American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, Mount Bear, Ascent, and South to North Traverse

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

Mount Bear, Ascent, and South to North Traverse. Our superb pilot, Paul Claus, of Ultima Thule Outfitters, dropped the three of us (Ruedi Homberger, Hansueli Brunner and I) off May 12, 1995, on the glacier system that drains the south side of Mount Bear (approx. 10,700’). We skied up a nearby 11,000-foot-plus peak in the afternoon sun near the landing site. That evening we prepared our gear for an early morning start up the long and gentle glaciers that lead up into the south-facing cirque formed by Mount Bear’s horseshoe-shaped summit ridge. We began the next day by descending about 1,000 feet down and west along the subsidiary glacier we had landed on. Where it joined the main Mount Bear glacier (approx. 9,500') we turned right (north) and began the ascent toward the peak. After two days of perfect weather and straight-forward ascending on skis, we were camped at 14,000 feet at the entrance of the small cirque below and to the east of the main summit. We elected to make a late afternoon acclimatization excursion that same day up the 35-degree headwall on the right side of the cirque to the rounded and easy-angled ridge crest. Very strong winds blew from the south as soon as we topped the ridge. After taking a quick look at the layout of glaciers on the north side of the mountain, we tried to calculate our next day’s descent over terrain unknown to us. Ruedi and Hans decided to descend to our tents since we would be coming up early again the next morning. Doubtful of the next day’s weather, I used the remaining light to sprint to the summit of Bear (on the opposite side of the horseshoeshaped ridge) alone. (I wanted to take no chances with the conditions the next day!) It was about an hour away. I reached the top around 6 p.m. in winds gusting to about 50-60 m.p.h. By 7:30 p.m. I was back at the tent.

On the third morning, we dragged our toboggans up the headwall as bad weather moved in rapidly. We kept thinking we could beat the storm and descend the north slopes before the tempest settled in on the peak and cut our visibility. We were wrong. The three of us became pinned down on the summit horseshoe ridge only about 500 horizontal yards from where Ruedi and Hans had turned around on the previous day. Though I had covered this ground the evening before on the way to the top, I was unable to navigate in the whiteout. We had even lost our way trying to return along the broad horseshoe ridge to the headwall we had just come up!

Blinded by the storm and numbed by the cold winds, we were forced to put up our tent a few feet down the north slope of the wide ridge and wait for a break in the storm. It was about 2 p.m. Once inside the buffeted tent, we shared a sense of relief and expressed the feeling that we had been overconfident of our ability to navigate our way off the peak with map and compass. I felt foolish to have climbed into the mess in the first place.

In any event, all was well until Ruedi began to feel sick. Within seven hours, he was developing certain symptoms of high altitude pulmonary edema. Still pinned down by the storm, we had no choice but to calculate how long we dared wait before we would have to make a dash for lower terrain in the blind, bitter cold and wind-swept night.

At very first light, about 4 a.m., we decided to move. The visibility had improved. We put Ruedi on his skis and divided up the gear between Hans and myself. Ruedi was barely able to stand. It was only a lifetime on skis that enabled him to stay in balance and turn.

At first, we attempted to return the way we had ascended the day before. However, within a few minutes we changed our minds. Ruedi was incapable of taking even 10 steps over a small rise. The better choice—maybe the only choice—was to descend directly to the north, by any route possible.

During the next nine hours Hans and I probed and navigated our way down the most direct line we could ski on the glacier systems on the north side of Mount Bear. Ruedi gave every last ounce of strength he had to follow us on his skis. He knew his life depended on it.

By mid-morning we were aided tremendously as a small amount of Ruedi’s strength and level of lucidity began slowly returning. By 1:30 p.m., we had managed to descend about 5,000 feet from our bivouac site at approximately 15,200 feet. Our route had taken us down a series of glacier systems on the northern flanks of Mount Bear. Our final position was unplanned and, of course, unannounced to Paul, our pilot.

Ruedi confided that evening that had we spent another night up high, he would have died. This was his second experience with high altitude disease over a lifetime of mountaineering achievements.

Our unusual location and the bad weather kept Paul searching for three days before he found us on the 19th. By this time, Ruedi had improved enormously. He could walk around normally a few feet from the tent. His full strength, however, did not return for several weeks. Ruedi, in his mid-fifties, will undoubtedly continue to climb for many years. Yet each of us will allow for a few more days of acclimatization on our mountain ascents. We cut it a little too close this time and nearly paid the price.

Carlos Buhler

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