While indulging his favourite pastime of scouring Google Earth for cool new routes, Will Sim stumbled upon some huge unclimbed faces in the eastern Hayes Range of Alaska. In particular the beautiful NW face of Mount Deborah caught his eye, and his climbing partner Jon Griffith took little convincing to try an epic line on it. They've now ticked it, and named the 2000m route Bad to the Bone. So how bad was it?
WS: Alaska is America’s last frontier. The whole place has a frontier feel to it, and especially so if you step off the normal track of climbers going to the central ranges such as Denali.
WS: It's possible to find faces in Alaska as big as those on Asian mountains, but without altitude issues. That means you can make a shorter trip - three or four weeks rather than five or six - but still get a big dose of adventure.
WS: When I first saw the northwest face of Mount Deborah on Google Earth I thought it was really beautiful in its symmetry. I find aesthetics maybe the single biggest attraction when looking at objectives. If it looks cool, I want to climb it. Jon didn't take much persuading to come on board!
WS: We thought we could be dropped off on the Gillam Glacier by a ski plane from the south, and it wasn't until the morning of flying in that we were told it wasn't possible. This threw us into the manic stress of coming up with plan Bs. We ended up getting hold of a guy with a heli in Fairbanks who said he could do it. It was all a bit make-do but worked perfectly in the end!
JG: We went pretty heavy on the gear we took because we had no idea what the route was going to be like, and no concrete idea of our descent line! Plus we were worried about weather: it can be really brutal and windy when it hits there. Also we'd managed to lose our base camp on our first night there, so were a bit wary...
WS: Although the 3D imaging on Google Earth can be impressively accurate, it can also be very misleading. Only seeing a face in the flesh can determine serac danger and many other details. We really didn't know if it was a dud objective or not until the day we saw it, but the face was just as beautiful as we had hoped.
JG: The great thing about Alaska is that it’s light until midnight so you can cram in a lot of climbing per day. I don't think we got to bed until about 2am on our first day.
WS: There were some fantastic plastic ice sections low down; steep and secure where we were expecting low-angled snow. Generally the ice conditions were good; better than we expected.
WS: However all faces give a different feel, and this one had a bad feel. It's fair to say I was scared the whole way to the northwest ridge, and still a bit on the ridge. Two big avalanches came very close to us as we were crossing the bergschrund. We very nearly bailed there and then, and perhaps should have. This left a very bad taste for the rest of the face.
JG: I very nearly got dragged off by a snow mushroom collapse high up the face, about 30m out from the last bit of pro. That freaked me out a bit. I think I was praying when it hit.
WS: Two thirds of the way up we witnessed more terrifying avalanche activity, which forced us off onto the northwest ridge earlier than we wanted. If we'd been a little bit earlier or on a slightly different line we could have both been stripped off the face.
JG: I think the best part of the climb was getting off the face to be honest! It all got a bit serious for quite a while until we managed to traverse off and out of there.
JG: That face is not somewhere I’d like to go back to in a hurry. When it comes alive it’s a really serious place to be. Summit day was really wild. Huge cornice ridges with very strong wind. It felt a bit never-ending but a whole load safer than the day before!
WS: We’d spent two days watching the face through binoculars for anything falling, and were satisfied with what we saw. It's really annoying when you feel like you’ve done as much as possible to reduce such dangers yet something as close as what we experienced still happens.
JG: We ended up doing a lot of simul climbing with very little pro on insecure ground. It’s definitely a much steeper face than it looks like from far away. There’s definitely a lot of climbing on it! Pitches that looked easy-angled ended up being overhanging so it was very deceptive from the get go.
WS: I have no idea what grade the climbing would be, and am not going to even try and attach a number! Grades on alpine routes such as these don't describe anything accurately and don't serve any purpose. The hardest climbing certainly wasn't hard, just worrying. Thin ice going round a huge roof at half height, with little useful gear and moving together.
JG: The thing about this route is that there isn't an easily definable crux pitch. Low down the face we found really good steep nevee - Chamonix quality - but the higher we got the more it thinned out. It meant we got some really fun placage ice sections that created a really cool line through the tricky sections. However, the pro is sparse and not great, and belays hard to come by.
JG: I think the route was kind of similar to how we imagined: not super technical but huge and committing. Especially because we planned to descend the other side of the mountain - a side we couldn't see!
WS: We were sitting in BC the evening after getting down, drinking whiskey and looking up at the face in the late evening light. ZZ Top ‘Bad to the Bone’ came on the MP3 player, and given our experience of the mountain, it seemed fitting!
WS: I would love to go back to the Hayes Range one day and try to raft out of the glacier to the nearest road. It would have to be later in the season so the rivers had thawed out, so maybe hard to fit in with conditions on the faces, but would be an adventure!
WATCH: Jon Griffiths presents a short video about climbing the West Buttress on Denali and the huge Cassin Ridge on BMC TV