Alaskan Head Hunters
By Andrew McLean
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Originally published in Couloir Magazine

When telling a friend we recently skied Mt. Hunter, he replied “Huntah? What were you doing in New York?” Uhmm, no, that would be Hunter Mountain, and while the names are similar little else is. Mt. Hunter, Alaska, aside from being big, steep, remote, cold, high and intimidating, is also the third highest peak in the Alaska Range, right behind Denali (20,320’) and Mt. Foraker (17,004’). While not quite as popular as Huntah, thousands of climbers and skiers fly right over it and camp in its shadow every season, yet it was never skied. When viewed from the town of Talkeetna 50 miles away, the mythology of Hunter being the child of Denali and Foraker is readily apparent. While I’m sure that it was on many peoples “To Be Skied” list, for some unknown reason it never was.

In truth, it probably wasn’t for some unknown reason, but for a few very good ones. First off, Hunter is best known as a challenging climbing mountain with no easy way up. Deemed “the most difficult 14,000 foot peak in North America” by guidebook author Jonathan Waterman, it only gets climbed a few times per year. To make things worse, the low atmospheric pressure of the Alaskan latitudes make it seem higher than its 14,573 feet. Hunter’s history is also not very encouraging. Almost every attempt includes sagas of avalanche accidents, rock fall, extreme cold, frostbite and extended suffering.

All of these trivial details aside, a single overriding reason remained why Hunter hadn’t been skied; there was no obvious route down it. In photographs, all the potential descents ended in cliffs, and the route of least resistance is also the longest and most convoluted. From a skier’s perspective, not only are there no obvious lines, there aren’t even any unobvious ones. The prevailing opinion was that Hunter wasn’t skiable without large amounts of rope work or down-climbing.

Luckily, Lorne Glick from Ophir, Colorado had more patience and vision. A connoisseur and collector of major Alaskan first descents, including Mt. Saint Elias and University Peak, he combed obscure publications for hints of a weakness in Hunter. Unearthing an account of a route that skirted the vertical difficulties of the lower West Ridge, he enlisted his long time partner in crime, John “Wheddie” Whedon, and two others to give it a try in May of 2002. Thwarted by long spells of bad weather and high avalanche hazard, they succeeded in making it past the initial ice fall and a few thousand feet up the mountain before having to turn around and head home.

Slow learners, Lorne and John decided to return in May 2003 to try it again, this time with myself and Armond DuBuque along for the ride. Christened “The Mt. Punter Expedition” in an attempt to trick the mountain into not taking us seriously, we rendezvoused in Anchorage, then drove on to Talkeetna where we sat in the rain for three days. While hardly Paris, Talkeetna has an amazing international culture; chain smoking French Super-alpinists, mad dog Russians with uninsured ice climbing schools for preteens, Kiwi dominatrixes, blind climbers, soloists, guided groups and the ubiquitous Fred Becky. The bad weather makes for good company, with the question of the day being “Have you heard anything new about the weather?” The only known cure is to heavily pad your time schedule. Soon enough we were airborne in a TAT Beaver and then bumping to a stop on the Kahiltna Glacier, a mile below the Southeast Fork landing strip.

Our first task was to shuttle mountains of gear an hour up the glacier to a protected 6,500’ basecamp right below a nasty ice fall. Seen from the air, this was a perverse maze of teetering ice towers and dark crevasses. Lorne and Wheddie immediately jumped into it and within hours of landing had threaded a path through to a cirque at 8,000’. Armond and I followed, bringing up a stash of essentials; jerky, oatmeal, cheese, gas and rum; the rum could be burned in the XGK stoves if we ran out of gas, and we could drink the gas if we ran out of rum.

Returning to our basecamp, we were besieged with five days of annoying weather that wasn’t bad enough to huddle guilt free in our tents reading books, yet was dangerous enough not to able to get out safely. Compromising with some kiting and a few safe & sane runs, when the weather finally cleared we were dismayed to find the avalanche hazard jacked sky high. Anxious to move, we started packing to ascend to our 8,000’ camp while watching and listening to avalanche activity all around. Just as we shouldered our packs, the Mother of All Avalanches cracked loose, tore down a gully, and churned up a massive powder blast. As if that wasn’t enough, it then crossed the plateau and climbed up the other side, triggering a series of avalanches that created a hellish crossfire right where we were planning on camping.

Declaring it a “Safety Day” we postponed 24 hours, then headed up to assess the damage. Finding our gear stash still intact, we set up a cramped four person tent and discussed strategies. By using skis, the safety of camp would never be more than a few hours away, so we left the bivy gear behind.  To get an idea of the climbing time, we estimated how long each section should take, then doubled it for safety. Considering a standard time for Hunter is 3-5 days, our 12 hour ascent estimate seemed comically ignorant, but would prove to be accurate to within minutes.

