The Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
J. Vincent Hoeman
If the Aleutians are the jaunty beard of the craggy Alaska headland, then the Kenai Peninsula must be the prominent Adam’s apple, though it is shaped more like a reptilian head itself. Perhaps one day slippage along the great faults will make an island of the Kenai, but the present nine-mile isthmus with 500-foot Portage Pass connecting the Kenai and Chugach ranges will doubtless outlast man’s tenure. Most of the Kenai’s 9700 square miles (including off-shore islands) are mountainous and over 1000 square miles are glacier, almost all united into four large icefields.
In a land of high mountains, summits of less than 7000 feet seem too insignificant to attract climbers, but many of the Kenai’s peaks are rugged, beautiful and not easy to ascend. There are 353 “independent mountains” on the Kenai and its islands using 1000 feet of “free- height”* as the breaking point; 21 of these exceed 6000 feet. Only five of these scattered highest peaks have been climbed.
Early settlement of the Kenai dates from prehistoric Eskimos and Tanaina Indians. From the time that Russian forts were built in 1760 to the gold rushes of the 1890’s, no mountain ascents were recorded. The first known ascent was that of Cooper Mountain (5270 feet) by Dora Keen in 1911; the name may not have applied to the same summit that it does now. That same year R. H. Sargent and a crew were surveying parts of the peninsula and climbed Frenchy Peak (5079 feet) and some lesser landmarks. The seaport of Seward boomed when the railroad linking it to Fairbanks in the interior was begun. A bar room bet in 1915 (some place it earlier) started an annual race to Race Point, 3000 feet above the city on a ridge of Mount Marathon, a race that is still held each Fourth of July. The record time is now 44 minutes, 25 seconds for the round trip on this rough mountainside. At least 100 competitors have done it in less than an hour.
Modern mountaineering seems to have started with a group that included Bob Goodwin and Paul Livingston which flew to Bradley Lake near the head of Kachemak Bay in July, 1951. Bob and Paul made the first ascent of Iceworm Peak (5850 feet), highest in the area and named for fauna on Dixon Glacier. In 1958, when Anchorage’s Mountaineering Club of Alaska came into existence, Mount Carpathian (6050 feet) was the first of the 21 highest to be challenged, but Ted Barrett, Keith Hart and Matt Nitsch were not able to climb it until May 7, 1959 by a ski route via Portage Lake and Glacier. The mountain is outstanding from both sides of Turnagain Arm. Its only other ascent was made on July 26, 1964 when, after two failures, Paul Crews Jr., Kim Degenhardt, John Fisher and Jim Phelps made a new route up Skookum Glacier and the sharp northwest ridge.
On July 22, 1962 I climbed Sheep (Wolcot on some maps) Mountain (6250 feet) by its west ridge and found no trace of previous human ascents; there was sheep sign on top. More difficult was the first ascent the next year of Andy Simonds Mountain (6210 feet). Cliff Ells, Dave Johnston, Peter H. Robinson, Don Stockard and I made the summit by the west ridge while Scott Hamilton stopped at 5000 feet. In December, 1966 Dave Johnston, my wife-to-be Grace and I attempted Isthmus Peak (6532 feet), which dominates the icefield that partially blocks Kenai’s isthmus, but Christmas Day blizzard caught us at 5000 feet on the north face. Since we could not find our way back to camp on Spencer Glacier, we huddled for hours in a hastily dug snow cave until a lull allowed us to retreat. The first ascent was made on March 30, 1967 by Ron Linder, Nick Parker and Bob Spurr by the south ridge from Trail Glacier.
