New Arrigetch Climbs

Publication Year: 1975.

New Arrigetch Climbs

Jonathan Krakauer, Hampshire College Outdoors Program

HELEN Apthorp, Jeff White, Mark Rademacher, Ben Reed, Holly Crary, Bill Bullard and I climbed the three remaining major unclimbed peaks in the unique Arrigetch: Melting Tower,* Arthur Emmons, and Xanadu, which may be the highest in the range. Climb these, and more, we did, but our success didn’t quite result in the supreme vainglorious satisfaction I had imagined so naively in pre-expedition fantasies. I don’t really know what to make of our climbs, and I don’t really know what to make of the Arrigetch as mountains. Not only was this the first expedition for any of us, for most it was one of the first encounters with technical climbing on anything other than civilized Eastern cliffs. The powerful combination of inexperience, ambition, and the truly bizarre Arrigetch landscape confused our feelings afterwards and caused the state of our minds to constantly yo-yo between intimidation and brash overconfidence throughout the month in the mountains.

When we first arrived at our Base Camp, just south of Wichmann Tower, we didn’t feel like climbing at all. Two days of brush, talus, and inhaling mosquitoes under uncomfortable loads had gotten us up Aiyagomahala (46-62) Creek. A worse third day wading through wet, hip-deep snow got us over Independence Pass to Base Camp, and our grandiose dreams of a month of bold and beautiful climbing were all but shattered.

Yet, on June 20, only a few days later, Mark Rademacher and I climbed (albeit fearfully) Melting Tower by its southwest face. Our motivation had come from a large, comforting airdrop, a temperature in the seventies, and anxiety over going into big debt for nothing more than a beautiful, exotic, and mosquito-bitten camping trip. Dave Roberts had predicted that Melting Tower would be the most difficult of our objectives, so we were very surprised—even disappointed—to find what seemed to be nothing more than a lot of F4 climbing. The crux of the climb—the overhanging summit wall which we had been eyeing anxiously all the way up—turned out not to be a crux at all when we found a easy chimney leading through it. We had come to the Arrigetch still too much in a Cannon Cliff frame of mind, and by perversely measuring this wild Arctic mountain with East Coast rock-climbing values, we were let down.

Two weeks later, on July 4, Jeff White and Helen Apthorp had an opposite mood turn-around in making the second ascent of Melting Tower. Emboldened by familiarity with the range and downplaying of of the difficulties of the peak by Mark and me, they confidently tried a harder and more direct route, also on the southwest face. They were badly shaken, however, when Helen fell while daringly attempting to lead a hard line up the summit wall, so they rejoined our route for the final two pitches.

Despite a fear of bears that was infinitely stronger than fear of any mountain anywhere, and for reasons having more to do with dollars and pounds than ethics, we had neither gun nor radio. The 1964 expedition had had to shoot a big Alaskan Brown in the Aiyagomahala valley, so we were relieved to see nothing more than tracks and droppings during our first two weeks. Our nightmares even ceased, and we grew courageous enough to leave all our food guarded by nothing more than mothballs for a week while we were camping beneath Xanadu. Then, in the space of six days we encountered five bears, including one who ambled within fifty yards of our camp while we were eating Frosted Flakes one morning, and the paranoia came back to stay.

We knew from Roberts’ slides that the northwest ridge probably offered an easy route up Xanadu, but since we were cocky from breezing up Melting Tower and eager to do a climb we could brag to friends about, we turned our attention to the smooth, sharp south arête. From a camp in a hanging valley beneath Xanadu’s spectacularly steep and flaky west wall, four of us got rained off the face on our first try, a pitch away from gaining the south ridge. A long ledge rising to the right beneath the vertical part of the face proved the key to gaining the ridge.

