The wild card of the Wrangell-St. Elias by Carlos Buhler
My eyes traced our complicated route through the last problematic crevasses. Suddenly, the peaceful silence on the glacier was interrupted by the distant whine of an approaching Supercub airplane. This hour, 11 a.m. on May 22, 1995, was the conclusion of our close shave on Mt. Bear in the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains of Alaska. Ruedi Homberger was going to live through his battle with pulmonary edema. Our pilot, Paul Claus, had been worried about us for days. We had had poor weather, and Paul had not found a sign of us where we had agreed to meet. Searching the north side of the mountain in his plane, Paul had finally found us on a different glacier. As long as these clouds didn’t close back in, Paul’s dad, John, would appear soon in the Supercub and fetch me off the crevasse-infested glacier we’d hung out on for the last three days of storm and cloud. Hans and Ruedi, scooped up in Paul’s first plane load, would be taking saunas at the lodge by now. I took in my surroundings with one last look up the icefall we’d skied through three days earlier. This land of extraordinary mountains was beautiful. Unique. Vast. And somewhat beyond the consciousness of most climbers outside Alaska’s borders.
Sitting atop my rucksack in the Supercub, legs wrapped around the seat in front of me, I crouched behind John, my pilot. I felt as though I was on a toboggan ride with my brothers when I was eight. John banked the plane to the right and we came within spittin’ distance of the gigantic walls of University Peak. I strained to hear the words he yelled to me over the roar of the engine: “Wha’da ya think of the south face?”
I knew why he was asking. His son, Paul, dreamed of climbing it.
“Looks kinda exposed!” I yelled into John’s ear. “The south face looks kinda…" I thought about it a second longer. “Featureless!”
University Peak is the wild card mountain of the entire area north of the Chitina Glacier— perhaps of the entire Wrangell-St. Elias range. The mountain, which sits in plain view along the popular “flight corridor” for all those who pass through on their way to the more prominent summits of St. Elias and Logan, had been climbed only once. University Peak reminds me of Ama Dablam’s position in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. How many climbers passing Ama Dablam’s flanks on their way to Everest have secretly wished they were climbing something as beautiful and alluring as those steep and attractive lines?
The “big” peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, like the 8000ers in Asia, beckon most visitors, for they are truly among the mightiest peaks of the Western Hemisphere. These splendid challenges in Alaska and Canada that surpass 17,000 feet in altitude offer some of the finest high-altitude mountaineering anywhere. Yet University Peak (14,800') takes no second place. There are no easy lines on the mountain. There are no “walk-ups” for the inexperienced mountaineer. The rounded summit ice cap hovers 8,500 feet above the eastern and southern glaciers that drain the area. The south face sweeps abruptly upward off a level glacier to the summit, forming a massive headwall to the valley that drains the south side of the peak. The more complex east flank rises in a similar uninterrupted angle to the ice cap’s hanging seracs, about 1,000 feet below the high point.
The north face is a different story, but no less puzzling. The majestic north ridge drops off the mountain with nearly the same determination as its southern counterparts, but its plunge is caught early by a rising chaos of icefalls that meet at the feature’s base. These churning icebergs ultimately bring the northern and western faces’s bergschrunds about 4,000 feet higher than their southern and eastern cousins. But to reach those higher bergschrunds, that is a different story! A mile or more of tangled icefalls wrapping around to the east and west would discourage all but the most determined maniacs.
And the riddle is only half-solved by the ascent line. If one is determined enough to get up one of the flanks of University Peak, a simple question remains: Where the hell would you descend?
This certainly was uppermost in my mind as I swept my eyes along the gigantic features. I looked out across the south face, feeling like I was sitting too close to the screen in one of those IM AX cinemas….
But wait! What’s that? We were just passing around from the east to the south when an eastern-facing rib grabbed my attention. Wow! It was attractive! My eyes followed it from the ground floor at 6,500 feet to a balcony four-fifths of the way up the mountain. The seracs that formed the balcony hung discouragingly over the face. But the rib….
Then it was gone out of sight, and we were around the comer and passing the south face.
John’s question hung in my mind.
