American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Mount Michelson, Brooks Range

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1958

Mount Michelson, Brooks Range. On April 23, 1957, John P. Thomson, of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and R. E. “Pete” Isto, resident topographic engineer with the U. S. Geological Survey, Fairbanks, made the first ascent of Mount Michelson, highest point in the Brooks Range. This 9239- foot mountain is at latitude 69° 19' N., longitude 144° 16’ W. No other prominent peak lies as far north in continental North America as this igneous monadnock. It is only 50 miles south of the Arctic Ocean near the eastern end of the 500-mile-long Brooks Range. Arrangements for air transportation were made with Horace Black, an experienced Alaskan bush pilot. The starting date had to be timed early enough so that his 150-hp ski-equipped Piper Tri-pacer plane could still be used from the Fairbanks airport and yet as late as possible, since temperatures in that mountain region in April can reach —35° F. It turned out that our landing on the return trip was the season’s last ski-landing for Fairbanks International Airport.

At daybreak, April 22, the party, plus about 200 pounds of equipment and food, were loaded into the plane. Four hours and twenty minutes later, which included a refueling stop at Fort Yukon, we landed on the overflow ice of the Hulahula River about 16 miles northwest of the mountain and 330 miles northeast of Fairbanks. The pilot returned alone, with instructions to pick us up there a week later. We cached an extra week’s food in a metal bear-proof container in case weather should delay him and started the 7700-foot ascent. Each carried a 60-pound pack, plus bearpaw snowshoes, and we had a small litter-sled. After a few hours’ climb, we cached sled and snowshoes because of the scarcity of snow on the wind-exposed rocky slopes. Several times later we regretted this decision when we struggled waist-deep in the powdery arctic snow. This area has a mean annual rainfall of only five inches, but subtracting the summer’s rainfall of about one inch it leaves an accumulation of four feet of snow, which at this latitude usually remains soft and uncrusted. We camped that night early at 4000 feet.

At 2:30 next morning we set out again, establishing Base Camp at 10 A.M. on a boulder-strewn plateau midway between the Hulahula River and the summit. From there we climbed steadily until we reached the summit shortly after nine that evening. We encountered no difficulties, although we used the climbing rope on several miles of sparsely crevassed glacier. The last 800 feet of ascent was up a 45° ice slope, which required step chopping. We reached the summit just as the sun was setting, a magnificent sight, with the red hue directly across the 500-mile length of the whole Brooks Range. Since Thomson’s feet showed signs of freezing, we limited the time on top to 15 minutes. We built a small rock-cairn over a plastic match case with our names in it. We reached Base Camp six hours later and discovered that Thomson’s feet were frozen. The next two days were spent resting there, nursing the frozen toes and fashioning a pair of crude muk- luks from woolen socks, woolen underwear and an outer cover of canvas poncho, all tied together with nylon parachute cord; Thomson could no longer wear his regular footgear. Shod thus, he was able, on the 26th, to descend the eight miles to the Hulahula River landing point, where we waited for 2½ days for the return of the airplane. The condition of Thomson’s feet required cancellation of the plan to climb Mount Chamberlain (9131 feet), the second highest peak of the Brooks Range, which lies about ten miles southwest of the landing point.

Because of its remoteness, the Brooks Range is one of the last frontiers left in North America for those who wish to conquer unclimbed peaks. There are literally hundreds of unclimbed and for the most part unnamed mountains. It is incredible that in this uninhabited area, where signs of human occupancy are non-existent, we saw practically no animal life. Tracks indicated the presence of large bear and mountain sheep—one night a wolf came within 100 feet of our tent—but we saw none of these animals. The only sign of human visitation was axe marks on willows which some Eskimo probably cut many years ago.

R. E. Isto.

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