American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mt. Deborah and Mt. Hunter: First Ascents

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  • Publication Year: 1955

Mt. Deborah and Mt. Hunter: First Ascents

FRED BECKEY

During our expedition this spring to the northwest face of Mt. McKinley, the subject of unclimbed major Alaskan peaks often arose, and since it seemed likely that Henry Meybohm and I would have time for further climbing in the northland, the problems of challenging Mt. Deborah, the 12,540-foot showpiece of the Hayes Range, and massive Mt. Hunter, the 14,573-foot giant nine miles south of McKinley, were often discussed. On our return to Fairbanks we met Heinrich Harrer, who had similar aspirations on his tour of the territory.

Our plan, developed after a careful study of maps and after discussions with other mountaineers, was to take the train to McKinley Park Station with three weeks’ food, and there meet pilot Don Sheldon of Talkeetna for the flight to the Yanert Glacier at the western foot of Deborah. On a pre-arranged later date, we would then have him fly back and take us to Talkeetna for the flight to Mt. Hunter. With luck and good weather, we hoped to make a quick attempt on both peaks with this aerial support, rather than risk the time and attendant problems of the long overland approaches on foot.

Mt. Deborah

Very early June 17th a green Piper Super-Cub, equipped with ski wheels, circled over our tent at the McKinley Park airstrip. It was time to break camp, and I soon left for the first flight to the glacier. We flew high over the Yanert River, over the rolling tundra uplands; then came the great glacier and a myriad of splendid ice peaks. Ahead, the complex ridges unravelled the shadowy bulk of Deborah, by far the largest peak in sight. I tried to study the route we had selected from photographs, but was soon so occupied in selecting the best landing spot on the glacier that I formed only a quick impression of relentless ice walls and knifed ridges. Soon we dropped and straightened out for a landing on a smooth area of snow. There were a few bumps at first, but the craft soon slid safely to a stop. We climbed out into the bright morning sun, at 5,500 feet, barely two miles from the first great icefall on the mountain. What a way to reach such a remote peak, I mused, as the pilot wheeled around and began his take-off for the others! I sat on the pile of equipment for two hours, reading, for it was quite unsafe to walk around alone on the glacier.

By late morning we had arranged our loads, taken food for five days, and left a residual cache at the landing spot. Roping together, we set off across the flat, crevassed glacier, tramping forward slowly since our legs sank almost to the knee at each step. As the hot sun began to disperse the morning mists, we began to catch glimpses of the great peak ahead. Certainly it was larger than we had anticipated, and it was apparent that there was considerable distance between the various icefalls on the west face.

Deborah is roughly pyramidal, with long approach ridges from the south and west. The other exposures drop in great walls of ice and rock, but between the confluence of these ridges on the west the upper portion of the Yanert Glacier makes a high basin on the mountain, which appears to be the only feasible approach to the summit itself. Both from the south and west are fragile crests of ice that sweep to the summit, and it was up one of these that we fixed our hopes of a successful ascent. But the immediate problem was to establish a camp near the 9,000- foot level in the upper glacier basin, west of the summit. By then, we felt, it would be possible to make an accurate decision regarding the final route.

From its level approach to the abrupt walls of the peak the glacier trough rises in two very distinct icefalls. The first, rising perhaps 1,500 feet, and attempted by previous parties, reminded me of Byron’s “frozen hurricane”; none of us had any inclination to go near its labyrinth of unstable séracs and rubble of fallen ice. Only on the left did it appear possible to circumvent the ice fall. A long rock ridge and a snow traverse seemed to offer a route off to the side of the dangerous ice. A closer inspection at its foot, however, made us apprehensive of its dangers as Well, for the ridge was much steeper than had first appeared, and in the afternoon there was considerable rock falling from the walls.1 A 2,000-foot couloir veered steeply up to the left, alongside the ridge. Now it was the bed of loose snow avalanches, several of which thundered down its channel, but evening shadows would, we judged, freeze the surface to a degree of safety.

