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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Where's Waldo?

Every kid has played that game I suspect.

I spent just over half a decade to the exclusion of everything including climbing, physically tracking down and finding men and their financial fortunes.  The thrill of the chase, finding a fugitive and where he had hid his money was as much sport as soloing 5.11 cracks and steep ice. 

I'm thinking this is a guy likely guilty of something ;)
A long over due bar bill at the Fairview maybe?

Finding a Brit from the '80s, Simon McCartney, should be easy by comparison.  Easy because we had some things in common. 

"Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world."

Well that was my thought process anyway while on a 18hr non stop drive with Jack Roberts.  Simon McCartney had been Jack's partner on two amazingly difficult and dangerous Alaskan climbs from the late '70s and early '80s era.

I met Jack later in life.  Still a wild man on any sort of terrain even with totally trashed and painful feet.  He was good at his chosen craft.  But when he and Simon climbed the Timeless Face on Huntington, they were my climbing heros.  And at least to me, much larger than life. 

Roberts and McCartney? Hell even their names made them sound like rock stars!

Quoting tea bags, Aldous Huxley and suffering seemed as natural as cold hard ice to them.  Or so it seemed by the trip reports.

Anyone who climbed seriously at the time will never forget Tobin Sorenson's, "Witlessly Bold, Heroically Dull" in CLIMBING magazine .  The story of Jack's and Tobin's climb on the GCC, Mt. Kitchener, in the dark of winter.  "Cold had already taken our light.  It had taken our strength and  it was trying to take our lives".  Grim stuff indeed from a guy known to do some pretty hard climbing on the "edge".

Gave rein to wrath and drown'd them in the Flood.
Teeming again, repeopled Tellus bore
The lubber Hero and the Man of War;
Huge towers of Brawn, topp'd with an empty Skull,
Witlessly bold, heroically dull.
Long ages pass'd and Man grown more refin'd,
Slighter in muscle but of vaster Mind,
Smiled at his grandsire's broadsword, bow and bill,
And learn'd to wield the Pencil and the Quill.
The glowing canvas and the written page
Immortaliz'd his name from age to age,
His name emblazon'd on Fame's temple wall;
For Art grew great as Humankind grew small.
Thus man's long progress step by step we trace;
The Giant dies, the hero takes his place;
The Giant vile, the dull heroic Block:
At one we shudder and at one we mock.
Man last appears. In him the Soul's pure flame
Burns brightlier in a not inord'nate frame.
Of old when Heroes fought and Giants swarmed,
Aldous Huxley

Jack was around.  He was easy to find guiding in Colorado or Chamonix.  Or at any Ice Fest mid winter representing a climbing company or two and while gladly introducing new players to the sport..

But Simon was lost.  Not to be found!  Shortly after the ill fated trip and a new difficult route on Denali, Simon had "gotten lost".  Or may be he was just hiding out from Jack.  What ever happened on that trip, Jack still wanted to climb and Simon was done with it. No hard feelings on ether's part, just a parting of the ways for 30 years.  By their own admissions, both would eventually regret that decision immensely.  

Simon had literally disappeared for the climbing community by 1982. From England to Australia and finally to Hong Kong. Jack had looked for him with no results and thought Simon dead. As did others. Rumor and comments had the story growing and getting darker over the years. Until the actual  ascent itself became a question to many that knew Jack and had looked closely at the North Face of Huntington.

I was interested in the two climbs and in the partnership.   After all Jack and Simon inspired my own climbing and my first forays into "fast and light" as much as anyone.   As did John Bouchard's  climbing in the Alps just prior.  And the magical "Stone Master" 1977 season in the Alps.  Steve Shea, Dick Jackson,  Jack Roberts, Tobin Sorenson, Todd Eastman and Mugs Stump among others had been a part of  that  season in Chamonix..  Bouchard's Wild Things packs caught my attention in Mug's tent on the Kahiltna after the Moonflower in '81.  That small group of climbers and Bouchard's Wild Things catalogs would have a lasting influence on the International alpine climbing community. Much like Chouinard and his contemporaries had earlier and Chouinard Equipment's now classic 1973 catalog.

Before there was "fast and light", "disaster style alpinism" or even before "night naked".

