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Committed: The Epic Quest to Climb the 50 Classics

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The fire-engine-red DeHavilland Otter morphs into a speck before disappearing into the cobalt sky. Left behind on Alaska’s ice-blue Tatina Glacier, Mark and Janelle Smiley, a married couple from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, move through Yosemite-sized granite spires and walls capped in snow. It’s May 2016 and these two Exum Mountain Guides are 46 climbs into their quest to become the first people to climb every route in Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s 1979 book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. For those who know the book and its influence—how it’s drawn hordes to certain climbs—the scope of their objective is impressive, as is their goal to pull off all 50 in a largely self-funded effort that they have documented as they go with photos, videos, and an interactive Google map.

After 11 hours hauling 200 pounds of gear over a 1,500-foot col, the pair sets up basecamp below the East Buttress of Middle Triple Peak, an 8,835-foot spire in the Kichatna Mountains—a range Royal Robbins described as “Yosemite meets the North Pole.” Of all the routes in the Classics (see The 50 Classic Climbs of North America), which range from a moderate rock romp like the Royal Arches, to desert spires like Castleton Tower, to venerable alpine climbs like the North Face of the Grand Teton, Middle Triple is among the most difficult.

West Ridge Mooses Tooth Alaska Rock Climbing Alpine
Mark Smiley leads out on the West Ridge of the Moose’s Tooth, Alaska. Photo: Janelle Smiley

Morning arrives. On recon, the Smileys discover seracs perched to the right of the route. Meanwhile, overhead and left, a huge hanging glacier, and specifically the giant blue crack running its length, draws their attention. “That doesn’t look long for this world,” says Janelle.

The two ski back to camp. Two hours later, they watch as the glacier breaks loose, unleashing a slide of ice chunks onto the very spot where they’d stood.

The following day, they scramble over the debris, spending 20 butt-clenching minutes in the serac blast zone, and then tackle the lower 1,200-foot headwall. Not only is this the steepest part of the 3,200-foot face, it also requires navigating more than 100 feet of bare rock, since the bottom pitch fell off, Half Dome–style, in a dramatic route change discovered in 2012 by Nancy Hansen, a Canadian alpinist and fellow Classics pursuer who has successfully climbed 46 routes on the list to date.

Middle Triple Peak Climbing Alaska Talkeetna Air Taxi
Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi and Janelle Smiley at Middle Triple Peak basecamp, Alaska. Photo: Mark Smiley

Mark leads over the flaky rock, drilling bat hooks and placing pecker pitons. As the first to attempt the route since the rock calved off, he’s essentially re-establishing it. After four hours, the Smileys complete two more pitches of “slow-mo aid” climbing to rise a mere 300 feet above the snow. Mark fixes the ropes, raps, and points back to their path—more falling snow and ice have obliterated their tracks.

The duo hustles back to camp. Tentbound for the next nine days, they venture out between squalls to check on the route, finding frozen ropes, icy rock, and more debris. If the mountain sheds again while they’re hurrying across the sketchy section, it’s all over. Back in the tent, their feelings oscillate between a cloudy mix of hoping for another storm day so they won’t have to face the danger and hoping it will clear so they can push forward.

“Nine days to just think about seracs … ” Mark tells me in an interview. “I hated it … I don’t ever want to be in a tent for nine days. Ever again.”

True Grit

I first met the Smileys in June 2015 at 14,000 feet on Denali. Mark, his blond hair pointing in all directions, came by our camp searching for chocolate. “Do you guys have any peanut-butter cups?” he said. We chatted while he scoured through the extra food we were trying to pawn off before heading down. He and his wife were descending Denali, hungry and exhausted, having climbed the Cassin Ridge (VI 5.7 AI4) round-trip in 6.5 days, with only 2.5 days for the actual ascent, a feat that seemed superhuman to me considering the climb’s 12,000 feet of vertical gain. The route had previously thwarted them twice—once in 2012 when they spent 26 days on the peak and failed to summit due to weather, and once in 2013, when, after 10 days of acclimating, record-high temps turned the access couloir into a flurry of rockfall.

