Harvard route, Mount Huntington

                                                                  Harvard route

There’s only so much time you can spend looking through guide books and reading about other peoples exploits before the urge to be part of your own adventure has to be satisfied.
I needed to find an objective.
Something challenging and uncertain.
Dave and Neil where both keen but due to time constraints and work commitments we would only be able to get away for two weeks in Easter, so we needed a target that wasn’t going to need acclimatization and would be achievable in April.
My bedtime reading was Alaska climbing by Joseph Puryear and one mountain stood out.
Totally inspiring with no easy way to the summit, this was everything a mountain should be in my book.
And on that mountain, the Harvard route.
A thousand metres of snow, ice and rock including some aid, in a remote location.
The stuff dreams are made of.
The plan was to climb the route as a team of three and if someone dropped out the climb could still be done as a two. Then we gained an extra member. Adrian, a friend of Neil’s I’d not met before, but he’d had experience of this type of trip previously, in Greenland, so hopefully he’d be ok.
This would mean climbing as two separate ropes, which threw up the question of who would partner who, because we all had different strengths, and one team could be left weaker, reducing their chance of success.
Then another change meant we didn’t need to answer that question, after Dave dropped out due to illness. So it was back to three.

The approach into the east fork of the tokositna glacier was about as quick as you could do it.
Manchester to Newark.
Newark to Seattle.
Seattle to Anchorage for 12pm, where we spent the night in a guest house.
We were up by 8 the next day and after bagels for breakfast, we did the supermarket dash, visited the gear shop (there’s always something that’s needed) and were enroute to Talkeetna by midday.
On arriving at TalkeetnaAirTaxi we checked the weather situation. It was uncertain, with thick cloud slowly breaking up over the range, it looked like we might not be going anywhere soon. But our luck held. The call came to load the plane and we were flying into the mountains by four pm.
There were two other teams on board, one going for the west buttress on Denali and Mike and Danny, (mountain guides from New Zealand and the States), the Tokositna glacier and Huntington.
The pilot must have been flying on memory as we went in and out of the cloud skimming over ridges that looked close enough to touch, but the cloud cleared just as we approached the Kahiltna glacier and after unloading one team, we were airborne again.
The next manoeuvre was impressive. An upward spiral under the north buttress of Hunter, had us gaining enough height to fly back through the cloud and over the mini moonflower, after a right, then a left turn we descended through more cloud with just enough visibility to land, at what would be our base camp for the next ten days.

Two local guides were already insitu.and had been there for two weeks, in which time they’d climbed the Colton Leach to the French ridge, and the west face coulior to the junction with the Harvard route. Both times the cold caused them problems, and with temperatures down to -30c, frost bite had put paid to any further attempts at the summit.
The following day it was snowing lightly, but our optimism was high. We had plenty of time, and the weather seemed to be following some sort of pattern, we were due some good days any time soon. Sure enough by that afternoon it was starting to clear, so with snow shoes on we roped up to take a look at the approach and lay some tracks for the next day.

Our original plan had been to push the route out to the nose in a day, fix the A2 pitch and climb to the summit on day two, but due to the cold, and difficult snow conditions everything was going to be a lot slower, so we decided to just climb to the upper park on day one, therefore taking one extra day for the ascent.

