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Solo Attempt on North Buttress of Begguya

I have just recently returned to Seattle/Squamish from a long trip in the Central Alaska Range. This year I ended up spending 55 days living on the Kahiltna glacier system. Although a lot of time generally makes your odds of success better, it is obviously no guarantee, as this year the only climbs I was successful on were the East Ridge of Mt. Francis and the West Buttress of Denali. I did however make one good attempt at soloing the north buttress of Begguya, and although I wasn’t quite able to pull it off, it was a good effort that I am proud of.

I flew into Kahiltna basecamp on May 6, and spent the first portion of the trip climbing by myself. My original plan was to try to solo the Bibler-Klewin route, which, from a previous attempt on the route, I knew I would want to do mostly with a rope. I took three day-trips onto the lower pitches of the Bibler-Klewin to practice my self-belaying techniques and hopefully gain some efficiency. However, self-belaying, rappelling, and jumaring on every pitch turned out to be so slow and tedious that it killed my psyche.

I decided to change tactics, and I turned my attention instead to a line on the right side of the buttress that looked to be the line of least resistance. Actually, the easiest route to the top of the north buttress is the first one that was climbed: the 1980 Björnberg-Ireland. However, the beginning of the Björnberg-Ireland is extremely threatened from serac-fall, so I chose an alternate line that would join the Björnberg-Ireland after the second ice band. I planned to climb through the second rock band on Deprivation, and for the first rock band I spied a passage on the very right edge of the buttress that I believe hadn’t been climbed before. I figured that I could safely free-solo the vast majority of this route, so I could pare my equipment down to a bare minimum: an 80m 7.0mm rope, 4 ice screws, 6 pitons, 4 stoppers, and a few slings. I had already descended the buttress twice before via the Bibler-Klewin route, so I knew that I could rappel the entire way solely from v-threads. I brought two v-thread tools, since otherwise dropping one would be a catastrophic mistake.

As is usual in Alaska, the weather gods toyed with me, and I hoped to try several times before I eventually did. On May 24th I skied up to the base of the north buttress to cache my climbing gear. On May 25th I was all packed and ready to go, but the forecast was very pessimistic. I skied up to the base of the north buttress and retrieved the gear that I had left the day before. In the early evening it started dumping snow again. I had a climbing partner flying in to join me in a couple days, so I completely unpacked, finally resigned to the idea that I wouldn’t get to try to solo Begguya at all. At 11pm the skies suddenly cleared, and I re-packed everything. I tried unsuccessfully to sleep for a couple hours, and then skied up to the north buttress again, early on the morning of the 26th.

I crossed the bergschrund at 6:15am, and started weaving my way up the line I had spotted on the bottom right margin of the north buttress. The route used a bunch of diagonal snow ramps to connect moderate climbing. I climbed a couple sections of AI4, but it was otherwise mostly steep, exposed snow climbing. The exit pitch of the first rockband proved to be the most difficult part, and I used a makeshift self-belay to protect this short step of what felt to be roughly M4. Immediately afterwards, I used a back-loop (a rudimentary form of self-belay) to protect an exposed ice traverse onto the first iceband.

I climbed diagonally up and left across the first iceband to join Deprivation, and followed Deprivation through the second rockband on a straightforward ice ramp, with one section of AI4. Above the second rockband I essentially joined the Björnberg-Ireland route, but I actually took a line further above and to the left for quite a ways, partly to reduce potential serac hazard, and also to avoid any bergshcrund issues on the hanging glacier that the Björnberg-Ireland briefly joins. On this rightward traverse I again used a backloop on one particularly exposed traverse.

Before joining the massive gully that defines the upper portion of the Björnberg-Ireland, I stopped to melt snow and take a brief rest. Even though I had a long ways to go I was already very tired – not only did my route involve a lot of time-consuming traverses, but I always exert a lot more energy when free-soloing, because I drive my picks deeper into the ice and my ice tool shafts deeper into the snow. After my rest stop I started up a direct entrance I had spied to the massive gully. This turned out to be a bit harder than it had looked from far away, and I ended up making one more back-loop on a pitch of roughly AI4 to gain the massive gully itself.

The upper gully of the Björnberg-Ireland seemed interminable, and alternated between 60 degree snow and 60 degree brittle ice. The final 30 meters to the ridgecrest required digging a trench and then tunneling through the cornice. I finally popped out from the cornice at 9:25pm (15 hours and 10 minutes after crossing the bergschrund), and just below me on the east side of the ridge I was quite surpised to see the only other climbers on Begguya! A team of four Korean climbers had started up the Bibler-Klewin a few days beforehand, and now they were making a bivouac here on the ridge after returning from the summit.

