“Do you think this is where the route starts?” Chantel calls out as she rifles through the cams on her harness. I stand below the face in the steep snow, paying out rope, watching her as she thoughtfully places her first piece of pro. I glance sideways at the numerous broken crack systems in the rock around us—they all look about the same. “Totally,” I smile back. The beauty and curse of route lines in the alpine is that the overview pictures are so zoomed out, you never know if you are exactly on track.
We hadn’t planned on climbing this route. We knew almost nothing about it—a route line, a grade. We’d come to Mt. Huntington, on the Tokositna Glacier in the Alaska Range, to climb the Phantom Wall.
Our paths crossed relatively early in our respective alpine climbing chapters. Though I had been ice and trad climbing for a few years, my first foray into the alpine had been just the year before, with my partner Kyle. He was an amazing mentor, and our time together in the Alaska Range was impactful.
Landing on the Kahiltna glacier with Kyle, I had immediately watched a massive serac tumble cacophonously down the northwest face of Begguya. I had never felt so small and vulnerable amidst the immense interplay of ice and rock. Well, I guess I had never felt so small until a few days later, when we skied to the base of Begguya to climb the north face. Gazing upwards as we racked up, it felt laughable to even consider climbing such a massive wall. And yet we began, and after hours of simul-climbing, some delicate mixed and ice pitches, and some high-alpine ridge travel, we stood on the summit together, wrapped in clouds. Though we couldn’t see the peaks around us, I felt giddy with excitement and rooted in gratitude—this felt like the beginning of a beautiful chapter. A month later, as we flew out of the range, I gazed down at the glaciers, rivers of ice flowing between the peaks, and planted a seed of hope to return the following year with a female partner.
I loved learning from and adventuring with Kyle, and I also wanted to continue to learn and evolve in alpine climbing by exploring partnerships with other climbers, outside of a mentee role. Months after returning to Salt Lake City, ideas crystallized into commitment, and I made plans to return to the Alaska Range with not one but two amazing lady partners: two weeks in the Ruth Gorge with my best friend Kim, and two weeks with a new partner, Chantel, to attempt Mt. Huntington’s Phantom Wall.
It may seem odd to commit to a significant objective with a newly established partnership, but it was challenging to find someone who was interested in similar objectives in the alpine, and that lived in the same state. Yet, I valued the power and cohesion in climbing with female partners, and from the correspondence I’d had with Chantel, I felt the trip was worth a try.
When we flew into the Tokositna, though, Chantel and I realized it might be wise to climb a ‘shake-out’ route first. We hadn’t actually climbed together, unless you count a gym session or a lap up the local Great White Icicle while she was passing through Salt Lake City. With that in mind, we first climbed the well-known Colton-Leech route on Huntington’s west face. We found that we moved together well; climbing together felt natural and simple. We both appreciated moving through the mountains, and back in base camp, we both appreciated thoughtful conversation over good coffee. Our partnership took root easily.
Finishing up the Colton-Leech, we turned to the Phantom Wall, but quickly had to call an audible—the route is on the southwest face of Huntington, with many hours of the day in direct sunlight; the base of the route is a garbage-shoot-landing-area for the cirque-style faces above. With the warm, and warming, temperatures we watched rock and ice detritus tumbling down from the faces above, and felt it wouldn’t be wise to climb there. Casting around for a plan B, we’d come across a name and a route line—Polarchrome—and decided to explore.
Chantel picks her way delicately up this first rock pitch. Polarchrome looks to be a long and connected alpine ice system, similar to others on the awe-inspiring west face of Huntington. Perhaps a reason we had never heard of it is that, to access said ice system, we need to first climb a few pitches of rock, including some aid.
When I reach the belay, Chantel points to the rock underneath our anchor: “I found some old pro, so we know at least someone else came this way.” The pin and webbing look quite old and I’m not sure if this is a good sign or not. Grabbing the rack, I scoot around an arete to the right, entering a corner system. I wander upwards on easy terrain, wondering if I will get away with this lead without having to aid. Considering I’ve had about 3.5 days of aid climbing in my life, I hope so—I’m certainly not winning any speed records hanging on my gear, and hope not to embarrass myself in front of my new alpine partner who served on YOSAR. Soon though, the corner system steepens and the crack narrows, eventually to a seam. I come to an impasse at a tiny ledge, furrowing my brow at the seam above. Hoping to avoid what feels like the inevitable, I scoot leftwards on the ledge, back around the arete. To the far left, I see another corner system, which holds another seam and would also require aid. Shit.
