Kayak-Mountaineering: Mount Abbe
Walter R. Gove and William Pilling
AS A MOUNTAINEER, I have come to aspire to the goals I associate with an earlier era. Besides a hard and good line to an unclimbed summit, I want unexplored and difficult terrain, a practical self-sufficiency and an environment undisturbed by humans. To my continuing amazement, such climbs not only exist but some are readily accessible to any competent mountaineer with a little imagination and a willingness to seek out the unknown. The north face of Mount Abbe is such a climb.
Mount Abbe is at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, perhaps the most striking fiord in North America. Its cliffs descend directly to the sea. Abutting one side of these cliffs is active Johns Hopkins Glacier, whose 300-foot face is constantly calving. Abutting the other side is the Gilman Glacier, also with an active calving face. When large chunks of ice plunge into the water, disconcertingly huge waves ripple down the fiord. In winter and early spring the fiord is frozen; in late spring and early summer, the pack-ice is impenetrable. And until the first of July, the fiord is closed to boat travel as seals congregate there to pup on the ice.
I first saw Abbe in September of 1987, an improbable time for climbing but a good time for getting into Johns Hopkins Inlet. Loren Adkins and I had come from Juneau by skiff, an open work-boat, despite strong winds and high waves, a trip of 150 miles. In the inlet, we landed at the only plausible place, a large rounded promontory on the north side of the fiord, two miles from its head. As the take-out point was on large boulders, we had to use chunks of glacier ice that were larger than basketballs for rollers in order to drag the 35-foot skiff high enough to avoid the 26-foot tides and stray waves caused by the calving glaciers. Mostly, it rained, or, above 2000 feet, it snowed. The closest rain gauge at Yakutat recorded an even 100 inches of rain that September and October. In partial clearings, we would get glimpses of the storm-shrouded summit of Abbe. Abbe rises sharply out of the sea in an unbroken line to 8300 feet, a pointed granitic peak, draped with hanging glaciers.
Back in civilization, a quick check verified what we already knew. The north or main peak of Abbe was unclimbed. The south peak, of comparable height on the topo maps, had been climbed in 1977 by Wickwire and Jagersky who, having failed in their attempt to negotiate the ice in Johns Hopkins Inlet, had approached Abbe via the icefields that lay to the south. (AAJ, 1978, pages 392-396.) The two summits are half a mile apart, connected by a very deeply notched, knife-edged, gendarmed ridge.
The challenge was irresistible for Loren and me. Kayak-mountaineering is particularly aesthetic, for you are truly independent and are immersed in the diverse world of ocean, rock and ice. And for Abbe, a kayak provides the only practical approach. On July 7, 1988, we were dropped off in mid-morning at Ptarmigan Creek by the Glacier Bay tour boat. As we approached Johns Hopkins Inlet, we met two kayakers who had failed to push their way through the ice at the mouth of the inlet. However, after a long and tedious day, we reached the promontory on which we had camped the previous September. After a day of reorganization and packing, we set off in heavy ice.
In many places the ice was so densely packed it was impenetrable and we were constantly searching for partially open leads. At times, we had to backtrack. Sharp-edged smaller pieces discernibly damaged the kayak’s fabric. (Hard-shell kayaks are problematic because of their limited storage space.) We kept away from the larger icebergs, for they can roll unexpectedly, easily flipping a kayak; survival time in these cold waters is very short. Also of concern is the occasional swell caused by calving glaciers, for they can turn the ice-pack into a gyrating grinding machine.
The only possible, though difficult, take-out on an approach to Abbe is on the down-bay side of the Gilman Glacier, where the talus, at the angle of repose, merges into a 1000-foot cliff, which gives way in turn to the face of the Gilman. The large tidal zone means a rapidly changing waterline, and we would be landing a heavily loaded kayak on steep ledges or loose talus which would be slippery with seaweed and slime. And there always were random six-foot swells caused by calving ice. Although the cliff blocks a view of the glaciers, the loud boom from the Johns Hopkins gave a two- to four-minute warning. The Gilman, however, was nearer. We prayed that a mammoth chunk would not let go. The actual take-out went reasonably well, although we were forced to adjust our position as rocks of various sizes skittered down the steep snow above.
