Snow flowed over the lip of the crevasse mixing with the light from the setting sun. Vibrant sparkles floated through a sea of oranges and reds. Through this hue the shape of Mt. Foraker could be seen floating above the clouds with the Eastern Alaska Range falling away behind. Mark and I were bivied on the massive summit plateau of Mt. Hunter, a high, wild and inhospitable zone, but beautiful when the skies are clear. A crevasse provided shelter from the wind and cold of oncoming darkness, the depths of the glacier maintaining the mild temperatures of its slowly moving core.
For the past two days we had been making our way up the West Ridge. As one of the revered “50 classics” it is a well known climb, and able to make an impression on any climber as it snakes its way up above Kahiltna Base Camp, rising 8,000 ft over its two miles.
In the big mountains of the world I personally find myself drawn to steep unknown terrain, but on this trip, with marginal conditions present most everywhere in the Alaska Range, we were drawn to the classic West Ridge. For two days the elevation fell beneath our feet, moving over the expansive ridge crest and through the small cruxes that the route presents. Never stressful but enough to keep us happily engaged; the clouds filled in beneath us, creating a wonderful sense of isolation and a beautiful backdrop to the winding series of cornices and rock towers beneath our feet.
On day two we had encountered the cruxes of the route. A rock tower streaked with lines of snow and ice required proper mixed climbing, which for a moment, placed us back on the steep technical terrain so keenly sought in our travels to the greater ranges. Quickly though, the ridge settled back to its lower winding angle, resembling a river running up into the sky. Later in the day the ridge sharpened, necessitating a traverse on its steep flanks.
Hard ice kept us on our toes and put our calves to strain. Our limited number of ice screws provided only the most meager of protection as we danced across the steep ground. Finally, at the end of the day, we had tromped off the ridge onto the snowy expanse of the plateau, the final summit pyramid within easy striking distance. The clear weather gave us the opportunity to spend a night in a high and wild location, comfortably tucked away within the glacier.
A few hundred feet below us, our good buddies Clint and Boone bivied on the ridge. They're hoots and hollers had kept us company throughout the climb as they followed our steps.
The next morning dawned with sign of incoming weather and we quickly gathered our things and ran towards the top of the 3rd highest point in the Alaska Range. The final crux, a cornice looming overhead was easily passed via a beautiful and unlikely spiral staircase running through its deepest point. We summited, high fived and ran back down the way we had come.
With the weather closing, the race was on and we hustled down the ridge to the descent and into the Roman Couloir. Down climbing led to steeper ground as we realized that we were no longer on the expected 'skiable' terrain. With the prospect of rappelling looming a short ways below us I traversed onto a rock rib to our right. Attempting to find the correct feature, 60m of traversing solved our problem as I came upon Clint and Boone plunge stepping down easy terrain. We quickly joined them for the final thousand feet of walking and sliding down to the glacier below, where we were met with the safety of lower elevations, and finally the comforts of base camp.
While I will continue to prioritize the steep unknown terrain of the world’s mountains, this climb on Mt. Hunter served as a reminder that a classic route can offer a unique experience of its own, a sense of history and amazing, aesthetic climbing. Today, when I travel to a range, I not only seek out the last great unclimbed features, but also those that offer the experience found on Mt. Hunter, that of climbing a Classic.