Discovering Remote Problems
In 2014, I travelled to Alaska with Ashley Gales in search of the typical hot-spots: Denali, Anchorage and a costal tour out of Seward. But it was a detour through Hatcher Pass into the Archangel Valley that left a lasting impression on me. Gales had noticed a Facebook post by a climber named Alex Johnson, who had been exploring the boulders of Hatcher Pass. Gales reached out and Johnson was happy to advise us on where to climb. I was then introduced to Todd Helgeson, who is the co-author of the
and a local crusher. He hooked us up with pads, gave us a tour of his favourite boulders and newly developed problems, such as Happy Endings V2, a cool concave pyramid of toe smears and all left-hand bumps. He showed us his latest project, which he sent only a few weeks later and called More Buff than Muff V13. It is the hardest known problem in Alaska.
A year later, I was back in Hatcher Pass with my climbing partner Clint McCarthy and one of my oldest friends, Kyle Jessup. I showed them projects that I wanted to climb and some that I wanted to photograph. I knew from the previous year that it was rainy season, but the skies stayed clear for the first few days. We camped on a plateau, behind a long natural wall of small boulders, the whole valley opened below us. There is a cold stream that meanders through the boulder field that offers fresh water, a place to cool off and trout to catch. The rock type varies a bit throughout Hatcher Pass. Different areas contain different densities of granite.
I sent several of my projects, set new personal bests and came away with future goals for trips to the area. Hatcher Pass made me realize that seeking out lesser-known climbing areas was something I really wanted to do. I don’t mind a bit of extra work to get into a new area, even if the climbing turns out to be second rate. I was back home in Calgary for a few weeks before planning my next trip, which was to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. After some research, I realized there was little published information on bouldering around Kilimanjaro, only a few ascents in the 1990s. Since I was going to climb the mountain, I decided to pack climbing shoes and chalk for the seven-day trek up Africa’s highest mountain.
We made it to Karanga Camp at just under 5,000 metres around mid-afternoon on Christmas Day. It was day four of seven on Kilimanjaro and the first day without rain. The camp had ample potential for bouldering. We inspected the boulders near our tents after lunch and then proceeded to wander farther above camp to a cluster that stood out on the ridge to the north. We struck gold. Not only did we find some great routes – and a few gnarly highballs – but the clouds cleared enough to get a glimpse of the mountain. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth problem that it sank in for me, “Damn, there’s no pad if you blow this.” I moved between some tiny side pulls and tested out high, crumbly f lakes with my foot. Meanwhile, my friend Erin was on the ground saying, “Hang out there while the clouds move. I want to get that photo.” She did and I topped out. I wouldn’t call the rock quality great. It’s burly and broken. It feels more like old, rotting concrete that is covered in long shaggy moss. Between the choss, we did find some solid stone.
We worked about half-a-dozen lines over a few hours, ranging from V1 to V5, until the winds picked up and the fog rolled in. Each day the fog would chase us as we ascended, creeping up the mountain side, engulfing us in mist and finally heavy rains. We knew it was coming, like clockwork. I left one line unsent that was really good, maybe V5. It was a straight 90- degree highball: micro crimps, a kind of fun, awkward high feet, all balance and really cool. My kind of problem, with a few mats below. With three days left on the mountain, I didn’t want to risk breaking my ankle and not summiting. I spent my seven days on Kilimanjaro mapping out the boulders and dreaming of what it would be like to return with a team and proper gear. Each camp offered potential for bouldering. The Barranco Camp has the 800- metre Barranco Wall with big boulders at its base.
Alaska gave me a new perspective on travel and remote climbing. I’ll be returning to explore more of Hatcher Pass during my attempt to climb Denali. While in Africa, I heard rumours of a hidden boulderfield near Lake Victoria in Tanzania that is on my list of places to explore. This summer, I’m travelling around North America looking for remote boulders and keen locals.
Clint McCarthy on Tank Girl V2