Having stashed the kayak, we set out with food for nine days. We were concerned about the steep slope above. Viewed head-on, it looked difficult, but it was reasonable. We camped on a bench at 1100 feet, which provided a grand view of the calving glaciers and the constantly changing ice patterns in the fiord. Abbe was mostly in the clouds but occasionally we would get a view of the upper slopes.
Our next task was to get across the Gilman. The lower Gilman, an impressive jumble of séracs and crevasses, was clearly uncrossable. The only possible crossing was a point, up-glacier and out of sight, where the map indicated a slight flattening. Our attempt to traverse along the margin of the glacier was quickly stopped by an unclimbable array of unstable rock, snow and ice cliffs. We eventually pieced together a devious high-angle traverse well above the glacier. The terrain alternated between very hard dirt and unstable rock, always with the cliffs below. On the dirt, we wore crampons and in places belayed. After a day and a half of hard, tense effort, we had moved a full pack-load one mile up the Gilman and had made our way through the lower rotten rock cliff to the glacier. Compared to the rest of the glacier, this section was unbroken. Nevertheless, it took us six hours to work our way through the maze of crevasses to the other side, a distance of a half mile.
We were now under the north face of Abbe, which towered 7000 feet above us. The upper face has three hanging glaciers. The left one descends from the summit and its face is very active. The far right one is the next most active. Our goal was to ascend the snow rib between the left and the center glaciers, bypass a striking granite buttress on the right and then climb a line of snow that angled to the right. We hoped there would be a steep ramp through the rock band which would give access to the north ridge at 7200 feet. The immediate problem was getting onto the face.
The lower part of the face was a band of smooth, wet, overhanging rock. The one plausible line was an hourglass cone of partially snow-covered talus that breached much but not all of the lower rock band. On the right side of the cone, the snow merged into a jumble of séracs of a low hanging glacier that appeared inactive. At the top of the cone was a short, wet, vertical rock pitch that would give access to the lower snowfields. That evening, with a sense of dismay, we watched a substantial slab of snow break loose and fall to the Gilman.
In the morning, concerned with rockfall, we moved rapidly up the talus, but the route would not go. The critical rock pitch was being barraged by boulders. We turned to the icefall. The day was spent climbing around and over séracs, mostly on hard ice where two ice tools were essential. At mid-evening, we exited the icefall only to find ourselves in a deep avalanche trough. We quickly moved left and camped in the first secure spot.
From there, the route went as we had hoped, but the snow was atrocious and the weather marginal. The next day, in a whiteout, we moved up the snow rib and camped slightly below and to the left of the center hanging glacier. After a second day of intermittent rain, we continued up the snow rib, moved onto the hanging glacier and then angled to the right across mushy snow flutings, using plates for protection. We camped on the one secure spot on the face, a tiny snow saddle leading to a rock spire. That night it snowed and we spent the following day in a whiteout, listening to wet snow avalanches, one of which split around the saddle on which we were camped.
The next day was our last chance for a summit attempt, for it was our eighth day out and food was short. We were off at 2:45 A.M. It was 33° F temperature, with limited visibility and light rain. To avoid avalanches, we climbed a snow-covered rock rib on the right, wallowing up extremely steep mush. Finally at 7000 feet, just below the north ridge, we acquiesced to the inevitable and turned around. It was impossible to down-climb the mush; nor could we rappel as we had only three plates and snow bollards were out of the question. However, the visibility improved and we could see the closest snow flutings were free of avalanche danger. We down-climbed them, moving on the hard ice between the snow. Three tough days later, we were back at the kayak.
