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Mount Blackburn—Second Ascent

Mount Blackburn—Second Ascent

Leon H. Blumer

The old ghost town of Chitina, Alaska, was invaded by our group of five climbers on May 17, 1958. That we all met on the appointed date was a masterpiece of personnel organization, considering that two of the five drove up the Alaska Highway and another hitchhiked the same route carrying all climbing gear and a pair of skis. We did not give our modest expedition any particular title, we were not sponsored by anyone, and as far as possible we avoided direct publicity beforehand. We were out for a pleasant two-and-a-half weeks of climbing and skiing in the Wrangell Mountains. The main task was to make the second ascent, by a new route, of Mount Blackburn (16,525 feet), approaching it from the north, which is the Nabesna Glacier side. I had been on Keith Hart’s 1955 expedition and knew the area, although we had reached a height of only 14,000 feet. The mountain had been climbed first from the southeast (Kennecott Glacier approach) in 1912 by Dora Keen (later Mrs. Handy) ; so there was a 45-year gap between her climb and ours, which is remarkable considering that the mountain is very massive as seen from Chitina and is the third highest mountain in Alaska.

Our party consisted of Bruce Gilbert of Yakima, Washington; Dick Wahlstrom of Seattle; Hans Gmoser, a private guide at Banff, Alberta; Adolf Bitterlich of Port Alberni, British Columbia, a private guide for the B. C. Coast Range; and myself (Leon Blumer) from Australia. Both Hans and Adolf wanted to take movies of the whole trip. They certainly loved the mountains, and it was a pleasure to have them along. Bruce had been on a previous Mount McKinley attempt, and Dick proved a very sound climber. All the party used skis, but Dick changed to the time-honored snowshoes after a few days. I noticed that there was not very much time lapse between the two methods of travel. Carrying 60- to 80-pound packs is safe enough for a skier provided he skis in a conservative manner. Hans was unquestionably the expert, doing beautiful turns even with a heavy load.

Our initial setback was the information that the bush pilot had not been able to fit skis to his plane. We were informed of this only two days before our arrival, which meant that another bush pilot 200 miles away was to do the flying for us. Naturally, this increased expenses. The next setback was the usual thing, the weather. During the next two days we caught only brief glimpses of the mountains 40 miles away; so we contented ourselves with packing, fishing, and walking the hillsides.

On the evening of the 19th we had beautiful weather, and the other bush pilot arrived. At the time he flew over there was great panic below, Bruce having deposited his Volkswagen into a large mudhole. It was a case of all hands to the rescue, and Chitina was really awakened from its slumber by the pounding of climbers’ feet. We were very keen to leave then, but agreed to wait until the next morning. After a late start we flew in up the old Kennecott route, dropped over a high col, and then aimed at a mountain across the glacier with our pilot, Don Sheldon, effecting running repairs to the ski mechanism. I finished up handing over some of our petrol supply while the plane skimmed cliffs and Don pumped away at some gadget or other. The storm clouds still hovered to the east of Blackburn, and we flew through some snow showers.

We landed at about 6:15 a.m. at 7000 feet on a side glacier ten miles northeast of Blackburn. Hans was the first to arrive in the gathering gloom, then Adolf. Owing to a heavy snowstorm the next trip was a failure. We heard Don circling for a while in the whiteout, but then went back to the tents. Obviously the air lift should have started earlier even though the weather had shown such promise the evening before. Later the three of us went skiing in deep powder snow, an occasion that is still a cherished memory of the trip.

The next two days were still bad. Nevertheless, as we wanted a route, we pushed supplies for 12 days up to about 10,000 feet for a cache beside a large sérac in the glacier. The deep snow and fierce wind made conditions difficult despite the use of skis. The weather cleared nicely about noon, and on our return Adolf noticed across the glacier certain tracks which I assumed to belong to a wild animal, a wolverine perhaps. Don Sheldon arrived late in the afternoon with Bruce Gilbert, and it was indeed a shock to find that the tracks belonged to none other than Dick Wahlstrom, who had been deposited on the glacier five miles away and had been trying to find us for the last two days—with no tent or stove and sleeping out in the open!

