On June 3, Alex Honnold, arguably the finest climber of his generation, and most famous, pulled off the most audacious and technically demanding free-solo climb (no rope, no gear, you slip, you die) of his career: the first free-solo up the nearly 3,000-foot vertical face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. So how does the planet's greatest climber follow it up? Not a problem. Honnold and his The North Face sponsors already had a little something on the books: They’ve reunited him with two climbing partners, filmmaker and climber Renan Ozturk and alpinist Freddie Wilkinson, to take a second crack at a formidable route, called the Wine Bottle Tower, up the East Face of Mount Dickey. Men’s Journal is tagging along to see if they can pull it off, and we’ll have regular updates as the team makes their way up the mountain, which rises 5,000 feet from the base of Ruth Glacier.
The climbers are now setting up their base camp at the foot of the wall, which gives them roughly a 7- to 10-day time window to take advantage of any good weather to make a summit dash before they’re scheduled to be flown off the glacier. Four years ago, in what was an alpine baptism of fire for 31-year-old Honnold — at the time a complete snow-and-ice neophyte — the three had attempted this route and made it only 15 percent of the way up to the summit. “Alex was totally new to alpinism at that point and it was his first trip to the mountains of Alaska,” Ozturk says. “It was a full fish-out-of-water experience.”
Since then, Honnold has launched himself up a steep alpine learning curve, having completed two landmark Patagonian “enchainments,” the Fitz Roy Traverse, with Tommy Caldwell in 2014, and the Cerro Torre Traverse, with Colin Haley last year. The Wine Bottle Tower has only been climbed once, and Honnold, Ozturk, and Wilkinson are aiming to do it in a single push (“alpine style”) and without using “aid techniques.” In other words, they will use ropes and gear only to protect from falls, climbing every foot of the route using only their hands and feet for upward locomotion. If they’re successful, they’ll be the first to climb the route without aid.
“It would pretty much be a breakthrough,” says David Roberts, the co-author of Honnold’s autobiography, Alone on the Wall, and one of a trio of climbers who made the first ascent of the East Face of Mount Dickey back in 1974, although by a different route. “But I think it’s going to be really hard [on] some of those sections and [it will be] scary if the rock [quality] is shit,” he says. “And it’s going to depend hugely on the weather, and the weather isn’t good up there. They could be climbing brilliantly and be shut down by the weather.”
One might question the wisdom of Honnold attempting one of the most daunting “big wall”–style climbs in North America just after he bet his life on free-soloing the Freerider route on El Cap. Roberts says Honnold half-joked with him before taking off for Alaska that he had to establish his bona fides as something other than a pure rock climber: “I gotta prove I’m a mountaineer.” But underneath the light tone, Roberts says, “He’s still as compulsive and insatiable a climber as he ever was, which is extraordinary after doing it for years at this level.”
Honnold first made his reputation climbing in Yosemite, so it’s fitting that he, Ozturk, and Wilkinson are committing themselves to a climb in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge, which has often been likened to a subarctic Yosemite. The Ruth Glacier, a slow-moving river of ice, flows from Denali 40 miles to the tundra flatlands. For part of that trip, it’s squeezed on either side by stark granite peaks averaging more than 4,000 feet in altitude, a vertigo-inducing amphitheater of rock, ice, and snow that is higher, colder, and more forbidding than Yosemite Valley. Instead of Yosemite’s gently meandering Merced River, the Gorge has Ruth Glacier, which is heavily crevassed and capable of swallowing a climber before he makes it to the start of his route. Instead of Yosemite’s smooth, even granite, the quality of the Gorge peaks varies enormously, from quality granite to the loose, crumbly stuff that climbers dismissively call “chossy.”
