American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

In the Chugach Range, Alaska

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1956

In the Chugach Range, Alaska

ROBERT WEST

THE Switzerland of Alaska” is the phrase the travel posters use to describe the little seaport town of Valdez, Alaska. Situated on the flat gravel delta of the stream draining the Valdez Glacier and surrounded by 5,000-foot peaks, the town is certainly a beautiful place when the weather is clear. But by June 16, after we had been waiting almost a week to fly in to the Columbia Glacier, every member of the Chugach Range Expedition was heartily annoyed at the prospect of spending another day in the place.

We had come from all parts of the country: my wife Peggy and I from Pennsylvania; Bill Coaker, Norm Aubrey and Larry Nielsen from Springfield, Mass.; Art Maki and Bob Bale from Seattle; and Jim Maxwell, who was taking time off from his geological investigations in Southern California.

Larry Nielsen, the leader of the expedition, had planned for the trip and dreamed of coming to the Chugach Range for years. His detailed knowledge of the area, gained through hundreds of hours of study of aerial photographs, was a valuable asset to us.

The Chugach Range1 is bisected by the valley containing College Fiord and the Harvard Glacier. To the west rises a range of peaks dominated by Mt. Marcus Baker,2 which stands high above its neighbors. The uplift east of College Fiord is more extensive, including at least five peaks of 12,000 feet. Except for some minor ascents from the east branch of the Columbia Glacier, and an abortive attempt to reach the high peaks via the Harvard Glacier,3 the region had not been visited by mountaineers. The upper 30 miles of the Columbia Glacier, including the area around the high peaks, had never been explored. These high peaks were our objectives, and our original plan was to fly in to the head of the Columbia Glacier, just beneath the highest peaks, in the heart of the unexplored area.

We also hoped to fly out, but since we could not be sure that the weather would permit landings, we had to plan an "escape route” by which we could walk back to Valdez—75 miles from the head of the Columbia Glacier.

Most of the first week in Valdez we spent waiting for the weather to clear. Lee Johnson, Cordova Airlines representative in Valdez, generously loaned us his cabin as living quarters. We used the extra time to check on our escape route. Norm and I inspected the last 10 miles from a rented boat out on Valdez Bay, and left a cache of food at the end of the Shoup Glacier. On an intermittent clear day, an aerial reconnaissance of the route was also carried out, and an airdrop of emergency supplies was made at 3,200 feet on the East Branch of the Columbia Glacier.

In addition, parties visited the Valdez Glacier on two separate days, and one day Art, Peggy and I climbed 5,300-foot West Peak—leaving’at 2 P.M. and returning well after midnight!

June 16 dawned brilliantly clear, and at 3 P.M. the plane showed up. We now found to our dismay that the pilots were unwilling to land above 3,200 feet. There was nothing for us to do but accept the decision and land at the site of our airdrop on the East Branch.

Art Maki was the first man in on the glacier. He waited right at the landing spot for an hour, enjoying the panorama of sharp-crested snow- peaks, until I arrived to join him. With two of us there, we could set about establishing Base Camp. The landings went off smoothly once begun, and our pilot, Herb Haley, was also able to bring Larry in that evening.

Base Camp was set up a few hundred yards from our snow "landing strip, near the bottom of a 1,500-foot icefall leading up to the main Columbia Glacier. The next morning the three of us collected all the packages from the emergency airdrop and, under Larry’s direction, carried out measurements on the glacier. Digging a pit, we struck water five feet down, and thus was born "The Columbia Glacier Waterworks,” our base camp supply. In the afternoon we set off to reconnoiter a route up through the icefall. We found a route easily enough, but the experience of negotiating the icefall in the late afternoon, threatened by avalanches from the saturated slopes above us, convinced us that we should do all our climbing at night. We returned to Base Camp to find the airlift going strong, and by 6 P.M. the last man was "on ice.” By now we had decided to try to get as close as possible to the high peaks, despite our present unfavorable location.