“There’s no place to hide on the southern flank,” I thought to myself as I tried to imagine a storm catching me part way up the wall. Gulp! I didn’t want to think about the waves of snow that would sweep down the face in the event of even a little afternoon snow squall. Maybe one could climb it in a long day, without bivouac gear…. But where would you descend? Caught out on top of University Peak in a storm suddenly seemed an ugly proposition. You might have to wait for days to get down those avalanche-laden walls. I didn’t even want to imagine it.
There was no need. Before I knew it, I was back behind my desk in Idaho.
Ayear later, back at the Ultima Thule Lodge in 1996, Charlie Sassara and I were in a position to think about University Peak again. With our friends, we had just made the first ascent of Mt. Miller in the short time of 48 hours. We were sitting around the meal table at the lodge with Paul and Ruedi, our companions from the previous day’s ascent. The east flank of University Peak, and that vague memory of a line on the buttress, again came to mind.
Charlie had noticed it, too. Little had escaped his eye over the years. He had flown around the mountain umpteen times in his wanderings throughout the range. Now, however, we had time to kill before I left Alaska, and the weather was perfect.
“You’ll never get up that thing, Charlie. It’s too much to bite off,” Paul told us. We both squirmed with his comment. Mt. Miller had been no epic, but it had been no cakewalk, either. All of us realized how lucky we’d been just getting up Miller. University’s east face was many magnitudes of difficulty and commitment beyond what we’d just experienced. Not being very familiar with Alaskan climbing, I was afraid to offer a counter judgment. The descent off University still dogged my mind. The mountain had had only that one 1955 ascent of the north ridge in all its history. I still didn’t understand how the mountain was laid out, much less what the first ascent had involved. I knew it couldn’t have been easy since no one had repeated it in 40 years. And not for a lack of interest among the locals!
Ultimately, with Paul’s blessing and assistance, we went waterfall climbing for the rest of the week. Then I was gone, and another year rolled by.
In the winter of 1996-97 Charlie and I made the proposal to take a closer look at University Peak in the spring. So much depended on conditions, and our moods, that neither of us wanted to commit early to a full-on attempt.
When spring rolled around, I joined Charlie, his wife Siri, and another Alaskan couple, Sean and Michelle, for five fun-filled days making ski tours and the first ascent of an 11,000- plus-foot peak we named Mt. Benkin (after Igor Benkin, the Russian who had died while descending with me on the North Ridge of K2 nine months earlier). After a night at the Ultima Thule Lodge, Charlie and I were eyeing the weather like coiled cobras watching a flute player. Paul was visibly nervous. He now knew a lot more than we did about University Peak.
Two weeks before I flew to Alaska, Paul, Ruedi, Dave Staeheli and Danny Kost had made the second ascent of the mountain via the first ascent line of the north ridge. Their tremendous achievement had given them a clear understanding of the north flank. Complicated route-finding through seracs, hidden crevasses, and avalanche-laden slopes on the ridge had dogged their climb. One of the team had disappeared into a hole so suddenly and deeply that they had feared the worst. Fortunately, he was unhurt and they had continued their ascent. When I asked Ruedi whether we would be able to find our way down their ascent route having never set foot on it, he was doubtful about our chances.
Nevertheless, he penned out a diagram showing the main features of the ridge. The real breakthrough had come with the discovery that Paul could land his Supercub on a small pocket glacier at 10,000 feet just left of the base of the north ridge. This single achievement meant that literally days of torture in the Western Glacier’s icefall could be bypassed. It was akin to landing a plane in the Western Cwm of Everest, thus avoiding the work of the Khumbu Icefall.
The combination of their ascent of the north ridge in one long 15-hour day, and the fact that Paul would be the pilot who would land on that hanging glacier at 10,000 feet below the ridge to take us home, gave us a vein of hope we hadn’t felt before. We might get stuck for days trying to get down the north ridge, but if we made it somehow, we had a real good chance of getting air-lifted out when the weather permitted, avoiding the mind-boggling icefalls that encircled the mountain’s northern flanks.
Paul, having squeezed under a blanket of clouds that did not look promising, dropped me off first below the east face. I had visions of spending a couple of nights by myself before Charlie could get in and grumbled at being chosen first. My worries were unnecessary, however, as Paul soon delivered Charlie to our camp, 6,000 feet beneath the towering east wall of University.
