From April 18-25 2021, Ryan Driscoll, Justin Guarino and Nick Aiello-Popeo made the first ascent of the north face (or Medusa Face) of Mt. Neacola, in the Neacola Mountains of Alaska’s Aleutian Range. They followed the line of Topher Donahue and Kennan Harvey’s 1995 attempt for the first roughly 3,500 feet, before adding more than 800 vertical feet of new sustained M6 and A2 climbing on decomposing rock. The final six pitches took 12 hours to climb.
It didn’t bother the three New Hampshire-based climbers that Donahue and Harvey had been on the face before, or that Donahue had recounted in the 1996 American Alpine Journal, “Midnight found us at the top of the face, about 800 feet of easy climbing below the summit.”
“We’re not first ascent hunters,” Aiello-Popeo told me over the phone from his home in Conway. “Other people having been on the wall wasn’t a negative thing to us. We largely couldn’t care less about leaving our stamp on anything, whether here at home or in Alaska.”
Aiello-Popeo said they were, however, surprised to discover that the “800 feet of easy climbing” Donahue mentioned ended up clocking in at sustained M6 and A2. “What looks on a map to be an easing off is actually this heinous gendarme ridge,” Aiello-Popeo told me. “So we stayed on the face. Unfortunately, the rock quickly deteriorated from stable diorite to almost-Canadian-Rockies-level choss for the last 600 feet or so. The last day and a half was nightmare time.”
At 9:00 p.m. on their seventh day on the wall, the team reached the summit ridge and set up camp for the night. In the morning, they hoped to climb the last hundred vertical feet to the still-untouched north summit of the peak. (In 1991 James Garrett, Lome Glick and Kennan Harvey had climbed the slightly higher south summit–with Fred Beckey in camp as their “spiritual leader”, according to the AAJ article penned by Garrett.) But a violent wind was blowing ice pellets uphill hard enough to make it impossible to see, even with goggles on. So they decided to forgo the summit, and descended via the unclimbed east face.
Since Driscoll had scouted the east face as a possible climbing objective from base camp, he led the descent, “and nailed it,” Aiello-Popeo said. “He went right down the line he had envisioned climbing previously, safely guiding us around the serac that had almost done us in a few weeks earlier.”
The serac that almost did them in is a story in and of itself. Twenty days earlier, the three climbers were in their base camp on the Lobsterclaw Glacier beneath the east face of Mt. Neacola, sleeping comfortably in separate tents as a storm raged outside. They awoke to a sudden acceleration as an avalanche blasted them–and their tents–300 feet across the darkened glacier. They held their arms up against the tent walls to try to create an air pocket for the ensuing burial. When they came to rest, they were relieved to find themselves atop the snow. Nonetheless, their entire camp was obliterated and most of their food was gone, so they decided to scrap the mission for the time being, and return home when the storm abated 48 hours after. Two weeks later, they were back in the Neacolas, camped in a slightly safer spot nearby, about to cast off on their successful climb.
“It was pretty nice to not end up dead, buried in an avalanche,” Aiello-Popeo said, in typically stoic New Englander fashion. “We all assumed we were about to be buried 30 feet down, so to end up on the surface was pretty awesome. It was like winning the lottery.”
When I asked Aiello-Popeo if there was anything else he wanted to say about their route, he was quick to mention that in spite of the horror-show finish, he would encourage others to climb it. “Everyone is asking me about the choss at the top, but the rest was really good. I keep saying the route will clean right up with more traffic, but everyone else seems unconvinced that anyone will ever return.”
Donahue was equally enthusiastic about the Medusa Face. “I remember climbing out of my aiders, then mixed climbing, then climbing onto these ice daggers. It was just cool. Since then, that type of climbing has become really popular. It was kind of a view into a futuristic style of climbing. So it’s too bad to hear [the quality deteriorates] up high.”
Over the past quarter of a century, Donahue couldn’t help wondering from time to time if maybe he and Harvey should have kept going. Now, hearing how difficult the final 800 vertical feet were, he can rest assured that their decision to bail was the right call. “It’s so funny 25 years later to find out we got in on the best part of the climb, and the safest,” he said. “I’m glad we turned around where we did because it was storming. We were fairly strung out at that point.”