the West Ridge of Mount Hunter
by Paul Richins, Jr. (updated 7/2/98)
Paul Richins, Dick Ratliff and three others climbed the West Ridge of Mount Hunter, one of the more difficult summits in Alaska. Mount Hunter is 14,570 feet and located near Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker. This article, appearing in the Mountain Democratic newspaper on August 5, 1993, describes that climb.
The climb of Mount Hunter's West Ridge is considered by many one of the classic climbs of North America. Having completed the route May 14-May 24, 1993, I appreciate the reason for its inclusion in this select group of mountain climbs. The technical difficulties we had to overcome on the climb included spectacular overhanging cornices, ice falls, towering seracs, hanging glaciers and 60-70 degree mixed snow/ice climbing. Needless to say the climb was much more challenging than anticipated by either Dick Ratliff or myself when we were planning the climb from the safe confines of our homes.
Mount Hunter is located on the southern edge of Denali National Park about 150 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska. Mount Hunter (14,570'), Mount Foraker (17,004) and Mount McKinley (20,320), the highest peak in North America, form a compact triangle of three of the most spectacular and challenging mountains in North America. The peoples living closest to the majestic peaks had long called them Denali (McKinley), Sultana (Foraker) and Begguya (Hunter), meaning The High One, The Woman and Denali's Child, respectively. These are the "big three"--the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms of classic Alaskan mountaineering.
Although the smallest of the three, Mount Hunter is the steepest and presents the most difficult climbing challenges. Of the eighty or more peaks over 14,000' in North America, Mount Hunter is the most difficult to climb. Consequently, it was the last to be climbed.
To provide another perspective on just how difficult it is to climb Hunter, only 4 of 51 climbers reached the summit in 1992. In the past five years only 27 out of a total of 156 (17%) were successful. In comparison, more than 50% of those attempting Denali reach the top.
On the sixth day of climbing our party of five reached the summit of Hunter under ideal weather conditions. We were rewarded with unparalleled views of Mount Foraker, Mount McKinley, Mount Huntington, Mount Russell and hundreds of lesser peaks. It was 7:00 PM and we had been climbing for 13 hours that day. As it turned out we would need another 10 hours to descend to our high camp (Camp 4) on the West Ridge. We arrived back at our high camp at 5:00 AM the next morning completely exhausted. We had been climbing for 23 hours.
To reach Mount Hunter, Dick Ratliff and I flew from Sacramento to Seattle and on to Anchorage. In Anchorage we joined our guide, Gary Bocarde, and two other climbers. We drove two hours to Talkeetna, a very small town of a couple of hundred people. The community becomes the center of activity for both climbers and tourists flying into Denali National Park each spring and summer. At 10:00 PM the evening of May 14, 1993, Don Geeting, our pilot, stuffed the single engine Cessna 185 with skis, ropes, packs, tents, climbing gear, two weeks of food and three climbers for the flight into the Southeast Fork Kahiltna Glacier. Flying and climbing do not have to be limited to the "normal" daylight hours we are used to as it is light 24 hours a day at this time of year in Alaska. I ended up in the very back of the plane sitting on a sleeping bag for a chair with packs and gear for a back rest. More gear was packed to the ceiling on my right which only allowed me to peer out through a small window on my left.
The flight into the mountain was inspiring. It is the most spectacular 30 minute plane ride you will find anywhere. The ride took us over the low lands, the glaciers and into the most rugged mountains in North America in a matter of minutes. Soon we were barely clearing a narrow mountain pass, banked left and then right to avoid the peaks towering above us and continued up the Kahiltna Glacier to the landing area.
At the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip (7,200') we found a small tent village of climbers from all over the world there to climb Hunter, Foraker and Denali. By far, most were there to climb Denali. We learned from Annie, the air traffic controller at the glacier air strip, that about 500 climbers were at various camps on Denali with a party or two on Foraker and one on Hunter.
Annie kept the pilots informed of the weather conditions on the glacier and kept track of the climbers on the mountains. Every evening at 8:00 she provided a weather report to the climbers over her C.B. radio and received a progress report from the climbers and guides.
The next day we skied about two hours down the glacier and around a spur ridge to the Northwest Basin of Hunter where we set up base camp (6,800'). We carried our gear in backpacks and on snow sleds that we pulled behind us. We had about 80 pounds of gear, food and clothing per climber.
The following day we abandoned skis, poles, an emergency food cache and snow sleds at Base Camp and forced everything else into our packs for the climb. From base camp we navigated up and through an ice fall in the lower Northwest Basin avoiding the numerous crevasses in the icefall. To avoid passing below a potentially dangerous hanging glacier, we left the basin and turned left up a steep slope that had avalanched a day or so earlier. Just below the ridge the slope steepened and we climbed one steep snow pitch (one rope length-165') that was near vertical. Camp I was placed on this spur ridge at about 8,600'.
The climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2 would be the most difficult and sustained on the route. Up ahead we saw glimpses of the steep snow/ice couloir that blocked our access to the West Ridge. From our vantage point it looked as if the couloir steepened to near vertical at the top. It did, but our guide, Gary Bocarde, assured us that it looked steeper than it actually was. I thought to myself that it was one thing to climb near vertical ice without a pack but a completely different challenge to climb six pitches of mixed snow and ice with a 60 pound pack. This was the 60/60 climb--60 pound packs up 60 degree ice.
I was apprehensive, as I am before all difficult climbs. The fear of the unknown and the doubts concerning whether my climbing abilities would be sufficient to meet the challenge was ever present. Would I be able to climb such a difficult and sustained couloir? I had in Norway two years earlier when Dick and I made the first ascent of the Southwest Ridge of Stortind, but that was without a 60 pound pack.
On the steep traverse from Camp 1 to the couloir we were never on slopes of less than 40 degrees. By the time we reached the couloir it was time to eat lunch. We needed to refuel before climbing the couloir. I drove in a snow picket and clipped in to prevent an unchecked fall. I then kicked a small platform out of the hard snow on which to stand. The snow and ice was so hard that I was only able to kick out a platform large enough for the front half of my boots with my heels hanging out over the steep slope. I carefully removed my pack and clipped it into my ice axe that I had planted in the snow/ice as an anchor. We had to be very careful when taking off our packs. Anything dropped, including our packs, would immediately slide out of sight and disappear to the glacier far below. Perched on the side of the mountain like this was not conducive to a relaxing lunch so we hurriedly ate.
As we ascended, the couloir steepened from 40 to 50 degrees. Near the top it continued to steepen to 60 and possibly 70 degrees. It was near vertical for all practical purposes. At the top of the couloir my calf's were burning and my legs about to give out. The front points of my Footfangs (crampons) were only penetrating the hard ice half an inch placing great strain on my calf's.
I was very happy and relieved to have successfully climb the couloir, the crux of the climb. It was a big confidence builder and made me optimist about reaching the summit. Camp 2 (10,200) was placed just beyond the couloir on the West Ridge. The views from Camp 2 were magnificent as we looked out over hundreds of peaks and hanging glaciers.
Over the next two days we moved up the West Ridge establishing Camp 3 (10,600) and then our high camp, Camp 4 (11,000). In route we climbed up, over and down at least three very large snow domes with a near vertical ice pitch or two thrown in to keep our interest up.
At Camp 4 we could clearly see our route to the summit above. It looked discouraging. I was starting to have doubts about reaching the summit. The route from Camp 4 went up a very steep 45-60 degree face and then along a narrow ridge to a large glacier field and ice fall.
The next morning we were up at 4:00 AM and climbing by 6:00. To my surprise, the face climbing was somewhat easier than couloir we had climbed earlier. However, the ridge certainly got our attention. The ridge was very narrow and dropped off on both sides for thousands of feet below. A missed step here would not be good. We all were very careful as we made this delicate traverse.
Once we reached the glacier the climbing became more relaxed. We made our way across the glacier and onto the icefall just below the summit plateau. All around us ice seracs towered overhead. We worked our way through, around and over large ice seracs to reach the summit plateau. Navigating this ice fall was the most enjoyable portion of the climb.
We finally reached the summit. We had successfully climbed Hunter. It was 7:00 PM and we had been climbing for 13 hours. The winds were calm, the temperature mild and the skies clear. Conditions were perfect. If I had control over such matters I would not have changed a thing. The view was breathtaking. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful and majestic view than that afforded by the summit of Hunter. I was awe struck by the beauty and sheer size of Hunter and the hundreds of mountains and glaciers around us. The air was so clear it seemed as if I could reach out and touch Denali's south face towering over us nearly 7 miles away.
What a sense of accomplishment to have attempted a difficult task and accomplished, what at times, seemed impossible. What a rewarding and magnificent view from the summit. Each of us had our own personal reasons for climbing Hunter and they were more than fulfilled on this day.
Area: Denali National Park, Alaska
Route: West Ridge of Mount Hunter (14,570)
Camps: Base Camp plus Camps 1, 2, 3 and 4
Elevation Gain: 6,500' to 14,570'
Ascent: 6 days (includes one storm day)
Descent: 3 days (includes one and a half storm days)
Summit Day: 23 hours, 13 hours to summit and 10 hours down to Camp 4
Belayed Rope Pitches: approximately 30 on the ascent
Rappels: 11, all on the descent
Hardware: 6 snow pickets, 6-7 ice screws, and several rock pitons
Coldest Temperature: about 14 degrees
Climbers: Gary Bocarde, Guide, Anchorage; Dave Bong, Assistant Guide, Ridgefield WA; Steve Swift, Fairbanks; Dick Ratliff, Sacramento; and Paul Richins Jr, El Dorado Hills.
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