Climbing Mount Huntington: A Harrowing Tale of Alaskan Mountaineering
Adventure photographer James Barkman shares a first-hand account of summiting the 12,241' pyramid of rock and ice—central Alaska's most striking peak
Leica M6, Ricoh Gr1s
Leica M6, Ricoh Gr1s
It all started many years ago on a photo assignment in the Alaska Range. As we flew over countless giants of rock, ice, and snow, one in particular stamped itself into my mind’s eye—Mount Huntington. Rising out of the clouds, it’s pyramid-shaped architecture and dramatically corniced summit forced me to make a promise to myself then and there: “Someday, I’m going to climb this mountain."
While much attention paid to the Alaska Range goes to neighboring Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, Mount Huntington is a prized possession in the mountaineering community. At 12,241 feet, Huntington is by no means the tallest in the range (Denali tops out at 20,310 feet), but a striking, obelisk-esque shape, technical ice, and exposed mixed climbing guard the top of this aesthetically striking peak, making it far more challenging to ascend.
Fast forward six years from that fateful day and I find myself and close friend Allen sitting in a Cessna 185, flying eye-to-eye with Huntington’s breathtaking and intimidating pyramid. In those six years, Allen and I had climbed together extensively—from Denali in Alaska to volcanoes in the Cascades, from British Columbian strike missions to remote peaks in the Peruvian Andes. Six years and many mountains later, I was finally back. Only this time, I wasn't sightseeing.
Our pilot, the legendary bush pilot Paul Roderick, made a pass over what would become our base camp on the Tokositna Glacier before banking the plane hard left to re-align for landing. Our heads sunk into our knees with the G-forces of the turn, increasing our already spiked adrenaline levels.
The flight from Talkeetna to the glacier is a mere 30-minute ride, a journey that would take weeks on foot. It's only 50 miles away as the crow flies, but entering the Alaska Range is like stepping through a portal into another, vastly more rugged world. Our plane touched down on the snow and we unloaded piles of gear onto the glacier: four duffels totaling about 200 pounds of food and equipment. More specifically, that's five days of base camp food, three days of snacks for the climb, ice gear, rock gear, plenty of books, and, last but not least, whiskey. As we watched the plane take off and quickly shrink in size, we caught a new perspective of the incredible vastness of the place.
"There are several routes up the mountain, none are easy and a few remain unrepeated."
With the sun was shining—a privilege not to be taken for granted—we got to work setting up base camp, which consisted of the MSR Remote 2 Tent for sleeping and one of my all time favorites, the MSR Front Range Ultralight Tarp Shelter, for hanging out and cooking. Expeditions over the years have taught us the hard way that a little comfort and space (when possible) is not optional, but imperative.
From base camp, we had an unobstructed view of our target route, a 1,200-foot ice couloir known as the Nettle-Quirk, or West Face Couloir, and conditions looked perfect. There are several routes up the mountain, none are easy and a few remain unrepeated.
Accessible via a couple thousand feet of steep snow climbing and traversing, the West Face Couloir is a hidden ice couloir cranked to the tune of WI4 or WI5 in the ice grading system. The couloir turns to M4 mixed climbing, and the upper mountain provides more traversing, mixed climbing, steep snow, and alpine ice with a PG13 rating (AKA a grade that suggests your placed protection is trash and it’s best not to fall). All in all, the route boasts 4,000 feet of fantastic technical climbing.
Mount Huntington via the West Face Couloir is an alpinist’s dream. We hit the hay with high hopes of getting an early start up the mountain the following morning.
Mother Nature had other plans, as she often does. The morning brought a storm system that would last for the next several days, depositing more than a few feet of snow that led to less than ideal conditions. Navigating terrain in Alaska has its fair share of objective hazards, avalanches being one of the most common risks, as well as serac, rock, and ice fall. A couple feet of snow on top of already avalanche-prone terrain makes climbing more than a bit nerve-racking.
While the storm continued, our attempt to move higher on day two was thwarted by worsening weather, forcing us to retreat back to base camp in a total whiteout. Unable to make out any features in the glacier, I punched into an unseen crevasse but, fortunately, was able to catch myself from falling all the way through. My dangling legs spiked my heart rate and convinced me to probe every step the rest of the way back to camp. The probing took hours but we eventually made it back to our original base camp—the extra care cost significant time but saved us a few more dicey crevasse mishaps.
On the fifth morning, a high pressure window began to move in and was predicted to last for the next three to four days—finally some news to lift our dampened spirits. We quickly geared up and excitedly began the climb.
The fresh snow made for exhausting trail blazing, and as the terrain turned steeper, one step up equaled three steps back. For several hours I broke trail in steep, waist to chest deep snow, the cold temperatures keeping the snow dry and fluffy, making it incredibly challenging to kick steps. I slowly started to feel the onset of some altitude sickness, but there was no time to rest or hydrate—we were traveling in considerable avalanche terrain and needed to move through it as quickly as possible.
After about 2,000 feet of soul draining post-holing, we reached the start of the ice couloir, and my condition seemed to worsen. Due to some combination of dehydration, overexertion, and altitude, I was unable to hold down any food or liquids and fought intense cramping. Great, I thought, while staring up at the daunting looking couloir. Of all the times to get sick and cramp up, of course it has to be now. I belayed Allen as he began to lead the first 250 feet of 75-90° ice, dry heaving in between showers of spindrift and sizable ice blocks.