We napped the remainder of the afternoon on air mattresses, cooked a simple dinner, and at seven began to crampon our way up to the 45° couloir. The condition of the surface changed often from harsh, uncompromising ice to channels of loose wet snow, where the big slides had rushed down. While we selected a potential exit from its walls, our first thought was to climb to the ridge and from there traverse the rock crest east toward the peak. When we reached the ridge, tired from our long climb with heavy packs, we attempted to worm our way up over a pointed obstacle of rock, but after an hour decided there must be a better and less exposed route. Retracing our steps about 400 feet, we climbed to the rock at the edge of the steep lateral ridge; here, we thought that we might climb its walls. Once over them, we knew the route would be clear to a point above the great icefall. Leaving our packs on a ledge, we climbed the 200-foot wall of the ridge and, because of the exposure, I placed three pitons for safety. Once we were up, a Tyrolean traverse was arranged to haul up the loads. By sunrise our entire stock was atop the ridge, and it remained only to traverse a long snow slope to the glacier and our first camp.

That evening we moved camp above the second icefall, a task that required only three hours. There were many and varied forms of snow, ranging from dry crystalline, which we came across in drifts, to crusted surfaces which broke through at each step; often they were covered with surface hoar. Directly under the precipitous west summit ice wall we placed our highest camp. The sun was just setting, and a few billowing clouds added a dramatic note to a zenith of color, a changing kaleidoscope of faint blue, pink, and gold.

June 19th dawned clear and brilliant; the weather from the north seemed to be holding up well. We slept in until nine, then cooked and prepared to make an all-out assault on the summit by way of the south ridge of the peak, rather than the western ridge, which we had discounted as being a poor alternative. While it was probably more difficult than our proposed route, it certainly was longer in its exposed sections and was rendered more dangerous by poor snow conditions.

As we climbed laboriously up the intricate slopes of the third icefall, there seemed to be a grace and vitality in the slopes glowing from the reflection of the sun on the crusty snow. Too often, though, we broke through the crust, and in a few hours became thoroughly aware of the additional strain. There was a key crossing at a difficult bergschrund, but once beyond this point there were only steep slopes and crevasses between us and the crest of the south ridge. At 3:00 P.M. we peered over its fantastic edge, to see for the first time such summits as Mt. Hayes and Mt. Hess. But our eyes turned to the beautifully proportioned form of the summit spire, gracefully outlined amid a background of blue. The one-half mile of ridge to the top held out little encouragement. Winds had built it up to a razor-like edge, almost scalloplike in its profusion of humps and pinnacles. Of the precipices on either hand, that to the east is steepest, but that to the west is amply appalling in magnitude. It was far too precipitous to consider crossing at a safe distance below the cornices. This left us with little alternative but to crawl along the corniced top as best we could. For six hours we did just this, always with the possibility of a cornice breaking off to tumble us down a 5,000- foot slope of 75°. The other side was equally dizzying, but somewhat smoother; one might even slide unharmed several thousand feet to the bergschrund! Such were our depressing thoughts as we voted at least to try the ridge.

Soon the crest showed its mettle. Harrer hacked his way over some fantastically steep pinnacles, some of them completely overhanging the eastern edge. In what seemed like hours, we exchanged leads; I found slightly better going along the left edge of the ridge, and it was possible to climb safely with the 12-point crampons and good belays. As the ridge steepened again, we had to cut steps. This was a team climb; if anyone slipped, the others would have to leap over the opposite side of the ridge. How to get up three vertical ice steps near the summit was a provocative question. The steep slope of ice on the left would require hours of chopping and the use of many ice pitons. I was prepared to do battle, but welcomed Meybohm’s suggestion that he try to cut a channel directly up the steps. At least we could belay safely. Chopping vertically upward to remove masses of rotten ice so that a ladder of clean steps could be made, he worked his way up the narrow pillar-like wall. It was hard work, but success was near. As we stepped onto the summit at 9:45 P.M., it was our unanimous conclusion that Deborah was the most sensational ice climb anyone of us had ever undertaken. But with the equally difficult return imminent there was no feeling of either sophistry or great elation, for as Lunn has written, “self conquest rather than mountain conquest is the secret of our strivings.”

The setting sun, barely above the horizon, made everything terrestrial seem to fade into insignificance. The biting cold began to take its effect as we lingered to admire the grand view—it was time to descend. Even with the steps carved and aided by a few rappels, it took over four hours of fast climbing to get off the ridge. The climb had been a delicate one, and we felt years younger once on the the relative safety of the glacier.