I hung out at the top of the buttress for a few hours, chatting with the Koreans and melting some snow. At around 2am I finally started up the upper Northeast Ridge, leaving almost all my equipment at the top of the buttress. The tracks from the Koreans had unfortunately mostly blown in with snow, but they were still better than nothing. I was extremely exhausted, however, and progressed slowly. I hadn’t been higher than 10,000 ft. previously on the trip, and now the altitude, combined with all the physical exertion up to that point, was really draining me. I even felt a bit dizzy and that my balance was off – I realized I was walking with the same clumsiness that I have witnessed in West Buttress clients near the top of Denali.

On the upper Northeast Ridge of Begguya there is a small plateau about 100m below the summit. In 2009, while attempting the Bibler-Klewin route, Bjørn-Eivind Årtun and I had been forced to descend from the downhill edge of this plateau by a violent storm. This time I made it across the plateau, but then sat down in the snow and stared up at the final 100m summit pyramid. I felt about as exhausted as I ever have, and I was anxious about my descent – I would have to reverse my steps to the top of the buttress (including down-soloing a short step of AI3), and then rappel 4,000 ft. of steep terrain by myself. The final summit pyramid certainly didn’t look difficult, but it wasn’t walking either, with some mandatory climbing on 60-degree ice. I finally came to the decision that I had already pushed myself too far – that I shouldn’t be clumsy while alone high on Begguya – and that I needed to begin my descent without exhausting myself any further. I think that I probably could’ve continued to the summit of Begguya safely if I had tried, and in hindsight it is hard not to wish that I had, but it was simply starting to feel too reckless. Instead I started down-climbing to the top of the north buttress.

When I got back to the top of the north buttress I discovered that the Koreans were still there. I had originally been adamant about descending on my own, because I don’t think a solo is a truly a solo if descending with others. But at that point I already knew I had failed in my objective, so I chose the easy way out, and rappelled the Bibler-Klewin route with the Koreans. The chore of pulling rappel ropes was of course nothing compared to the stress that making about 50 solo rappels would have involved. Only one of the four Korean climbers spoke much English, and on the descent it was interesting to compare their methods and techniques to those that I’m accustomed to.

When I got back to Kahiltna basecamp, thirty-some hours after departing, my friend Nick Elson had arrived from Squamish. We took a rest and organization day, and then started up the west buttress of Denali, where we would spend the next few weeks acclimatizing. In the end, for various reasons, we never ended up climbing anything other than the west buttress itself, but so it goes sometimes… c’est la vie!

I have now reached the top of Begguya’s north buttress four times by four different routes, and despite my best efforts have only managed to reach the summit of Begguya on one of those four occasions. This ratio confirms to me what I already knew after my first experience on the north buttress – the crux of any climb on the north buttress of Begguya is the upper third, from the “cornice bivy” to the summit.

This year (at least as of the start of July, and therefore likely the whole year) there were only two ascents of Begguya, both via the north buttress, and both by Korean teams. Last year (2011) Begguya saw only one ascent by the north buttress, also by Koreans, so for the past two years the only ascents of Begguya by the north buttress were all by Korean climbers! And while they typically have climbed in larger teams than is typical for European or North American climbers (in teams of three or four climbers, rather than two), all their ascents were done in clean, alpine style, and at a normal pace.

The 2011 ascent of the Bibler-Klewin was made by Sukmun Choi, Jongil Park and Heeyong Park.

The first Korean team in 2012 climbed Deprivation, with a new variation start. The team was composed of Sukmun Choi, Sung wook Moon and Jongneung An (making Sukmun Choi one of very few people who have climbed Begguya via the north buttress two times). They had originally planned to climb a new line through the first iceband, and made an attempt on the line, but were turned back when a big section of ice broke off.

The second Korean team in 2012 (with whom I rappelled) climbed the Bibler-Klewin route, and had an average team age of 49 years. The team was composed of Seung kwong Chung, Jongkwan Park, Gyutaek Jo, and Jongil Park (making Jongil Park one of very few people who have climbed Begguya via the north buttress two times, and certainly the only person who has climbed the Bibler-Klewin route twice!).

