SKAGIT ALPINISM

Infinite Spur Laps

June 8th, 2016

This blog post is dedicated to my good friend and longtime climbing partner, Mark Westman. I first met Mark in 2001 at Seattle’s Vertical World (the country’s first climbing gym), during Dale Remsberg’s birthday party. I was just a sixteen-year-old highschool kid, but already completely obsessed with alpine climbing, and I had heard stories about the Infinite Spur from my mentor Mark Bunker, who had gone to attempt it once. I knew that Mark Westman had made the sixth ascent of the Infinite Spur during the previous year, and I peppered him with questions about that climb. Mark kindly obliged, and I still remember him making a hand-drawn topo of the black band for me, fifteen years ago. A year later Mark invited me to come join him and Joe Puryear in Canmore during my mid-winter school vacation, while him and Joe were dedicating a winter to climbing steep ice in preparation for Begguya’s North Buttress. Mark and I did a lot of awesome climbing together over the years, from the Cascades, to the Bugaboos, to the Sierra, to Patagonia and to Alaska. Just a week or so before Rob and I departed on our recent expedition for the Infinite Spur, we learned that Mark had been diagnosed with cancer in his adrenal gland. Rob has also climbed a bunch with Mark, and it was an odd juxtaposition of feelings to be departing on a trip to climb a route Mark had largely inspired us to try, while knowing Mark was dealing with an objective more daunting and formidable than any climb. Mark, we all love you, appreciate you so much, and are all rooting hard for you!

 

INTRODUCTION

I consider myself a climbing history nerd, and I’m a big fan of both Chris Jones’ book “Climbing in North America,” and Andy Selters’ more recent work, “Ways to the Sky.” From my personal, totally subjective, perspective, it seems to me that the two most exciting “moments” in the history of Alaskan climbing, were 1954 and 1976-1977. In 1954, Fred Beckey and Henry Meybohm had what I think is still the most successful Alaskan climbing season ever, making the first ascents of Denali’s NW Buttress, Begguya and Mt. Deborah (the latter two with Heinrich Harrer). 1976 saw the first alpine-style ascent of Denali’s south face (by Dougal Haston and Doug Scott), and a few weeks later the first solo ascent of the Cassin Ridge by Charlie Porter. Charlie Porter, somewhat enigmatic, I gather to be one of the most badass climbers of his generation, and an inspirational figure. Not only was his solo of the Cassin a visionary departure because he was alone on a huge, technical route, but he climbed the entire route in about 36 hours, unheard of speed at the time. George Lowe and Michael Kennedy kept the momentum rolling the year after, with an incredible season that included the first ascent of Begguya’s north face (the Kennedy-Lowe route), and the first ascent of Sultana’s south face (the Infinite Spur).

Soloing the Cassin has become a sort of cult-classic climb among elite North American alpine climbers since Porter’s incredible first solo ascent, with early repeat solo ascents by Michael Kennedy and Dave Cheesmond, and later Mugs Stump. At some point, maybe seven years ago or so, I started to wonder, “Why hasn’t the Infinite Spur been soloed?” We were already well past the date at which a solo of the Infinite Spur would’ve been equally impressive in the context of its era to Porter’s solo of the Cassin. Thus, it’s been already several years that soloing the Infinite Spur has been a vague goal of mine.

The Infinite Spur is a route that has been on my radar for a long time, as I seem to be particularly immersed in its social circle. Except for the two Australians who made the fourth ascent (with a dangerous variation that avoided the first rock band), and Mark Bebie (who died on Slipstream when I was nine years old), I personally know every single person who has climbed the route, as of writing this blog post. The very first attempt on the route was led by Alex Bertulis, an eminent, Lithuanian-born Seattle climber who is a longtime friend of my parents, and who I have had the pleasure to spend some evenings with. The second ascent was made by Jim Nelson and Mark Bebie – Jim I know quite well because I worked for several years at his specialty climbing shop, “Pro Mountain Sports,” with an awesome photo from their Ice Rib bivouac hanging on the wall of the store. George Lowe and Michael Kennedy are heroes of mine that I’ve had the pleasure to spend some time with, and Carl Tobin, Barry Blanchard, Rob Owens, Eammon Walsh, Rolo Garibotti, Steve House, Mark Westman and Joe Puryear all are, or were, friends of mine. The eighth ascent, in 2009, was made by the super-talented, Zermatt brothers Simon and Samuel Anthamatten, along with their friend Andreas Steindl, matching the ground-breaking time of 25 hours schrund-to-summit that Rolo and Steve had established in 2001.

 

SCHEMING FOR THE INFINITE, AND ADVENTURE VERSUS SPORT

Alaska is a fickle place to go climbing, as the weather is so volatile, and the difficulty of the terrain there is so dependent upon the current weather and conditions when you encounter it. A trip can be incredibly successful or incredibly fruitless, with seemingly the same input of skill and motivation. For example, I think one of the Alaska trips I made with the greatest chances of success was in 2011 with my Norwegian friend Nils Nielsen. We had spent all spring training together in Chamonix, were in super good fitness and had tons of motivation. Despite all this, and despite some some very good attempts, after 41 days in the range, we had been denied any success by brutally bad luck with weather and conditions (report here: http://www.colinhaley.com/kahiltna-2011-easy-peak-bagging-and-single-push-failures/). In 2012 I put in even more time, spending a whopping 55 days on the Kahiltna Glacier system with no success (report here: http://www.colinhaley.com/solo-attempt-on-north-buttress-of-begguya/).

