mount hunter - 14573' - west ridge class 5.8 AI3
My days of writing long detailed trip reports are likely at an end, but I wanted to share this with anyone who may be interested. My friend Sarah and I climbed the west ridge of Mount Hunter in the Alaska Range last week, and found incredible conditions and weather. We also made a solid attempt on the west ridge of Mooses Tooth and the full traverse over all 3 summits, however we were forced to retreat down Shaken not Stirred (some 17+ raps!) at the col between the west and center peaks since the snow mushrooms/cornices on the ascent up the center peak had all but disappeared, leaving just unprotected sugar snow covering very steep rock slabs. I will write a separate little report for this 3 day adventure later.
Note: I have only included a few photos in this report. You can see all of our photos at this link...there are hundreds of them, and many are incredible. The scenery we had was some of the best mountain scenery I have ever seen, partly due to the perfect weather we had, but also since the air was so clear.
After descending down the Root Canal icefall back to the Ruth Gorge, and flying out from the Ruth we took a rest day in Takleetna and on May 29th we flew into the Kahiltna base camp and walked down the glacier a couple miles to the base of Hunter's west ridge. The image below, taken from the flight in I have annotated which summarizes the route quite well.
The entry basin was firm in the late morning when we started up. At its steepest we hit about 45 degree snow for a couple hundred feet, and crossed a few decent snow bridges but was pretty easy getting to the flat bench, and the slog to the Cats Ears had minimal postholing. We passed through the notch between the two rock towers and located the first anchor, did a 45 meter rappel to the second anchor and made a second 50 meter rappel down to the easy snow below and walked to the low col. Continuing on, we did two full pitches of AI3 ice climbing, trending right as I climbedand placed a couple screws on each pitch. This whole area I had done 6 years ago during my 2016 attempt so I remembered it well.
After finshing the two ice pitches, we walked along the snowy ridge up and over Point 9500, climbing another small ice step near its summit, and descending down to the col at the start of the mixed section. Here we dug out a nice tent platform and made camp for the first night. Temps were slightly above freezing at night, calm and clear. Perfect weather.
The next morning we started climbing the rock band, which involved traversing around to the right (south) side of the ridge to bypass an initial rock tower and make an ascending snow traverse on two steep 55 degree snow slopes, separated by an exposed rock ledge traverse and a corner to scramble around. At the far east side of the second snow slope, we began climbing a narrow gully which involved 60+ degree AI2+ and some low 5th class rock. We continued up this gully almost all the way back to the ridgecrest where two options then presented itself.
Right at the crest, and to the climbers left of a prominent gendarme is the 40-50 foot Beckey chimney (5.8 in difficulty). Just before the crest though, and climbing to the right of the gendarme is another, drier rock pitch that we took that also involved some 5.8 rock climbing (20 feet max) and not sustained. Sarah did great leading through these short rock pitches and routefinding through. After a few hours we emerged onto easier terrain at the top of the rock band several hundred feet above our camp.
We then continued walking an easy stretch, bypassing the first of two a heavily corniced peaks to the right by climbing a section of 60 degree snow. Some additional walking brought us to a larger corniced peak that involved another traverse right and a short ice step to surmount, which we made into a short pitch and I put one screw in for. Next there was a decently long but flat easy section of ridge that we just walked along. We were actually following fresh tracks since a party of two had just descended this part of the ridge after camping at the 10650 col the a couple nights prior. They had arrived at our camp 1 about midnight, taking quite a bit of time to descend the rock band. We would later find out they did not continue past the 10650 col camp 2.
Just before reaching the top of point 10820, a short 50 foot AI3 ice step was encountered that was nice to break up the walking for a bit. I led up placing one screw and set a picket belay at the top. After this it was another easy walking section down to the 10650 col where we set up our 2nd camp. We would leave the overnight gear here and go for the summit the following day.
The following morning, we started climbing about 8:30am and right away were greeted with difficulties. The 3-4 pitch AI3 ice face we read about was no longer ice at all. Sugary, poor quality snow increased in steepness to 70 degrees as we ascended rightward to bypass the vertical ice directly above on the ridgecrest. A smaller snow cornice was easier to hack through further right, but neither of us liked the 65-70 degree snow leading up to it. Sarah got up to a rock while I belayed off a picket, and then I led through the cornice, digging my way through and gingerly climbing up on less than inspiring feet in the sugary snow. I anchored on another rock, belayed Sarah up and she made one more lead through some 4th and low 5th rock bands until we emerged into a 250 foot 50 degree snow slope that would take up back to the ridgecrest. We followed some old tracks here likely from one of the parties that descended the west ridge after climbing the north or west buttresses routes a couple weeks prior. Once reaching the crest again, huge cornices greeted us, with a very narrow band of walkable terrain between the cornices and the quickly steepening snow slope below. Three ropelengths of horizontal traversing was required to reach the 11300 foot col atop the Ramen couloir route. This horizontal traverse also had a small ice step midway through, making this the scariest part of the route for me, as the snow was poor, and I was only comfortable doing it front-pointing as the snow would slip out if I walked normally. I was not looking forward to repeating this traverse in the afternoon when the snow softened even more.