On our way to base camp the next day we encountered a weather change and the accompanying drift of fog. This not only delayed us, but the pilot too, and it was not until the 24th that he could land to fly us out. In Talkeetna, the weather turned worse; we began to appreciate the clear period we had had on Deborah. Finally, on June 29th, the clouds seemed to break up to the west, and on flying toward Mt. Hunter we saw the entire Alaska Range basking in broken sunshine. Our air course took us over the Tokositna country and then over some rugged peaks to the upper Kahiltna Glacier. Again there were busy moments as we attempted to study the route and at the same time locate an area for a safe landing. We landed about 1½ miles west of Hunter, in the level area (alt. 6700 ft.) between it and the bulk of Foraker. It is best to make these summer glacier landings very early in the morning, while the crust is still hard. Unfortunately, we were delayed, and by the time the craft was ready to leave, the crust had softened to an extent that it required twenty minutes of taxiing on the glacier before the plane gained sufficient momentum for the take-off. For a while, we were certain we would have to feed another man!

Mt. Hunter

Mt. Hunter2 is a massive summit with cliffs four to seven thousand feet high separating it from the comparatively level slopes of the Kahiltna and Tokositna Glaciers.3 With complete confidence in the aerial studies and the report on the most feasible route by Bradford Washburn,4 we based our entire hopes on the long west ridge. When the plane left us that morning on the Kahiltna Glacier, we pitched our Logan tent, stacked up our food supply, and set out to explore the lower section of the ridge with light packs.

The long clutch of winter seemed entirely gone as we weltered in the hot sun while crossing the glacier. The snow even clung to our snowshoes, and often we sank into hidden crevasses. Of several potential routes to the ridge crest at 9,100 feet we chose a little glacier trough that carved a path between two granite walls. It was exposed to some falling debris, but except for one badly broken area seemed quite safe. In this particular place it was necessary to clamber about for a half-hour on some steep slopes to bypass a great bergschrund, but then the glacier sloped back again. A steep 200-foot snow wall brought us to within sight of the crest. At its highest point a pinnacle blocks progress, and after a certain amount of exploration we found a route through some granite blocks, climbed down a hundred feet, and made three rappels to the narrow col on its east side. Here we left a cache, secure in the knowledge that we had conquered the uncertain problems of the first third of the ridge.

Though it stormed suddenly the next day on July 1st, the toneless snows sparkled into a mosaic of glittering light. Leaving only a cache of food for the return, we carried heavy loads up the established route and descended en rappel to our cache. Adding this to our packs, we continued up the narrowing and corniced ridge, and because of the weight we were carrying, we were but barely able to get over a vertical snow wall at the peak of the 9,550-foot hump on the ridge. Then, traversing along the crest, we came to a steep drop-off where we had to cut steps in ice to descend. At a little col adjacent to the big rock step in the ridge we pitched the tent. Fortunately, we were able to locate some flat, loose stones and build a level platform for the tent. If it is not covered by snows, it could be of service to any future party.

One of the chief problems of the ridge is the granitic rock wedge that rises for the next 500 feet. We explored it that afternoon in a flurry of snow, leaving a cache at the highest point and putting in three fixed ropes. Generally, we found it best to keep a hundred feet south of the crest, but at the middle section, we had to climb some difficult cracks and a chimney, including some overhang. When it came time to bring up our packs, it was necessary to haul them up a 50-foot chimney, a key point on the climb of this ridge. Needless to say, belays were in order the entire distance. On the final push to the highest camp at 10,600 feet we were fearful of the snow surface atop the glare ice of the steep ridge slopes, so waited until the sun left them in the evening before beginning the ascent. There is ample light to travel all night, for at this latitude the rose-pink sun poises below the rim of the horizon for only a few hours and the sky remains suffused with light. As we had hoped, the steep wall at 10,000 feet was well crusted; we were able to crampon up it with but a few steps, though the points bit into hard glare ice. Even more exposed was the great ridge sweeping to a point at 10,600 feet. Here we had to cut away a swath of drifted snow on a very steep slope, hew out many steps, and place an ice piton for safety. This slope ranges from 45° to 70° for several hundred feet and is best overcome with a fixed rope.

