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---------- HISTORY ----------
In a range full of incredible mountains and world class routes, the North Buttress of Mount Hunter is perhaps the most iconic stage for cutting edge alpine triumphs.
This 6,000' bastion of ice and stone is painted with an exceptionally unique history. Starting in the mid 1970s, a number of the world's foremost alpinists began attempting to climb the North Buttress of Mount Hunter. Most attention was focused on the obvious ice couloir that would later be known as the French Route.
In 1980, a team of strong climbers from the Pacific Northwest, known as the White Punks on Dope (Doug Klewin, Rob Newsom and Pat and Dan McNerthney), made significant progress on what is now commonly referred to as the Moonflower or Bibler/Klewin route. Poor weather forced them off after forging nearly a dozen pitches through several low cruxes to the First Ice Band. For several years prior, they had attempted other potential routes on the North Buttress, even making it to the top of the North Buttress Couloir before breaking their picks in the bullet hard ice. Newsom recalls Bibler and Klewin glassing the Buttress from the base while "stoned out of their minds." Bibler had spotted a line of ice runnels connecting directly to the Prow, up through a series of ice hoses and potentially involving some pendulums through the third rockband (Vision).
The team returned in 1981. This time dressed all in black, they called themselves Back in Black. While climbing to the Prow. Mugs Stump flew in with New Zealander Paul Aubrey and pushed a line slightly right of their original start. While the Back in Black team descended to repair a broken portaledge, Mugs and Aubrey surpassed them on the Prow and continued upward through virgin terrain. Newsom was particularly frustrated since he had shown Mugs slides of their proposed route the previous year. Back in Black descended as ice rained down upon them from Mugs. In basecamp, Rob Newsom exclaimed that watching Mugs and Aubrey climb high on the Buttress was "like having your girlfriend stolen from you."
Several days later, Mugs and Aubrey climbed through the final rockband at 12,000 feet, to the end of the major technical difficulties. Although 700' separated them from the top of the North Buttress itself and more than 2,500' separated them from the North Summit of Mount Hunter, they claimed a first ascent and rappelled to basecamp. To this day, some credit Mugs Stump and Paul Aubrey with the first ascent.
In 1983, Todd Bibler and Doug Klewin returned yet again. In the finest of styles, they climbed the North Buttress of Mount Hunter to the summit, using their original start. Their integral ascent to the top of the mountain is, and should rightly be, credited as the true first ascent.
To crown the early history of the North Buttress, Rob Newsom and Pat McNerthney finally climbed the route to the summit for its second complete ascent in 1984. McNerthney brilliantly free-climbed the Shaft, a 400' chimney of dead vertical and overhanging ice that is the route's crux. The integral ascents to the summit by Bibler, Klewin, Newsom and McNerthney stand as an unarguable testament to their enduring determination and a standard that every alpinist should seek to emulate.
As of 2013, there are more than half a dozen routes on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter. Less than 30 teams have taken any of those routes to the summit of Mount Hunter.
---------- ROUTE ----------
The Moonflower (Bibler/Klewin) is comprised of many different cruxes, all with their respective names. To understand the route as a whole, it is imperative to appreciate the individuality of each of these parts.
-Start: Original (WPOD) or Mugs
-The Bibler/Come Again Exit
From the base of the North Buttress, there are two distinct starts. The Original (WPOD Start) begins on an ice apron to the left of a major rock scar. This ice apron is melting at an alarming pace and the bergeshrund is increasingly hard to surmount. More and more rock is exposed and sections of the original start (Klewin couloir) have disappeared after a massive piece of the lower Buttress collapsed in the early 2000s. Climb over the airy 'schrund (in the past few years people have resorted to picket aiding, as it has become wider and steeper), then climb up and right on the ice apron for several pitches to the base of the Twin Runnels. Climb several pitches of ice up to WI4, through the Leaning Ramp (M5) and to the base of the Prow.
