Clint Helander: Two Alaskan Dreams Fulfilled

Mount Hunter’s Native American name is Begguya, which means Denali’s Child. Indeed, this peak is located just 13km away from Alaska’s roof. At 4,442m, it is the third tallest peak in the Alaskan Range.

Yet climbing Mount Hunter is much harder and steeper than the classic route on Denali. Climbers around the world have dreamed of reaching one of Mount Hunter’s three summits since the legendary Fred Beckey of the U.S. and Heinrich Harrer of Austria bagged the first ascent in 1954.

Opening a new route is a dream for only the very best. But on such a well-known peak, the first problem that even the elite confront is, how to find something that no one has climbed before.

Mount Hunter’s summits. Photo: August Franzen

 

For ice climber and Anchorage resident Clint Helander, Mount Hunter is a siren, a deadly attraction that he can’t take his eyes from. He had climbed it twice before, but on an overflight in 2016, he saw a perfect buttress running up to the south of the classic West Ridge. Incredibly, it did not have the usual red line on local climbing topos indicating a known route.

“While researching, I learned that a huge serac on top of the ridge had prevented most expeditions from approaching that line,” Helander told ExplorersWeb. “But as the bush pilot pointed out, the serac had melted away enough to permit a somewhat safe climb.”

The ‘Full Moon Fever’ route up the Buttress. Photo: Clint Helander

United by loss

Next, he had to find a reliable partner. Then August Franzen came along. He was a fellow Alaskan and a promising young ice climber who had already previously ascended Mount Hunter.

Clint Helander melts drinking water in the northern no-night. Photo: August Franzen

Helander and Franzen first met through the saddest of reasons. Franzen had lost his girlfriend in an accident two years earlier. “Not just someone he was dating — she was the girl whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life with,” Helander said.

Meanwhile, Helander’s best climbing friend, Jess Roskelley, had died in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak, together with another good friend, David Lama, and top climber Hansjorg Auer.

“In the last five years, most of my regular partners had died. So I found myself with this young, super-stoked guy, and all of the sudden I was the ‘old guard’ part of the climbing pair,” Helander said. “I was August’s age when I started climbing, so in some ways, I saw myself in him. It was a strange feeling, yet we had a great time.”

August Franzen climbs light on mixed terrain. “We hauled every technical pitch and it was so nice to climb without backpacks,” Helander said. Photo: Clint Helander

The pair had their first round on the Mount Hunter route in 2021. They set up Base Camp at the foot of the broken Ramen Icefall. When they approached the maze of seracs, Helander fell into a crevasse. Miraculously, he managed to extricate himself, but he feels that he nearly died that day.

Yet it was not this shock that pushed them back. The climbers managed to cross the icefall and upper fields to the ridge itself. Then a storm hit the mountain when they were just three pitches up the rocky section.

The route up the rocky buttress. Photo: Clint Helander

Friday the 13th

Last month, they joined the crowds at Denali Base Camp in rather stormy weather, waiting for the skies to clear.

“After a week, I was getting nervous, since I didn’t have that much time off work, but then good forecasts came,” Helander said.

The weather was still unstable when they left, and it was Friday the 13th. But the following morning, the skies cleared and remained clear for the rest of the climb.

“Probably the best weather I’ve enjoyed in all my spring expeditions in Alaska,” Helander says.

Crossing a cornice with Mt. Foraker in the background. Photo: Clint Helander

“We were also lucky to find the way across the icefall. Two skiers from Colorado were planning to ski down the Ramen Couloir and they had already marked most of the way up the icefall. We joined forces, but a good part of the job was done,” Helander said.

Helander and Franzen were on skis themselves up to this point. They left their boards at the base of the ridge and climbed AI4 until a corniced ridge which they recognized from the previous year. Here, they bivvied. In the early morning, they continued up the ridge toward the buttress. The pair’s climbing report went on like this:

The first pitch contained several small roofs and a left-trending crack system with Helander’s crampons skittering over snow-covered slabs. Franzen took the second pitch and deviated from his 2021 route, finding a slightly easier but still challenging variation to the left. Helander led pitch three (Won’t Back Down Bulge, M7) past the team’s original high point. On the fourth pitch, Franzen took a lead fall onto the anchor, easily assigning it as the Free Fallin’ pitch. Helander took a fifth pitch up a decreasing angled snow slab to an amazing bivy. That night, a full moon illuminated the sky, providing them with the inspiration to later name the route Full Moon Fever.

