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The Southwest Ridge of Fairweather

The Southwest Ridge of Fairweather

Peter Metcalf

AS the rather flat summit of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather finally materialized through the fog and mist, a sudden burst of energy shot through my weary body, even though the four of us had been wallowing upward in waist-deep powder snow for the last six-and-a-half hours. My heart pounded and I gasped for breath in the thin air. Though the peak was lost in the clouds, during those last 15 minutes we stayed on the summit—after making the fifth ascent of Fairweather by the virgin southwest ridge—that experience will remain forever in my memory. My mind raced back six months to a dreary February evening when Henry Florschutz asked me if I was interested in a four-man Alaskan expedition. It had taken little to persuade me since Lincoln Stoller and I had discussed such a venture often during the preceding year.

The initial team members were Henry Florschutz (age 19), Lincoln Stoller and I (both 17). A qualified fourth member eluded us till late in April when we met Toby O’Brien (age 19) while climbing at the Shawangunks one weekend. We figured we were one of the youngest independent expeditions ever to tackle a major Alaskan peak by an untried route. The biggest morale booster came when word was received from the American Alpine Club that we had each been awarded Boyd Everett Climbing Fellowship grants. Unsure as to what Alaskan peak to attempt, we pored through books and old climbing journals. By luck we stumbled across Paddy Sherman’s book, The Cloud Walkers, in which he describes his 1958 second ascent of Mount Fairweather.* A day later Fairweather again popped up in the 1966 American Alpine Journal with Loren Adkins’ description of the third ascent by the West Ridge. Further research revealed that Fairweather had not been successfully climbed since 1966, although a Japanese expedition spent 40 days trying in 1968.

Planning went along rapidly and smoothly until we received a rather distressing phone call from Fred Beckey, who was also planning an expedition into the area. They had several objectives in mind, including the southwest ridge of Fairweather. After some rather terse discussion, it was agreed that they would focus their main effort on an adjacent peak, the still unclimbed Mount Salisbury.

In Juneau on the afternoon of June 18, pilot Ken Loken told us to get cracking and heave our gear into his Turbo-Beaver. Since U.S. Park Service regulations forbid any landings or airdrops within the boundaries of the Glacier Bay National Monument that encompasses Fairweather, Loken brought his seaplane down on a calm little cove indenting Cape Fairweather. A beautiful beach campsite was ours that night with the Pacific surf crashing on one side and the Fairweather Glacier terminus on the other.

The morning of June 19 dawned as one of the clearest of the four weeks that we were there. Awe-inspiring Mount Fairweather rose 15,000 feet above us in a single swoop while its glacier flowed down to within a half mile of where we stood on the coast. We followed the creek that drains the Fairweather Glacier and then climbed up through thick alder shrubs growing out of the stagnant ice until we topped the moraine. We moved slowly and monotonously through huge piles of rock that covered the ice, but our pace quickened on reaching the finger of rock-strewn bare ice in the center of the Fairweather Glacier. Progress was smooth and rapid except for one heavily crevassed spot.

That second evening, we camped near the dividing line between ice and snow at the western end of Desolation Valley. Two more ferries in murky weather were needed to bring up the rest of our supplies. The last evening at this camp, a fierce thunderstorm with violent winds pelted us with rain, hail, and snow for half the night, but by morning the storm had abated and our two tents were relatively unscathed. Under overcast skies we continued a little up the glacier and then to the right until we were halted by an icefall. We dropped packs and split up to seek a feasible route onto the southern valley wall. Once located and flagged with bamboo wands, we traversed along the valley wall till a subsidiary glacier came in from the right. Here we made our second camp and brought up the rest of the loads.

After topping the second icefall to the right, we traversed left across the glacier and passed a last icefall to reach the base of the southwest ridge. We set up a new camp and spent the next two days ferrying supplies in miserable weather. Wet snowfalls intermittently caused avalanches on the vertical cliffs above. From there we moved up to establish Base Camp at 5700 feet on a low col that dented the ridge line. The col lay above avalanche slopes, which we climbed at night when the surface was frozen. We were now ready for the crux of the climb, which was to gain the ridge proper at 9200 feet.

