Mount Hunter... turning around, again.
Well... was "The Third Time the Charm?" Yes, in ways one can never quite know before heading out on these types of adventures.
Back in 2016, I got my first taste of the Alaska Range and it has been host to our winter mountaineering projects for 5 years running now. On that first visit, we attempted Mt. Hunter as a team of four via the Northwest Variation of the West Ridge. After finally getting up onto the ridge proper, we had to make the decision to turn around due to an impending Alaska storm. We just didn't have the food and fuel to take the chance. That retreat was made in scary conditions where we raced down some solar-loaded south slopes in an effort to get off before they slid. Although we didn't make the summit, I learned a lot about Mt. Hunter, the range, and most importantly, when to call it quits.
2016: Willi Prittie and Pascale climbing up the NW basin of Hunter's West Ridge
For a couple of years following that, we explored the north side of the range on some projects but ultimately Hunter came back calling... like an itch that one cannot ignore. So, last year - before the pandemic changed our world - we tackled the south peak of Mt. Hunter, via its southwest ridge. This time, as a team of 3, in early March. We had a solid climb but ultimately had to abort due to our teammate getting frostbite on several toes. The climb did give us a good look at the steep band of rocks that would have been our next crux - for which we would not have been well equipped at that time. Mount Hunter in winter is the real deal - and this attempt just added more tools in the Alaska Range toolbox.
2020: Chris & Pascale skiing up to advanced base camp of South Hunter
This year, after much review of our aerial photos of the route, Lonnie & I developed a solid plan and set out again on the same route in early March. We felt ready. Unfortunately, mother nature calls the shots. This year the long couloir, to our dismay as we reached its upper slopes, was found to be in hazardous avalanche conditions. So, just like that, after all that planning and training, the project is over. The decision to retreat was easy at the moment, we were petrified. But abandoning such a big project is never fun and that reality sinks in when you get back safely to the tent. Would the snow have held or avalanched? We will never know, but we were not willing to gamble on this one.
2021: Pascale & Lonnie after aborting their attempt up the couloir due to avalanche hazard.
We regrouped and decided to climb a smaller peak that is just near basecamp, Mt. Frances. It felt wonderful to finally ditch the skis and get some climbing in. This less technical climb still delivered some challenges that come with winter mountaineering: short days, cold temps, high winds, total isolation - all adding up to a fun winter ascent. Although often climbed during the regular season, we do not believe it has ever been climbed in winter and almost certainly never by a woman.
Making our way up the East Ridge of Mt. Frances
Why do we keep coming back? The Alaska Range in the winter is an incredible place. The feeling of being alone in this vast area of rock, snow, and ice has to be experienced to comprehend.
For me, it is the sounds.
Everything around us is alive: the thunderous crack of seracs breaking throughout the day and night, the loud bang of avalanches triggering followed by the deep rumble as it travels down the slope, glaciers groaning as they shift. Ice crystals from a sun shower hitting the tent walls, soft accumulated snow gently sliding off the tent ceiling, the crunch of the extremely cold snow underfoot which one can almost perfectly calibrate to ambient temperature. And the winds: a distant roar high above us when we are in a sheltered amphitheater of mountains, the violent tent flapping when the winds are scouring the ice beneath us, the little whisper of wind that says I'm here and might become a lion or might just as simply go away. Lastly the silence. Complete silence at times; a stillness that grips your soul.
So, was the Third Time the Charm?
- Yes! We are alive and healthy!
- Yes! We dared to dream an objective and chase it.
- Yes! We got to do what we love to do, together, in the winter, in the amazing Alaska Range
- Yes! Us women are tough too and can brave winter's icy grip
Are we going to try again? No... until the next time :) Although I do believe the chapter on Hunter is closed for good this time.