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First Female Ascent of Denali Grade Six

Chantel Astorga and Jewell Lund have returned from their first female ascent of the Denali Diamond.

The Denali Diamond topo from the 1983 first ascent story in the American Alpine Journal.
The Denali Diamond topo from the 1983 first ascent story in the American Alpine Journal.

On June 24, the Denali National Park field report read, “This news just in of a notable ascent: American climbers Chantel Astorga and Jewell Lund made the first female ascent of the Denali Diamond, one of Denali’s most difficult routes. The pair made the ascent in five days after spending two weeks acclimatizing at 4,200 metres and higher on the West Buttress. They found more rock than usual for this difficult mixed route.”

Their ascent marks the seventh of the route, which was first climbed in 1983 by Bryan Becker and Rolf Graage. The second ascent was in 2002 by Ian Parnell and Kenton Cool. Three years later, it was climbed by Katsutaka Yokoyama and Fumitaka Ichimura. During the same year, Canadians Chris Brazeau and Ian Welsted climbed the route in only 44 hours, which remains the fastest time. Two years later, Colin Haley and Mark Westman climb the route in just under 46 hours. In 2010, the Japanese team of Ryo Masumoto, Kazuaki Amano and Takaai Nagato made the first free ascent of the climb at M7 in 80 hours.

After her return to civilization, Astorga wrote on social media, “Diamond in the rough -one grand adventure on a beautiful mountain. Much thanks to beautiful Denali, and all you fine folks that helped us along the way.”

In October of 2014, Astorga set a new solo speed record for women up The Nose in 24 hours and 39 minutes.

Here is Ian Welsted’s story about the only Canadian ascent and the fastest of the Denali Diamond. Welsted will be writing a three-piece series for Gripped this summer and fall.

A Diamond in the Rough: Denali’s Southwest Face, by Ian Welsted

In 1983, Bryan Becker and his client (!?!) established Denali Diamond (Alaska 6, 5.9 A3), the second route on the face. It took an obvious weakness through steep granite, passing a diamond-shaped block 2500 feet up the route. A 25-foot A3 roof provided the crux, at approximately 16,000 feet on the last technical pitch. From there, 4000 feet of slogging up the upper snow slopes led to the summit ridge. A new route was born — and the legend grew, as this route doesn’t seem to have been noticed widely, either (AAJ 1984, p. 84). Nearly 20 years passed with no action on the face. Stephen Koch and Marko Pretzel considered attempting the second ascent of Denali Diamond in 2001, but climbed between it and the Cassin to create Light Traveler (Alaska Grade 6, M7 WI6) in 43 hours. Finally, the Diamond s aw its second ascent when Kenton Cool and Ian Parnell spent five days on it in 2002. They unlocked the secret to an M7+ version following cracks to the left of the roof. Being British, they bivied in heavy spindrift and persevered to nearly free the crux, with a hang and a tension traverse. Just before flying out of Talkeetna, Chris Brazeau met Jumbo Yokoyama and Fumitaka Ichimura, who raved about thousands of feet of continuous mixed ground. Their stoke after completing the third ascent in seven days seemed to have Chris salivating.

Having Chris in camp provided interest in something a little more demanding: We would try for the FFA of the Diamond in a speedy, single-push style. We left the landing strip at 11 p.m. on June 13. Skiing in the “Valley of Death” in the twilight, we peered up at Raphael Slawinski and Valeriy Babanov’s new route, Infinity Direct (Alaska 5, M4/5). This made me reflect on how inspiring climbing in the big mountains can be. Earlier, those two had left the landing strip seemingly without hope of success as the weather had been brutal. I figured no one had been active. They — quite like Johnny Varco and Sue Nott, who summited Denali in 70-mph winds — did not let the notorious Alaskan weather stand in their way, and sent in light and fast style. Andrej Stremfelj, the godfather of Himalayan alpine style, had spoken with us of attempting the Cassin without a tent. Combined, these impressions allayed my fears of heading up the southwest face with one rope and no bivy gear. The people who head to such places inspire one to question one’s own limitations. With these thoughts in my head, we raced towards the looming face.

