This June saw top British alpinists Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman make an impressive repeat of the Slovak Direct route on Denali in Alaska. The Slovak Direct, first climbed in 1984 by Tono Krizo, Frantisek Korl and Blazej Adam, is recognised as one of Alaska's toughest testpieces. Bullock and Houseman's ascent took 84 hours in total and was probably the 6th and the first by British team. Climb caught up with Andy to get the full lowdown. Look out for Nick and Andy's revealing account in Climb Magazine this autumn.
Congratulations Andy, what were your thoughts on the route?
Thanks, it was an amazing route, the quality and nature of the climbing, the size of the face, the commitment and the weather all made it into the most out-there and emotional mountain experience I've ever had. I'm sure you've had this yourself where for a number of factors one route just stands out more than all the others, this was definitely it for me, and i think for Nick too. On top of that it was great to actually get up something at last after a couple of years of failures in Nepal, definitely helps lift the psyche!
The Slovak Direct has a big reputation, with every ascent so far being significant in one way or the other, did that reputation as one of Alaska's toughest routes intimidate you at all? Was it really as tough as its hyped up to be? How does it compare with the big routes on the Jorasses - Dru etc?
It's a massive nearly 3000m face of steep ice and rock that goes on for ever, just looking at it was fairly intimidating when we eventually saw it! On previous expeditions BC has been very close to the objective so you have chance to watch your intended line and spend hours going up and down with the binoculars getting it all sorted in your head but with this particular face on Denali we didn't get a glimpse of it until we approached it to climb it and suddenly, its there right in front of you, this probably helps as you don't have chance to psyche yourself out staring at it for weeks! I don't think we adjusted our tactics in any way, you put all the hype to the back of your mind and look at it for what it is (bloody big), we just approached it as we would any other climb no specific extra gear except we did take a small file which was well worth the extra weight to have sharp picks and front points on the steep ice.
You're right there's a lot of hype surrounding this route, and rightly so, it's big and sustained with quality climbing in a very committing situation and on top of that its on Denali which is a big cold mountain, even getting up the normal route is hard enough, definitely the most challenging route i've been on. The steep ice wasn't as bad as we were expecting, more sustained WI5 rather than WI6 but i thats irrelevant, it's just theres so much of it on the Slovak it just keeps coming a lot of sustained, technical climbing pitch after pitch.
Its quite hard to compare it to things in the alps due to the size and remoteness but in terms of climbing the quality is equally as good as anything you'll find on the Chamonix classics, think of it as like climbing the Colten-MacIntyre followed by the Charlet-Ghilini on the Pre de Bar and then just the slight issue of finishing up the last half of the Cassin Ridge. The commitment of this route really came home when stuck in high winds at 18,500ft with only a few bars left and you realise that the easiest way off is to go up and over the summit of North Americas highest mountain. I've seen it said a lot about this route that once you're so far there's no way you could bail, i wouldn't say that was entirely true but there definitely becomes a point where by far the easier option is to carry on up and over the top which is quite daunting.
What were conditions like on the route, and how did your ascent pan out?
The climbing conditions on the face were pretty good with ice where you needed it and all the crux pitches formed. The first day went pretty much as expected with lots of easy ground and a couple of steep ice pitches leading up to the hanging glacier, it only took 9 hours to get here but Mark and Jesse had both warned us to bivi here whatever time we got there as there's no decent spots after this until you hit the Cassin. The next day was full on with a 27 hour push in some pretty crap weather to get through all the technical ground and join the Cassin Ridge, it all felt a bit Scottish! We had a short bivi here to rehydrate and rest for about six hours, hoping to top out later that day but deep snow and horrendous winds meant we made slow progress and had a forced (and hungry) third bivi to escape the winds for 16 hours before topping out under clear skies on the fourth day. The weather forecast we had before getting on the route was completely wrong but looking back its probably a good job as if we'd had the forecast for the weather we had there's no way we'd have jumped on it and time on the glacier would have run out, funny how things work out sometimes!
Those central pitches up the big corner look from photos to be outrageous, describe what the standout pitches were like?
Wild. On the second day we'd probably climbed around 400m from the hanging glacier up some of the nicest alpine ground i've covered - ice gullies, thin runnels and mixed steps, all amazing climbing that lands you at the base of this huge triangular shaped vertical wall of clean granite. From there you follow this huge ice up corner for two long pitches up a series of steep ice steps, it was like going ice fall cragging in Canada but with this huge granite wall to your left and over a 1000m drop below you and being constantly bombarded by spindrift. The second of these which Nick lead was probably the steepest, you climb this steep grove of some pretty rotten ice with a slightly overhanging exit but with just enough thin ice to tentatively bridge out onto the wall at the side. The situation on both pitches was mind blowing.
Having done the route, what are your thoughts on the Giri-Giri boys 8 day enchainement with the Isis face?
Hard boys! It shows what talent they have but more importantly i think it shows what vision they have for their climbing - to link a 7,000ft Alaskan grade 6 into 9000ft of some of the the hardest climbing on Denali, most people i'm sure thought they were mad but to them it was just extending what they do in their home mountains into a bigger arena and pulling it off in some style. I was feeling pretty broken after four days just on the Slovak, add another 3 days on the Isis Face and i dread to think what those last 3000ft up the Cassin would have felt like, very impressive. The Giri-Giri's ascent and House, Backes, Twights 60 hour single push ascent of the Slovak are two of the most inspirational Alaskan ascents for me.
So whats next for you and Nick?
Hopefully we'll be heading back out to Nepal in the Autumn to try a new route on the North Face of Chamlang, 7314m. The actual north face is about 8km wide taking in the East, Central and West (main) summits, there are a couple of Doug Scott routes at the far left end to the East and Central summits but so far the main part leading to the West summit hasn't being touched and is about a 2000m face. It will be nice and social at BC too as we'll be sharing it with four other friends for the first half of the trip.
Nick Bullock is sponsored by Boreal, DMM and mountain Equipment. You can read more about Nick on his blog.
Andy Houseman is sponsored by The North Face, Black Diamond, Scarpa, Tendon Ropes and Adidas Eyewear. You can read more about Andy on his blog.