The East Peak of LaPerouse and Mount Bertha
Larry Nielson, Unaffiliated
WORKING in the Fairweather Range for an exploration mining company gave Dusan Jagersky and me the perfect opportunity for some exciting climbs. We made a few minor ascents such as “Mount McElvain” and the adjoining west ridge of spires and peaks to keep our fitness and climbing in good shape. While climbing in the area, our thoughts were constantly on the east peak of LaPerouse. We were waiting for the proper conditions to climb the peak with a quick alpine attack.
The East Peak of La Perouse. It was ten P.M. on one of those rare beautiful Alaskan nights as Dusan and I plodded through deep avalanche runoff. We had finally started our climb of the east peak of LaPerouse. Somewhere, five to six thousand feet above, was our goal. We crossed several small bergschrunds and three pitches of 55° avalanche-prone snow. This put us on our first bivouac ledge. We left our packs and climbed the remaining fifty feet to “Buffy Pass” to take a look at the next day’s climbing, which promised to be difficult and dangerous. With these thoughts in mind, we descended to our small rock platform.
We had a cold, anxious night’s sleep. The sun was just coming up, although it had never actually become completely dark. We retraced our footsteps up the corniced ridge to “Buffy Pass,” where we found a semibreak in the cornice and climbed through. After descending 300 feet down an unstable 55° snow slope, we came to a narrow avalanche chute that came from above. A narrow rotten ledge bypassed the gully and gave access to the steep ice above. We climbed along the ledge dodging rocks until we could regain the snow and ice. Twelve leads followed on the 50° to 60° snow and ice. This brought us to the hardest ice pitch of the climb: 200 feet of 70° black ice. Dusan crossed a small crevasse and began climbing. He moved up about fifty feet and put in protection for a belay. I climbed up and then past Dusan when a small cornice broke loose from above and poured down upon us. We were lucky only to get snow inside our clothes. Filled with snow, I climbed the remaining 120 feet to a good belay ledge, where we found ourselves in the middle of monstrous avalanche speedways. We had to move quickly because of the warming sun. These great objective dangers gave us added strength to move quickly. We moved up and across to the protection of a huge sérac just in time to watch another avalanche flow by. Once by, we ran to the other side of the main avalanche trough. We had just reached the other side when another rumble filled the air. We were grateful for our luck as we moved up onto the north ridge from the northeast face.
We climbed the next few pitches on unstable snow but with the satisfaction of knowing we had secure belays. We moved off the steep snow onto the rotten rock. As I began climbing the class-five rock, I became aware of the tremendous exposure and beauty of the climb. On the next lead, Dusan climbed a small steep gully of mixed ice and rock. The last hard lead was a rotten class-five chimney. Once on top of the chimney, we found our rock climbing over and re-strapped crampons to our boots.
We moved up the next few pitches and found a small platform where we had our first few morsels of food since morning. It was six P.M. Mount Bertha, at 10,204 feet, was clearly visible to the northeast. We radioed down to Base Camp on the Brady Glacier to assure them of our well-being. We could see the summit 2000 feet above our small crevassed perch. The slope looked gentle compared to our earlier climbing that day.
When the slope was checked, it proved to be a continuous 55° to the summit. We began the remaining climbing on firm ice and snow which enabled us to move up rapidly. We were soon confronted with a huge bergschrund on the north side that ran the entire length of the face. After searching for an hour, Dusan found a ledge which gave us access to the summit icefields. We switched leads up the blue ice as the sun was beginning to set behind Mount Crillon, forming a beautiful silhouette. We worked our way up to the corniced summit ridge. I cut, cursed and hit my way through the cornice. Finally, Dusan and I were standing gingerly on the summit.
