Mt. Russell, Northeast Ridge, Second Ascent by New Route

Alaska, Alaska Range
Author: Thomas Kensler. Climb Year: 1972. Publication Year: 1973.

Three crowded Fourth of July flights brought Peter Brown, John Hauck, Dick Jablonowski, Dan Osborne, and me to the 8000-foot plateau of the east branch of the Yentna Glacier. Two days later we occupied a high camp nestled under a small ice cliff at 9900 feet on the northern end of the connector ridge leading to Mount Russell’s northeast ridge. (Previous attempt: A.A.J., 1967, 15:2, p. 344.) Commuting along the ¾-mile-long doubly-corniced connector ridge was delightful as views of Foraker and Hunter distracted one’s attentions from more immediate problems, first and foremost of which was the bergschrund at the base of the ridge proper. Doing end runs around the schrund would have been difficult, and quickest would have been to aid-climb it, but we chose to work on the snakey beginning of the northeast ridge that merged with the top of the schrund. This initial portion was a very airy, frothy, rimey, well-corniced route requiring the removal of much crud. It also took us three days of uninspired effort to climb it. We put in a 90-foot jümar to avoid repeating all but the final 200 feet of the ridge as we worked on the route higher up. From there the route led up a small plate to a moat, a few hundred feet above the schrund, over the moat via a 60-foot ice chimney and out onto the second plate which lead steeply to an ice barrier slightly less than halfway up the ridge. The ice wall swept from steep loose rocks on the north to a 4000-foot drop-off on the east face, although it did contain a few flaws. Near the rocks was a tight chimney that started to overhang about 40 feet up, and at the other end was a five-foot-wide, sharply downsloping 45° unstable snow ramp. In between was a crevasse running perpendicular to the wall. Getting this far on the 11th, we were optimistic that the wall could be done and that the summit was only another day away. After a day of high winds we were back at it shortly after midnight on the 13th. Osborne crawled into a small opening at the base of the wall, was forced to descend 15 feet to get back into the perpendicular crevasse, and then proceeded to chimney up 50 feet with snow on one side and hard ice on the other. Seeing light through the snow canopy, he broke through and emerged about two-thirds of the way up the wall—above the vertical section, but still on a 60° slope. Now we were in the ice-cube tray—a mass of tumbled ice blocks and holes. The only problem was one of routefinding. After an hour in the maze the route went 1000 vertical feet up 45° to 60° snow slopes hanging over nothing. There were a few rime-ice bumps once we got off the east face and back on the ridge again. Their ten-foot pitches kept things interestingly and finally one lead us to the top of the summit rime-cap (11,670 feet). After Russell the trip became anything but anticlimactic as we spent a week negotiating the Yentna Icefall and getting over to the tundra on the north side of the Alaska Range. Then the 60 miles to Wonder Lake was the standard fare of oppressive swarms of mosquitos, swamps, endless willow thickets, circuitous detours around grizzlies, and five glacial rivers brimming with excessive summer melt.

Thomas Kensler, Alaska Alpine Club

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