American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Around Russell Fiord

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  • Publication Year: 1950

Around Russell Fiord

William Lowell Putnam

AS a result of plans formulated two years earlier, I began in January 1949 to organize an expedition to go into the Saint Elias Range and attempt the ascents of Mount Vancouver’s south ridge and Mount Cook’s east ridge. Our personnel, as finally chosen, consisted of Fred Beckey, Graham Matthews, Frank Magoun, Harry King, Andy Griscom, David Michael, Henry Pinkham and me.

Our original plans called for all but Fred and Graham (who had previously planned to go into the Juneau Ice Cap early in June) to arrive in Yakutat, fly to the head of the bay and start back-packing loads up the Cook Glacier in the direction of our objectives. For a while, all went well: Mount McKinley Airways got us to Yakutat in fine style; Libby, McNeil and Libby were very kind in letting us use their warehouse to pack our gear; Merle Smith arrived from Cordova on the first suitable day to fly us to the head of Disenchantment Bay. There our good fortune ran out. On the flight up the bay, we could see the huge expanse of floe ice drifting slowly out of the bay into the Pacific Ocean. As we came over the spot we intended to use as a base camp, we noticed that the bay was jammed solid from Bancas Point to the snout of the Hubbard Glacier, and from Erickson Reef to the north shore of the bay. A quick aerial reconnaissance showed that the best place to land would be in the cove to the south of Osier Island.

Once ensconced on Osier Island, Dave and I attempted to cross the bay in our rubber boat; we headed for the north shore, where part of the Cook Glacier had a land snout. Before we were half-way across the bay, we were hopelessly jammed in the ice, and had to wait five hours, until the turn of the tide, to paddle home again. The next day, June 24th, Frank stayed at camp to organize our supplies, while Andy and Harry climbed the buttress of Mount Ambition, just above our island—their purpose being to observe the movements of the floe ice as the tide came in and out, with the idea that we might be able to cross quickly, when a favorable lead opened. At the same time, Dave and I went across the bay to the mouth of Nyman Creek, and reconnoitered up the outwash of the Orange River, in case we wanted to change our plans and operate in that direction.

That night, when we reassembled on Osier Island, the situation looked bad for any crossing of the bay toward the Cook Glacier. We sat in our tents listening to the rumble of the ice cliff of the Hubbard Glacier as the bergs cascaded into the ocean, while Andy told us that there were no signs of any leads opening an appreciable distance into the mass of floe ice. Thereupon, we decided to go across the bay toward the Variegated Glacier and perhaps attempt to go up the Hubbard Glacier along its south flank.

The following day was spent in ferrying all our personnel and much gear across the bay and up the outwash of the Orange River to the campsite which Dave and I had selected the previous day. On June 26th Andy and Harry went up to look over the Variegated Glacier as far as they could in one day, while Dave, Frank and I went over to the Hubbard and up its south edge a distance of three miles from the last lateral stream. Here we reached a substantial knob from which we were able to view the Hubbard Glacier for many miles. The view was most discouraging; we knew well of the horrible reports issued by Brad Washburn of the Hubbard Glacier, but we had hoped that the unusually heavy snowfall of this year would alleviate the situation somewhat. It had not made any effect on the huge séracs and holes that normally cover the lower part of the glacier. So we went home, having realized that there would be no future in trying to go up this way.

For two days we had horrible weather: the rain came down in considerable amounts and inundated portions of our tents. As Andy put it, “Our suffering was in-tents.” When the weather cleared sufficiently to prohibit our bridge playing, at which Dave and I were losing at a tremendous rate, we decided to follow up the good reports on the Variegated Glacier with a reconnaissance in force. Therefore, on June 29th, Andy, Harry and I charged up the same route taken a few days before, but this time with packs to hold us down. We went about four miles up the glacier, to the point where it makes a sharp turn to the south, and established a cache. Although the weather was not sufficiently clear to enable us to see any hills clearly, we caught occasional glimpses of a very nice-looking hill which we named Mount Upham, lying to the east of the glacier and rising to an altitude of over 9000 feet. In order to consolidate our position, Dave and Frank had gone back to the island and returned with a load of food that day.