Waiting for the heat of the day to pass, we started up the peak at 9:00pm under a full moon, intending to climb all night and ski down the next morning. Tanked with enthusiasm, the initial 3,000’ couloir quickly fell away with perfect one-hit booting. Near the top of this, we reached the one section with no safe route options; the Ramen Headwall. Seizing the moment, Lorne punched straight through the convex bulge of avalanche peril and intersected the West Ridge route at 11,000’. Ahhhh!

Trading crampons and avalanche hazards for skins and crevasses, we roped up and broke trail along the wildly exposed ridgeline. Snaking around looming gargoyles, ice covered arêtes, sneaky little corridors, tight switchbacks and ass-kicking micro headwalls, we worked our way toward the 13,000’ plateau. In the process of swapping leads with Armond, I was putting on some extra clothes while he led off, training the rope behind him. Lorne joined me a moment later and calmly said “He went in.”  

“What?”

“He’s in a hole.” Lorne repeated, gesturing up towards Armond, who was now just a pair of legs frantically kicking in the air.

“Oh!” So he had. I reeled in the miles of slack rope just as he popped back out under his own power and cried “OHMYGOD! That thing’s huge and pitch black!” Laughing at him, not with him, Lorne and Wheddie swung wide and pushed through to the expansive 13,000’ plateau.

Starting to feel the higher altitude and the coldest temperatures of the night, we put on every bit of clothing we had and barely stayed warm as we continued up. A short headwall led to a ridge, which wrapped around a false summit then a final homestretch. Dawn had broken a few hours earlier and lit up the Alaska range with vivid alpenglow. Foraker beamed to the left and Denali glowed impressively straight ahead, as we took the last few steps and summited Mt. Hunter at 9:28am on May 15th after spending 12.5 hours climbing.

Gassed but psyched, we took photos, surveyed several lifetimes of mountaineering projects, and geared up to head down. Prior to the climb, I had debated which skis to bring; heavy and dependable, or light and scary?. Wheddie sealed the question by pointing out that all the three of them were on telegear, so I was the last person to be squawking about sketchy looking bindings. Light was right, and luckily the summit had a mellow slope angle, so we got a chance to make a few warm up turns before the action started.

The first dilemma was what to do about a serac that had cracked since we had climbed over it an hour earlier. Limited in our options, we oozed over the gap keeping an eye on each other. This led to sweeping turns through car-sized blocks of debris, then onto an apron of low angle powder. So far, so good. After reversing the 13,000’ plateau, we skirted out onto the West Ridge proper and the beginning of the serious skiing. Alternating between picking & grinning our way through steep side hills and pristine powder, we worked our way past Armond’s favorite crevasse and further down the ever narrowing ridgeline to the Moment of Truth.

Climbing up the Ramen Headwall, it was easy to put out of your mind as something to be dealt with later, but later was now. All that separated us from the safety of our tent was a loaded avalanche slope, 3,000’ of 45-50º mixed glop and ice, a few rock bands, poor visibility and tired legs. Wanting to get it over with, we crept onto the headwall and linked short traverses with careful kick turns. Skiing one at a time for safety and to avoid sloughing each other off, we slowly worked our way down the huge chute in a near whiteout. A lifetime later, we skirted the final bergshrund and regrouped in the safety of the flat cirque. As if awakened by the sounds of our high-fives and shouts of joy, Hunter let loose a wet snow avalanche that scoured our tracks and flickered towards us before stopping. But it was too late. The deed was done and we had survived.

Sixteen and a half hours after leaving, we returned to our tent and spent the night before packing up and heading down through the icefall to our Basecamp. Most of this was shuffling along with heavy loads, but at the top of Minibike Hill, it was time to make a few last turns. Looking down on our camp, there appeared to be a fresh set of skin tracks leading up to it and something spelled out in the snow.

“What does that say?”

“ R A D ! ”

I hadn’t had time to think about it, but looking back on the tiny tracks coming down the ridgeline and then merging with near vertical headwall, I had to agree. It was indeed pretty damn rad, and made all the more so because it seemed like such an unlikely place to see tracks. I think we all felt lucky to have been part of it and it was a great testament to Lorne’s route finding skills and persistence that we made it.

Our good luck karma continued with a few more days of skiing around Thunder Mountain and then a fortuitous plane pick up. Skinning into the Kahiltna camp, we were told that there was a plane about to land and we could ride fly out in it if we wanted. When Armond arrived five minutes later, he cruised right through camp without stopping, got in the plane and we were back in Talkeetna in less than a hour.

The ensuing party is best forgotten. All I know is that Wheddie lasted the longest, yet was the only one to escape unscathed. Before leaving, we had a chance to talk with Fred Becky, who had done the first ascent of Hunter via the West Ridge 49 years ago, and park ranger Daryl Miller, who has seen more than his share of action in the Alaska Range. Their accounts of decades in the mountains left us with a great perspective on our trip and fuel for future ones; if only we can match Fred’s longevity.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index