As I begin to bolster myself for the slow aid crawl, I scan the face above. My eyes wander as features begin to come into focus—small but distinct face holds, intermittently spaced, for about 30-40 ft, that look like they might connect. And in the middle, a larger bulge of rock with a seam that I could perhaps place a pin. I call down to Chantel, hoping to collaborate about the decision. A muffled call floats back, which I can’t discern—the changing corner systems of rock deflect and diminish the sound waves. I’ll need to make the decision alone and I know that Chantel trusts and expects me to do so wisely. Looking upwards again I pause, considering the commitment. The spacing looks big enough that I will need to climb dynamically, making downclimbing a challenge if it doesn’t actually connect. But that midway bulge looks like it will very likely take a pin… I consider the corner seams once more—no thanks—and commit to climbing the face.
With each upward movement, I force myself to exhale before connecting to the hold, praying that it will remain solidly attached to the face; I take a few ragged breaths grasping the edge, then adjust to a new center of gravity now just a bit higher than before. Then gazing upwards, I calculate the next commitment. How can so few moves feel like such a journey? Eventually I reach the bulge midway up the face, pins clanging at my harness and exposure tingling up my spine. As I hammer in the pin, the singing of metal in rock reaching successfully higher pitches, the tension in my spine drains. Clipping the rope to the pin, I look upwards—protected now, my movement feels more sure, exhales less forced.
Chantel follows, gazing at the corner seams and then at the rope that runs up the face, observing the judgment I made and the path that I chose. I wonder what she will think of my decision. She follows on the face, measured and graceful movement in between holds. She reaches the bulge, and pulls out her ice tool to lever out the pin. “Jewell! Bad to the bone,” she calls out, and I pull the rope in, relieved. Climbing the Colton-Leech, Chantel had circumstantially ended up leading more of the cruxy pitches as we swapped leads, and I had hoped that she felt I could reciprocate as a partner. As we exchange brief smiles at the belay, Chantel grabs the rack, finishing off our rock foray and leading us into the right-trending ice system up the gut of Polarchrome.
A beautiful aspect of climbing mountains is its wide array of terrain and climbing styles: the boulder-problem of the bergschrund, the technical challenge of mixed or rock pitches, the flowing stretches of simul-climbing rivers of ice. There is a beauty and cadence to the movement, despite its variance. I still have a hard time understanding how simply being present to each movement eventually brings one to the top of a mountain, but the mystery and simplicity of it are some type of koan.
Chantel and I simul-climb on ice for a while, making progress through easier terrain. At some point, the ice funnels and steepens, and I pull over to build a belay—Chantel is directly under me, and chunks of ice from my climbing are clattering down dangerously near her. I belay attentively as she takes the lead upwards, the alpine ice steepening past vertical. Her movements are rhythmic and sure on the aerated ice bulge, and she makes quick work of the difficult pitch.
Upwards we climb as the day lengthens and we reach the top of the face in the late afternoon sun. Perched on the ridge, we brew up as the sun sets into the deep blue of an Alaskan twilight. I hold the stove, trying to keep the gas canister from freezing as it melts snow, considering the dark hours and the terrain ahead. After moving together well on the Colton-Leech, we had decided to climb Polarchrome in a push—we have no sleeping gear, just some down pants to slip into when the night climbing gets cold. The top of Polarchrome connects to the storied French Ridge, which we will navigate in these twilight hours. We hydrate, snack, and shiver, before settling into Polarchcrome’s next chapter.
Huntington’s northeast French Ridge is a long, aesthetic route to the summit. First climbed in 1964, the party of seven—you guessed it—French alpinists took about two weeks to reach the summit. Terray, the trip leader, wrote a story for the American Alpine Journal that is worth a read. Terray’s account leaves a few strong impressions: the long aesthetic ridge is a venue for mustang winds, creating cornices, wind flutes, and other strange features. The crux of the ridge is a section Terray refers to as ‘lacework,’ a delicate section of ridgeline that looked like it should go quickly but posed significant challenges due to unforeseen dangers on the corniced ridge, with occasional walls of vertical snow, seemingly insurmountable features. The story reminds me how lucky I am to have come into alpine climbing in the 21st century, with light gear, ergonomic ice tools, easily placed pro, and crampons—I doubt I would have the patience and audacity to chop steps up Mt. Huntington. Though the gear has changed, the strong winds and dynamic features are still prevalent on the French Ridge. Climbers must travel with the awareness that what looks like the ridgeline can actually be a massive cornice, hanging dangerously over the backside of the mountain.
