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Chantel Astorga soloing the Cassin Ridge on Denali before skiing the West Rib/Seattle Ramp
Photo by Chantel Astorga
Chantel Astorga soloing the Cassin Ridge on Denali before skiing the West Rib/Seattle Ramp
Photo by Chantel Astorga

Chantel Astorga interview after Cassin Ridge solo on Denali in Alaska

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Interview with top American alpinist Chantel Astorga after the first female solo ascent of the Cassin Ridge on Denali in Alaska.

In mid-June 2021 Chantel Astorga completed a noteworthy solo ascent of one of the most famous routes in Alaska, the Cassin Ridge on Denali. The first female solo of this monumental climb certainly didn’t spring from nowhere, and for the past decade the American has quietly amassed an extremely impressive array of ascents in the big mountains, with standout climbs being her solo ascents of Mescalito and The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite (the latter in just over 24 hours), as well as the first first female ascent of the Denali Diamond Headwall in 2015 with Jewel Lund and the first female ascent, and only ninth overall, of the Slovak Direct on Denali with Anne Gilbert Chase in 2018. The Cassin Ridge solo represents a longtime vision transforming into reality.




First off, can you tell us something about this longtime vision and dream of yours?

Sure! It's a goal I've had since 2015. The Cassin Ridge is one of the most iconic routes in the Alaska Range and Denali is one of my most favorite mountains. Since I'm a skier and traveling on glaciers alone can be dangerous, I wanted to use skis for the approach to make it safer, but also climb in ski boots with my skis, and then ski back down. Soloing it sounded fun.

Sounds almost simple put like this! So how did this come about? How special is this mountain to you?
The Alaska Range is definitely a favorite. I enjoy 6000m peaks and since Denali is in the Alaska Range I can't stop going back to it, even though it requires so much work just to establish an advanced basecamp to acclimate. I have spent a lot of time on the South and West aspects of the mountain so I know them pretty well. However, I haven't been to the North or East side of the mountain so there is plenty more to explore. In total I have probably summited ten times, but I never summit on acclimatization climbs otherwise it will jinx the ultimate climbing goal!

Had you climbed the Cassin Ridge before? What did you expect?
No I had never climbed the technical part of the Cassin. I have been on the upper 2500' twice, but it's all uphill hiking at that point. I'm not sure what I expected, I just knew that I could get myself through whatever I encountered.

Presumably you were well acclimatised?
Yes, decently acclimated. I had hoped to tag the summit ridge twice, but the weather was a challenge and I only managed to tag it once.

In the past you’ve made some important first female ascents, for example with Jewel Lund and Anne Gilbert Chase. Why did you decide o go alone this time?
I don't generally solo big routes, but I do spend a lot of big days alone in the mountains ski mountaineering and I have climbed routes on El Capitan alone (always with a rope). That time alone in the mountains has always been powerful for me in ways I can't explain. I guess I simply just wanted to feel what it was like to be alone on a technical route in the big mountains and the Cassin Ridge seemed like a perfect fit. It has a rich history of solo ascents as well.

Out of interest, had you soloed the mountain before?
I've been on the West Buttress alone, but you're never really alone on the West Buttress.

So returning to your dream: you approached the mountain by skiing the West Rib/Seattle Ramp.
Correct. My biggest hesitation with soloing the Cassin was the approach. No matter what approach you take you have to travel through heavily crevassed terrain. Descending the West Rib to its base and walking up the NE Fork is the safest option. I had been down the Seattle Ramp previously and figured it was an option, but needed to have a track down in order to feel comfortable taking that route. I wouldn't feel comfortable wandering around the Seattle Ramp alone looking for a safe route since it's an ice fall with plenty of crevasses. When I saw the boot track on it I took a hard left and skied pretty good conditions down it. I won't lie, I did get scared at times being on it alone in a whiteout.

And you carried your skis all the way up the ridge therefore?
It seemed logical to carry the kit up and over. You could use the skis for the descent off the upper mountain. Conditions on the upper mountain were in rough shape this year and my original plan of descending one of the iconic lines didn't make sense. I was mentally pretty tired by the time I got to the summit and descended the standard West Buttress Route with both skis and some downclimbing.

How did the actual climb go?
The ascent was awesome. I fully got in my groove and everything flowed perfectly. I ran out of food at 18k which wasn't a big deal since it's just uphill hiking from there to the summit, but I had to dig a bit deep to keep myself psyched. I got so sleepy! I started at about 05:30 and thought I might be able to do it in about 13 hours, but summited a bit after 8pm. No need for a headlamp in June in the AK Range, it's pretty cool how light it is.

Talking about light, how light did you go?
I took a 2.3lb bivy kit so I could sleep at the base of the route, it wasn't anything I'd be comfortable with up high. It was a one person/2 season backpacking tent, a quilt, and a small pad. A Petzl Pur line 5mm that I cut to 40m and two ice screws just in case I had to get off the route. A couple of pairs of socks as I was worried about my feet getting cold in ski boots, and in fact I changed my socks mid route. An Inreach. A small stove and small fuel canister. 2 liters of water. 10 bars/4 Gels. Plus skis and ski poles. It all fit comfortably in a 30L pack.

How long were you out on the mountain in total therefore?
When I left 14k on the West Buttress on June13th it took me 3:10 to ascend the 2k to the West Rib and ski 4k to the base of the Cassin Ridge/SW Face. I rested there for the afternoon evening and had intended to get up at midnight, but slept well and didn't wake up till 0400 on the 14th. 14:39, schrund to summit on the Cassin and maybe 2.5 to descend to West Buttress back to 14k. I didn't time the descent.

So what’s that most beautiful thing about going solo?
Tough question! Perhaps you're just a bit more present to your surroundings and your emotions and thoughts. There is nothing to distract you from that. It was a pretty wild experience.

Compared to your previous climbs in the big mountains, how do you rate this? And did it live up to expectations?
I thought the climbing on the Cassin was just pure fun. It really is a perfect route. The climb and the experience was just different from the other routes I've climbed with partners and not really comparable. It certainly did live up to that dream and vision!

CASSIN RIDGE, DENALI
First ascended from 6 - 19 July 1961 by the Italian Ragni di Lecco members Luigino Airoldi, Gigi Alippi, Jack Canali, Riccardo Cassin, Romano Perego and Annibale Zucchi, the elegant and challenging line is one of the most famous and sought-after alpine routes in the world. After the ascent Cassin was congratulated via telegram by the President of the United States of America, John Kennedy. The route is graded Alaska Grade 5, 65°, 5.8 AI4, 9,000 feet and usually takes anywhere between 3 - 7 days.

First solo: Charlie Porter, 1976
First female solo: Chantel Astorga, 2021
Fastest known time: Colin Haley, 2018, 8:07 hours

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