We rose at 6 A.M. and went off to the icefall with loads of food and gas which we cached at a big bridged crevasse about halfway up. Then back to Base Camp, where we cached all surplus food and extra clothes on a rocky moraine. In the evening we relayed loads up the icefall until all of our supplies, about 100 pounds per man, were at the top. With great foresight, Larry had brought two large sheets of corrugated aluminum into Base Camp, and these now proved their value as sledges. Once over the icefall we were able to load most of the gear on the sledges and carry only light packboard loads.

After another 1,000 feet of uphill sledging, we reached the pass between the two branches of the glacier. Here ice-clad Pilot Peak came into view, rising in one gigantic sheer cliff, 6,000 feet above the main Columbia Glacier. At this spectacular spot we decided to camp. The troublesome question of whether our morning meal should be "dinner” or "breakfast” was settled in favor of dinner, and we went to bed for the day at 8 A.M.

Two miles of easy downhill going now separated us from the untrodden snows of the main Columbia Glacier. We knew that once on the main glacier, we would have to work our way up another icefall. That evening, with the weather rapidly deteriorating, Jim and I were sent off ahead of the sledge parties through this crevassed area. Staying close to the east edge of the glacier, we found a route without difficulty. But after a few hours the fog closed in on us. We stopped where we were, pitched a temporary camp, and slept for four hours.

By 3:30 A.M. a stiff wind had come up and the visibility was a little better. We pushed on across the glacier as the snow began to fall. The force of the wind was increasing hourly. We established Camp II at 6,300 feet at 8 A.M., when we could go no farther; we were absolutely "done in” from fighting the blizzard. Blinding snow and a howling wind continued during the day and for the next 48 hours. Sledging, of course, was out of the question. Cooking was impossible much of the time, but we managed to melt enough snow for drinking water. Even leaving the tents for a few minutes was a major undertaking. Every few hours someone would get up, shovel the accumulated snow off of the tents, and return chilled and exhausted to his sleeping bag. We spent most of the time in a drowsy semi-consciousness, wondering dully whether the tents would collapse before they blew away or vice versa.

Finally, on the morning of June 22, the clouds lifted, and the morning dawned sunny and warm. Just as we had succeeded in digging out the camp, Herb and Lee Johnson flew over in the Cessna and dropped our remaining food. One of the packages landed in a large crevasse, so we sent Art down on a rope and then "rescued” both Art and the package. The airdrop contained delicacies like canned tomato juice and peaches, and we gorged happily after our insufficient diet during the blizzard.

Our chances were now slimmer, but there was still hope that we might be able to climb Mt. Witherspoon. That night in crisp, clear weather, we sledged into the region of the high peaks. The snow of one massive peak which we had named "Mt. Einstein,”4 glowed all night with changing colors as sunset merged with sunrise. We passed near the impressive icy towers of Mt. Valhalla and camped below Mt. Elusive, on a bridged crevasse in order to get some shelter from the chill wind. Here we had our first view of the long south ridge of Mt. Witherspoon, apparently the only possible route from this side of the mountain.

The next evening we sledged to our last camp, at the very head of the Columbia Glacier, on the flanks of Mt. Witherspoon itself. The surface of the glacier at this elevation was powdery, making walking difficult even with snow shoes, and sledging became arduous. Camp IV was at 9,160 feet.

All we needed now was a good clear day for a crack at the summit; but a few hours after we arrived we were beset by more of the bad weather for which the Chugach Range is justly famous. It snowed steadily for two days, though fortunately we were spared the high winds of the earlier blizzard.

Late on the morning of June 26 it was still foggy and snowing lightly, but quite bright; we decided it was now or never. We left camp at noon and went up the snow to the south ridge, where we exchanged our snow- shoes for crampons. Then for several hours we worked our way up the broad steep ridge. The route alternated between wind-slab and ice, with occasional crevasses. It was cold and windy with visibility restricted to about 100 feet. Suddenly the South summit loomed up out of the fog, and in a few minutes we were at the top. The time was now 6 P.M.