We spent the next day trying to get a feel for the place. My memory of the rib was hazy at best—and what I saw now was nothing like what I remembered from the air. Our rib was really a comer of the eastern flank. While the lower part of the face appeared to be moderate snow climbing, a nasty mixed section above a steep rock wall blocked the route about a third of the way up. To get a closer look, we packed a load of food plus a bit of gear and skied a mile up the cwm to the base of the face.
Finding a continuous snow gully on the far northern side of the lower rock buttress made our day. We stomped 1,500 feet up the 45° couloir and cached our loads under a small rock outcrop at the base of a steeper, fluted ice face.
We could clearly see that anything that broke free from the serac a vertical mile above us would surely wipe us out. The only solution seemed to be to trend leftward toward the rib and hope that its modest size would protect us from any falling debris.
Our descent back to glacier camp was quick and simple. For the time being, we could feel that the lower 2,000 feet of the face were climbable and in reasonably good condition.
Never wanting to rush into things, we set off the next day with the rest of our gear at about noon. A mile up the glacier, Paul flew into the valley, landed, and taxied his plane to within 50 meters of us.
“Are you ready to come home now?” he grinned. “I figured you’d seen enough of that serac. I didn’t want to keep you waiting around too long.”
“We’re just going up now. We’ve got four days of food, five in a pinch.” We tried to sound confident. He was a little surprised with our decision.
In my mind, it was not the instability of the serac barrier 7,000 feet over our heads that hung like an ox yoke over my shoulders; it was the uncertainty of the descent on the north ridge, literally miles away from our present position. Yes, the glacier had some huge ice blocks imbedded in it—but they didn’t appear to be from recent releases. And besides, we figured we could climb on the very left-hand edge of the face, thereby avoiding most of the danger of the serac band.
Was I justifying this whole climb without reason? I tried to be honest with myself. There were a dozen reasons to back out now, not the least of which was that Paul was standing there with his Supercub. But we figured we’d regret it later. Nothing was stopping us as far as the cache, and we’d learn nothing if we didn’t take a real look now. Paul conveyed a few more brief details about the north ridge, then took off with the promise that he’d be back in a couple more days to see how we were doing.
I would kick myself for the next six days for not asking more questions about his splendid ascent of the north ridge three weeks before. A more thorough understanding of our proposed descent route couldn’t have come from a better source.
By evening, we had cut a platform out of the largest snow fluting we could find and settled into our bivouac tent. The nearness of solid ice to the surface depressed us; our little ledge was way more work than expected and smaller than we’d hoped for. But it would get us through the night.
Sometime that evening, it began to snow heavily. By morning, we had about five fresh inches, and it was not letting up. Suddenly, those huge slopes above us were a lot more meaningful.
We began a waiting game of nerves and determination. It snowed for several more hours. Stopped. Then began again. Our snow gully was undoubtedly building up beneath us. If we decided to go down, we knew it had to be soon. If we had any chance at all to continue, it would have to stop snowing fairly quickly.
The day lulled us on. Our four- to five-day food supply didn’t allow for much in the way of storm days. We ate anyway, resigned to the fact that the prospects didn’t look very promising. We’d spend one more night and see what the next day brought.
I’m not sure if I was happy or not to see blue skies in the morning. It meant we would go upward; from above this bivouac, there would be far more trouble should we have to descend. It was the first of several layers of commitments we would be forced to make. As we packed up the gear, we noted that innumerable small avalanches had swept the 60° runnels to both sides of the Peruvian-style fluting we were on. “Good decision to put it here,” I mused to myself. “But what if something really big cuts loose above?” I was under no illusions.
The day’s climbing took us up steeply to the actual rib and across it to its less dramatic southern exposure. Several rope lengths higher, we made a 50-meter rappel off the crest of the rib to the south and continued the ascent on the flank less threatened by serac avalanches. This was the second rather committing move on the face. Climbing back up onto the rib in the event of a retreat would be troublesome. Nevertheless, we hoped that this line would avoid the majority of the rock step and severe mixed climbing we had seen from below.
