First Ascent of Mount Hess

Publication Year: 1952.

First Ascent of Mount Hess

Alston Paige

MOUNT Hess is one of the four highest mountains in the Hayes Range as seen from Fairbanks, Alaska. Mount Hess (12,030 ft.) and Mount Deborah (12,540 ft.), together, are known as the Cathedral Peaks. From Fairbanks, they appear identical in silhouette. No recorded climbing had been done on either peak before 1949. In the spring of that year, a party of five students from the University of Alaska attempted Mount Hess. They tried a ridge on the east face of the mountain, hoping to gain a large cirque and then climb to the summit. Because they encountered rock pinnacles which they could not climb, they were unsuccessful in this first attempt. Another attempt, by two members of the original party, was made in September of the same year; it was stopped by rock, on the same route. In the spring of 1950, two other students from the University of Alaska tried the northwest side of the mountain; they, too, were turned back by unclimbable rock.

In 1951 the enterprise was undertaken anew by a party of five: Dick Holdren, Elton Thayer, Ed Huizer, Howard Bowman and me. I had shared in the first attempt and, since it failed, had been planning a return trip for quite some time. On May 17th we were flown in to a mining-camp air strip on Portage Creek, a tributary of the west fork of the Little Delta River. The distance from the strip to the base of Mount Hess is about 35 miles. It took us two full days of walking. We arrived at the glacier late on the second day and proceeded to set up our base camp. Scarcely had we established it before the weather closed in. For two days we had to wait out a raging blizzard.

The morning of the third day was clear, and we started to prepare for the climb. In order to gain the benefit of frozen snow and to minimize the danger from avalanches, we planned to climb at night. During the afternoon, therefore, we made only a short reconnaissance trip to the icefalls. We climbed part way up them and found the ice quite firm. Between Mount Hess and Mount Deborah is a giant headwall of jumbled and broken ice. This mass is broken slightly by a bench and then falls in a fantastic maze of ice blocks and avalanche débris, much like a frozen waterfall. About halfway up Mount Hess, a small glacier—very narrow and steep, like a trough set against the side of the mountain—comes into this mass at a right angle. Our projected route lay up this ice mass, into the saddle between the main mountain mass and the summit peak, and thence to the summit.

We left our base camp again at midnight. At the start the going was very steep and treacherous. We crossed innumerable crevasses and squeezed between massive blocks of ice. Many times we moved over fresh avalanche débris and climbed slopes that made us think of potential danger. As we climbed steadily upward, the route through the icefalls kept opening before us. We climbed over and through many unusual breaks in the ice blocks and at last—amazingly enough, without having had to retrace our steps even once— found ourselves at the top of the icefalls.

Being now under the massive and dangerous headwall between Hess and Deborah, we wasted no time before proceeding up the trough toward Hess. At noon we stopped for lunch and decided to leave our packs about halfway up the trough and make a dash for the summit. The trough received a great deal of avalanche débris, and fresh ice was breaking off almost continuously. From the spot where we lunched, the route to the saddle appeared impossible; but we were able, as we ascended the trough, to pick out a way through the masses of hanging ice and snow. The first part of the approach to the saddle was over very steep, nearly solid ice. As we gained altitude, the snow deepened and became very soft and heavy—perfect for avalanching. In several places large amounts of surface snow broke and slid, without ever quite gaining avalanche proportions. Near the saddle a large crevasse almost stopped us, but we were able to go around the worst part of it and cross a snow bridge.

Upon reaching the saddle, we saw just one obstacle ahead: a large bergschrund that traversed the entire face of the summit peak. It appeared quite formidable, as did the steep slope (about 58–60 degrees); but we kept climbing. We reached the schrund after an exhausting uphill pull through deep, heavy snow. One attempt to cross it failed—and nearly resulted in a bad fall. We traversed the face, tried the other end of the gigantic crack, and successfully crossed. Continuing the climb, we found ourselves on snow that broke and settled with a dull crunch. Why it did not go, I can not say. Probably we were just lucky. As we approached the summit, we came to solider snow and, about 30 feet from the top, to ice. At 8.15 P.M. on May 24th, after 18 hours of continuous climbing, we stood on the summit of Mount Hess.

The view from the summit was magnificent beyond description. The vastness of the country and the majestic splendor of the mountains make a sight to humble any man. After taking several photographs, we began the descent, which soon proved to be the worst part of the trip. For safety’s sake, we decided to rope five men together and take good belays on some of the more treacherous parts. It was slow and difficult work, for we were extremely tired and cold. Once at the saddle, however, we were able to increase our speed; and soon we were down in the trough, heading for our final camp. We were roped in this order: Holdren in the lead, Thayer, Huizer, Bowman, Paige. Suddenly Holdren disappeared. Thayer immediately took a belay, diving on his ice-axe in the snow. I waited until the next man had secured a belay and then moved around to Thayer. Our shouts to Holdren, in the crevasse, went unanswered. Pulling on the rope between Holdren and Thayer, I found it slack—a discovery which gave us a real scare. Then I crawled to the edge of the crevasse and looked in. It was about four feet wide, and there was a narrow finger of ice extending from one wall to the other. On this finger of ice sat Dick Holdren, looking disgusted with himself for having slipped in. If he had not landed on the finger of ice, there might have been a bad fall for several of the party, for we were going downhill at a very steep angle. Extremely tired and cold, we came to the spot where we had left our packs. We had been 26 hours on the climb. We spent an hour setting up camp and brewing tea and then crawled into our sleeping bags.

When we crawled out again, about noon the next day, we were very stiff and sore, but after a hearty meal we felt better. We devoted the rest of the afternoon to basking in the sun and eating some more. At about 6.00 P.M., since the temperature had dropped enough to freeze the snow, we resumed the descent. After half an hour or so, Thayer shouted down that we should secure ourselves and hold tight. We heard a tremendous rumble, followed by a wind of hurricane velocity. Then we were subjected to a shower of pulverized ice and snow thicker than any blizzard we had ever seen. A great avalanche had completely obliterated a spot where we had stopped some 20 minutes before to adjust our crampons. We hurried to get off the mountain. All the way down the icefalls, we were amazed to see what we had ascended. At 11.30 P.M. we were off the mountain—as happy to be still alive as to have attained the summit.

The next day we remained at our base camp, resting and preparing to cache our surplus food for the next climb in that section of the country. Early on May 27th we started for Portage Creek. Halfway down the glacier, we heard an airplane. It was Dr. Terris Moore, president of the University of Alaska. He landed his ski- equipped Super Cub on the glacier and talked with us for a while. After he took off to return to Fairbanks, we continued our walk out. It was raining when we arrived at the place where we had intended to camp. As we were travelling light, without equipment for camping in the rain, we decided to go right on to Portage Creek. Early the next morning we reached the cabin there, having covered in one long day what had taken two days of hard walking on the way in. We had six days before the airplane was to come for us; we spent them hiking around the country, photographing the wild game and enjoying ourselves in general. When we arrived in Fairbanks, we had a fine steak dinner together before splitting up to work at our various jobs during the summer.