Ryan Jennings found the easiest way to describe the ascent of Alaska’s Mount Johnson with his climbing partner, Kevin Cooper, last month.
“We totally scored,” the 40-year-old Carbondale resident said. “We hit the absolute perfect window for it to be possible.”
Jennings, a real-estate agent in Carbondale, was talking about the route that he and Cooper took to become the first climbers known to ascend the north face of the unofficially named peak, which rises 8,460 feet above sea level and accompanies such peaks as Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park next to Ruth Glacier. Though the elevation may not seem scary to some Coloradans who reside at elevations higher than Mount Johnson’s summit, the sheer drop-offs from both the north and south faces of the mountain are some of the most intimidating for climbers around the world.
That’s what made Jennings’ and Cooper’s ascent unique: They completed the “Stairway to Heaven,” a route up the severely steep north face of the mountains the pair had imagined conquering for close to two decades.
“We had been dreaming about doing this for about 15 to 18 years,” Cooper said by phone from his home in Estes Park. “We never had an opportunity like this one.”
It’s an opportunity that almost didn’t happen in several different ways. For one, an injury Jennings suffered during a trip to Mount Johnson in 2003 helped prompt an 11-year wait for a return trip. And just this past year, the massive flooding that hit the front range in September put Cooper out of work for a month and created a financial hardship that nearly prevented the trip to Alaska from happening.
The trip did happen, though, with the 81-hour trek up a 4,000-foot wall taking place May 1-4.
“Just to climb that and be a part of a little bit of history there, that’s just huge,” Jennings said.
‘MEANT TO DO BIG THINGS’
Jennings and Cooper met 18 years ago when both lived in Estes Park. Both had a love for climbing and immediately formed a friendship, finding common-ground spots like Rocky Mountain National Park, Redstone, Ouray and Rifle Mountain Park to share their passion. Jennings also has found some good climbing spots in Glenwood Canyon.
“It became pretty clear pretty quickly that we were meant to do big things together,” Cooper said.
Plotting out a climbing course on the north face of Mount Johnson fit the bill.
They initially tried the ascent in 2003, doing a warmup climb up a route called “Shaken not Stirred” on the Moose’s Tooth of the mountain. Bad conditions on the ascent kept them from reaching the summit, and they began coming down after dark. Tired and, as Jennings put it, “hallucinating,” he clipped a boulder and bounced on it to test its stability. Cooper agreed it would be a stable anchor to rappel down on, and the pair began their descent.
But Jennings, on the bottom of the line, heard Cooper yell out an expletive. What followed was a fall that, with Jennings and Cooper still tied together, spanned more than 1,000 feet of snow, ice and rock down the side of the mountain.
Jennings’ left foot was twisted backward at the end of the fall. Cooper was bruised and battered but still able to walk, and he hiked 2 miles to the nearest camp to get help.
“Luckily the guys up there were pretty renowned rescue guys,” said Jennings, who was on a helicopter being airlifted off the glacier by 11 the next morning.
“It was probably for the best that it happened the way it did,” Jennings said. “We probably would have killed ourselves had we tried the climb on the north face. We weren’t ready for it. But we spent years after that training, hoping that someday we’d go back.”
Things changed for both men in the more than a decade since their previous attempt to ascend Mount Johnson, including their careers and their life situations. But a return trip to Mount Johnson had always been on the radar, and they had planned a climbing trip to Patagonia, a region at the southern end of South America that’s shared by Argentina and Chile, this past December.
But massive floods hit the Front Range in September, taking a big toll on Estes Park. As a result, Cooper lost work materials from his construction business and a month’s worth of jobs, forcing Jennings and Cooper to cancel the Patagonia trip.
The return trip to Mount Johnson, however, remained stuck in their minds.
“It was one of those things where I would have just wondered for the rest of my life if it was possible,” Jennings said. “And that was going to be my basis of the trip. I figured we’d just go there, stand at the base look up at it and say, ‘No, it’s not possible.’”
It suddenly became financially possible in January, however, when Jennings and Cooper were awarded a Mugs Stump Grant of $2,000, an annual provision awarded by Alpinist Magazine to small climbing teams worldwide “pursuing climbing objectives that exemplify light, fast and clean alpinism.”
Jennings and Cooper credited frequent trips to the climbing spots around Colorado for preparing them for the Mount Johnson ascent. Jennings described the north face in some sections as “kitty litter rock,” the kind the crumbles on any attempts at stabilization during a climb. He said learning to handle the similar rock in Redstone was key in handling the conditions on Mount Johnson.
Warm weather on the climb was a double-edged sword. Daytime temperatures reaching the low 40s eliminated the risk of frostbite, but caused problems with unstable ice melting as the pair climbed sheets along the mountain’s face.
“The sections that would have turned a lot of people around are ones we were able to get through because of the bad rock we trained on in Redstone,” Jennings said.
REST — AND A MELTING CAVE
They were able to locate two places to stop and rest along the face and catch some much-needed shuteye after full days of climbing, the second coming in a small cave that had their feet hanging slightly off the edge. After the pair got two hours of sleep, the sun began to melt the ice on the incline.
Jennings and Cooper realized they needed to move immediately or wait half the day for cooler temperatures, with the possibility of the pitch melting out entirely. They opted to continue, at one point being treated to a view of Alaska’s Northern Lights.
Finally, at just a little after 4 a.m. on the third day of the climb, Jennings and Cooper reached Mount Johnson’s summit.
“It’s pretty amazing. Surreal, really,” Cooper said. “This is probably the most special moment in our climbing careers, for sure.”
There are horror stories about climbers trying to ascend Mount Johnson. Though the mountain has been conquered before, people have been caught in avalanches, have fallen like Cooper and Jennings did a decade ago or have been crushed by ice.
The victory for the two Colorado climbing partners who have worked together for close to two decades adds a story with a happy ending. There were plenty of things to deter them from making this attempt at climbing history, but the end result was what Jennings considers to be a “top three” item on his bucket list. Patagonia is still on that bucket list.
“Climbers, after a little while, you start getting the Jones to go up again,” Jennings said. “After I got off the mountain, I said to myself, ‘I’m done.’ But I’m already finding myself looking through old pictures of the American Alpine Journal seeing if there’s something out there.”