American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Crillon 1933

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  • Publication Year: 1934

Crillon 1933

William S. Child

EARLY, on a June morning, after a 150-mile boat trip from Juneau, high above the great La Perouse glacier we caught our first glimpse of Crillon, 12,730 ft., the highest unclimbed peak of the Fair weather Range. By rarest good luck a rift in the clouds showed Crillon’s mighty summit gleaming white against the blue. Then, later, as the tide rocketed us through the narrow entrance of Lituya Bay, the surrounding peaks threw off' their cloud blanket and stood out sharp above the Sitka spruce of Cenotaph Island.

The close of June found our 2,400 lbs. of supplies and equipment at Lituya Bay, ready for air transport to our base at Crillon Lake, three hundred feet above the sea. To this glacial lake, over three stiff miles of seracs and moraine, the five members of the advance group back-packed a canoe, that later proved invaluable for the surveying and geologic work. The four other members of the party arrived on July 1st by airplane and with it transfer of equipment to the base camp immediately began. By this means, two or more weeks of gruelling pack work was eliminated.

Pitching the base-camp, checking and arranging food-bags, installing weather-bureau and radio, went a bit slow, for every few minutes a thunderous roar would bring us up, standing, to watch some huge pinnacled serac crash from the glacier face into the milk-green lake.

On July 2nd, the party, comprising six climbers and three geologists, packed 50 lbs. apiece over bear trails and gravel flats to the “Klooch” glacier, where uncertain footing on moraine- covered ice helped to fit us for harder work to come. Before and high above us was the “Knoll,” a small peak of much grandeur, its lower snow-fields cut by a sheer clift down which fell great waterfalls. Over this peak our only route lay, but first we pitched our second camp on Alpine meadows bordering almost permanent snow at 2,200 ft. This camp marked the first of five stages to the foot of the upper Crillon cliffs, the bases being advanced by the usual polar method. Our second pack was over “Ptarmigan Dome,” where despite considerable snow on the northern side, we found bare places with clumps of cyclamen and blue lupine knee-high. Heavy clouds, almost never absent, in early July veiled the valleys north and south, and the Pacific. Up a 1,000-ft. slope of soft snow we trudged, on to a narrow ridge of loose rock leading to the “Knoll” summit. Below the precipitous crest, but above the lower cloud level, Dagelet, “False Dagelet,” and La Perouse, showed wraith-like through thin mist.

For the future packer, indeed for the climber, the last pull up the “Knoll” will require careful foot-work, and if heavy loads are carried, a fixed rope will prove of great assistance. The ridge is composed of loose, crumbling rock. For more rapid transport we used a rope-rail, but balance was still tricky when carrying 65 lbs. of supplies and a pair of skis on one’s back.

Our first snow camp was pitched on a wind-protected snow- bench below the ridge but close to the “Knoll” summit. Thick cloud made it hard to judge how far to place the tents from the ridge to avoid snow-falls from its cornice, and at the same time how far it was safe to go out on the rounded snow-edge which overhangs the great ice-fall below. When the weather cleared, we found ourselves perched on the brink, but the place seemed safe despite ominous cracks heard at night. Late that same day every vestige of cloud blew away, and there, before us, over the shoulder of a distant ridge rose Crillon, stainless white against deep blue. To the north stood a sharp unnamed peak with its plume streaming, to the west the wedge-shaped cliff of “Klooch”— unique in that it is half-black, half-reddish in sharp contrast— while below and behind we caught glimpses of Crillon Lake, dark green forest, then, five miles away, the white surf line of the Pacific. Thirty miles to our west the sheer sides of Lituya and the mighty bulk of Fairweather drew our eyes, but most thrilling of all was to see, far off, far up in the sky, though 175 miles away, the mighty pyramid of Mt. St. Elias.

Alaskan mountain weather is unpredictable—a northeast wind in this section being perhaps the best augury for clear weather. With this wind blowing, our first reconnaissance party, Washburn, Bates, and Houston, started out. Their purpose was to try to discover whether we could pack across the crevasses on “Klooch Corner,” and to mark a safe route with willow-wands up the great glacial valley to the foot of the “South Col.” Beyond this, they were to search for a route up the cliff that completely surrounds the upper plateau of Crillon. This they did after first attempting a false route up the cliff.

