Cathedral Spires Ascents

Alaska, Alaska Range, Kichatna Mountains
Climb Year: 1980. Publication Year: 1981.

The lure of untouched walls amidst classic alpine peaks once again supplanted senses of propriety and self-preservation as we returned to the Tatina Glacier in June. There was the air of a class reunion as Andy Embick, Alan Long, Randy Cerf and I organized camp and discussed objectives. Except for Randy, the rest of us shared the combined experience of nine previous trips. Randy Cerf and I began fixing immediately on our main objective, the unclimbed west face of Mount Jeffers. Our line was an obvious dihedral rising continuously up the 2500-foot face and capped by a large chimney system. Andy Embick, tempered perhaps by his marriage the week before, played the mellow Kichatna sage. He and Alan Long opted for immediate gratification and ascended a 1700-foot couloir and two pitches of fifth-class rock to complete the first ascent of “Serendipity Spire” (c. 6800 feet, south of Jeffers and north of Gashly Crumb Col). The following day the team bagged Vulgarian Peak (P 7785), a rocky summit at the head of the Cool Sac and Tatina Glaciers. Geiser and Hudson had previously claimed an ascent of this peak (A.A.J., 1966), but their description more aptly fits Vulgarian’s neighbor, one eighth mile to the north, named Whiteout Spire (c. 7700 feet) by Bocarde and Denkewalter in 1975. Two days later, on June 12, the weather stabilized and we decided to commit ourselves on Jeffers. The plan was to climb without hauling bivouac gear and complete the face in a 36-hour push. We enjoyed twelve pitches of superb climbing in EBs before the fun ended and foul weather moved in. Our momentum kept us going as we dealt with the fringe benefits of Alaskan wall climbing: iced ropes, waterfalls, slipping Jümars, and frozen Friends. The latter phenomenon fascinated me as I stood on a tied-off angle in the middle of the night, examining all my #1 Friends in turn. Amusement vanished and so did I as the pin popped and I dropped 30 feet down a chimney. In time we learned that the best treatment for a frozen #1 Friend was mouth placement. After 21 pitches the weather broke and we saw with great relief that the chimney system was ending. Four pitches later we emerged from the shadows and were greeted on top by the warmth and beauty of a gorgeous Alaskan sunrise. Our descent was facilitated when we located anchors the Robbins party had used on the south ridge in 1969. After 54 hours of continuous climbing we happily reached camp on the evening of June 14. (NCCS VI, F10 A3.) Andy Embick and Alan Long used these days to establish a fine first ascent on “Serenity Spire” (c. 7500 feet), the northernmost of three minarets that dominate the Flattop cirque between Tatina Spire and Flattop Peak. Their ten-pitch climb followed a prominent right-facing dihedral on the east face. Good rock was encountered throughout, little aid was necessary, and half the pitches involved F9 climbing. (NCCS IV, F9 A2.) Switching the teams around, Randy Cerf and Alan Long got a midnight start on June 16 and ascended the improbable-looking couloir on “Plum Spire” (c. 7300 feet), the highest point between P7984 and Three-O-Spire (P 6760). The two climbed the 2000-foot ribbon of snow and ice in 5½ hours, negotiating several awkward chockstones en route. Appropriately enough they named their route the Plumb Line. As it turned out, the next good break in the weather would be our last. On June 21, Andy Embick and I fixed three pitches on the central spire of the Flattop cirque trinity. We returned the next day and continued directly up the east buttress. Crack system followed crack system and the higher we got, the more it felt like Yosemite. Unbelieveably, the precipitation held off for the entire 20 hours we were on the wall. There was minimal aid and five of the eleven pitches involved F10. This first- ascent route on “Trinity Spire” is among those few climbs in the Kichatnas which would be pleasant to repeat. (NCCS V, F10 Al.) Alan Long and Randy Cerf bagged another first ascent on June 22 when they climbed “Nightwind Spire” (c. 8300 feet), the major summit between North Triple and Middle Triple Peaks. Their route followed the ice couloir first climbed by Sennhauser and Ellsworth (A.A.J., 1979), then trended right to gain the severely rimed south ridge three pitches below the summit. The descent required 14 rappels, and the pair spent a total of 19 hours on the mountain. During the next twelve days we were treated to mandatory participation in the Kichatna weather waiting game. Doug Geeting was finally able to get in under the cloud cover and we were flown out on July 4.

– George Schunk