At the end of that trip in 2012, on June 29, I made a backpack as light as I could with about five days of provisions, added a rack and an 80m rope, told my plans to basecamp manager Lisa Roderick (wife of Mark Westman), and skied over towards the Infinite Spur. While climbing up to the second pass that one crosses on the approach, I realized I was being denied once again – The terrain at that low altitude was too melted out that late in the season, and it started to snow heavily.

Had I successfully soloed the Inifinite Spur in 2012, the route would’ve probably taken me about four or five times as long as it ended up taking me a few days ago, but I feel it would’ve been an equal accomplishment. There is a very big difference between soloing a route onsight, versus soloing a route you have already climbed before. One would’ve been bigger on the adventure scale, and one would’ve been bigger on the sport scale. Sometimes alpine climbing is all about the adventure, and sometimes it is all about the sport, and usually it is partly about both. Adventure is not superior to sport, and sport is not superior to adventure, they’re simply different. In 2016 a place like the Mont Blanc Massif provides an alpine climbing experience that is 90% sport and 10% adventure. By contrast, climbing in 2016 in a place like Alaska’s Hayes Range provides an alpine climbing experience that is more like 70% adventure and 30% sport. I greatly appreciate both these aspects of alpine climbing, and I deeply enjoy both types of experiences.

This past winter my friend Rob Smith, who knew of my Infinite Spur solo intentions in 2012, asked me if I wanted to go try the Infinite with him. He suggested we could climb the route together, and that afterwards I’d be all primed to solo it. I was into the idea straight away. I knew that climbing the route beforehand would detract from the adventure of soloing it, but would also allow me to solo the route in a super lightweight, fast style that would be greater in the sport realm, and simply damn good fun. I also really liked the idea of descending the Sultana Ridge with a partner before descending it alone, as I knew from the very beginning that it would be one of the most dangerous aspects of soloing the Infinite Spur. Rob has less experience than most of my expedition partners, but he is easier to get along with on an expedition than almost anyone else I know, and I knew we’d have an enjoyable trip. So, plans were hatched for the sport-version of soloing the Infinite Spur. In the end I got all the sport joy, and also all the big adventure, but that was a scary accident that I didn’t seek out.

 

CLIMBING WITH ROB

Rob and I flew to Kahiltna Basecamp on May 2, and started up Denali’s standard West Buttress route, where we would acclimatize for the first portion of our trip. On all of my past Denali trips I have made an advanced base camp at the 4,300m camp, but decided on this trip to try a different strategy, and we instead made our advanced base camp at the 3,300m camp. We never slept higher than this elevation, and simply made day trips higher to acclimatize. On May 15 I made my thirteenth visit to Denali’s summit, which felt a bit harder than normal since it was nearly a 3,000m day and because I had some trail breaking (no one else went above 5,000m that day). Rob, with significantly less high altitude experience than me, didn’t yet feel good enough to go to Denali’s summit, but with a few trips up to around 5,000m we felt that he was still on track in terms of acclimatization for the Infinite Spur.

Shortly after my visit to Denali’s summit, we packed up our ABC, and skied down to Kahiltna basecamp for two nights of rest at low altitude. On May 18 we departed basecamp for a second round of acclimatization, this time on our planned descent route, the Sultana Ridge. My one previous climb of Sultana, in 2010 with Bjørn-Eivind Årtun, had been marked by an epic and scary descent in storm, and I was eager to avoid a similar experience. Thus, we hoped to not only acclimatize more, but also recon our descent route, and even wand as much of it as we could. On May 18, we made it most of the way up Mt. Crosson despite oppressively heavy packs, thanks mostly to tracks put in that morning by Noah Howell and Ben Peters, who were making a daytrip ski descent of Mt. Crosson. Unfortunately, the following four days, May 19-22, the weather was horrendous and we never managed to make it further than the summit of Point 12,472 (As an aside, referring to a mountain by its elevation is always boring, and especially so when done in archaic Imperial units. What about an informal name for Point 12,472? I’ll go ahead and suggest “Lady Point,” in memory of Sue Nott and Karen McNeill, and will at least use that name for the rest of this blog post). Despite not making it even 25% of the way to Sultana’s summit during our foray onto the Sultana Ridge, it was at least four more nights of acclimatization up high, and wands from Lady Point down would at least be more helpful than none.

After a few days rest in Kahiltna Basecamp, Rob and I skied over to the base of the Infinite Spur on May 26. We were lucky dogs, as a team of three cheerful Britons, Ben Silvestre, Pete Graham and Will Harris had departed for the route just one day ahead of us. Not only did we get to use their tracks on the approach, but the following day their tracks were a massive boon on the first half of the route. I’ve had a few experiences in Alaska where my partner and I were burdened with massive trail breaking ahead of other teams, so it was nice for once to be on the receiving end! On the 27th Rob and I woke up from our bivy at around 3am, and at 5:46am we were crossing the bergschrund.

We knew from talking with past parties that the biggest challenge of the Infinite Spur is in its total size and the committing nature of climbing on Sultana, rather than from extreme technical difficulties. Thus, we wore swami belts, climbed on a single half rope, and carried a lightweight rack. We brought sleeping bags and sleeping pads, but no tent, planning to bivouac in crevasses during the descent. We simul-climbed all of the route, except for the first half of the “Ice Rib,” where we opted to simul-solo instead. Shortly below the “Black Band,” we caught up with Ben, Pete and Will, gave fist-bumps all around, thanked them for the tracks, and promised we’d do our best to put in a good track for the second half.