"Night Naked"?  "The last stylistic climax in alpine climbing came in the mid- to late 1980s when many of the 8000- meter peaks were climbed in single-push style, often by new routes. Such climbing was termed "night-naked" by Voytek Kurtyka; he, Jean Troillet, Pierre-Allain Steiner and Erhard Loretan were at the center of adapting this bivouac-less style to the peaks of the Himalaya."

1980 РA four-man team consisting of Polish climbers Voytek Kurtyka, Ludwik Wiczyczynski, Frenchman René Ghilini and Scotsman Alex MacIntyre climb the east face, topping out at 7,500 m on the northeast ridge. After a bivouac they descend in a of the first clear examples of "night naked".

Jack and Simon had already done Huntington.

Jack Roberts high on the Timeless Face of Huntington, 1978

Truth is these two guys influenced an entire generation of climbers long before logos and self promotion popped up in the ever growing climbing community.

Jack again, on Huntington 
Simon's photo was featured in both Climbing magazine and the AAJ in 1979

Much like Simon, I had simply lost touch with all that.  I had forgotten who I had first tried to emulate.  Who I looked at for "what could be done" and who I REALLY wanted to climb like.     Funny how life seems to run in circles if you let it.  And not in a bad way.  Actually in some of the best ways possible if you can be open to it.

I had been interested in the Huntington story.  The "Timeless Face"  July 2/6 1978,  Alaskan Grade 6,  5.9, WI4/5, 5740 vertical feet.  And likely as scary and dangerous as any route on the planet that had actually been climbed.

Rob Newsom, no wall flower himself or one to back off a hard lead commented recently of seeing Roberts and McCartney high on the face, "as the craziest, most dangerous damn thing ever!"  Newsom was  skiing down the Ruth when saw Roberts and McCartney climbing high on the face.  He had been directly below them and had a  box seat to the alpine spectacle.  Rob had seen  them climbing on the face, well over halfway up.  Then while in camp for several more days with no sign of Simon and Jack by the time his crew flew out, he worried about what had happened to them. Roberts and McCartney would lose their ropes descending the west face, Harvard route, after their North Face climb. The ropes had hung up just below the Nose pitch and abandoned.  Turning a difficult decent from an already really difficult climb into a suffer fest of epic proportions.  Those same ropes Mark Westman would find years later.  Left just were the North Face 1st ascent party had described.  Westman took note of the find and recognised that they were very likely from Roberts' and McCartney's decent down the West Face.  And sure enough, Charlie Porter's original 1978 photos shows Simon and Jack holding  ropes of the same colors as the ones found by Westman in 2005.

Mark Westman, "I found them in '98  but didn't recognise what they were until 2005, which was an extremely dry season. I did not see them in 2000 as the deep snow below the Nose buried them.  They certainly looked to be decades old.  The other thing of course,  being so the few people who've been up/down the Harvard, how many other teams could have lost their ropes there?  Likely, no one!"

Mark Westman. "1998, Joe Puryear on top of the Nose pitch. Simon's rope on the left stuck in the crack. Marked "my rope" as in "Simon's rope". The white crap is probably Japanese 1976 fixed rope."
This picture is from 2005 at the base of the Nose pitch (the previous photo is at the top of the pitch). Simon's  rope is snagged and shredded on the left.

Charlie Porter's photo of the lads off to slay the Dragon.  With the now tell-tale ropes in tow.
"Jack liked bright colours.  He was actually a California boy at heart.  Enough to consider his yellow Gore-Tex shell needed to match with his harness and ropes!"  But then he wore Hawaiian shirts 24/7/365.  "With blonde hair and surfer's tan we knew he reeked style points."

Then there are Robert's and McCartney's photographs from high on the face.  All of that leaves absolutely no doubt that they climbed Huntington's North face in 1978. 

The summit of the Rooster Comb is in the background, which puts them around 10,000' on the face.  2200' below the summit.  And 3500' up the North Face of Huntington

Jack seconding Simon's lead with Dan Beard as the back drop.Upper Left is Dan Beard, upper right is Explorer's Peak and the peaks east of the North fork of the Ruth Glacier. Lower left is the beginning slopes of Peak 11,300'.
When Paul Roderick (the ace Talkeetna Air Taxi bush pilot), was show  the Roberts/McCarney photos said. "there is no doubt the photos were taken from high on Huntington's North Face.
And the final brick in the wall? 

