Ascending the North Face

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

For Juneau resident Ryan Johnson and his buddy Sam Margo, climbing to the top of the West Tower of the Mendenhall Towers took a lot of digging.

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Courtesy Of Ryan Johnson
Courtesy Of Ryan Johnson

Before the pair could ascend the West Tower via its north face - possibly becoming the first climbers to accomplish the feat - they spent nearly two weeks digging their way free of massive snowstorms.

"It was like two guys in a leaky boat, just bailing and bailing and bailing and bailing," Johnson said. "We did a lot of digging."

Dropped off by helicopter at the base of the mountain on top of the Mendenhall Glacier in mid-March, Johnson and Margo, from Bozeman, Mont., spent a week in tents being battered by the storms before deciding to build a snow cave.

It was five more days spent underground playing chess and eating before the storm broke, then a day of scoping out the mountain and drying off their clothes before the pair started climbing.

The first attempt yielded little results, Johnson said, because they couldn't find the right mix of ice and rock to climb.

The next day they tried the same route and found the same results. But by 11 a.m. they tried another route and hit paydirt - a solid chunk of a type of ice, called névé, on which they could hoist themselves up the mountain.

"It was the kind of climbing you dream about," Johnson said. "Névé is some of the most fun stuff to climb... It's so solid. When you get your ice tool stuck into it, you feel like you can hang a truck off of it. ... It feels like you're climbing a ladder almost."

By dusk the pair found a ledge at about 1,500 feet up to spend the night. The sleeping space the pair shared, Johnson said, was big enough for "one very large person."

"We woke up at four in the morning and there were still northern lights out on the ice field," Johnson said.

The upper portion of the tower was steeper, and it took the pair the entire day to reach the summit.

"It was sustained, difficult climbing," Johnson said, adding that the payoff at the summit wasn't too shabby.

"It was beautiful, we had 100 miles (of view) in every direction," Johnson said.

After snapping photos at the top, the pair ran down the West side of the mountain, rappelling once, and made it back to camp two hours before dark.

Reflecting on his climb a week and half later, Johnson said it's nice to be the first to accomplish a specific feat.

"To go and do something that no one else has done - You don't get to go Lewis and Clark and all that anymore, the adventure and going into the unknown. It's fun, it's as fun as it gets," Johnson said.

Now back in town, Johnson is waiting tables while planning his next set of climbing trips, which may include joining Margo for more climbing.

Friends and fellow climbers said they are impressed with the pair's climb.

"It's huge, it's not only huge in Juneau but in the climbing community in general. It's a huge accomplishment," said Brandon Howard, a local climber.

"I think the thing that is most impressive is those guys enduring the weather. That's kind of the price of admission for climbing out here," said Jacek Maselko, a climbing instructor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Maselko, who has climbed Mount Everest and is considered somewhat of an authority on climbing in Juneau, said it's possible the pair was the first up that route. But he added that he'd climbed routes on the Mendenhall Towers before, thinking he was the first one up, only to find rusty old climbing equipment left behind by someone else.

"It's really hard to tell what has been done and what hasn't been done," Maselko said.

• Contact reporterAlan Suderman at 523-2268 or

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