American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Good Neighbor Peak

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994

Good Neighbor Peak

William Pilling

MOUNT VANCOUVER HAS TWO MAIN SUMMITS, north and south, connected by a relatively horizontal ridge. The slightly higher northern summit was climbed in 1948 by Walter Wood’s party (AAJ, 1950, pages 367-378). The southern peak was climbed in 1967 by the Alford- Hoeman Centennial party (AAJ, 1968, pages 36-39), which also continued north to complete the second ascent of the higher peak. The slightly lower southern summit is visible from the coast. When in the first years of the century the International Boundary Commission set the frontier between Alaska and Yukon Territory, they used the southern summit, which they called Boundary Peak 181, as a point in determining the international frontier, not knowing that there was a higher summit. In the days of North American amity, before Free Trade, the 1967 party called the southern border summit “Good Neighbor Peak.” A 7000-foot-high spur rises directly to the summit of Good Neighbor Peak from the south. I had been aware of this for several years, but after the 1992 Canadian Alpine Journal published a huge photograph of the spur, it was clearly time to move.

On the last day of April, Kurt Glokey of Gulf Air landed Carl Diedrich and me at 7500 feet on the glacier where the Centennial Expedition landed, 3.8 miles southeast of Good Neighbor Peak. When our pilot took off, the deep snow on the glacier kept him earthbound in a full-throttled taxi for a mile before he struggled into the air above a crevasse field.

During several stormy days, we moved all our gear to Base Camp at 7400 feet a mile and a half south of the foot of the spur. The deep snow kept us earthbound too. Thinking of the death of our friend Mark Bebie, we decided not to attempt the climb unless we had perfect snow conditions. These arrived on May 13 and we headed up our packed trail to the base of the spur. A snow gully on its west side allowed us onto the crest. We followed the arête up fourth- and easy fifth-class climbing, mainly on rock, partly on steep snow and a little on ice. The rock was often loose but very varied: crystalline granitic blocks, brittle, toast-like strata and shale stacks that poured off ledges. Our first bivouac was at 10,500 feet just below where the spur steepens at mid height.

On the second day, we reached the steep portion of the spur and descended west several hundred feet to a conspicuous couloir that splits the arête. We climbed the gully and the slopes above until unstable snow suggested a stop for a bivouac on the crest at 12,500 feet. On our third day we avoided a steep step by traversing west on snow and climbing ice gullies on the left side of the step. Back on the crest we found a corniced knife-edge. As is typical in the St. Elias Mountains, we climbed below the crest of the corniced ridge on unstable steep snow with mediocre anchors. Next came several ice pitches onto the higher hanging glacier. We bivouacked at 14,300 feet. We were pleased at our progress, finding the route easier than we had expected. On May 16, we climbed together up the ice slope above the hanging glacier and through a gap in the rime rolls guarding the summit of Good Neighbor Peak.

On top, we decided against descending the Centennial ascent route and “went for it,” planning to traverse to the north summit and descend the 1948 route. The radio forecast deteriorating weather and a line of clouds dithered behind Alverstone and Hubbard. Yet the weather did not seem to be changing much and the wind was light. After crossing over several summits on the ridge, I dropped my pace as I developed an ominous deep cough. Upon reaching a plateau some 500 feet beneath the north summit, we were engulfed in a cloud cap, buffeted by blizzard winds. We abandoned any thoughts of reaching the north peak. I weakly staggered behind Carl to the beginning of the descent down the northwest ridge. After dropping 2000 feet, my symptoms subsided. A white-out stopped us at 12,500 feet, and we bivouacked for a fourth time.

The storm trapped us for a day, but on May 18, we started out again. A steep slope led to the top of a 13,000-foot forepeak (Institute Peak) on the ridge. As I followed in Carl’s footprints along its flat top, I suddenly plunged through a snow bridge. Ten feet into the fall, the frontpoints of my crampons snagged on the wall of the crevasse, forcing the toes of my right foot upward and hyperextending my knee. Ligaments were tom, a major artery ruptured and muscles ripped. Forty feet down, the rope checked my fall. Carl hauled up my pack and gave me a tight belay as I made a one-footed ascent of the vertical wall. After setting up the tent, he got me into my sleeping bag, saving me from shock. My lower right leg was deep purple, swollen to twice its normal size from internal bleeding.

On May 19, I was just able to walk with an ice axe and north-wall hammer splinted together into a walking stick. Carl masterminded the 7000-foot descent to the Seward Glacier, carrying an extra-heavy load and lowering me down some 25 pitches. I was in severe pain and moaning and groaning. After 19 hours, we were safely on the Seward.

On May 20, we began the 16-mile walk to Base Camp. Carl carried his pack and dragged mine the entire distance. All day on the 21st, we followed a compass bearing in a white-out. Late on the afternoon of May 23, we reached Base, out of food. We were picked up by plane on the 26th as planned. It was a month before I walked again without crutches.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: St. Elias Mountains, Alaska.

Traverse: Mount Vancouver Traverse from South to North over South Summit (Good Neighbor Peak), 4870 meters, 15,979 feet via South Spur on May 16, 1993 and down Northwest Ridge (Carl Diedrich, William Pilling).

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