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The Sirens of Mount Salisbury

The Sirens of Mount Salisbury

Peter A. Speer

THE FAIRWEATHER MOUNTAINS lie on a peninsula in southeast Alaska at one point only 15 miles wide, where over a dozen peaks tower to a height of more than two miles between the waters of Glacier Bay and the Pacific Ocean. In the mid 1970s, Fred Beckey pronounced two-peaked Mount Salisbury, to be perhaps the finest unclimbed mountain in Alaska. Its northern, higher summit was climbed in June of 1977 by Jim Nelson, Steven Swenson, Jerome Eberharter, and Greg Thompson. (A.A.J., 1978, p. 387-391). The south peak, only two hundred feet lower, distinctly separate, equals or surpasses its twin in challenge and beauty. It remained unclimbed and unattempted until June of 1979. Salisbury’s alluring sirens beckoned.

Dan Cauthorn, Mike Friedman, Ben Dobbin, Ernie Jones, Tom Nelson and I established Base Camp at 6550 feet on the Fairweather Glacier on June 13. (We had landed at Lituya Bay on June 6 and walked in.) Dan Cauthorn and I climbed halfway up the north face of Salisbury’s south peak on June 16 only to be tricked into descending the next day in the face of a short-lived storm. On the 19th we set out again, this time accompanied by Mike, Ben, and Ernie. We reached our bivouac cave 2500 feet above the glacier.

Dan and I emerged from the cave in time to witness an incredible sunrise. The Fairweather Glacier lay bathed in black below us, while P 12,606 and Salisbury North were silhouetted against an orange glow. It was hard to concentrate on the belaying—the scenery was too captivating. As I climbed past Dan, I saw that he was gazing off to the west. There the long shadow of Mount Fairweather stretched out over a pink- tinted sea of clouds. The first seven leads of rhythmic step-kicking went like this, both belayer and climber mesmerized by the beauty of Mount Salisbury, the sirens filling our senses.

Mike, Ben, and Ernie were one pitch behind, making every effort to climb as fast with a rope of three—a hard task. Below them, I could see the juncture of the face and the outlier ridge we had climbed the day before. The climbing on that ridge had been really spectacular. From the glacier we had ascended to a notch in the ridge and traversed three- quarters of a mile along its crest. While we moved along the back side of cornices big and small, we had tried to ignore the 1000-foot drop to the glacier below and the occasional slopes of bottomless snow which threatened to swallow us whole. We stood 2000 feet above the ridge now, on the steepening upper slopes of the face.

Seven pitches above the cave the snow gave way to hard ice. We had begun to use screws instead of flukes several pitches before. The sun was just hitting the notch in the ridge. The tent where our companion Tom Nelson lay asleep, nursing an injured eye, was still in darkness, 4000 feet below.

Dan’s next lead started on two inches of snow over 60° hard water- ice. Halfway up his pitch the snow petered out. The face was a giant sheet of ice from here on up. I climbed to Dan and led through. The face reared up above me, barring our way onto the summit ridge. My calves burned as I put in a screw. You really have to move on that stuff.

The final ridge was just above us now. Dan led through and traversed right onto the top of a rocky outcrop. The ice became unusually hollow as he moved up to and around the bottom of the ridge. I paid out rope as he disappeared from view. A minute later his smiling face popped up over the edge of the ridge directly above me. He was smiling for good reason.

A few minutes later I had my first view of the summit ridge. It rose gently, sinuously up, dangling immense cornices. A light wind was coursing across them, blowing ice crystals into the air, which cast rainbows into the sky. The sweet sights and songs of the sirens filled our eyes and ears.

We moved quickly along this gentle section to where the ridge narrowed to a knife edge. It fell precipitously on either side to glaciers 5000 feet below. One side was of steep, rotten snow; the other of steep, rotten rock. We were forced to thread our way right along the crest. Belayed from two dubious anchors, I tiptoed towards the summit.

A lead by Dan across the top of a huge tippy cornice brought us to a flat area just below the summit. Mike, Ben, and Ernie had just emerged from the face, trailing us by six pitches. Dan and I moved up to the base of the last step and dropped our packs. The entire summit massif is ephemeral, one huge cornice. The final pitch was true to the character of the rest of the climb. Dan led a full rope-length out, first up the side of the cornice, then along its back. He belayed from a fluke thirty feet below the top. I led through and jubilantly walked to the crest.

“Yeah, baby!” What a fine place to be! Lituya dominated the western view. Crillon stood out boldly to the south. Salisbury North, only 200 feet higher, but nearly a mile away, looked impressive. Standing head and shoulders above all was Fairweather, queen of the range. All were draped in ice. The sirens welcomed us to their home.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Fairweather Range, Southeast Alaska.

First Ascent: Mount Salisbury’s South Peak, 11,970 feet, via Northwest Ridge and North Face, June 20, 1979 (Speer, Cauthorn, Jones, Dobbin and Friedman).

Personnel: Thomas Nelson, Ernest Jones, Benjamin Dobbin, Michael Friedman, Daniel Cauthorn, and Peter A. Speer.