The period in which the Britons, Rob and I climbed the Infinite Spur was thankfully devoid of precipitation, but was quite windy. When Rob and I arrived at our planned-for brew stop, at the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge,” it was far too windy to light the stove. We carried on and found a crevasse that we could crawl into, and took a two-hour rest and brew stop there. From the end of the technical difficulties to the summit, the wind alternated between ferocious periods and periods of near calm. The upper slopes were thankfully mostly scoured of soft snow – That combined with the British tracks down lower combined for a pretty awesome package of good conditions.

Rob was fighting hard with the altitude up high, and our progress slowed significantly, but at 12:06 we arrived on Sultana’s summit, 18:20 after crossing the bergschrund. We dropped the first 1,500m of the descent fairly quickly (which is actually the Japanese route, not the Sultana Ridge), and then continued along the Sultana Ridge a short ways before finding a hospitable crevasse to take shelter in. After sleeping about five hours, we got up and continued on our way. On the east ridge of Lady Point we popped into a crevasse that we had used as a shelter during our acclimatization venture to melt more snow, take some rest, and take a very short nap (maybe 30 minutes). When we left our crevasse shelter on Lady Point, which we had named the “Freezy Nuts Castle,” we left a very minimal cache of an isobutane gas canister, four energy bars and some recovery drink powder – something I would be very grateful for later.

Rob and I crossed over the summit of Mt. Crosson for our third time of the trip late in the night of May 28, and around 6am on May 29 arrived back in Kahiltna Basecamp. After a few hours of sleep I gave Rob a hug as he boarded a TAT plane bound for home, a great and successful trip already achieved.

 

THE SOLO

On May 29 I was too tired to know for sure if I would feel up for the planned-for solo ascent, but I started repairing gear and organizing for the climb nonetheless. I knew that good weather was the most important ingredient, but if I could go soon then I could benefit from exceptional conditions on the route, and 5 people’s tracks on the Sultana Ridge – something which would make the crevasse hazard of descending it alone much lesser. Unfortunately, I woke on May 30 to 20cm of fresh snow in Kahiltna Basecamp – A major setback, since 20cm of snow in basecamp would correlate to probably 40cm of snow up high, but I hoped (realistically), that at least some of it would’ve been blown off the Sultana Ridge and some of the tracks would still be visible.

Throughout the trip I had been calling Rolo Garibotti via satellite phone for weather forecasts. Rolo, apart from being a great friend and mentor who has immensely helped me over the years in my climbing aspirations, is someone quite familiar with mountain weather forecasting. On May 30 I finished packing my things for the solo ascent, and talked with Rolo in the evening. It sounded like departing the next morning, May 31, might be good, but I would call again in the morning to hear an updated forecast.

I woke up on May 31 after far too little sleep, and immediately called Rolo. Rolo had good news: The next wave of precipitation, which had looked earlier as though it might arrive in the evening of June 1 had been pushed back by a full 24 hours. All five weather models now showed good weather until the evening of June 2 – a full 2.5 days of good weather, which would be plenty of time for me. I had already learned in 2010 with Bjørn-Eivind how incredibly important it is to have a solid forecast if climbing such a massive mountain without bivouac equipment. In hindsight it may seem as though I made the same mistake this time as Bjørn and I made in 2010, but in all honestly I think the forecast sounded quite solid, and I simply got quite unlucky this time.

I told Lisa and the NPS rangers of my plans, and departed basecamp around 7am on May 31, after less than two full rest days. Shortly after me another team of three Britons, Dave Sharpe, Gavin Pike and John Crook departed for the Infinite as well. After not seeing a single ascent since 2009, the route would get four attempts in one week! I decided not to bring a sleeping bag, as not only did I plan to climb the route and descend the Sultana Ridge in a single push, but I figured that at the base of the route during the middle of the day it would be warm enough to sleep just in my clothes. After making the approach in just 2.5 hours on the morning of the 31st, it was plenty warm to sleep in just my clothes during the middle of the day, but unfortunately I wasn’t sleepy at that time. I didn’t get sleepy until late in the evening, at which point it was pretty chilly without a sleeping bag, and when I got moving very early on June 1 I had gotten only a couple hours of fitful sleep.

I crossed the bergschrund at 3:43am on June 1, and waved to Dave, Gavin and John, who I could see walking up the last bit of glacier towards the base of the route. Unfortunately, it was clear from the very beginning that I wouldn’t be enjoying the superb conditions that Rob and I had a few days earlier. I think that conditions were still a bit better than average, or at least average, but the earlier tracks were filled in with fresh snow, and the snowpack had only partially re-frozen during the night. I was nonetheless able to make good time, thanks mostly to a very lightweight backpack. I had my crampons, ice axes, helmet, a swami belt, ice axe umbilicals, and two key-chain carabiners for clipping my ice axes to my swami belt on the rock climbing portions. I carried not a single real carabiner, nor a single piece of protection. My only rope was a 15m section of 5mm perlon that Ben, Pete and Will had lent me, which I used to haul my pack up behind me on the hardest bits (a tactic I employed only twice on the whole route).

Considering that the forecast was supposed to be solid until the afternoon of June 3, I was a bit surprised to see it start lightly snowing around 8am on June 1. I wasn’t too concerned though, as I had a similar experience on the Denali Diamond in 2007 with Mark Westman, when we started climbing in light snow showers, and then enjoyed perfect weather for the remainder of the climb.

