Vertical Quest: Topher Donahue

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It was the summer of 1996. At the time, I was 21 years old, living in a primitive cabin in the small fishing village of Ninilchik, Alaska. That summer, I’d landed a job working as a park ranger assistant for Alaska State Parks, and although I’d like to say I was doing something cool like building trails, the reality is that I was cleaning gnarly outhouses, packing up bags of garbage, and picking up fish guts off the beaches. Although I was far away from any climbing, I was often mesmerized by the Aleutian and Neacola Ranges, 50 miles across the water.

So I was excited when I received a stash of beloved issues of Climbing Magazine in the mail. As I poured through each issue, I was stopped in my tracks when I stumbled onto a story about 2 climbers who’d just attempted the North Face of Mount Neacola, the highest mountain in the Neacola Range. The climbers, Topher Donahue and Kennan Harvey, had spent 5 days attempting a route they dubbed the Medusa Face. The photos were inspiring, and terrifying to say the least: a near vertical dark wall bigger than The Nose on El Cap. Black rock laced with snow and ice, with no obvious crack systems to follow. A mixture of free, aid and ice climbing, while being pummeled by relentless wind, spindrift and bitter cold. This was wild stuff.

Although the duo didn’t reach the summit, it was an adventure that resonated with me, and captured my imagination. I never forgot about the Medusa Face on Mount Neacola.

That’s why I was intrigued 25 years later, when I heard about the trio of Ryan Driscoll, Justin Guarino, and Nick Aiello-Popeo, making the first complete ascent of the face. It was stunning to me to hear about a new generation of climbers returning to a climb that had filled me with so much intrigue and inspiration over the years. It also got me thinking about reaching out to Topher Donahue.

Luckily I did get in touch with Topher, and we recently had an engaging conversation about his life in the mountains. We talked about a lot of things, including his attempt on Neacola. But like a lot of climbers I talk with, it turns out there was a lot more to Topher’s life, than one trip to a remote Alaskan mountain in 1995.

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Notes

Special thanks to Topher Donahue
Cover Photo: Kennan Harvey

Produced by Evan Phillips
Editing & Sound Design by Pod Peak
Original Music by Evan Phillips

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86 episodes