American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kichatna Spire

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1967

Kichatna Spire

David S. Roberts and Richard G. C. Millikan

Roberts begins:

THE Cathedral Spires, hidden in a southwestern corner of the Alaska Range, are probably North America’s closest equivalent to the towers of Patagonia. No other area combines heavy glaciation, remoteness, and bad weather with such an abundance of vertical walls, pinnacles, and obelisks. Nowhere else had any of us seen such remarkable sights as huge ceilings interrupting knife-edged ridges, mushroom-shaped towers of rock, or rime ice coating overhanging walls.

But the Cathedral Spires have not long attracted mountaineers, partly because almost no one knew about them, and partly because they require a style of mountaineering that is only now coming into being: that of difficult technical climbing on expeditionary mountains. Certainly such a thing was far from the mind of Joseph Herron in the summer of 1899, when he paused on a willow-covered pass to admire and name the three sharp peaks he could glimpse through the hills to the north. Herron was less interested in any mountains he might discover than in scouting a route for one of those grandiose turn-of-the-century Alaskan schemes (a railroad from Anchorage to Nome! ). Today, of course, that country is as trackless as it was seventy years ago; but the names of those three obscure men, Augustin, Lewis, and Gurney, whom Herron intended to immortalize, still grace the only officially named peaks in the Cathedral Spires.

Not until 1965 did anyone climb in the Spires (see A.A.J., 1966, 15:1, pp. 25-29). That year a party of six managed to climb three of the lower peaks; unfortunately, they chose for their base camp a nearly escape-proof glacier on the most difficult flank of the range’s highest peak and obvious prize, a mass of granite known only as Peak 8985. Al de Maria and Pete Geiser wrote: "We all considered this mountain — from a mountaineering as well as esthetic viewpoint — to be one of the outstanding peaks of North America.”

Peak 8985 was our choice, then, as the main objective for a 1966 expedition. Taking advantage of what the 1965 party had learned, we decided to concentrate on a single peak: because of their compactness, the Spires seem to encourage over-confidence, and a party that planned to climb all of the peaks in one summer might not get up any. After the usual problems of gathering a party, we managed to round up five enthusiasts: Art Davidson, Rick Millikan, Dave Johnston, Pete Meisler, and me. We felt strong, with the experience of a total of nine Alaskan expeditions among us; and Pete, the only one to whom Alaska was new, had just been doing some hard climbs in Yosemite. At the last minute Jerry Bernass, of Anchorage, decided to join us for the first two weeks, primarily to make a film.

Because of jobs and other nuisances, we could not go until September. This was extremely late for climbing in Alaska, and as the days got colder in Anchorage, Art and I looked westward and shivered. Rick wrote discouraging letters from California, noting that it was even getting colder there, and that, besides, we were going to miss the World Series. But at last, on September 2, we were flown in from Anchorage by Eric Barnes, an excellent young pilot and mountain climber. We landed on the previously untouched glacier northeast of the highest peak. Towards the end of our planning we had decided to put Base Camp on this glacier, which at first sight (from maps and aerial photos) offered the least hope, but which apparently gave access to a hanging glacial tongue that might lead to the mountain’s north ridge.

Our Base Camp was awesomely situated, surrounded by jagged, clean walls. We got only a few hours of sunlight around noon, and, after two weeks, none at all. The gloominess led us to call our home the "Glacier of the Shadows.” But we were less than a mile from the foot of Peak 8985. A four-digit number scarcely seemed to dignify such a commanding peak; after a while we agreed upon "Kichatna Spire,” a combination of the names of the immediate area and of the whole range.

On the first day Dave and I easily got up the hanging glacier. But what we had picked out from below as a nice direct-aid route to the ridge proved gruesome: a smooth, 80° wall, plastered here and there with ice, threatened by little avalanches, and split only by a rurp crack that petered out two pitches up. The alternative was an easy rock route to the ridge, followed, alas, by two deep notches whose upper walls overhung.

