Falling to the bottom of a crevasse is one of a mountaineer’s recurring nightmares. Crossing a glacier whose fresh snow hides the traps of the terrain destroys the nerves of the most serene, even when strung up to a partner: if one prevents both from being swallowed, returning to the surface will always be a severe exercise. But doing it alone is a game of heads or tails where intuition and luck are decisive. And then there are those who come up with a bizarre solution, more of a psychological hoax than an empirical benefit: In 1976, Charlie Porter, great rock climber and regular at Yosemite, crossed the glacier on the Cassin to Denali (or McKinley, the 6,190m Alaskan roof) without a partner but tied to a three meter metal bar that should prevent it from falling into a crevice. He looked like a peer in love with his pole but not wanting to jump. Jon Krakauer, famous author of the best seller Altitude sickness, he made a cross-shaped antenna out of the slat of a shower curtain and attached it to his backpack… hoping that would prevent him from falling to the bottom of an icy abyss.
More practical, the American mountaineer Chantel Astorga lost hours of sleep trying to find the best way to avoid the dangers of the glacier that leads at the foot of the Cassin route to Denali. Astorga wanted to face the route alone and decided to approach with his mountain skis (which distribute their weight better and offer a good solution to avoid minor crevices) to ski down from the top. This involved climbing one of Denali’s iconic routes with skis on your back and ski boots on your feet, but it would allow you to descend quickly in anticipation of a possible worsening of the weather. Astorga’s commitment to such an isolated and severe mountain, where the arrival of the thick fog is legendary and deadly, confirms the mountaineer as the great lady of Denali, one of her favorite playgrounds.
Astorga climbed the route in just over 14 hours of effort. Although there are several solitary male precedents (the first was the aforementioned Porter and the fastest Colin Haley in 2018, investing just over eight hours in a task that usually takes between three and seven days for a rope), no woman had previously assumed the challenge. Astorga is different. His mental strength impresses and he understands that perfection is not only up to the challenges that arise but also being able to solve any problem that arises on the wall without asking for help.
Chantel worked on the Yosemite rescue team and, drawing on local tradition, learned the concept of Speed climb or speed climbing, that is, traveling the Captain’s routes in the fastest and most minimalist way possible, according to the knowledge and techniques of the present. And when someone learns to fly through walls, they hate crawling around them and decide to transfer that knowledge to other areas. Climbing The Nose route alone in Yosemite but trying to do it in less than 24 hours, Astorga overtook a rope and did not ask for water, although he had not drunk for eight hours, so as not to put them on a commitment. With his partner Jewell Lund at the end of the ascent of the Diamond, in Denali, they had been without food for 24 hours when they found, near the top, a bag half buried in the snow with freeze-dried food. After four and a half days climbing one of the most beautiful and committed routes of the mountain, they signed the first female ascent and the seventh absolute. Both would also be awarded the first female and ninth of the Slovak Direct. Two imposing, intimidating routes. After signing the day the first female joining the climb of the Captain and the Half Dome, in Yosemite, Chantel recognized herself mentally exhausted: did she really love climbing and mountaineering so much as to go so far in suffering and commitment?
It was 2012 and Astorga turned to mountain biking, a much more playful exercise. It took him almost two years to understand that he would not find elsewhere the sensations and experiences that mountaineering provides. Since then the Denali has been his garden, he has learned to know it, to understand its weather, to dream of challenges that only occupied men. Astorga has always sought female company in the mountains, but acknowledges that there are very few women interested in tackling extreme routes: “There are very strong women, but few are interested in this form of mountaineering. Could they be smarter? Can they better understand the futility of the gesture? The truth is that facing compromised situations of your own free will is an exercise that defies common sense, right? ”. But to answer the next logical question, the one that seeks to clarify why some come to the call of these challenges, it would take a battalion of psychologists.