Essaying the steeper rock-part, they crossed a wide schrund, and worked up two-thirds of the cliff—six hundred feet of extremely difficult and dangerous going, reaching an overhang so brittle that they were subject to a continual barrage of loose stone. This slope averages over 50°, and in places is as much as 65°. The whine of small falling stone is almost continuous there, but from below this appears to be the only possible route on to the plateau. After this we ruled out the bare rock of the cliff for safe climbing or packing. Much discouraged we awaited good weather and on July 14th left camp at 9 p.m. to travel on crusted snow all night up the valley to and over the “South Col” to the foot of the cliff. We rested and ate there that we might make an early attack on the one other possible route up the cliff before the snow loosened. This night march was memorable : There were only four hours of twilight darkness, as we followed the trail of willow-wands. The dead silence was broken only by the slight scuffing of the skis. Ahead of us were the black cliffs of Crillon with their white frosting. To the north were scattered dim high peaks in great profusion. We were reminded of our proximity to the Arctic Circle, for behind Mt. Fairweather the sunset flush remained all night until sunrise replaced it. Crillon was clad in a nightcap of cloud.

Four o’clock found us zigzagging up the 30° slope of the “South Col’' to rest at its top, adjust our packs, and ski down to the foot of the ice-cliff. Eating a luxurious breakfast of chocolate, walnuts, and sardines, we studied the 1,000-ft. cliff-face carefully. This was our only possible route up the cliff ; if we failed here our chance to climb Crillon would be gone.

We finally decided to follow up an avalanche gully, thence over a conspicuous spur of rock, even though the face-angle beyond appeared forbiddingly steep ; for the uppermost third seemed smooth snow though topped by a formidable cornice.

Washburn, Everett, and I started on the first rope, over broken snow-blocks and avalanche débris. The schrund was negotiated by a court échelle, Washburn standing on Everett’s back; we following with his help, the gap to the upper lip being some six feet. For the first third of our way, we sank in knee-deep though the angle is 45°. Going slowly and carefully, digging our axes in deep and belaying around them, we worked upward and across the avalanche chute we were following and reached the rock ledge one-third of the way up. Below, the party on the second rope had waited and were negotiating the schrund. The snow now grew harder, affording better going than the rock as our crampons bit in well. The slope grew steeper and steeper, but one could spare a glance at the far-off, robin’s-egg blue Pacific, and at the terrific bare cliff of Dagelet, heavily corniced at its top. We could now see our own cornice above, apparently close, but really further than the four rope lengths it seemed to be away. All rock had disappeared and our steps were partly hacked, partly kicked out, the ice in the steps just matching in color the distant sea. Over nine hundred feet up and the angle 57°, it was exciting enough between Everett’s boots to see Washburn as he leaned out to scan the snow-cornice, then hack and hack to make a hole through it. He reached up, fixed his axe firmly, and eased himself through and out on to the great plateau. What a lusty shout of joy and wonder came from him! Everett followed, and then came the great moment for me, as I climbed through the hole to meet their exultant faces and to see with them the most thrilling sight of my experience. Before us lay the tremendous expanse mile on mile of the upper plateau. Two large peaks, whose existence was wholly unguessed by us, lay across a shallow valley at the east while Crillon’s summit, silvery and inviting, beckoned from the north.

No human foot had ever been set before on that great desolate field of snow, and no human eye had seen anything but its rim.

Presently, the second rope joined us, and we started towards Crillon, seeming to get nowhere in that vast plain. We lunched below the “Plateau Peak,” which rises from the plateau above the “South Col,” and from it studied the formidable shoulder running to the “Col” below, in the hope of an easier route for possible later use, but the rock was too rotten to trust. A sudden snow- squall and thickening cloud now warned us to turn while the snow was still firm enough for our descent. On the ice-cliff, we drove in rappel pickets, four in all, with four hundred feet of fixed rope attached. With this aid we descended in dangerously soft snow and at last reached our skis below the cliff. We were thankful for our safe return at that late hour of the day, but regretted the shift of weather.

