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North America, United States, Alaska, Chugach Mountains

Chugach Mountains. During June and July 1957 most of the high peaks at the head of the great Columbia Glacier in the central Chugach Mountains were climbed for the first time. Before our 1955 and 1957 expeditions to this area, it was probably the least explored and most inaccessible mountain region in Alaska. The 1957 party consisted of Dr. Lawrence Nielson (leader), Arthur Maki (co-leader), David Bohn (photographer), 1st Lt. Martin Mushkin, and Don Mokski. Layton Bennett, Anchorage bush pilot, flew us from the Glenn Highway north of the mountains and landed us at 6500 feet on the Columbia Glacier with a wheel-ski equipped Piper Super Cub plane. Base Camp was established at 7600 feet by airdrop.

On the semicircular ridge that forms the divide between Harvard and Yale glaciers rise three peaks which we named, from south to north, Edison, Elusive, and Gilbert Lewis. Mount Fafnir lies about three miles east of the latter. Mount Valhalla is two miles north of Fafnir. All these names and altitudes are unofficial.

From a glacial valley north and west of the main summit, the entire party climbed Mount Einstein (11,552 feet) June 17 along the spectacular northeast ridge. Einstein is the most prominent of the high peaks seen from Prince William Sound. Mount Elusive (11,525 feet) was climbed June 22 by its knife-edged south ridge, although the part just below the summit was dangerously corniced. Mount Witherspoon (12,023 feet), reportedly the highest peak in the area, was climbed June 25 from a camp at 9300 feet on the east slope of the mountain. We climbed the south summit (11,300 feet) by a route similar to the one we used in 1955.* This peak is connected to the main summit by a fantastically sharp ridge with exposure of several thousand feet, in places corniced and broken by two great blocks of ice. As some of us had had enough after an hour or two of this ridge, we returned to the south summit. After climbing down the west side of the south peak and crossing a branch of Yale Glacier, we reached the main summit by the corniced west ridge. The Witherspoon climb required l6½ hours.

Mount Valhalla (12,000 feet), the most spectacular peak in the central Chugach Mountains, was climbed July 1 from a high camp among the crevasses of the glacier basin between Mount Elusive and Mount Fafnir. It was the most difficult peak attempted. The only feasible route led over the south summit and then along the great knife-edged ridge to the main summit. The slope on the eastern side of the ridge is so steep that snow never clings very long to the 3000-foot face. This route is safe only under ideal snow conditions. We reluctantly turned back from both the relatively easy Mount Edison (11,600 feet) and Mount Gilbert Lewis (11,900 feet) because of dangerous wind-slab conditions. Only 300 feet from the summit of Gilbert Lewis we heard two loud cracking sounds and felt the snow jerk under our feet. We were fortunate to be able to climb off the mountain rather than to be carried down by an avalanche.

We also made meteorological and glaciological observations and did some rough mapping. We made a study of one of the largest ice avalanches ever reported; ice streams up to 40 feet high extended for a mile out onto the glacier below the cliffs of Mount Edison. A crevasse several hundred yards long formed in front of our tents. The birth of this crevasse was accompanied by a sharp cracking sound and a jerking of the glacial surface like a violent earthquake. The crack widened an inch or two a day, the lower edge rising a similar amount with respect to the uphill edge. Out of 25 days on the glacier there were 16 in which we had snow and 17 of fog. However, for the Chugach Mountains, we had exceptionally good weather. In 1957 there was only one bad storm with about three feet of fresh snow; in 1955 we experienced much more violent storms.

Lawrence E. Nielsen

* Robert West, "In the Chugach Range, Alaska,” AAJ, 1956.