Story and Photos By Ben Kunz
rec·ce: (noun) a slang word for reconnaissance, reconnoitre
Climbing the McNerthney Pillar was the primary objective for our trip to the Waddington Range, but when we returned down the Bravo Glacier route to Sunny Knob, the ensuing days continued to bring excellent weather. During our one and only rest day, we took turns man-handling the guidebook and staring at the walls, piecing together known climbs and potentially unclimbed crack systems on the incredible west faces of the spires of the Stilletto Group. We didn’t settle on any particular formation or climb, we just knew we were psyched to get up there and explore, and if the stars aligned, go for a first ascent.
And what better way to seize the opportunity than to head out on a recce!
The next morning, Joe and I headed out of camp by headlamp to investigate the best route through the Stilletto glacier and see what we’d find looking up close at those big walls. We found plenty of tricky routing through the maze of seracs and icefalls of the Stilletto, but eventually found a way through to the base of the walls.
As we passed under Bicuspid Tower, we couldn’t help but notice three prominent dihedral systems. The middle and right system looked very steep and the cracks thin, but the bone white rock looked impeccable! Joe’s excitement to just get up there and give it a go was infectious and our mellow reconnaissance day changed gears and we were soon messing around in the moats between the glacier and the tower, trying to find a way on the rock.
I took the first pitch, linking a full 200 feet of beautiful blocks and crack systems through varied terrain from low fifth to 5.9 hand cracks, which took us to the bottom of the thin crack systems we’d spied from the glacier. Some traversing right on ledges allowed us to get a good look at each of the crack systems; the middle crack system seemed to provide the most continuous climbing. Joe organized his rack and started leading up into the steep terrain. Despite the excellent quality of the rock, we still had to do plenty of cleaning to get good locks in the cracks and solid foot placements (mostly smears!) on the rock.
The next pitches were the highlight of the route with varied and exciting climbing: technical face climbing, powerful hand traverses, a tricky and insecure boulder problem, then a stemming corner to ear-to-ear grinning hand jamming!
At the top of our fourth pitch, it looked as if we’d top out on the south ridge crest and scamper up to the top from there, but Bicuspid had another crux for us. The final, long pitch started with a steep, slightly right tilting finger crack followed by a tricky pod that could only be exited using a strong dynamic move to the jug up high—definitely not your average alpine rock move!
We had extreme luck with our descent, linking three full double rope raps (60m) to drop us at our boots and bags. It was a miracle we didn’t snag anything on the way down!
Joe put it best when he describes his passion for opening new routes. “I get really excited about spotting a clean, direct line and just giving it a go. If it doesn’t go, you just come back down, but you always have an adventure! And just once in a while you climb an amazing, clean line—this is when all that work pays off! You never forget these experiences!”