The vast majority of the route felt very casual and easy to be climbing ropeless, although the sustained blue ice on the upper portion of the “Knife Edge Ridge” was certainly tedious. The only section where I felt I had to climb very slowly to do safely without a rope was in the “Black Band.” I had optimistically hoped that warm temperatures would’ve caused more ice to form since Rob and I had climbed through it, but in fact the conditions on the Black Band were a bit harder the second round – Not only was there still only a meagre amount of ice, but sections I had been able to climb bare-handed on the first time were now covered in powder snow. The Black Band, despite being only two rope-lengths long, took me over an hour to slowly ascend.

At 11:20am I finished the Knife-Edge Ridge, and settled in for a rest and brew stop for about 1:15. I was off again at 12:36, my pack re-loaded with about three liters of warm water. After a bit more 60-degree ice, I was soon slogging on Sultana’s upper slopes. The snowfall from a couple days earlier made for a bit of trail breaking, but still much better conditions than average (at least compared to my experience with Bjørn-Eivind, when we were wading trough knee-deep snow for all of the upper slopes). With the technical climbing behind me, I switched from bars to gels, busted out my iPod Shuffle, and “dropped the hammer.” I had an absolute blast pushing hard on the upper slopes, mostly to the aid of Australian drum-and-bass band “Pendulum.” I even enjoyed perfect album timing, arriving on Sultana’s summit near the end of my favorite Pendulum song, “Encoder,” at 4:18pm (12:29 after crossing the bergschrund). Considering how big and serious of a route the Infinite Spur is in general, it had been a shockingly casual and joyful ascent. It had been an awesome execution of my “sport-version” vision of soloing the Infinite Spur. Unfortunately, the casual, joyful nature of my excursion would soon be drastically changing. I knew that the tracks on the Sultana Ridge would already be at least mostly obscured by the snowfall two days earlier, and I planned to be super vigilant and cautious about crevasse hazard, but little did I know, crevasses would soon be far from my biggest concern.

I made decent time on the first portion of my descent, which follows the Japanese Route for the first 1,500m of elevation loss. At 6:45pm I was taking a break at the junction of the Japanese Route and Sultana Ridge, swapping socks, eating some snacks and melting some more water. I was moving again in less than an hour, but almost immediately the weather socked in badly. It started snowing quite hard, and more problematic the visibility reduced to zero. It was a nearly identical situation to the one that Bjørn-Eivind and I had experienced in 2010 – After a big, exhausting climb, and needing to descend straight away without bivouac gear, we were suddenly trapped up high by bad weather (report here: http://www.colinhaley.com/alaska-2010-dracula-and-cassin-simul-solo/).

From the moment the bad weather came in on the evening of June 1, it took me nearly 48 hours to reach Kahiltna Basecamp. The descent was a long, harrowing blur, done entirely in storm, in which I became progressively more sleep-deprived, finally arriving in basecamp after being awake nearly three full days. Although my biggest concern beforehand had been crevasses, it soon became clear that my biggest concerns were visibility and avalanche hazard. During the course of my descent it snowed something like 50-60cm up high, with a lot of wind transport. Avalanche conditions were the sketchiest I have ever seen in 20 years of skiing and mountaineering, and I triggered at least 30 slab avalanches during my descent. The vast majority of the time I was able to stay exactly on the ridge crest, and I always triggered avalanches with my waist at the fracture line, such that they slid harmlessly away below me. However, in a few places, especially on the descent off of Mt. Crosson, one is far from the safety of ridges. In crossing a few particularly bad pockets I took very indirect routes, sometimes down-climbing 60-degree ice to avoid the sketchy 40-degree slopes of snow. The “whumphing” sounds that I triggered at various points during my descent were the loudest, scariest I’ve ever heard.

My biggest problem by far was visibility. It is sometimes astounding how terrain which is very easy to navigate in good visibility can become so extremely difficult to decipher in bad visibility. This is especially the case in places like the Sultana Ridge, which are composed completely of snow – Rock is visible from much greater distances during bad visibility. I did a decent amount of probing and back-tracking, and in one particularly bad instance did an extra 300 meters of elevation gain and descent (all with deep trail breaking), when I convinced myself that I had accidentally veered off the main ridge on some sort of minor spur. As it turned out, when I finally got a slight glimpse of terrain, I had been on track after all, and proceeded to re-descend the same 300 meters that I had just climbed back up. I finally concluded that wasting so many calories to route-finding was a dangerous game, and I switched to a program where I would only move if could see something, and when the visibility was absolutely zero I would simply wait. Thus, whenever I could see anything I moved as fast as I could (not an easy task with the deep trail breaking), and otherwise I patiently sat on my backpack and waited for any glimpses. In one instance I spent an entire six hours in one spot sitting on my backpack, alternating between bouts of light exercise to stay warm, and extremely brief (maybe 5 minutes maximum?) cat-naps with my head resting on my knees. I had consciously packed my clothing fairly conservatively since I didn’t bring bivouac equipment, and was very glad I had.

Trail-breaking was brutally hard work with all the snow that was accumulating, and I’d estimate that I spent a total of 2-3 kilometers literally crawling on my hands and knees. It was the sort of wind-deposited snow that you sink deep into, but that requires a lot of energy to compress on every step (as opposed to light, gravity-deposited powder, which, although deep, provides much less resistance to compression).