Janelle, a slender woman with a neat, brown braid, wandered over and picked through and smartly rejected our mushed candy. They told us they had spent the better part of their relationship pursuing their dream to be the first people to stand atop every Classic in “the book.” The Cassin was their forty-fifth tick.

Mark Janelle Smiley Mt Waddington Rock Climbing Alpine
Janelle and Mark Smiley atop Mt. Waddington, British Columbia, after climbing the South Face. Photo: Chris Werner

The next day, back in civilization, we shared a table at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Over plates piled with eggs, pancakes, reindeer sausage, and pie, we learned that Mark was a professional photographer, filmmaker, and guide, while Janelle was an alpinist, guide, and ski mountaineer with three national and two North American championships in the sport.

Mark grew up in Indiana climbing and camping with his family and rappelling from maple trees in his front yard. During summers in college at Purdue University, he led rafting trips in Colorado; after graduation, he guided on Mount Rainier. Born in Aspen, Colorado, Janelle started skiing at age three and spent her formative years climbing, skiing, and exploring Colorado. Their worlds collided in February 2006 in sleepy Gunnison, Colorado, when Janelle, a junior at Western State College, and Mark, a ski bum, both attended a dinner party about marriage organized by local pastors.

“What if I get bored? That’s what I’m concerned about in terms of getting married,” said Mark. From across the room, Janelle piped in, “Me, too.” Who’s that? Mark wondered. The following day, while hiking up a mountain to watch the sunrise, they connected. Seven months later, they exchanged vows in Ridgway, Colorado.

Months later, Mark heard fellow Exum guide Christian Santelices, who in 1993 with Willie Benegas, Nancy Feagin, and Hans Florine completed 20 of the Classics in as many days, talking about the “50 Classics” at an American Mountain Guides Association course. When Mark realized nobody had yet completed all of the climbs, he proposed to Janelle that they be the first. “We knew we would have an adventure tackling this, so details didn’t matter,” says Mark—even details like not actually consulting 50 Classic Climbs.

Making Bargains With God on Mount Logan

In September 2009, after seven hours of climbing, they topped out on Longs Peak, Colorado, having climbed the Diamond via the Casual Route (IV 5.10a), which Wikipedia had cited as the wall’s most popular climb. However, when they returned home and bought 50 Classics, they learned that the actual line was D1, a V 5.12a. Undeterred, the pair jumped into an endeavor that requires ascending over 150,000 feet of rock and ice on terrain scattered from Alaska to New Mexico. They completed 26 objectives in 2010, including their actual first classic, Utah’s Castleton Tower. They completed nine more the following year. Of the 32 climbs in the lower 48, the Smileys finished 30 on their first try. With 35 summits at the end of 2011, progress slowed significantly as they tackled the tougher, more remote objectives, many in Alaska and Canada.

To make this new lifestyle a reality, the Smileys would trade their home in Crested Butte, Colorado, for a Dodge Sprinter van. They drove across the west and up to Alaska twice—utilizing public spaces, random parking spots, and parks to pack, cook, and dry out gear. Life on the road allowed them an intimate look at the country and plugged them into a network of friends both old and new. Being in such close proximity was a mixture of intimacy and frustration. Janelle recalls having a fight in the middle of the night, slamming the van door, and realizing they were parked somewhere random in Las Vegas and she had nowhere safe to go. She got back in and they worked through it. “Spending so much time together—in the van or in a 4X6 tent—forced us to solve problems quickly,” says Janelle. “You can’t check out or go into the other room, and you can’t go to bed angry because you have to figure out how to work together tomorrow.”

Janelle Smiley Middle Triple Peak Alaska Rock Climbing Alpine
Janelle approaching the exfoliated lower reaches of Middle Triple Peak. Photo: Mark Smiley

The Smileys estimate their quest has cost them $100,000. Forty percent came out of pocket and the rest they raised via Kickstarter, films from their adventures, and sponsors like Gore-tex, Arc’teryx, and Goal Zero. The couple also climbed with friends along the way, like Jed Porter, an IFMGA mountain guide who now lives in Victor, Idaho, and who joined their June 2013 ascent of Carpé Ridge (VI) on Mt. Fairweather (15,325 feet) in Alaska.

