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North America, United States, Alaska, Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains, Mount Miller, First Ascent

Mount Miller, First Ascent. In January, I noticed in Climbing magazine that a group had been awarded a Mugs Stump Grant to attempt the first ascent of 11,150-foot Mount Miller in the Wrangell/Saint Elias Range of Alaska. Ostensibly, Mount Miller was the highest unclimbed peak in the range. While this might normally cause only passing interest, it caused Paul Claus and me real agitation. This was our home turf and, while the grantees had certain rights as a result of the award, Paul had already invested considerable time, money and sweat trying to climb Miller.

It is not that Miller is such a terribly difficult peak. What makes it special is its isolation from other mountains. Standing alone along the southern edge of the Bagley Icefield, its 7,000 feet of relief is exaggerated by its isolation. Just 20 miles from the Gulf of Alaska and frequently hammered by storms. Mount Miller’s capricious weather had turned back all comers.

On Paul’s first attempt, in 1992, he and Doug Rossillon were forced to abandon a camp and over 3,000 dollars’ worth of gear in a wind storm at 8,500 feet on the west ridge. The wind continued unabated for 10 days, blowing snow away to bare ice. During the storm, Paul’s father, John, had been flying daily to a midpoint on the Bagley Icefield trying to pick up the boys only to be turned around by severe turbulence. On the tenth day, John was able to land during a brief lull and grabbed Paul and Doug off the mountain. In 1994, Paul and I tried Miller again.

However, we never got started as waist-deep snow greeted us at the landing site.

With the prospect of real competition, we invited several friends to help finish the project. Using Ultima Thule Piper Super Cubs, Paul, Carlos Buhler, Ruedi Homberger, Reto Ruesh and I flew to Mount Miller’s 4,200-foot base at 9:30 a.m. on April 11. Our route followed a large rounded southern spur that joined the west ridge at about 8,000 feet. From this juncture, the west ridge continued for three and a half miles over increasingly difficult terrain, culminating in Miller’s summit some 7,000 feet over our heads.

After a short discussion, we abandoned our second tools and most of the hardware. The route appeared to be fairly straight-forward and we were keen on traveling light. We decided on two days’ worth of food and fuel, two 6-mm kevlar ropes, a couple of ice screws, two pickets for group gear and one ice tool per person.

By 10 a.m. we were under way. A quick ski across the glacier and up the ridge took us to 6,200 feet, where we cached our skis. Using ski poles for the remainder of the afternoon, we followed the broad southern spur to the west ridge. Climbing under cloudless skies in the blazing sun, our main concern was keeping cool. The Gulf of Alaska was so calm, it looked possible to waterski from Cape Yakatage to Cordova.

At the junction of the west ridge, we passed Paul’s previous camp, but found no trace of the Gore-tex tent and gear he had abandoned in 1992. We climbed for another hour until we found a good camp site at 9,200 feet, about a mile and a half west of the summit.

The next morning we once again set out climbing unroped along the ridge. 1,500 feet from a large steep ice dome that we figured for the crux, the ridge narrowed, necessitating a front point traverse along the southern flank of the ridge. At the juncture with the dome, the ridge became steeper and the inch or two of névé we had enjoyed all morning turned to ice. Paul, Reto, and Ruedi climbed a line along the ridge crest that had a shorter steep section, but moved close to the snowy cornices overhanging the 6,000-foot north face. I decided to follow Carlos on a line to the right that appeared to offer nominal relief from the exposure, as it was only 2,000 feet to the hanging glacier and the customary industrial size crevasses. This proved an interesting trade-off. On this route, as the angle increased to 50-plus degrees, the snow gave way to glare ice. I slowed to a crawl. With one tool and lots of air beneath my toes, I first cursed my climbing partners for talking me into leaving my second tool, then myself for being dopey enough to listen. Needless to say, the story had a happy ending, and at the top of the dome we took a break for lunch.

While we ate, Carlos cut a huge bollard for the rappel over a 25-foot overhang that barred our way. From the bottom of the rappel, we spied for the first time wild snow and ice formations beneath the ridge cornices. Monster horizontal rime feathers formed by storms from the gulf defied both gravity and solar radiation. It was as if we were climbing inside a massive natural turbine temporarily down for repairs.

With Paul leading the way we made a short stroll across the col to the summit cone, then slogged another 1,000 feet up several steep sections and across a crevasse or two to a modest snow slope and the summit of Mount Miller. It was only 11:30 a.m.

After the obligatory photos and back-slapping we marked the summit like a pack of hounds, left a wand, and began our descent. The short jumar back up the overhang proved to be the usual pain in the ass, but provided good photographic opportunities. The 1,000-foot climb down the ice dome went smoothly and we made one rappel on the steepest section of the route Paul, Ruedi and Reto had climbed up. The Carlos/Charlie variation looked way too hideous.

The rest of the descent was uneventful and we skied into Base Camp at 6 p.m., having spent only 32 hours on the mountain. The next morning Don Welty, who works for Paul, picked us up and we were back at Ultima Thule’s lodge and sauna by noon.

It just goes to show that Alaskan mountaineering is not all about snow camping.

Charlie Sassara