American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mount Augusta's South Ridge

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

Mount Augusta’s South Ridge

William Pilling

MOUNT AUGUSTA STANDS forty miles from the Gulf of Alaska, surrounded by the largest glacial system in North America. Though it seems modest when viewed next to Logan, St. Elias and Vancouver, yet it has a relief of 10,000 feet on its south side. The five-mile-long south ridge gains twice the elevation of Huntington’s French Ridge, rivaling the southern ridges of Mount Logan.

On May 5, pilot Mike Ivers lands Mark Bebie and me on the west side of Dome Pass at 4000 feet. Three weeks of food and all our gear make the sled loads cussedly heavy and tippy as we drag everything over the pass during the hot afternoon. At sunset, we set up camp on the western edge of the lower Seward Glacier, near its confluence with the Augusta Glacier.

After five days of watching the ridge from different vantages, we hit on a plan: gain the ridge at a 4800-foot col, keep to the crest to an 8200-foot snow dome and then avoid a 9000-foot forepeak by a glacier bench on the east side of the ridge. Above the bench, we would get onto the crest at a 7500-foot saddle, continue up two steep steps to a horizontal knife-edged arete. The end of the knife-edge would put us at the base of a hanging glacier, permitting access to the east ridge and the summit. Suspecting that the hot, clear weather will continue, Mark suggests that we spend a day breaking trail up the lower ridge, then descend and return with our packs.

Early on May 11, we ski up to the 4800-foot col. After plowing up the first couple of thousand feet above the col, we reach a narrow corniced arête and belay through a series of rock towers. Only a few pitches from the snow dome, we turn and descend. Mark touches off a nasty wet-snow avalanche a few hundred feet above the col that nearly wipes out our cached skis.

The next day, we eat, nap and pack gear and a week’s worth of food. At midnight on May 13, with the weather still clear, we leave camp and slog our way up breakable crust to the col. We are delighted when we find that our old tracks form a firm staircase up the ridge. Passing the previous high point in mid morning, we belay a few snow-and-ice pitches over the towers on the crest. A traverse puts us in an ice gully connecting to the slopes of the dome. We bivouac at noon on the dome.

Before dawn on the second day, Mark breaks trail in tenacious breakable crust down the bench. I lead up an easy gully that gains the left side of a hanging glacier on the ridge flank. A long traverse right across the top of a little glacier is followed by working further right through a succession of right-dipping rock bands and gullies. The couloir beneath the giant black wall of the first step is running water, and we have to climb through a bottleneck that issues significant rockfall. A few wet friction moves and rapid front-pointing get us out of range. We climb together up a left-slanting snow-and-ice ramp toward the crest. Mark leads a desperate pitch onto the ridge: loose mixed ground topped by the severely overhanging cut through the cornice.

A few rope-lengths along the corniced arête bring us to the first step, which is easy rock climbing despite loose rock. The rock ends, and we follow a short snow ridge to the base of the second step, where we bivouac again.

In the morning I grunt my way up the steep 5.7 wall above the bivy site. The step eases to scrambling for a few hundred feet as we cross to the left side of the ridge to avoid a steep section. Around the comer to the left, we climb together up snow until the ridge narrows. Soon we are belaying along 55° ice on the left flank of the ridge. We descend to a notch at the base of a tower astride the ridge, turn right and belay two pitches down a gully on the east side of the ridge. Once past the tower, we try in vain to get back on the ridge because of horrible snow conditions. We climb a pitch out onto the east face to reach a bivy cave.

Another early start and soon we are at the beginning of the knife-edged section. The good morning snow is ample repayment for the sleep deficits. We alternately traverse along the west side of the ridge or climb and descend the vertical steps along the comb. After a number of pitches, we move together along the meter-wide corniced crest. Mark leads up an overhanging wall on 5.8 incuts and a scary mantle. We can see we are near the hanging glacier, but how do we get onto it? I climb along the right side of the ridge on loose blocks cantilevered into each other. I chop down a small cornice and reach a spot on the crest a pitch from the glacier. Mark leads through onto it and we bivouac in the shelter of a crevasse wall.

The ice slopes on the left side of the glacier are hard enough to require a rope, but by midday on Day Five, we reach the east ridge. Starting up it, I sight distant rime-encrusted gendarmes emerging from a cloud, and we realize another bivouac may lie between us and the summit. We begin rushing along the north side of the ridge, easy at first and then on front-points with both tools out. The air gets chillier and all the peaks from the Fairweathers to the Chugach are turning to the oranges and blues of evening. My last belay is perhaps too far toward the cornice as I hear Mark’s every footstep resonate loudly through the slope under my feet. Mark shouts that he is only thirty feet from non-technical ground.

We walk along the summit dome, looking for a flat spot. The sun will set among the Wrangells in a few minutes. A barely perceptible, infinitely cold breeze freezes my beard; it will be cold tonight. We can see the ocean from our bivouac.

After our summit hour the next day, we begin the descent at noon, following the first-ascent route down the north ridge. The sixth bivouac is just above the col between Augusta and a small sub-peak to its north. The Seward Glacier is covered by a low layer of ocean fog, all the way up to Mount Logan.

In the morning, we finish the descent and begin our walk around the mountain to Base Camp. We stop in the late afternoon for our seventh night out from Base. At midnight, we start again to take advantage of the frozen snow. Mushing through the dark, we take a shortcut over “Corwin Cola pass over the Corwin Cliffs. This allows direct access to the lower Seward Glacier from the slopes north of Mount Eaton. We stay on the western margin of the Seward to avoid crevasses, pushing our pace to beat sunrise. In the last hour, the bottom drops out of the snow and we wallow through the last crevasse pattern, dragging into camp early enough for breakfast.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: St. Elias Mountains, Alaska.

New Route: Mount Augusta, 4288 meters, 14,070 feet, via South Ridge, May 13 to 18, 1990 (Mark Bebie, William Pilling).

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