The 1978, 1st ascent party on the Southeast Spur,  Joseph Kaelin, Kent Meneghin, Glenn Randall and Angus M. Thuermer, Jr., reached Huntington's summit  on July 9.  Three days after Roberts and McCarthney. 

This from Angus Thuermer recently, "On Huntington we had made what we thought was a pretty good accomplishment - especially considering how quickly we got up it. But there was little doubt that the team from the other side had just plucked a plumb. Who wouldn't want to be a swashbuckler with that on his resume?  It was clear where the footprints came from. It wasn't like they topped out somewhere on the east or west ridge and moseyed up. The came straight to the summit from the north.  So our route would be number five, not four."

One has to wonder exactly why Jack never made it so clear. The irrefutable evidence of the first ascent of the "Timeless Face" would have been so easy to provide.  May be he had already done it too many times.

Years later Jack had seemingly given up on explaining the history of Huntington.  He knew he had climbed the face but without Simon to share in the credit he simply didn't care to explain or defend the ascent again and again.  He would on occasion,  when pressed by an eager new Huntington suitor, answer detailed questions about the route and the ascent.  When I asked, Jack kindly drew a topo for me a few years ago.  I recently had the chance to compare the original topo draw by Jack and Simon shortly after the climb to my "new" topo.  Jack's memory of the exact line through a complicated face hadn't faded over the past 30 years.  Jack's hand draw topo matches perfectly with Simon's photos of the face from their 1978 base camp.  It seemed however Jack had no interest in talking about the climb.

I thought it important that the Huntington climb be documented.  Questions raised and put to bed for ever, one way or another.

 Mark Twight puts the "Timeless Face" into context and closes one chapter to hopefully only open another on Huntington.

"In the early-80s I discovered Mountain Magazine and the north face of Mount Huntington. I thought the protagonists to be the baddest of the bad-asses. This was about the time the WPODs were active in AK. Those guys scared the shit out of me and I put Roberts in the same category. For a long time I took the ascent at face value and inspiration from it because my own experience taught what may be  one when extraordinary conditions and will prevail. But some of Jack's actions off the mountain made the rumors of doubt easier to believe and I did. Reading Newsom's words was a relief because they meant a climb that inspired me for many years was real, and likely the single ballsiest undertaking in the history of North American climbing."

The "Timeless Face", Huntington

Prior to Jack's death I had decided to find Simon.  If he was still alive.

That search started with me posting this message on several well read Internet climbing forums :

Feb 12, 2011                                    
"Simon McCartney (UK) and Jack Roberts (USA) did two impressive lines in Alaska together in the late '70s early 80s, the NW face of Huntington in '77 and a new route on the SW face of Denali in '80. Both climbs well ahead of their time in a number of ways.

Simon McCartney virtually disappeared, as far as I know, from the climbing scene after the new route on Denali and final rescue.

Jack Roberts hasn't heard from him in years.
Anyone know Simon's where abouts today?"

The answer:  June 16 2012
This is Simon McCartney....

That only took 17 months and hardly any effort.  Climbers have a lot in common.  Eventually they return in one form or the other to the tribe.  '80s climbers?  Even more likely they will turn up eventually if they are still breathing :)

"We found Wally!"

Simon McCartney mid "Tuckerman Route", 1st ascent of the SW face of Denali, 1980
CT: Name of the book you are working on Simon?

Simon:  Not sure but the working title might be "Hard Way Up-Hard Way Down.

CT: me there that seems pretty appropriate if the down includes 3 day with no food!
What ya been doing the last 40 years in 2 sentences or less?

Simon: After Denali I went to meet my sweetheart in Australia to recuperate and fell in love with the place.  A year later I started a new life in Sydney.  I moved to Hong Kong in '92 and am now running my own architectural lighting business with a partner.

CT: Why ya writing the book now... in 3 sentences or less?
To honor my old friend initially but as work progressed I see that there is more to say than just another climber's tale.  It is about becoming an adult and the importance of human values.

