Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker only had a short window of a few weeks to complete a new, committing route, over 6 days, called the Cartwright Connection, Alaska 6 (M6, 5.8., AI6, A2), on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter in the Alaska Range.
Alaska is a playground with endless possibilities. Airplanes drop you off on the glacier just beneath the base of epic alpine lines with bacon, sausages, and even beers if you want. Spring brings long hours of daylight, with little to no darkness, allowing for long days of climbing, and non-stop pushes. The access is amazing! But... at the end of the day, once you shove all your gear out onto the glacier the plane's propellers are quickly spinning and TAT's Paul Roderick and his plane are leaving you in the spray of his engines as he roars off heading home to the safety of his warm house in Talkeetna. Suddenly, you are left to fend for yourself. Though it's an alpine paradise, there are rarely helicopters to come and long-line you off as you find in the Alps, the weather can be harsh and cold, and the hazards include menacing snow mushrooms looming at the top of prominent buttresses.
Kahiltna International Airport (KIA) as it's called, or Kahiltna Basecamp, is a full-fledged scene! There are lots of Alpinists lingering around, lots of climbers pontificating weather forecasts, there were even stories of a Drunken, well-known, British Alpinist sledding into a tent of very scared, sleeping, Koreans after a big piss-up a few years back. All this is to say that it's easy to land in this playground, become intimidated by the surrounding terrain, and end up cowering in the comfort of the basecamp scene and never accomplish much despite the proximity!
This was not the case for Bracey and Helliker, which is not at all surprising. The two landed on the glacier and quickly set to work dragging all of their gear, portaledge, haul bag, tents, and food for three weeks 1.5 km up the glacier to establish basecamp. Further up the glacier they were both isolated from the basecamp "scene" and in position for scoping and quick access to their intended line.
While cragging at the rock gym on a rainy day with Jon Bracey, I got to pick his brain a little bit about the route and experience.
‘When we arrived it didn't look like the whole thing would go. I felt bad because the line is something I had dreamed of and talked Matt into. I didn't want it to be one of those ‘good effort but no success "trips."'
The line the two dreamed up, on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter is big and beautiful, steep and at times blank looking. It's nestled in and amongst other test pieces such as Grison/Tedeschi 1984, The Wall of Shadows 1994, Bibler/Klewin 1983 (otherwise known as the Moonflower Buttress), The Knowledge 2001, and Deprivation 1994. Bivies looked hard to find so the team agreed to go big wall style with an alpine climbing ethic.
How do you feel about having climbed with a ledge and haul bag? Do you think in hind-sight that you could have climbed lighter?
‘I don't think we would have succeeded without a ledge. I looked back to try to see if you could bivy along the way and you probably could but it's not 100% obvious. If we didn't bring a ledge I think we wouldn't have been able to complete the line. It gave us a bigger margin of safety and the ability to sit out storms. Now that we know the route goes, yeah maybe someone could go and do it in a light push, with one bivy, but some of the climbing is hard and serious. Without knowing how the line would unfold I think that without a ledge we would have had to back off. ‘
In a recce mission Bracey and Helliker climbed the first 8 pitches, with lots of snow and no track, the going was slow. Bracey noted that he spent 3 hours clearing snow mushrooms and cleaning snow on one pitch on their recce mission. When they went back for their attempt it only took him 45 minutes.
"In the future if there are more parties that attempt the line and there is a track in it will change things enormously. Like how routes are climbed in the alps."
What about the aid climbing? How much of the route did you have to aid climb?
‘I would say we climbed 95% free, and about 5 % aid. It all depends on conditions, so another year, what was thin ice for us and unprotectable we aided, but in the future it could be fatter and maybe climbable. I called it A2 but I don't really know aid grades that well as I don't do much aid climbing. The aiding we did do was quite serious, on beaks and the picks of our axes. Someone else might think it's harder aid. I think it could go free where we aid climbed, about M7, but M grades are very different in the mountains than with bolts. It's not necessarily that it was too hard technically to climb, it was more the protection and the commitment, where we were and what happens if one of us fell.'
The line climbs independently, to the climber's left of the Bibler/Klewn and to the right of the Wall of Shadows for the first two thirds of the buttress. It finally joins the Bibler/Klewn for the last 500m and 13 pitches to the top of the buttress.
Why didn't you guys stay completely independent of the other lines? I asked Jon.
‘We intended to try to climb a new line to the top of the buttress, but we had already climbed through some really hard and serious sections and the line wasn't looking great above us. The weather forecast was bad and our chance at getting to the top of the buttress was better if we joined the Bibler/Klewn. It felt like if we kept trying to pursue the new line to the top it wouldn't be because it looked good and climbable but rather to force the idea of establishing a completely independent line.'
When I asked Jon for a topo of the pitches he told me the grade, Alaska 6 (M6, 5.8., AI6, A2), saying that he'd rather leave some things to adventure.
‘Maybe the next team will take a little different line, maybe the conditions will be different. I'd rather not put pitches and grades on the pitches, that's for Yosemite and rock climbing. You need to leave a little adventure. I'd be super pleased to see someone do it all free and in a light push. ‘
What was the hardest part?
"Both Matt and I have climbed long pushes before, multiple days or hours and hours on end, with hard and psychologically challenging climbing. But this time we were climbing all day, with all those factors, spindrift, and cold, and then hauling on top of it. The hauling was exhausting. Every traverse you do, which would have been a ‘gimme' pitch without hauling, you have to get the haul bag across, and on the descent as well, it takes way more time and is way more difficult to rappel with a haul bag and ledge. We were both completely shattered when we finally got down to the glacier. Matt was still eating like crazy and I was still exhausted a week later."
Finally, I asked Jon, maybe a question that comes from the heart of a woman, but....What was it like to climb his first BIG route as a father?
"My risk perception has changed. I wanted to find an objective with lower hazards, and maybe this is why we changed our style, with the ledge it offered more safety. Our biggest hazards were snow mushrooms and weather, but with the ledge we had a bigger margin."
The two endured long nights sleeping on 60 degree snow in their portaledge, which repeatedly flipped into a taco sandwiching them and all their gear against the wall leaving them to sort it from the inside out! They pushed through 36-hours to the edge of exhaustion and hallucination, with the weather closing in on them, to top out and descend. They navigated committing climbing, spooky snow mushrooms, and abseiled off thin ice and v-threads with the weight of a haul bag and ledge. While people arrive day after day at Kahiltna basecamp with ambitions of big routes and new lines it has been 10 years since the last route was established on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter, The Knowledge by Ian Parnell and Jules Cartwright. I'm sure that it's not because no-one noticed it! It just took commitment, strength, determination and talent, all of which Bracey and Helliker showed in this new line.DMM, Patagonia, Scarpa, Osprey and Adidas Eyewear support Jon and Matt
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