For nine days this June, three of America’s most accomplished climbers set up shop on the vast Ruth Glacier in the Alaska Range with the aim to climb the Wine Bottle route up the 5,000-foot-tall East Face of Mt. Dickey. Climbed just once before, in 1988, by two Austrians in an epic six-day siege, the American trio were contemplating racing up the route in a single push of about 36 hours and, if conditions were good, doing the whole thing “free” — that is with rope and gear used only for protection.
Climber Renan Ozturk has described the Wine Bottle as “the last great problem in the Ruth Gorge.” If anyone were going to solve it in such an audacious style, it seemed that he, alpinist Freddie Wilkinson, and Alex Honnold, the most daring rock climber in the world — fresh off a mind-blowing free-solo of Yosemite’s El Capitan — might be the ones. They certainly tried: On June 14 a bush pilot dropped the team off at a tiny hut, the Sheldon Mountain House, where they skied several hours through the bright Alaskan night to pitch camp opposite Dickey in the middle of Ruth Glacier. So they came, and they saw: mostly the rocks and snow that, unmoored and unthawed in the warm June weather, regularly poured off the mountain. But they did not conquer: On Thursday, June 22, they packed it in, breaking down camp and hauling out their gear on orange plastic sleds. And they were relieved. “When you’ve been sitting here all week, watching shit like that, it’s not so sweet,” Honnold says.
As soon as they got their first good look at the wine-bottle-shaped granite buttress that protrudes from Dickey’s East Face, the black streaks of moisture left by melting snow, they knew the odds were stacked against them. It wouldn’t go “free” or fast. Simply repeating in less time what the Austrians had done would still be a very hard business. While they waited, in vain as it turned out, for the Wine Bottle to dry out, they pulled off two smaller first ascents as “practice” climbs. Honnold and Wilkinson climbed up a large ("off-width” in climber lingo) crack running up a 1,000-foot buttress to the side of The Stump, a smaller mountain opposite Dickey. The technical difficulty was, by their standards, only moderate. But they also didn’t have a piece of gear big enough to jam in the crack for protection. So Honnold, as he does, basically free-soloed it.
“A scrappy little route,” Honnold calls it. The pair dubbed it The Alaska Monster, a nod to the Monster crack on his El Cap free-solo on the Freerider route. And all three climbed a new line on The Stump itself, StumpRider, a 14-hour push up a longer, harder route (2,000 feet long and a grade of 5.11b). If the two alpine vets could find some virtue in the line, Honnold was less impressed: “The rock wasn’t great, the gear wasn’t great, and it was all just a little bit too scary and not all that sweet,” he says.
Ironically, the climbing CV for the trio’s first visit to the Gorge in 2013, when Honnold was a complete newbie in the big mountains, was more impressive: three significant climbs, on Barille, Bradley, and Dickey, and one exploratory climb up the first section of the Wine Bottle, a climb that this time they didn’t even touch. “At that point, I hadn’t even put crampons on,” Honnold recalls. “I was totally out of my depth.” Ozturk remembers their route on Mt. Bradley, a second ascent and a 50-hour push that demanded some delicate climbing through tricky snow formations near the summit. “Alex was sticking his fingers in the holes that our ice tools had left because, to him, that felt more solid than sticking his own tools in,” says Ozturk.
There were a number of reasons why this well-financed and more elaborate expedition yielded less impressive results. For one, climbing wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. The climbers were testing outdoor gear, taking action photos, and making a short video for their The North Face sponsors, who sent their own three-person product-and-media team (and invited Men’s Journal along for the ride). Plus, the climbers themselves had only carved out a modest time window for such a daunting objective, because their own lives had grown so busy. Ozturk is juggling multiple film projects, including a feature documentary-in-progress on the Ruth Gorge that has consumed him. Wilkinson has a new baby and a new climbing gym business near Portland, Maine.