On Fairweather, the trio reached 14,000 feet in just two days, but a whiteout sent them back to basecamp. Here, over the next 10 days, they dug an 11-foot-deep “pain cave” in the snow, laying skis across it so they could do pull-ups. When the weather cleared, it took only three days to crank out the remaining bits of the 11,000 feet of glaciated coastal climbing and return to basecamp. “It was intimidating to climb with the best climbing couple on the planet,” Porter recalls. “But it went well and we had fun. They perform at a high level and they’ve only gotten better over the years.”

Porter later joined them on other Classics, like the Steck-Salathé (V 5.10b) on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite, 16 pitches of wide crack. Janelle gracefully led the Narrows, pitch 10’s infamous squeeze chimney. Mark, however, hung and then got stuck in the maw. As he blogged, “ … when I’d turn my head from left to right, my nose would scrape on the wall. Then the backpack that I was trailing started getting stuck below me …. I lost it. Started screaming at the world. Not my proudest moment.”

As Porter filmed, perched near Janelle’s belay station, he noted her cool demeanor while she set up a 3:1 hauling system. Blogged Mark, you couldn’t “even call it climbing, more like hangdogging on toprope, only your belayer has tied the rope to a car bumper and is driving slowly away, effectively towing you up.” As Janelle told Porter, she’d never in her seven years of marriage seen Mark that angry, an emotion he quickly let wash away up at the belay. For his part, Mark has vowed to work on his hip flexibility, the limiting factor in his ability to pull off the crux, so he can return to climb the Steck-Salathé in style.

Progress Through Adversity

During the next three climbing seasons (2012–2014), the Smileys topped out on just nine routes and failed more than 50 percent of the time, including an unsuccessful attempt in July 2014 on the Hummingbird Ridge (VI) of Mt. Logan (19,850 feet), the second highest peak in North America and Canada’s highest.

For two years prior, Janelle had been struggling with increasing hip pain. Three months before heading to Logan, an MRI revealed labral tears in both hips. Her first cortisone shot provided three weeks of relief, enough to compete in, and win, three ski-mo races. Unfortunately, another shot right before the expedition didn’t offer adequate relief. At advanced basecamp, Janelle succumbed to excruciating hip pain and flew back to civilization. Mark continued upward with Porter and Reiner Thoni, a ski-mountaineering national champion who had also joined the Smileys on Mt. Robson and Mt. Alberta.

Three days later, temperatures cooled enough that the trio could begin climbing the snowy couloir that led from 8,000 to 12,000 feet to gain the ridge proper. For the lower two-thirds, they climbed hard, clean ice in runnels whose “big walls lent a perception of safety so we felt we could free solo,” says Porter. After 12 hours and 12 pitches (ranging from easy ice to 75-degree slopes) on the upper third, they gained a ridgeline clad in deep, loose snow and unstable ice. Six hours, and two narrow cornice escapes later, they made camp on the ridge crest.

Janelle Smiley Rappel Middle Triple Peak Alaska rock Climbing Alpine
Janelle bailing off Middle Triple Peak. “We had waited through a nine-day storm and lost the stoke,” recalls Mark. Photo: Mark Smiley

On day three, Mark, while leading a rock pitch, fell into the abyss when a 15-foot cornice crumbled. After two more days of slow progress and more near-misses, the team realized that cornice Russian roulette wasn’t their game—a real threat given that in May 1987, while crossing the route’s horizontal one-mile Shovel Traverse, world-class climbers Dave Cheesmond and Catherine Freer were killed, likely due to cornice failure. They also discovered that a text sent via satellite hadn’t made it back to Janelle, waiting in Whitehorse, so she had spent a night thinking the men were dead. “At every turn it was stressful … stress on top of stress on top of stress,” recalls Porter.