However, as it was, the return to camp was a nightmare, for it was then 1 p.m. and we had been on the go since the previous evening at 9. It was curiously windless and hot, the glare was terrific, our skis sank four inches in a wet slush and our packs cut into our shoulders. The only compensation was the sight of continuous enormous avalanches on either side of the valley, hurtling over thousand-foot drops. At last, after thirty-six hours of travel, bothering little about food, we tumbled into our sleeping bags and slept till noon next morning.

For some days conditions prevented another attempt. In the interim a trip down to the Base Camp was like a revelation to Houston and me. Our long stay on snow and ice made the sight of woods and green things marvelously soothing. I know I smelt every fern and flower on the way to the lake. Returning in mist and rain, we found the upper camp in clear weather and the men enjoying a banquet of plum cake.

On July 23rd a streak of fine weather set in which lasted till high climbing was over. We now began our packing to the higher camps, to Camp 4, an overnight stop. Then, next day, roped together and exercising great care, we worked our loads over two big snow-bridges and through the crevasses of “Klooch Corner.” Beyond the cracks we assembled our hickory sledge, loaded it and pushed on to Camp 5.

Clear views of Crillon and the “Pointed Peak,” as we called it, filled us with longing. An ideal day cheered us on, as we started at 4 a.m. from Camp 5 to finish our trek to the “South Col” with nine hundred pounds of food and equipment on the sledge. The beauty of that day with the exquisite blue of the Pacific framed between snow-peaks beyond glittering snowfields can never be forgotten. And best of all we handily reached our camp-site, pitched camp, and built a snow-wall to shelter the tents—all in good season. Over us towered the lower cliff of Crillon, while above, the summit peak, high and aloof, offered us cold challenge. Not a few of the jumble of peaks in view intrigued us, plainly offering delightfully difficult problems that climbers will be long in solving.

A day or two made us ready for our great attempt. Supplies had been moved to the cliff-foot to lighten loads on the first stage. On July 28th, after a breakfast of cornmeal-mush, our best working ration, we climbed the “South Col,” skied to the foot of the ice-cliff, and followed the same route up the ice-cliff to the “Plateau.” The four hours of climbing on the cliff was rendered much easier by the fixed ropes which we pulled out of deep soft snow. Cloud and wind were sweeping the plateau, but we had brought with us a small refuge tent and two days’ supplies, meaning to lay siege to the mountain if conditions were not at once propitious.

Speedily we dug a hole with our axes about a foot deep in the side of a slope, surrounded it with a wall of ice-blocks, set up the tent, and crawled in to wait the weather’s pleasure. We spent the morning trying to solve a mathematical problem—how best to fit six persons in a space 7 × 7 × 2 ft.

At 2 p.m. the weather cleared fairly well, and two ropes started, Washburn-Bates-Everett leading, Houston-Carter-myself following, cutting diagonally across three miles of plateau to strike the base of the “great final ridge’’ at its lower end. Thence we hoped to strike upward protected by the shoulder to the ridge crest, and over its succession of humps to the summit cone. We had worked part way over the great snow waste, willow-wanding as we went, when clouds completely enveloped us. After a time, no break occurring, we started on again in the mist till we fetched the bottom of the ridge. Already we had learned that distances were much greater than we had thought. Plugging upward through a maze of crevasses, we reached the top of the shoulder. The very remarkable direction-sense of our leader, Washburn, had brought us exactly to the point desired. Suddenly, a wind tore the clouds to shreds, and Dagelet and peaks to the southwest appeared before us—absolutely the most impressive mountain- panorama I have ever seen here or abroad.

For some time the walking had been exceedingly difficult, even twenty minutes to the hundred feet, the snow soft and powdery, letting one sink well above the knees. Each of us took turns in breaking a path, while momentary glimpses of the summit, as the wind grew in violence, showed it still a long way off. Despite our parkas, frost-bite threatened and rubbing was necessary, while wind-driven snow constantly obscured even the man next on the rope. There was nothing to do but turn back, though we had reached 11,500 ft. The peculiar snow conditions, and the vastness of the peak itself, will make its conquest a difficult problem. At 11.30 p.m., after seventeen hours of continuous travel, we reached our shelter-tent, racked by sharp fatigue cramps in our legs.

