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best of cc.com [TR] Denali - Isis Face 5/18/2008

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Trip: Denali - Isis Face

 

Date: 5/18/2008

 

Trip Report:

BACKGROUND:

In 1996, Joe Puryear and I made what was probably the most recent (as of 2013) ascent of Denali's 1954 South Buttress (Thayer) route. At the time we were inexperienced on technical terrain, and engaging it in Alaska at that time still seemed to be just a distant dream. On this climb, we hauled enormous sleds and packs from the Mountain House in the Sheldon Amphitheater all the way up the west fork of the Ruth, across the colossal south buttress, down into and across the mysterious Thayer Basin on Denali's east side, and then up the Thayer Ridge to where it arcs into the northeast ridge, which we followed to the summit on May 6th, our 28th day after leaving the Mountain House. We spent the next three days carrying all of our still heavy kit up and over Denali Pass and down the west buttress, arriving at basecamp on our 31st day on the mountain. We saw nobody for 26 days at one point!

 

Joe Puryear on the south buttress, April, 1996:

 

southbutt27.JPG

 

Early in the trip, while in the west fork, we stopped to take a lunch break as we passed by the Isis Face, looming above us.

 

Isis takes the central rib:

southbutt25.JPG

 

The Isis is located on the southeast face of the south buttress of Denali and rises over 7000 vertical feet above the glacier. It is imposing, and the line of ascent, first completed by Jack Tackle and Dave Stutzman in 1982, is the only reasonably safe line on an otherwise savage wall rimmed by menacing hanging seracs.

 

I vividly recall sitting on my sled eating my lunch and silently wondering how something like that could be climbed. Tackle had made two attempts on the face prior to his successful ascent. The first ended when his partner took a 240 foot leader fall and fractured his femur, resulting in Tackle having to ski out alone for help. Help returned to the scene in the persons of Tackle, Mugs Stump, and Jim Logan, who lowered Tackle's partner to the glacier and who was then evacuated by air. Tackle's second attempt didn't make it far due to illness and poor conditions, but the third time was the charm. Even then, they did not continue on from the intersection with the 1954 route atop the buttress crest due to Stutzman having contracted a staph infection from gashing his wrist with his crampons.

 

As it has been with a number of routes I've done in Alaska, it was this story of persistence and determination which captured my imagination, and, even as a wide-eyed novice sitting in the shadow of the route, motivated me to be up there someday.

 

Six years and many routes later, Joe and I skied to the base of the route, knowing full well that we would not be climbing it, as the June warmth had turned the snow to mush. Nonetheless, the foray added a layer of knowledge and also strengthened the aura of intrigue and mystery. In 2005, I returned with Marcus Donaldson and Chris Donharl. This time, we were armed for combat and loaded for an ascent. Unfortunately the invaders were armed with slingshots, to quote an old phrase, and as we approached, less than an hour from the foot of the wall, a serac at mid height which I judged a bit questionable suddenly discharged a massive amount of debris right down the line of ascent. Had we been 1-2 hours earlier it would have been the end. The crew wisely mutinied and we ran away to do something else.

 

The next two seasons Eamonn Walsh and I had loose plans for an attempt but other routes and better conditions in other parts of the range kept us away.

 

In May of 2008, Eamonn and I made the route our top priority, and the snow conditions in the range fortuitiously aligned with our intentions. In cold conditions, we acclimatized by ascending the lower south buttress starting from Kahiltna Basecamp, following terrain I'd been over before. This ridge (aka Pt. 12,200' and Pt. 12,240') is absolutely breathtaking as it takes you to "Margaret Pass" between the Kahiltna's east fork and the Ruth's west fork and an intersection with the 1954 route. I had descended this ridge in the blind on a failed attempt on the south buttress in 1995 and it remains one of my favorite spots in the Alaska Range, commanding panoramic views all at once of Hunter, Foraker, Denali, and Huntington...a real seat amongst the action.

 

In frigid weather and utilizing snow caves for comfort, we ascended to 15,400'. Along the way we passed the "Lotsa Face" a 1000 foot, 50 degree face of Alaskan blue boilerplate. In 1996, with our 90 pound packs and embarrassing lack of experience on ice, this face took us the entire day to climb...each of the two times we climbed it. On this day, 12 years later, it took all of one hour.

 

We left a cache of food and fuel atop the Isis Face, for use in either continuing on to the summit after our ascent, or for dealing with getting down were we to top out in a storm. The route only had two ascents- the second was in 2003 by four French climbers- and neither ascent had continued beyond the crest of the buttress.

 

After returning to basecamp, we waited about a week before a stable stretch of weather arrived. We were flown to the west fork of the Ruth by Talkeetna Air Taxi. Late in the afternoon we started up the route and we topped out on the face 47 hours later. The Japanese "Giri Giri Boys' had climbed the route about a week earlier for the route's third ascent. Snow in the meantime had obscured all trace of their passage save for a dropped ice screw we found high on the route. Atop the route, we learned by radio that Jumbo, Sato, and Ichi had continued from here by descending the dangerous Ramp Route into the East Fork of the Kahiltna...from here they made the fourth ascent of the Slovak Direct on Denali's 2700 meter south face, rising directly across from us...one of the most impressive achievements in modern Alaskan climbing. Their linkup relieved us of any 'ego burden' of doing the route's first linkup to the top of Denali. Our own comparatively diminutive plan of continuing up the much tamer southeast spur, including a lot of terrain I had been on before, now seemed more like an enormous hypoxic slog.

 

So despite the continuing good weather, Eamonn and I were content with having made the fourth ascent of the face. The ascent had been as smooth as we could ever have hoped for, the technical difficulties were high quality and easier than we had expected, and the scenery on route had been spectacular beyond belief. For once we did the right thing and quit while we were ahead. We retrieved our cache and made a casual descent of the lower south buttress and arrived back at basecamp the following afternoon. A few days later we made the first ascent of "Bacon and Eggs", a fun ice and mixed route on a small tower next to the Mini Moonflower on Hunter's northeast ridge. It capped another great trip in the mountains I love the most.

 

PICTURES, VIDEO-

In HD quality, here's the visual story:

https://vimeo.com/75055591

 

 

 

 

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oh man, this is too good. Thanks for sharing.

 

I did switch up the music though, springsteen gets the stoke higher!

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I did switch up the music though, springsteen gets the stoke higher!

 

I love the Boss, but at first I couldn't really make a connection from his music to alpine climbing. Then I started realizing there are parallels between Alpinism, and spending all day Working on the Highway laying down blacktop, then heading to the bar to tell war stories about the Glory Days, while trying in vain to pick up girls. :tup:

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You wrote that from your high point atop the Isis Face you descended the lower South Buttress. Did this entail going over Peak 13050? Or did you skirt around it?

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You wrote that from your high point atop the Isis Face you descended the lower South Buttress. Did this entail going over Peak 13050? Or did you skirt around it?

 

Around it. It's an easy walk past it apart from some crevasses.

 

 

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Cool trip! Nice to see some pics of seldom-traveled terrain up there. Good timing to get the stoke high for the upcoming season up north too!

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