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Stairway to Heaven: Mugs Stump Award Recipients on Mt. Johnson

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
This May Mugs Stump Award recipients Kevin Cooper and Ryan Jennings completed their long-standing dream of climbing Mt. Johnson's North Face. It was the climb of both of their lives.

I fight upward, swinging tools and kicking to a staccato beat. Positive thoughts remain my only protection, with my picks sinking into the névé just deep enough to enchant me onward. The white ice is too thin to take a picket and too soft to take a screw. “Please! Please let the picks remain good! Please let the névé remain thick enough! Please!” I whisper to myself.

I move on with nothing but hope, prayer and a solid belief in my abilities. Three and a half hours and 700 vertical feet pass before I finally find and set a solid anchor. My calves have lost all feeling and I fight to stand on the small stance I’ve chopped into the face. “That was the most idiotic thing I have ever done,” I say aloud. But I reassure myself that we are going down. One glance below, however, and I know the rabbit hole is already too deep. One glance up, and uncertainty boils over. I know the next pitch is more of the same, only harder.

In early 2014 Kevin Cooper and I were awarded the Mugs Stump Award, sponsored in part by Black Diamond, to attempt a line on the North Face of Mt. Johnson within the Ruth Gorge of Denali National Park. Our obsession, The North Face proper, is both an alpinist’s dream and nightmare. The pyramid-shaped wall, dripping with veins of white, rises vertically 4,500 feet above a valley of chaos, hanging seracs blocking access to its base. The lower wall is less slabby than one would wish, noticeably void of cracks and heavily guarded by a giant roof cutting across much of it. Also lacking cracks, this roof appears near impossible to bypass. Just gaining access to the snowfield above could possibly be the crux of the route. Doug Chabot and Jack Tackle were the only successful team to have climbed the North Face previously, their route ascending a large gash on the far right of the wall.

On April 21 we arrive on the Ruth Glacier where we set up camp before traveling to the wall. We assess an approach and eventually find a line to the left of a giant roof that guards the entire base of the wall that will lead us to a hanging snowfield. From below the wall looks slabby, but we soon find out looks can be deceiving.

Over the next two days, we establish a two-pitch jumpstart, and on May 1, we wake in our basecamp relaxed. It’s obvious that today is the day. We ski the half hour to the wall and run up our previously established pitches.

“Watch out!” I yell, as another spindrift avalanche deposits snow to the left of Kevin while he traverses right, high on the hanging snowfield over the giant roof below. This traverse is easy, but the protection, or lack thereof, is foreboding. We arrive at a cave below Pitch 4 to a constant stream of spindrift and debris falling from above. Fear lurks.

Sounds of falling ice and the hiss of spindrift insight fear as possible scenarios swirl. But finally a calm air settles in, and I stand to start. A solid piece presents itself quickly, and then 20 feet higher another, a little less solid. Then the inevitable—protection ceases, and I waste half an hour fighting to place my final option, a vertical picket. I finally give up, deciding that the angle must ease just above the next bulge. “Just keep going!” I murmur. But salvation is much farther than I imagine. 700 vertical feet later I finally get gear for a belay, but we’ll have to downclimb to begin up the thickest névé on the vertical next pitch. It looks overhanging at one point, but I think I see possibilities for pro.

“Kevin sure will be scared up there!” I laugh to myself.

“That went well!” Coop confirms when he reaches the belay. “You should continue leading.”

I cringe but agree. We had a rhythm for the past few hours, and I’m riding on fate now. We are some 1,500 feet up the wall and committed. My only hope on the next pitch is an overlap far above and right that will take a piece before Kevin is forced to pull the anchor.

The wall steepens as I approach the overlap, and I quickly I see it’s too vertical to reach the cracks. I yell down to Cooper to remove the belay and begin following. I fear him slipping as he descends to the base of the pitch. Hanging once again on 6-inch deep vertical névé, my calves screaming, I focus on surmounting the most immediate bulge above. I want to cry. I do cry, and then I continue.

Left, right, up, back, down, left, then right. I dance in the direction that the most solid snow takes me. Roughly 600 feet out and still with no pro, I spy a corner above and left. I need salvation! A dangerous, large snow mushroom hangs above this only corner, but I’m done. The threatening mushroom is less frightening than continuing on with no protection, so I belay. We’re already twenty something hours into our adventure, and yet we’ve only climbed five pitches. We are well past the point of no return.

Kevin leads through, climbing 450 feet of WI4 that eventually ends at the base of the corner in an alcove big enough to dig two body-sized platforms. Upon my reaching the belay we settle in, just as the sun begins to rise.

We wake in full sun and set off with high hopes, thankful to finally have some protection. Kevin leads an impressive, rotten offwidth, which gains us access to the beautiful line of névé and ice we had scoped from camp, and we feel hope. Two pitches later, as darkness falls again, Kevin thankfully stumbles upon an opening to a cave of sorts. On the go now for more than 40 hours, we are quick to dig the cave out, and we are asleep in seconds again as the sky begins to turn light.

The Hideaway Bivy is comfy, and we don’t want to leave, but two hours later we wake. The next pitch, Névé's Nightmare (named after Coopers daughter, Névé), is AI5R snice packed into the corner. A day later and this pitch wouldn’t be climbable, the morning sun melting it. Our timing is impeccable.

Finally at the top of the corner it is decision time. We had hoped to continue up and right to the diamond-shaped summit snowfield but quickly learn this is not an option, as the rock is absolutely horrible and much bigger than expected. Instead we head up and left, keeping with the system we’re on.

A few near-showstopper sections of crumbling choss are surmounted, but the final pitch to the ridge provides better rock and truly fun climbing. As darkness falls once again, we gain the ridge, head out onto the East Face to avoid a rock wall, then back to the ridge for a long ride to the summit.

“Did you see the Northern Lights?” Kevin shouts down.

I turn and catch a most magnificent sight. I find it very fitting to be granted a view of the Aurora Borealis on the summit push. Our dreams are coming true, the stars have aligned, the heavens have shined down and we are on our way to the summit.

At the summit, 20 years of dreaming comes to fruition. We stand atop our dreams after only giving ourselves a five percent chance in hell, everything leading up to this moment seems destined.

We complete an uneventful descent, and upon returning to camp and removing socks and boots, neither Kevin or I can walk. We crawl into our tent on hands and knees and lay in agonizing pain from apparent trench foot. But Shauna Cooke and Steve Job save the day with a care package from Jack Tackle and Fabrizio Zangrilli. A minute before there arrival I had stated, “I would give anything in the world for a beer right now.” The care package contains a couple PBRs, a carton of cookies and some salt and pepper chips, among other things.

We are proud to have held, as best we could, to Mugs’ ideals and the ethics of fast, light and clean climbing, leaving only one piton high. We would like to thank the Mugs Stump Award donors and especially Black Diamond Equipment for allowing us this wonderful opportunity to reach for our dreams and come home safe and successful. It was, and will likely remain, the climb of our lives.

“Stairway to Heaven” AK6, A1 M6 WI4 AI5+ X, 4,000 feet

—Ryan Jennings