[As the original story was about to be published, news broke that the route had been climbed even faster. The accounts of each ascent are mostly presented here in chronological order.–Ed.]
At 2 a.m. on May 15, Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau topped out on the Slovak Direct (5.9 X M6 WI6+) on Denali (20,310′), completing the route in just 21 hours, 35 minutes. It was a staggeringly fast time, but the record didn’t last long. On June 3, Michael Gardner, Sam Hennessey and Rob Smith fired the route in 17 hours, 10 minutes. All six climbers are friends and expressed happiness for everyone’s success.
“The conditions this year are like nothing I’ve seen in 10 years,” Gardner told Alpinist. “People who’ve been climbing there longer than I have are saying the same thing.”
The south face of Denali is a tremendous prize for alpinists from around the world, towering 9,000 feet above the East Fork Glacier. It is home to the some of the biggest routes in the world, including the Cassin Ridge and the Denali Diamond, though the crown jewel might be the Slovak Direct. First climbed over 11 days in 1984 by Tony Krizo, Fran Korl and Blazej Adam, who placed 150 pitons along the way and persevered through difficult conditions, the route has seen fewer than 12 ascents. The Slovak gained notoriety in 2000 when Mark Twight, Steve House and Scott Backes climbed the route in a continuous 60-hour push, a bold climbing statement that changed the way many alpinists viewed the rulebook for big alpine faces. Their seminal ascent is memorably described in Twight’s article “Justification for an Elitist Attitude.”
Marvell, a welder from Salt Lake City (Provo) and a protege of the late Scott Adamson, had long dreamed of climbing the route.
“Alan and I had come to the range in 2021 to single-push the big three: Foraker via the Infinite Spur, Hunter via the Moonflower and the south face of Denali,” he said. “We managed two of the three.”
This year, Marvell and Cornell had just come off two first ascents in the Revelations and were feeling fit and motivated. Rousseau met them in Talkeetna and the trio made the quick flight to Kahiltna base camp. A ski up to the camp at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress was fueled by a mix of heavy metal and gangster rap. They acclimatized there for a few days before quickly dispatching the Upper West Rib to the summit of Denali, completing the climb camp-to-camp in a 12-hour push, enduring -40F temps along the way. Marvell said he would have liked to have had more time to acclimatize, but with good weather in the forecast, they opted not to wait. Instead, they hoped to climb the Slovak fast enough to avoid having the effects of the altitude catch up with them, a tactic that leaves little room for error.
Marvell and Rousseau had walked away from the Slovak several times in the past, wanting it to be in good condition. This time, however, conditions were perfect, with excellent neve and ice.
“Skiing the eleven miles up the Northeast Fork was intimidating,” Cornell said. “It’s big country up there!”
A good snowpack had filled in most of the crevasses over the winter and made glacier travel relatively smooth.
“We arrived at the bivy below the wall and all three of us were feeling excited and psyched!” Cornell said.
The team arranged for a couple of young climbers to retrieve their skis and sleeping bags that they wouldn’t be taking up the route.
The trio divided the route into three blocks. Carrying only a single 60-meter 9mm cord, they climbed with both followers 10 feet apart at the end of the rope. The rack included a set and half of cams, one large beak and ten ice screws, along with six Micro Traxions to add a margin of safety while simul-climbing. The team also brought a two-man tent, a down quilt and a stove for some peace of mind, Cornell said, “in case things didn’t go as planned.”
Rousseau, an IMFGA guide and seasoned climber from Salt Lake City, led the first block. Crossing the bergschrund under clear skies and cool temps at 4:20 a.m., Rousseau raced up 2,000 feet of technical mixed terrain.
“He was on fire,” Cornell said. “An ice smear six pitches up was a question mark: if the ice wasn’t in, it was going to slow us down. As we rounded the notch, (we found that) to our good fortune it was in!” The team moved up the wandering lower difficulties with efficiency and poise. Rousseau finished his block in 4 hours, 5 minutes.
Riding the team’s tremendous momentum after Rousseau’s quick start, Marvell racked and sized up the route’s crux: 1,500 feet of steep ice and rock. He took a deep breath and set off.
“The ice pitches high on my block had some exceptional climbing that flowed quite well,” Jackson later recounted. “The thing that was most frequently on my mind in this section was keeping Alan and Matt protected from the ice I was shelling while still trying to move effectively. Overall [I] felt like we completed it with reasonable safety.”
Stopping only once to re-rack, Jackson climbed his block in 5 hours, 5 minutes.
