American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

In Spirit Land

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1950

In Spirit Land

Fred Beckey

NORTH of Taku Inlet and River, and east of Lynn Canal, flat and interlacing glaciers form what is probably Alaska’s fifth largest ice field, the so-called “Juneau Ice Cap.” Relatively accessible but largely unexplored, this ice plateau is of unusual interest not only to the glaciologist but also to the mountaineer. Near the eastern periphery, large and strikingly steep rock massifs center on 8584-foot Devil’s Paw and its soaring satellite, Michael’s Sword, named by Father Hubbard in the thirties. As challenges to the climber, the peaks of Spirit Land, with those west of the Stikine, must rank among the foremost in the territory.*

A trip to the “Spirit Peaks” was undertaken in 1949 by a party of five: Ralph Widrig, Graham Matthews, Fred Ayres, Fred Mel- berg and me. Aerial photographs loaned by the Bureau of Mines and Resources of Canada convinced us that the most direct route was by the icy “Hades Highway” from Twin Glacier Lake, a route fundamentally pioneered by Father Hubbard and used also by the 1948 research party.† On June 15th, when skies cleared over Juneau, Alaska Coastal Airlines made a 900-pound free drop at the base of Michael’s Sword, with Widrig along to plot the campsite and throw out the bundles. Soon after, we were flown to the lake and landed, with our skis and travelling packs, among the multitudinous icebergs.

As the drone of the airplane faded quickly away, the last link to civilization dissolved. Isolation was soon complete. All was quiet, save for the crashing of séracs into the water. By the time we had scrambled a mile up brushy cliffs, we felt the need of respite from mosquito bites and made a fly camp. We had barely left in the morning when Ayres, by most unhappy chance, broke an ankle in treading on an insecure stone at the rock margin of the West Twin Glacier. To get help, Matthews and I crossed the glacier and, after eight hours of very rough travel over snow, swamp and brush, reached Taku Lodge. A plane soon ferried us to the lake, and a few hours of arduous stretcher work brought Ayres to the water’s edge.

Needless to say, this unfortunate event taxed both the strength and the morale of the expedition, especially when greying skies prompted us to leave for the drop-site after only a few hours’ sleep. In the interest of speed, it was decided that Melberg should abandon plans to make a film. The uphill struggle to the ice cap was impeded by soft snow and brush, but then nine miles of skiing afforded a pleasant change. By the time we had located most of the bundles and pitched "Camp Mung," all felt ready to sleep for a solid week.

Our camp, close under the walls of the Sword and the Paw, had a spectacular setting; but we had scarcely had a good look around before a spell of rain saturated all the snow slopes and blacked out the magnificent scenery. Days later, when the weather finally improved, it was clear for only a short period, insufficient to consolidate the snow slopes. Widrig led a piton climb to the crest of the cirque wall between the Sword and the Paw, but to little avail, for conditions remained prohibitive so far as any difficult climbing was concerned. Snow patches occasionally thundered off sloping ledges above huge walls on the Sword, and avalanches of a major sort fell with monotonous regularity on the 3500-foot south face of the Paw.

The 24th showed promise of good weather, so we ventured on a ski climb several miles to the east. A roped ski ascent through a maze of crevasses led to an ice arête, where we chopped steps for four rope-lengths. Emperor Peak, as we dubbed the highest of the Twin Glacier Group, proved more difficult than we had anticipated; but the splendid view was worth every bit of the effort, as was the downhill ski run.

On the days that followed, more snow storms limited activity to roisterous times in the tent, some most scholarly debates, and heavy consumption of food. I picked out what should be the most feasible and safest summit route on the Paw from a ski reconnaissance to its north side. On July 2nd we retrieved the fixed rope on the Sword and the next night skied to the lake over a fast crust, first caching remaining supplies. The river skiff and powerboat from Taku Lodge took us back to Juneau, where we were happy to see Ayres recovering nicely.

