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Despite Conditions, Success in Hayes Range

Direct West Face (V AI3 R), Mt. Hayes, Hayes Range, Alaska. Ryan Hokanson and Sam Johnson established the 6,500-foot route at the end of May in a single push. [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

Climbing light and fast in Alaska’s Hayes Range, Ryan Hokanson and Sam Johnson recently sprinted up a new route on Mt. Hayes (13,832′) and a line that fell 100 feet short of Mt. Balchen’s summit (11,142′). Their success came after frustrating logistics kept them from climbing numerous other nearby peaks: Mt. Shand, Mt. Hess and Mt. Deborah.

Johnson and Hokanson stopped 100 vertical feet short of Mt. Balchen’s summit earlier this month while climbing its virgin Northeast Buttress (V AI4 M6, 3,500′). [Photo] Sam Johnson

Hokanson and Johnson were unable to access their original objective, Mt. Shand, due to flight problems. They abandoned hopes of an alpine-style first ascent on the south face of that peak and turned attention to Hess and Deborah. Approach difficulties, melt out and chossy conditions again changed their minds. They considered a lengthy traverse of the Mt. Hayes Massif but decided that more snow and a team of three would be safer. Finally, they focused on more viable virgin lines in the Hayes basin: the Direct West Face of Mt. Hayes and the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Balchen.

On May 29, Hokanson and Johnson climbed 55-degree slopes up the west face of Hayes in a 25-hour push, camp to camp. They graded the 6,500′ route V AI3 R. Johnson explained that they had decided on a single-day ascent for reasons beyond speed and style: “Since we were going super light we knew we needed to pull off the ascent as quickly as possible due to the enormous and (if there were a storm) hazardous nature of the face.” The climbers had witnessed daily afternoon thunderstorms in the range.

Working with a short weather window already, a larger low-pressure storm closed in earlier than forecasted while the pair were climbing the Northeast Buttress (V AI4 M6, 3,500′) of Balchen on June 3. Their 10.5-hour push that brought them within 100 vertical feet of the summit was not quite quick enough. A violent lightning storm rattled more than their nerves at their high point. “As we neared the top, a loud thunder clap much closer than the previous ones occurred,” Hokanson wrote in a trip report. “All of our metal objects began aggressively buzzing and hissing.”

Hokanson and Johnson made their trip to the Hayes Range after winning the 2010 Copp-Dash Inspire Award. Read more about the grant in the May 3, 2010 NewsWire.

Sources: Sam Johnson,,,

Johnson climbs the initial ice field on Mt. Balchen’s Northeast Buttress (V AI4 M6). [Photo] Ryan Hokanson

Johnson approaches one of three rock bands bisected by their new route on Mt. Hayes. [Photo] Ryan Hokanson