We crossed the ’schrund eagerly at 10 a.m. Route-finding was exceedingly simple, as to our right was an immense granite wall, home to Light Traveler. We walked up snow slopes, practicing pied à plat, skipping from ledge to ledge as more rock appeared. With dense fog surrounding us, a path of-least-resistance philosophy sped us along. For three long simulclimbing pitches, we looked for a flattish spot where we could stop and hydrate. Chris figured we were close to topping out; with no altimeter, who could tell? We both said, “I’ll just look a little further,” when swapping leads, but nothing appeared other than great moderate mixed climbing. How anyone could stop to pitch a tent on such terrain was a mystery to me until I saw Cool’s and Parnell’s photos of their vertically aligned pup tent in Gripped (Dec. /Jan. 2006). Glad I’m not British and super hard-core.

We reached a flat spot after a stellar body-width ice runnel plastered against the soaring right wall. Unfortunately, we were in line with the upper section of the route. Rock above protected us from the big one if it came, but continuous heavy spindrift fell on us. All my fears of objective hazards came back to me. My reservation about Denali Diamond was that it is a garbage chute for the 4000-foot upper snow slopes of Denali. A week earlier on the Cassin, we had wallowed in waist-deep new snow. Accustomed to Rockies snowpacks, I could not accept this as safe. Being a different animal, Chris didn’t seem worried. More encouragingly, the clouds cleared momentarily. We were level and right of the Diamond block, and at a juncture on the route. From here we obviously needed to head rightward up a gully system. Rocky and much steeper, the ground ahead dictated changing from simulclimbing with the rope doubled to pitching it out. A 60-metre pitch with an M6/7 crux at the very end had Chris doing what he does best, and me asking for tension on second. Above, we could clearly see what I later heard described by Cool or Parnell as four of the best pitches they have climbed in the alpine. Foremost in my mind, however, were the probable dire consequences of having to lead M7+ at such an elevation. Memories of rapping a similarly committing face with one rope overcame me. Thus, I cast about for an excuse, which came in the form of the spindrift. I talked Chris into a sideways escape. Regret is a terrible thing, but if I could go back in time…

Our sideways retreat was based on my path-of-least resistance idea. From the valley, there appeared to be two possible exits to the technical ground: the crux roof, and another further left. This was not the case. Chris led up the next major gully system but came to a dead end. A more technical traverse with the only loose rock on the entire route, led to another. We were both quite delusional after 22 hours on the face and 33 on the go. Neither of us could make the crucial decision as to how to proceed, so we sat down for a brew. When Chris, who didn’t have insulated pants, couldn’t stand shivering any longer, we took the easy way out and rapped a few metres to the next ramp system left, where we made our way through the last of the rock. At 11 p.m. we topped out below huge seracs 200 metres left of our intended route. All our traversing had taken much time and effort and had merely swapped snow-avalanche hazard for serac hazard. How much better it would have been to go straight up those last four pitches, if only I could have controlled my phantom fears.

I now could repay Chris’s rope-gunning by doing what I do best: burying my head and suffering. Chris had flown onto the mountain a month after me and was lacking acclimatization for altitude. Prezelj and Koch wrote that the upper snow slopes were some of the hardest “climbing” they had done in terms of fatigue. We had now been awake for two days; however, since I had summited twice already, the climb was essentially in the bag as far as I was concerned. Underestimating the upper slopes, my mind played tricks on me. A few times I told Chris that we were nearly at the summit ridge. When I clued in to where we were, I took some of the rack from him to ease his obvious pain. “It’s like yoga — just think about breathing and nothing else,” was the little help I could give him, forgetting that yoga is maybe not a preferred leisure activity in his hometown of Golden, B.C. Our primary error was not stopping to brew up. At 6 a.m. The Kahiltna Horn arrived below our weary legs. The ethical question of whether to traverse the final ridge to the summit a few hundred feet higher didn’t even arise. Numerous naps followed on the way down to the 14,000-foot advance base camp. A highlight on the way came when a ranger asked Chris what we’d done. The response to Chris’s claim of the Diamond was a somewhat dumbfounded, “But, where’s your gear…?”