Getting up early proved difficult, as our bodies had not yet adjusted to the temperature, and packing our bags was interspersed with vigorous hand and foot shaking to try and get some blood flow to numb extremities.
We left camp just after midday and following yesterday’s tracks, headed off towards the route. It was good to be moving, and the numbness in the hands and feet soon left us, but I started to worry about Adrian when after a short steep section he started to doubt himself.
“I’m not sure I’m up to this” “I’m knackered already”
“It’s the pace” I said,” you’ll be fine once we’re climbing and you can rest at the belays.”
But the doubts were sewn in my mind. “What would he be like on the steeper ground?” I thought.
After just over an hour we were at the entry coulior, where after a quick change to crampons Neil led over the burgshrund. The rope moved up steadily and soon the sixty was out, we started up. It would save a load of time if we moved together. Looking up I could see him starting the seventy degree section, but after a couple of metres he was backing down and setting up a belay.
“Why didn’t you keep going?” I said when I got to him.
He hadn’t done his laces up tight enough, and was sliding out of his boots!
I led through on perfect ice, but it wasn’t to last. The next five pitches consisted of wallowing our way up collapsing sugar snow and it was five o’clock when Neil led up the “alley” pitch. But we were mistaken. It was clear to see when I reached the belay. 20m of snow led to a body width slot in the rocks, this was the alley.
Up to this point Adrian hadn’t led. I offered him the lead. Slowly he made his way upwards, and after placing more gear he moved into the slot and out of sight.
We waited. And waited. Blocks of snow were constantly coming down so he must have been doing something, but there was no movement from the rope. After about an hour we were getting frustrated and cold when finally the rope came tight and we could move. Getting to the belay, I could see what had taken the time, he’d dug a hole big enough to fit a small car in, possibly things would be quicker if Neil and myself shared the lead tomorrow.
I continued up the final eighty metres of easy ground, to the upper park bivvy, were a couple of hours digging saw the BD Firstlight pitched and the stove going. It was a tight squeeze with three in it, but at least we’d be warm, tomorrow the hard climbing would begin.
                                                            Neil starting up the route.
Nobody wanted to get up.
“When do you think the sun will hit?”
“It’s gonna take us two hours to get ready so we better start moving.”
Possibly the thought that we’d have daylight till about eleven, left us a little too relaxed. After all, we only had about eight hours of climbing to get to the nose bivvy, so a late start shouldn’t be a problem.
But I wasn’t thinking this late.
On previous climbs, I’d always been with someone motivated to get up in the morning, but this time - probably due to the cold - nobody seemed to be taking the lead, so it was midday by the time we’d packed brewed and were ready to climb.
I led off across a snow slope of about 50 degrees. Its amazing how time consuming these insignificant pitches can be. It was no more than 100 feet but it felt like I was wading up it for hours. Finally it narrowed into a gully that led to the spiral pitch. At the top of this I belayed the others across, took off my pack and started up the rock.
This pitch is meant to be the hardest on the route, graded M5 5.9, the first section was fantastic climbing at about Scottish 6, then it started to get tricky with overhanging flakes that probably would be 5.9 in rock boots, but with crampons and axes it was going to be M6 with fall potential. I wanted to get up this thing the quickest way I could, without any falls, so the next ten feet were aided - back cleaning as I went - until I could make a step left, over some friable rock to easier ground. A few delicate moves upwards and I reached a small snow patch that led to the belay.
                                                                  Entering the spiral

The bag hauling plan was straight forward, Adrian would climb in front on red, the bag would be tied to blue, with Neil on the end, about five metres below the bag. As they climbed Adrian would unclip the gear in front of the bag and help pull it up. Something got lost in translation. Adrian ended up with the bag about a metre in front of him on the same rope!
Slowly he moved up until he reached the flakes, then he was off. I held him on the rope while the swearing went on. After a couple of minutes rest he tried again and gained two feet before he was off again.
“Its to fucking hard for me, I shouldn’t be here I’m fucking knackered already”
“It’s a bit late for that I thought”, “the only way is up mate, unless you want to wreck the trip for all of us.” He’d already said that he wasn’t going to the summit so if we could just get him up the few hard pitches remaining, he could stay at the nose camp while Neil and I went for the top.
After another half hour of struggle the bag was put on the other rope and pulled up to the belay. It had taken three hours to complete this pitch, at that rate we’d be finishing in the dark.
Neil led through, up steep ice and mixed ground to an overhanging wall that barred the way. Next came some great moves, leftwards onto a slab with delicate moves past a couple of pegs to reach an ice choked crack. Steep climbing up this, with crampons on tiny rock edges, led to a snow arête and the belay.
This time the bag was set up right. Adrian climbed first and pulled the bag as needed, until the steeper ground, where as before, he popped off. This time he fixed a ropeman onto my rope and pulled himself over the steep section.
                                       Neil on pitch two of the spiral.

About 30m of traversing rightwards led to the start of the last hard pitch, a steep gully leading into a chimney.
It was Neil’s lead but I could sense he wasn’t up for it.
“It’ll be quicker if you do it,” he said.
“Ok I’ll do it if you lead the gully to the nose”

The climbing above proved fantastic, bridging moves and hooks led around a corner to a snow and ice filled vertical chimney. I knocked off the snow to uncover a perfect icicle thread, which by bending a frozen sling into a hook shape I could feed behind to create my runner for the moves above. Right foot on rock I swung my right axe, perfect placement, the left axe was harder to place as the left wall restricted the swing, a series of small taps to form a hook did the job and above me the chimney narrowed. I swung my axe above the constriction and pulled, it was in the bag. Easier ice up the gully, a step left, and I was at the belay.

