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North America, United States, Alaska, Mount Deborah, Hayes Group, Alaska Range

Mount Deborah, Hayes Group, Alaska Range. The 6000-foot east face of Mount Deborah (2/3 of it is at an average angle of 64°) is the most impressive of all its magnificent sides. It has but one weakness: the east ridge, which climbs steeply from the col between Deborah and Mount Hess. Don Jensen and I chose this ridge for our two-man expedition in June and July. Don assisted in two airdrops, one at the foot of Deborah and a second 15 miles away in a basin just west of Mount Hayes, to which we hoped to traverse after Deborah. After four days of hiking from the Denali Highway, we found our first airdrop intact. In order to reach the Deborah-Hess col, we set up a route over the shoulder of Hess, which ended by descending 1000 feet to the col (9400 feet). This route contained much unstable rock and snow, some hidden crevasses, and four difficult ice pitches. After getting a camp on the col, we returned to pick up a cache just below the ice pitches to find everything buried by an avalanche. Fortunately we had anchored the cache with a rock piton, and a probing ice axe eventually struck a yielding food box. The weather, which had been bad, got worse. During the twenty days after June 23, we saw the sun only on five of them, usually it was snowing and windy. At last, on July 13, the weather cleared. Climbing hard for four perfect days, we put in pitch after pitch on the steep ridge. To our dismay, the rock crumbled easily and refused pitons. Alternating with pitches of rock, the snow and ice soared in spectacular, rotten plumes and fiutings. Only rarely could we get in a solid anchor; ice screws and ice-axe belays were useless. We were forced onto a narrow path between cornices on the right and steep windslab on the left. During the four days, we managed to put in 20 consecutive technical pitches, most of them fifth class. But there simply was not time. We came to the end of our efforts at 10,400 feet at a small level spot, which from below had looked like a campsite; instead we found a feathery double cornice. Above lay the hardest part of the route, culminating in a 400-foot, vertical rock wall, down which spilled avalanches and ice blocks. Discouraged we returned to camp. Since we had a day’s food to spare, we hiked up the south peak of Mount Hess, an easy day, but a first ascent. At Base Camp we picked up the last food and set off towards Hayes. Five days later, on the afternoon of July 23, we came over a pass from the Susitna Glacier and camped on the very edge of the Gillam Glacier, only four miles away from our second airdrop. We had not gone 100 yards the next morning when Don fell up to his neck into a crevasse. With a 75-pound pack and snowshoes on, he could not get out by himself. At last I anchored the rope to two ice axes, untied and came to help. Suddenly the whole surface broke, and Don fell, ripping the axes out like toothpicks, 60 feet into the crevasse, landing on his back with his pack wedged under him in an ice chimney. Miraculously, he was not badly hurt. However, it took all day, and many improvisations, to get him and his pack out. We decided the only choice was to hike the five days out the Susitna Glacier and River. On the 42nd day, with one meal left, plagued by mosquitoes and swamp, we rounded the corner of the interminable foothills, spotted the tin roof of a building in the ghost town of Denali and knew we were near civilization.

David S. Roberts, Harvard Mountaineering Club