BD grassroots athlete Jesse Huey reports on his ascent of Denali's Slovak Direct route
Black Diamond grassroots athlete Jesse Huey recently returned from a trip to Alaska, where he made an impressive ascent of Denali’s massive Slovak Direct route. Below is detailed report on the ascent as well as a video that further showcases the difficulties and adventure.
Exactly 31 days after setting foot on the Kahiltna Glacier, Mark and I were losing the plot. We waved as Lisa Roderick, Mark’s amazing wife and Denali’s base camp Manager, loaded the last plane we would see for six days in route to Talkeetna. My first ever trip to Alaska was very near its end and there wasn’t even a glimpse of hope in the weather forecast. I heavily weighed the decision of staying, rationalizing a month of my life acclimatizing in hopes of climbing Denali’s South Face, to a week of sport climbing with my friends at the Back of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. I couldn’t stomach the thought of giving up so easily and finding out that I missed quite possibly my one opportunity to climb Denali’s mighty South Face.
For six days, piles of climbers clambered and stumbled into our home at Denali basecamp, wanting to be put on the next flight out. With Lisa gone, we inherited the responsibility of managing precisely 124 climbers eager to go home to see their wives, girlfriends, families and friends. It was exhausting, and I could see that it was taking its toll on Mark. Time and time again Polish, Romanian, Russian, Japanese and Americans would walk into our wall tent unannounced, wanting to know whether or not they would be able to fly that day and where they were on the fly-out list.
With morale at an all-time low, it appeared that the weather was indeed improving, and that there may actually be an opportunity to climb yet. It had been six full days since a prop had turned in Talkeetna and the tension in camp was building. You could actually hear the cheers of climbers over the engine noise of Talkeetna Air’s eight-passenger Otter as it landed in basecamp. Everyone knew that it was time to go home, yet Mark and my own business was just beginning. First order; get everyone the hell out of basecamp. Injured and frostbit climbers first; everyone else next. Planeload after planeload, we ushered Denali’s finished climbers back to Talkeetna. With a huge sigh of relief, at nearly 10pm everyone was gone, and basecamp appeared to be a ghost town.
With weather allegedly improving we couldn’t help but feel huge doubts in the back of our minds about climbing the South Face of Denali. Ten days had already passed since we were last at 14,000 feet, and we knew that our acclimatization was at jeopardy of making us not fast or strong enough to climb nearly two miles higher than we currently resided. Casting our doubts momentarily aside, we packed our alpine kit to the carabineer and calorie for the Slovak Direct and made plans to ski up the seldom traveled Kahiltna Glacier East Fork at 10am the next morning.
With night being almost the same as day in Alaska (the variable being temperature) we began our ski unwisely mid-day in a near whiteout with temperatures well above freezing. A dangerous combination for glacier travel, Mark and I carefully and methodically navigated into the cloud-veiled cirque underneath the South Face of Denali.
Standing below what seemed to be an impenetrable fortress of ice and granite, the clouds slowly dissipated as we could barely make out the vertical path that we had come for. Viewing the route with our heads tilted all the way back, we both felt overwhelmed and uncertain if we were up for the task. Having only been climbed four times, the Slovak Direct is certainly one of the hardest alpine routes in all of North America. Nearly two miles tall, and 58 pitches (per the Czech’s first ascent’s topo), I have yet to feel so intimidated by a mountain. Resting in the comfort and confines of our yellow-walled tent, Mark and I questioned what we were doing. The unknowns were overwhelming and the consequences the highest for any mistakes. It seemed that we were not up for this climb and that our doubts were getting the best of us. That night we didn’t sleep for one second as we battled with nerves and a terrible bout of altitude induced sleep apnea at a mere 11,000 feet. With zero rest, we awoke at 3am with almost no resolve to climb. Mark hadn’t slept for even a minute due to apnea, and we both voiced our concern about getting altitude sickness halfway up the route, a gamble that if lost would be most likely the unthinkable.
The decision to climb was rationalized with the realization that we could rappel from our first bivouac at 14,000 feet if the onslaught of the altitude was too much. For that, we both took Diamox, me for the first time in my life, and secretly crossed our fingers that the altitude would be less of an issue than we anticipated. With the decision to go forward behind us, we now looked up to the task at hand and started to climb. At 6:21 in the morning on June 20th Mark and I left our doubts at the bergshrund and started a journey that we will both never forget.
The climbing on the Slovak Direct is, simply put, world class. Pitch after pitch of steep, technical, committing terrain, brought us seemingly nowhere. The route’s size is so large that a rope length of 70 meters doesn’t seem to do anything in the grand scheme. After climbing roughly a thousand feet, we started to meet the real challenges that would present themselves to us over and over again. A granite slab with little snow over it, an overhanging chossy corner where there should have been a frozen waterfall, a vertical runnel of ice in the back of a chimney, face climbing without gloves in sub freezing temperatures… it just kept coming and coming.
By the end of our first day, we had climbed for 11 hours and were ahead of the schedule we laid out for ourselves. We found a bergshrund that would take little to excavate a tent platform for our small tent and had at it. We melted water and talked about what we had climbed and what awaited. Tomorrow would bring the crux of the route, roughly 3000 feet of very steep terrain through a broken corner system. We fell asleep that night both wondering if the sleep apnea would persist and if we would need to rappel what we had come up in the morning.