"I was running on pure adrenaline, and it began to take its toll. After months of rigorous training, I couldn’t believe that my body was falling apart."
Allen set a belay station after an impressive lead in cold conditions, and I followed up after him. A thick layer of clouds hid the sun and the cold was bone-chilling. My hands weren’t doing that well and I was getting concerned about frostbite. With no food or liquids in my stomach, I was running on pure adrenaline, and it began to take its toll. After months of rigorous training for this expedition, I couldn’t believe that my body was falling apart.
Allen generously offered to take the next lead in my place—another 250 feet of steep and challenging ice. We began swapping leads after the next pitch, and slowly but surely made our way up the couloir before stopping for a rest around 4 AM, after 16 hours of nonstop climbing. To “enjoy” that much deserved rest, we hacked a seat out of the ice and snow and anchored ourselves and our packs to a piton, a couple cams, and a few sketchily placed ice screws. As we melted snow on the ledge and replenished our water supply, we stood in awe of the Alaska Range from our lofty new vantage.
At this time of year, the Range never goes completely dark, and the light painted the mountains in soft but brilliant pastels of blue, purple, and orange. Denali towered another 9,000 feet above us but terrifying glaciers guarded the mountains below, and countless peaks spread out as far as the eye could see. We caught our breath in the throne room of the gods.
And yet, the beauty of the place seemed at odds with our current state. To me, alpine climbing is an addictive concoction of sheer fear, suffering, awe, and pure exhilaration. We sat shivering on our tiny ledge, unsure of but excited for what lay ahead.
After a couple hours on our perch, we continued up the west face, not necessarily rested but a little more hydrated at least. A couple pitches later, we topped out of the couloir onto an exposed traverse. My muscles had stopped cramping, but I was still feeling blasted by the effects of my unexpected altitude sickness.
"With every step our calves begged for mercy, but none was given. We both vowed to retire from climbing forever."
Higher on the mountain and several hours later, we found an anchor station of ancient looking pitons and frayed webbing. We clipped ourselves to it, said a quiet prayer that it held, and dug a ledge in the snow just wide enough to lay on. With all the recent snowfall, we wanted to give the upper mountain a more time to settle and consolidate, as every few minutes the thunder of an avalanche reminded us to stay cautious and make calculated decisions.
With the weather on our side, we opted to play it safe and spend much of the day in this exposed place, tucked into our sleeping bags thousands of feet above the ground.
Before the climb, a seasoned Alaskan climbing veteran had warned me, “Don’t underestimate the upper mountain.” How right he was. The next leg of the climb shaped up to be a combination of exposed traversing, unprotected mixed climbing, and a long, airy simul climb on steep alpine ice and deep snow. With every step our calves begged for mercy, but mountain offered none. We both vowed to retire from climbing forever.
That's the thing about Type II fun—it really isn’t fun at all, in fact it totally sucks, until afterward when your mind tricks you into thinking it was.
Exhausted and struggling to keep our hands warm in our frozen gloves, we finally gained the summit ridgeline at 2 AM and unanimously decided to make the final push in the morning. We dug out a snow ledge uncomfortably close to a cornice, pitched our tent and crashed for a few hours, all the while in disbelief that we were actually camping on the summit ridgeline of Huntington, a mountain that is by no means tame and instills as much fear as it does awe. Take that, You Did Not Sleep There.
The morning brought another day of crystal clear weather, revealing bluebird skies and views of the range that cannot be described, only experienced. It was Allen’s lead, and after a heady plow up steep snow and overhanging cornices, we found ourselves at the summit of Mount Huntington.
Six years ago, I promised myself that I would climb Mount Huntington, and now finally, here I was, sharing the (very) hard-earned moment with one of my best buds. We spent the next hour enjoying the last of our Sour Patch Kids, and waved to a Talkeetna Air Taxi plane that spotted us and did a fly by (later we found out that the pilot snapped a photo of us on summit, a lucky and priceless souvenir).
The climb, however, was far from over.
For the next nine hours we rappelled and downclimbed over 4,000 feet back the same way we had ascended. From the summit, we rapped off a picket and then downclimbed off the ridge until we found enough ice to build and rappel off of V threads. (A V thread is essentially two holes in the ice in the shape of a “V” that a length of accessory cord is threaded through and knotted, creating a "safe" anchor point in place of a carabiner, from which the climbing rope is fed through. In this way you are able to rappel off just a short length of accessory cord, thus preventing the need to leave behind expensive protection such as ice screws or rock cams.)
Descending is often an easier process, but it is nonetheless extremely important to stay focused, move efficiently, and avoid hasty decisions. It can be more challenging than one might think, largely due to exhaustion and fatigue. The mountain is a lethal force of nature, and a descent can give a false sense of security, even when you're still in no-mistake terrain.
"The mountain is a lethal force of nature, and a descent can give a false sense of security despite still being in no-mistake terrain."
We arrived back at our humble base camp with shouts of joy. It had been two and a half days—60 long hours—since we had left the shelter of our two tents. It wasn’t a speed record by any means, but we were overjoyed and didn’t care.
As we waited for our return flight to Talkeetna the following morning, we decided to revisit our vow to retire from climbing. “It wasn’t so bad after all,” Allen said (after a few shots of Maker's Mark). The whiskey stung my chapped lips, and we traded pulls in between yelps of pain. “Not so bad,” I agreed.