Thankfully, despite all the snowfall and horrendous visibility, most of the time the wind was strong enough to sting my face and make me cold, but not the full-on “you’re gonna die”-type wind. There was, however, one period, in which it was really windy, and I desperately probed around for a crevasse to take shelter in. After finally finding a suitable crevasse, I finished my fuel early in the morning of June 2, under particularly bad circumstances. Knowing I was already very low on fuel, I was trying to be extremely efficient in using the last bit of it. Thus, I packed the pot of the Jetboil as tight as I could with snow before lighting the stove, so that every moment of escaping, combusting butane would be transferred to the snow in the pot. When I finally had about 600ml of warm water, I forced myself to drink it as quickly as possible, before it lost heat. As soon as I brought the pot to my lips I could tell it smelled bad, and as soon as I started drinking I could tell it tasted horrible. However, I was obsessed with getting the precious water inside me before it cooled off. In the dark bowels of the crevasse I couldn’t tell what was going on, and I remember thinking, “It must be from the recovery drink I had in here earlier.” Despite my best intentions to chug, by the time I had consumed about 400ml I realized something was seriously wrong. I had a horrendous metallic taste in my mouth and throat, and as I pulled the Jetboil pot away from my face, I could see some sort of brown liquid inside it, which I poured out in the snow. Within a minute or so I started emitting the most vile vomit of my life. I felt horrible, and I lost I think all the precious water I had made and probably more, a very poor outcome in my already dehydrated state and with almost no fuel left. It was perhaps the lowest moment of my entire journey. I realized afterwards that the problem had been packing the Jetboil pot so tightly with snow – When I turned on the stove the snow at the bottom of the pot had vaporized, and the rest of the snow stayed suspended above, stuck to the walls of the pot. Thus, I had badly “burned” the aluminum at the bottom of the pot, and when the rest of the snow finally fell down and started melting, I made myself a burnt aluminum soup. After doing my best to clean the burnt aluminum sludge out the bottom of the pot, I had enough fuel left for only a meagre 400ml of water.

During the descent I was often honestly very concerned for my survival, something which is very scary and which I have experienced very seldom in my years of climbing mountains. It was a huge relief to finally arrive at the “Freezy Nuts Castle” (the crevasse Rob and I had taken shelter in on the east ridge of Lady Point) around 1am on June 3. At this point I had drank only about 400ml of water about 20 hours earlier, and finished my last energy bar at the same time. Not only was I able to gloriously nourish myself at Freezy Nuts, thanks to an isobutane canister and some snacks, but I knew that a lot of the route from there on out was wanded.

I left Freezy Nuts around 4:15am on June 3, and to my great relief found significantly easier trail-breaking up the west ridge of Mt. Crosson. The descent of the upper east slopes of Mt. Crosson provided the scariest avalanche slopes of all, and one portion that we didn’t wand required me to sit in one place for 6 hours during particularly bad visibility. When I finally reached the well-defined southeast ridge of Mt. Crosson I was able to drop a lot of elevation quickly, thanks to easy route-finding on the rocky ridge crest. I didn’t dare stray even a meter from the ridge crest, and thus scrambled down a lot of 3rd-class snowy rock when normally one would be plunge-stepping easy snow-slopes to the side. The bottom of Mt. Crosson is normally ascended via big snow couloirs on either the east or south side, but there was no way I was touching those huge, loaded slopes. I instead stayed exactly on the crest, down-climbing the increasingly steep ridge. When finally near the Kahiltna Glacier I realized that I was above vertical cliffs of choss, and had to reascend about 200 meters and traverse far to the side before finding a gully low-angle enough to down-climb to the glacier. The “rock” on the lower portion of Mt. Crosson was the most rotten I’ve ever seen. My crampons were often “balling up” with rock, rather than snow! The one bonus was that I was able to literally kick my frontpoints into the rock when down-climbing the steeper bits! Finally down on the Kahiltna Glacier, I took the safest possible route back to “Heartbreak Hill,” and arrived in Kahiltna Basecamp around 7:30pm on June 3. Of course the weather improved drastically right as I was making my way across the glacier back to basecamp.

REFLECTIONS

I think I succeeded in soloing the Infinite Spur in a fun, sporty fashion. By accident I ended up getting all the adventure I ever could’ve wanted, and way more. I’m proud of having made the first solo ascent of the Infinite Spur, and I’m proud of having managed to climb the route quite quickly, but in the end it wasn’t “worth it” in terms of all the risk I was exposed to. If things had gone as I had planned and hoped it would’ve already been a fairly risky descent, but still “worth it.” As things turned out, it was simply way too dangerous, and I’m not proud of that. I am proud however that, given the very serious situation, I think I consistently stayed level-headed, made the safest decisions possible, and got back without incident.

Before my solo I had very seriously considered planning to descend the Infinite Spur, as it would’ve eliminated the crevasse hazard of the Sultana Ridge. If things had gone as I’d hoped, the Sultana Ridge would’ve been a slightly easier option, but in hindsight, considering the storm and how exposed the Sultana Ridge is to bad weather, descending the Infinite Spur would’ve been a far faster, easier and safer way to go. Carrying an 80m rope and a basic rack would’ve probably made me a couple hours slower on the ascent, but in the end way faster on the descent. Part of the reason that descending the Infinite Spur would’ve worked well for me is that I’m confident I could’ve down-soloed the “Knife-Edge Ridge” and the “Ice Rib.” Even for more standard, roped parties, I’m skeptical that the Sultana Ridge is actually the best descent. Until a couple decades ago, the normal route on Sultana was the Southeast Ridge, and I suspect that is actually the best option. I’m pretty sure I’m done climbing on Sultana, but if I were to do it over again, and what I would recommend to future parties, is to acclimatize/recon by climbing the Southeast Ridge, and use it as the descent route after climbing the Infinite Spur. Not only is the Sultana Ridge so long and involves so much elevation gain during the descent, but it is extremely exposed to bad weather, which I think is a very significant factor to consider.

