INTERVIEW: Andy Houseman on the Slovak Direct, Alaskaby Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Sep/2012
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We've caught up with Andy Houseman just a week before he is off once more in to the fray, this time to the Nepalese Himalaya. In this short interview we get a little more info on the Slovak Direct, and we find out a little more about Andy Houseman.
Jack: Andy, congratulations on the Slovak. So, for those who don't know, can you just briefly explain what and where is the Slovak Direct?
Andy: It's a route on the massive (almost 3000m) high South Face of Denali, 6192m in Alaska. Starting at around 3450m it takes a line of sustained technical ground to join the Cassin Ridge at around 5000m which it then follows to the summit. It was first climbed over 11 days by Adam, Krizo, and Korl in 1984 and since then it had had a further four ascents up until this year, each one with its own story and building its reputation as a big Alaskan test piece full of quality climbing.
Jack: Why exactly were you inspired to climb this particular route?
Andy: I think the Slovak is a route that's on most alpinists' dream tick list, it's got a massive reputation and when Steve House describes it as his 'first world class route' it's got to be good hasn't it? House, Twight and Backes made the third ascent of the route in a balls-out 60 hour single push back in 2000, I hadn't done any alpine climbing then but it was one of the first big routes I remember reading about but at that time not really realising the full significance of their ascent. That ascent, the Giri Giri boys visionary enchainment with the Isis Face and then Mark Westmans iconic photo of Jesse Huey on the steep ice corner – inspiration comes every time someone climbs the route and the experience they have on it.
Jack: So, how did the trip come about?
Andy: I'd been really keen to get back to Alaska for a while to try something on the South Face of Denali, and The North Face were looking to get some images of me on expedition using their new Fall 12 Meru Kit. This trip seemed like a great opportunity for that so they agreed to support the expedition. Nick wasn't so keen on an Alaska trip to start with (something about interrupting his summer of rock climbing...) but after a few phone calls and casually mentioning the Slovak he was in!
Jack: And did you do any training prior to the trip?
Andy: Never as much as I want to, just lots of running and biking, I reckon all that sledge pulling just to get to 14,000ft camp is enough to get anyone into shape though!
Jack: And the ascent itself - did it all go according to plan?
Andy: Sort of, we'd set off with a so-so forecast but during the approach and the extra day we spent sitting under the face the weather was much better than expected so it looked like the high pressure system was holding longer than expected. Unfortunately 4 hours into the route the amazing weather we'd experienced over the last week whilst acclimatising and resting ended and we had four days of pretty bad weather on the route. For the last three of the four days we spent on the route no one even summited Denali by the normal West Buttress due to the weather and there we were fully committed on a nearly 3000m face and on the hardest route on the mountain. Not ideal but made it all the more memorable I guess!
Apart from the weather the climbing far exceeded anything either of us had imagined, the first day flew past and by midday we were set up with a nice comfy bivi in the bergschrund on a hanging glacier. The second day was always going to be the big one and turned into a full on 27 hour push to finish the Slovak and join the Cassin Ridge, the climbing had just been phenomenal all day, runnels, goulottes and ice falls all in a truly awe inspiring situation. The huge ice corner was something else, nearly half way up this massive face and climbing WI5+ pitches whilst getting hammered by spindrift was pretty out there.
The next two days getting up the Cassin kind of all blurred into one with deep snow, some horrible weather and very tired bodies all making it take a lot longer than we'd planned.
Jack: It sounds epic Andy. Out of all that, can you pick out any particularly hairy moments on the route, anything in particular stick in your mind?
Andy: Being stuck in a tent at about 5500m on the Cassin was pretty interesting. The wind had become so strong that there was no way we could continue climbing, so we had no choice but to sit it out. We ended up being pinned-down for 16 hours with what sounded like jet turbines blowing right outside the tent. Just about out of food, really tired after leaving 14,000ft camp over five days previous and knowing the easiest way out was to go up and over the top of North America's highest mountain it was starting to get pretty serious especially not knowing what the weather was going to do. Luckily the weather cleared by mid-morning and we topped out later that afternoon under clear blue skies, hardly any wind and the mountain to ourselves – it was pretty special.
Jack: And how did you feel when you got back to base camp?
Andy: We'd just done the Slovak Direct, we'd had probably the most full-on and memorable mountain experience either of us had ever had, and climbed some of the highest quality pitches I've ever experienced in the mountains. To say we were psyched is an understatement - I think the summit photo says it all.
Back in 14,000ft camp later that evening I hardly slept even after 6 days on the go with very little sleep, we were just buzzing too much! Even the next day we felt surprisingly good with the adrenalin rush hiding how trashed our bodies were, but after that it all caught up and we hardly moved from the tent for a few days.
Jack: Any other little stories from Alaska?
Andy: One of the highlights of the trip was managing to score a week's worth of Yorkshire Tea at 14,000ft camp off the ever-young legends Bill Barker and John Barry, what a result!
Jack: Awesome! And you mentioned that The North Face kitted you out for this trip - can you give us a brief run down of the gear you used on the ascent then?
Andy: The trip came about with The North Face wanting to get some good material to help launch their new top-end technical line the Meru Kit in the UK. This is made up of four key pieces - the Meru Gore Jacket and Bib, the down insulated Shaffle Jacket and the Radish Mid Layer Jacket which with the addition of a really light synthetic layer was my clothing system for the route. I was really impressed with how the system worked and it basically includes everything you need for an alpine clothing system. With a bit of tweaking of layers you could use the same four core pieces in the Alps or at over 7000m in the Himalayas.
Jack: Cheers. And getting back to the UK, and work after a trip like that - was it with a bump?
Andy: Yeah, but at the same time it's always nice to get back to work and normal life. We've been busy at work with the Olympics so it's been good fun getting involved in a small way with that.
Jack: And now that summer is drawing to a close, what's next for Andy Houseman?
Andy: Off to Nepal next week! Nick and I are off to try a new route on the North Face of Chamlang (7314m). It's going to be a great trip as we're going with a bunch of good mates who are all trying different peaks in the same valley, we've all got really cool objectives to try and with the musical talent that is Rob Greenwood keeping us entertained at base camp, bad weather days should fly by!
Jack: Brilliant Andy - well done in Alaska, and good luck on Chamlang!