Mount Huntington South Ridge Traverse: Q&A with Clint Helander and Jess Roskelley

Publish date:
Mount Huntington Gauntlet Ridge Jess Roskeley Climbing Alaska

Jess Roskelley near the top of the first tower on the morning of day 2. Photo: Clint Helander

Over April 18-25, Jess Roskelley and Clint Helander established one of the longest new alpine routes in the U.S., the South Ridge of Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range.

In addition to its great length—8,500 feet—the circuitous traverse is noteworthy for its high commitment level (Alaska Grade VI), difficulty (M6, A0, 95° snow) and severe objective danger as it crosses through hanging seracs and big cornices.

Helander and Roskelley called their traverse of Peaks 9460, 9800, 10100, and Idiot Peak to reach the summit of Huntington (12,240’) the Gauntlet Ridge.

“We felt like we were getting beat up going all the way through it,” Roskelley says.

The team spent six days approaching and traversing the ridge and, after reaching the summit of Huntington in whiteout conditions, set up their tent, and waited it out for two more nights before descending. They spent the last two days nearly out of food, with only two candy bars and a few bullion cubes remaining.

As the men didn’t encounter any signs of previous passage down the mountain, in all likelihood their ascent of Huntington was the first of the season.

Huntington, in the Ruth Amphitheater, may not be one of the Big Three in the range—Denali (20,310’), Foraker (17,400’) and Hunter (14,573’)—but it’s no less complex. Mountain Project calls it “arguably the lowest summit percentage of any peak in the Alaska range.”

Helander calls it: “The most committing thing I’ve done in Alaska.”

Retreat from the route would have been nearly impossible. A broken piece of crucial hardware like a crampon point or ice pick, or dropped critical item would have been disastrous.

The team credits their success to the right conditions—it hadn’t snowed in a month—meticulous planning, timing, and a bit of luck. For example, during day two of three of the climb, they looked down to see their approach tracks at the foot of the mountain covered by avalanche debris.

To prepare, Helander spent four years collecting data on the ridge and waiting for the right weather window. This included taking meticulous notes, collecting hundreds of images, and noting cruxes in his journal. When everything lined up, he recruited Jess Roskelley—son of famed high-altitude mountaineer and author John Roskelley—due to his reputation as a strong alpinist.

“Some of my best climbs were with guys on the fly who needed a partner, who knew I would rise to the challenge. That’s what happened here,” Roskelley says.

How else did you get ready for the route?

Helander: I planned details almost like an excel spreadsheet. I knew where we needed to make it to each day. I did it from an objective standpoint. I thought it could take 5 days but in the back of my mind, I knew if we [messed] up and something went wrong that it would be absolutely epic.

I felt very proud that we made very good decisions all the time. We went to a dangerous place as prepared as possible.

I understand that approaching the route, via the labyrinth of ice fall through Death Valley, was a challenge in its own right.

Helander: I was a bit worried about seracs but I knew we would be only under one for 5 minutes. We developed a plan and sprinted from foxhole to foxhole.

What was the most committing part of the route?

Roskelley: Rapping into the gunsight notch from the first peak, 9460, there was huge and rotten stuff all around. And it was lightly snowing. When I got off the rappel, I put my pack over my head so bad rock wouldn’t clobber me when Clint came down. Right away snow was sluffing down on us. I was like, holy shit if it really snows we’re in trouble.

Helander: We looked at each other deep in the eyes and pulled the rope. We knew the only way off was by summiting Huntington 6,000 feet away, as going down would be too dangerous and reversing the route was out of the question.

What did the climb feel like after that?

Roskelley: We felt like we were on a real timeline. I’ve never felt that before. Most times you can turn around and bail from where you came from but not here. This felt like a different planet. We had to keep moving. I felt this constant sense of urgency throughout the entire thing. It was stressful.

How did you mitigate the danger?

Roskelley: We simul-climbed pretty much the entire thing. That’s the trick to being safe—haul ass.

How did you overcome the steep snow sections, with some up to 95°?

Helander: The wall had these crazy flutings and cornices and double cornices. You had to pack out these vertical walls of snow with your knees and chop through a cornice to sink a tool over it as your feet were crumbling underneath you.

Having climbed in Alaska for a long time, I’ve learned how to be comfortable on steep snow, to be able to feel your way up these things and weight your body differently. It was akin to vertical swimming sometimes.

Anything else to add?

Helander: It was a phenomenal route to be a part of.

Roskelley: It ended up being the best climb I’ve ever done.