The next year, Loren and I explored some attractive peaks above Wright Glacier Lake, south of Juneau, and in 1990 we walked into the northern Fairweather Range from the ocean. In 1991, I had a strong urge to get back to Abbe while Loren was looking forward to a mellow summer. Loren had done most of the leading and I needed someone stronger and technically more proficient than I. In 1984, I had been frostbitten on the south face of St. Elias (AAJ, 1985, pages 20-29), and the loss of fingers and toes as well as the sensitivity to cold was having an effect on my climbing. Particularly bothersome was my right foot where I still had only a badly damaged little toe. On my right hand, I had lost all or part of three fingers. I had also lost the big toe of my left foot and one digit from the little finger of my left hand. At 53, I was slowing down. Fortunately, I had met Bill Pilling in Yakutat the past summer just after his Augusta climb (AAJ, 1991, pages 111-117), and he was easily enticed into an attempt on Abbe.
On the afternoon of July 7, 1991, Bill and I were dropped off by the Glacier Bay tour boat near the Gilbert Peninsula. A short paddle took us to Reid Inlet, where we camped. The next day, there was surprisingly little ice and we easily made it into the head of Johns Hopkins Inlet. At first, I was disoriented, for I was unable to locate the large promontory on which we had previously camped. I finally accepted the fact that it was now buried under ice. Not visible in 1988, the Tyeen Glacier had surged two miles, dropped 2500 feet and become a tidewater glacier. We were just able to squeeze out a landing and a campsite. The next day, we paddled across the fiord. As there was relatively little ice, we were able to get close to some of the adult seals and pups lying on the larger icebergs; according to the Park Service census, there were 3700 seals in the fiord at the time. After storing the kayak, we made two carries to the bench at 1100 feet.
Our bench camp was the most impressive sounding spot in which I have ever spent a night. Even inside the tent, I could make out the vast, articulated shape of Abbe’s north face from the clonk of tumbling chunks of ice and rock. Just beneath the camp, we could hear the clank and wham from the nearby crevasses of the Gilman, and the upper Gilman valley funneled down to us the thuds of the higher icefalls. Far below, the ice fronts of the Gilman and Johns Hopkins Glaciers gave cannon-like reports.
The northern margin of the glacier looked as if it might go and we spent a day exploring the edge. After a mile of traversing compact moraine slopes, teetering on shifty debris and squeezing through moats, we stopped to rest in a protected spot. A steep ice pitch put us at the beginning of the ice-bridge system leading to the middle of the Gilman Glacier. We cached a light load of food as it began to rain and headed back to camp. Traveling on the edge of the glacier was dusty, gritty, muddy work, but it gave us a wonderful feeling for the way the glacier worked. Two and a half rainy days later, all our gear was on the south side of the Gilman, beneath the north face of Abbe. At noon on July 14, with seven days of food, we headed down glacier, angling slightly up to the start of the climb.
The debris cone Walt and Loren climbed on the earlier attempt was completely bare of snow and was either compact morainal concrete or treacherously loose rock. After a few rock moves at the top of the cone, we headed left along a debris-covered ledge. To the west, rocks of all sizes cartwheeled down the slabs to the Gilman. Here was the surprise: the icefall and séracs had disappeared during the last three years! We cut right across the smooth, low-angled ice and then swung left to a protected bivouac spot.
The next day, we climbed a snow rib leading to the upper hanging glacier. As we ascended the thin ribbon of wet snow lying against the steep bank granite, we were aware that the snow rib was quickly becoming a rock rib. The climbing was not technically hard, but each move required knowing just how to do it, as an injudicious move might knock off all the snow, leaving us with slow, belayed climbing on rock. Just above its bottom face, the hanging glacier provided a safe campsite, and we stopped there.
The next day, we climbed to the top of the hanging glacier and then traversed to the right through remnants of snow flutings where we used snow flukes for anchors. Following a late lunch at the high camp of the previous attempt, we headed up the right side of a funnel-like slope leading to the summit ridge. After several tricky slab pitches on solid brown granite, we went straight up the middle of the funnel on snow and ice, using ice screws for anchors. On the north ridge we finally stood together in the golden evening light. We watched the clouds play over every peak from Mount Wilbur to the summits above the Grand Plateau Glacier and saw the shadows fall on the deep blue-green inlet. Across the Johns Hopkins Glacier, the north face of Crillon was aglow. We set up our tent in an excellent, protected spot and fell asleep.