There seemed to be three options open. Stoller and I first tried the north side of the ridge while Florschutz and O’Brien explored the south. No go! Steep, rotten snow on both slopes was prone to avalanche at any moment. The next day we awoke to familiar weather—mist with wet snow falling. We proceeded to try our last alternative: straight up from camp onto the ridge itself and over a 200-foot band of terribly rotten rock. A constant stream of slush and wet snow poured down over the leader on this rotten F4 rock. After we had all climbed this single pitch, the weather, wet-snow avalanches and falling rock drove us back for that day.

On June 30 we were off by four A.M. in clear, cold weather. With aluminum pickets, deadmen, and extra ropes in our packs, we hastily climbed the rotten rock band with Gibbs ascenders for self-belaying. Good cramponing on a firm crust made for rapid progress on the lower part of the snow ramp above the rock band. Later, with deteriorating conditions, we traversed into an ice runnel that ran up to the top of the ramp where we were confronted by another large rock band.

Here we split up; Lincoln and I skirted left and then onto the steep north slope of the ridge, on thinly crusted snow, with some ice and mixed rock and snow. We gained the ridge proper at 9200 feet, where we found a well-protected, scenic spot for our ridge camp. Mounts Logan and St. Elias rose distantly in the north; the Pacific Ocean spread below to the west; the peaks of Salisbury, Sabine, and Lituya dominated the south. The summit of Fairweather soared directly above. On the descent the bright sun had done its work; rotten snow was ready to peel from the steep slopes with each kick and slip into an obstructed drop several thousand feet down to the glacier below.

Being prudent, in two pack trips we each ferried up an extra large margin of rations in case of a long storm. On Sunday morning, July 1, just after leaving the snow on our final carry, the whole mountain suddenly began to shake. Rocks plunged down and one huge avalanche after another broke off Lituya and Sabine, spreading debris across half the Fairweather Glacier. Sobered, we continued on up to our ridge camp. Weeks later we learned that this earthquake, with an intensity of 5.9 on the Richter Scale, had been felt throughout the Alaskan Panhandle.

The next three days were stormy, but on two we could do a little reconnaissance. The ridge, narrow and magnificently corniced, required fixed ropes in two vertical notches. Our reconnaissance took us nearby to the end of the ridge, where a steep rock tower blocked the way. We traversed the north face on ice past the rock tower, climbed two steep ice pitches and then cut through the cornice above us to top the ridge. In a raging storm we fixed two ropes and headed back to camp.

By two A.M. on July 7, we were pushing rapidly along the ridge with everything needed to set up a final camp for the summit assault. St. Elias and Logan were bathed in a fantastic red haze, while row on row of ice-clad peaks marched through an array of unimaginable early-morning colors. Far below, a sea of clouds stretched out over the Pacific.

Once off the ridge, we weaved through the crevasses and small ice walls that broke up the steep slope leading to the false summit. As it got late, we searched for a suitable campsite on this unrelenting slope. Finally we found a spot where the angle eased to about 25°. It took the four of us three hours of hard chopping and digging to level a site wide enough for two small tents.

Two stormy days kept us confined to our tents at 12,300 feet. We passed the time reading paperback novels. The view from the narrow tent opening was spectacular with an unobstructed vista down to the glacier 8000 feet below.

At 1:45 on the morning of July 10, in clearing weather with a few high clouds and a general undercast at 9000 feet, we were on our way toward the summit in a crisp temperature of 13° F., placing bamboo wands as we went.

The summit day proved somewhat anticlimactic. The climbing was not hard in a technical sense, but very strenuous since each step forward from the base of the summit pyramid found us sinking into hip-deep powder snow. Finally at 7:25 A.M. we reached the summit. There we stood on the top of Mount Fairweather, shrouded in clouds at an elevation of 15,300 feet. The temperature was 7° F. and the wind was strongly from the northeast. We had attained our goal!

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Fairweather Range, Alaska.

New Route: Mount Fairweather 15,300 feet, by the Southwest Ridge June 19 to July 15, 1973. Summit reached July 10, 1973.

Personnel: Henry Florschutz, Toby O’Brien, Peter Metcalf, Lincoln Stoller.

* This was the 10-man Canadian Centennial Expedition that put eight men on the summit on June 26, 1958. The first ascent of Mount Fairweather was by two Americans in 1931, Dr. Terris Moore and Alan Carpé.