Do You Have to Be a Little Unhinged to Climb This? Nope. But It Can't Hurt.

Alaskan eccentric Trigger Twigg attempts the first winter ascent of the world's tallest face

Jan 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

"It's no secret that the Alaskan frontier is something of a magnet for people intent on dropping out, holing up, or just generally disappearing. But even by the insular standards of the 49th state, Trigger Twigg is no easy man to track down. Besides lacking a telephone, this former bear hunter, erstwhile barroom bouncer, and self-confessed winter-climbing junkie has no job, no car, and no regular routine (although he can sometimes be found doing his laundry at Talkeetna's Fairview Inn, which has been catering to climbers for the past 75 years and takes considerable pride in the fact that Warren Harding died soon after having had dinner there). Short of actually flying into Talkeetna and planting your boots on the Fairview's foot rail, the only way to reach Twigg is to call KTNA Radio and politely ask whoever answers to please broadcast a "Denali Echo" for Twigg, 48. "Hopefully somebody'll tell him, and he'll call you back," explains the person manning the phones. "But with Trigger there are no guarantees."

Thanks to a fire last summer that swept through the wall tent that he and his girlfriend were sharing in the hills just outside Talkeetna, Twigg also has no house — though he is currently building a cabin next to the birch privy that survived the conflagration. In the process of gutting the home, the blaze also destroyed most of Twigg's ropes and ice axes, and the rest of his mountaineering gear. Nevertheless, sometime this month Twigg will make a bid to complete the first winter ascent of the tallest exposed mountain face in the world — a sheet of ice and rock running 14,000 feet up the north side of Mount McKinley. Known as the Wickersham Wall, the avalanche-prone face has been scaled on rare occasions during McKinley's brief summer climbing season. The notion of a winter assault, however, is so audacious that the National Park Service's Web site characterizes it as "bordering on the ridiculous because of its unfathomable risks."

Chief among those hazards is some of the worst weather of any major mountain system on earth. Temperatures that often hammer the mercury to 40 below zero can plummet another 100 degrees in windchill when 50-mile-an-hour gales roar in from the Bering Sea, flogging McKinley's exposed flanks and immobilizing climbers for up to three weeks at a time. Adding to the sense of siege are hanging glaciers, rockfalls, and the rather disconcerting fact that the north-facing Wickersham gets absolutely no direct sunlight in January. Indeed, much of Twigg's ascent will be undertaken in the dark. "Just the approach is really dangerous. He'll be climbing through a wall of darkness," notes J.D. Swed, the mountain's South District Ranger, who has participated in more than 100 McKinley rescues in the last seven years. Adds Rick Thoman, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks and apparently something of an authority on understatement: "The Wickersham Wall is not a nice place to be in winter."

Twigg, however, is no stranger to discomfort. During a boyhood spent hunting raccoons, squirrels, and wild mushrooms in Cumberland, Maryland, he learned to climb by strapping on a mask, a snorkel, and golf shoes and scaling local waterfalls. Twice during a stint as a bouncer at a Santa Barbara bar, he jetted off to Siberia with a handmade bow and a set of flint-tipped arrows to bag grizzly bears. In 1994, he moved to Alaska and flung himself into mountaineering, notching one ascent of McKinley plus two winter climbs of previously uncharted peaks in the Yetna Range. Somewhere along the way, he managed to acquire the tattoo of a green dragon that runs across his face and a business card that reads, in part, "alligator circumcision by appointment only."

For his Wickersham bid, Twigg has developed an unusual training regimen. Instead of hewing to a state-of-the-art cardiovascular program in a climate-controlled gym, he is pursuing less structured activities that seem mainly to concentrate on raw pain. He spends several hours each week hauling 10-foot logs up mountainsides "to practice suffering in the cold." He undertakes nighttime ascents of frozen waterfalls scouted out by his bush-pilot friends, rubberizes the muscles in his wrists with a shot-filled gravity ball, and each day performs several sets of chin-ups with his new set of ice axes from the limbs of trees near his unfinished cabin. "You gotta be a harsh motherfucker, you know what I mean?" he says. "I make myself harsh every day."

Unfortunately, this demeanor seems to dovetail with a dangerous trend bemoaned by many hard-core Alaska alpinists: the perception that McKinley can be climbed by anyone who is physically fit and laced with sufficient levels of testosterone. In recent years, this misconception has helped to transform the tallest peak in North America from a lonely wilderness outpost into a mecca for all manner of mountaineers — veteran, novice, and the woefully out-to-lunch. Since the mid-1980s, McKinley's roster of climbers has more than doubled. The near-record number who made the attempt last summer (1,100) included a 12-year-old boy from Korea who became the youngest person in history to reach the summit. More notably, perhaps, three others perished, including a volunteer ranger participating in one of that season's two dozen rescue missions. "It's way too crowded," declares Brad Washburn, 88, who in 1951 became the first to ascend the mountain by way of the West Buttress. "You need a damn traffic light up there."

While such reservations are surely appropriate, climbers who know Twigg firsthand seem convinced that, braggadocio aside, his prowess is genuine. Perhaps the strongest testament to his skills is the fact that Artur Testov, the Russian climber who pulled off an astonishing winter ascent of McKinley via the West Buttress last January, has agreed to partner up with Twigg on the Wickersham. Another supporter is Rick Ridgeway, who participated in the first American assault on K2 in 1978. "When I first talked to Trigger back in 1992, I was definitely skeptical," admits Ridgeway. "But I saw him on the mountain that year, and he's great. Based on his history and credibility, I'd say he's got a good shot at it."



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