But there was another possibility, visible, curiously, not from Base Camp, but only in an aerial photo. On September 4 Rick, Dave, and Pete reconnoitered this hidden gully and dramatically climbed out of sight into a storm as the other three of us watched below. They returned after a few hours, elated, announcing a 1600-foot snow couloir, steep all the way but unbroken, that led exactly to the ridge. The "Secret Passage,” as we began to call it, was obviously a big break. At this point we were congratulating ourselves for coming as late as September, for the snow conditions in the "Passage” were superb, whereas in the middle of summer such a couloir might have held only rotten snow, or worse, blue ice.

The real attack began on September 5, when Dave and I started up the vertical wall that bordered the couloir above. I nailed slowly up a wide bong crack while Dave patiently got chilly through two down jackets. We could never climb in the sun on this north ridge, and we had to scrape away layers of frost feathers, even from inside some of the cracks. Two days later Art completed the short wall, reaching a landing from which one could look out between narrow walls to see the breath-taking backdrop of Mounts Dali, Russell, Hunter, Foraker, and McKinley, white lords ruling seventy miles of untrodden glacier.

Since only two men could work on the route at a time, the others started a route on Gurney Peak, a beautiful, ice-laced bastion directly above our camp. And on September 7, Rick and I reached the top of a nearby 7300-foot peak, which we called "Vertex Peak,” after a delightful mixed climb for which we carried only six pitons and one hammer, just enough. It lies 11/2-miles northeast of Gurney, just north of another summit of the same height. Art and Dave, after a tough ice pitch and a direct-aid wall, were optimistic about Gurney, too. But we had far yet to go on Kichatna Spire.

On a chilly day of climbing, Rick and I advanced the route to a col at 8000 feet, but were stopped by bad snow because we had not brought crampons or axes. Two days later Art and Pete jïimared up our fixed ropes and managed to put in two more crucial ice pitches, gaining an exposed ledge that looked good for an eventual bivouac.

Our only disappointment so far had been the failure of Jerry’s movie camera. He turned his abundant energy, however, to the construction of an igloo; the result was so popular that we eventually expanded it to three connecting rooms, a fifty-foot mansion of snow. For the first nine days the weather had been generally good. On September 11 it stormed, and the storm continued for twelve straight days. Often during those days the wind howled outside, and piled drifts over our igloo; even when it was relatively calm on the glacier, we could see the furious turbulence around the tops of the highest peaks. When the mists briefly cleared, new snow plastered to the walls warned us of the approach of winter. On September 16 Barnes made a remarkable landing in a storm lull to take Jerry out. The next day Pete and Dave climbed a snow peak lower on the glacier 2¼-miles northeast of Gurney Peak, having only a manila fixed rope to belay with. At the same time, Rick and I explored a new, high glacier to the northwest. Thinking we might bag a summit on the way, we started up an easy peak nearby, 1½-miles north of Kichatna Spire. Only forty feet below the summit, the snow suddenly cracked above us. I yelled, "Stay out of it! ” but we were powerless to escape. The avalanche gathered speed and swept us downwards. Falling head-over-heels, I kept thinking the snow was going to bury me. Fortunately our run-out was smooth. We stopped 350 feet below, only slightly bruised. Rick got up belligerently and accused the avalanche of stealing his axe. But it was bigger than we were, and we suddenly realized it had friends all over the glacier. We returned nervously to Base Camp, and waited a bit anxiously until Dave and Pete got back.

All of us were beginning to feel pessimistic about our chances on Kichatna Spire. During the storm we had decided to place a camp part way up the Secret Passage. On September 9 we had managed to pitch a tent under a unique prong of rock at about 7100 feet, but we had had to retrieve it on the 16th for fear the winds might rip it loose. On September 21, in improving weather, Art and Rick started up the Secret Passage again, to camp under the prong; they were taking bivouac gear to make a real push for the summit if the weather cleared.

Millikan describes the summit climb:

The last week of igloo-sitting had left us logy. But soon, as we tromped through the deep snow, unused muscles began to loosen and the joy of climbing returned. Dave Roberts went along with Art and me to the base of the Passage, then watched as we slowly, very slowly, made our way up, changing leads every few hundred feet in the deep powder. He worried for our safety on the steep, unconsolidated snow; yet one could sense he would have given much to be with us on this climb. This was the peak we had keyed our hopes on; it was a shame we could not all be together.