Matthews and I immediately flew to Yakutat to join a Colossal Enterprises expedition, which, to our chagrin, had been stalemated by the Hubbard Glacier ice floes. A 9700-foot peak near Mount Seattle had been ascended, but little else could be done because of approach problems. Walter Wood, in the Arctic Institute’s Norseman, flew us around Disenchantment Bay, giving us a fine view of the glaciers. The gospel of action being our guide, we decided to return to Spirit Land, some by fishing boat and some by plane.

On July 14th William L. Putnam, Harry King, Andrew Gris- com, David Michael and I rushed around Juneau procuring added supplies and packing an air drop; and soon we became the subject of gossip among local citizenry, with “Skag,” the malemute mascot, being passed off as a wolf by Putnam. In the afternoon we again flew to the lake. An all-night tramp and ski jog brought us over the 14 miles to Camp Mung, now the center of an air drop for the 1949 party of the Juneau Ice Field Research Project.

When evening shadows began to crust the neve, Griscom and I skied several miles to Couloir Peak, making one ascent via a steep 1000-foot ice gully that gave rise to the name. The twilight view of our principal objectives was breath-taking. To the north and west rose scores of delightful peaks we had never seen before, although many we could identify with aerial photographs. We viewed with interest the impounded lake in front of Mount Nelles, which annually floods the Tulsekwe valley when the rising waters break out.

Attention now focused on the Sword, and on the 16th King and I circled around the grim 1500-foot spire before an alto-stratus layer commenced precipitation. Certainly the north ridge was its one weakness, but because this was so long and narrow, no promise of success could be given. In fact, to avoid a tactical ridge step, we decided that the lower half of the ridge should be approached by way of the west face. Putnam and Michael had climbed 600 feet above the bergschrund on the chief gully of the Paw’s south face, and reported a route feasible for some distance, but exposed to falling rocks. A stagnant fog was dispersed by the sun two days later, so we expected our air drop that day and left Griscom in camp to corral it. Putnam and Michael skied down Hades Highway to the Horn Peaks, but did no climbing in view of the temporary shortage of equipment, due to the delay in our air drop. Harry King and I left for Michael’s Sword and reached the north ridge well toward the summit in two hours. Well broken though steep granite had enabled us to make surprisingly fast time.

The next four hours brought some of the most earnest climbing we had ever encountered. Exposure was generally very annoying and made us keen disciples of the precepts of safety. Fast tiptoe balance climbing on the ridge brought us to a step. In two leads, King in Bramani boots worked up an iced gully and traversed behind a snow schrund to place us in the sunlight again. Above loomed the menacing “first gendarme,” obviously hopeless, on the ridge crest. In sneakers I explored to the right for 100 feet, returning with renewed respect for the peak. An icy 100-foot traverse, on which I made good use of felt pullovers, took us to the brink of the sheer east face. The route above, if one cared to call it that, was studded with overhangs. Only by a very careful study of the rock, and by soaring optimism, could one even imagine that the route would be possible without constant direct aid. Giving much thought to this technique, I slowly proceeded, with great difficulty, up an overhanging crack. It seemed necessary to give up the quicker “spider hold” climbing a number of times, but at the very last instant a gift hold would appear. Piton protection was necessary for rest and safety on this and the next, a very zigzaggy lead. We were forced against the overhanging wall of the gendarme, so I crawled around a corner on a minute ledge and maneuvered between two overhangs to get behind a huge block that appeared quite capable of being cast loose by a cat. This we carefully avoided as we worked up a vertical pitch requiring more piton protection. Balance climbing of a high degree made this wall passable to a minute rock belay stance. A short overhang, climbable by chinning tactics, and then an 80-foot fifth-class crack led to the notch behind the gendarme.