Helander tackles the rocky buttress. Photo: August Franzen

On the following day, the climbers took the entire buttress to its top at some 3,350m (11,000 feet). Then, in increasing winds, they mounted the snowy upper slope to the Peak’s south summit. They then had another bivy night, although that far north, it never gets dark at this time of year.

“We didn’t stop there,” Helander said. “On the following morning, we pushed on and stepped on Mount Hunter’s three summits.” Few climbers have done that before, he said.

On the summit of Mount Hunter. Photo: Clint Helander

It wasn’t easy because of the deep snow, but finally, they reached the highest point, the north summit, at 6 pm. They descended via the West Ridge route to the Ramen Couloir, rappelled down, crossed the glacier, and retrieved their skis.

After a warm meal and “lots of procrastinating,” they decided to continue. They skied all the way down the icefall and the lower Kahiltna Glacier. Such endless days, if you have the juice for it, are one of the advantages of the midnight sun.

Five hours of hallucinating and painful travel later, they arrived at Base Camp at 5 am. They’d been on the go for 24 hours straight. They flew out a few hours later and “celebrated at the Fairview Bar”.

Delicate, corniced terrain on the lower west buttress of ‘Full Moon Fever’. Photo: Clint Helander

Elite but not sponsored

Clint Helander is not a full-time climber. On the contrary, he works nearly 90 hours a week as a rope access technician to be able to take enough time off for a couple of spring climbs a year. He also rock climbs in summer and does the odd expedition to Patagonia or the Himalaya. On two visits to Nepal, he has twice attempted new routes. No sponsor backs his constant search for climbing excellence so he returns, over and over, to the wild Alaskan ranges of his backyard. He is also a photographer.

Climbing in wild Alaska. Photo: Clint Helander

“There is something so special about Alaska’s peaks: their isolation, the sheer size of their glaciers,” Helander said. “From their summits, you see no hint of civilization: no villages, no roads, nothing but rocky ridges and endless glaciers. It is only thanks to the aviation that these peaks are accessible.”

Just weeks before he headed to Mount Hunter, Helander opened ‘Shaft of the Abyss’ on Golgotha Peak, located in the remote Revelation Mountains. The climb was a promise that he had made to Seth Holden 14 years ago. Holden died in a plane crash in 2011.

Helander paired with Andres Marin for the feat, which they first tried in 2016. That first try failed when they almost died in an avalanche.

“Finally, on March 25, 2022, Andres and I stood on top of Golgotha after completing the vision that defined so much of our lives,” Helander wrote on social media. “I hope Seth would be proud.”

Golgotha Peak in Revelation mountains. Photo: Clint Helander.

Triumph after failure

Thinking about it from his home in Anchorage, Clint Helander admits that these two summits meant much more to him than we mere spectators can imagine.

“For a couple of years there, I tried and failed on everything I did. I wondered if I was still really an alpine climber. COVID happened, and I looked at all of my climbing gear just collecting dust, and it made me sad.

“I had been dreaming of and attempting both these routes for years. If I had been able to get one of them, it would’ve been fantastic. Never could I have imagined that I’d do both. I’m kind of out of ideas right now for the future. I’ve kind of done everything I really wanted to do. I’m sure other ideas will come up.

“It has just meant so much to me to be able to do these things that had been a major part of my dreams as a young climber. As I get older, life is pulling me in other directions, so it was really amazing to be able to tick off both these dreams before I need to focus on other aspects of life.”

Deep snow on the cornice leading to the unclimbed rock buttress. Photo August Franzen

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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Tom W
Tom W
1 month ago

Helander recently did interviews with the AAC’s Cutting Edge podcast (episode 47) and The Firn Line podcast (season 5, episode 77) about his Golgotha ascent for anyone interested in learning more.

Spectrumalaska
Spectrumalaska
29 days ago

Mt Hunter is not the third tallest peak in Alaska. Maybe third tallest in Denali National Park, but not the State.

I know, I live here.

Jerry Kobalenko
Admin
29 days ago
Reply to  Spectrumalaska

You’re right, it’s the third-highest peak in the Alaskan Range, not in the state (where it’s 10th). Corrected. Thank you.