Home > Profiles

Epic New Alaskan Alpine Climb Was a 14 Year Dream

The Shaft of the Abyss is a 4,000-foot alpine climb in the Revelation Mountains that gets the grade VI AI5R M5 90-degree snow A0. First ascensionist Clint Helander said, "A qualitative rating is more reflective than numbers, however."

From March 23 to 25, Clint Helander of Anchorage, Alaska, and Andres Marin of Ouray, Colorado, made the first ascent of their longstanding project in Alaska’s remote Revelation Mountains. After four expeditions spread over six years, the pair made the first ascent of The Shaft of the Abyss, a ca. 4,000-foot direct line up the sheer east face of Golgotha (2,724 m). This route had been a 14-year dream of Helander’s, who first spotted it in 2008 on his first of 12 expeditions to the Revelations.

Helander and his partner Seth Holden, who died in a plane crash not far from the Revelations in 2010, had envisioned the east face of Golgotha as their dream line in a range that at the time had been visited by only a handful of parties. Helander and Holden got their first close look at the east face in 2010, but didn’t try it. In 2012, Helander and Ben Trocki tried the east face, but retreated after two pitches and continued up a massive couloir on the east face to the southeast face, making the first ascent of Golgotha.

Helander and longtime friend and partner Andres Marin teamed up in 2016, intent on finishing the line. At the base of the east face, a minuscule pocket glacier dubbed the Misfit Glacier by Marin, is surrounded on all sides by towering granite walls. “That was probably the first and only time a pilot will ever land there,” Helander says. After a week of temperatures ranging from -30 C to -5 C, a warm southwesterly flow settled over the Revelations. Temperatures raised to almost freezing in the matter of hours and several feet of wet snow fell.

As snow loaded on the slopes above, the pair realized they were in serious danger. Old avalanche debris piles revealed that perhaps nowhere in the tiny cirque was safe. While organizing camp one morning in a whiteout, the team heard a massive roar from above. They instinctively ran away from the sound and were hit by a massive avalanche that knocked them both over and partially buried Helander up to his waist. When they looked back at camp, it was gone. The pair soon found remnants of their tents, which had been ripped from the ground and carried approximately 100 feet. For the next week, the pair huddled under a rock in their damaged tents, the poles splinted together by tape and ice screws, as more snow fell and avalanches scoured the confining basin. Eventually, their pilot Conor McManamin was able to rescue them after they stomped a runway that was frequently covered by fresh avalanches.

Photo by Andres Marin

The team returned in 2017 with Leon Davis. Learning from their mistakes, they landed on the nearby Revelation Glacier and fixed lines down a steep pass to access the Misfit Glacier. Attempting to climb the route in a push, the trio made it seven pitches up the narrow runnel of the east face of Golgotha before a broken crampon forced a retreat. Helander and Marin returned in 2018, but excessively snowy conditions on the route did not allow for an attempt.

The duo returned again in March 2022, hoping to finally finish their route. Armed with the knowledge from their previous attempt, they landed on the Revelation Glacier and ferried loads to the high pass, fixed lines into the Misfit Glacier and scoped the route from the base. On Wed., March 23, they left basecamp and were soon kicking steps up the entrance couloir toward the route’s defining feature, the ca. 1,800-foot runnel. After four technical pitches, they opted to bivy in a protected cave they had discovered in 2017, one of the only places on the lower route safe from overhead hazards. The next day, they passed their previous highpoint and continued toward one of the route’s cruxes, a free hanging dagger of ice that presented one of the major questions of the entire line. From another smaller cave at the base of the dagger, Helander chopped a window through a curtain of ice and surmounted the crux through a combination of mixed and aid climbing, including a small lead fall.

Now out of the runnel, Marin lead a 170-metre simul-climbing block through steps of steep ice and neve. Another rope stretching pitch of thin ice over a blank slab lead to the pair’s second bivy on a hastily chopped ledge. While Marin organized the gear and anchor, Helander laid out their sleeping pads and bags in the tent. Part of the tent hung over the ledge and, as he went to turn around inside, Helander slid off the ledge, tent and all. Only his 10-foot tether kept him and all the gear from falling completely off the mountain. Despite a ripped tent and a close call, they managed a comfortable night.

On the third morning, another five pitches of demanding climbing took them to the summit of Golgotha. Only in the final few feet did the technicality ease. Finally reaching the summit after six years of effort by the team and 14 years of dreaming by Helander felt surreal, but a long descent remained and the weather seemed to be deteriorating fast. Seven rappels down the southeast face and into a broken system of rock and snow lead to the major couloir utilized on the mountain’s first ascent in 2012 by Helander and Trocki.

Photo by Clint Helander

Back at the Misfit Glacier, the two picked up a small cache they had left at the base of Golgotha and plodded up a 1,000-foot pass back toward their basecamp on the Revelation Glacier. When they reached their basecamp at 11 p.m., they were astonished to see that a massive wind storm had ripped their geodesic dome kitchen tent from its anchors and it was nowhere to be found. Scattered all over the glacier for a quarter mile, they searched for remnants of their food and survival gear well into the night. In the morning, they found the tent fly, but the tent body was never found, despite lengthy searches down glacier. It had blown so hard that a probe, which served as a windsock, had been bent and rendered useless.

Several more days of wind made living unpleasant and the team used the remaining tent fly to make a rudimentary snow cave/tarp fortification. After nearly a week of waiting, the two were picked up by Rob Jones of Hesperus air and dropped at a remote landing strip. There, they were taken back to Anchorage by Chris Trygg of Trygg Air. The team noted that travel to the remote Revelation Mountains has become increasingly challenging and expensive.

This was the third ascent of Golgotha. Slovenians Janez Svoljsak and Miha Zupin established “Father” on a gully system right of the east face in 2019 after an unsuccessful attempt on the Direct East Face (Shaft of the Abyss) route.

The Shaft of the Abyss VI AI5R M5 90-degree snow A0. Photo by Clint Helander