A day and a half later, we realized we’d chosen correctly. At a point perhaps 1,500 feet higher than our rappel, we regained the actual knife edge of the buttress by following a steep snow band back right until it ended on mixed ground among the spectacular towers about mid-height on the face. By following the exposed rock and mixed rib, we gained the upper ice fields by the end of the fourth day. With the mixed section beneath us, the way above looked open as far as the seracs.
As promised, we had repeated visits by Paul. He brought by a variety of guests in his plane who were out for a tourist visit to the lodge. It seems that we had become the week’s major sightseeing attraction. So small and insignificant did we appear against the 8,500-foot wall of the mountain that people had trouble believing we were actual living creatures until they saw us move. It must have been a shocking sight for a particular couple from Atlanta that had never been to the mountains before, much less witnessed a couple of people clinging to the side of one!
But from our perspective, it all meant one thing: So long as Paul flew in to see how we were doing, we knew the weather was basically settled. Though at times we could only hear the whine of his engine due to local cloud build-up on the mountain, the tell-tale buzz was like music to our ears. No other weather report could have been more accurate or more welcome.
By the end of the fifth day, our food supply was running low. The huge serac barrier loomed above us and stretched to our right for a quarter of a mile across a vast, 55° rock-hard ice field. It was late in the day; we were one-and-a-half pitches below the vertical ice, and it didn’t look like the 250-foot barrier would offer an easy way through. Frantically, we scouted about for a place to carve a platform. The bullet-proof ice slope we were on offered no hope of chopping a ledge. It was looking like we were going to spend a night hanging from a couple of ice screws when a slight kink in the knife-edged rib brought us the gift we’d been praying for. We chopped down five feet of the rib through snow and eventually created a platform that was a good four to five feet wide.
Our evening was saved; we’d be able to rehydrate and get some rest. It looked as though we’d need it for the next bit of climbing.
It’s been socked in since dawn. There’s light snow falling. It looks as though the one spot we can get through the seracs is about 300 feet to the right of us. Thank God we found this place to spend the night! It looks like there’s no other place whatsoever where we could have laid down….
…Considering we don’t have any food left, I feel relatively good. We ought to at least get through the steep ice and onto the summit cap today. I won’t push my expectations. I just want to get through that wall of ice that’s been pressing down on my mind for the past four days….
… Snap! Ah, shit. Broke the pick off. It must be colder out than I thought. Better get Charlie’s. I’ll climb back to that first ice screw….
… Damn, he’s taking his time on that ice. I can’t even see him in this heavy cloud. Relax, relax. You’re going to be climbing in no time. Let him work it out. All you gotta do is jug the line….
… Yuk. I hate being out here beneath this thing. Two million tons of ice over my head and not a place to hide. Just stay put up there, serac. Now is not the time to loosen up….
… It’s going to be hell trying to find our way up this ice cap. Tons of crevasses and me with no idea how the summit is laid out. We could wander around for days looking for the way down. I suppose we better just dig in and sit until the weather clears and we can see something. Better that than trying to pull ourselves out of some epic hole that one of us falls into….
… This would be a terrific place to get a photo if we could see something. It’s gotta be exposed on this serac. Yikes! We’re 7,000 feet off the floor and there’s nothing but air under my ass and a Swiss cheese wall of ice above me at a 45° overhanging angle. Please let there be some way over to the left….
… Must weigh about 100,000 tons. I’m going to be glad when I’m out from under this shit….
… I can’t make this move with my pack on. The axe might pull through this soft névé and bingo—I’m flying. No, nooo. Come back down. Take the pack off and don’t stick your neck out here. You’re too close to the top now. You’d never forgive yourself if you peeled off now….
… Another lost hour. We don’t have the time. I could get a screw in this rock-hard overhanging ice bulge to the right. No, I don’t think so—it’s right over Charlie’s belay. It would be just my luck to crack it with a screw placement. Damn serac ice is so brittle. I’ll be lucky not to break another pick off….
…Sound of a plane out there in the cloud. Far out—it’s gotta be Paul. Far out. Hot damn. He be flyin’! Is that ever great news. This has got to be just a localized storm. Yahoo. Come on, man, break! Show him where we are. Maybe he can land that thing on the summit. Now that would be good. Hey, they do it in the Alps, don’t they? I’m not proud….