Many cold minutes were spent waiting on the South peak for the clouds to break enough for us to find the ridge of the true summit. Finally the clouds broke briefly, and with Jim leading we started out onto the steeply corniced ridge. After about 30 minutes of belayed climbing through the fog, we encountered a vertical break where apparently the entire cornice had broken off and slid down the face of the mountain. The gap so formed was only a few yards wide, but fully 80 feet deep, with vertical walls of ice. This obstacle, together with the late hour and poor weather, forced us to turn homeward. We returned to high camp in three and one-half hours. That evening we celebrated our ascent of the South peak and drowned our sorrow at missing the summit proper.

It was still snowing the next day. We broke camp at 2 P.M. after rifling the remaining rations for the most desirable items of food. We were able to follow our wanded trail through the murk to Camp III, but from here we had to travel by compass most of the way to our cache at Camp II. We pitched camp here, in the usual snowstorm, tired after seven hours of hard sledging.

The weather was unimproved the next day, as the downhill party prepared to go. Art, Peggy, and I were to remain at Camp II for a few extra days in hopes of doing some climbing. We shook hands with the others and in minutes they had disappeared from sight into the fog, leaving us very lonely—as Peggy put it, "Three little specks of warmth on the whole Columbia Glacier.”

We were glad we had decided to stay when the next day dawned promisingly bright. With renewed spirits we set off to climb "Mt. Sharkstooth,” a summit near Mt. Einstein, which appeared from the glacier as a shining white fang. We snowshoed near the edge of the glacier and up into a small cirque, and then started up the mountain proper. The climb went without incident until we reached the bergschrund. Belayed by both of us, Art led up to the snow bridge and then jumped back just in time as the bridge collapsed with a roar and a few tons of ice and snow fell into the schrund. Somewhat shaken, we backed off and tried another bridge, this time with success. A few more leads brought us up the steep snow to the ridge, which we traversed without difficulty. The true summit was a thin, fragile cornice, deeply undercut—so we considered the mountain climbed when we had reached a point only a short distance away, six hours after leaving camp. We estimated the elevation to be about 9,500 feet. Return to camp was by the same route.

The next day looked doubtful, with snow squalls in the morning. Peggy stayed in camp nursing a painful sunburn while Art and I left to attempt Mt. Powdertop, directly across the glacier from Camp II. We crossed the five-mile width of the glacier and climbed to the col east of our peak with no trouble. But once on the ridge of the mountain the clouds descended, and visibility decreased to about 10 feet. We tried to grope onward, but after I nearly succeeded in leading Art over the top of a cornice, we decided to stop for lunch. After eating, we occupied ourselves by making a careful collection of lichens and rocks from outcrops on the ridge, still hoping that the weather might improve. To our surprise, after an hour and a half the cloud suddenly lifted, and the route to the summit lay revealed before us.

Mt. Powdertop provided the best climbing of the expedition as we climbed up the long corniced ridge, among fantastic rime windforms, cutting steps up occasionally steep icy spots. We came out on the 10,000-foot summit two hours after leaving the col. The weather continued to improve, and the glacier surface was slushy in the hot sun on our return trip. Peggy had the stove going as we returned, and that night we enjoyed the luxury of being served dinner in our sleeping bags.

The next day dawned brilliantly clear, and we were all in favor of one more climb before sledging down to Base Camp. At Art’s suggestion the three of us set off on snowshoes across the Columbia again, to attempt the most prominent peak (later named "Mt. Fafnir”) on the long ridge between Mt. Powdertop and Mt. Valhalla. As we reached the other side of the glacier we were grateful to see the Piper Cub coming in on its promised check flight. We stamped out a signal in the snow asking for a landing in three days. That morning Larry and the others were flown out from Base Camp, having completed their scientific studies of the East Branch of the Columbia.

