West Face Couloir
WI4+ M4 Steep Snow PG13
||Trad, Mixed, Ice, Snow, Alpine, 20 pitches, 4000', Grade V
|Consensus: ||WI4+ M4 [details]|
|FA: ||Dave Nettle and James Quirk, 1987|
|Season: ||Early May (artic cold) until late June (unlandable)|
|Page Views: ||3,698|
|Submitted By: ||Ken Trout on Nov 30, 2010|
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BETA PHOTO: Aden and Paul doing the West Face Couloir, early M...
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The easiest way to the summit is a major variation of the Harvard Route. Of course, it is not easy. Early senders of West Face Couloir surely pulled off one of best ice-climbs of their day, sans summit.
The scariest part of West Face Couloir is getting to the summit via the Harvard Route. In 1965, the first ascent party lost a member to a mysterious rappel accident while descending the "Mountain of My Fear. Afterward, bad luck seemed to befall others, even after leaving the mountain. In the early days, some climbers believed a Huntington Curse, must exist.
John Evans, Denny Hogan, and Vic Walsh were the first to climb the West Face Couloir to the connection with the Harvard Route, April, 1978. Denny Hogan returned later and was repulsed again by this very difficult mountain. Twice repulsed is not unusual on this fearful peak.
In June of 1978, Steve Matous, Ron Matous, and Bruce Adams, all top notch climbers from Boulder, Colorado, climbed to the summit ridge, near the top.
1979, Denny Hogan came back with Peter Avenali and Peter Lev. They climbed the couloir again, but no summit.
Additionally in 1979, Christopher Mannix and Stacy Allison reached the summit ridge. (Alaska: A Climbing Guide, Michael Woods & Colby Coombs, 2001)
Canadians Jim Haberl and Rob Rohn got within 75 meters of the summit and thought it was a new route in 1984. After three days, including a leader fall on a "grade V waterfall", They were turned back by "a rotten, vertical wind roll of snow" (Pushing the Limits, Chic Scott, 2000).
Finally, 1989, Dave Nettle and James Quirk bagged both the couloir and summit.
Years later, one of the best ice climbers I have ever known, Michael Gilbert , with Dave Bangert, climbed the West Face Couloir twice in one "bitterly cold" early May visit. On the second climb, they reached the French Ridge in 5 hours, 08 minutes, but regrettably stopped at 12,040 feet.(AAJ, 2001, p202)
The next year, starting June 8th, Kelly Cordes and Scott DeCapio used this route for the first one day ascent, to the summit, in 17 hours (AAJ, 2002, p233).
The West Face Couloir was the route used for the first winter ascent of Mount Huntington, Colin Haley and Jed Brown, March, 2007.
2010, just after a meter of snow fell in Talkeetna, several early May expeditions were repulsed by bad conditions. Nevertheless, at least one team, Alaskans Paul and Aden, climbed the entire couloir and made it to the summit ridge. This was their second year to be halted by poor summit conditions.
Of course there are no curses on mountains. But just in case, after the seracs got busy covering the approach trail, we left most of our tools and rack up by the 'schrund. My partner would love to see his new Cobra and crampons found. Your welcome to mine, if your feeling lucky.
This is Talkeetna Air Taxi country. Since the year 2000, grateful reports in the AAJ tell only one pilot's name for landings on the remote East Fork of the Tokositna Glacier; Paul Roderick of TAT.
Start the climb with roped glacier travel around the right side of the large crevasses blocking passage through the ice-fall. Serac avalanches threaten this crevasse dodge. Two photos in the gallery below show debris covering the approach trail. This hazard is not well noted in the mountaineering literature or guide brochures.
The photo in Quirk's AAJ story shows that they approached up the steep slopes left of the icefall.
The route starts with finding a way past the bergschrund and then climbing the lower snowfield. Beware of a second crevasse lurking below the main 'schrund. After a couple hundred meters, angle left to avoid granite slabs and shallow ice. Then turn right again until a short ice pitch through the first short rock band is reached. If simul-climbing, then this is the common first pitch.
Above the first rock-band crossing, climb snow, first up left, then back right to the base of the 1,200 foot West Face Couloir.
The first hard pitch be passes left of an overhanging, somewhat menacing, blob of ice. The second pitch traverses right, also reported as cruxy when the ice is thin. The steepest ice found on the lower pitches. After the entry pitches, the rest of the couloir is a 60 degree ramp for about seven more pitches (Photo at right).
From the top of the couloir, traverse right, and down a bit, to the upper Harvard Route. The best two ledges on the route are found here. A small "brewing" cave is located above, just before the last bit of traversing. It is also possible to rappel the steepest pitch of the Harvard Route to reach the good ledge at the base of "the Nose", not so popular.
After the traverse right, mixed climbing leads to steep snow with rock islands and finally the summit ridge.
Lucky teams follow the summit ridge to a final step, and then the top.
The West Face Couloir is the standard descent for all routes.
Bring plenty of ice screws, snow pickets, and a rock rack.
One person told us no rock gear was necessary. Another team brought a single set of cams and wires and told me they used everything and backed up some funky rappel anchors too.
Steep, unconsolidated, snow stops many summit attempts. Shovels (and the time to dig) are said by some to be key in such conditions. Also, long shafted ice axes make pulling soft overhangs, like summit cornices, easier.
Ice climbers in the Alaska Range seem to prefer La Sportiva's Spantik boot.
A hanging stove and the knowledge to use it successfully in Alaska Range cold is critical early season.
During early May it was observed that the most successful teams, Paul & Aden from Alaska; Mark & Leo from The Netherlands, were the only teams who cooked inside one tent with canisters stoves.
The Hillberg tent, combined with canister stove (used carefully), seems superior.
The responsible thing to do is bring your own sat phone. It used to be possible to rent satellite phones in Anchorage, that company moved to Arizona, 2010. One interesting fact, or affectation of the curse, is that after Nettle and Quirk's 36 hour climb, they had to wait 300 more hours to get flown out. Ten days to make radio contact in the deep gorge of the Tokositna. Four more before a plane could fly in.
American Alpine Institute trip report
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Dec 2, 2010
Awesome addition, Ken!