We climbed a route on the Father and Son’s Wall on Denali. It was a variation to ‘First Born’ the initial line of ascent which Eli Helmuth and Steve House climbed in 1995. Our climb took 73 hours on May 10-12, 2016.
After 21 days of hauling loads, acclimatizing, and sitting in storms at each camp Mike and I got our weather window. We’d spent hours looking at possible lines on our camera screens, and eventually we traced a continuous white ribbon from the bottom to the top of the wall. We descended to the base of the route (elevation 9000’) in the Alaskan twilight.
We kitted up and clicked on our headlamps as darkness fell. We stopped to brew up after climbing 2000’ of névé. An hour and a half later Mike climbed out into the first rock band. The Helmuth-House topo suggested we’d find a difficult-to-protect 5.8 rock pitch, but deep snow led to thin ice. Two more pitches of hero ice and fun movement led us through the band.
The wind picked up, blowing snow from the top of the wall. When Mike and I switched leads below the second rock band, spindrift began to pour down from above. It started to cascade so intensely that we could not climb through it. I climbed across the drainage to an ice arête where we chopped a small ledge, dozed, and traded thoughts. After four hours waiting, it cleared and we decided to continue up.
We rappelled once to gain our line. In his trip report House described the following pitches as ‘steep waves’ of ice. It turned out to be absurdly fun ice climbing. As I climbed through them I screamed, “Waves! Waves!” Mike laughed his way up both pitches.
One more short pitch brought us to a snow arête. The spindrift returned and it was getting dark, so we chopped an ice ledge to bivy. We laid down our Photon half ropes on the ledge, covered them with a 3/4 length inflatable sleeping pad, wrapped our single sleeping bag over us, and fell asleep leaning against each other. For sixteen hours we hummed our favorite country songs and dozed intermittently.
The next day, the weather cleared in the evening. The sun shone on the face for a few hours, and it warmed up enough that I opted to climb without gloves on. We climbed to the final rockband and I led a long pitch of 95-degree ice, which brought me ‘above the difficulties.’ After I belayed Mike up, we drank deeply from a stream flowing down the rock wall on our left.
We climbed for hours up an endless sheet of 50 degree blue ice and névé. We simulclimbed the remaining 2000’ of the route. We gained the top of the ridge (15,500’) around 7:30 AM. Although the sky had cleared the wind was bitter and relentless.
We decided to wait for improvement before going for the North Summit (19,470’). After digging a snow cave, we crawled in to hide from the wind. Ten hours later, we decided we didn’t have the margins to go for the summit and bailed towards the fixed lines at the top of the West Buttress (16,000’).
As we slogged through fresh powder towards the fixed lines we heard a faint “woo hoo!” We looked up to see a group from Alaska Mountaineering School standing on the ridge at the top of the lines. Now, I almost recall that we ran right up and hugged them, but really we were trashed. We trudged up to them and noshed the candy they offered us. On the walk down to our camp at 14,000’, we stopped on a rise, turned to each other with tears in our eyes, and embraced.