Alaska’s driest spring in recent memory provided ideal conditions for the 9,000-foot ice and mixed climb.
JUNE 27, 2022
It’s been quite the season for Alaskan alpinists, as a long dry spell has provided ideal conditions for fast and committing ascents throughout the range. On May 20, Jackson Marvell, Alan Rousseau, and Matt Cornell made an impressive speed ascent of the Slovak Direct (VI 5.9X M6+ WI6 A2 9,000 feet) on Denali (20,310 feet) in a mere 21 hours and 35 minutes. (For reference, the previous speed-record holder was 60 hours, by Steve House, Scott Backes, and Mark Twight, in 2000.) Then, less than a week later, Richard Nemec and Michal Sabovcik free climbed the Slovak in under 40 hours.
Most recently, on June 3, Sam Hennessey, Rob Smith, and Mike Gardner climbed the Slovak in just 17 hours and 10 minutes, redefining what many thought was possible on such an iconic and massive route. “I’ve climbed three routes on the south face [of Denali] and every other time, the challenge has been trailbreaking and dealing with snow,” Gardner told Climbing. “[This time] it was almost like a melt-freeze crust; there was no trail breaking and the ice was in good shape. This was the year to go that quickly.”Gardner leads up ice runnels low on the Slovak. (Photo: Courtesy Mike Gardner)
Conditions aside, this trio was also the team to go that quickly. Gardner and Hennessey guided on Denali as a means of income and acclimatization pre-Slovak, and they have already climbed an arguably harder route on the south face of Denali in a single-push, no-bivy-gear style. (The route, Light Traveler [VI M7 WI6], was cited by the FA Marko Prezelj as having the “hardest free pitch I have led in the mountains.”) Smith, too, is an Alaska regular, having skied in to try the Slovak on two other occasions, and this was his fourteenth trip to the range.
“It’s been an exceedingly dry year here, for better or for worse,” Gardner said. “For better for doing one measly quick climb in your life, but worse, overall, for climate change. The Alaska Range is falling down right now.” Indeed, though the upper snow-climbing section of the Slovak held firm, supportive snow, the crevasses, bergschrunds, and lower-elevation snow slopes are deteriorating much faster than what is typical for June.
Fast times on Slovak Direct: Two teams speed up one of Denali’s hardest routes in a day
Skiy DeTray and Derek Franz
[As the original story was about to be published, news broke that the route had been climbed even faster. The accounts of each ascent are mostly presented here in chronological order.—Ed.]
Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau at the point where the Slovak Direct joins the Cassin Ridge. [Photo] Jackson Marvell
At 2 a.m. on May 15, Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau topped out on the Slovak Direct (5.9 X M6 WI6+) on Denali (20,310′), completing the route in just 21 hours, 35 minutes. It was a staggeringly fast time, but the record didn’t last long. On June 3, Michael Gardner, Sam Hennessey and Rob Smith fired the route in 17 hours, 10 minutes. All six climbers are friends and expressed happiness for everyone’s success.
“The conditions this year are like nothing I’ve seen in 10 years,” Gardner told Alpinist. “People who’ve been climbing there longer than I have are saying the same thing.”
The south face of Denali is a tremendous prize for alpinists from around the world, towering 9,000 feet above the East Fork Glacier. It is home to the some of the biggest routes in the world, including the Cassin Ridge and the Denali Diamond, though the crown jewel might be the Slovak Direct. First climbed over 11 days in 1984 by Tony Krizo, Fran Korl and Blazej Adam, who placed 150 pitons along the way and persevered through difficult conditions, the route has seen fewer than 12 ascents. The Slovak gained notoriety in 2000 when Mark Twight, Steve House and Scott Backes climbed the route in a continuous 60-hour push, a bold climbing statement that changed the way many alpinists viewed the rulebook for big alpine faces. Their seminal ascent is memorably described in Twight’s article “Justification for an Elitist Attitude.”
Marvell, a welder from Salt Lake City (Provo) and a protege of the late Scott Adamson, had long dreamed of climbing the route.
Rousseau on the crux of the lower pitches on May 15. [Photo] Jackson Marvell
Michael Gardner on June 3 leading the same pitch as the previous photo. [Photo] Sam Hennessey
“Alan and I had come to the range in 2021 to single-push the big three: Foraker via the Infinite Spur, Hunter via the Moonflower and the south face of Denali,” he said. “We managed two of the three.”
This year, Marvell and Cornell had just come off two first ascents in the Revelations and were feeling fit and motivated. Rousseau met them in Talkeetna and the trio made the quick flight to Kahiltna base camp. A ski up to the camp at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress was fueled by a mix of heavy metal and gangster rap. They acclimatized there for a few days before quickly dispatching the Upper West Rib to the summit of Denali, completing the climb camp-to-camp in a 12-hour push, enduring -40F temps along the way. Marvell said he would have liked to have had more time to acclimatize, but with good weather in the forecast, they opted not to wait. Instead, they hoped to climb the Slovak fast enough to avoid having the effects of the altitude catch up with them, a tactic that leaves little room for error.
Marvell and Rousseau had walked away from the Slovak several times in the past, wanting it to be in good condition. This time, however, conditions were perfect, with excellent neve and ice.