Naturally Dick wasn’t feeling very well when Don brought him from across the glacier, but he perked up after we had fed and watered him— no wild animal this. It was Bruce’s fourth attempt to reach us. He had decided to drive to Nabesna Village and walk the 35 miles up the glacier rather than fly in, but changed his mind when he saw the glacier. He returned to Gulkana, telephoned Don, and then flew in from there. He had instructed the other bush pilot to fly in and check his position on the glacier and perhaps drop a can of petrol. This was supposed to happen two days later. Now there was little chance of stopping the other pilot’s flight. One thing was important: in all this chaos the party was reunited at last, although gradually becoming poorer in the pocket.

From Base Camp we had a view of the long east ridge. Our glacier joined that ridge from the north at 14,000 feet, dropped to 13,000 feet to a knife edge about a half-mile long, then climbed in two steep bumps to the summit of the east peak, which is slightly lower than the main peak and connected with it by a long plateau. Some doubts were raised about the very long, exposed route, but it certainly promised better climbing than the more direct northwest ridge. We gave up thoughts of tackling smaller peaks until the main task was complete, an unfortunate decision in a way.

On May 23, while Dick and Bruce rested, Hans, Adolf, and I left early and established a camp at about 11,000 feet up the glacier. By the time we had pitched camp a full-scale blizzard was in progress. We had dug a large platform, but the driving snow gradually piled up on the sides of the tent and sifted in through every small opening. Then my tent cord broke; so I had to crawl outside and try to re-erect the tent in the fury of the storm. My fingers froze within minutes, which compelled me to leave everything and squeeze in with Adolf and Hans, bringing snow into their tent in the process. It was a hellish night, cold and damp, with no chance to cook a good meal. Every three hours we had to crawl outside and dig away the drifts. Obviously, in the effort to cut costs, we had given ourselves a tenting problem. Himalayan double-lined tents are absolutely essential for Alaskan climbing.

The following morning was clear, and we had a chance to dry out. I was slightly ill; so Adolf and Hans dug a five-man snow cave, a very wise move under the circumstances. Meanwhile, we observed the other bush pilot making his futile run around Base Camp, where he dropped a can of petrol, probably the most expensive can of fuel ever dropped— all we could do was gnash our teeth and curse. We could almost imagine our banknotes being scattered over the glacier.

After we had made the snow cave comfortable Hans and Adolf descended to the cache to pick up more loads and meet the rest of the party on their way up. They met them at 9000 feet and advised them to return to Base Camp because of the new blizzard. Meanwhile I had cooked supper and dropped off to sleep. I was awakened by Hans yelling and clawing his way through the cave entrance. The entrance was completely covered over, and Hans had expected to find me suffocated.

The next morning Adolf and I had a terrific struggle to push our way out of the entrance. We had put skis and poles across it, which acted as prison bars. It gave us a horrible trapped feeling. The other boys arrived about 3 o’clock, tired and cold. They had dug a cave with snowshoes, but after a while had the same trouble as we did in effecting an exit. So they just wrapped themselves in their bags and plastic sheets and slept out in the snow while the blizzard raged.

We remained in the snow cave for three days, enjoying the rest and quiet, regularly digging out the entrance. We made the snow cave larger and higher, as the roof was wont to sag about six inches every night. I fancied also that we were drifting slowly toward a large bergschrund, but this was just imagination.

About noon on the 27th the weather cleared, and although it was rather windy four of us reconnoitered the ridge above while Bruce went to the cache. We took skis to the ridge at 14,000 feet, and after a view along the knife edge Dick and I stayed behind while Hans and Adolf continued farther along the ridge to make sure of the reconnaissance. It was obvious that with doubtful weather and heavy packs the knife edge section, exciting enough under milder conditions, would be a difficult proposition indeed. We would have to rappel onto it, fix ropes, and also place another camp or snow cave before the long climb to the main summit over the slightly lower east peak. The northwest ridge seemed to be the most practical solution after all.

