Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman make first ascent of 4600-foot alpine big wall in Alaska
Black Diamond supports the AMGA rock guide exam with a grant and each year we are excited to see new guides pass their exams and become certified AMGA rock guides. Such is the recent case with Mark Allen (also an AMGA-certified ski guide), who passed his exams before setting off on a wild first ascent adventure with Graham Zimmerman to Mount Bradley on Alaska's Ruth Glacier. Below is Mark's report with impressive photos and superb video from the ascent that truly shows what it's like to commit to a massive alpine first ascent.
“To achieve vigorous manhood at least five qualities are necessary; muscular strength, endurance, energy, courage, and will power…There are numerous examples of vigorous men in recent history and present day in American life…By faithful adherence to the five requirements previously mentions, one develops a high degree of bodily resistance”
~ E. H. Ruddock, M. D., Vitalogy 1899
Mt. Bradley SE Face this April in the condition the SE Buttress was noticed during the late March reconnaissance. ~Photo Graham Zimmerman
Walking up after a third bivy on the wall was not the plan. We only had resources for one night on the buttress and with little padding. We anticipated a second night during the descent, but not the third—and certainly not a fourth. We agreed to not have enough fuel for breakfast brews. We shared an energy bar and a beef stick to kick-start our metabolisms. We peered out the door of the Firstlight tent having a strange aerial vista. This vantage of the North Wall of Mount Wake reminded us of our position; Twenty-five pitches up a 4600-foot buttress in undiscovered country on a tiny bivy ledge just big enough for our two-person tent.
Zimmerman on the summit morning, the third day of the climb, taking in the view from the Tower~Photo Mark Allen
We were in mid-swing of the second major crux network of the route. We had fixed the lines the night before and rappelled down to the exposed ledge after the climbing became a game of diminishing return. A near-perfect bivy blessed us part way up the 800-foot granite tower that stood like a bouncer guarding the summit. One corner of the tent that was draped over the ledge collected gear like a sinkhole. Ropes ran out of our sleeping bags, to the door, and up to the anchor. Gear hung clipped under the visor of granite that protected our bivy from what loomed above.
This morning marked the last day of steep mixed terrain before the buttress broke down and we could count on the summit. We couldn’t afford to have another night out on the wall. Graham indecipherable words came over a mouth full of Turtle Bar combined with gestures indicated his appreciation for the view. I couldn’t help but share the excitement for what we had done already. We were having the time of our lives and we were the only lives in the Alaska Range.
Seven years ago, Graham Zimmerman and I met in Washington on an alpine course through the American Alpine Institute. I was a young North Cascades guide and he was one of my youngest clients at 17. He absorbed everything I had to offer. He was, and still is, one of the most positive and motivated people I have ever shared the rope with.
Paul Roderick landed us in the Great Ruth Gorge. According to the National Park Service we were going to be all alone; have the entire range to ourselves. Storms shut down any more traffic to ensure this. This was a rare opportunity for our climbing team and provided a new element of remoteness to the range. The Alaska Range is funny that way. On a sunny day one could easily flag down one of the many passing planes. On a no-fly-day you might as well be in the Hymal. Now we were on our own. No climbers. No planes. It was just the ravens, the mountains, and us.
Mt. Wake NE Buttress after a snowstorm ~Photo Mark Allen
Great Gorge ski tours during route recon. ~Photo Mark Allen
Upon first arrival the range was freshly loaded by recent storms. This put most of the climbing on hold until safer conditions. We narrowed our alpine climbing faire down to what would not predictably kill us. Mount Bradley. Initially it was the 1000-foot ribbon of ice that sucked Graham’s binoculars. Our eyes connected what looked enticing, possible, and had a hint of full-on. Weather was good, so we went for it.
