Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman make first ascent of 4600-foot alpine big wall in Alaska-link to BD Journal
Black Diamond supports the AMGA rock guide exam with a grant and each year we are excited to see new guides pass their exams and become certified AMGA rock guides. Such is the recent case with Mark Allen (also an AMGA-certified ski guide), who passed his exams before setting off on a wild first ascent adventure with Graham Zimmerman to Mount Bradley on Alaska's Ruth Glacier. Below is Mark's report with impressive photos and superb video from the ascent that truly shows what it's like to commit to a massive alpine first ascent.
“To achieve vigorous manhood at least five qualities are necessary; muscular strength, endurance, energy, courage, and will power…There are numerous examples of vigorous men in recent history and present day in American life…By faithful adherence to the five requirements previously mentions, one develops a high degree of bodily resistance”
Mt. Bradley SE Face this April in the condition the SE Buttress was noticed during the late March reconnaissance. ~Photo Graham Zimmerman
Zimmerman on the summit morning, the third day of the climb, taking in the view from the Tower~Photo Mark Allen
We were in mid-swing of the second major crux network of the route. We had fixed the lines the night before and rappelled down to the exposed ledge after the climbing became a game of diminishing return. A near-perfect bivy blessed us part way up the 800-foot granite tower that stood like a bouncer guarding the summit. One corner of the tent that was draped over the ledge collected gear like a sinkhole. Ropes ran out of our sleeping bags, to the door, and up to the anchor. Gear hung clipped under the visor of granite that protected our bivy from what loomed above.
Seven years ago, Graham Zimmerman and I met in Washington on an alpine course through the American Alpine Institute. I was a young North Cascades guide and he was one of my youngest clients at 17. He absorbed everything I had to offer. He was, and still is, one of the most positive and motivated people I have ever shared the rope with.
Paul Roderick landed us in the Great Ruth Gorge. According to the National Park Service we were going to be all alone; have the entire range to ourselves. Storms shut down any more traffic to ensure this. This was a rare opportunity for our climbing team and provided a new element of remoteness to the range. The Alaska Range is funny that way. On a sunny day one could easily flag down one of the many passing planes. On a no-fly-day you might as well be in the Hymal. Now we were on our own. No climbers. No planes. It was just the ravens, the mountains, and us.
Mt. Wake NE Buttress after a snowstorm ~Photo Mark Allen
Great Gorge ski tours during route recon. ~Photo Mark Allen
Approaching the “Lighting Bolt Coulior,” the entrance to the SE Buttress during the second attempt in colder temps. ~photo Mark Allen
Graham coming into the Prow after a spice 140m unprotected snow wallow. Steep terrain above reminds us of our low position on the route. ~Photo Mark Allen
It was several more hours of easy mixed and steep snow climbing pitches to the first bivy on The Prow. We positioned the bivy safe from any avalanches on a spine abscessing from the buttress. Graham and I had one of the most astounding views of the long Ruth Valley Glacier. We sunk into the bivy basking in the sun, letting the stress of the mountain shed away.
The Prow Bivy about 1500ft up the route after pitch 7 of new climbing. North Face of Mt. Wake in the background. This was a 6 hour mid-day bivy to wait for snowslopes to refreeze and ice conditions in the coulior to improve. ~Photo Mark Allen
After the bivy we headed out in the cooler temps of the afternoon as the slopes came into the shade and cast off into the headwall couloir looking for ice~Photo Graham Zimmerman
We packed up in cooler temps. The blue shade pushed out alpine yellow glow. That was the cue. We headed up to explore the Ice Ribbon. A thousand-feet of moderate gully ice protected by an entrance fee of M5+ and thin eggshell WI 5. Graham led off the belay without hesitation. It was a burly pitch and one of the route’s headiest points. Watching at the belay I fumbled with the video camera trying not to give a bad belay. Each gear placement was like a small triumph. Graham’s persistence was admirable and right then he was my personal hero. Off belay. We were in!
Photo of the Second Snow Bench, the Prow Bivy (bottom left), and the Ribbon a 1000ft of ice that on the second night took us to the second Bivy on the ridge just left of the couloirs exit. This was the prize of the route and the most memorable climbing. We then had to wait until first light to navigate the complex blocky ridge. This was our reward for climbing the six pitches of ice quickly. ~Photo Mark Allen
We topped the Ribbon and gained the buttress crest. The terrain above us was supposed to be easy and fun ridge climbing. Graham and I looked up into the darkness at a complex fortress of rock. We needed sunlight to navigate such a gauntlet. Unwilling to deal with the physiological stress, we pretended the mountain was not there and bivied until light.
We woke to the eerie shapes of lenticular clouds on the horizon. They were right on time. Large spindrift avalanches began to pour off the slopes above. We dared not leave the spine of the buttress. I was taken away from this predicament by Graham’s positive demeanor and conversation about cute Yosemite girls that slackline. We never had a conversation about committing, but this would have been the time.
Graham racking for the final pitch to the summit. Graham is preparing to leave the Tower bivy and jug up to the high point from the night before ~Photo mark Allen
Graham Zimmerman climbing the last mixed pitches of the tower~photo Mark Allen
Graham Zimmerman at the last belay (28) while transitioning to simul climbing the last spines of the buttress. ~Photo Mark Allen
Graham and I were revitalized after the exposed six-hour bivy on the Tower. Our minds told us this was the end of the climb; we couldn’t have been further from the truth. We finished the tower and the terrain broke down. We could feel the reality of the top for the first time. Its as if dreaming of food and getting the first realization of its aroma as it becomes near to ready. My fear, my fatigue, my hunger all faded away for the moment as we sauntered towards the highest point of this giant. While walking I pointed out the two ravens that circled the summit just tens of feet above. There presence felt as if they knew the significance of our arrival. This was a climax of our climb…a very special moment in our friendship, the partnership, and our lives.