Once again in the sun, we tried to traverse the “second gendarme” to the right. A flawless pitch having proved very discouraging, we worked up a blind ridge edge, hoping for the best. About the time when we began to wonder whether we were going to finish the ascent that day, a previously hidden exit appeared on the east face, enabling us to reach the next notch by way of a difficult crack. Mental tension mounted when you could peek over your shoulder at the grey walls plunging downward almost 2000 feet vertically to the glacier. Ahead were still unknown difficulties, but we could tell by the shadow profile that the steepest pitches had been done. We by-passed the “third gendarme” on the sunny side and found only 100 feet of rock remaining between us and the summit. One was tempted to throw caution to the winds and rush up the last pitch, but the constant exposure and a wet stretch checked our pace from the final belay point. We exchanged yodels with ski-trooping members of the research party as we constructed a solid six-foot rock pile. The hardships and defeats of our previous efforts were drowned by a surge of elation, accelerated by the sudden arrival of our air drop, which we could see beneath us. Collecting the widely scattered bundles kept us on our feet for many dark hours after we had completed the tedious rappelling and climbing down.

By morning a front had moved in, so the day was devoted to reorganization of the camp. At dinnertime on the 21st, as a thick fog began to disperse, we found incentive to push a camp to the north side of Devil’s Paw, at about 5000 feet. Putnam, Michael and Griscom remained there that night, while I returned on the ski tracks in a black fog. When rain set in after midnight, the entire move seemed to have been ill timed; but after dawn the sun began to drive away the mists.

The Paw is a massive fin of rock, several miles long and over 3000 feet high, heavily thatched with ice on its north face and in its many couloirs. On our June trip we had already decided that the danger of falling rocks made all but one route on the south face un- justifiable, and that one seemed longer and more uncertain than my plan to weave through the icefalls on the north face.

This the trio tried in the morning, wandering tortuously and clambering up steep snow slopes and around wide crevasses. Several key snow bridges, almost ready to collapse for the season, made it barely possible to reach the 8000-foot west col that afternoon. Here the party built a cairn and surveyed routes to the summit. A northwest ridge or ice slope looked very bad: everything was frightfully steep and exposed, and much fresh, loose snow clung to the wall. A northeast spur ridge, which dropped abruptly into an icefall, offered the only hope of gaining the summit on the morrow. After a night’s sleep, they returned to this twisting glacier route, leaving camp about nine to have the best snow conditions.

Gaining the crest of the rock ridge proved to be the main problem. With difficulty they left the ice and worked up a rock cliff between dangerous ice cliffs, from which séracs occasionally tumbled. Griscom spent some time on this lead, placing several safety pitons. Finally he located a belay spot under a water spray, getting quite wet as he belayed Putnam out on an ensuing ice slope. Distracting at this time was the noisy collapse of a snow bridge they had crossed the previous day to reach the col.

Putnam chopped steps for two leads to bring the route to the ridge crest at a climbable point. From here to the top the steep but broken rocks offered the one passable route. Belays were needed the entire way on the airy ridge; luckily, holds were ample. A treacherous summit cornice discouraged unnecessary celebration; and, conscious of the lateness of the afternoon, the party immediately began descending. This process required great care, and it was not until after midnight that the comforts of a tent were attained. “Skag,” who had been howling for hours, was most pleased to see the others return. A cloud cover which had been descending almost as fast as the climbers completely enveloped the Ice Cap by morning, and soon a new storm set in. The condition of snow bridges after this date would have made the climb impracticable, and earlier the fresh snow had prevented it. The break in the weather had been perfectly timed.

In the interim King and I had skied seven miles to the very jagged Horn Peaks, which jut fantastically out of the ice cap at the lower east side of the Twin Glacier. “The Antler,” the highest and most imposing peak, proved to be a highly sporting climb. First we kicked steps up crevasse fields and a steep couloir. Then several hundred feet of difficult and rotten rock, in which piton protection was necessary, led us to a knifed arete going to the main divide of this ridge. The summit wall rose sharply to the east, but shallow cracks and well broken gneiss provided us with exhilarating climbing in sneakers. The minuteness of holds, and the poorness of belay points, made it necessary to use several more safety pitons before the summit was reached in four leads. The highest of the Horn Peaks was indeed a peak we could be proud of.

