The Slovak Direct, Denali’s South Face, with Scott Backes and Mark Twight

by Steve House
Fall 2009

An excerpt from Beyond the Mountain

June 24, 2000 - “You’re on belay Steve,” Scott says before I have time to look up from organizing the ice screws and nuts and pitons. I climb up 10 feet, place a good stopper in a crack, and lower 15 feet down to my left to gain a ramp. The topo shows this to be ice, but the ice is gone now. The protection is very sparse and the exposure – 1,000 feet of overhanging rock below – is absolute. I belay again, and when Mark arrives before Scott he takes over belaying Scott. I pull off my gloves and breathe on my numb fingers. Vaguely I register the sunrise on Mount Hunter. Wordlessly Mark takes what gear he has and puts it on my harness.

The next pitch starts with steep climbing right above the belay; I know it will be the final piece of this crux section. With butterflies in my stomach, I reach up, twist my picks into a crack, and swing my right heel up high and out to the side. Needing the sensitivity of bare skin, I pull off my gloves with my teeth and stab them into my jacket for safekeeping. I get myself up onto a one-inch edge. My fingers are completely numb. I press them against the hot flesh of my neck to bring back sensation. I place a cam in the rock, replace my gloves, and resume climbing.

The next 100 feet pass in a trance. The moves get harder and harder, the protection gets sparser and sparser, and I hardly notice. My feet stand confidently on ripples in the granite’s grainy surface. My tools bite assuredly into the back of a closed-off crack. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, both feet cut loose, loading my tools. I gasp and pull myself back on. Carefully I climb the final 25 feet to the top.

Belaying on an easy snow slope, I slump my shaking body against the anchor. My mind is wrecked from stress. The topo promises that the hardest pitches are behind us. This snow ramp should take us to an ice field, which skirts almost the entire last rock band to the right. Then two moderate mixed pitches to 17,000 feet. From there it’s all hiking to the summit. Steep, exposed, dangerous hiking, but certainly not 5.9 climbing with numb hands, cramponed boots, and no gear.

“No more of that.” I think. “Now I can coast. Mark will still be strong, and I can draft for a while now.”

About the Author

Patagonia ambassador Steve House is widely regarded for his clean, light and fast climbing style. In 2005, Steve and Vince Anderson pioneered a direct new route on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, which had never before been climbed in alpine style. The previous year, Steve raised alpine standards with his solo ascent of a new route on K7 in 41:45 hours (with 26 hours of nonstop climbing to summit), using no fixed ropes, no bolts and only a seven-pound pack.