One pleasant surprise was how well I felt the day after returning to basecamp, despite going so long without sleeping, and despite doing so much exercise with so little food or water. I’d estimate that by this point in my life I’ve done at least 60 days of non-stop climbing for over 24 hours. I think that all those prior experiences of big days have slowly been transferring to a very solid reserve of endurance, which is a good safety net when things don’t go well in the mountains.

While I was enduring my epic on the Sultana Ridge, Dave, Gavin and John were enduring their own epic on the Infinite Spur. Having climbed to a bivy above the first rock band on June 1, they then spent two days at their bivy getting hammered by bad weather before retreating with similar issues of deep trail breaking and scary avalanche conditions.

One fun fact that I have learned since my solo climb, is that at least one other person had come up with the idea before – In 1998 Andy de Klerk went to climb the Infinite Spur with Dave Nettle. When Dave abandoned the project, Andy made a solo attempt. While not well known outside of South Africa and the Pacific Northwest (he is South African, but lived in Seattle for a number of years), Andy was one of the most badass all-around climbers in the world during the late 1980’s and 1990’s.

My friend Seth Adams found this gem of a quote by Mark Bebie, from his AAJ article following his and Jim Nelson’s second ascent of the route: “We are glad we went heavy: 11 days of food and, as it turned out, 15+ days of fuel. This enabled us to keep our strength up and to climb at a safe pace. A couple of days of “extra” food does not weigh that much on a climb this long. Instead of being tempted to go for it during a lull in the storm, we could afford to be patient. I have read many accounts of people heading for the summit with something like a single chocolate bar and no water—basically running on fumes, and a lot of hope. Here, the margin of safety is already thinned enough by the cold, and the conditions which can change. No amount of wishful thinking will ever tame Alaska.“

I owe some thanks to various people for my solo climb. I owe thanks to Rob for being a great partner for the main portion of our trip and for helping set things up for my solo ascent. I owe thanks to Rolo for the weather forecasting, and to Lisa and the NPS Rangers for always being so helpful and hospitable around camp. I also owe a big thanks to Ben, Pete and Will, for the tracks that Rob and I used, for lending me the 15m of 5mm cord, and for bringing back Rob and my skis from the approach when they went to pick up theirs!

ADDED JUNE 10: My friend Kelly MF Cordes was asking me how Rob and I went so much faster on the Infinite Spur than previous ascents, and how I then went much faster yet, and it occurred to me that other people might have a similar question, so I thought I’d share my thoughts here:

First and foremost, conditions are everything on big routes in the Central Alaska Range. Even the most technical routes on Denali and Sultana involve more than half the elevation gain on snowfields that can hold enough snow for hard trail breaking. Thus, whether or not you have a lot of hard trail breaking can easily literally halve or double your ascent time. The last time I tried the Cassin Ridge, in 2011 with Nils Nielsen, we were very fit and very well acclimatized, but had horrendously bad trail breaking. We eventually got so exhausted that we didn’t even manage to finish the route, and instead traversed back to the 4,200m camp. If, on the exact same day we had perfect tracks ahead of us, I’m confident that we would’ve gone from the ‘schrund to the summit in under 9 hours. When Rob and I climbed the Infinite Spur, we had perfect tracks from the British party until just under the Black Band, and then a wind-scoured upper mountain with very little trail breaking. Of the eleven ascents of the Infinite Spur thus far, I think it’s very likely that Rob and I had the best conditions of any ascent.
Second, anyone who tells you that gear doesn’t matter is clueless (at least in alpine climbing). I’m 100% certain that Rob and I were carrying less total mass of material than any other roped ascent of the route. My ice axes, crampons and helmet are all significantly lighter than they were just three years ago, and massively lighter than the ice axes, crampons and helmets that Steve and Rolo had in 2001. My helmet is the lightest one on the market. My ice axes are Petzl prototypes which are noticeably lighter than Quarks, which are already some of the lightest technical ice axes on the market. My crampons are steel in front and aluminum in back, and connected by dyneema cord. We cut the leg loops off of our harnesses. Our cams were the new BD ultralights. Our ice screws were the aluminum Petzl Laser Speed Lights. Our carabiners and slings were certainly way lighter than the lightest ones available in 2001. We climbed on a single 7.7mm rope, and didn’t bring a second one. I wore single boots on both ascents – the La Sportiva Batura, of which the current version is significantly lighter than the first version that came out in 2007. Yeah, we brought sleeping bags, they weighed 700g each. Yeah, we brought foam pads, but have you seen how light the NeoAir pads are? We had a Jetboil Sol, which is much lighter than the original Jetboil, which already was much lighter than whatever stove Steve and Rolo had in 2001 (probably a white gas stove).
Even relatively minor differences in strategy can make a major impact. For example, on my previous single-push ascents of big routes in the Central Alaska Range, I had always brought one freeze-dried dinner each, to break up the monotony of eating so many energy bars and gels. This year I was wise enough to realize that is a major mistake – Not only does it waste a lot of fuel to bring water to a boil, but the freeze-dried meals are slow to cook, slow to eat, and slow to digest. I think that even something as simple as not bringing any freeze-dried meals might’ve easily saved us 30 minutes.
Rob and I climbed the route in about 73% the time of the previous fastest ascent. However, when you consider that this past winter Alex Honnold and I did the Torre Traverse in less than 25% of the time of the previous fastest ascent, it shouldn’t even be so shocking that I was able to solo the Infinite Spur in 50% of the time of the long-standing speed record. In all these cases there is of course some fitness and skill involved, but mostly it is a question of shifts in paradigm and perspective. Rob and I already had the lightest packs of anyone who has climbed the route, and when I went back alone I dropped a whole bunch more weight by bringing essentially zero rope or hardware. Rob and I already simul-climbed everything, and when I went back alone I wasted zero time placing gear or belaying.
To be honest, even my time of 12:29 is not actually very fast. If I were to do it again, if I were very well acclimatized and had perfect conditions, I’m pretty sure I could do it in 9 hours. I’m also pretty sure that, under perfect conditions, someone like Ueli Steck could do it in considerably less time than that. I’m totally serious and quite confident in these statements. If you break it down, that shouldn’t be so surprising. First off, the elevation gain from ‘schrund to summit is roughly 2,700m. Doing 2,700m of elevation gain in 9 hours? For someone like Kilian Jornet that is literally a rest day. Second, for a high-level alpinist in 2016 the technical difficulties of the Infinite Spur are basically trivial, so they cannot be considered a significant hindrance on speed. The only spot where I was slow due to the technical difficulty was the Black Band, and someone like Ueli would’ve raced through it. If conditions are perfect then trail-breaking would be a non-issue, and if one is well acclimatized then the altitude would be a non issue.