Their descent was a nightmare: 4,000 feet of rappelling off 34 V-threads with only a single 60-meter rope, 12 hours on a wall capped by precarious seracs, listening to water running under the ice and watching chunks of rock and ice plummet past. During the darkest, coldest hours of the arctic-summer twilight, Mark led the way, turning into a “V-thread machine,” hunched over, baring down, relying on his headlamp to complete a whole system before the other two reached him. “Soaked and scared out of our minds, we were completely, brainlessly following Mark,” says Porter. When they reached flat ground, Mark collapsed from stress fatigue. Three and a half days later, the weather cleared and they flew back to town.

Weeks later, in late July, Janelle walked into the hospital and left in a wheelchair after undergoing the first of two hip labrum replacement surgeries; the second came that September. The pair had only six routes left—including Hummingbird Ridge, which they weren’t sure they wanted to return to. “There were about 100 times when we wanted to quit or just thought it was over,” admits Mark.

“This project pushed me up against my limits several times,” says Janelle. “It’s a total gift to have the opportunity to scare the shit out of yourself. But it’s also a gift to have the opportunity to choose between giving up and working through that fear to be courageous.”

Over the seven years that they dedicated to the project, Janelle went through periods of wondering why they were sacrificing so much time, money, and effort to follow a list that seemed too dangerous. But, by simply not giving up on her, Mark would always bring her back in. “My testosterone brain had no limits, so when her mind would get in the way—because she always had the physical ability to do it—my stubbornness would just push us through,” he says.

After Janelle’s surgeries, she experienced a shift: Suddenly she wanted to finish the list more than ever. They’d come this far and she’d paid a physical price—one so great she was unsure she’d ever climb again—so when she did return to the mountains, her gratitude for the ability to simply move pushed her to overcome any challenge in their path.

A Baffin Island Big Wall Apprenticeship With Mike Libecki

In July 2015, just 10 months after her second hip surgery, Janelle returned with Mark to Denali, and they summited via the Cassin. Their second evening on the route, as Mark belayed Janelle up the final technical pitch—a rock scramble giving way to a snow slope—he realized they were going to make it. All the uncertainty from Janelle’s injury, their past attempts, the point of it all, just fell away. “This was a point in our climbing timeline that we could say, ‘We got this. This is awesome.’ I tried to stay in that moment as long as possible,” he says. In October 2015, they wrapped up the season with number 46, a climb of 11,033-foot Mt. Edith Cavell’s North Face (IV 5.7), a 5,000-foot ice and rock route. But, in May 2016, on Middle Triple Peak, they hit a stumbling block: The climb, with its calving rock and constant serac fall, was too perilous. The risk could not be justified.

They followed this disappointment with a sea-to-summit climb via the Harvard Route on Alaska’s Mount St. Elias (18,009 feet). “Within a few days, we went from Middle Triple, a gorgeous place we couldn’t appreciate because we were totally terrified, to having an entire mountain unfold for us in a perfect, almost divine way,” says Janelle. Five weeks later, on August 1, the Smileys ventured to Colorado for their second and final attempt on D1, a thousand-foot alpine wall with four consecutive gently overhanging pitches. They’d tried D1 previously, but fatigue, cold temps, and hail had conspired to drive them off. Janelle had put it last on the list, secretly hoping they wouldn’t have to do it.

Mark Smiley South Face Mt Waddington Rock Climbing Alpine
Mark on the sharp end on the South Face of Mt. Waddington, British Columbia. Photo: Chris Werner

This time, she returned to the Diamond a different person. “My journey in all this has been overcoming the mental game and fears of the unknown,” she says. “Nothing about the route had changed, but I had.” Her Instagram post summed it up best: “The first time I climbed the Diamond [via the Casual Route] I cried, was scared of the exposure, both weather and commitment, it took forever, I led maybe 2 pitches of 5.easy and I never wanted to do it again … 7 years later I find myself on the Diamond again but this time my comfort and skills have changed. I didn’t cry, I was not scared, I even felt like I was in my element, we swung leads, summited in the rain, and I loved every minute of it.”