Honnold, for his part, was only just done with his early June El Cap free-solo. When it became clear that the big prize was out of reach, he resisted committing to a major secondary climb that wouldn’t have the technical difficulty or the cachet of the Wine Bottle but would come with all the usual uncontrollable or “objective” alpine dangers: falling rock and snow, crumbly rock (“choss” ), and a paucity of opportunity to place reliable protective gear. “How many 5.10s have I done,” he says, “except with the ones here, I have the possibility of dying on rappel.”
Ozturk takes the philosophical view. “Sometimes it all aligns and sometimes it doesn’t. Freddie was saying that for this climb to really happen maybe we’d have to all be here alone for twice the amount of time and just have good campfire sessions really figuring out the logistics and getting psyched.” The trio did have a heart-to-heart on the night of Tuesday, June 20, their last chance to commit to a major climb in lieu of the Wine Bottle. “I said to Alex, ‘I just want to give you happiness,’ ” Ozturk says. “It doesn’t matter what we do as long as you’re having fun in the mountains.’ ” Honnold chose not to climb at all. Instead the group spent the next half-day skiing partway up and down the lower-angled West Face of Dickey, which would have been their descent route had they actually managed to climb the mountain.
To Ozturk and Wilkinson, what’s likely more significant is Honnold’s increasing easiness with the privations of alpine life, the price of admission for an elite mountaineering career. “I’m fairly comfortable on the glacier now,” Honnold says, “sort of.” For the two Alaskan Range vets, their base camp, a handful of tents plunked down on the glacier, is like a vacation (compared to, say, bivouacking for three nights in 2012 on the freezing ledges of the Tooth Traverse that looms overhead). For Honnold, it’s a gorgeous but brutal environment. The weather has been warm and the snowfall light, so unless you’re on skis, even just moving from tent to tent means sinking three feet into slushy snow with every step you take. Care to take a crap? Ski a few feet beyond the tents, unclip, and sit on a white plastic bucket exposed to the majesty of the Ruth Gorge while the solar reflection off the snow burns your skin pink no matter how much zinc sunscreen you apply. The evening is almost as bright but brings with it a wind that blows off the glacier, cold enough to give you the shakes unless you’re wearing your big puffy expedition parka. Life in the alpine hurt locker.
But discomfort pales before danger. Honnold says when he was here four years ago, there was more snow and the avalanche risk was greater. On this trip, less snow means the crevasses pose a greater danger. That there’s only about three feet of accumulated winter snow, soft snow, sitting on top of the glacial ice such that you could punch through a snow bridge that covers up a crevasse. On his three climbing trips to Patagonia, Honnold says, the cracks in the ice were plainly visible and avoidable, “totally chill.” “But here, who knows what’s lurking underneath the snow,” he says. “You have these Alaskan man-eating crevasses that you could drive a bus into.”
Comparing notes in a spare tent, I confess to Honnold that I have serious doubts about the risks we’re all running skiing through these crevasse fields.
“Totally,” he says. “That’s when you need the hunger. You want to be here for a reason, for a mission that you’re stoked about. And then the risks can be acceptable." He admits that after the monumental effort, and emotional strain, of free-soloing El Cap, the hunger isn’t where it needs to be — at least not this time, with the Wine Bottle off the table. “But I could imagine it at the right time, the right place. If I’d only been sport climbing for the past eight months, I’d be, like, jonesing for a proper adventure.”
That’s the opening that encourages Ozturk and Wilkinson. Honnold is their secret weapon in the alpine campaign, the consummate rock jock who can shrink the size of giant alpine walls by climbing at heretofore unimaginable speeds with minimal protection and an acceptable margin of safety.
“This is more of a long game,” Ozturk says cagily. “We’ll get another shot at this with Alex after he forgets about the suffering. Whether he likes it or not, he’s built for this and maybe some day he’ll appreciate his ability to accomplish some incredible things in the Greater Ranges.”