University Peak, 1954
The privileged first climbers to visit a major alpine region share an experience that is becoming rare in North America. One such relatively untouched region is surprisingly close to the well-traveled Chitina Valley of Alaska, whose natural gravel highways lead into the heart of the St. Elias Range. The country north of the upper reaches of this valley and south of expansive Mt. Bona has been seen occasionally from planes, and glimpses have been recorded by the Bona Expeditions and Boundary Survey parties. Furthermore, the irrepressible search for mineral wealth has led prospectors at least half way up the valley of the Hawkins Glacier. This glacier and tributaries of the Barnard Glacier are the principal drainage of the area and offer convenient avenues of approach. Except for a few steep icefalls, the southern face of the Bona Massif is a mighty escarpment buttressed by outlying ridges that are in themselves worthy mountains. The divide between the Hawkins and Barnard systems reaches its apex at University Peak before merging with Mt. Bona. Although roughly indicated on maps of the International Boundary Commission, it remained unnamed until Dr. Terris Moore of the University of Alaska, one of the original climbers of Mt. Bona, christened it University Peak in 1950 or 1951. From his aerial measurements the altitude was placed at slightly more than 15,000 feet.
During the winter and spring of 1953-54, Paul Gerstmann of Seattle organized a group to attempt its ascent. Except for Bob Cromer from Illinois and myself from New York, all were Washingtonians. These northwestern enthusiasts were Sheldon Brooks, Elwyn Elerding, Worth Hedrick, and Larry Wold. The expedition was transported by truck the latter part of June from Seattle to Chitina, Alaska, and thence by plane to a temporary base at May Creek near McCarthy. I joined them here on July 2nd via Cordova Airlines, which had contracted to do our flying.
After the usual delays, a cursory reconnaissance flight was made and, on July 8th, our chief pilot, Herb Haley, deposited five of us on the gravel flats of the Chitina River near the terminal moraines of the Hawkins Glacier. While we undertook the sixteen-mile glacier hike, food and supplies were dropped at the head of the Hawkins to await our arrival. As late as this in the year the glacier was nearly bare of snow and our few improvised parachutes were inadequate for the job. The majority of the expedition’s provisions had to be free dropped into the deep snow of a small hanging valley some 1600 feet above the site of our base camp and unfortunately not on any possible route up University Peak.
The rock walls of this cirque rise more than 5000 feet to the long arête joining Mt. Bona with its two western-most satellites, called “Twa Harpies” by the 1951 Bona Expedition. The avalanches down this wall were nearly continuous and each became quite familiar to us in time. There was grand “Niagara” with its divided cataract, spouting “Old Faithful,” slim and graceful “Yosemite” in two dramatic plunges, and many others. As the valley was always celebrating, we referred to it as the “Fourth of July Cirque.” The sound effects varied from the hiss of powder snow and the snapping pistol shots of falling rocks to the rumble of mixed debris and the deafening roar and blast of the shock wave produced by a fall of a substantial portion of the ice-cap overhanging the head of the valley.
The entire expedition worked in shifts to find a means of entering the valley. Finally, both the icefall at its mouth and the rocks to the south were scaled and supplies were brought down both routes. Neither was attractive with heavy loads. Soft snow and falling ice or rocks required that most of the portaging be done at night. The rock route was preferable, especially after it was made easier by a thousand-foot fixed rope. On one of these round trips, Hedrick and I were injured by loose rocks. Thanks to the excellent ministrations of Doctors Cromer and Gerstmann, we were soon climbing again, though at reduced efficiency.
After the major effort to retrieve our provisions, the enthusiasm of some members had waned. Our best chance of success on University Peak lay in the establishment of a comfortable, well- stocked camp in the high cirque between it and Mt. Bona. To do this, we would have to ascend the glacier leading from the head of the Hawkins to this upper cirque. There were no alternatives for us on this side of the Barnard-Hawkins divide. The cliffs to the west were nearly vertical for many thousand feet and the few couloirs were regularly spewing avalanches. The ice-hung, avalanche-swept face of University Peak was out of the question. The steep faces and rock arêtes of its south face were too long (9000 feet), and perhaps unclimbable. Our glacier route beneath the west face consisted of two sections of icefall joined by a short stretch of hilly ice. The lower 1500-foot section did not appear as difficult as the icefall we had just finished battling. The middle portion would probably be satisfactory as a camp site but for its exposure to the shock waves accompanying the fall of ice from University Peak. The upper 3000-foot icefall was a fascinating enigma.
Wold and Hedrick succeeded in establishing a labyrinthine trail through and over the crevasses of the lower icefall. Then Gerstmann, Hedrick, Wold, Elerding, and Brooks carried up food and established a cache. On July 18th, Hedrick, Wold, Elerding, and Brooks left base camp in the early evening and in a few hours of darkness ascended the lower icefall and proceeded up the western side of the upper icefall, following the beaten path of a huge fallen sérac. The night was warm. Near the crest toppling séracs became quite unnerving. The party was at last stopped at 10,300 feet by a large uncrossable crevasse and the imminent return of daylight which necessitated a race with the sun back down the glacier.
Two days later we all moved up the lower icefall and camped on the middle section to await a cold night. The weather had been warm and wet for the past week and an especially convenient snow bridge on the lower icefall had at last collapsed.
It was necessary to descend into the crevasse, traverse along its bottom, and ascend the upper wall at a weak spot in its defenses. Previously cached food on the middle glacier could not be found, having been either buried or carried away by an avalanche.
After we had spent a day camp-bound in fog and wet snow, two particularly strong shock waves struck us, one in the early evening and another at dawn. They prompted a decision by four of the group to return to base camp. Wold, Hedrick, and I spent another day in the fog waiting. In the afternoon colder weather and partial clearing improved our spirits and that night the upper icefall was assaulted a second time. The previous route was followed for the first thousand feet. Then, led astray by fog and darkness, we traversed to the eastern margin too soon and after hacking our way up to 9500 feet, we were halted by a bewildering forest of séracs and chasms and the theatening approach of the sun.
On this second attempt, below-freezing temperatures had been a great blessing. Failure stemmed directly from the still handicapping injuries of two of the party and the necessity of getting off the icefall before the sun struck it. No further attempts were made. Back at base camp the majority wished to leave. After a few days of relaxation, we trekked back down the Hawkins, some of us experiencing acute frustration and vowing a return trip earlier in the season when glacier travel is easier and one can put in a good day’s work in daylight.
Summary of Statistics
Attempted: University Peak, ca. 15,000 ft., St. Elias Range, Alaska.
Height Reached: ca. 10,300 ft.
Personnel: Leader, Paul Gerstmann; Sheldon Brooks, Robert Cromer, Elwyn Elerding, Worth Hedrick, Gibson Reynolds, and Lawrence Wold.