By daybreak, Mark and I found that we felt as strong as ever, and with that, we both knew that were committed to climbing this route. As we left the bivy there was solace in knowing how committed we were. For whatever reason it brought about a peace with it that we were going to climb this face or be part of it forever. Again pitch after pitch went by of world-class ice and granite mixed climbing. Before long we found ourselves at the base of what we knew would be the crux 1000 feet of the climb. Mark and I switched leads and I began to tackle it one foot at a time.
Our topo indicated that there was a 100-degree overhanging ice pitch. I didn’t realize that I was on that pitch until I was in the middle of it. As I swung my axe into the vertical ice in front of me, I realized that I was just hollowing out a bunch of snow that plugged my passage. The pitch was intense, protected with the shortest ice screws. I led packless, as my arms burned from the overhanging nature of the ice. After that pitch some of the most run-out dangerous mixed climbing that I have done proceeded. One after another they kept coming until we were on top of a massive corner system, facing a seemingly blank granite headwall. We had two lines to pick from, one that Steve House had climbed years earlier at a 5.9x grade, or another that we had little information on but had heard that Ben Gilmore and Kevin Mahoney had climbed during the second ascent. We opted for the later choice and I began rock climbing barehanded in well-below freezing temperatures.
It took me likely two hours to lead what was surely to be the crux pitch of the route. Switching from mixed climbing, to 5.10 rock climbing, to aid climbing, back and forth, the lead was gripping and left me without much reserve, especially in my mind. By the time my block was over I was mentally exhausted and virtually incapable of doing anymore decision making. My block of leads lasted from 12 noon till 2 am in the morning and I now realize how fried I was from being in the headspace required for such demanding climbing. With what seemed the worst behind us, Mark and I now found ourselves with not a single ledge to stop on to rest with wet socks in the coldest hours of the morning. We were terrified of frostbite and slowed what we were doing to try and rewarm our toes. Hanging from ice screws we swung our feet back and fourth for likely an hour trying to regain the feeling of our feet. It worked and we proceed unknowing that we had another 8 hours to go before we would have a chance to rest our tired bodies. The situation, as serious as I have ever been in, drained us completely.
Exactly 31 hours after leaving our bivy the day before, I thought I saw a rock with a snow arête large enough to fit our tent. It was far from ideal, but over 31 hours now without rest, and at least 12 without water, we had to try and recover. With a bit of digging and chopping, Mark and I rejoiced as the footprint of our tent was just large enough for the ledge that we had found. After drinking at least a gallon of water each and sleeping in the warmth of our tent and double sleeping bag, we got the rest needed to get us through the difficulties of the climb. Opting to cut our stay on the ledge short, we pushed on in hopes to reach a major ridge above us before nightfall.
Rejuvenated, the climbing seemingly felt easy compared to what we had passed through the day before. Several rope lengths of moderate terrain and a memorable long M5 pitch later, we reached easy snow slopes that we both felt comfortable soloing without a rope. The Cassin Ridge was a mere 1000 feet above us, and the technical difficulties were over. Climbing infinitely faster now, Mark and I arrived at the comfy ledges of the Cassin by 8pm on our third day of climbing. Between us and the summit we had 3000 feet of trail breaking through deep snow remaining.
In the tent for the last time, I pulled the shells of my boots off in intense pain. The blisters were the worst I have ever seen in my life. My heels were nearly bringing tears when I touched them. The thought of another day on my feet was overwhelming. Many hours, ibuprofen, and the last of our calories later, I put my boots back on in horrible pain in-route to Denali’s high point.
Hours passed as we plodded our way up the Cassin Ridge. Exhausted, famished, and dehydrated I was woken from my uphill walking trance by the sounds of our friends waiting for us on the final summit ridge. The tears were uncontrollable. Never had I felt such emotion on a mountain. Whatever it was, it took over me and seemingly at random I would begin to tear up.
Reaching the ridge and walking the last 10 minutes to Denali’s summit was bliss. Besides the intense pain in my feet, there was nowhere I would have rather been. We did it. We did what we set out to do, and it was hard earned.
Climbing the Slovak Direct is certainly the most challenging climb that I have ever done. Although I know they are out there, I find it hard to believe that there are routes that could present more challenge. Certainly there are more technical routes in the world, but in the Alaskan environment, and at that altitude it is almost impossible to comprehend climbing a route harder or more sustained than this one.
Over the last years it seems I have lost the value of what it means to simply get up a route. It seems that the style of free climbing fast has become almost more important than the summit to me. The Slovak has changed that, and reminded me that simply getting up a route can be the largest reward and the goal in and of itself. The Slovak Direct incorporates it all, and to me it feels like if you try to climb the route you either will, or you will die trying. At this point the route has not seen a failed attempt. I think about that and can feel in my bones why that is. At some point it wasn’t climbing anymore, and it became survival. I now realize that this is often how the most difficult of alpine climbs go.
My philosophy around alpine climbing is to only climb routes you feel you can climb 10 out of 10 times safely. The Slovak pushed this envelope for me. It is a new space that I am not sure I am comfortable in. What I do know is that climbing this route is certainly the most authentic climbing experience I have ever had and I am indeed incredibly grateful for it.
With that my gears have shifted toward China where we hope to climb a new route on the Northwest Face of Siguniang. I can feel the building psych in the people around me and it is infectious. With the lessons and experience learned in Alaska as it was my first ever, I hope to be a better partner and asset to them. Above all I am really excited to travel internationally again. It has been a long time since I was last in Asia and I am ecstatic to experience the culture and region. The climbing excites me as well, but frankly I am hoping that it doesn’t present as much challenge as our ascent in Alaska. The thought of it being more difficult so soon after the Slovak would simply be too overwhelming.
— Jesse Huey