From our view point we could see Mount Logan and even Mount St. Elias, as well as the Chugach Range, snowy white like a winter scene. We could see Bruce down below manfully struggling up from the cache; so we yodeled and skied down to the cave. That night we nicknamed the east ridge “Blumer’s Folly.”

On the 28th we skied down with huge packs to about the 7500-foot level to a small rock-pass about three miles from Base Camp. From here we had a beautiful view of the entire north face of the mountain, 8000 feet in height. Hans and Adolf wanted to attack the north spur on the face, a direct and ambitious project. My main worry was the idea of ploughing through deep snow. Morale had dropped a bit at this point, and we were becoming a little impatient. Nevertheless, we would continue to the northwest ridge. The weather was now very clear and remained good for the rest of the trip.

Early next day we left the tents standing and traversed below the north face, Hans skiing back to Base Camp for a few more necessities. As we traversed the glacier I noticed that the north-face route seemed quite feasible. We pushed on to the 10,500-foot col on the northwest ridge, then dug a snow cave about 500 feet farther up. Adolf made a short reconnaissance that evening and informed us of an interesting ice tower on the ridge, the one that had stopped us in 1955. It had decayed a lot since then and was much easier.

On Friday, May 30, we left about 3 a.m., walked along cornices to the squat ice tower, which we found to be about 60 feet high. Hans led the cutting around the nose of the bisecting chimney for about 25 feet; then we all climbed up steep slopes to about 14,000 feet. From here it was a long, long trudge to the summit, but fortunately the snow was in beautiful condition, permitting easy cramponing all the way. There were fuzzy clouds about; so we did not get very good views from the summit. Some of us were very much moved by our accomplishment but tried not to show it. It had taken us ten days to reach this point after a few setbacks. We could look across to the east peak, which seemed a long distance away. Although we were a somewhat international group with two Americans, one Australian, one German, and one Austrian, none of us had a flag to wave; so we contented ourselves by leaving a small circle of wands. This was Dick’s third major peak, a fine achievement.

We stayed 45 minutes, then moved on down the mountain. We rappelled from ice axes at the tower, with Hans the last man. We reached the snow cave feeling very tired and thirsty, having put in more than a 15-hour day: ten hours up and five down. That evening we drank gallons of tea.

The next day we skied back to the intermediate campsite only to find it being filled gradually with seepage water. We had to rescue everything and pitch camp higher up. Had we returned a day later we would have had to chop the gear out of the ice of a newly formed lake.

It was practically a straight run back to Base Camp the following morning; so we let our skis run faster and faster as we tried to balance our large, swaying packs. In the evening Hans, Adolf, and I left for a 20-mile jaunt west across the Nabesna Glacier to make a ski ascent of an unclimbed 14,000-foot peak near Mount Wrangell. We found long stretches of sludge snow on the glacier which made us sink a foot below the crust—a most uncomfortable sensation. After sleeping all day and night, Adolf and I started out together after being unsuccessful in awakening Hans. However, only half an hour away from the tent Adolf complained of a bad headache; so we turned back. We slept again all the next day while Hans went for a short run. That evening we skied back across the glacier to Base Camp with nothing achieved except new scenery and perspective. During our absence a section of the east ridge on which we had first climbed had fallen and avalanched a large area of our earlier glacier route. Even the snow cave must have been covered by the huge slide. Its height was at least 5000 vertical feet. Evidently we had been very lucky people.

We flew out from the sweltering heat of the glacier to Chitina on June 5. It took only a relatively short time to cover the 40-mile ski tour. We passed near the blackened snows of Mount Wrangell, then gradually dropped to the tundra, forest, gravel bars, and the mosquitoes of the Chitina and Copper rivers. The green grass and rippling streams were good to see once again.