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Washington Climbers Kick Off Alaska Season

The southeast face of Mt. Bradley (9,104′), Ruth Gorge, Alaska Range, Alaska, where Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman established Vitalogy (Alaska Grade V: M6+ WI5 5.9 R A1, 4,600′) earlier this month. The team climbed for 99 hours camp-to-camp. [Photo] Mark Allen

Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman of Washington State have established a significant new route on the southeast buttress of Mt. Bradley (9,104′) in the Ruth Gorge of the Alaska Range. Noteworthy for its sustained difficulty, the route also marks an early start to the season: Allen and Zimmerman were likely the only climbers braving a series of early April storms on the high peaks.

Vitalogy (Alaska Grade V: M6+ WI5 5.9 R A1, 4,600′) ascends what Zimmerman calls “a striking line of ice” about 350 meters right of the start of The Bourbon Bottle Route, the summer rock climb established by Jim Donini and Greg Crouch in 1997. Vitalogy begins on a steep snow couloir and transitions into 600′ of sustained mixed climbing, then takes a conspicuous 1,000′ ribbon of near-vertical ice topped by a mixed ridge and a 1,000′ granite tower before reaching exposed snow spines that lead to the summit. It shares a tower feature high on the route with The Bourbon Bottle Route from ca. 7,500′ to the summit climbing mixed dihedrals where the other route stayed on the crest. Of the route’s 29 pitches, 19 are M5 or WI4 or harder.

And they didn’t come easily. The team’s first attempt on April 1 ended in retreat after seven pitches when they encountered a difficult section of rock and the weather became dangerously warm, threatening snow stability above them. Allen and Zimmerman descended after freeing stuck ropes, grateful for the opportunity to pack their rock shoes–which they had left at camp–for the next attempt.

They started up again the next evening, April 2, to take advantage of solid snow conditions through the night. Regaining their highpoint, they continued for five more pitches before bivying the next morning. The evening’s difficulties included “sustained 5.9 rock, an A1 tension traverse, M6 mixed, and a transition from boots to rock shoes and back on lead,” Allen wrote on the expedition blog.

That same evening, April 3, they ascended the ice ribbon to a blocky ridge, where they bivied through the wee hours. On the morning of April 4, they woke to snow, wind and spindrift–“enough to make the climbing really spicy,” Zimmerman said–but climbed the mixed ridge through the storm and up seven mixed pitches on the granite tower. They descended two pitches, fixing lines, back to an exposed bivy ledge on the tower’s headwall. Under sunny skies the next day, April 5, they summited at 4 p.m., more than 66 hours after leaving base camp. Having packed for less than two days of climbing, they ate the last of their food on the summit.

Graham Zimmerman mixed climbing on the tower feature, high on Vitalogy. [Photo] Mark Allen

Descending the normal route along the west ridge, the pair realized that a light winter had not deposited enough snow to make a traverse to the gendarme. Instead of continuing down the ridge, they rapped south into unknown terrain, down a 1,000′ headwall and 500′ icefall. They bivied overnight under an overhang on the wall, where the icefall met Backside Glacier, and waited out a stormy whiteout that dropped 15 inches of snow. When the sun finally burned through, it released an avalanche that poured over their bivy without mishap.

Now without food for more than a day, the climbers slogged four miles through deep snow over 747 Pass and down the Ruth Glacier back to camp. What they expected to take 36-48 hours had become a 99-hour round trip.

The pair hoped to complete another big objective. Their goal was to climb Prize Fight (5.9 R WI4+/5 M6, 18 pitches), established last year by Jay Smith and Jack Tackle, on the southeast face of Mt. Huntington’s south peak; they would then continue to the col between the south and main peak (12,240′), continuing on the upper section of Huntington’s South Face (80 degrees, 4,900′). More heavy storms set in before they could attempt the link-up, however, and the weather never cleared.

Sources: Graham Zimmerman, Mark Allen, 2001 AAJ,

Graham Zimmmerman relaxes at the first bivy, the Ruth Gorge below. [Photo] Mark Allen