The Smileys, who had agreed they wouldn’t be returning to Logan or Middle Triple, climbed knowing the bittersweet fact that this, their forty-eighth Classic, would be their final undertaking of the project.

Growth and Change

Mark had a hard time coming to grips with not finishing all 50 climbs. He was adamant about their goal: They would be first to climb the 50 Classics, and anything less was a failure. Janelle, however, simply wanted to attempt all the routes as a team and tell a story about each. So by her metric, they had been successful.

“Not completing all 50 definitely bothers me,” Mark says. “But at some point the Classics changed from a fun objective to an addiction; it became our Moby Dick.” Ultimately, the pair felt the scales had tipped to a point where the sacrifices outweighed the benefits. And then there was the risk on the two that remained: Hummingbird Ridge saw its first and only successful ascent in 1965 by a team that included 50 Classics co-author Allen Steck. And Middle Triple Peak’s East Ridge had only allowed five successful ascents, with the last one coming 20 years ago, before the bottom pitch exfoliated.

“We had an awesome run, and the mountains made the decisions for us and made it pretty clear that it was time to head home,” says Mark. It’s easy to understand how such an intense pursuit—one that has not only dominated the last seven years, but also the majority of their partnership—could lose its luster. Not to mention the toll such intensity takes on a relationship. Yet, their quest has brought them closer together and made them healthier as a couple.

“When we first started climbing together, instead of saying, ‘I’m scared,’ or, ‘This backpack is too heavy and I can’t pull this overhang!’ Janelle would yell, ‘Belay me better!’ I’d yell back, ‘I’m belaying you fine!’” recalls Mark. “That wouldn’t go very well.” Over time, however, Mark learned to look at the feelings behind the words; he learned to encourage Janelle in a kind, loving way. Meanwhile, Janelle improved at voicing what was going on for her. “Such a simple solution that Mark said, ‘That was all I needed to do?’” says Janelle.

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Others who climb with them have noticed an evolution, too. During their first attempt on the Cassin Ridge—and other early climbs—they had trouble making decisions: They disagreed about when to move forward and when to call it. “Alpine climbing partners need to be on the same page,” says Porter. “It took them a while to get there, perhaps complicated further by having marital stuff on top of it. Over time, they’ve gained a greater understanding of each other’s motivations, risk tolerance, and general approach to decision-making, which has led to increased acceptance.” Last year while the trio attempted a ski linkup in Peru, Janelle felt that a looming serac posed too much danger. Rather than Mark explaining why the area was safe and trying to convince her to continue, like Porter says Mark would have done five years prior, they turned back without any hard feelings or pressure to continue. “Janelle felt terrible about it, but followed her gut and owned her decision,” Porter says.

Along the way, through entertaining videos and honest blog and social media posts like this Instagram post from Janelle regarding Middle Triple Peak—“What happens when you get caught on a glacier in a 9 day storm and you can’t climb? You get 9 days of snuggle time with your climbing buddy #alwayspickacutepartner @smileysproject #longdays #alpineclimbing #stormday #alaskaclimbing #notclimbing”—the Smileys have exposed the reality of embarking on such an escapade with a loved one. By showing not only glamorous summit shots but also the real and humbling moments, like Mark freaking out on the Steck-Salathé or Janelle pausing, crying, and then pushing through her fear to lead across Thank God Ledge on Half Dome, they connect with people on a more intimate level.

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So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Smileys have parlayed their experience into helping and coaching others in the mountains. Their goal is to use shared adventures to help couples break free from the core issues affecting them. “I found joy by pushing through fear, fulfilling my craving for adventure, scoring a few female first ascents, and being part of this relationship with Mark,” says, Janelle, who after her hip surgeries studied to become a certified performance and life coach. “I couldn’t ask for anything better, and I want to share that.”

