 chimney climbing. Higher, Jennings was forced out of the snow-choked corner and back onto the névé-covered face, and it was midnight again before they reached another solid stance. After a short rest, Cooper led up the run-out corner until a huge snow mushroom blocked the way, near the end of his rope. “I clawed to the side of it and found a cave in the corner behind it,” he said. “I peeled my pack off, threw it into the slot, and crawled inside, finding a three-inch crack. Relief and stoke washed over me as I brought Ryan up to our second bivy, somewhere around 4 a.m. once again.”
After a few hours of sleep, the two were ready to start again, but the warm weather (up to the 40s F during the day) was now causing them to race against melting ice. “As Ryan led the pitch out of the bivy, the ice was melting from under his crampons,” Cooper said. With the corner cracks covered in deep snow, climbing quickly up the melting ice on the face was their only option. Near the top of the wall steep, crumbling rock guarded the exit, forcing tenuous mixed climbing and a bit of aid. Once again it was midnight as they reached the ridge and discovered a rock buttress blocking the way to the summit. “Feeling fatigue and uncertainty, I headed out for the summit quest, when all of a sudden the northern lights appeared and gave me clarity and energy,” Cooper said. “We reached the summit sometime after 4 a.m., with all the surrounding peaks in the clouds, and headed for home.”
The two began downclimbing and rappelling, returning to the glacier via the col between Johnson and Mt. Grosvenor, and were back in base camp by noon, “completely worked after 81 hours establishing the sickest route of our lives”: Stairway to Heaven (Alaska Grade 6, M6 WI4 AI5+ X A1).
Dates of ascent: May 1–4, 2014
Sources: Kevin Cooper, Ryan Jennings, American Alpine Journal