“There they are! she’s almost to the second ice band…. wow! Is today there fifth or sixth day on the climb?”
If being an alpine paparazzi is your thing, it’s hard to beat hanging out at basecamp on the Southeast fork of the Kahilitna glacier in Alaska. The SE fork is the starting point for virtually all ascents of the Alaska Range’s big three: Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter. On a busy evening in mid-May, one finds plane loads of guided West Buttress expeditions with their matching tents, private groups of gumbies trying to figure out how to light their stoves, and brooding alpinists sulking around “waiting for the forecast to improve”. Basecamp is to Alaskan climbing what Ellis Island was to American immigrants: a snowbound customs house where the journey ends and the climbing begins. It all makes for excellent people watching.
And nobody gets more scrutiny then those attempting the North Buttress of Mount Hunter, a gleaming turret of ice and rock only two miles from basecamp. Through the National Park Service’s high-powered spotting scope, you can sit back and watch a team’s every move. When Ben Gilmore, Max Turgeon and I arrived there two weeks ago, I immediately noticed a group of folks lurking around the scope and knew: somebody was up on the Moonflower Buttress. It wasn’t long before one basecamp gossiper filled me in on all the details: They were Japanese, a man and women, they had been up there for six days and had already sat out a storm low on the route. It looked like the pair was flipping leads and were moving really, really slow.
I took a gander through the scope for myself. There in the middle of the circle of pale white were the climbers, two unmistakable patches of animated color on the vast wall. One was leading, hacking and kicking at a slow, deliberate pace. The other was standing at a belay, swing their arms to stay warm. From my vantage point, it all seemed so abstract and disconnected, like a view into another world. The highly magnified view only seemed to underscore how small they really were. What did they think they were doing up there? At that rate they were still days from the summit….
The next morning we found ourselves skiing towards the same very route. “Don’t forget to wave to basecamp”, Max joked as we neared the first iceband. As we climbed, we found traces of the Japanese’s passage: a cached backpack low on the route, a couple of wands here and there (exactly why they were wanding the Moonflower Buttress, I don’t know), the dull yellow and brown stains of piss and shit. Other than that, all other traces of their presence had been washed away by the near-constant spindrift the face was producing.
We endured a rather precarious bivy before pressing towards the summit on the second day. Just as we simul-climbed towards the Bibler Come Again Exit, I noticed a recently dugout ledge with another backpack sitting on it. Then I heard something: few inaudible sounds, but undoubtedly human voices. The Japanese were two pitches above, in the middle of the Come Again Exit. We reached a belay at the start of the ice runnel, then Max linked two pitches together to reach the same belay the Japanese were at, just under the final technical pitch of the route.
Their English was limited, and since none of us speak their language, our conversation was pretty basic. I smiled and greeted the guy who grinned and seemed quite happy with how his climb was going. Evidently this was their eighth day on route, and they had endured seven bivies in frequent spindrift without a tent. As we chatted, his partner, the woman, struggled up the pitch above. Max, meanwhile headed out left to find an alternative line through the rock band.
I watched the woman working her way up the pitch. She seemed a little shaky, climbing with a wobbly swing that reminded me of days guiding beginner and intermediate climbers back home in new Hampshire. She hung off a tool, placed a dubious-looking screw, and then lowered back to the belay.
Fair enough, I thought. This was no place to push your comfortable limits and risk a leader fall. The couple had a brief conversation, and though I couldn’t understand a single word of it, it seemed like the guy was actually encouraging her to go up and try the pitch again. After a five minute rest, she started back up, placing another screw before sketching her way to easier ground above. It was all very casual and routine, like a new leader being coached through a tricky pitch at the crag – except for the fact that we were 4,000 feet up Mount Hunter.
“You going to summit?” the fella asked.
“Well, we’re sure going to try”, I responded. His eyes lit up with surprise, and I could tell that they were only thinking of reaching the top of the buttress.
Max finished his pitch, and then we simul-climbed towards the large cornice that marks the top of the buttress, leaving the Japanese behind. We eventually summited at around nine PM. The winds were picking up, and I could see a bank of clouds moving in from the southeast. A familiar, uncomfortable hole settled in the pit of my stomach: here we were, spent some seven thousand feet above basecamp, with the weather possibly turning and a four thousand foot face to rappel. It was time to put our heads down and get the hell out of there.
As we hurriedly down-climbed to the top of the buttress, I rounded a serac and there was the Japanese fellow, smiling, struggling upwards in his belay coat. I gave him a slap on the back and a “Good luck” before continuing down. When I passed the woman on the other end of the rope, she was feebly clubbing her way up a bit of serac ice, but she seemed happy, knowing that the summit was now close by.
The Japanese returned to basecamp the day after us: it had taken them eleven – or was it twelve? – days to climb the Moonflower to the summit of Mount Hunter and descend. This is probably one of the slowest successful ascents of the climb, and in my opinion, one of the proudest.
The next day, Ben and I shared a plane back to Talkeetna with them. Over the deafening roar of the deHavaillard Beaver, they fell asleep in their seats for the entire flight.