The most out there I've ever been

A few years ago, an Alaskan climber named Sam Johnson contacted me for info on climbing in the Neacola Range of Lake Clark National Park. In 1995, my frequent partner in climb, Kennan Harvey, and I went in there to try the North Face of Mt.Neacola, the range’s namesake. 

Photo taken by Sam Johnson of the Medusa Face of Mt. Neacola showing Harvey/Donahue line and high point.

Kennan had climbed the first ascent of the peak a couple of years earlier with none other than the Legend himself, Fred Becky – although Fred was sick in basecamp during the ascent so Kennan and two other younger climbers bagged the FA via an ice climb on the south face.  Durning poor weather, Kennan skied around to the north side of the peak and discovered the enormous north wall. Sporting 4500 feet of steep and technical terrain, Kennan was blown away and it didn’t take much convincing for him to talk me into going back with him for a go on the unclimbed face. I was 23 years old at the time, and the peak was the thing young alpinist’s dreams are made of - remote, hard, unclimbed and unknown. Perfect.

The Neacola range is a phenomenon of compact, complex terrain, with steep, pointy summited peaks rising from small and convoluted glaciers. We flew out of Kenai with a pilot named Doug Brewer and were dropped on a glacier we named the Lobster Claw for its distinct shape on the map. 

For the first time in many alpine adventures together, Kennan and I decided it would be a good idea to take a radio. As Doug flew away after dropping us off, Kennan tried the radio. Nothing. It didn’t work. Should have done the radio check while Doug was still on the glacier. Oh well, situation normal. No radio.

It stormed for all but one day of the next 25 days. We mostly skied our brains out, bagging peaks and skiing steep faces and tight couloirs on untouched peaks. When our pick up date was nearing, we decided to go climbing in the storm just to see how far we could get. The weather did improve a little, and after a couple of days of dragging a haul bag and portaledge up a complex alpine wall, we got sick of big wall style and decided to just go for a single push as far as we could from our portaledge camp 1500 feet up the wall. 

For 24 hours we sorted through some of the most difficult and diverse climbing either of us had ever done or ever will do. Tricky aid, hard free climbing, steep ice and bizarre route-finding kept us focused like racecar drivers for hours on end. 

One pitch in particular stands out in my mind as if it were yesterday instead of 20 years ago. I removed my crampons for tenuous aid climbing off the belay, and after 40 feet of A3 insecurity I placed a good piece of gear below a free-hanging dagger of ice. In those days, climbing free hanging daggers was not yet standard fare even at a crag area, let alone a half-mile off the deck, with another 1500 feet to the summit. I’ll never forget putting my crampons on from my last aid piece and chipping delicately up the dagger onto steep ice above. When the ice ran out, an overhanging corner of technical stemming took me to the end of the rope. I’d just used every climbing trick I knew in a single pitch of climbing.

With the summit ridge less than a pitch away of easy terrain, the weather deteriorated into a spindrift nightmare, pummeling us for hours. Our bivy kit consisted of a down jacket and a bivy sack. Kennan took the jacket and I took the sack. We stood on boot-sized ledged chipped out of the ice all through the thankfully short Alaskan spring night.

When it was light enough to climb again, we made one of those decisions we’ll always wonder about – could we have made it? The weather was dismal, and Kennan’s hands were too cold to even rig his rappel device. Maybe we could have made it, but had we not made it, I wouldn’t be here today to share the story.  We were really far out there – farther than I’ve ever been in my life. Nearly 3000 feet above our portaledge, in the middle of a mountain range nobody even knew about, with no way of contacting even the one guy, our pilot, who knew where we were.


We decided to go down, and rappelled into the whiteness. Upon reaching the portalege, we collapsed for a full day before we had the energy and hydration to continue down the wall below.

This year, Sam made it into the Neacola Range and took some photos of the face Kennan and I tried. In the process of online discussion with Sam and his friends, they asked if we had any climbing photos from the ascent. I was about to scan some of my slides, but decided for a more fitting way to share the experience and the world of adventure story-telling before Facebook, Instagram, GoPros, drones, and even the Internet, I would photograph the slides themselves.

