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Mounts Balchen and Geist, Alaska

Mounts Balchen and Geist, Alaska Range

Dusan Jagersky

IT was with the first break in the weather that we left. Until then we had been staring patiently from our tents at the end of the Delta Junction runway at the Alaska Range, a mirage against the flat, dry, windswept valley. The little Cessna gulped air and altitude as it approached the amphitheater of peaks. Large, obese clouds hung lazily about the mountains, hiding their sharp, protruding features and teasing our imaginations. We followed the network of vast glacier freeways that linked the incredible chain of mountains to Mount Hayes. Cliff Hudson flew his little plane like an acrobat, laughing and talking with us. Jim Wickwire, Fred Dunham, Bill Sumner and I waited in eager anticipation.

Early that afternoon, we moved our gear up the Hayes Glacier to what would be home for the next couple of weeks; we began to adjust our bodies to a withdrawal from luxuries and to condition our mental and physical strengths. Because of the notorious weather, aside from pitching two tents, we constructed a large, fantastic ice cave. The first night dramatically reinforced our doubts about the Alaska Range weather. Under a wind of incredible force, Jim Wickwire and I spent an endless, restless night, walled in by snow. At dawn, we found Fred and Bill’s tent empty and flattened. Having retreated to the ice cave for shelter, they were entombed in the snow. I began digging frantically when Bill shot his hand through the snow as a mark for my shovel.

On the first day of what seemed like fine weather, we set out to reconnoiter Mount Hayes’ west face, but changeable weather and illness turned us back. A couple more days of marginal weather and restless waiting passed.

On the clear, cold morning of April 30, we set out for a short climb. We hurried on snowshoes through perfect conditions, excited and anticipating a good ice climb. Fred Dunham’s illness kept him camp- bound, and Jim Wickwire soon had to return because of worsening health. Bill Sumner and I approached the glacier and picked our way through the maze of crevasses to a narrow, corniced ridge. We waded and swam up to our waists in the soft snow. The last 300-foot steep slope to the summit was particularly drawn-out and frustrating. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, such hard labor; but then you see the mountains around you and a beautiful peak in front. You have been training and saving for months for this moment and you don’t mind anymore.

Bill Sumner and I started off our adventure as new friends with fresh impressions. We had been studying each other all along the climb. But it was on this first summit when our eyes silently followed the jagged ridge to Mount Balchen that we knew there was no need for discussion. The decision was already made: about our friendship, about our climb. It was so close and yet so far. It was late afternoon, but the lack of food and sleep and the absence of down and gear did not mean as much as that next unclimbed peak. We had meant this to be only a short conditioning climb.

We started down along the ridge toward Mount Balchen. The afternoon shadows leaped in front of us as we again plowed through endless, bottomless snow. The terrain became difficult; we were flanked on both sides by steep ice towers and deep crevasses. At one critical place, we had to climb to the top of one tower, traverse it and descend over fragile ice séracs. We almost turned back from this questionable spot. I waited in an endless belay until Bill called out for me to follow. This opened the way to the summit of Mount Balchen which welcomed us with a spectacular panorama of the area’s most beautiful peaks: Mounts Hayes, Deborah, McKinley and Geist, accented in the last slivers of the sun.

The return to camp was as much of a struggle as the ascent, but the inebriation of ecstacy mixed with the exhaustion of seventeen hours of continuous climbing seems to blot out any unpleasant memories.

After a day’s rest and lots to eat, we all decided to try for Mount Geist, a sharp, roof-shaped peak. Fred Dunham and Jim Wickwire went for the broad glacier which led to a col and then a short ridge to the summit. Bill Sumner and I were to climb the steep ice face to the level ridge and traverse to the summit. The plan was to meet on the top.

Bill and I crossed the bergschrund with a little difficulty. The fine weather gave us a picture-perfect, but foreshortened, view of the face; we estimated a quick couple of hours to the ridge. Belaying each other on good snow, we made rapid progress on the 45° slope, but the ridge seemed to stay as far away as ever, as if it were moving up with us. We saw Fred continue alone toward the saddle and Jim stay behind. After reaching the saddle, Fred returned with Jim back to camp.

Halfway up the face, the snow changed to water-ice, covered by light snow. Though we had anticipated this, a typical condition for a large ice face, our progress slowed as we increased protection. These conditions stayed with us for the rest of the face and worsened when the upper half became 60°. We worked together like synchronized clocks, climbing almost silently except for the necessary climbing signals. As we approached the ridge, we tried to detect what it would be like. Finally on the last lead to the ridge, I saw the light penetrate through the jagged top edge. Obviously the whole ridge was either a cornice or extremely thin and narrow. However, I did not count on both being correct. I chopped a two- or three-foot platform on the ridge crest to stand on before I looked up. I froze. It was the most terrifying ridge I have seen. Behind me it was the same. Contemplating vain alternatives, I shrugged and looked down at Bill, who was anxiously awaiting some verdict. I could not say anything encouraging, just a profane assurance of our fate.

Bill joined me as the sun set for a cold and long night. Since we had gone alpine-style again, we knew we should have to keep moving so as not to freeze as the water in our poly bottles already had. To the left plunged the northeast face we had just climbed; to the right, the opposite face. In front, enormous double cornices overhung at least thirty feet to the left and right from the knife-edged ridge between them. We had to judge carefully the fragility and load capacities of each gross mushroom. When we traversed over a cornice, we had to stay high enough so as not to break away any of the massive accumulations that would swoop us down the face, and at the same time not too high, or the whole cornice would break. We chopped away a couple of feet to walk along the ridge in between. We climbed through the night, moonlit and silent except for the sounds of gentle winds and soft, rumbling avalanches. Finally, in the morning light, at seven A.M. we reached the highest point: a big block of ice sitting on the ridge.

A silent handshake and embrace as we stood momentarily in the wind, enjoying our triumph.

No previous attempt had reached the summit and so we chose our descent route to the saddle where we could follow Fred’s tracks. It was straightforward, half down-climbing and half rappelling over the steeper ice. From the saddle we hurried toward camp, met halfway back by Jim and Fred with hot drinks, food and a warm welcome.

The next day we established radio communication and flew out. Though the trip out signifies the end with a definite satisfaction gained from flying around the peaks you have just climbed, it really signifies a beginning there are hundreds of untouched, spectacular peaks all around you.

Note. The expedition received a grant from the Mazamas.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Mount Hayes Group, Alaska Range.

First Ascents: P 9800 on the east ridge of Mount Balchen, via the North Ridge, April 30, 1974 (Jagersky, Sumner).

Mount Balchen, 11,140 feet, via the connecting East Ridge from P 9800, April 30 and May 1 (Jagersky, Sumner).

Mount Geist, 10,720 feet, via the Northeast Face and traverse of the summit ridge, May 2 and 3 (Jagersky, Sumner).

Personnel: Fred Dunham, Dusan Jagersky, William Q. Sumner, James Wickwire.