We retreated after seven pitches. Our timing was all off, a schoolboy mistake. We didn’t get high enough to gain the upper snow bench and we scratched around below. We were under a giant solar collector. The warming snow grinded on my psyche. Graham picked up on my stress. Our mortality felt like a coin toss. I slammed in two knifeblades and we bailed. Rappelling from our high point I could foresee the rope becoming stuck. We now had more time. We took sanctuary in a cave when the avalanches came. Snow poured over the cave. We resorted to alpine trickery to get the ropes back then hung out cracking jokes for an additional hour. The stressed molted away like dead skin and without remorse. The sun faded, the wall cooled, and we descended to camp.
It was exactly what we needed. A warm-up. We received a freeze thaw and mileage on ice tools. We were going to return to the wall smarter, with less weight, and with beta. We needed a different strategy. Climb through the cold of the day and through the night, bivy in the heat of the day. We'll get about nine hours of climbing, bivy in the sunshine, and then come off the next day. That was the plan. It was simple.
Approaching the “Lighting Bolt Coulior,” the entrance to the SE Buttress during the second attempt in colder temps. ~photo Mark Allen
At 6pm we simul climbed up the 500-foot Lightning Bolt Couloir. We set Graham up for the first crux, a 5.9 A1 offwidth in the cave. I watched him squirm through a hole in the ceiling just wider than his hips and haul our packs. Before night fell Graham swiftly took us through two more pitches of runout mixed cruxes and belayed off our bail pitons from the day before.
The next block of rock and mixed climbing were key to our progress. We get through this and we are onto the “fun climbing.” The approach to the uncharted territory was to climb out off the snow ledge, change into rock shoes, and send. This was a time-consuming arduous process. After the transitions I had so much shit on my harness. The ice tools, double boots, crampons, and rock rack all created a hoop dress effect. It was a blue-collar pitch. A chicken-wing and hooked tool behind a frozen block while stemming in rock shoes. I found the next belay and watched Graham’s headlamp progress up from the abyss. After some scraping about we agreed I would tension off the anchor into the void. I made it to a small stance and was able kick a perch with rock shoes in the snow. The long arch of slack back to Graham’s anchor terrified me. A fall here would be radical. I excavated some frozen dirt moss near my waist and pounded in the pick of my Cobra ice tool and clipped off my waist. It was a tenuous 30 minutes to return back to boots and crampons while tethered to the tool. A thousand feet of exposure hidden by the darkness. My world had the radius of my LED beam and I was glad. With my feet in crampons again, I began work up the mixed pitch. Deliberation was forced by lack of gear found in the compact headwall. Necessity is the mother of invention; I forcibly drilled a 19cm ice screw into a patch of frozen dirt moss, my only good piece. It was like a bolt… crazy-solid. I laugh reflecting on what brings us peace in the chaos.
Graham coming into the Prow after a spice 140m unprotected snow wallow. Steep terrain above reminds us of our low position on the route. ~Photo Mark Allen
It was several more hours of easy mixed and steep snow climbing pitches to the first bivy on The Prow. We positioned the bivy safe from any avalanches on a spine abscessing from the buttress. Graham and I had one of the most astounding views of the long Ruth Valley Glacier. We sunk into the bivy basking in the sun, letting the stress of the mountain shed away.
The Prow Bivy about 1500ft up the route after pitch 7 of new climbing. North Face of Mt. Wake in the background. This was a 6 hour mid-day bivy to wait for snowslopes to refreeze and ice conditions in the coulior to improve. ~Photo Mark Allen
After the bivy we headed out in the cooler temps of the afternoon as the slopes came into the shade and cast off into the headwall couloir looking for ice~Photo Graham Zimmerman
We packed up in cooler temps. The blue shade pushed out alpine yellow glow. That was the cue. We headed up to explore the Ice Ribbon. A thousand-feet of moderate gully ice protected by an entrance fee of M5+ and thin eggshell WI 5. Graham led off the belay without hesitation. It was a burly pitch and one of the route’s headiest points. Watching at the belay I fumbled with the video camera trying not to give a bad belay. Each gear placement was like a small triumph. Graham’s persistence was admirable and right then he was my personal hero. Off belay. We were in!