By five we reached what remained of our old tent platform. After an hour’s hacking we were able to settle down for the night, perched on this little niche high above the glacier. The weather showed no sign of improving, but neither did it seem to be worsening. One way or another we would make do with what the gods of the mountains gave us.

Despite an early start the next day, it was early afternoon before we reached the previous high point. Above in the mist two evil-looking ice chimneys stretched interminably upward; but our route lay to the left across innocent snow. Not so innocent! Much of the time only a thin layer covered the steep rock slabs, waiting merely for the sun’s warmth or the impact of a climber’s boot to slide over the brink to the glacier 2500 feet below. Gingerly we crossed this slope, consolidating each foothold with care and, when possible, driving pins into the rock just below. By four we had covered only three or four pitches and gained no altitude; yet it was with high spirits that we retraced these to our bivouac. The route ahead looked quite possible as far as we could see, and, more important, the weather was rapidly improving. Everywhere gigantic faces, still plastered with new snow, stood highlighted in the soft evening light.

"Six o’clock, Art. Let’s get going.” No water, since we had dropped the top of the Bluet the night before; but on a morning like this, who could care? Quickly we followed last night’s steps. A long snow traverse mixed with short rock pitches led up and left, then a more difficult mixed pitch straight up beneath rock overhangs. While I tried to dodge the dripping of melting icicles above, Art led what turned out to be the crux pitch of the climb: a short aid crack followed by eighty feet of difficult free climbing. Above, no snow covered the rock: only rime ice, which slid away at the slightest touch. But it was less steep, and the rock was crumbly from constant weathering. Crampons held. Then we were on the summit ridge. After several rope-lengths of easy walking, the ridge turned into a doubly corniced knife-edge of snow on which, only 200 feet away, stood the summit block, a great hunk of rock forty feet high, delicately balanced. Both sides overhung. The near face was steep, but plastered with snow. Art cautiously worked his way up the rotten stuff. A belay here was psychological only. Then he stood on the summit.

For twenty minutes we gazed. Mount Augustin, with its fantastic 4000-foot sweep of fluted snow; Gurney, with its clean granite faces; the "Triple Peaks,” just below us; and, in the distance, Mount Russell, almost hidden against the giant bulks of Foraker and McKinley. We stood on this tiny platform, the summit of a range, on the second day of autumn. But it was almost five p.m.; we had to get down. We descended, hurrying, and reached our bivouac ledge in the dark, finishing the last few pitches by headlamp.

Roberts concludes:

Waiting anxiously below, Dave, Pete, and I had seen Rick and Art cross the summit skyline and disappear into the dusk. We continued to watch. For most of a long hour there was nothing; then, flashing like a bright star out of the night, came a thrilling OK signal from the bivouac ledge.

We were up the Secret Passage early the next morning. We had decided, rather than try for the summit ourselves, to pull down our supplies and use the few remaining days on another major peak. We met Rick and Art almost at the tent. It was an exuberant reunion; they looked tired, their eyes were bloodshot, but they were still tremendously excited from their magnificent effort. Fittingly, the summit day had been the only perfect one of the whole expedition.

Pete and Dave climbed on up to retrieve all our fixed ropes and pitons, as the other three of us went down to Base Camp. By dark, they had not returned. Art and Rick, exhausted, fell asleep in the igloo; but I lay awake, worried. Another storm was coming in. No sound from the mountain had answered my shouts. Finally, at eleven p.m., I saw a headlight in the dark, and soon Dave and Pete were back. They had had a pretty bad time of it when a high rappel had hung up; eventually they had had to cut the climbing rope and leave most of it.

Two days after that we moved our camp up to the high glacier that Rick and I had reconnoitered. We had three days to try to climb Peak 8520, a jagged, sheer tower that was the fourth highest peak in the range. But the storms continued and even increased, prohibiting serious climbing. Dave and I, though, managed to get up "Avalanche Peak” without another avalanche, and the next day Rick, Dave, and I climbed a rocky prong just north of it, and ran out of time short of the summit of Peak 6968 down the glacier to the north.

