King Cobra - Alaskan Big Wall Free Climbing

Sunday 16 June 2019, 12:55pm -- alastair.mcdowell

Kim Ladiges firing up an off-fingers splitter crack on Mount Barrill in Alaska's Ruth Gorge

John Price

Another serac rips from the summit ice cliffs of neighbouring Mount Dickey, and the familiar roar of avalanche thunders through the valley. My calves shake on crumbling footholds, the infamous “Cracker Jack Gravel” of the Ruth Gorge.

I’m balanced on an arete well above my last piece. I reach for a pecker piton and weld it into a thin crack with my free hand, tightening my crimp on the other. I launch into the corner above, loaded with tottering loose flakes.

The world disintegrates below as I fire in two hand jams, choss exploding hundreds of metres down the sheer East Face of Mount Barrill, swallowed up by the glacier below. Chemicals flood my brain: relief. Another piece of the puzzle unlocked.


We came to Alaska for the Kichatna Spires, lured by a dream of El Capitan sized walls set on remote glaciers. Living on the wall with a week of supplies, onsighting finger cracks on a steep headwall under a midnight sun.

But the Kichatna’s reputation for abysmal weather held true. After four days sifting in Talkeetna waiting for the elusive flying window our patience ran dry. Time running out, we hatched a new plan.


Flying into the range with Talkeetna Air Taxi

John Price

An hour later Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi was flying us into the Ruth Gorge. Our eyes lit up as the huge granite faces filled the windows of our small Otter ski plane. Mount Barrill, and the famed Cobra Pillar appeared. Almost 1000 metres of steep, featured granite, capped with snow, and plenty of potential for a new line.


Mount Barrill from the sky

John Price

We arrived midday and the weather was perfect, so we went straight to work. As two teams of two we would alternate twelve hour shifts to continuously push our ropes up the wall, capitalising on the eternal daylight of a high Alaskan summer.

Dan Joll and Kim Ladiges packed sleds for every eventuality and set off to quest up a new line on the face right of Cobra Pillar. Meanwhile, John Price and I established our glacier basecamp.


Dan & Kim approach the face of Mt Barrill for their first foray up the wall

John Price

With John’s telephoto lense we watched our friends inch up the first pitches. By the time our paths crossed on the glacier around 3AM, the haul bag of supplies was already hanging a respectable 120m up the wall.

John & I jumared the fixed rope and racked up for an intimidating warm up: a wet, arching off width crack.


Managing the huge amount of rope & equipment on the wall is half of the challenge

Dan Joll

Above, heinous crozzly rock kept us on edge. After dawn, the heat of the sun warmed snow patches on the summit sending slough avalanches cascading down the face unnervingly close to our side. We continued with trepidation, but I was eventually shut down by a disgusting corner, fused with a miserable excuse for granite.

On the next shift, Kim managed to pass this crux with an M7 lock-off, utilizing the rear hook of our piton hammer. But the atrocious rock tired him also, so by the mantra of his mentor Twid Turner, only one word echoed through Kim’s head: “Penji, penji, penji!” (*Translation: pendulum.)


Kim heading back up the fixed ropes to regain the high point of the new route

John Price

So Kim aborted ship and swung off into a new crack system far to the left. Twelve hours, two pitches. This was proving hard work.

But we had now fixed into a potential nook to set up our first portaledge camp, so the following day John & I laboriously hauled up 7 days of supplies into the alcove.


Alastair jumaring a wild series of fixed ropes to the high point

John Price

Meanwhile back in basecamp, Dan & Kim watched in horror as a rare slough ripped from the top of the mountain, plunging directly towards John & I at the belay.

I looked up to see a river of wet snow crashing through the rock arch we hoped would protect us. I pressed my body close to the rock. Snow slush poured over us, soaking us to the bone. With relief the torrent subsided, fortunately without any chunks of rock or ice. A close call.

The radio crackled in my chest pocket; it was Dan.

“Guys, do you copy?”

"Yes... We're both ok."

“Good… I think we can tolerate the bad rock. But now that our line seems to still be in the firing line, we’re not keen on the overhead hazard.”