At three the next afternoon, peering out after eighteen hours in the tent, Bill Bullard found the sky cold but rainless, and the two of us set out on wobbly legs up the talus towards the face. We gained our previous high-point quickly, Bill led up a short, vertical dihedral (F7) to make the ridge crest, and two more pitches along the knife-edge brought us to the arête. We stashed extra gear, and being a bit nervous I exchanged mountain boots for toe-pinching PA’s. Five full, really enjoyable pitches on perfect rock got us beneath the distinct ceiling guarding the top of the arête. Expecting to have to use aid, I was delighted to find it with Gunks-like buckets and not at all difficult as I led over it to our first substantial ledge since starting the arête. One more short pitch, with a nervous F7 move twelve feet above my last nut, and the arête was beneath us. Bill sprinted the next pitch-and-a-half, and at 2:30 A.M. we stood on top of Xanadu in a bitter wind and that weird Arctic night-time sun, feeling elated, but still afraid and anxious to get off the mountain.

We didn’t finally breathe easy until three that afternoon, twenty-four hours after beginning the climb. The descent was slow and scary, at least four of our rappels having gotten badly hung-up on flakes in the wild wind. As we crawled into our tents, Ben, Mark, Helen, and Jeff started up the northwest ridge. They easily got up the fifth-class section of the route and stopped at the long summit ridge, perhaps 200 vertical feet and many more horizontal ones from the top due to worsening weather and loose dangerous blocks on the ridge.

I felt good enough about Xanadu that my ambition was dampened to a nice, healthy level for a while. Because of this, I was really able to enjoy Arthur Emmons, which Bill and I climbed on July 4 by its west ridge. For the most part, the climbing, all on perfect rock, was not difficult, but we felt none of the let-down that Mark and I had on Melting Tower. We gained the ridge by ascending the northwest glacier, giving us the only real ice climbing on the expedition and providing respite from the detested talus we’d had to stumble up on previous approaches.

Jeff, in a competitive spirit, seemed only to get more fired-up as the trip went on. After Xanadu, he and Helen, besides climbing Melting Tower, made a second ascent of Badile and the first ascent of Lemming, a lower peak with twin, sharp summit spires, lying to the south of Melting Tower. They did Lemming in a long day from Base Camp, running into intricate route-finding on often rotten rock, F6 climbing, and some aid on an overhang.

The seven of us found that we had come to the Arrigetch for different reasons. Holly, and to a lesser extent, Ben, did little climbing, seeming to enjoy more exploring and knocking around the cirques, which Ben often did alone. Mark, too, seemed to get less interested in climbing as the trip went on, possibly never shaking that let-down after Melting Tower. There were some clashes among those of us with ambition, and even among those of us who would say they had none, but seventy dollars worth of pizza and beer in Fairbanks set things right again, or at least glossed them over nicely. We left Alaska amicably compared to other expeditions I’ve heard about, if still unable to agree between us, or even with ourselves, just what was important in our visit to that strange and beautiful place.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Arrigetch Peaks, central Brooks Range, Alaska.

Ascents: Xanadu, first ascent via west face and south arête, June 27 and 28, 1974 (Krakauer, Bullard).

Locomotive, first ascent via west face, June 21 (Reed, White, Bullard). Arthur Emmons, first ascent via west ridge, July 4 (Krakauer, Bullard) .

Lemming, first ascent, June 30-July 1 (White, Apthorp).

Badile, second ascent, July 7 (White, Apthorp).

Melting Tower, first ascent via southwest face, June 20 (Rademacher, Krakauer) ; second ascent via new route on southwest face, July 4 (White, Apthorp).

Personnel: Helen Apthorp, Jeff White, Mark Rademacher, Ben Reed, Holly Crary, Bill Bullard, Jon Krakauer.

* The only official names in the Arrigetch area are the Arrigetch Peaks, Arrigetch Creek, Awlinyak Creek and Kobuk River. The creek we hiked up was originally named “46-62” by the early explorer Tom Hamilton and renamed “Aiyagomahala” by Nancy Lord of the 1971 expedition. The names “Independence Pass,” “Wichmann Tower,” “Arthur Emmons,” Badile,” “Melting Tower” are from the 1964 expedition. “Xanadu” and “Locomotive” are from the 1971 expedition. “Lemming” is our name.—J.K.