Local climbers take shots at Mount Hunter, Denali

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

Some people are content to have the snowclad peaks of Alaska as a backdrop to their lives.

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Photo By T.j. Hancock
Photo By T.j. Hancock
Josh Overturf at first Denali camp at the base of ski hill.

Other people want to climb all over that backdrop.

Josh Overturf and T.J. Hancock fall into the latter group.

The two former Kenai Central High School graduates recently returned from a trip in the Alaska Range where they spent three weeks clambering around the base of Mount Hunter and Denali.

While they never gazed from the summit of 14,573 foot Hunter, their time at its base and ultimate decision to climb to 11,000 feet on Denali is but one of many very tall accomplishments in their mountaineering journey that stems from their youth spent growing up on the Kenai Peninsula.

"It's kind of one of those stepping stones that you need to do," said Overturf, 27, who now lives in Soldotna. "Hunter is kind of on the hit list before Denali. It's a lot more technical but it's not as high, so you don't get the cold weather or the altitude issues."

Hunter is a bit of an odd mountain, with a steep and challenging initial climb that tops mountaineers out on its lunar landscape summit plateau, leaving them with a long final trudge to attain their goal.

It also fails to garner the same attention from the general public as its two taller sisters to the north.

"People don't even know about Hunter. You tell people, 'Oh we're going to go climb Mount Hunter,' and they're like, 'huh?'" Overturf said, laughing.

But lower doesn't mean easier, not by a long shot.

While the two said they didn't want to downplay Denali, Hunter is steeper and covered with more hard ice and cornice-capped ridges that threaten to topple down on climbers from above or give way beneath them.

"Compared to Hunter, Denali is a big long really steep hike with really bad weather," Hancock, 24, said.

Hancock has been living in New Zealand through the austral summer, guiding people up the Fox Glacier on the west coast of the South Island.

In the about three weeks they spent in Denali National park, they only had two real opportunities to try and make a climb on Hunter. Both times they found the conditions on the mountain were too dangerous to make a go of it.

"As T.J. and I found out, it's a fickle mountain, the weather's bad and the windows are small," Overturf said.

Playing the waiting game at the mountain's base proved to be a mental grind, they said.

Storms would roll through, coating the slopes with new snow, leaving them unstable, even when the skies would clear.

"The next day (it was clear), but you can't go that next day because the snow's not settled, but it's just killing you because you're sitting in camp looking at the route and you're like dude it's beautiful," Overturf said. "It's really taxing because you sit and think about it, and you second guess yourself the whole time."

The two would begin to wonder if perhaps they weren't being cautious but were instead just being lazy.

This however, is how mountains like Hunter lure climbers into deadly traps.

The two were mostly on their own up there, as well.

While they had initially planned to have a third partner, it came down to just them. This proved to be mostly to their advantage, they said, because it kept packing, logistics and decision making simple.

On the other hand, if one of them became injured, the responsibility fell solely upon the other for a rescue.

They did carry a SPOT, a satellite based emergency locator beacon, just in case.

On their second attempt, when they reached the base of the route, the snow pack beneath them "whoomphed," a dangerous phenomenon where fresh snow sitting on a rotten layer of ice crystals collapses, creating a loud "whoomph" sound.

That's a flashing red light for climbers and skiers alike to get off the slope, as avalanches are likely.

With only four days left in their trip, they decided to stop just enjoying the nice view of Denali from afar, and get up and close.

"I was kind of tired from being around Hunter for so long, it kind of wears you down," Overturf said.

They headed to "the High One's" base, as Denali is sometimes refered to, in a twilight trek, and were fairly thrilled to finally meet other people after so much time by themselves.

"It's a different culture. We always seemed to camp with the eastern Europeans, it was funny, we couldn't understand what they were saying and they couldn't understand what we were saying," Overturf said.

Acclimatized from their time at the base of Hunter, the two said they blew up to 11,000 feet -- the highest they could go without a permit -- in beautiful weather for what turned out to not just be the high point, but the highlight of their trip.

As they climbed the mountain began to shrink, at least in terms of its size in their own minds, and the two realized they could make that climb.

"It's on the list for next spring," they said.

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