I scooped more snow out of my jacket hood.

"You're telling me... Let’s get out of here.”


Alastair starting the abseil descent after being avalanched on the face

John Price

That day it took ten hours to haul, and five hours to descend, as we navigated a maze of steep and traversing abseils with 80kg haul bags dangling from our harnesses.

After four day of effort it was back to the drawing board, plus, we needed a rest. The everlasting daylight was playing havoc on our body clocks.


Rest day feasting in basecamp

John Price

Between servings of bacon grease and whipped cream coffee, it became apparent the only sliver of The Mountain relatively safe from avalanche was the central prow, which we believed to host the classic Cobra Pillar route.

In our haste leaving Talkeetna, we had only one vague photo of the face showing lines, no names, no topo, leaving the rest to speculation…

Determined to climb quality virgin terrain rather than crawling up an existing route in a slow big wall style, we restarted questing up corners hoping to link into mega cracks firing up the buttress. John started leading up our proposed line and discovered a multitude of fixed gear low on the route with fun 5.10 climbing, confirming that we must have started up the Cobra.


John Price, stoked as ever

Dan Joll

So from a major cave low down, we branched out to the right: Kim spied a thin face climbing traverse to access a new crack system. From a strenuous knee-bar, he laboriously hand drilled a bolt and was able to crimp his way across the steep wall.

Upon reaching into a wide crack and looking upwards, he could not believe what he had discovered. Pitch after pitch of continuous splitter, offwidth.


Kim questing up endless offwidth cracks

Dan Joll

Five and six inch wide crack rocketed straight up the proudest part of the prow. Kim was in heaven. He led out mega pitches of glorious heel-toes and butterfly jams, as good as anything in Tasmania. It was some of the highest quality climbing any of us had ever encountered in the mountains.


Kim enjoying a beautiful fist crack

Dan Joll

Adding to the delight they discovered a set of ledges to set up camp. The following day we worked together as four to haul up heavy loads and establish our main portaledge camp 350m up the wall. We were now poised for the upper pillar.


Dan Joll relaxing into another night on the portaledge

Kim Ladiges

But that evening, a sickness that had been nagging John suddenly exacerbated, requiring a late night evacuation mission. Fortunately our five ropes strung together just reached the glacier, and John was able to fly back to town the following day.


Life on the wall

John Price

With Kim & Dan exhausted from their all-nighter saving John, I took over the lead for the day. And so followed the ‘pecker piton pitch’ described above, which proved to be one of the most intense memories engraved in my mind from the wall.


Kim following finger cracks above the roof of the stem-box pitch

Dan Joll

I gained new appreciation of how it feels to discover brilliant climbing in its raw, natural state.

With the help of my friends’ wisdom, I was able to unearth incredible hand cracks, finger cracks, stemming corners and roofs, ridding them of their dangerous blocks and loose gravel, hammer and wire brush on hand.

The thought that this might become a real classic spurred us on in our mission. Having climbed in many of the popular granite climbing zones, we genuinely thought this route contained some of the best alpine rock climbing in the world. Where else do you find 15 sustained pitches of 5.10-5.11 crack climbing stacked on top of each other, in the mountains, where each one in its own right would be a crag classic?


Yet another sensational splitter crack up on the wall

John Price

Ropes fixed high, it was finally time for a push to the summit. Above, we rejoined the Cobra Pillar route with its sensational arching splitter to crest the pillar. We stripped down into alpine mode and began simul climbing more moderate ground.


On the top of the Cobra Pillar, searching for the intricate route towards the summit, apprehensive about the quantity of unstable snow lying above

Alastair McDowell

Or so we thought. Kim lead through increasingly wet cracks, drenched by melt from the summit’s still heavy and unstable snowpack. Our worst fears were confirmed: we were too early in the season to safely reach the summit.

Nearing the final technical pitch, the quantity of snow lying above become painfully apparent. It threatened to release at any moment.

The decision to descend was sore but simple; there was just two hundred metres of moderate, yet dangerous, terrain between us and the summit. As mountaineers we all heartily crave to stand on top, but will also quickly turn back when the conditions dictate otherwise.