I wonder how we'll tell stories in another 20 years...

Father's day alpine climb with kids

Went into the Indian Peaks yesterday with a pack full of crampons and ski boots, water and gloves, two 7 year olds, their mom, and a bag of elk jerky for family style alpine climb. 

Not sure what it is about kids and adventures, but they sure do like 'em!

Not sure what it is about kids and adventures, but they sure do like 'em!

7-year-olds on a rope - putting "short" in the technique of short roping.

7-year-olds on a rope - putting "short" in the technique of short roping.

First belay - the marmot den. At least she's armed!

First belay - the marmot den. At least she's armed!

The crux headwall around the marmot den.

The crux headwall around the marmot den.

Back on lower angled terrain, Aya gets her jib on.

Back on lower angled terrain, Aya gets her jib on.

Before the term "connectivity" meant addicted to electronics, it defined something more like this...

Before the term "connectivity" meant addicted to electronics, it defined something more like this...

Ski, ice, rock - a boot's view of Indian Peaks multi-sport

The Front Range of Colorado doesn't have the world's best skiing, ice climbing or rock climbing, but the fact that we can do all 3 sports and more, in a single morning, says a lot. I've always thought that you can do more outdoor sports on more days of the year in this area than anywhere else I've ever been. Here's a video of a boot's perspective on a recent multi-sport day in the Indian Peaks. Thanks to Scarpa for the bomber footwear.

Chasing dreams on the Diamond’s elusive Ice

Some are calling Colorado’s flood of 2013 a thousand-year flood. Others are saying it was a 25-year flood. However you measure it, with a cool October following a record-breaking flood, the ice climbing in the high country is the best it’s been in over a decade.

Approaching the Longs Peak's East Face, Smear of Fear on the left. 

After 15 years of watching the smear that forms occasionally on the left side of the Diamond, near the airy natural arch called the Window, Kevin Cooper and I decided the time was ripe to give it a try.   We climbed the Smear of Fear in late September, tuning up our minds and bodies for the thin and steep. After climbing ice a grand total of one time in the last three years, I was happy to get in at least one climb before diving into hard climbing at over 4000 meters.

The Diamond, with the Window Pain smear visible on the left with a sunbeam passing through the Window. Conditions were ideal, starting with a moonset over the very top of the Diamond as we approached the wall.

Sticky but cold ice and attention getting mixed climbing in Field’s Chimney made up the first 600 feet.

From Broadway we still couldn’t tell if the “Window Pain”, as we’d started calling it, was going to in. Even 8 feet of blank rock or paper thin ice at the bottom of the smear would shut us down.

The Window in sweet conditions. 

The traditional Window route, however, was in fantastic condition. Thin, well-bonded runnels and smears with good rock protection brought us to the ramp below the unclimbed smear.

I moved the belay onto a tiny perch at the lip of the Window ramp so I would be out of the line of fire while Kevin prepared for the hardest lead of his life.  The exposed perch provided a solid rock anchor and an incredible perspective to photograph Kevin as he put together everything he’d learned in 20 years of unadulterated ice-fiend behavior for a lead neither of us will ever forget.

Kevin Cooper psyching up to open the Window Pain. 

Feeling the Pain. 

Just following the pitch at that altitude delivered a mighty pump. In this photo I think I’m smiling so big in part because I got to top-rope it!

We left a cam anchor happily at the top of the smear, called our families to tell them we'd sent it, and rapped for home.. 

At some point in the previous few days, another party had climbed to the bottom of the crux smear, leaving a couple of V-thread anchors. They bailed from there, leaving the smear untouched. Their anchors saved us precious time (thank you!) which allowed us to get to the regular rappel route and reach bottom of the face just as darkness engulfed the cirque in pitchy blackness.

All that remained was a long, dark stagger and a couple of dark Irish beers.

“Window Pain”
Longs Peak, Colorado
Grade: WI Sicks-plus
FA: Kevin Cooper, Topher Donahue October 25, 2013

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