In good years, the Mugs Start is a dramatically easier and quicker alternative. Well right of the original start, surmount the burgeschrund and veer up and left on snow and ice around fingers of rock. Climb moderate mixed terrain for six to eight pitches to the narrow snow apron beneath the Prow. Traverse left one full pitch to the base of the Prow.
The Prow is an unmistakable feature on the North Buttress. This gigantic sail of granite juts out from the wall and is easily visible from anywhere low on the route. Climb a short and steep bit of thin ice or rock to the corner of the Prow. Using a mixture of aid and free climbing (it can be entirely free-climbed at M7), torque and scratch your way up, keeping an eye out for a fixed piton or two. Eventually a hanging blob of ice will provide some relief. Climb to the top and belay. Look for an old bolt in the rock above you. This will be your pendulum point to the incredible McNerthney Ice Dagger. This two pitch vein of moderate and fun ice is one of the easier pitches on the route. Take a moment to appreciate the amazing setting, but climb quickly as there is a notorious hanging snow mushroom that looms above. Climb through a few steps until you reach a rock headwall.
Tamara's Traverse may be the most iconic pitch on the whole route. Named after Rob Newsom's wife, this 150' lateral pitch averages 80 degrees and features an assortment of ice and mixed moves. Protection is generally quite good and, despite the unrelenting exposure, it is not incredibly difficult. Take a quick look beneath your feet while crossing and you will surely feel like you are flying. This pitch is as exposed for the second as the leader, so protect it wisely. Another pitch of easy ice will put you at the base of the First Ice Band. Climb up and left for several pitches and chop out a bivy here. This will be the last spot for a bivy until you pass through the Shaft and reach the Second Ice Band.
Two mixed pitches (the second being fairly challenging) will deposit you at the base of the route's notorious crux, the Shaft. Take notice of another "death mushroom" looming above the second pitch and be careful not to touch it as you climb past. Steve Mascioli was killed when this mushroom fell on him. The Shaft is an otherworldly 400' chimney of ice that is anywhere from three to six feet wide. Dead vertical ice is broken by several short sections of overhanging ice. Excellent rock on the walls of the Shaft often provide opportunities for bomber protection, taking some of sting out of the sheer and sustained difficulty of these pitches. The Shaft can be climbed in two rope stretching pitches or as three shorter pitches. A rappel anchor on the left side of the wall can serve as a good belay anchor, although it is a hanging stance. At the top of the Shaft, a short, non-technical pitch will land you at the Second Ice Band. At the apex of this small Ice Band, it may be possible to chop out an easy ledge from snow (instead of ice, as is necessary at the First Ice Band). This will be your last opportunity to comfortably rest and brew up before reaching the top of the Third Ice Band.
Another full mixed pitch puts you at the infamous pendulums of the Vision, another of the Moonflower's well-known cruxes. Certain topos show two pendulums, but in certain conditions it may be possible to only do one. Pendulum left and gain a steep, mixed gully to the base of an ice-choked left slanting crack. Occasional fixed gear and a few moves of A0/A1 will help throughout the mixed battle through the steepest part of the Vision. Eventually you will be spit out at the base of a narrow, low angle ice gully. Belay here and then climb an incredible and moderate pitch up and right toward the base of the Third Ice Band. Another low angle ice pitch will wind you around some rocks, past rappel slings. Make the long trudge up the Third Ice Band, looking for an obvious weakness in the Final Rock Band up and right.
-----THE BIBLER/COME AGAIN EXIT-----
The Bibler/Come Again Exit has been labeled as an M5 off width. Other times it may be choked with ice and therefore significantly easier. From the top of the Third Ice Band, several moderate mixed and ice pitches arc up and right towards this feature. Above the Exit, 700' of soul crushing, calf destroying, iron hard 50-degree ice leads to the top of the Buttress and the Cornice Bivy at 12,700'.
-----TO THE SUMMIT/DESCENT-----
From the Top of the Bibler/Come Again, you have multiple options. Most teams who make it to this point decide to rappel the route as "they have reached the top of the technical difficulties." Some continue upwards to the Cornice Bivy and the top of the Buttress. Weather and conditions allowing, a hearty few have the tenacity and fortune to make a summit attempt.
