American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaskan Kayak Mountaineering

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

Alaskan Kayak Mountaineering

Walter R Gove

wITH PRESENT TECHNOLOGY and techniques and given sufficient time and willingness to accept risks, it is now possible to climb any serious mountaineering objective. And with the successful ascent of virtually all of the major peaks in the world and the surge in the number of climbers, it would seem that old-fashioned, relatively safe exploratory mountaineering would be a phenomenon of the past. As Ned Gillette states, “The realities of the 1980s in which there remain no true geographic explorations as once known demand that adventure be contrived and may be a bit strange if one is to leave new footsteps” (A.A.J., 1983, page 7). Or so it would seem; however, this has not been my experience. Perhaps the most exhilarating and yet old- fashioned mountaineering experiences I have had are two kayak mountaineering trips along the coast of Alaska.

When one is exploring new mountains, there is a sense of adventure and discovery that greatly enhances the rewards typically experienced in mountaineering. When this is combined with ocean travel in a kayak, especially when one’s ability to travel is determined by tides, winds, and storms, one’s behavior adapts to the elements. This is particularly true when the coast is hostile, one confronts long stretches of open ocean, storms are frequent and often sudden and the water frigid. Here, as in the mountains, testing the elements can be dangerous, ignoring them, fatal. In kayak mountaineering the eternal character of the mountains and of the ocean, with their primitive forces, merge into a unity. There is a beauty that is sometimes stark and sometimes subtle. Weather is the magician and the kayak mountaineer both a participant and a spectator. One can truly remove oneself from the realm of people, rules, and machines and become completely immersed in a wilderness environment.

On September 5, 1981 Loren Adkins and I left Seward, Alaska, with minimal climbing gear and food for 23 days crammed into a two-man Klepper kayak. We headed south, going out Resurrection Bay and then west towards the largely unexplored Kenai Fiords. We had no precise goals as there is no record of any climbing in the area. Our activities were constrained by prolonged periods of bad weather and we spent a lot of time exploring beaches and mountain tarns. My memory is filled with images of clouds and sky, of sheets of rain and moments of sun. That year we climbed two minor peaks on Harris Peninsula and P 4718 west of Harris Fiord. It was late as we descended from that peak. Below the rock buttress the only light came from the stars. Finally we reached the kayak. The sea was still and we paddled gently. Soon the sky brightened with the Aurora Borealis. As we paddled, we hit phosphorescent plankton. The bow of the kayak created a V of golden green and each dip of the paddle a green glowing pool while drops of luminous gold fell from the paddles. We both felt as if we were in the land of elves.

In kayak mountaineering, wild life is an intrinsic component of the experience. The sea birds, whales, porpoises, seals and sea otters were an ever-present part of the environment. I’ll never forget the weasel that kept circling us as we ate lunch, more interested in us than in our food. At our main camp as we walked the shore, the birds flew over us, gawking, as if puzzled by our appearance. And the surprised look of the sea otter who, while swimming on his back with his eyes closed, swam head first into the kayak, a foot from where I sat. Nor the sea lions. Especially the time they swam around us and under us for what seemed like an eternity, for they so easily could have tipped us over, which would have been fatal. Our first reaction was fear, strong fear, then slowly we came to perceive the sea lions as part of the environment. Unafraid, they had come to take a closer look at the intruders into their world.

The trip to Kenai Fiords whetted my appetite for a somewhat more serious venture in kayak mountaineering. For years the broad sweep of the St. Elias and Icefield Ranges which contain the largest glaciated systems outside the polar region had captured my imagination. Although the major summits have been climbed, the lower mountains are essentially unexplored. I was attracted to the very compact range of mountains rising just east of Nunatak Fiord. The peaks were bounded on the south by the West Nunatak Glacier, on the west by the Art Lewis Glacier, on the north (in Canada) by the Tweedsmuir Glacier and on the east (also in Canada) by the Vern Richie Glacier. On the American side the only maps are very crude (and, as it turned out, inexact). In Canada the maps are even less informative.

On May 19, 1983 I flew from Nashville to Juneau to make last-minute preparations. On the 21st we flew to Yakutat. It took some effort, but we managed to get our equipment, including rock-and-ice climbing gear, sleds, and 24 days of food, into the two-man Klepper. Our snowshoes and lone picket were lashed on the outside. Later that afternoon we left for the 65-mile paddle to the head of Nunatak Fiord, which included a 12-mile run of open ocean between Knight Island and Point Latouche.

We knew that the Hubbard Glacier, which has a nine-mile ocean front and a face that is over 300 feet high, had been on the move. In 1967, when Mount Seattle was climbed, the swirling ice from the Hubbard Glacier had broached the boat used by the expedition on the approach and almost sunk it. Recently the situation has become much more tenuous, for the Hubbard Glacier has almost closed off the entrance to Russell Fiord with the consequence that except for a very brief period at slack tide the narrow channel is a raging torrent covered with swirling chunks of ice. On our first attempt to squeeze through just before the slack at high tide we were stopped two miles short of the channel by packed ice and could not see the narrow point in the channel. An attempt to climb a hill and get a view was abruptly cut short by a bear cub with a concerned mother. The glacier was calving about every forty seconds, creating a constant drumbeat that sounded like cannon fire. Reasoning that at low tide the ice might be pushed out by the tidal action, we waited on the shore. Shortly before ebb tide we pushed off; the ice had opened up. The only possible passage is between Osier Island and the mainland. The water was flowing through the passage at a very fast clip and with the Hubbard Glacier looming above us, constantly calving away, we felt very small and vulnerable. On shore, 30 feet above the high water line, were the remnants of a large commercial fishing boat that had been tossed there by a wave caused by falling ice, a sharp reminder of the tenuous nature of our situation. We lined the kayak up the channel, and after a brief wait, were able to push into Russell Fiord just as the tide turned.