Aside from my solo attempt, there were other notable attempts on the north buttress this year as well. Slovenian climbers Blaz Navrsnik and Matjaz Ducic made a single-push attempt on the Bibler-Klewin to 600 meters below the summit (retreat from the “cornice bivy”).

Americans Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffith made a single-push attempt on the Wall of Shadows, and Justin broke one of his two monopoints low on the route. Kyle led every pitch from there to the third iceband (and Justin followed on one frontpoint!), from where they retreated. Several days later, Kyle and Justin went back on the north buttress for a single-push attempt on the French route (Grison-Tedeschi). They climbed to the “cornice bivy,” but then were forced to retreat because they accidentally dropped their stove.

Not on Begguya, but also of note while I was in the central Alaska Range – Britons Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman made the sixth ascent of the Slovak Route on Denali.

I know of two other solo attempts on Begguya’s north buttress prior to mine. Around 1997 Steve House made a solo attempt on the Bibler-Klewin. He free-soloed to the base of the Prow via the Aubrey-Stump variation start, and then began rope soloing. He turned around at the start of Tamara’s Traverse because his self-belay system did not seem trustworthy on his iced-up, skinny rope. In 1999 Andy Parkin made two solo attempts on the north buttress, climbing through the first rockband somewhere to the right of Deprivation, and then climbing through the second rockband on the Björnberg-Ireland. On his first attempt he made it through the second rockband, and on his second attempt he was thwarted at the base of the second rockband by an incoming storm.

A panorama of the north face of Begguya, from the summit of Mt. Francis:


Routes and attempts on the north buttress of Begguya, as of 2012:


Begguya from the northwest (taken from high on Sultana) at sunset, 2010:


Leaving my skis at the base of the north buttress, just before starting my solo attempt:


Looking up the start of the line I took through the first rockband:


A snow ramp traversing up and left:


My tracks coming back right on the “Traverse of the Dogs”:


Re-fueling near the top of the first rockband:


Looking up the exit from the first rockband, which felt roughly like M4:


Looking back down the exit from the first rockband:


Traversing onto the first iceband:


Looking up the ice ramp of “Deprivation,” at the start of the second rock band:


The exit I took out of the second rock band, which proved to be a bit steeper than it looked from below, and felt to be about AI4:


Looking down on the second iceband while traversing to the Björnberg-Ireland:


Looking up and across while traversing to the Björnberg-Ireland:


Feeling fatigued and taking a short brew stop before joining the Björnberg-Ireland:


Looking up the direct entrance to the Björnberg-Ireland:


Looking down upon joining the massive gully that comprises the upper portion of the Björnberg-Ireland:


Looking down from high in the gully, almost to the ridge-crest:


Evening light and clouds upon reaching the ridge-crest atop the north buttress:


Surprised to find four Koreans below me as soon as I emerged from my cornice tunnel:


Getting extremely tired while climbing the upper Northeast Ridge, with Denali behind:


The view over towards Sultana from high on the Northeast Ridge:


Looking up the final 100m-high summit pyramid, and the mandatory 60-degree blue ice that it would require:


Decision to bail:


My Korean rappel-mates just before we began descending the north buttress:


Resting in base camp the day after returning from my solo attempt, and displaying the minimalist rack that I took on the north buttress. Photo by Nick Elson:


Feeling hungry at the 11,000ft. camp while working our way up Denali. Photo by Nick Elson:


Skiing in the “rescue gully” about the 14,000ft. camp on Denali. Photo by Nick Elson:


Descending the West Buttress below the 17,000ft. camp during an acclimatization venture. Photo by Nick Elson:


Nick above the 17,000ft. camp during another acclimatization venture:


Forced to cook in the vestibule during stormy weather:


Slogging above Denali Pass on the West Buttress. Photo by Nick Elson:


On the summit of Denali for my twelfth time, and Nick’s second. Photo by Nick Elson:


Starting down Denali’s summit ridge. Photo by Nick Elson:


Nick acclimatizing more on the Upper West Rib:


Britons Andy Houseman (left) and Nick Bullock (right) would soon make the sixth ascent of Denali’s Slovak Route, but first, they kindly offered us a quesadilla:


Andy lubing his cams with our olive oil:


The state of the lower “206 Ramp” (AKA “Seattle ’72 Ramp,” AKA “Wickwire ’72 Ramp”) as of late June 2012. Photo by Nick Elson:


A lenticular on Sultana at sunset. Photo by Nick Elson:


Confined to the tent during stormy weather on roughly day 50 of the trip:

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