Again horrible weather returned, and Dave and I found ourselves behind by more than 11,000 points. We were glad when the next day dawned bright and clear: we could go up the glacier and establish a camp at 3000 feet near the base of Mount Upham. But July 2nd was as bad as the day before had been good. We struggled through some more bridge, and Dave and I managed to make a comeback of a few thousand points.

About this time, I began to worry about the weather, since we were supposed to meet Fred and Graham on the island on the first suitable flying day after July 4th. We were distinctly relieved when July 3rd turned out to be a wonderful day with a reliable east wind blowing snow plumes up high. Our view of Upham was not discouraging: it would be a long one-day climb, but with any degree of luck it would go. Off we went, Andy and I on one rope with Pinkham following, and Harry leading the rope with Frank and Dave. Our route was up the west ridge from camp; it was not bad at all. The lower part went relatively rapidly—alternating rock and snow slopes on a broad gentle ridge. But when we neared the 6000-foot level, the ridge became narrower and steeper, and the wind, which had been noticeable before, began to blow with increasing violence. As we worked higher, I noticed increasing evidence of danger from windslab avalanche; and we were forced to belay each other for over a mile toward the summit. At one time the slab broke under me, but fortunately I was able to stop myself in a few feet. The other side of the ridge overhung in a huge cornice, and our side became increasingly steep. As we came closer to the summit, the wind seemed to blow stronger, and the feeling of extreme danger grew with the velocity. If our slab broke and our belays did not hold, we were in for a 5000-foot tumble. But careful analysis of the slab indicated that it would stick to the hill.

As we approached the summit, a few rock ribs protruded through the snow. We stayed with these as long as we could, to increase our chances of staying on the mountain. Here we looked back and saw the other party turning down the hill. They saw our slow progress and must have realized that they would have to go some to make the summit this day. It was probably a wise decision, but Andy and I were nevertheless sorry that our friends could not join us in making this first ascent. From the snow dome of the actual summit, we could see far off into the Yukon, to the vast unexplored area east of us; and we saw the summit of Mount Seattle three miles away and less than a thousand feet above us. The view down into Disenchantment Bay was similar to that we had seen before—very discouraging. This bay is very appropriately named.

Our trip down the mountain was slow until we passed the windslab area; then it was extremely fast as we cleared the slopes below us with minor avalanches and then enjoyed long, slow glissades for hundreds of feet at a time. That night we enjoyed the remains of our supplies with the exception of enough for breakfast. July 4th found us back down the Variegated Glacier, near the snout of which we cut off to the south, since we expected many of our snow bridges to be gone. We went down the outwash plain below the Orange Glacier and down the Orange River. Here we had further opportunity to look over the beautiful gorge through which the Orange River flows. It apparently owes its curves and side channels to advances and recessions of the Variegated Glacier, which has forced the Orange River to flow up on the side of its valley and cross a ridge as it certainly would not do if the glacier had not usurped its normal valley.

That night we busied ourselves with the construction of a suitable monument to our memory. I believe that it is safe to describe this as the largest cairn in the world; it stands fully 18 feet high, with a base eight feet square, a true product of Colossal Enterprises.

On July 5th we were all back on the island waiting for the plane to bring Fred and Graham in, but the weather was not suitable, apparently. Late in the day a fishing boat came in to the bay, much to our surprise—and theirs too, at finding people in here. The Hyperion, out of Juneau, with Oscar Oberg skipper and owner, was looking for halibut; and they sure found a few during their stay in Russell Fiord.

Several days later the plane came in with our missing friends. They brought wonderful reports of the Juneau Ice Cap, although they had not climbed very many hills, because of the weather. They were very much interested in going back for more, some day. A long discussion ensued, during which we came to the conclusion that, since we could not get at the good hills in this area, we should leave and go to try the good hills in some other area. So Fred, Frank and Harry took off in the plane with a good bit of gear to start laying the groundwork for our trip into the Ice Cap, while the rest of us stayed around to help Captain Oscar fend off icebergs and to enjoy his offer of a free ride to Juneau when his boat was filled. Instead of Fred coming to my expedition, I went to his; and a good time was had by all.

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