The next day we were camped two miles from the head of Nunatak Fiord. Our attention immediately focused on Mount Wade, a beautiful border peak at the head of the fiord which was one of the most striking peaks we had ever seen. After ferrying loads and waiting out some bad weather, we were able to make a reconnaissance of the route on Wade from the west. It quickly became obvious that due to snow conditions Wade could be approached from the west only in the late summer. We decided to climb Mount Aylesworth, the highest named peak in the range, which appeared to have three possible approaches from the west and northwest. We then planned to swing south and turn back to Wade. We sledded our gear up the Art Lewis Glacier only to find that the first two approaches were impossible due to huge icefalls, and the third approach was badly crevassed, had a high avalanche risk and was so circuitous that it had no aesthetic appeal. Reluctantly, we decided to bag Aylesworth without having even seen the summit.

Now we focused on Wade. We had gone so far north that to get to the east side of Wade it was shorter to head north, swing east and then south. This had the advantage of giving us a complete circle of the range and thus every step would be one of exploration. However, we would have to cut rations, and it was unclear if the saddle to the east of Mount Vern Richie was passable. We set out early in a total white-out. Around noon, after eight hours, we turned right and climbed the slope leading to the Tweedsmuir Glacier. As we reached the divide, we broke out of the clouds and could see Mount Seattle and the peaks of the Icefield Range. That afternoon we headed east and down the glacier with the jagged faces of our range continually appearing and disappearing in the fog. In the eight miles we traveled that afternoon, there was not even one break in the fresh avalanche debris at the foot of the mountains. We camped in the fog but rose early in the morning to clear weather and hard crust. Within hours we had rounded the northeast edge of the range and were heading for the saddle east of Vern Richie. To our relief, although the slope was steep, it would go. As we passed by the north face of Vern Richie, I was struck by the enormous cornice on the summit, the largest I’d ever seen. By the time we reached the saddle, we were exhausted and immediately set up camp.

Still summitless, we decided to climb Vern Richie and the peak east of the saddle, which was equally impressive, although not even discernible as a peak from the map. Up early, we made an ascending traverse to crest Vern Richie’s south ridge. Although the climbing was not very difficult, we both were worried about the snow conditions. Virtually all of the west side of the south ridge was corniced while it dropped very sharply off, on the east side. In one place we had to climb down onto the east face to bypass a rock gendarme. As we climbed, the weather rapidly deteriorated, and it began to snow as we approached the summit. Where the ridge eased off, the snow became so hollow that I thought we had hit the fracture line of the summit cornice. After some debate we decided this was not the case and we pushed on until we were clearly above the rock and on the summit cornice (we did not go to the crest of the cornice). We descended as fast as we could primarily because we were extremely apprehensive about wet snow avalanches. By the time we reached the tent the storm was in full force. We both agreed that regardless of the duration of the storm we would forego the peak to the east as it looked considerably more difficult and dangerous than Vern Richie.

From the saddle we had an excellent view of Wade, but not what we had anticipated. The west summit was largely hidden behind a subsidiary summit from which a jagged ridge led east to a snow summit comparable in height to the west summit. We had tentatively picked out a route up a very steep snow arête leading to a gendarme well to the east of the east summit, but by the time the storm had blown itself out we were short on food and the snow on Vern Richie had been sobering. To minimize our risk we decided not to attempt the arête and to focus on the west summit of Wade. Thus, when it cleared we headed down the Vern Richie Glacier and then swung back toward the cirque presumably created by the east and west summits of Wade. The view was not what we had expected. The west summit of Wade was not visible; in its place was a new mountain. Neither of these summits had the appeal of numerous others that we had passed and due to the avalanche hazard it would only be possible to climb at night. Loren and I seriously disagreed about the safety of the climb and its potential worth. Given that there were only two of us, and valuing friendship over a questionable climb, we agreed to give up the attempt.

It took two hard days to get back to the fiord. We had a leisurely return, this time in excellent weather. The Hubbard Glacier was even more exciting this time. And, as on the way in, we saw mountain goats, bears, sea otters, seals and whales. One whale particularly disconcerted us for it followed us for a number of hours and kept surfacing close to the kayak.

This trip in terms of mountaineering objectives was more ambitious than the one to Kenai Fiords. Although personally satisfying, it is perhaps best viewed as a reconnaissance. We had made a complete circuit of a substantial, heretofore unexplored, mountain range. We had gotten a good feel for the mountains and our experience shows that due to snow conditions the best time to climb in the range is in midsummer. And we had climbed a major mountain. Perhaps most important, our experience demonstrates that it is possible to undertake a completely self-sufficient expedition of up to four weeks in a two-man kayak. I thank Loren Adkins for introducing me to kayak mountaineering.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaskan Coast. In 1981, the Kenai Fiords; in 1983, Nunatak Fiord.

Ascents: P 4500+ on Harris Peninsula, September 9, 1981

P 3185 on Harris Peninsula, September 20, 1981 (Adkins)

P 4718 west of Harris Fiord, September 23, 1981 Mount Vern Richie, May 31, 1983 during complete circuit of the mountains at the head of Nunatak Fiord.

Personnel: Loren Adkins, Walter Gove.

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