We climbed up a small icefall east of our mountain, wending our way through a series of small crevasses, and continued on behind the peak of the snow pass at the head of the Science Glacier. The rest of the long climb up the broad northeast shoulder was not difficult, and we reached the summit at 4:30 P.M.—nine hours after leaving camp. The view was magnificent. We were very near the high peaks of the area, and, at about 10,800 feet, only about 2,000 feet below the highest summits. The long knife-edge ridge of Mt. Witherspoon, and the snow-plastered hulks of Mts. Einstein and Lewis stood out in impressive detail; but most striking of all was Mt. Valhalla, the belle montagne of the Chugach, seemingly almost close enough to touch. We left the summit reluctantly and returned "home” to Camp II in five hours.

The next day we cached all but emergency supplies and sledged down the glacier. We spent the night at Camp I in the divide between the East Branch and the main Columbia Glacier. That evening the weather again closed in, and we awoke the next morning in a light rain. In the afternoon, in very poor weather, we made an abortive attempt to climb the ridge directly north of the divide. We decided to turn in early that night and get under way early the next day. That night it cleared and froze hard, providing an ideal surface for sledging down to Base Camp. We had a hilarious time slithering down the steep crusted snow, all three of us trying to brake the sledge. The icefall route was still in good condition despite much melting, and we rapidly descended to Base Camp.

It was only 8 A.M. on July 5, when we arrived and there was no sign of the plane, so leaving Peggy to wait for the plane and to fly out first, Art and I set off to climb the little 6,200-foot peak above Base Camp which Larry had named ''Pandora.” We charged off at top speed, expecting to have to return as soon as the airplane came into view. We climbed hurriedly up the rocks and snow of the south ridge. Among the rocks on the summit we found a boot-lace. Apparently Pandora was one of the minor ascents completed by a Harvard Party in the 1930’s.

We returned to camp at a more leisurely pace. There was still no sign of the plane, so we sat around sunning ourselves and relaxing. At 5:30 P.M. we decided the plane was not coming. After we pitched tents and began cooking supper, the plane, of course, arrived. We were relieved to see it, for the clouds were descending again and promising more bad weather. In the chaos of packing, Peggy knocked our dinner over onto the snow; but by 9 P.M. we were all enjoying a much more palatable dinner in a restaurant in Valdez.

Summary of Statistics

Ascents: Mt. Witherspoon, ca. 13,000 feet, attempt.

Mt. Witherspoon, South Peak, 11,300 feet, first ascent, June 26, 1955, entire party.

Mt. Sharkstooth, ca. 9,500 feet, first ascent, June 29, entire party.

Mt. Fafnir, ca. 11,000 feet, first ascent, July 1, Maki, R. and M. West.

West Peak, ca. 5,300 feet, June 15, Maki, R. and M. West.

Mt. Powdertop, ca. 10,000 feet, first ascent, June 30, Maki, R. West.

Pandora Peak, ca. 6,200 feet, second ascent, July 5, Maki, R. West.

Exploration: Upper Columbia Glacier, Chugach Range, Alaska.

Scientific Studies: Columbia Glacier and its East Branch.

Personnel: Dr. Lawrence Nielsen, leader; Dr. Norman Aubrey, Robert

Bale, Dr. William Coaker, Arthur Maki, James Maxwell, Margaret

West, Dr. Robert West.

1A map of the Chugach Range prepared by Dr. Nielsen may be found in Appalachia, Dec. 1955, p. 535.—Ed.

2Climbed in 1939 by B. Washburn and others; Am. Alpine J., Vol. 3, p. 257 (1939).

3Dora Keen, "Exploring the Harvard Glacier,” Harpers, Vol. 132, p. 113 (1915).

4For Albert Einstein, who died only shortly before our expedition. Since there were five chemists in our party we decided to name the two other unnamed high peaks for two great American chemists, now also deceased: Willard Gibbs and Gilbert Lewis.

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