The team stopped at the aid pitch to brew up and switch leaders. Cornell’s block started with a steep crux that [had*] yet to be free climbed on lead. Battling up flares and offwidths with ice tools and crampons, he applied his best Yosemite wide-crack skills while trying to find the path of least resistance. Only 20 feet below the end of the section, he took a short fall. Immediately focusing on speed again, he pulled through with a few moves of aid to finish the pitch. With burning calves and building fatigue, Cornell led the final 2,000 feet of moderate mixed terrain in 7 hours. The team had reached the ridge that connects to the Cassin in great style and with blazing speed. From there they climbed the easy snow ridge to the top. [*After this story was published, Rousseau added: “A team from Slovakia climbed it about five days after we did, in around 40 hours. They told me that all members of their team free climbed the crux.”]
“Those last few hours were tough and we were bonking,” Marvell said. “We had to dig deep to finish strong.”
Climbing the entire technical aspect of the Slovak in 16 hours is a groundbreaking step.
“The impressiveness of their ascent can’t be overstated,” said Mark Westman, a former Denali climbing ranger with decades of experience who has become a leading authority on Alaskan climbs. “What they achieved was the result of elite skills and fitness combined with forward thinking tactics and strategy, and a willingness to accept very high risks.”
“The Twight, House and Backes ascent always intrigued me. These guys went all out and pushed it to the limit,” Marvell said. “Without a mark set by others, it’s hard to know where to start and stop. We figured we could get somewhere near the 30-hour mark. I’m really happy with our effort.”
An even faster time
Gardner and Hennessey are intimately familiar with Denali and the surrounding peaks.
As they have in most recent years, the two close friends spent much of the spring guiding on the mountain. This allowed them plenty of time and provisions to acclimatize before tackling their personal objectives.
“That strategy has worked really well for them several times, and has made them a couple of the most accomplished Alaska Range climbers, in my opinion,” Rousseau said.
Gardner and Hennessey first approached the Slovak Direct with hopes of climbing it in 2018 but conditions were not aligned, as is the case for many who aspire to climb the route. They returned once more with the same results until now. This time, Smith traveled from his home in Chamonix, France, to join them.
“We flew in [from Talkeetna] on June 2 at 9 a.m. and skied to the base of the route,” Gardner said. “We launched at midnight on June 3 and summited that afternoon.”
Describing the conditions, he said that “it basically hadn’t snowed” during the entire time he’d been in the range for the spring season. Also, the Slovak Direct joins the Cassin Ridge near the top, and a bunch of foot traffic from climbers on the Cassin created tracks that helped the trio move swiftly.
Besides having such good conditions, Gardner noted that Rousseau shared photos of from their ascent to help with route finding.
“I know they would have done the same for us,” Rousseau said in an email. “We have all known each other for years and are psyched we all got to climb the route in our sought-after style this year. It’s been something on all of our minds for a while.”
Gardner said that his team was inspired by their friends’ recent success and they thought they had a chance to climb pretty fast as well, but they did not set out to break any speed records.
“It was just really fun,” he said. “Our primary goal was to climb fluidly in good style, which includes having margins. I feel like there’s been a lot of hype about speed climbing up there recently but I want to remind people that the same principles of safe mountain travel apply. We were not redlining and we were climbing in such a way that if something came up we had the energy and the margins to deal with it. We topped out with an extra 24 hours of food and fuel.”
As it turned out, they encountered a group trying to save a heart-attack victim on the descent and assisted with the rescue attempt on Pig Hill at approximately 20,000 feet. Once they got back to 14k Camp, they returned to the base of the Slovak Direct to retrieve their cached gear on June 5.
“I felt as acclimatized as I’d ever been,” Gardner said. “This felt way more chill than other climbs I’ve done.”
Smith posted on Instagram June 13:
This was my 14th trip to the Alaska Range in the last 20 years and never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such amazing weather. Spending time in the mountains with Sam and “Guard Dog” is always an honor. We ate incredible amounts of food and spent most of our time making immature jokes and coming up with rap lyrics about alpine climbing…. The climbing was classic and super enjoyable. We completed the technical portion of the route in 10.5 hours, which was the easiest part. For me the crux was the 1,200 meters of snow climbing between 5,000 and 6,190 meters. I really slowed down in this section and had to try really hard. I am very proud of our ascent in that we climbed quickly but also safely….
“Super stoked for those dudes,” Marvell said in an email. “We all sat at the base of it in our tents last year waiting to see if weather would clear in order to give it a go. We joked about doing it as a four-pack. Feels proper that we all got to give it our best this year and come away with respectable times. In my opinion it doesn’t feel competitive between us, overall just excited about the direction of the progression!”
“Really psyched they were able to get on route and throw down a proper time and I’ll be curious to see who pushes it faster in the future!” Cornell said.
[Alpinist.com also has stories about the first female ascent of the Slovak Direct in 2018 and a groundbreaking linkup by the Giri-Giri Boys in 2008. Podcast interviews with Gardner and Chantel Astorga can be found here.–Ed.]