After two hours, Washburn looked out to find the storm had blown away and at once decided that he, Bates, and Everett were in best shape to make another try. They left at 2 a.m. after a two-hour rest and at 4, sunrise, Houston, Carter, and I resolved to try for Dagelet, like Crillon till then unclimbed. We chose a diagonal course between two large crevasses which cut the upper slope, having a perfect climb over steep snow with minor difficulties enough to give variety. The climb was one of incomparable interest and scenic beauty—La Perouse bluish-ivory till touched by the sun, sheets of curious triangular ice-crystals, crevasses fringed at the lip by pendants exquisite in their sculpture.

We reached the top at 6 a.m. It consists of a huge cornice overhanging the western cliff fifteen feet. On this we stood, first firmly anchoring the rope to ice-axes in safe snow. Then Carter unfurled his shirt from a ski-pole which we left as a token of victory. Over the cloud-covered Pacific the great mountains cast their black shadows. On Crillon we could see our comrades, mere specks, toiling up the long ridge, and found later that they had seen us. The view of unnamed peak on peak, valley beyond valley, all touched with early morning light told us of the vastness of Alaska. After breakfast we explored the lower southwestern shoulder, and then made for the refuge tent, happy that we had conquered one of the virgin peaks we had admired so often. We hastily climbed down the ice-cliff, and skied back to camp at the foot of the “South Col.”

After a sleep, we focused our eyes on Crillon, worried by the heat and the fact that the party had little water. At 11 p.m. I heard a voice calling “water, water,” I waked Houston and Carter, and in another moment in came Washburn, Bates, and Everett, with sun-baked faces and thoroughly tired out.

Plodding all day long through heavy snow, hip-deep at times, they thought the top attained when they mounted a false summit on the cloud-veiled ridge. They were on the highest part of the ridge as far as they could tell, but the clouds soon lifted and revealed the true summit still five hundred feet vertically above them. Fatigue and the exceedingly dangerous state of the snow forbade much further progress. They had reached 12,390 ft. At this point the ridge is a knife edge with cornices overhanging a 7,000-ft. cliff on one side, and a steep slope of soft snow— impossible to traverse—on the other. To go ahead would have been not to return. Bitterly disappointed, they returned to the ice-cliff, rolled the refuge tent down the cliff safely, and in the evening followed after it, but much more slowly. The journey back to Camp 5 below was a severe test of endurance for all of them.

The good weather was almost gone, our strength was for the time depleted, but we did have energy enough to climb another virgin summit, the 9,000-ft. “Pointed Peak,” before descending, and to enjoy marvelous skiing. A last perfect day saw our equipment safely down to Camp 2, and another brought us to a wonderful banquet prepared in our honor at the base-camp. It included fudge, and an amazing shortcake made from the large, deliciously sweet wild-strawberries, big as one’s thumbs, that fringe the beaches of southern Alaska.

Too much indeed of minor interest must remain untold—the huge steel-hard Sitka spruces, the salmon-berries, the salmon themselves running up the swift glacier streams to be chased and caught by hand, the absence of serious trouble from flies or mosquitoes, the vicious devils-club, the ptarmigan with flesh spiced by their diet of heath-berries, the great brown bears and flocks of mountain goats. Nor can many details of camp and climbing technique be told, the organization of the expedition, owing to the natural gifts and mature experience of our leader, Washburn, was masterly.

During our stay of twenty-seven days on snow and ice, the geologists of the party, Goldth wait with his two assistants, Dow and Platts, did a magnificent summer’s work, determining the speed of the glaciers and pursuing other glacial studies. In addition, they made a most valuable collection of rocks and fossils.

Also, Washburn, after our descent, consummated this his third expedition to Alaska by completing a survey of Crillon Lake and its neighboring terrain.

It was with great regret, as the plane swept us up from Crillon Lake, that we saw the familiar landmarks speedily recede, and looked up at the noble bulk of Crillon—still unconquered.

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