 

The view of the very melted-out second approach pass, during my solo approach to the Infinite Spur in June 2012.

The view of the very melted-out second approach pass, during my solo approach to the Infinite Spur in June 2012.

Back at the first approach pass in June 2012, feeling confident I made the right decision not to start up the Infinite Spur.

Back at the first approach pass in June 2012, feeling confident I made the right decision not to start up the Infinite Spur.

Rob acclimatizing above the 3,300m camp on Denali.

Rob acclimatizing above the 3,300m camp on Denali.

Rob at a sock-drying break in the Rescue Gully, while acclimatizing on Denali.

Rob at a sock-drying break in the Rescue Gully, while acclimatizing on Denali.

Keeping my bare feet out of the breeze while drying socks in the Rescue Gully on Denali.

Keeping my bare feet out of the breeze while drying socks in the Rescue Gully on Denali.

Rob skiing back down to the 3,300m camp after some acclimatizing higher on Denali.

Rob skiing back down to the 3,300m camp after some acclimatizing higher on Denali.

A solitary trip on the upper West Buttress of Denali.

A solitary trip on the upper West Buttress of Denali.

One lonely track up Denali's final summit ridge.

One lonely track up Denali’s final summit ridge.

On the summit of Denali for my thirteenth time.

On the summit of Denali for my thirteenth time.

Rob slogging up the lower slopes of Mt. Crosson.

Rob slogging up the lower slopes of Mt. Crosson.

Rob scrambling about midway up Mt. Crosson's southeast ridge.

Rob scrambling about midway up Mt. Crosson’s southeast ridge.

Rob about 75% of the way up Mt. Crosson, with ski tracks in the foreground from Noah Howell and Ben Peters.

Rob about 75% of the way up Mt. Crosson, with ski tracks in the foreground from Noah Howell and Ben Peters.

Our crevasse-sheltered bivouac about 75% of the way up Mt. Crosson.

Our crevasse-sheltered bivouac about 75% of the way up Mt. Crosson.

On the summit of Mt. Crosson for our first time of the trip.

On the summit of Mt. Crosson for our first time of the trip.

Rob arriving at the Freezy Nuts Castle for the first time.

Rob arriving at the Freezy Nuts Castle for the first time.

Rob entering the presidential suite of the Freezy Nuts Castle.

Rob entering the presidential suite of the Freezy Nuts Castle.

It was a cold place to camp, but the ambiance was incredible!

It was a cold place to camp, but the ambiance was incredible!

A brief clearing to view a storm-raked Denali, retreating to basecamp after three frigid nights in the Freezy Nuts Castle.

A brief clearing to view a storm-raked Denali, retreating to basecamp after three frigid nights in the Freezy Nuts Castle.

Rob descending Mt. Crosson after our acclimatization venture on the lower portion of the Sultana Ridge.

Rob descending Mt. Crosson after our acclimatization venture on the lower portion of the Sultana Ridge.

The south face of Sultana from our approach on May 26.

The south face of Sultana from our approach on May 26.

Rob on the initial snowfield of the Infinite Spur.

Rob on the initial snowfield of the Infinite Spur.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob in the first rockband.

Rob above the first rockband.

Rob above the first rockband.

Awesome views from partway up the Infinite Spur.

Awesome views from partway up the Infinite Spur.

Rob climbing up the side of the "Ice Rib."

Rob climbing up the side of the “Ice Rib.”

Will Harris, Ben Silvestre and Pete Graham sending for the queen, shortly before the "Black Band."

Will Harris, Ben Silvestre and Pete Graham sending for the queen, shortly before the “Black Band.”

Rob climbing the first of two cruxes in the "Black Band," with the Brits visible just below.

