American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

West of the Stikine — Part II

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  • Publication Year: 1965

West of the Stikine — Part II*

Fred Beckey

The highest and most rugged mountains in the British Columbia and Alaska Coast Range between the Waddington and Fairweather groups are the majestic peaks between the historic Stikine River and the Pacific Ocean’s Inland Passage. Long ago the Cassiar gold strike drew thousands up the Stikine from Fort Wrangell, but the only early alpine explorations were by the Boundary Survey. The brush, crevassed glaciers, and forbidding nature of the region contributed to the lack of knowledge about the peaks themselves. And, there circulated many strange legends about a tribe of mysterious Indians who rolled boulders down from the heights. But recent ore findings and the power potential of the great river may change the unknown aspect of the glittering surrounding peaks.

Devil’s Thumb, which would seem more at home near FitzRoy in Patagonia than among Alaskan glaciers, is well known, since it is clearly visible from the town of Petersburg. Kate’s Needle was known to the gold seekers, who saw it tower nearly 10,000 feet above the nearby Stikine. These peaks alone had received attention. But the highest summits in the area — Ratz, Mussell and Noel — draw a blank look when mentioned to the average person even in nearby Wrangell. Few climbers realize the great mountaineering potential in this vast ice-capped region astride the international boundary, and equally unknown are the area of the Chutine, the Sawback Range, and Mount Hickman and its neighbors east of the Stikine.

In 1964, four of us, supported by a grant from the American Alpine Club, chose to explore and climb west of the big river, concentrating on the Mount Ratz group: if weather permitted, we hoped to turn south to the Burkett and Devil’s Thumb massifs. A Bell G 3 helicopter of the Phelps Dodge prospecting camp at Patmore Creek on the Stikine seemed the most economical method of reaching the crest of the icecap. Arriving at Wrangell too late to catch the weekly river boat up the Stikine, we four, Henry Mather, Layton Kor, Dan Davis and I, flew to the prospecting camp by seaplane. The locals said it had been the wettest summer within memory. That was hardly encouraging, for I recalled from our 1946 trip sleeping for endless days in rain-soaked sleeping bags and bailing gallons of water from pools on the tent floor. When the plane had to hug the river to keep beneath the clouds, memories of the familiar wetness returned.

Four days of cloud watching, interspersed with drawn-out sleeping, meals, and "rock horseshoe,” gave us a chance to get organized several times for the flight in, but we had no chance to take off for the icecap. Finally, on the afternoon of August 1, the clouds broke in the west. Three quick trips with the ’copter took us to our campsite at a pass dividing the Triumph and Baird glaciers, close under the east flank of Mount Ratz at about 5500 feet in altitude and let us make a cache below Devil’s Thumb and Mount Burkett. Camp was pitched on the first flight to the icecap, so that by the final flight we were sufficiently organized to have Mather and Kor set on a low shoulder between Mounts Ratz and Mussell, about a mile down the Triumph Glacier. A drop in the afternoon temperature, which accompanied this first break in the weather, promised firmer snow conditions.

Our plan was to divide the party: Davis and I would set out for Ratz (10,290 feet) early in the morning; since Mussell (10,260 feet) was three miles and many crevasses north and would require a longer approach, we felt it would be best for Kor and Mather to leave immediately to take advantage of the weather break. As it turned out, this was a fortunate decision, despite an uncomfortable bivouac. Mather and Kor had a real navigation problem to overcome in getting across an immense cascading glacier on the southeast flank of Mussell, where for about half an hour they were threatened by hanging ice cliffs. In mid-glacier the crevasses became exceedingly complex, and once each crawled on his stomach across a 25-foot, thin snowbridge in order to distribute his weight, while the other belayed. This entire bridge had disappeared on their return the next day! They climbed until about ten in the evening, at which time they found a rock spur for a bivouac. Hidden crevasses and a slope of steep breakable crust were the main problems of the final ascent. They reached the summit of Mussell late in the morning of August 2. The long, treacherous glacier descent was enlivened by occasional breakthroughs. Afternoon warming made the lower icefall which led down to the Triumph a dangerous but unavoidable problem in getting back to camp. Just as they reached the safety of the glacier floor, a rainstorm hit.

The morning of August 2 found Davis and me clambering up a slabby granite spur of Mount Ratz. When the rock became a problem, we took to snow fingers along the edge of a major icefall. We reached the pointed top of the spur and then descended to a slight col on the east face. After crossing the top of the glacier which descended to the icefall, we climbed the slabby face of a short rock wall and traversing rightward, worked toward the impressive and steep northeast buttress. We managed a great deal of this unroped to save time, but there were two treacherous pitches of fifth-class traversing on verglas.