As if to remind us of the cornice danger, a large section of drooping ice broke off almost adjacent to us as we plowed along a level stretch of knee-deep snow on the ridge. Secure in the knowledge that there was no further danger at this exact spot, we decided to place our final camp here. It was midnight and our feet were becoming cold; so the tent was put up, and then without loads we reconnoitered a route over the next ridge hump and along the dangerous cornices to the saddle beneath the final ridge of Hunter. Several tension rifts cracked as we broke the tracks along the ridge; we carefully stayed as low off the ridge as we possibly could, always keeping on the alert for a break and the necessity of a lightning-quick belay.

The weather, which had been unsettled, now definitely looked good. In high spirits we went to sleep. Our plan was to rest through the day and start late in order to climb on the steep, dangerous slopes after the sun had left them. Accordingly, we left camp at 4:30 P.M. on the 4th, taking with us down clothing and large lunches.

The long and very exposed ice slope rising from 10,700 feet to 11,500 feet proved the most difficult on the climb. The surface was unstable, and to climb safely we had to place ice pitons and chop bucket belay stances 13 separate times. In this manner, by climbing on the front four prongs of our crampons, we did not have to chop steps on this very steep ice slope. Beyond came more cornices, steep and short ice pitches, followed again by still more cornices. It grew very cold and the rope became stiffly frozen. Above was the great ice wall blocking the ridge off from the 13,200-foot upper plateau, and beneath it tumbled an array of crevasses in every direction. From all studies this was a problematical area—if one were blocked by the great wall the entire route would end there! We approached hopefully and kept looking at a large longitudinal crevasse entering the wall directly above the ridge. As we reached its height, we saw that it afforded a route on its sloping side; the “Golden Gate,” as we named it, proved a godsend, for it was an avenue to the upper plateau. Any other route to the summit would have been next to impossible; this one worked out readily.

Crossing the half-mile of level névè was tedious because we kept breaking through to the knees. Never had we seen snow conditions such as these. Even on wind-blown ridges one would break through, and only on the steepest slopes was there hard ice. Between midnight and four we plodded across the slope, attempted the corner of the summit ridge, turned back for the west face of the summit pyramid, and climbed a very steep loose snow slope to the final crest. On the last stretch we came into the glorious radiance of the full morning sunshine. Hunter had been climbed! It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful view than that afforded by the summit. It was warm enough to take off gloves and jackets, and for an hour we rested and photographed. The glittering surrounding summits provided a fascinating study, and of course McKinley and Foraker were resplendent. We agreed that the entire region was one with a great mountaineering future, for there are dozens of very intriguing high summits within its scope. We thought, too, that Hunter would still have fascinated us had we tried any other route. The other faces and ridges, from our vantage, offered virtually no hope at all. Hunter had been a great climb!

After 20 hours we reached camp again. Ice pitons and chopped ice anchors had enabled us to rappel down the steepest slopes. Now it only remained to descend safely, a tiring process which we did on the 6th. Again we rappelled on the steepest rock and ice slopes to save time and be safe, but at best descending with a pack is very awkward. Below 8,000 feet the snow slopes avalanched badly, and we had to start several slides in order to

make the terrain safe. Once below the threatening sérac wall, we were out of danger. A fog came in, signifying a weather change. Fortunately our old steps showed through well, and we reached the base cache without incident.

Travelling down the Kahiltna Glacier 30 miles, most of it over terrain never touched by man, was a speculative undertaking. The first six miles required nine hours, because of very bad snow conditions and heavily crevassed areas. We continued on for nine more hours and by the end of the day had reached the great bend, some 18 miles from camp. On the 9th, from a camp on the medial moraine, we continued on the ice ribbons but were forced off in five miles by bad crevasses; here we had to ford a difficult stream. Later, we travelled along brushy river banks, walked along lateral moraines, forded streams, and became involved in several thickets of slide alder. On the last day we struggled through the bushy upland tundra near Dutch Creek, ate hungrily at a mining cabin, and crossed a high divide of the Dutch Hills to a placer mine on a depleted “cat” road. The owners welcomed us to a hearty supper and our first comfortable sleep in some time. Incredibly quickly, it seemed, the 44 miles were behind, and in a few hours of walking, there would be a road.

A Word of Caution

The ascents of Mt. Hunter by the west ridge and Mt. Deborah by the upper south ridge involve some alpine problems not generally encountered on most other difficult Alaskan summits. These warrant a few precautionary words as to the risks involved and the responsibilities of the climbers.