We took a quick rest at the 11300 col atop the Ramen Route. It had taken 3 hours to get to this point, barely 800 feet above camp and we still had over 3000 feet to go. Thankfully, the next 1500 feet went quick as we ascended 35-40 degree firm snow slopes, with one short AI2+ ice step at about 12700 feet. Weaving through the large seracs was easier than it looked from below, which we were able to do by trending slightly to the right at the 12500 foot area. We were dumped onto the wide summit plateau at 12900 feet off to the right of the hige steep serac guarding the plateau in the middle of the face. Here we began a long slog up gentle slopes to the base of the summit area. Off to the right of the true summit, a passage of consisting of 350 feet of 40-50 degree snow brought us to the summit ridge where a long flat section of ridge is located, about 600 feet below the summit. We then turned north and ascended the ridge to the highest point. The ridge itself was pretty easy, with just a couple 50 degree ice steps and good snow.
Just before 5pm we stood on the summit, and I had finally climbed Mount Hunter! We were pretty elated, and worn out, and very low on food. I drank most of my remaining water and after some photos, and admiring the stunning views of Denali we retraced our steps.
The entire descent down to the Ramen col was quick and painless, however it took us an additional 2.5 hours to make the descent from there back to the tent as the snow on the horizontal traverse and down the face was so bad I wanted to picket belay every ropelength. Downclimbing the ice step midway through the horizontal traverse was one of the scarier things I can say I have done too. Once at the top of the steep cornice, we made one double rope rappel down the very steep sugar snow down to where we could easily walk back to the tent, which we arrived at about 10pm. No dinner was had by either of us and we went right to sleep.
The next morning we slept in, and didn't get started until 9:30am. We continued descending the entire ridge, making great time getting back to the top of the rock band. It did take a couple hours to rappel and downclimb back to the bottom, but there was so much tat and anchors that we were able to just make single rope rappells to get all the way back, which reduced the chance of ropes getting stuck somewhere. The snow slopes were beginning to get very soft in the hot sun, and a few times I sunk past my waist in snow. We made a quick stop for water at our first camp and realizd the entire rest of the descent was going to be on very soft snow. We ascended back over Point 9500 and it took quite some time to make a total of three double rope V thread rappells down the ice pitches on the west side of Point 9500. Once back at the col below the Cats Ears, it was a grueling re-ascent 2 ropelengths up, with a 5.6 crux at the top. Then miserable posthole city the whole way down the flat bench and the entry basin. Thankfully it was all downhill at that point, but the late evening sun was baking the NW facing basin as we descended it making the snow very soft. We finally got back to the tent sometime between 11 and midnight.
We made the mistake of sleeping in too much the following morning, because by the time we got back to the airstrip, we had missed the last flight out of base camp by only 10 minutes! We did not know they were only doing morning flights due to the warm conditions, so we were stuck waiting at base camp another 18 hours just wasting away. I was pretty pissed, and passed the time by watching a few guided Denali groups make their preparations to leave early the next morning. It was a very slow afternoon and night where I could not sleep since it was so hungry. That was my third night in a row now with no proper meal and I was really starting to feel the hunger. By 8:30am the next morning, we were first to fly out, and once getting back to Talkeetna I think I stopped at every single resturant in town throughout the rest of the day and probably spent $100 on food that day. Totally worth it.
Some additional notes that may be of use:
1. For climbing gear, we brought two 7.3mm ropes; one 60m and one 50m (the 50m was purely by accident, I would have liked to have had another 60), 5 ice screws, 4 cams (0.5" - 2"), set of DMM nuts, 5 single length slings, 1 double length sling, BD Stinger crampons, pair of Petzl Quarks (Sarah had her Nomics), and I had my BD couloir UL harness.
2. For overnight gear, we used Sarah's MSR Advance Pro 2 tent, which was very tight for the two of us. I used a Big Agnes 20 degree UL bag, and had two sleeping pads (I always bring an air and a foam when camping on snow). We had a single MSR Reactor for cooking/melting snow and 4 fuel canisters (which was probably too much).
3. We brought snowshoes just for the walk from base camp to the base of the west ridge and ditched them at the base. We were lucky conditions on the summit plateau were so firm...just two weeks prior the snow conditions were heinous for the party who climbed the FA of the west buttress, as they were sinking to their knees or more for 12 hours.
4. There is a pointy, somewhat tall rock with lots of TAT around it right at the top of the rock band that would seem to make a great first rappel anchor to start descending the rock band. This rock moved on me when I was rapping on it. Do not use this rock, and downclimb about 20 feet to another anchor on a ledge closer to the vertical dropoff.
5. We contemplated for a long time whether to descend the Ramen couloir and take the icefall bypass instead of just descending the west ridge. The following factors are what had us eventually decide to just descend the ridge.
a - The Ramen couloir was getting baked everyday (south facing), and would not offer good snow for descending
b - The icefall itself would likely be impassible by this point with all the warm weather.
c - The icefall bypass we read required a full 60 meter rappel down "an icefall" which we read later in the season becomes "a waterfall". We did not know if we could set up an intermediate anchor on this since one of our ropes was only a 50m.
d - After getting around the icefall, it would have been almost a 3 mile slog back to the base of the ridge.
e - We were familiar with all the obstacles on the ridge and had good tracks to follow.
f - We did not want to carry packs up the terrible section of the route just above the 10650' col to get to the Ramen col at 11300 feet.
If you find yourself on the west ridge, differing conditions may incline you to descend the Ramen route.
Feel free to reach out to me if anyone would like more beta or the original full rsolution annotated route photo shown above. This was a climb I was thrilled to be able to complete, and one of the more notable routes I have completed in my climbing career. Nothing super noteworthy in the grand scheme of alpine climbing, but definitely an accomplishment for me as I get lazier each passing year.