We had completed our goal of a new route on a difficult and beautiful peak. We had completed the second ascent of the peak which had first been climbed by Leo Scheiblehner in 1959.* These thoughts quickly left our minds as we searched for a bivouac spot on the south face, about 300 feet below the summit. The hour was late—about 1:30 A.M. We found a small rock outcropping that would serve as a wind break for our night of sleep. We had been climbing nineteen-and-a-half hours since morning. We had no trouble falling into our own separate dream worlds for the night.
We awoke thankful for another beautiful climbing day since this range has a reputation for unstable weather. We began moving down the slopes until we could head west down to the main glacier. We moved down quickly at times until the snow became too soft to support our weight—which forced us to posthole.
We finally reached the icefall and determined the best line for a descent. We chose a 60-foot overhanging rapel. Another few hundred feet of down-climbing with huge ice cliffs above led us to the glacier below. We followed Misery Ridge on the east side of the glacier, similar to Leo’s 1959 descent. We had a beautiful 500-foot glissade from Misery Ridge down to Brady Glacier. We then walked the remaining four miles to our mining camp, grateful for our success in completing such a fine climb.
Mount Bertha. On July 24, about two weeks after our ascent of the east peak of LaPerouse, Dusan and I were camping on the rocks of Crillon-Bertha Pass at about 6500 feet. We were at the spot where Bradford Washburn* many years before had said, “The approach to this pass was not only exceedingly steep, but badly exposed to avalanches of ice from the hanging glaciers of Crillon on the left and falling rocks from the impressive western cliffs of Bertha on the right.”
We had an exceptional panorama view from our high camp, of Brady Glacier to Taylor Bay and of the surrounding peaks. As the daylight began to fade into darkness the glacier below began to change and look more like a white sea with small nunataks as ships. The huge precipice of Bertha continued to rumble, sounding more like waves against the rocks than rocks in an avalanche. With nightfall coming fast, Dusan and I hurriedly cleared rock windbreaks for our night’s rest. The weather was good, as was our forecast.
We awoke to darker than normal skies, which really didn’t help our outlook for our day’s climbing. Hoping to make the summit in an easy day, we packed only gear needed for the summit strike and roped together for the remaining 4700 feet. We were ascending the west-southwest ridge, just north of the crest. The climbing was an easy 45° to 50°, although there was a mixture of hard ice and deep snow. As we ascended, the weather improved which enabled us to witness the unforgettable sights of Fairweather and Quincy Adams on the border with Canada to the northwest.
As we climbed on, the clouds began to surround us, so we decided to radio Base Camp for current weather information. Base Camp assured us that the summit was clear and the weather in general looked to be fine. With this assurance we continued up the ridge to the snowdome. Our visibility at this time was very poor. We continued across the dome. We broke out of the clouds into beautiful sunshine and could see the summit ridge a short distance in front of us. Our spirits rose as we proceeded up the névé. The view was beautiful as the sun reflected off the water in Glacier Bay. The sky was a rich blue and the snow a clean white. We shall always remember the total view. We reached the snow-covered summit full of energy and excitement.
We spent a little over an hour on the summit taking pictures of ourselves and the surrounding peaks. We lay in the warm sunshine, eating steak sandwiches which we had saved from Base Camp for this moment. We were in our natural high, our ecstasy. We wanted to savor this brief moment in time forever, but we knew it must end. We packed our gear for the descent.
We descended to a small rock outcropping and built a small cairn and placed our names and the date in it. We continued an uneventful descent except for the beautiful views, which were a continuing reward for our effort.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Fairweather Range, Southeastern Alaska.
New Routes: East Peak of LaPerouse, c. 10,000 feet, via the northeast ridge and the north face, July 6, 1972.
Mount Bertha, 10,204 feet, via the west-southwest ridge, July 25, 1972.
Personnel: Larry Nielson, Dusan Jagersky.
*First ascent by Bradford and Barbara Washburn, Maynard Miller, Michl Feuersinger and Thomas Winship on July 30, 1940 up the eastern side. See A.A.J., 1941, 4:2, pages 149-156.
*A.A.J., 1960, 12:1, pages 113 and 114.