Aside from the accepted risk of a slip from a physical miscalculation on steep ice and the requirement that a climbing party be competent to climb safely and belay for long stretches on ice which approaches 70° and is vertical for short distances, the three principal alpine problems relating to the peak itself concern timing, cornices, and avalanches. These are individual problems and dangers, but are closely interrelated, as one may be a function of the others.

It was our experience that surface conditions on the windward slopes of the ridges traversed were less susceptible to sliding during the hours when they were protected from direct sunlight by physical features. In the early morning hours before the sun was hot enough to thaw the frozen surface and after sundown we found most slopes safe for climbing. When temperatures rose, the slopes often became unsafe. Very fortunately, the semi-darkness of an Alaskan summer permits all-night climbing, a factor which should be considered in the scheduling of any traffic on slopes with avalanche danger. The immensity of the dangerous cornices forces the climber onto the exposed, open slope of the ridge and, at times, onto long and very steep open walls. On Deborah the ascent of the basal couloirs to bypass the first icefall is definitely unsafe until the surfaces above are frozen. On Hunter the lower portions of the climb may be almost physically impossible, except during the colder hours, because of the soft, steep snow.

We planned the ascents of both upper ridges so that the dangerous passages were undertaken after temperatures had dropped and we felt justified in risking the slopes. Were it not for the approach of fog, we should have delayed the ascent of the final ridge of Deborah two more hours. Climbs from a high camp require a 12- to 20-hour round trip and may lack some of the photographic opportunities otherwise available, but they are generally safer. The west slope of Deborah’s south ridge began to solidify well after 6:00 P.M., but the south slope of Hunter's west ridge did not always harden until after 9:00 P.M. Though we arrived on the summit shortly after sunrise, the morning sun, being to the east, did not soften the ridge on the descent until late morning.

There is no intent here to debate whether or not the traversing of some of the great cornices encountered is a legitimate risk, but the climber should accept the fact that cornices are unpredictable even to the most experienced mountaineers. Because of the size of the cornices and the narrowness of the ridges, it is often essential to climb only well down on the windward slope. At times the climber is forced near the crest. Obviously such places are dangerous, and in our case, served to re-align our route just below, but as close as possible, to the imaginary fracture line. Needless to say, it is quite a nervous experience to step through such a hole, but comforting to know one is solidly belayed. Our anchors and chopped stances on Deborah served to speed and safeguard the descent, at a time when vigilance is often relaxed.

On Mt. Hunter the cornices were so huge that it was necessary to remain far below the crest in certain places. At point 10,800 feet we kept two rope lengths from the edge, but received a great scare from surface settling—possibly a slab formation on the prevailing windward slope. Three times we heard, and once saw, a cornice loudly crack, but not collapse, almost at our knee level. One fracture crack ran right above the steps of a previous reconnaissance. At one place there was a crest cornice atop a flattened, wide ridge which collapsed almost at our feet, despite the fact the cornice rose only some 15 feet atop a flat ridge. At Point 10,600 feet, where one has to climb a great wall and overcome a lateral cornice-wall, one is exposed to the danger of a general collapse of the entire edge of the slope, which acts as a cornice of its own; a small portion of it broke as we maneuvered to belay atop the point.

Summary of Statistics

Ascents: Mt. Deborah, 12,540 ft., Hayes Range, Alaska; first ascent, June 19, 1954. Mt. Hunter, 14,573 ft., Alaska Range, Alaska; first ascent, July 5, 1954.

Personnel: Fred Beckey, Heinrich Harrer, and Henry Mey bohm.

1 On the descent we found a route safe only at night or during frozen conditions, between the icefall and the lower slopes of the ridge; it diagonals across the rock of the lower ridge from the lower edge of the icefall to the point where the glacier again levels.

2 See footnote about the naming of Mt. Hunter: AAJ, 1953, bottom of page 478.

3 Exact altitudes of peaks in this range have not yet been finally agreed upon by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Elevations given by the U.S.C. and G.S. are at present: Mt. Hunter (North Peak) 14,573 ft., (South Peak) 13,966 ft.

4 See “Mt. Hunter via the West Ridge: A Proposed Route” by Bradford Washburn: AAJ, 1953, pp. 478-484.

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