CT: Favorite drink these days?

Nice crisp Chardonnay with a dash of soda.

CT: And finally from your perspective 30 years on why hasn't anyone repeated either of your and Jack's routes in the Alaska range?

Simon:  Not stupid enough?  Actually I don't think our SW face route (The "Tuckerman Route" on Denali)  has been repeated because it was not well documented  and the face has given other first ascents since then.  The time for repeats is only (just happening) now.  

Denali, SW Face, 1980:

"Jack and Simon have successfully climbed the difficult southwest face in impeccable alpine style, but their rapid ascent has resulted in frostbitten feet for Jack and high-altitude sickness for Simon. Simon is semiconscious inside their tent and is unable to walk. They have been without food and water for two days."
Bob Kandiko, AAJ 1981

But that is another story...waiting to be retold.

Their climb of the  "Tuckerman Route"  on the SW Face of Denali would prove itself years ahead of its time in technical difficulty and commitment."   And as of yet, never fully appreciated in the climbing community.

Good luck with the project Simon!


Jon Miller said...

Thank you Dane for hunting down Simon. It certainly was a regret for Jack that he had lost contact with him over the years. I know I'm looking forward to the book. It was another regret of Jack's that no one had repeated those two routes, maybe this will spark an interest?

wfinley said...

I don't know about the "Tuckerman Route" but I'm pretty sure the reason no one has attempted the N face of Huntington is because it would be suicidal. The entire face moves day and night. Perhaps it was a little more stable 30 years ago but these days it seems like a monster serac ave rips every 20 minutes.

Dane said...

Things may or may not have changed that much on the Seracs in the last 30 years. I was told the Seracs calved several times on both trips through the rock bands. Interesting to know they climbed through the bottom rock barrier, twice.

wfinley said...

Regardless of change... standing below the face and imagining someone climbing it is truly humbling. Nice to read more about it.

Jay B said...

Thanks for the post and the links to Jack's accounts of the ascent. I'd never heard of the Timeless Face before, and it definitely sounds like a key moment in alpine history. I also never knew Jack could write so well. Alpine hardman, teacher, poet. Impressive.

Leon Sedov said...

Did know photos of them climbing the face actually existed....

I have been searching around and can't seem to find a rating for the McCartney-Roberts route on Denali?

Dane said...

Is there an "easy" route on the SW face of Denali :)

Leon Sedov said...

A wise man once told me: everything is condition dependent.

Ohh, and for the record here, seconded the Timeless Face is definitely possible. It would just take someone stupid enough.....
And, from what I can remember from Jack's account the face wasn't stable in any sense during their ascent: they were hit and thrown by at least three avalanches.

But, the 'Tuckerman Route' must have a grade; everything does. Easy, Hard, or Stupid?

Dane said...

Leon, I spoke with Jack at length in the past and Simon recently about "Tuckerman". Simon was hesitant to give it a grade since he hasn't followed climbing since. Jack never cared to. But I think if you look back at whet boh wrote in public at the time you get a pretty good idea. My guess is soemthing similar to Light Traveler or the Diamond...same terrain after all.

Mark Westman is the guy to ask I suspect.

But here are some numbers that get handed out. Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5: 5.8 65 degrees, 8,800', Slovak Route (Alaska Grade 6: M5 WI6 5.9, 8,500', Light Traveler (Alaska Grade 6: M7+ WI6, 8,500', Canadian Direct (Alaska Grade 6: M6 5.9, 8,000', Diamond. Alaska Grade 6, M7, WI5+, A3, 7,800'. I have no doubt Jack and Simon both found it "hard enough". ;-)

Dane said...

good read..

Jay Kerr said...

Nice find today while looking for some history. In April, 1978 I made my first trip into the range and did ascents of Mt. Dan Beard and The Rooster Comb. The views of Mt. Huntington from those climbs, and later the accounts of Roberts and McCarney's ascent of the North Face helped inspire three follow-on expeditions to climb routes on Huntington. In pursuit of those routes I've scrambled up and down the face of the Huntington/Rooster Comb col 4 times, and was scared shitless each time. I've always thought that their ascent of the North Face was the proudest ascent I've ever heard of. Thanks for the great history lesson.