We returned to Base Camp. Rather than to fly out, we had decided to spend our last week making a circular traverse of four of the glaciers, finishing with a hike out to Rainy Pass Lodge, twenty-seven miles to the south. Our October Traverse turned out to be a rare, enthralling experience, in some respects the best fun of the whole trip. We managed to get all our technical gear out with Barnes on his last air check, so that we could do the traverse with only 55-pound packs. The first day we descended the length of the “Glacier of the Shadows” and crossed a schist-strewn pass to the west. At dusk ( which by now came early ), as a fierce wind chilled us, Rick plunged, belayed, through the cornice on the pass, and led down through deep powder to a campsite. In the morning an avalanche thundered by us in such flat light that we couldn’t see it. That day we crossed the foot of the glacier the 1965 party had been on, passed two yet unfrozen lakes, on the lower of which swam a few tranquil ducks, and hiked three miles up the glacier that feeds the Tatina River. On the third day, we continued across a narrow pass to the south, the only easy place in the range to cross its main divide. All the while we were approaching the astonishing west faces of the unclimbed "Triple Peaks.” I led down through an eerie icefall in the late afternoon, on the fifth of the range’s glaciers that we were the first to tread. The shrouded 4000-foot walls of the "Triple Peaks” seemed to menace our steps. We were forced by night to camp between two areas strewn with debris, and though we heard ominous cracking sounds all through the night, we managed to sleep. In the morning we got glimpses of the walls, coated smooth with rime ice, even up to the seams beneath jutting ceilings. These were obviously midsummer climbs, if at all; in October conditions the very thought of climbing them was worth a shudder. We had a delightful hike down this “Monolith Glacier,” interrupted by an hour that Art spent filming our version of a baseball game on the top of a huge, perfectly balanced glacier table. In the afternoon, in a light rain, we descended through granite boulders to the floor of the Kichatna River. That night we camped on sand, had a wood fire, and fell asleep to the novel sound of a rushing river. But during the night it started snowing, wet and heavy. We stayed dry the next morning for about half an hour. After that we did not try: we crashed through soaked alder thickets, waded streams with our boots on, and stopped only once, for lunch, because we got miserably cold whenever we weren’t moving. But that night we reached an empty hunting cabin where we could dry off and sleep warm. The last day, we covered eleven miles, following moose trails through the beautiful snow-covered willows. Even though it snowed again, as it had on 25 of our last 26 days, we managed to stay warm, and waded the hip-deep Happy River without incident.

During those last miles, with Rainy Pass Lodge almost in sight, I felt already the disappointment of civilization. I felt, also, as I think the others may have, the strange sense of adventurous peace that comes from too few of the things we can ever do, but which 35 days in the mountains, out of which we had come safe and fit, could give us. Because of that, our hike across those frozen stretches of land seemed to me alive with echoes of the wanderings of ancient tribes, of migrations in the wake of vast herds of reindeer, of the first superstitious voyages into the unknown north, and, finally, of the endless mythic journeys of our hearts, of the hearts of all the men who have moved across land or sea for five thousand centuries. What if we had climbed a certain mountain? It is still there, surrounded on every side by summits no man has ever visited, offering, as only the wilderness can, this world’s last illusion of paradise.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Southwestern Alaska Range.

First Ascents: "Kichatna Spire”, 8985 feet, September 23, 1966 (Millikan, Davidson).

"Vertex Peak”, 7300 feet, September 7, 1966 (Millikan, Roberts).

Peak 6500 feet, September 17, 1966 (Johnston, Meisler). "Avalanche Peak”, 6900 feet, September 26, 1966 (Johnston, Roberts ).

Rock prong, 6500 feet, September 27, 1966 (Johnston, Millikan, Roberts).

Personnel: Arthur Davidson, David P. Johnston, Peter Meisler, Richard G. C. Millikan, David S. Roberts.

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