Climb­ing in the Far North



“As soon as the sum­mer comes, you’re re­stricted to nav­i­ga­ble rivers, and that’s not where the rocks are,” ex­plains Stan Jus­tice, who wrote the first climb­ing guide for In­te­rior Alaska, Fair­banks Area Rock Climb­ing Guide, in 1994. In the 663,300 square miles of the Last Fron­tier, there are only 1,080 miles of high­way, mean­ing the ap­proaches are long. And, of course, the sea­son is short—in sum­mer when it’s warm enough to rock climb in the In­te­rior, the frozen ground pro­vid­ing ac­cess to the cliffs also thaws into sub­arc­tic bo­real marshes swarmed by Alaska’s state bird, the mos­quito. To climb here, you re­ally have to want it. Still, the guide­book has been up­dated six times, and its lat­est it­er­a­tion (co-au­thored with Frank Olive) de­tails more than 300 sport, trad, and toprope routes, as well as boul­der prob­lems in the few “eas­ily” ac­ces­si­ble ar­eas.

The un­fath­omable num­ber of rock faces that are frus­trat­ingly near-in­ac­ces­si­ble in sum­mer cou­pled with the eight months of win­ter and -40-de­gree weather could make any rock climber scram­ble back to the Lower 48. How­ever, nes­tled in the sprawl­ing In­te­rior, the north­ern­most ded­i­cated climb­ing gym in North Amer­ica nur­tures a bud­ding climb­ing com­mu­nity, one that could even­tu­ally ex­pand the lo­cal scene.

“While ev­ery com­mu­nity needs a gym, Fair­banks is sim­ply lucky enough to be able to sup­port one,” ex­plains Ea­mon Stack, the 30-year-old who in April 2015 opened the sec­ond gym in the In­te­rior, the boul­der­ing-only As­cen­sion Rock Club, with his wife, Au­drey.

The 220-mem­ber gym, with 15-de­gree slab to 45-de­gree over­hangs, of­fers 4,200 square feet of climb­ing. In 1994, Fair­banks got its first wall when the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks (UAF) built one as part of the recre­ation cen­ter. Un­til As­cen­sion, UAF was the cen­ter of the climb­ing world for hundreds of miles.

Th­ese days, the two gyms pro­vide a place for new clim­bers to learn, par­tic­u­larly the younger gen­er­a­tions. With more than 60 kids en­rolled ei­ther in the youth club or on Team As­cen­sion, young Alaskan clim­bers are rapidly im­prov­ing. The first year that the team com­peted re­gion­ally—2016—only one mem­ber trav­eled to USA Climb­ing’s West Coast Divi­sion­als. This sea­son, four were in­vited to Divi­sion­als, and one in­vi­tee, Dy­lan Heim, fin­ished in the top 10. In the win­ter and spring, As­cen­sion hosts com­pe­ti­tions, pack­ing in more than 200 com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors, of­fer­ing the climb­ing com­mu­nity warmth, light, and an es­cape from hi­ber­na­tion dur­ing the 20 hours of in­ver­nal dark­ness.

Though the team kids pri­mar­ily fo­cus on gym climb­ing, come sum­mer they and var­i­ous other lo­cals (there are prob­a­bly around 120 ac­tive rock clim­bers in the In­te­rior) will drive five hours to Hatch- er Pass, a col­lec­tion of 400-plus gran­ite prob­lems nes­tled in the Tal­keetna Moun­tain Range out­side An­chor­age. They’ll also ex­plore the In­te­rior’s sport climb­ing hot-spot, Grape­fruit Rocks, a lime­stone area among forests of spruce, birch, and as­pen a 90-minute drive from Fair­banks, with 56 bolted lines and 74 trad and toprope routes from 5.5 to 5.13. This small lo­cals’ area is ex­pand­ing, and In­te­rior climber Tom El­lis has al­ready bolted new routes there this year.

“Grape­fruit Rocks is our main crag­ging area,” says Olive, who be­lieves the In­te­rior’s best po­ten­tial lies far­ther away on the plu­tons of Mount Prindle, on the bor­der of the White Moun­tains Na­tional Recre­ation Area—a two-hour drive (plus four-hour hike) from Fair­banks. “Mount Prindle is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the dif­fi­culty of ac­cess. If a road went close to Mt. Prindle, it would have hundreds of as­cents and many clean, qual­ity routes,” Olive says. As it is, few clim­bers visit, leav­ing the best of the gran­ite cov­ered with lichen. Be­yond Mt. Prindle, Grape­fruit, and Hatcher Pass, few ar­eas have been de­vel­oped de­spite the po­ten­tial.

“Lime­stone Jags up Fos­sil Creek con­tains hundreds of lime­stone for­ma­tions that would be awe­some if they weren’t hours of travel by snow ma­chine, pack-raft, or foot from the near­est road,” Olive says. Then add to that the rel­a­tively small scene in Fair­banks: “I love the small-com­mu­nity feel­ing, but there are a limited num­ber of out­door lead­ers, and fewer trad lead­ers,” says Olive. “Fewer still of those folks are will­ing to grovel and clean loose, scary shit on lead for a first as­cent.”

De­vel­op­ers, such as Olive, re­main hes­i­tant to bolt new routes in the In­te­rior be­yond Grape­fruit due to the fact that few, if any, clim­bers will ever re­peat them—it just doesn’t seem worth the ef­fort. How­ever, there is a cau­tious op­ti­mism that this sit­u­a­tion could change. Though the youth clim­bers at As­cen­sion are pri­mar­ily fo­cused on boul­der­ing in the gym and at Hatcher Pass, with a few pro­ject­ing Toy Gun— one of Grape­fruit’s two 5.12s—this sum­mer, there’s hope that their climb­ing bound­aries will ex­pand. With the hunger of any new gen­er­a­tion to ex­plore, per­haps they’ll soon be­gin snow­mo­bil­ing into the ranges, pack-raft­ing down rivers, and push­ing into the White Moun­tains to ex­plore vir­gin lime­stone deep in the Alaskan wilder­ness.


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