American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Wrangell Range

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1966

Wrangell Range. On July 7, Alex Bittenbinder, Don Stockard, Ray Wagner, and I left the new McCarthy airstrip to walk up the Kennicott Glacier to climb what seemed to be three virgin 14,000-foot peaks northeast of Mount Blackburn, hoping also to ascend Blackburn by a new route, the precipitous northeast ridge. At the end of the second day a misstep with a heavy pack in the base of our first icefall gave Ray a sprained ankle, so that we had to leave him there at 4000 feet with a stove, food, and tent, the rest of us continuing to 7300 feet on the northeastern basin of the Kennicott to receive our airdrop July 11. Successful in this, we returned to Ray whose ankle was better, but not sufficient for the work above, so he elected to walk out alone and get a job at Kennecott Copper Mine for the rest of the summer. Alex, Don, and I returned to our airdrop cache through icefalls that were becoming tedious, snowshoed to the highest plateau of our basin, and finally cramponed a labyrinth snow face to the Nabesna divide at 12,500 feet between our "l4ers.” Two of these were close enough together; we decided to name them "Atna Peaks” using the old Indian name for Copper River whose drainage they border. (Names in quotes, given by our party, have been approved by the Alaska Geographic Board and are expected to be approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.) We traversed the eastern of these, 13,650 feet on the new map, on July 16, camped between them, and the next day traversed around the northern side of 13,860-foot western Atna, cutting and kicking a ladder-like trail up the north slope of its 300-foot summit block. Months later we learned we were not first to this remote corniced summit (first ascent by Keith Hart’s party in 1955). Now we wanted to traverse this Atna and continue along the ridge to Blackburn, but the western slope of the mountain was very steep. We had to descend to the north 1000 feet or so, then chop steps and belay many rope lengths until we were directly over our ridge down to which we belayed from ice screws. As we continued on the morning of July 18, the weather was deteriorating fast from the less-than-optimum we had been enduring. The 12,741-foot intervening peak consumed so much time and effort as we made its first ascent that we decided it was worthy of a name. "Rime Peak” was our choice, as the coastal clouds deposit fantastically thick rime crystals here as they pour over the range. A short knife-edge ridge beyond connected to Blackburn, but over-extended as we were with a storm coming, we couldn’t risk it. Rather than re-traverse the Atnas, we dropped north off Rime Peak all the way down to 9500 feet on the Nebesna Glacier, then east around the foot of the Atnas through "Mountaineers Pass,” as we named it. For the next three days we struggled in the deep new snow and strong winds of the expected storm to regain the 12,500-foot main ridge where we had a cache. Attaining the ridge in a whiteout, we camped till it cleared sufficiently to find the buried cache from landmarks and then climbed eastward to Peak 13,280 feet on the evening of the 21st, where the temperature was 6° F. on top at 10:15 p.m. We left a wand and descended. Bad weather continued as we returned to the Kennicott Glacier. We weren’t able to find our lower cache and many of our snow bridges had collapsed, but we avoided the worst icefalls by dropping down the west side of "Packsaddle Island” at the end of our ridge to the main Kennicott and walked all the way out in one long slog reaching Kennecott (as the copper company misspells it) on July 25. Now the new maps are out in advance proofs, dropping our "l4ers” under that magical mark. Another interesting detail they show is that the southeastern summit of Mount Blackburn reached by Dora Keen and G. W. Handy in 1912 is only 16,286 feet, whereas the true summit, 16,390, a mile and a half northwest of it was first reached by the 1958 party (see World’s Work, November, 1913: 27:pp. 80-101 and A.A.J., 1959: 11:2pp. 237-242). The old maps kept the 1912 party blissfully ignorant for the rest of their lives; the new ones cut us under 14,000 feet in more like 53 days than 53 years. The summits were just as enjoyable.

J. Vincent Hoeman

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