Our jaunt continued for several days, during which time we stopped by the H. Basin camp of the 1949 research party. On the 23rd we climbed the most imposing peak remaining in this portion of the Ice Cap, a jagged upthrust on a granite ridge between the lower Twin and Taku Glaciers. ‘‘Organ Pipe,” as this granite peak had been called, proved every bit as difficult as we had anticipated. We skied around and explored every possibility, even to the extent of once giving up on what proved to be the proper route, before we found the right combination.

Well after lunchtime King and I had decided that the massive south arête was the only summit route. From a shady niche where we donned sneakers, the route goes up and to the right on some high-angle friction cracks to a broad ledge. Then a very difficult pitch, requiring a shoulder stand at first, took us through a rock tunnel to a subsidiary rib. Safety pitons here had to be augmented by one for aid. From a belay stance above this point, King worked slowly up another crack, traversing finally leftward to take advantage of another belay spot. The route then led up for 120 feet, almost vertically, on a twin fissure series. The climbing is quite exacting throughout this stretch; pitons were used for safety and once a pendulum traverse from a piton was necessary. This brought us to a spot in the ridge where the angle decreases and the granite is more broken. The summit was not reached for some time yet, owing to the length of the ridge, but climbing became much faster as soon as only good belays were needed. Several times we encountered severe short stretches which added interest to the climb.

From the virgin summit it seemed only a stone’s throw to our main camp, twelve miles distant. The great expanses of several of the Ice Cap glaciers, glimmering in the afternoon sunlight, were beautiful to behold. In every direction were rows of jagged peaks, most of them still unclimbed. A thickening cloud cap over Devil’s Paw presaged a weather change. As we glanced seaward beyond Taku Inlet, it was apparent that a big front was approaching.

As we rappelled, our thoughts turned to the Paw, and we wondered whether our companions had climbed it yet. The time for our departure from the Ice Cap had drawn nigh, since we had to allow for several days of poor weather for our proposed ski crossing of the ice plateau to the Mendenhall Glacier and the Juneau Airport. The summit of Organ Pipe had indeed been a marvellous vista from which to scan our exit route.

The laborious ski jog to Camp Mung we made for the last time, thankfully. Skagway’s wagging tail suggested news of success, confirmed by yodels as we approached the tents. Fog kept us indoors until afternoon on the 26th, but then we quickly packed our gear into loads averaging 70 pounds and began the westward journey. As we slowly rounded a flat off of Couloir Peak, we cast a lingering look at the soaring heights of the Sword and the Paw, which we had become so used to seeing above our tiny camp in this glacial wilderness. They had lost none of their rugged grandeur, but somehow we felt that they would never look to others as they had once looked to us. With such nostalgic thoughts, we plodded on skis toward a distant pass in a scorching sun. Later, low clouds quickly cooled us as we traversed the northeast arm of the Taku Glacier, climbed through a crevassed area, and skied down to the edge of the main Taku. By six we had covered twelve rugged miles, so the unanimous vote (“Skag” included) was to make camp.

It was well that we had taken a few compass bearings before retiring, for visibility in the morning was reduced to a hundred yards. Since we saw little point in continuing under such conditions, we paid visits to the main camp of the research party, only about a mile distant. They were surprised to see us coming out of the thick fog from “nowhere.”

On the 29th we steered a compass course across the Taku Glacier, and camped again to await a clearing. This happy event occurred in the morning. Once again we donned the heavy loads and plodded up a long slope to a high ice plateau west of the rocky Taku Range. We had hoped to climb a bit here, but a darkening western sky was an ill omen which we could not ignore, for our food supply was limited. That afternoon, however, we did climb two peaks of the range. Michael and Griscom found some enjoyable rock work in making the first climb of “Sapphire Spire.” While the others went ahead to lay down a track to the upper Mendenhall before the clouds lowered, Griscom and I left our loads at a convenient spot and climbed “Flower Tower.” A steep and somewhat loose snow slope kept us on edge; then the route wandered up snow gullies and on to the summit by an exposed rock ridge that occasionally had an interesting spot.