                                           Entering the chimney on the last hard pitch of day two. 
We’d decided that Adrian would jug this pitch with the bag below him, so I tied off the rope and started belaying Neil, or so I thought… 45 minutes later Adrian appears.
“I thought you were jugging up” I said.
“I started to but the rope felt loose so I just climbed on the other rope”
“But it’s tied off, it couldn’t be loose”
“Oh well it must have been the stretch”
So now Neil was on the end of the tied off rope with the pack above him and a narrow chimney above that, plus the rope was running through gear that he wouldn’t be able to unclip without climbing up to the pack. There was going to be more problems.
Sure enough, after about an hour the shouting started. We couldn’t hear a thing, just the tone of voice, and he sounded stressed.
Clearly the bag had jammed. Either he’d manage to move it himself or Adrian would have to go back round into the top of the gully and help. All of a sudden the dark crept over us, Adrian set up the rap on the other rope. Watching him setting up, with no torch, I was aware, one mistake now and it would be fatal. There seemed to be about five screwgates on his harness and ropes everywhere, he might as well of had no fingers for the amount of dexterity he had with his gloves. Somehow he clipped the right rope, lowered himself down and hauled the pack with Neil close behind.
By now things were starting to feel close to the edge.
Adrian belayed Neil on the next pitch, while I got my down mitts and belay jacket on. It was time to focus on keeping warm. I downed the last of my water and waited.
The perception of time is strange at points like this. Although it feels like hours of waiting, afterwards you struggle to grasp where the hours managed to go. Did that last pitch really take that long? Surely, this next pitch can’t be more than one hour? And so the thoughts go on, with the one thought; that upwards, the bivvy site and sleep…
Time to move.
Seventy degrees of good ice then a snow ramp led to a rock wall, a ribbon of ice came down from the left that led to the gully proper. Interesting climbing over mixed and ice steps led to the belay. If it hadn’t been halfway through the night it would’ve been enjoyable.
Neil led off again, while I tried to dig myself a shelf to sit on. Unfortunately, I was right in the middle of the gully, in a constant bombardment of snow, as Neil dug his way up the next fifty metres.
I sat there husky-like, head down, curled into the snow, watching the crystals dancing in the light. Every few seconds a white flash would appear in front of me. At first I thought it was some trick of the mind, until I realised it was just bits of snow flashing in my head torch.
In the gloom ahead, he’d reached a rock wall, this must be were the gully doglegs leftwards to the nose. If he looks to the left there should be insitu gear, but he was belaying on the right. No problem, we were nearly there.
As I approached the belay I carefully scanned the rock. Yes. On the far left of the wall was the bolt I wanted, so rather than climb up to Neil, I traversed diagonally towards it, attached a sling and continued up the final 30m of deep sugar to reach the nose bivy, it was four o’clock in the morning.
The next job was to get the tent up, and in a zombie-like state we hacked away the snow and ice to form a platform Three hours hard work, saw us settled in with the stove going, forcing ourselves to stay awake until we’d had some liquid. It had been nineteen hours since leaving the upper park bivvy and we’d only had half a litre of water each.
But the route was still on. With a days rest here - maybe even fix a rope on the nose pitch - we’d be ready for our summit attempt the next day. The weather was holding, we had food and fuel, why, we could sit here for a few days if we wanted.
Then Neil took his gloves off and it was over. Frost bite. If he wanted to keep his fingers, (which he did) the only way we were going was down. But first we needed sleep.
It was two in the afternoon by the time we were packed and ready to descend. Not knowing how long it would take, we considered spending another night at the lower camp, but after some steep abseils straight down the face, I arrived to find it occupied.
It was Mike and Danny, following the same ascent strategy as ourselves, so after swapping beta for some much needed water, we continued down.
Sixteen raps on good anchors with a couple of v threads to finish, saw us back at our snow shoes, and by ten o’clock we were back at base camp, where we were greeted with a pan of warm food and hot orange juice by a new team that had arrived earlier that day. You can’t describe how satisfying that was.
Looking back at the route two lights were descending, Mike and Danny. The weather had started to change and they didn’t fancy being higher up, on a face notorious for shedding snow in bad weather. But they were there for eighteen days so they could bide there time.
With nothing left to do on the glacier and the lure of the town beckoning, we called the plane in early for some r n r in Talkeetna and after three nights of catching up on the drink, we headed home.
Although we didn’t get the summit, which on a route like the Harvard is clearly the target, we had a fantastic experience, in a wild location, with great camaraderie, and pushed ourselves hard, for two days of climbing that I’ll never forget. And after all, that’s what it’s about.