Scientist/photographer Brad Washburn made the first ascent of Mount Dickey in 1955 by the gently angled West Face. (Honnold and company plan to descend this way.) More significantly, Washburn produced the first photographic images, which fired the imaginations of hardcore climbers around the world. Even today, ever more difficult routes continue to be put up. One, for instance, by the late Swiss super-climber Ueli Steck in 2002. But major routes in the Gorge are often not repeated for years, or ever, so the single ascent of the Wine Bottle Tower is, Roberts says, not that unusual. Two Austrian climbers, Andreas Orgler and Thomas Bonapace, pulled off that first climb, in 1988, during a six-day siege. Orgler’s account in the American Alpine Journal makes for sobering reading. The route goes up what is in essence a giant buttress, almost vertical in the early going, which then relents to lower-angled sections higher up, thus (loosely) following the shape of a wine bottle. The pair encountered sections of mostly featureless vertical rock that required them to use "aid,” typically web stirrups driven into the rock that the climber steps into and moves up on. Higher up on the route, as the angle relented, the quality of the rock worsened.
Honnold, Ozturk, and Wilkinson are, at this moment, figuring out how best to attack the route. One possibility, suggests Honnold’s friend and sometime climbing partner Tommy Caldwell, is making one or more initial forays up the early vertical pitches, fixing gear for protection, then returning to the tents at the foot of the route to sleep in relative comfort. Then, if the weather allows, they might climb the entire route, ground to summit, in a single push, climbing through the day and the long Alaskan spring twilight until they’re up and off the mountain. Whether or not they wind up resorting to using a portaledge, sleeping at night attached to the Face in a multiday effort, Ozturk says the plan is to move fast during the colder hours of the day in order to generate body heat when the temperature is likely just below freezing, then rest during the warmer hours.
Roberts predicts the most daunting hazard the three may face will be ice and rock strafing them from above, unloosed by the spring thaw. The theory is that the buttress shape of the route will protect the climbers from the falling debris. “Maybe the buttress protects you from the worst of the falling shit,” Roberts says, “but that stuff is so unpredictable and the scale is so big, you can’t guarantee it will be safe.”
Honnold, in swapping El Cap for the Wine Bottle Tower, has turned his risk calculus upside down. On El Cap, the route was so dialed in, the rock so clean, and the weather so mild, the “objective” dangers were almost nil. But the sheer technical difficulty of the climb, that his life depended on him perfectly sticking every hand and foot placement, would be overwhelming for anyone other than Honnold. (And even for Honnold, it took him years of rehearsing the route before he felt ready to solo it.) On Mount Dickey, the rope should protect against a fall, but no amount of climbing precision can protect you from a falling rock with your name on it.
“Alex is used to a climbing medium where control is everything,” Roberts says. “After the first climb on the Wine Bottle, he told me that the climbing seemed easy but he couldn’t believe all the stuff coming down. It shocked him that mountains are that unstable.”
Since then, of course, on Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, Honnold has honed his skills in alpine risk management. “Alex’s awareness of things like loose rocks is off the map,” Caldwell, says. “And on this trip, he’ll be with Renan and Freddie, who know that place so well, they’ll be able to steer him in the right direction.” An efficient division of labor is almost a given. Ozturk and Wilkinson will lead the technical, delicate “mixed” rock-ice-snow pitches. Honnold will lead on pure rock, motoring up pitches at a pace that nobody else would dare match. And on the easier alpine ground, Caldwell says, “big snow ramps and stuff like that,” the three will be moving at the same time, simul-climbing, to quicken the pace.
The margin of safety, Caldwell believes, will be adequate, certainly more so than on the El Cap solo. But moments arise when the risk can’t be adequately or reasonably negotiated. Honnold seems okay with that, too. “We were on the Fitz Traverse,” says Caldwell, “and we were looking up at the top thousand feet of Fitz Roy, and it’s covered in rime and it’s falling down all around us. There’s a lot of uncontrollable hazards in that environment, and Alex is immediately like, ‘Well, dude, why not, why wouldn’t we do it?’ He’s more that way than anybody.”
In other words, better stay tuned.