Alastair on the descent

Dan Joll

We arrived back at portaledge camp around 5AM to find our precious Radix meals ravaged by ravens, powdered spinach and berries strewn across the rocks. The carnage back down at glacier camp was equally atrocious.

Fortunately, our own Raven of Denali was already in full flight, ready to pluck us from our glacial squalor, and back to the living world.


Ruth Gorge reflections

John Price


Team shot back in Talkeetna

John Price

Route beta

Pitch 1) Depending on schrund height, 20-40m straight up shallow corner cracks to a small stance with three fixed wires. 5.8.

Pitch 2) Up and Around a small roof to the left, then nice corners and face climbing to a stance. 5.10, 40m.

Pitch 3) Stem box, pull around roof to left, then up a nice finger crack corner. Below a large block, move out left to the newly cleaned hand and finger crack to finish underneath the massive roof. 5.10+, 40m,

Pitch 4) From here Cobra Pillar goes left and King Cobra goes right. Step across the gulley, and climb overhanging hands into an offwidth. 5.10+, 20m.

Pitch 5) 5.9 chimney past old rivet at roof. Place gear and down climb two meters step right on good holds around arête to no hands stance and bolt. Climb up two moves then down climb right to a side pull and reach into finger crack 5.11, 35m.

Pitch 6) 5.10 offwidth for 50m. Starts as fists and moves to offwidth. As it turns to chimney pass a bolt and move right to an excellent hand / fist / and offwidth with bolt belay.

Pitch 7) The “Monster Offwidth”, with a roof then belay at a small stance near the mid point of the pillar. Right hand version is the best and is 5.10 offwidth, but you can also go left at mid height and do the pikers variant, an easier 5.9 offwidth. There is a single bolt belay at the base of the 5.8 version.

Pitch 8) Climb a finger crack on the right hand side of the pillar to where it fuses. Then traverse right around arête and quest up past two fixed peckers. This turns to a hand crack through roof (right side out of the roof is better) and single bolt belay on a small ledge. 5.10 R, 35m.

Pitch 9) Move up cracks and eventually left onto the middle of the pillar. Belay at a fixed pin (supplement with nuts / small cams) for a semi hanging stance. 5.10, 35m.

Pitch 10) Follow two finger cracks eventually moving to the right most crack. This pitch is where you join the cobra pillar route. 35m belay just right of the fixed rap anchor at the base of yet another offwidth. 5.11, 35m. The route now rejoins the Cobra Pillar route.

Pitch 11) 5.9 offwidth, 35m to chossy ledge. (5.11a in Cobra Pillar topo.)

Pitch 12) Amazing hands/fingers splitter right on the head wall fixed belay as part of the cobra pillar rap line. 5.10, 50m.

Pitch 13) 40-50m to the end of the arching finger/layback crack then loose face climbing and a bit of choss too, to reach top of Cobra Pillar. 5.10+, 50m.

Pitch 14 - Summit) 250m of climbing up to 5.11 followed by 200m of moderate terrain to the summit depending on snow conditions. We did not climb this final 200m due to dangerous snow conditions above.

Descent) All belays have been re-equipped with fresh cord/bolts as of June 2019. The descent rap line is clean and direct.


John Price


Double set of cams from 0.1-6, triples of 0.4-0.75.

Micro nuts, regular nuts.

Two 60m ropes to descend.

Download the topo here.

For a detailed topo click the link above.  The below shows the King Cobra line and some other lines we explored on the mountain.  Descent Topo Below. 

King Cobra Line Topo .jpg

Line drawing of the King Cobra Line. This also shows two other routes we explored on the mountain. The right hand route will go to the summit or to the top of the pillar but the rock is average higher up. It is also right in the bombing line if there is snow on the upper mountain.

Daniel Joll

Descent Topo

Descent Topo.jpg

Descent Topo. Note, if you don't havev 70m ropes there is one rap that you will need to build yourself at a fixed pin. The pin just needs a nut to back it up. Rapping King Cobra is a much cleaner and faster rap than going down the Cobra Pillar route.

Daniel Joll


Dan Joll