Finding the best high-altitude, technically challenging mountains to climb sounds simple until you overlay your goals with pandemic restrictions.
The highest peaks and the toughest climbs are concentrated in the Himalaya, a range stretching through Nepal, China, India and Pakistan. Getting there during a pandemic is either difficult or impossible, especially for high-altitude climbers from North America, Europe and pretty much anywhere else in the world, except Asia.
Eager climbers are looking for alternatives within the countries where they live or regions where they can travel. Whether you’re an expert mountaineer or relatively new to the sport, there is an abundance of pandemic alternatives for technical and high-altitude climbs.
The Alaska Range is a 400-mile-long mountain range stretching from southcentral Alaska to the White River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The Cascades extend from southern British Columbia, Canada through Washington, Oregon and into the northern tip of California. The Alps extend through France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The Alaska Range and Denali
If you’re looking for big peak mountain climbing alternatives to the Himalaya or Karakoram ranges, Denali is a superlative option. It carries similar risks and challenges associated with high altitude dangers and weather hazards – and it’s the only U.S. peak surpassing 6,000 meters/20,000 feet.
“The Alaska Range is amazing,” said Ed Viesturs, a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and the only American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks. “I went back to Denali after 20 years in the Himalaya and Denali is just like the Himalaya in feel. It’s just as cold, remote and challenging.”
John “Jed” Williamson agreed. He has been collecting data on mountaineering accidents In North America for 40 years. He highlights the Alaska Range for providing good, high-altitude challenges that can be relatively safe.
“Denali sees a bit over 1,000 attempts each year, mostly on the West Buttress,” he said. “Mount Foraker (17,402 ft) is the next highest and a good choice – along with Mount Deborah (12,339 ft) – they’re both classics yet not often climbed.”
Viesturs recommends the Cascades, too, since they are affectionately called the American Alps.
“The approaches make it feel like its remote. There’s lots of technical climbs. You can spend a lifetime there and be happy,” he said.
In Canada, the Yukon – adjacent to Alaska – is home to Mount Logan (nearly 6,000 meters/20,000 feet) and nine other mountains each extending about 4,500 meters/15,000 feet or more.
“I’d consider going to the border peak region – going in from Kluane National Park and Reserve – the usual jumping off place for Mount Logan. Also, take a look at Mount Vancouver and Good Neighbor Peak, which can be done as one climb,” Williamson said.
Europe’s high mountains are located in two ranges. The Alps hosts Mont Blanc (4,804 meters/15,774 feet), Monte Rosa (4,634 meters/15,203 feet) and The Dom (4,545 meters/14,911 feet). The Pyrenees is home to more than 120 mountain summits greater than 3,000 meters/9,843 feet, the highest of which is Aneto (3,404 meters/11,168 feet).
“The Alps are a mountaineer’s dream. It’s like Disneyland for climbers. Some of the best technical climbs are in the Alps,” Viesturs said.
The options for North Americans and Europeans seeking challenging technical mountain ascents within regions accessible to them are ample.
“Technical climbs are steeper, icier, the angles are sharp and it’s all rock and ice. It’s not a walk up. You’re putting in anchors, belaying, using ice tools. It’s steep, mixed climbing,” Viesturs said.
The Eiger, located in the Bernese Alps, appears small compared to other huge mountains but its north face (The Nordwand) is an 1,800 m/5,905 ft wall of shattered limestones. It has several technical sections and a high risk of rock falls, ice falls and avalanches.
In the U.S. a few of the most challenging technical climbs include Washington’s Mount Baker (3,286 meter/10,781 feet), featuring several 60 to 70-degree ice pitches and the north ridge of Mount Stuart (2,870 meter/9,416 feet), containing a steady ascent up immaculate cracks, over knife-edge ridges and imposing pinnacles to the summit. In Wyoming, the Tetons are a respected training ground for technical climbs. Further southwest, the sheer face of El Capitan (2,308 meter/7,573 feet) in Yosemite Park, California was once considered impossible to climb and is now considered a classic technical ascent around the world.
Williamson suggested Denali as an option since it offers an ageless, yet difficult, route that is less frequently climbed.
“Denali’s classic routes include the great – technically challenging – Cassin Ridge to the Pioneer Route over on the Muldrow Glacier,” he said. The Alaska range includes many other excellent peaks like Hunter, Huntington, Foraker, Mooses Tooth and Braille.
Canada’s Mount Logan is similar to Denali in its expedition character, length, high elevation risks and ever-changing weather threats. British Columbia’s Mount Robson (3,954 meter/12,972 feet) is known as one of the difficult climbs in Canada and noted as an ideal ascent advanced mountaineers looking to challenge themselves and test their skills.
Mountaineers in North America and Europe looking for high-altitude expeditions or technically challenging ascents in the Himalaya range may have to wait a season or more before conditions change and access eases. Until then the Alps, the Pyrenees, Alaska and the Yukon have plenty to offer high-peak summit baggers and mountaineers looking for technical trials.
About the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council
The Mountain Advisory Council provides advice and guidance from world-class experts to ensure enterprise-level member services and overall sport improvement. Council members shared their favorite technical and high-altitude climbs.
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