Alex Honnold and Renan Ozturk Set Sights on North America’s Biggest Free Climb

Credit: Mark Allen

In June Alex Honnold and Renan Ozturk will travel to Alaska to attempt the first free-climbing ascent of Wine Bottle Tower on Mount Dickey's East Face. The highly technical route runs 5,250 feet straight up a wall of sheer granite, more than 2,000 feet taller than El Capitan, Yosemite’s iconic big wall. If successful, Honnold and Ozturk will have achieved the most mammoth free climb in North America.

Mountaineers first summited Mount Dickey in 1955, via the more gradual west side, which remains the most popular route today. To date, only one team has sent Wine Bottle Tower — Austrians Thomas Bonapace and Andreas Orgler in 1988. They used aid-climbing techniques, inserting protection into cracks and clipping in ladder-like rungs known as aiders, or étriers, to step into. Honnold and Ozturk will be using only their hands and feet to climb (with a rope for backup in case of a fall).

Honnold and Ozturk first aspired to free climb Wine Bottle Tower several years ago. They made an attempt in May 2013, along with veteran climber Freddie Wilkinson, but turned back after climbing only the first 15 percent of the route. “Alex was totally new to alpinism at that point and it was his first trip to the mountains of Alaska,” says Ozturk. “It was a full fish-out-of-water experience.”

Honnold has since honed his skills in some of the most challenging alpine environments on earth, including Patagonia, where he’s set numerous speed records and nabbed several ascents, most notably the first successful traverse, with Tommy Caldwell, of the saber-toothed Fitz Roy massif. 

It’s still too early to detail their exact game plan for Mount Dickey, but in general, the two plan to ski to the base of the climb. From there, they’ll need to decide if they want to take advantage of the 24 hours of daylight and do the route in one long push (as Honnold is known for) or bring several days of food and vertical camping gear, including a portaledge (as Ozturk is known for), and do it in two to three days. It’s worth noting that even two to three days would be fast. Climbers typically take three to five days to climb the shorter, and more moderate (climate-wise), El Capitan. Ozturk says that either way, they’ll have to go somewhat quickly — moving during the coldest parts of the day, when temperatures are likely to be just below freezing, to generate body heat, and resting at the warmest part of the day.

Ozturk, who is an expert in this section of the Alaska Range, home to some of the tallest big-wall rock faces on the planet, is most nervous about the top of the route, where the granite turns to “choss,” climber-speak for loose, crumbly rock that can break off in your hand. “That part’s going to be scary,” he says.