Clicking on our headlamps, we kiwi coil our rope to bring us closer together. “Stay warm,” I nod to Chantel, and off she goes, weaving our path through the fantastical features of the Ridge. Chantel is a gifted climber, and some of her strengths are a solid head and remarkable endurance. When she takes the lead on a simul-climbing block, we slip into a rhythmic and efficient pace. I never feel rushed, yet am often surprised at how far she takes us in a single block. Simul-climbing is a beautiful facet in the prism of alpine climbing. The easier terrain invites our simple presence with movement, rhythm, breath; rock, ice, sky. The rope linking partners becomes a livewire as we strive to sense our partner’s place on the other end. When the pace slows, I imagine Chantel gazing at the features around her, searching for a solid spot to place pro. Sometimes the progress stops for a few moments, and I send thoughts of strength and clarity as she may be working through a crux section. Always minding the rope, keeping enough slack but not too much; I’m surprised by how quickly trust can take root in partnerships when we spend most of our time in silence, many meters apart. As we climb our way into the reverie of an Alaskan night, navigating the wind flutes and snow pillars, I climb over, around, and through shapes I have seen only in Dr. Seuss books. Chantel leads with confidence and safety. I am grateful each time our path crosses rock again on the ridgeline, knowing we are in fact anchored to the mountain and not hanging out in space.
How many hours do we climb like this on the French Ridge? It’s hard to say; Alaskan nights are short, but time seems to twist and morph into something nonlinear, much like the ridgeline we are navigating. Eventually, the twilight opens to an alpine morning. A navy gray sky shifts to lavender and then a burst of glowing warmth, the light punctuated with the dark gray slate and icy blue points of peaks in the Ruth Gorge next to us in the east, Sultana and Begguya to the west, Denali to the north. Chantel eventually pulls over and belays me to meet her. We pause for a moment in wonder at the morning light. “Nice lead,” I look over at her, eyebrows raised in respect. “How many hours do you think that was?”
“Hard to say,” she smiles back. Chantel is solid, a beautiful integration of untethered dreams and feet firmly rooted into the ground. Since she’s placed most of the gear on her several-hour simul-lead, it doesn’t take long for us to swap gear. I begin to climb, feeling grateful for the morning light momentarily burning through my fatigue from a cold, sleepless night. The ridge flattens, with fewer wild features now. I sense we are getting close to the summit ridge. But as our movement magnetizes us towards familiar terrain, it brings into view one more pitch of steep, exposed, glacier ice. I climb slowly, waiting to feel certain of each swing of the ice tools and dull crampon kick into the dense glacier ice, feeling somehow both dulled by fatigue and exhilarated by exposure this high on the peak.
“Shall we just skip the summit?” Chantel laughs as she wraps around the ridge and over to the belay. It’s a joke, but also a reasonable question—our belay has connected us to the top of the common descent route, and we have already traveled the last section of ridgeline to the summit once before. I pull out a bar, one I’ve been saving for this moment—when the end is in sight, and fatigue rears its head. “I guess so”, I respond, opening up the bar and breaking off half, handing her the other. She nods at me, smiling, and grabs the rack, leading us to the summit. Feeling exhausted and elated as I watch her climb into the morning light, a familiar sense of excitement and gratitude alights in my chest—our new partnership feels like the beginning of another meaningful chapter.
This chapter in the alpine, which was ripe with adventures with Chantel, Kyle, and other amazing partners, was beautiful but brief. After Kyle passed away in 2016, I have never returned to the alpine to climb—I don’t feel that I can be wholeheartedly present in these special places for now, and so I’ve remained in the lowlands. I often dream, though, of that Alaskan twilight, the thud of my ice tools swinging into solid ice, and the rush of winds on the French Ridge. I’m grateful for that time, and even more grateful for the livewire partnerships from that chapter that are still a connected part of my life.