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Climbing in the Far North: The Future of Interior Alaska’s Climbing Scene

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“As soon as the summer comes, you’re restricted to navigable rivers, and that’s not where the rocks are,” explains Stan Justice, who wrote the first climbing guide for Interior Alaska, Fairbanks Area Rock Climbing Guide, in 1994. In the 663,300 square miles of the Last Frontier, there are only 1,080 miles of highway, meaning the approaches are long. And, of course, the season is short—in summer when it’s warm enough to rock climb in the Interior, the frozen ground providing access to the cliffs also thaws into subarctic boreal marshes swarmed by Alaska’s state bird, the mosquito. To climb here, you really have to want it. Still, the guidebook has been updated six times, and its latest iteration (co-authored with Frank Olive) details more than 300 sport, trad, and toprope routes, as well as boulder problems in the few “easily” accessible areas.

The unfathomable number of rock faces that are frustratingly near-inaccessible in summer coupled with the eight months of winter and -40-degree weather could make any rock climber scramble back to the Lower 48. However, nestled in the sprawling Interior, the northernmost dedicated climbing gym in North America nurtures a budding climbing community, one that could eventually expand the local scene.

“While every community needs a gym, Fairbanks is simply lucky enough to be able to support one,” explains Eamon Stack, the 30-year-old who in April 2015 opened the second gym in the Interior, the bouldering-only Ascension Rock Club, with his wife, Audrey. The 220-member gym, with 15-degree slab to 45-degree overhangs, offers 4,200 square feet of climbing. In 1994, Fairbanks got its first wall when the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) built one as part of the recreation center. Until Ascension, UAF was the center of the climbing world for hundreds of miles.

These days, the two gyms provide a place for new climbers to learn, particularly the younger generations. With more than 60 kids enrolled either in the youth club or on Team Ascension, young Alaskan climbers are rapidly improving. The first year that the team competed regionally—2016—only one member traveled to USA Climbing’s West Coast Divisionals. This season, four were invited to Divisionals, and one invitee, Dylan Heim, finished in the top 10. In the winter and spring, Ascension hosts competitions, packing in more than 200 competitors and spectators, offering the climbing community warmth, light, and an escape from hibernation during the 20 hours of invernal darkness.

Though the team kids primarily focus on gym climbing, come summer they and various other locals (there are probably around 120 active rock climbers in the Interior) will drive five hours to Hatcher Pass, a collection of 400-plus granite problems nestled in the Talkeetna Mountain Range outside Anchorage. They’ll also explore the Interior’s sport climbing hot-spot, Grapefruit Rocks, a limestone area among forests of spruce, birch, and aspen a 90-minute drive from Fairbanks, with 56 bolted lines and 74 trad and toprope routes from 5.5 to 5.13. This small locals’ area is expanding, and Interior climber Tom Ellis has already bolted new routes there this year.

“Grapefruit Rocks is our main cragging area,” says Olive, who believes the Interior’s best potential lies farther away on the plutons of Mount Prindle, on the border of the White Mountains National Recreation Area—a two-hour drive (plus four-hour hike) from Fairbanks. “Mount Prindle is a perfect example of the difficulty of access. If a road went close to Mt. Prindle, it would have hundreds of ascents and many clean, quality routes,” Olive says. As it is, few climbers visit, leaving the best of the granite covered with lichen. Beyond Mt. Prindle, Grapefruit, and Hatcher Pass, few areas have been developed despite the vast potential.

“Limestone Jags up Fossil Creek contains hundreds of limestone formations that would be awesome if they weren’t hours of travel by snow machine, pack-raft, or foot from the nearest road,” Olive says. Then add to that the relatively small scene in Fairbanks: “I love the small-community feeling, but there are a limited number of outdoor leaders, and fewer trad leaders,” says Olive. “Fewer still of those folks are willing to grovel and clean loose, scary shit on lead for a first ascent.”

Developers, such as Olive, remain hesitant to bolt new routes in the Interior beyond Grapefruit due to the fact that few, if any, climbers will ever repeat them—it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. However, there is a cautious optimism that this situation could change. Though the youth climbers at Ascension are primarily focused on bouldering in the gym and at Hatcher Pass, with a few projecting Toy Gun—one of Grapefruit’s two 5.12s—this summer, there’s hope that their climbing boundaries will expand. With the hunger of any new generation to explore, perhaps they’ll soon begin snowmobiling into the ranges, pack-rafting down rivers, and pushing into the White Mountains to explore virgin limestone deep in the Alaskan wilderness.

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