Rob climbing the first of two cruxes in the “Black Band,” with the Brits visible just below.

Rob traversing above the "Black Band."

Rob traversing above the “Black Band.”

Rob at a belay below the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Rob at a belay below the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Rob nearing the end of the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Rob nearing the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Rob at the end of the "Knife-Edge Ridge," where we had hoped to stop and melt snow.

Rob at the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge,” where we had hoped to stop and melt snow.

Rob climbing 60-degree slopes after our brew-stop in a crevasse.

Rob climbing 60-degree slopes after our brew-stop in a crevasse.

Rob climbing our last roped pitch.

Rob climbing our last roped pitch.

Rob at the end of the technical difficulties, with the Lacuna Glacier stretching out below.

Rob at the end of the technical difficulties, with the Lacuna Glacier stretching out below.

Rob slogging on the upper slopes.

Rob slogging on the upper slopes.

Rob feeling the burn up high.

Rob feeling the burn up high.

Evening light on the northwest aspect of Begguya.

Evening light on the northwest aspect of Begguya.

Rob feeling the burn on the final ridge to Sultana's north summit.

Rob feeling the burn on the final ridge to Sultana’s north summit.

Rob feeling the burn on the final ridge to Sultana's north summit.

Rob feeling the burn on the final ridge to Sultana’s north summit.

Rob on the last little climb to Sultana's summit.

Rob on the last little climb to Sultana’s summit.

On the summit of Sultana just after midnight.

On the summit of Sultana just after midnight.

At our first crevasse-sheltered bivouac during our descent.

At our first crevasse-sheltered bivouac during our descent.

Rob punching into a crevasse while descending the Sultana Ridge.

Rob punching into a crevasse while descending the Sultana Ridge.

Rob breaking trail up Lady Point during our descent of the Sultana Ridge.

Rob breaking trail up Lady Point during our descent of the Sultana Ridge.

Back below Sultana's south face, while approaching on the morning of May 31.

Back below Sultana’s south face, while approaching on the morning of May 31.

The first real pitch of the Infinite Spur, and the first crux, one of two places where I hauled my pack up behind me.

The first real pitch of the Infinite Spur, and the first crux, one of two places where I hauled my pack up behind me.

Moderate, fun climbing in the first rockband.

Moderate, fun climbing in the first rockband.

Halfway up the first rockband, with already moody skies above.

Halfway up the first rockband, with already moody skies above.

Climbing somewhere low on the Infinite Spur.

Climbing somewhere low on the Infinite Spur.

Climbing up on the side of the "Ice Rib," shortly before the "Black Band."

Climbing up on the side of the “Ice Rib,” shortly before the “Black Band.”

Getting psyched for the "Black Band."

Getting psyched for the “Black Band.”

Looking up the first of two cruxes in the "Black Band," the second spot on the route where I hauled my pack up behind me.

Looking up the first of two cruxes in the “Black Band,” the second spot on the route where I hauled my pack up behind me.

Climbing the first of two cruxes in the "Black Band."

Climbing the first of two cruxes in the “Black Band.”

I managed to hang my pack on a sharp rock hold while climbing the first of two cruxes in the "Black Band."

I managed to hang my pack on a sharp rock hold while climbing the first of two cruxes in the “Black Band.”

Looking up the second crux of the "Black Band."

Looking up the second crux of the “Black Band.”

Climbing the second crux of the "Black Band."

Climbing the second crux of the “Black Band.”

Just above the "Black Band."

Just above the “Black Band.”

On the side of the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

On the side of the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Near the top of the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Near the top of the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Almost done with the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Almost done with the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Taking a rest stop to melt snow at the end of the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Taking a rest stop to melt snow at the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Looking up the upper slopes above the "Knife-Edge Ridge."

Looking up the upper slopes above the “Knife-Edge Ridge.”

Breaking out above the clouds after the technical difficulties.

Breaking out above the clouds after the technical difficulties.

Amped up to "Pendulum" while slogging the upper slopes.

Amped up to “Pendulum” while slogging the upper slopes.

Over the course of this expedition I must've seen over twenty of these little frozen birdies up high on the mountains. :(

Over the course of this expedition I must’ve seen over twenty of these little frozen birdies up high on the mountains. 🙁

Looking towards the north summit while almost to the south summit.

Looking towards the north summit while almost to the south summit.

On the summit of Sultana alone at 4:18pm.

On the summit of Sultana alone at 4:18pm.

Melting snow and swapping socks at the junction of the Japanese Route and Sultana Ridge.

Melting snow and swapping socks at the junction of the Japanese Route and Sultana Ridge.

Waiting for visibility.

Waiting for visibility.

Waiting for visibility.

Waiting for visibility.

Bundled up in the crevasse where I accidentally consumed burnt-aluminum soup.

Bundled up in the crevasse where I accidentally consumed burnt-aluminum soup.

Nearly to the top of Lady Point, super happy and relieved to finally be in terrain that I was confident I could find my way through regardless of the weather.

Nearly to the top of Lady Point, super happy and relieved to finally be in terrain that I was confident I could find my way through regardless of the weather.

Recuperating for a bit in the Freezy Nuts Castle.

Recuperating for a bit in the Freezy Nuts Castle.

On the home stretch: at the base of Mt. Crosson.

On the home stretch: at the base of Mt. Crosson.

Safe and sound back in Bungus the Tent, at Kahiltna Basecamp.

Safe and sound back in Bungus the Tent, at Kahiltna Basecamp.