Steve Bell - The Bond of Mt Huntington

Author of Virgin on Insanity, Steve Bell, pens a tribute piece to the enigmatic and striking Mount Huntington in the central Alaska Range.

Alaska's Mt Huntington (3731m) might be dwarfed by its sprawling neighbour, Denali, but it is unarguably a greater challenge. There is no 'voie normale' to the top and the mountain will only submit to the most determined climbers who seek an extreme adventure and who have luck on their side. Yet they come and they try, irresistibly drawn by a shocking beauty that screams for attention.

Mount Huntington © Mark Westman
Mount Huntington
© Mark Westman

As distinctive as the Matterhorn, Huntington's pyramid dominates the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier, on to which its 5000ft North Face regularly spews monstrous avalanches. Its other faces - east and west - are less volatile but steeper, and merely getting to them is a test of one's mettle.

There is some debate about which is the easiest route to the summit. The three main ridges are complex and heavily corniced, and although the faces between may flaunt an array of lines, it's impossible to pick the route of least resistance. Modern ice climbing techniques favour the steep ice lines, and there is a growing consensus that the West Face Couloir is the least problematic way to the top. This was first climbed in 1987 by which time numerous other routes had already been completed, including a longer and steeper line to the left climbed by Brits Nick Colton and Tim Leach in 1981.

A snowhole on Huntington © Steve Bell Collection
A snowhole on Huntington
© Steve Bell Collection

Huntington punches above its weight in literature too. It features in Lionel Terray's Conquistadors of the Useless, and it's the bad guy in David Roberts' Mountain of my Fear. In 2016, the mountain's reputation was pumped up even more by two epic stories, The Bond by Simon McCartney, which describes the 1978 ascent - still unrepeated - of the North Face, and my youthful adventure on the East Face, as told in Virgin on Insanity.

I first set eyes on Mt Huntington in May 1980. Drowning in the grandeur of the West Fork, Roger Mear and I craned our necks upwards at the North Face, mesmerised by a deadly beauty that held our gaze with the narrowed eyes of icecliffs that were about to blink. I couldn't see a way up it without certain death, yet someone had done it and somehow that made it worse. The avalanche ravaged face above us would have been easier to accept if it hadn't also been a climb, but now it scowled at us as though saying, 'come on, give me a try' as it spun the chamber for my turn in a game of Russian Roulette.

Roger Mear on Mount Huntington © Steve Bell Collection
Roger Mear on Mount Huntington
© Steve Bell Collection

The East Face was a more realistic proposition. Our ascent went without mishap, although the rock band at half height led us into several cul de sacs before we found a route through it. Yet the mountain had got into my mind, perhaps because of that evil North Face that had jeered at my cowardice for not wanting to pull the trigger of the gun that pressed hard against my temple.

It was a pointed mountain but the summit was flat, an almost level football field of snow the end of which whipped up into a point like a dollop of cream dropped from a spoon. It curled away from us, leaning over the precipice of the North Face, its highest point - the summit of the mountain - suspended on the tip of a giant cornice that was undercut by a vertical mile of space. It was tantalisingly close yet beyond reach, as though the mountain was mocking us. It taunted me again, 'come on, you're so near, come and stand on my summit'. We knew it would be a trap door to oblivion.

Avalanche down the North Face of Mt Huntington © Steve Bell Collection
Avalanche down the North Face of Mt Huntington
© Steve Bell Collection

Descending the top of the West Ridge, the trap door opened. My foot prints scored a parallel line to the ridge crest breaking the delicate surface tension that held up the unseen cornice below. My left hand and foot started going down. It was silent at first then there was a rasping noise as a ship-sized chunk of snow separated itself from the mountain and slid, in one single mass, down the North Face. I ripped my ice axe and boot from it and clung to the newly revealed sheer plane, then I watched the cornice fall. It hit a rocky promontory which sliced it neatly in two, then it fell to either side, growling ever more loudly as the beast of the avalanche reared its head from the mountainside in billowing clouds of airborne snow.

Perched on the edge of the North Face, I took a photo of death rushing away from me. I hadn't been brave enough to play Russian Roulette so the mountain had pulled the trigger for me. The hammer fell on another empty chamber. 'Next time,' it whispered. 'Next time.'

A week later, while Roger and I waited for a plane to pluck us from the glacier, I celebrated my 21st birthday. I couldn't wait to get away, because the standing wave, that great fang of ice, still towered above our tent, mocking us with its narrowed, taunting eyes. I was young and brash and daring, but no way would there be a next time.

That was 36 years ago, and the mountain still haunts my dreams. Especially its North Face, which had snapped at my ankles and missed. I wrote about it to make it go away, and it probably would have if Simon McCartney hadn't reappeared after decades of obscurity to write his own story. We met, read each other's books and drank wine, and although I am no Jack Roberts, I felt as though I'd been invited as a stand-in for his late partner. So few have climbed Mount Huntington, and those who have will understand the bond that we share.

Virgin on Insanity © Vertebrate Publishing
Steve Bell started climbing in 1975. He soon became one of Britain’s up-and-coming young mountaineers, notching up winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Eiger north faces before he was twenty-one, as well as numerous first ascents of rock climbs in the south-west of England.

He spent a season with the British Antarctic Survey and four years as a Royal Marines Officer, before co-founding Himalayan Kingdoms, a trekking and mountaineering company. He pioneered the concept of commercial high-altitude expeditions in the UK and in 1993 became the first Briton to guide clients to the summit of Mount Everest.

In 1995 he founded Jagged Globe, which is now one of the world’s leading mountaineering companies. Virgin on Insanity is the title of his first memoir, charting his early climbing life and the difficulties of growing up while climbing some of the world's hardest mountain routes.

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21 Dec, 2016
Nice one Steve really enjoyed reading that. Shame I missed you in Sheffield the other week! Kipper
17 Jan, 2017
Thanks Steve, I really enjoyed this. That cornice nearly killed me in the exact same way in 2013 — The video and description of the incident start at about 23:30. Glad we both walked away. - Jacon