The zoo at 14,000 feet was a welcome sight, as we had run out of food and were glad of the handouts from departing groups. It was like a bad CBC comedy rerun as rumor spread that “Ian from Canmore” had climbed the Cassin and the Diamond back to back in 10 days. After passing seven hours seeking shelter from the beating sun, answering questions about the routes, and gorging, we headed down, wishing for skis the whole time. Seventy-six hours after leaving the landing strip, we were back and very happy. Any thoughts of further activity were drowned out by the growing slush pools of mid-June. There was one piece of unfinished business, as we had left our skis at the base of the route. Disabled by severe foot pain, I argued that the skis would disappear in a winter. Chris, more environmentally sensitive, wouldn’t hear of leaving them. It was no surprise that the skis were gone when we reached the ’schrund, but at least we had made the effort. The spindrift had done them in; luckily, this hadn’t happened to any of the 12 climbers who made it up the face.

In conclusion: a few thoughts. Jack Roberts recently mentioned that his and Becker’s lines independent of the upper Cassin dictate that their routes have not truly been repeated: What makes these routes on the Southwest face so exhausting and difficult is the willingness to keep to the original route and so keep the commitment factor intact. Breaking the snow for two thousand feet on a remote route is far more difficult mentally and physically than traversing off to the broken trail on the Cassin Ridge. Still, I personally think that one can hardly call the Cassin a broken trail, since a day’s wind erases any tracks, as I witnessed first-hand. On our ascent we had no knowledge of where prior parties had gone, and didn’t really care. Joining the Cassin at about 18,000 feet, we just went the most logical way. Why choose a loaded snow bowl over a windswept ridge, other than for the sake of the record books? In fact, through correspondence with Jack, I think that we just as likely repeated the McCartney/Roberts as the Diamond, or somehow linked the two. High Alaska, by Jonathan Waterman, maps separate paths for the two routes, but memories have faded since the 1980s and no one seems to be able to figure out exactly where the original lines lie. As for our hopes of doing the “first free ascent,” who cares when faced with Alaskan weather? Just so that we could tack on the letters FFA by skipping a tension traverse? What about bailing out of the crux pitches? Was it out of irrational fear, self-limiting thought, or a self-preservation instinct honed in past episodes? Does it somehow invalidate or lessen our climb? Although I do regret missing four great pitches, I also saw my skis disappear over the course of a week and am happy to live another day. Maybe I should blow my own horn some more and claim a new variation and the first single-push ascent. If comparisons were to be made, we only took 44 hours whereas it took Twight 60 on the Czech Direct, so does that mean I should take an elitist attitude towards him? I don’t think that this type of thinking is valid. Rather, maybe I should emulate the truly great climbers of the Rockies whose accomplishments pass in near-obscurity, but then this article wouldn’t have been written. After all, we’re just out there to have fun.

The long and the short of it is that, as Jack Roberts wrote, the Diamond “could be ascended quickly in single push style and is well within the climbing standards of many climbers.” The route ought to be a classic. By pushing one’s limits yet remaining realistic, more climbers should be able to enjoy Denali’s southwest-face routes. The routes established by previous parties are so unclear that worrying about who has been where seems pedantic. Just don’t take a tent; beware the dangers above; use “first-ascent eyes” and try to align yourselves so that the crux pitches feel the bite of your crampons. Leave the rest to the historians and chat-room skeptics once you’re safely off De-gnarl-i.

Looking up at some of the terrain on Denali Diamond.  Photo Jewell Lund
Looking up at some of the terrain on Denali Diamond. Photo Jewell Lund

– Sourced from the American Alpine Journal, Climbing, the Canadian Alpine Journal, Alpinist, Ian Welsted, Denali National Park website.