…This has got to be the top. Big place up here. Where the hell am I coming up on this thing? Where is the north ridge gonna be? This does not look simple. Big rounded ice cap. We better get the hell out of here before it socks back in completely and we’re stuck up here for a week….
…Is that a wand? Yes—a Ruedi wand! Pretty funny. It’d be great if they had it wanded all the way down.
Dream on, Buhler….
…Afternoon light is something else up here. Big white and black piles of clouds. A bit of blue breaking through, and streaks of white beams. Incredible contrast of dark and light. Man, it coulda snowed all day….
…Whoa! There’s that engine again! He’s comin’ back to look for us. Dang, he must get be gettin’ a deal on plane fuel! I can’t believe it. Maybe he’s gonna actually try and land the thing. Now that would be something to talk about….
…Circles and circles. He’s seen us…. Damn, he’s coming in close!! Who’s that? Shit, it’s Ruedi! They must be off Logan. Couldn’t mistake that hairdo anywhere….
…They’re comin around again. Window’s open…something’s flying out….Bounce, bounce…one red stuff sack down the south face. Don’t think I’ll chase that one down. Coming again. Second attempt. Window open. That smilin’ face….Bingo—direct hit! Man, it’s dinner! What service! Fifty feet from us and…holy shit—it’s gonna be a great night after all. Special delivery, Alaska style. All right! Those Domino’s pizza delivery boys would be jealous….
…Why didn’t I listen to those guys more closely on the descent. I’m sooo stupid. What on earth were you thinking about? These slopes are unbelievably avalanche prone. That’s all we need, to get swept off now….
…Back up, back up. This just isn’t going to go. This slope’s too likely to slide. We gotta find another way down the ridge. There’s gotta be another way around these ice cliffs and crevasses….
…Let’s just spend the night here. It’s been enough for one day. We’re still alive. How’s about calling it a day. We’ve got fuel. We’ve got our air-dropped dinner…we got through the damn serac wall. It’s pretty damn good weather considering we started up this thing a week ago….
…That’s what stuff sacks are really for: rappel anchors. Oh, yes, that looks solid. You could rap a tank off that ol’ bag in the snow….
…We’re almost down now. Spectacular. Spectacular. We’d be a week trying to pick our way down either one of these icefalls. There’s the smiling crevasse face on the glacier. Landing strip, extraordinaire. Can see that tent there, too. Ha, ha, ha. Food. Yes! That big curved crevasse with ice blocks looks like a smilin’ face just calling us home to dinner….
…Oh, man, I can smell those home-baked oatmeal raisin cookies already. We’re gonna get down to that landing zone today! Wouldn’t that be incredible if Paul came in today to check us out. But shit, it’s socked in. Doubt he’d be landing in that stuff. No worries—let’s just not get caught in this last 1,000-foot 35° slope. I hate these. Big ‘ol traverse we’re making is just about perfect to cut and release this mama. Stay close to the top; go for those seracs and blocks of ice. Maybe they’ll anchor this horrendous slope….
…Ooohh—there’s a hum in the air…quiet….Yeah! That’s the Supercub! ! He’s comin’ in to look for us. Hot shit. I think I love that guy. Too many more climbs like this and he’s going to go bankrupt. Look at ‘im go. Scopin’ it out. Is he gonna land?
Just keep your mind on the task at hand, Buhler. Just pick the right route down off this stupid slope….
…Look at that. I can’t believe it. He’s skiing toward us! Oh, yes. What a pilot. He’s gonna ski over to us. All we gotta do now is get across that smilin’-shaped crevasse and we’re home free. I can almost taste those home-baked cookies at the lodge melting in my mouth. Incredible seven days….
Paul not only picked us up that afternoon and dropped us off at the Ultima Thule Lodge, but flew back into the eastern cwm of University, skied up to the base of the wall and picked up our skis. Then he and his assistant taxied down to our base camp, folded up our tent and collected our duffels. All while we were taking a sauna! By the time we were sitting down to supper, our gear, our skis, and Paul and his assistant were back at the lodge cabins.
The couple from Georgia were still there, too. And they had a lot of questions.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Wrangell-St. Elias range, Alaska
NEW ROUTE: The East Face (Alaskan Grade 6-, 8,500') of University Peak (14,800'), April 29-May 5, 1997, Charlie Sassara and Carlos Buhler