We jammed out the next five pitches like it was routine. It was the first time on the route that the climbing was straightforward and predicable. We gained the momentum we needed, swinging into fat, sticker blue ice in a chimney just wider than our shoulders. The climbing rivaled the world-class gully climbs of the Moose’s Tooth on the horizon just over my right shoulder. We were in our element. The formidable objective was far from our minds.
Photo of the Second Snow Bench, the Prow Bivy (bottom left), and the Ribbon a 1000ft of ice that on the second night took us to the second Bivy on the ridge just left of the couloirs exit. This was the prize of the route and the most memorable climbing. We then had to wait until first light to navigate the complex blocky ridge. This was our reward for climbing the six pitches of ice quickly. ~Photo Mark Allen
We topped the Ribbon and gained the buttress crest. The terrain above us was supposed to be easy and fun ridge climbing. Graham and I looked up into the darkness at a complex fortress of rock. We needed sunlight to navigate such a gauntlet. Unwilling to deal with the physiological stress, we pretended the mountain was not there and bivied until light.
We woke to the eerie shapes of lenticular clouds on the horizon. They were right on time. Large spindrift avalanches began to pour off the slopes above. We dared not leave the spine of the buttress. I was taken away from this predicament by Graham’s positive demeanor and conversation about cute Yosemite girls that slackline. We never had a conversation about committing, but this would have been the time.
Out of the fog came the ominous Tower. We planned on skirting the feature on exposed snowslopes but the triple-x death conditions omitted any further discussion of the option. We squared up to the 800 feet of granite. In most cases I would have felt in over my head. But instead Graham and I were overriding dread with laughter and fist bumps. “Yeah, get some” became the mantra to stoke the other on. Our humor was driven by the gravity of the situation. Above us were hundreds of feet of steep technical mixed climbing tattered with fresh spindrift, below were thousands of feet of frozen alpine big wall. Our spirits were the protective shell against all that would attempt to impede our progress.
Graham racking for the final pitch to the summit. Graham is preparing to leave the Tower bivy and jug up to the high point from the night before ~Photo mark Allen
Graham Zimmerman climbing the last mixed pitches of the tower~photo Mark Allen
Graham Zimmerman at the last belay (28) while transitioning to simul climbing the last spines of the buttress. ~Photo Mark Allen
Graham and I were revitalized after the exposed six-hour bivy on the Tower. Our minds told us this was the end of the climb; we couldn’t have been further from the truth. We finished the tower and the terrain broke down. We could feel the reality of the top for the first time. Its as if dreaming of food and getting the first realization of its aroma as it becomes near to ready. My fear, my fatigue, my hunger all faded away for the moment as we sauntered towards the highest point of this giant. While walking I pointed out the two ravens that circled the summit just tens of feet above. There presence felt as if they knew the significance of our arrival. This was a climax of our climb…a very special moment in our friendship, the partnership, and our lives.
We gazed at our descent. It was still going to take us 33 hours before we would finally be done. We finished the last of our food and began heading the only way we could, down.
Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman on the summit of Mt Bradley.
On April 5th at 4pm Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman summited Mt. Bradley via a new route on the SE buttress. This 4600-foot buttress of sustained mixed climbing required 29 pitches, 19 of which are M5 or WI 4 or harder. After sixty-six and a half hours including three on-route bivies, Vitalogy (Alaska grade V, M6+ WI5 5.9R A1) was opened. After summiting the climbers began to descend but the descent was not in condition when a second storm began to present. With the remaining time the two were forced to rappel 1500 feet down a headwall to an alpine glacier and then descend 1000 feet of active icefall to the Backside Valley Glacier to escape avalanche terrain were the two found a “safe bivy” (under an overhang of rock tucked close to the massif base) while spindrift avalanches began to run down the wall. This storm brought 15 inches of new snow, pinning the two down for a day without food and little fuel. A clearing 12 hours later allowed the climbers to start wading seven kilometers through new snow on Backside Valley Glacier, back around though 747 Pass, and then down into the Ruth Glacier to regain their camp. A third storm hit, requiring them to navigate in a whiteout, in the dark. After 99 hours they removed their packs for the last time.