The final 2,000' cross low angled, avalanche prone slopes. Assess conditions and plan accordingly. If you reach the summit, take a long moment to ponder the descent options. Retracing the same slopes and rappelling 4,500' is no small affair. Combine that with the fact that you may be mentally drained and dealing with stuck ropes (8-12 hours from buttress top). A very viable option is to descend towards the West Ridge and drop down the Ramen Couloir. This in itself is also no small affair, as it also involves serious route finding and avalanche slopes. One benefit however is the virtual absence of necessary rappels.
Descend the West Ridge past the high camp. traverse towards the steep pinnacled crest and locate the entrance to the Ramen Couloir. A small hanging glacier just barely misses the Ramen Couloir. Make several low angle rappels in to the couloir and downclimb to the valley floor. Look for a prominent hump on the right that bypasses the Ramen Icefall. Ascend the hump and wrap around, looking for a rappel anchor that deposits you in to a claustrophobic ice cleft. Make two more rappels to the bottom and hike to the valley floor. All that separates you from the food piles and whiskey at basecamp is a several hour hike around the West Ridge on the Kahiltna. In good conditions, it has taken roughly 12 hours to reach base camp from the summit of Hunter via this option.
The Bibler/Klewin is one of the most coveted climbs in the entire world. Do not underestimate its severity, but do not be afraid to go up for a recon. Everyone climbs the Mini-Moonflower, hoping to train for the real thing. Go "crag" the start of the Bibler/Klewin to the base of the Prow. This will familiarize you with the route and your conditioning.
Every season, a number of teams stack up around basecamp, vying for the Bibler/Klewin. The route has developed a sort of political nature, with certain teams trying to dictate when and how it should be climbed. Be prepared for some minor bullshit, or just go for it.
Good luck. It is a milestone in the lives of every alpinist fortunate enough to touch it.
Joe Puryear's Alaska Range guidebook features an excellent route description as well as a beautiful topo.
North Buttress of Mount Hunter (14,573')
Upper SE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier
About 1-2 hour ski from Denali Base Camp
Rappel the route or if you summit, consider descending the West Ridge via the Ramen Couloir
8-12 ice screws with a few shorties
Single set of cams to 2"
A selection of 3-5 pitons including knifeblades and angles
Plenty of long slings
60m or 70m ropes
|Comments on The Moonflower Buttress (Bibler/Klewin)
By Joe Terravecchia
Dec 7, 2013
Great write-up Clint - So glad that you did it instead of me !
Congratulations to you, Vito and Mark on what looked like a really fun and fast ascent.
Carl & I carried an old Bibler topo on the route with us. Not really necessary but If I can find it, I'll post it. Funny that you mention the last ice field to the cornice being a calf destroyer - going on forever ( especially for those of us with chicken legs) . The Bibler topo said something ridiculous like 400'. I remember it being more like 6 full pitches but Its been a while. Nice to get to the cornice before a storm hit.
A spring never goes by without thinking of being on the Moonflower.
By clint helander
From: anchorage, alaska
Dec 8, 2013
Thanks Joe, it was enjoyable to write.
In looking at pictures of the route over the years, it is shocking to see how much the ice apron at the start has disintegrated. This year it was almost impassable. We opted for the Mugs start and found it significantly quicker. If it keeps falling apart at this rate, the original start will be virtually gone in a matter of years.
We were incredibly fortunate with the weather. It was very warm during our ascent. We went crazy light, bringing only puff pants, two pads and a guide tarp/bivy sack for all three of us. We were held up at the First Ice Band for 12 hours by a Dutch team ahead of us who didn't let us pass them. We enjoyed the rest, but could have been much quicker on route had we not been held up by them there and again at the Third Ice Band. Oh well, we got to the top.
The Moonflower will undoubtedly go down as one of my finest moments and I will forever relish the experience. After several seasons of attempts, I am glad to have finally laid that beast to rest.