The prize of the Kenai was its 6612-foot highest point, which we named Truuli Peak to preserve the old Indian name for the Kenai Mountains. It is remote, 30 miles from a road for a raven and considerably more for ground-bound vertebrates. On a brief winter attempt in 1966 we found hopping tide-borne ice blocks on the Kachemak beach too arduous. In April, 1968 a full-scale expedition took shape. On the 17th Bill Babcock, Dave Johnston, Yule Kilcher and I with five horses, two horse-handlers and a dog left the Kilcher homestead on Kachemak Bay. At the end of three days of tidal beach, snowy brush, fractious horses on the anchor-ice along the open Fox River, and a narrow canyon below the glacier snout, the four of us got to the foot of Truuli Peak four miles up the Chernof
Glacier, having sent our menagerie and helpers back a day earlier. On schedule that morning, Erik Barnes flew in to land with Dave Spencer, my wife Grace and Helmut Tschaffert. He parked his plane in a hole we had dug and all joined us on the first ascent of Truuli. Fate smiled on us and let April 20 start as a fine day, giving us just enough time to ascend the technically easy southwest ridge of Truuli. Shortly after noon all eight stood on the sculptured snow summit. We hurried down as a two-day storm swirled in to pin seven of us in tents; Erik flew out.
Our next goal was to complete the “grand traverse”* of the Kenai Range by crossing the Harding Icefield to Seward. At that time we knew of three attempts to cross the Harding but thought the feat unaccomplished. When gale winds slackened, we passed over a 4950-foot pass to the Tustemena Glacier in a partial white-out, and after another day of violent storm we continued up over the level node of the icefield, a wide white desert, to make our last camp at the foot of “Node Nunatak” (5912 feet), which some of us climbed that night, the rest in the morning. Finally on the 25 th we had a good ski run down to our exit glacier, which debouched us onto the braided gravel of the Resurrection River, seven miles above Seward. We walked into a town which fetes such accomplishments as Chamonix did the eighteenth-century ascenders of Mont Blanc, except that in Seward they fire no cannon.
Later we learned that two Alaskans, now dead or gone, probably crossed the Harding Icefield from Bear Glacier to Tustemena Lake in 1940, but a far more intriguing discovery indicates that our exact route may have been followed by men 174 years earlier to the month! A footnote at the bottom of page 332 in Bancroft’s History of Alaska concerns Baranof’s direction of the building of a ship, the Phoenix, in Resurrection Bay in 1794. Sails, spars and ironwork were needed from Kodiak. There was no ship to bring them, but the fearless promishleniki (Siberian fur traders) brought these things in April, 1794 to Cook Inlet in open skin boats. Bancroft says, “From here the material was carried over dangerous glaciers and mountains to Voskressenski Harbor (Ressurrection Bay).” The only reasonable route this could describe runs from Kachemak Bay across the Harding Icefield! De Saussure sparked the conquest of Mont Blanc only eight years before; no ice mass in the world of this size had been crossed. The promishleniki were truly adaptable and fearless, but this would seem to have been out of their element. Bancroft’s information comes from Khlebnikof’s Shizn. Baranova, a work not translated into English.
A nearly complete military, helicopter-supported traverse of the Sargent Icefield was led by Hans Wagner on April 13 to 30, 1965; he has taken other groups on partial traverses of the smaller Isthmus Icefield. Many small mountains are popular one-day climbs in summer and winter. Byron Peak (4750 feet), Mount Alpenglow (4850 feet), Kickstep Mountain (4460 feet) and Fiddlehead Mountain (4940 feet) are in this category with ascents too numerous to record. Two other peaks do merit mention. Phoenix Peak (5155 feet) near Seward is quite sharp; it was climbed from the south by Don Stockard and Larry Tyone in July, 1964. Mount Ascension (5710 feet) is the high point of a large area of mountains; with an easy access by Lost Lake Trail, Grace and I made its first ascent on October 1, 1968. Exploration of the Kenai Mountains has just begun. Most of the peaks are virgin. The small granite areas are completely untouched and an endless variety of high-standard ice and snow climbs stretch into the years ahead.
*“Independent mountain” is defined as any summit with over 1000 feet of “free-height”. “Free- height” is the height of any summit above water or the col connecting it to higher mountains.
*“Grand traverse” is defined as crossing a mountain range afoot by way of the highest point.