Have At It
This was the news release sent out after Scott, Steve and I climbed what we referred to then as the Czech Direct. Slovak Direct is accurate but I haven't bothered to change the descriptor since this is a historical repository. I think mountainzone.com published it more or less verbatim, others required more detail, or perhaps a less aggressive style.
June 24-26 Steve House, Scott Backes and I climbed the Czech Direct on Denali. The first ascent, in 1986, required 11 days and approximately 1000' of fixed rope. Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore made the second ascent over 7 days in May, 2000. We climbed it in 60 hours non-stop. We carried no bivouac gear apart from a 2lb Down or Polarguard jacket each and two MSR XGK stoves in order to melt snow fast enough to stay hydrated. Starting with just 22oz of fuel for each, these ran out of gas at hour 48. A total of 55lbs was split between two packs, (18lbs were water), leaving the leader pack-free to move fast.
The Czech Direct is 9000' high but only 5500' present any climbing difficulty: ice climbing up to 90°+ and rock to UIAA V+ (USA 5.9). We belayed 31 (60m) pitches, simul-climbed some terrain and soloed the rest including the first 1000' where the Czechs belayed 9 pitches. After crossing the bergschrund at 6am, we passed the Czech's 2nd bivouac site at 8am and their 3rd bivy by 11 and reached their 4th at 2pm where we brewed and ate. The climbing was fantastic and there was a lot of it. The Czech topo showed 24 pitches of UIAA III (USA 5.4) or harder. Ice conditions were such that we never holstered our tools -- but we did have to file them twice during the climb.
Twenty-four hours into it, almost 4000' up the route we passed the point of no return. The Czechs had climbed 43 pitches to reach the same spot. We didn't have enough anchors to retreat, the terrain would have swallowed us.
In poor visibility, around hour 34, we got lost. "Big Bertha" - the huge serac dominating the South Face - scared us too far west. We tried several lines through the last rockband before sneaking up mixed terrain between the serac and the steepest rock. It was safer than we imagined.
By that point we were hammered. I caught House snoring at one belay, which is the best thing about climbing as a team of three: one leads while one belays and the other naps.
Difficulties ended at 16,800'. The original Czech line remains independent, following easy snow slopes criss-crossed by crevasses to the summit. Instead, we simul-climbed to 17,400' where we joined the Cassin Ridge at 2pm and unroped. Sixty hours after crossing the bergschrund we traversed onto "Pig Hill" just beneath Kahiltna Horn, 200' below the summit. It's the first time I regret missing a summit. Our effort deserved a better finish but we were in survival mode, everything was uncertain and we were well out of water. Despite this, we made it down the West Buttress to the National Park Service camp at 14,000' in 2hrs 20min. We slept and ate for 24 hours there before recovering our skis from a cache at 11,000' and sliding back to the airstrip at 7200'.
Backes called the route "one of the best mixed climbs in the world. It's crazy that it went unrepeated for 14 years." House stated simply, "It was my first world-class route."
Psychologically it was quite intense. We crossed a frontier into the unknown. Steve had climbed continuously for 36 hours on King Peak. Scott and I had gone 41 hours without sleep on Mount Hunter in 1994. That we dared to climb for 60 hours straight appears insane to most people. It is true that, beyond a certain point, exhaustion had its way with us; we dropped a cam, a screw, and an ice tool - and got lost. Everyone's mental ability to lead more than two pitches in a row (efficiently) was compromised by hour 40. However, I think that up to around hour 40 or 48, if a climber is fit and has the right attitude, Single Push climbing is an acceptable style. It's not crazy or unsafe for the climber with an open mind.
That said, sleep deprivation, combined with the constant demand for a high level of awareness transported us to an unfamiliar place. The cramps were fierce and the aural hallucinations memorable. We communicated without speech, even when we were mad at each other.
Non-stop ascents may appear to be a new phenomenon but Single Push tactics were successful in the Himalaya as early as 1985. Erhard Loretan, Jean Troillet, and Pierre-Alain Steiner climbed Dhauligiri in winter without packs! Loretan and Troillet sped up Everest in 36 hours. Benoit Chamoux climbed K2 in 23 hours even though fixed ropes and camps threatened to trip him every step of the way. Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, G1 and G2 have also been climbed using Single Push tactics. Europeans raised the bar a long time ago and no one here ever even noticed.
We Americans are simply repeating our own feeble efforts. This is due, in part, to fear. If my experience on Denali this season is any indication, most American climbers are scared: scared to be cold, or they wouldn't be trudging along in down suits when others rush past them freed by their light clothing and flexible attitude. They are scared to be hungry, or they wouldn't carry so much damn food. Scared to rely on their own skill, or they would not carry so much unnecessary hardware. With few exceptions, American climbers are afraid to do anything other than follow a recipe that was designed to succeed based on twenty-year old equipment, technique and knowledge.
The other part of the equation is the disturbing lack of American media attention paid to the evolution of alpine climbing instigated by foreign climbers. If no one knows the playing field has changed, no one can show up for the new game.
Wake up! Everest was first climbed in 1953, done without oxygen in 1978, soloed in 1980, climbed in a single push in 1986. Jean-Marc Boivin paraglided off the summit in 1988, Babu Chiri Sherpa raced up in 16hrs 56min in 2000. On this continent climbers occasionally sprint from 14,000' to the top of Denali in less than ten hours, 5hrs 30min is the record according to the NPS. Hans Kammerlander climbed Talkeetna-to-Talkeetna roundtrip in 5 days. Mugs Stump flashed the Cassin in 15hrs 30min. It's only a matter of time until someone skis or snowboards the South Face.
If these things have already been done, why hasn't the general level of ability increased because of them? Why aren't American climbers imagining new things, or attempting, at minimum, to do what a few European visionaries achieved 10 years ago?
I'm not saying, "if it's not new why bother?" I'm saying the same thing I said back in 1988 in an article titled, "Rise and Fall of the American Alpinist" (Climbing Magazine); American alpinists are the Jamaican Bobsledders of world mountaineering. And flashing the Czech Direct in 60 hours was nothing special, compared to what other climbers have accomplished before.
If someone goes lighter they can climb it faster. Have at it.