Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
From May 23 to May 27, David Allfrey, Whit Magro, and Graham Zimmerman made the first ascent of an alpine big-wall route on the northwest Face of Kichatna Spire (8,985 feet) in the Alaska Range: The Pace of Comfort (VI 5.10 A3+ M6 70-degree snow; 3,100 feet).
The Kichatna Spires are a small clutch of exceptionally steep peaks 70 miles west of Denali. In his 1966 report on the spires, David Roberts wrote “no other area combines heavy glaciation, remoteness, and bad weather with such an abundance of vertical walls, pinnacles, and obelisks.” During his expedition to the area in the same year, two of his teammates made the first ascent of the highest peak in the range via its east ridge. They named the mountain Kichatna Spire.
In the years since, first ascents on Kichatna Spire have represented some of the most technical ascents in the Alaska Range, and only one of these has successfully ascended the peak’s imposing northwest face. This ascent of The Ship’s Prow by Andrew Embick and Jim Bridwell in 1979 was on the cutting edge; they had applied Yosemite big-wall tactics to the even-bigger walls of Alaska.
The other routes on the north side of the peak (off the Cul-de-Sac Glacier) are The Voice of Unreason (ED 2 M7 WI 5 Al; 2,300 feet), which did not reach the summit, and The Message or the Money (M6) to reach the 1966 route, which is on the far left-hand margin of the face. Many other attempts have been made on the peak’s north-western wall, including one in 2008 by Zimmerman alongside Ian Nicholson and Ryan O’Connell.
“It’s all an assumption, but I think the wall has gone without a second ascent for so long because no one was willing to put in the hard work that big walling in the alpine requires,” Magro said. “Big-wall climbing usually takes more time and the heavier loads can make it less fun. The area is [also] notorious for terrible weather which could inhibit the choice to move slower.” Allfrey agreed: “I think you miss the attraction to a bad-ass climbing line when you focus on the type of climbing it will be. I think all of us look at that wall and see incredible granite big walls and none of us care, especially Whit and I who have done a lot of aid climbing as a tool for first ascents. We don’t care what kind of climbing it will be [aid, free, ice, mixed, etc.], it’s about an incredible line on an incredible mountain, with incredible friends.”
The team, including videographer Oliver Rye, flew into the Cul-de-Sac Glacier on May 22 in clear weather with an excellent forecast. After setting up basecamp and scoping the route, they got to work on the route’s initial pitches. On May 23, Magro led two 70-meter pitches of sustained rock climbing (C2 and 5.10). That evening they returned to camp with two ropes fixed on the wall. The following day, Allfrey led a 68-meter pitch of technical A3+ beaks followed by a stunning 50-meter C3 leaning corner. Above this, Zimmerman led a 45-meter mixed corner (C2, M6). At this point, they reached the snow ledge dubbed “the triple ledges. Again, they fixed lines through these initial pitches and returned to camp.
Due to the arc of the Arctic summer sun, they climbed late in the day, departing basecamp at noon and reaching the base of the wall at 1 pm to take advantage of the sunlight on the wall that lasted from 3 pm to 12 am.
After a rest day in camp on the 25th, they launched on the route the following day, ascending their lines and pulling the ropes behind. From their highpoint, Magro led a sustained 70-meter A3 pitch. Allfrey then led the two 50-meter pitches of C3 to the top of the upper headwall. On the final moves stepping off the headwall, Allfrey took a 40-foot whipper when a cam placed in poor rock failed. Up to that point, the climbing was sustained vertical and overhanging terrain. Finally, after eight massive pitches of climbing, the terrain leaned back. From there, Magro was able to climb around an M6 chockstone left of the final headwall to reach a small bivy chopped in a snow field on which the team was able to sit out the bright Alaskan night.
The following morning, Zimmerman led five pitches of high-quality mixed climbing with difficulty up to M5 to reach the summit ridge under clear skies. Magro then led along the moderate and stunning summit ridge to reach the peak’s top at 4:17 pm.
Their descent went quickly, tracing their line of ascent and re-using the bolts they had placed at belays, and they arrived back at basecamp just before midnight.
The route required all of the skills gained from the team’s numerous expeditions around the world and, in Magro’s words, “this climb was a culmination of 70 years of climbing experience between the three of us. … [It] required all disciplines of climbing wrapped into one package. Lines like this are the pinnacle of alpine climbing, in my opinion.”
The name “The Pace of Comfort” comes from a statement made by pilot Paul Roderick when he picked the team up on the glacier. Looking at the weather, he said, “With these kinds of conditions, we’re able to fly at a pace of comfort.” The climbing team felt the same way about their ascent.