The Mount Hunter Cartright Connection - Matt Helliker interview details
Interview with British mountaineer Matt Hellinker after his first ascent of the Cartwright Connection, up Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter in the Denali National Park, Alaska together with Jon Bracey.
As reported previously, over a 6 day period in May British mountaineers Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey made an important new addition to Mount Hunter's famous Moonflower Buttress with their The Cartwright Connection. The new line is circa 2000m high, weighs in Alaskan grade 6 (M6, AI6, 5.8, A2) and came about after a previous single-day 10 pitch recce to confirm their ascent tactics. Hellinker and Bracey then climbed from 13 – 18 May, making four bivvies in their portaledge and enduring a storm which almost forced them to retreat. Their new line joins the 'Moonflower Buttress' route at the Vision pitch, above the 2nd ice band and was completed after a massive final 36-hour push which Helliker described as the longest and hardest climb of his life. Our interview with the mountain guide and Bracey's report are posted below.
The Cartright Connection – interview with Matt Helliker
Matt, your new route started with a 10 pitch recce.
Yes, we needed to "test the water". At this point we still weren't totally convinced that we'd need to haul and take a portaledge, so getting closer to confirm our tactics on a recce mission was super important to put us in an ideal position for the main attempt.
You ran out of food at the 4th bivi.
We had 5 days of food and we had originally expected it to take between 5 to 7 days. So we were prepared to lose weight if needed! The second climbed with a sack and the leader hauled a haul bag, so he was able to climb as free as possible.
You were graced by a lull in the storm.
We had decided to sit out the storm for another 2 days if needed, but the wind and snowfall were forecast to get much worse, to last for maybe a full week, which meant that our attempt to get to the top of the buttress to bag the route was really there and then. If we hadn't left when we did and climbed through the bad weather, we certainly wouldn't have completed the route and would have been forced to descend due to the 70mph winds and heavy snowfall.
You mentioned an intriguing out-of-body experience.
At the end of the climb we both agreed that we kept hearing voices. This lasted from 300m below the summit to halfway back down the wall and it wasn't worrying, it was comforting. All I can put it down to is our minds playing with us since we where both so utterly wasted. But it felt right to be where we were!
Why did you chose to climb a line up the Moonflower buttress?
The Moonflower Buttress is one of the steepest and most beautiful mixed buttress in the world. To be able to leave your mark and climb a new route on this mountain was obviously a massive attraction.
Had either of you climbed the Moonflower route previously?
This was my first time on the North buttress, while Jon had previously climbed the Moonflower and the French Route.
This wasn't your first experience in Alaska. Why do you keep returning?
For ease of access, Alaska is superb. You can be climbing within 3 days of leaving the UK, so for a "quickhit" to the Greater Ranges it's perfect. Not to mention the climbing and the potential for new routes, which are just unbelievable. For possible new routes, Alaska is like what the Alps were 25 years ago!
The Cartwright Connection - report by Jon Bracy
Unrelenting spindrift avalanches and gusty winds constantly blasted and buffeted our portaledge. Our small cocoon of safety on this harsh and hostile mountain was slowly being engulfed, as we nervously watched the snow level rise up the fly walls. It had taken five of the toughest days climbing of our lives to get to this point and our chances of reaching the top of the North Buttress were quickly diminishing. There was nothing we could do about it and the forecast was for more snow and stronger winds over the upcoming days....
After our previous recce, the first day on the wall went smoothly and things were going to plan. That night was less so as we realised the perils of hanging in our portaledge on a 60 degree ice slope. We were awakened by the bang of the ledge as it suddenly collapsed and transformed into a hammock! On day two we faced many uncertainties with finding a way through some very complex and steep terrain full of overhanging snow mushrooms. Matt fought hard leading all day and finally got us in position below the steepest rock band of the climb at about 2am. By overcoming these difficulties our confidence grew and for the first time ever I started to think that we might have a small chance of getting up this climb! Day three was steep and scary.... thinly iced slabs, overhanging cracks, loose rock to aid climb up, a pitch of vertical ice and more. We finally got to bed at 6am! On day four we joined the Moonflower route and our new route was on - we just needed a little luck with the weather. Day five it snowed and wind blew.....
After being trapped in the ledge all day, at 9 pm we sensed a slight lull in the storm and could see glimpses of the sun through the clouds. We were both thinking exactly the same thoughts...this might be our one and only chance so let's take it! And with no food left there was no point in playing a waiting game. We quickly packed a stove, spare gloves, warm jackets and a minimal rack. Our goal to reach the top of the Buttress, 500m and 13 pitches of climbing above us. In reality knowing full-well that the chances of success were negligible. Two pitches later the snow started up again and we found ourselves battling hard against forceful spindrift. The cold was almost unbearable but somehow our optimism and unwillingness to give-in won through. In a dream-like state of exhaustion we stood at the top of the face at 5am, few words were said, with no comprehension of what we had just achieved. We just knew we had to start abseiling with haste. 38 abseils and 14 hours later we were back on the glacier and collapsed, having been awake for 36 hours. We have named the route 'The Cartwright Connection' in memory of my good friend Jules as it was his vision to attempt this line.
The Cartwright Connection
North Buttress, Mount Hunter, Alaska
FA Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker 13 – 18 May 2011
Ca 6000ft, Alaskan grade 6 (M6, AI6, 5.8, A2)