The airy buttress was a climber’s delight, and we gained height quickly by kicking steps in the thin line of névé that lay on the crest or immediate right side. As we reached a sub-summit, lowering clouds began to loosen snowflakes, and the surrounding peaks, which had provided such a spectacular alpine setting, began to look blurry. After a steep snow traverse, the most difficult section led along an airy crest and at a vertical step required touchy climbing on rock covered with snow bosses. We traversed from what at first had seemed like the true summit to a more southerly rock horn, which is most likely the highest point. Driving snow, and later rain, made the descent anything but pleasant.

After a mutual exchange of yarns and sleeping through the rainstorm, we decided to explore Noel Peak, even though it was some distance to the northwest, because we still had a few days’ food at this camp. Mather and Kor took a two-and-one-half-day trek down the Triumph Glacier and climbed an arm to the southwest, in an attempt to reach the north face. However, their efforts ended below 9000 feet when warming and wet weather made the snow very soft and dangerous. In the meantime I felt ill one day, and by the next, the warming trend convinced us that the long trip around to the south would be to no avail. On August 6 we hoisted camp into our packs and on skis moved about twelve miles south, down to the Baird Glacier and climbed to a picturesque ridge west of Mount T. Here we found our previously dropped cache. A brief spell of good weather which we had had on the move down the glacier deteriorated again, and we spent two days restlessly awaiting a chance to attempt the Burkett Peaks.

At first our plan was for all four of us to descend to an arm of the Baird that cuts into the north faces of Burkett and the Burkett Needle, climb the glacier to the saddle between the peaks and then take routes from there toward each summit. But a fall of new snow made a face climb of Burkett seem dangerous, and so on the 9th Mather and I set out on skis with medium loads to make a track across the icecap to the edge of the Flood Glacier, our planned exit route to the Stikine. We were becoming somewhat concerned over the possibility of trouble in finding the exact spot to leave the icecap, since visibility had been reduced to a few hundred feet for two days. However, about noon the fog cleared and we kicked ourselves for not being on the slope of Burkett. The climb would have been feasible. We completed our cross-country ski trek by evening and climbed to a rock point where a most spectacular ice cliff broke off to a steep field of séracs and icefalls toward the Flood Glacier. A chilly wind came up, followed by rain; without shelter or sleeping bags the night was a long and uncomfortable one. From this position we could have climbed Burkett en route back to camp, but not in this weather. We left a cache in the morning and in pea-soup fog followed our ski tracks back the long, dull miles to camp. Visibility was so bad that we could barely pick out the ski tracks in the hummocked snow.

Meanwhile Davis and Kor hit the afternoon weather break with a stroke of luck. They had decided to give Burkett Needle a try and left camp on the morning of the 9th under conditions that appeared most unfavorable. But, as they climbed the glacier to its north buttress, the skies cleared and they had a fortunate day — perhaps the best of the whole trip. Sliding snow made the climb toward the col seem dangerous, and so they followed the crest of the north buttress all the way to the summit (c. 8500 feet). They reported some steep snow climbing and two pitches on rock steps of F6 difficulty. It was a spectacular alpine climb, and from its virgin summit they had a great panorama of Burkett, Devil’s Thumb, and the many sharp summits along the Baird Glacier.

On the 11th we all made the long cross-country ski to the edge of the Flood Glacier and pitched camp on a snow dome that projected out from the edge of the icecap. Any further hope of climbing was blotted out by a new storm, and as scud clouds screened our last view of the spectacular walls of Kate’s Needle and the Flood Glacier cirque, we shouldered heavy packs and began the trudge down to the level ice of the glacier floor. The route then followed the center of the Flood and along a final tangle of moraine, ponds, forest and brush to the sandbars along the Stikine. Most eventful were a swim and the rigging of a pulley system to ferry our loads across a deep stream. On the 14th the river boat swung into sight, and soon we were on our way to Wrangell.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Coast Range on the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia, west of the Stikine River.

First Ascents: Mussell Peak, 10,260 feet, August 2 (Kor, Mather); Mount Ratz, 10,290 feet, August 2 (Beckey, Davis); Burkett Needle, c. 8500 feet, August 9 (Davis, Kor).

Personnel: Fred Beckey, Daniel Davis, Layton Kor, Henry Mather.

*Part I was published in the A.A.]., 1947, 6:3, pp. 269 to 277 and recounts Beckey’s expedition to this region in 1946, when Kate’s Needle and Devil's Thumb were first climbed. — Editor.

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