So far, the Smileys have been working with friends and acquaintances out climbing or skiing in the Tetons; Janelle coaches them to identify factors that are holding them back and helps them realize solutions. The goal is to give people an awareness of how they interact with each other and help them let go of limiting beliefs. Mark, meanwhile, handles logistics and the technical and safety aspects, a component that will become more critical as they expand into burlier expeditions.

“So many of us don’t believe in our own abilities,” she says. “I’m just helping people realize what’s already in them.”

Janelle Smiley North Ridge Mt. Stuart Rock Climbing Alpine
Janelle charging up the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, Washington. Photo: Mark Smiley

These days, Janelle is again training for ski-mo racing and pursuing her IFMGA certification, while Mark helps clients realize their dreams by leading climbs, like first ascents and the Cassin Ridge, that aren’t typically guided.

During rare down time back in Jackson Hole, they’re compiling a list of “new classics,” to be released online, that accurately reflects changes in climbing techniques and style. As Janelle puts it, modern gear like frontpoint crampons and self-ratcheting ice screws were just coming on the scene when the list was being compiled, “so the original Classics contain a lot of ridges and moderate slopes.” She cites the West Ridge (V) of Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth (10,335 feet) as a prime example. In 2010, the Smileys attempted the climb, but poor snow conditions and “pure Alaska-sized intimidation” turned them around before they reached the West Summit (9,960 feet). When they returned in 2013, they navigated what the tagline for their Moose’s Tooth video describes as a “breathtaking and terrifying mountaineering experience” that includes more than a mile lined with giant cornices where, Mark writes, they continually played the game “where to walk so I don’t die.” Their list will replace the West Ridge with Ham and Eggs (V 5.9 WI4 M4), a true Alaskan classic that, says Mark, follows “an amazing, near-vertical multi-pitch line that climbs steep snow, ice, and rock almost all the way to the summit.”

The Smileys’ list will prioritize high-quality, must-do routes and will include newer climbing areas like Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, which wasn’t on the radar when Fifty Classics was first published. Regardless of the routes listed, this new resource will surely ignite the imaginations of climbers for generations to come. Perhaps it will even inspire another couple to set out on the adventure of a lifetime, just as Fifty Classic Climbs did for the Smileys.

The Gnarly 5

Here are five routes often considered the most difficult and dangerous in Fifty Classic Climbs.

1. Denali, Cassin Ridge

Bad weather and epic cold on this 20,320-foot mountain make this route comparable in danger and difficulty to objectives in the Himalayas. The first-ascent team, picking their way up technical rock and ice as well as strenuous snow, faced extreme cold, debilitating frostbite, and avalanche conditions. The necessity to acclimatize and the tedious wait for a weather window turn away many suitors, who often end up opting for the West Buttress.

2. Mount Logan, Hummingbird Ridge

The Hummingbird Ridge is the only of the 50 Classics that hasn’t seen a second ascent, despite attempts by some of the world’s top mountaineers, including Mugs Stump and team in 1978, while others have died trying. In 1987, the infamous Shovel Traverse, the route’s most dangerous section, claimed the lives of world-class alpinists Dave Cheesmond and Catherine Freer.

3. Middle Triple Peak, East Buttress

Due to its remote location, nasty Alaskan weather, and difficult rock and ice, this route has only seen a handful of ascents. Avalanche and serac hazards pose risks to the few climbers who attempt the route; moreover, in recent years, a large chunk of the lower wall calved off.

4. Mount Alberta, Japanese Route

The 1925 FA team negotiated crumbling holds and falling rock, making their way toward a delicately corniced summit ridge. It took 23 years for the second ascent, while global warming has changed the climb over the past century.

5. Longs Peak, D1, The Diamond

This 1,000-foot pane of rock rising to 14,000 feet in Colorado was once closed because climbing it was deemed “too dangerous.” Though the rule has since been lifted, the altitude and fast-moving weather pose difficulties to climbers. Over 60 people have died on Longs Peak, nearly a dozen of them on the Diamond.

Conservation biologist, climber, and writer Chris Kassar lives in Salida, Colorado, with her partner and their crazy yellow lab, Dixie.