While sifting through old images, moments captured in physical form that release memories in my mind, I came upon this, from Mt. Huntington in 2001. The photo belongs to my climbing partner Scott DeCapio, and shows me heading toward the upper slopes on the West Face Couloir route. We’d soloed the opening bits, and then Scott — the most efficient climber I’ve known — led the spectacular ice couloir in a long simulclimbing pitch. We swapped leads and I headed into the horrific flutings of the final thousand feet to the top. Conditions vary with alpine climbing, of course, and that upper section felt like vertical trenching through collapsing sugar. I remember trying to run the rope sideways across flutings (probably pointlessly), since we were tied together with no protection — I kept thinking that every bit of snow and ice just ahead would offer pro. It never did, but we never fell. Finally we gained the upper ridgecrest, and then Scotty led a shorter, final pitch through cornices to the top. The 4,000 vertical feet from our camp on the Tokositna to Huntington’s summit took nine hours, then another seven to get down. While no big deal by today’s mind-blowing standards, at the time it was the fastest ascent of the peak, and likely its first one-day ascent.
I remember standing on the summit, exhausted and absorbed in swirling emotions like terror and elation. We both knew that soon we’d have to descend terrain we’d climbed without anchors, but for the moment we stared in awe at the expanse of the Alaska Range, unfolding in every direction. Suddenly, Scotty broke our summit silence: “I want my mom so bad right now. I hate alpine climbing.”
We made it down, and our vows to quit alpine climbing didn’t last. Reflecting on our climb, and the curious prevalence of summit-less “ascents” of the peak, I wrote: “Now I understand why folks sometimes stop at, ahem, ‘the end of the difficulties’ on Huntington.”
Afterward, down on the glacier, a friend asked how we could safely climb Huntington in two and a half pitches? As I type this now, as I’m older and less bold, I better understand his incertitude. I also know now, as I knew then, that safety, while sometimes an illusion, can be inseparable from a reality-based belief in one’s self.
On one hand, we were reckless because we could have fallen to our deaths. On the other, recalling my thinking at the time, I knew that we did it right.
Perhaps both are true.
It is difficult to capture the tenuousness of a pitch in a photo. This one makes my stomach turn. Cast your fate to the …. mountain?