In the morning, we awoke to find the peak socked in. We did not need perfect visibility and started out anyway. Most of the ridge was exciting snow climbing along the side of the sinuous, corniced arête. Where we could climb directly along the crest, we scrambled on rock, some of it excellent granite. We belayed several short pitches of moderate fifth-class on our way to a deep notch. Each of us had anxious moments when we were stuck trying to squeeze through a cannon hole. The climb out of the notch involved loose scrambling. This was followed by more snow climbing along the ridge. From the last snow saddle, the ridge rises sharply to the summit. Abbe’s summit is a rock battlement cleft in the middle by a large hanging glacier with an active face. The only feasible route was along our ridge and then up a steep, dark rock tower that would enable us to pass the ice cliff. We had examined the rock tower from below with misgivings, but an easy fifth-class route took us to its top and onto the summit snow dome. We waited for the clouds to clear, but saw little.
As the wind turned gusty and snow flurries came and went, we started the descent. It had taken six hours to get up and we would not be much quicker on the return. After exhausting hours on our ridge traverse, we topped the rise above camp to find that the wind had broken every pole in my Wild Country tent. This was the low point of the climb. Walt stood in the snow exhausted as I conducted a panicky tent-pole clinic involving spoons, tent pegs and all the tape in our first-aid kit.
We spent another day in High Camp in poor weather and then descended to our lowest bivouac site in a long day. On the way down, we passed through a zone of very wet snow. Walt’s feet became wet and the constant thrusting of his feet into the toe of his boots was painful. That night, he warmed his numb feet, using a bottle filled with hot water. His right foot was twice as thick as the left and the solitary little toe had a very deep blister. On the final day of the descent, we did a long rappel to avoid being exposed to rockfall coming down off the lowest hanging glacier, and then descended to the moraine-covered ledge. Banging down the morainal cobbles that day was hard on Walt’s feet. By the time we had reached the side of the Gilman, he flinched in pain whenever his right foot was jarred.
Picking up our cache, we crossed the Gilman. When we got to the other side, we were astounded by the change in the glacier and its margin. Giant snow slopes had disappeared without a trace and debris slopes had collapsed into huge unstable piles. We had to work out a new route for the one we had taken no longer existed. As it got dark, I wondered if we could get to camp that night. Suddenly, there was a loud boom from the face of Abbe; a massive block of rock had melted out, knocking loose a continuous fanning barrage of large rocks all over the talus cone we had descended not five hours earlier. As we labored up the slope to the bench camp, I could hear Walt gasp with pain when his foot hit a rock, but he just kept on going.
Following a leisurely morning, we had an uneventful, although for me a painful, descent to the inlet. After reassembling the kayak and experiencing the stress of launching, we decided to spend some time among the seals before the long paddle to Reid Inlet. We were able to get close to some of the adult seals and pups lying on icebergs by using the wind to propel us while we remainded motionless. As we got near, the seals would slide into the water, sometimes all at once, but frequently a particular seal would lag behind, apparently reluctant to take our intrusion seriously. Upon entering the water, many of the seals would swim closer and stare at us with their nearly human faces.
By the following afternoon, we had made 28 miles to the Gilbert Peninsula, where we were picked up by the Glacier Bay tour boat. Because of the prior tissue damage caused by frostbite, my blistered toe refused to heal and three weeks later, I had the toe amputated. I admit it is a rather unusual way to take care of a blister, but I did obtain a somewhat more functional foot.
Of all the mountains I have known, Abbe has the most distinct personality. In its unique and aesthetic setting, it mixes elegant granite buttresses, steep snow and ice, complex glaciation, unadulterated crud and incredible volatility. I have been on Abbe four times (twice up and twice down). I have never seen a mountain so active or one that changed so much. Abbe does not have a crux pitch and does not need one. From fiord to summit, Abbe is always alive, difficult and well defended.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Fairweather Range, Southeast Alaska.
Attempt and First Ascent: Mount Abbe, 2499 meters, 8200+ feet, attempted July 12-17, 1988 (Loren Adkins, Walter Gove); ascended July 14-17, 1991 (Walter Gove, William Pilling).