The fine peaks of the remainder of the Taku Range, and the jagged mountains of the Berners Bay area to the northwest, were indeed a grand sight. I could not help noticing that these western peaks of the Ice Cap held much more snow, in gullies and isolated patches, than those to the east where we had climbed. The greater accumulation on this ice plateau west of the Taku Range, which is elevated above and largely flows into the Taku Glacier, may be one of the reasons for the advance of the latter. Snow plastered on the rocks of some peaks near the Herbert Glacier reminded me of the first view of the Horn Peaks in June.

The brewing storm was gathering momentum, so we hastened down to follow our companions’ tracks. In pitch dark we reached the brink of a steep, crevassed slope that descends to the north branch of the Mendenhall, across the glacier from the Snow Towers. Slaloming through the crevasses in the dark was no pleasure, even though we had tracks to follow. At last we reached the flattish glacier floor and began pushing across hummocked snow to the juncture of the Mendenhall branches. Clouds had settled low already: we were drenched to the skin. About midnight we gave up trying to follow the elusive tracks, pitched a tent, and slept a little, under far from ideal conditions.

The morning of the 31st found us under way again, still in the rain. We found the other three breaking camp in a few hundred yards, also unhappy about the weather. The worst feature of all this was that route-finding was largely a matter of luck, since visibility ran about four to six hundred yards. Our compass course kept us in the right direction, but time after time we steered into badly crevassed areas that took much time. Often we wished we only had a good aerial picture of the lower glacier. Skis were useful for an amazingly long time; finally they became a handicap and had to be carried. Our course in the fog, we later learned, was anything but the best. Crevasses forced us to the south bank of the lower glacier, and it was with much effort that we finally forced a route to the moraine near the snout of the glacier. We had to use crampons, chop steps and do considerable belaying, as well as some rock scrambling and awkward brush fighting to avoid bad icefalls. The cold rain, which kept up all day and night, was abetted by a wind that numbed and chilled us.

These discomforts were the final touch to what had been an otherwise most enjoyable mountaineering venture in a new climbing region. We had completely traversed the Ice Cap for some 40 miles by a new route from the north side of Devil’s Paw; and we had demonstrated that the Juneau Ice Cap offers great potentialities to the summer ski mountaineer as well as to the climber. Moreover, we had scaled the most alluring peaks of Spirit Land.

* Cf. Bernard R. Hubbard, S. J., “Crossing the Spirits’ Home,” in Mush, You Malemutes! (New York, America Press, 1932), pp. 138-62. Father Hubbard recalls how Jack Koby told him the Indian name for the Taku Glacier: “They call it the Sitth Klummu Gutta—the Spirits’ Home …”

See also Fred Beckey, “West of the Stikine,” A.A.J., VI (1947), 269-77.—Ed.

† The latter reference is to the party described by M. M. Miller, “1948 Season of the Juneau Ice Field Research Project,” A.A.J., VII (Jan. 1949), 185-91. Earlier expeditions and field investigations formed the background for this program of exploration and study. See, for example, W. O. Field, Jr., “Glacier Studies in Alaska in 1941,” Geographical Review, XXXII (Jan. 1942), 154-5; M. M. Miller, “Alaskan Glacier Studies, 1946,” A.A.J., VI (1947), 339-43; M. M. Miller, “Aerial Survey of Alaskan Glaciers, 1947,” Appalachia XXVII (June 1948), 113-5. Miller reports on the field season of 1949 in a special publication (May 1950) of the American Geographical Society. See also W. O. Field, Jr., and M. M. Miller, “The Juneau Ice Field Research Project,” Geographical Review, XL (April 1950), 179-90; and cf. the note on the work of Dr. D. B. Lawrence on p. 515 below.—Ed.

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