American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, British Columbia, Stikine Ice Cap, Noel Peak, West Face and Mt. Ratz, West Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Noel Peak, West Face and Mt. Ratz, West Face. Fred Beckey, Dave Creeden, and I arrived in Petersburg May 24 at the tail end of a rare month-long streak of excellent weather, hoping to access a group of three 10,000-foot peaks approximately 50 miles northeast of Petersburg just east of the Alaska border. Fred was the only person in our party to have climbed in the Stikine, having completed the first ascent of the striking Devil’s Thumb in 1947 as well as the first ascent of Mt. Ratz (one of our objectives) in the early 1970s. Climbing accounts and/or photographs of the area proved to be practically non-existent, so our intended route(s) were limited to analyzing the topographic maps and depended a lot on what we saw on the helicopter flight in.

We flew up the Baird Glacier, eventually arriving on the Icecap at the head of the Dawes

Glacier. We made base camp on a sheltered rocky knoll at approximately 6,000 feet. It snowed several inches that night; given the poor visibility the following day, we were surprised by the sound of the chopper arriving with Wesley Bunch and Judd Stewart. After guiding them through the fog with the radio, it took almost an hour to de-ice the rotors so the pilot could lift off. The next five days of snow and sleet kept us close to camp. Day six dawned clear so Stewart, Bunch, Creeden and I set out for an attempt of Mt. Noel’s west face. Fred, leery of the weather as he monitored the barometer, opted to remain in camp. An easy hike up on firm snow on the lower northwest ridge brought us even with the head of the glacier, from where we traversed out to the approximate center of the west face. After roping up and negotiating the bergschrund, we moved up steadily, using running belays. The route provided wonderful, 45 to 50° alpine snow and ice climbing for 1,800 feet. Three separate ice gullies were used to ascend the face. A short, strenuous pitch of loose 5th class climbing was required to exit the face and join the northwest ridge a few hundred feet from the top. We found a short piece of cord tied to a rock on top as an temporary testimony to the first ascent, pioneered on the southeast side of the mountain by a Canadian team. We carefully descended the route with a combination of rappels and belayed down-climbing as the sun began to overheat us. By 7 p.m. we rejoined Fred in camp, anxious to relate the day’s adventure.

Two days later, the pilot arrived to retrieve Dave, Fred and I. Wes and Judd had another week to use so they waved goodbye and set about planning the next project.

(The following is reported by Judd Stewart:) While on the summit of Noel, Wes and I scoped a promising line on Mt. Ratz. The northeast face is a shining 2,000-foot sheet of 60 to 70° ice, approached via a broken glacier and a 1,500-foot couloir. The day after our friends left, we loaded our packs and skied the six or seven miles to the base of Ratz’s precipitous north face. Once again the weather was awful. For six days we struggled to remain sane in the cramped Bibler tent. With only two days left until our scheduled pick-up, the weather cleared and we set off for the climb. Even though there were many crevasses, the snow was firm as we easily marched over frozen bridges, enjoying perfect visibility. The couloir above the glacier went quickly and we soon found ourselves under the face, challenged by a large bergschrund. Leaning across the maw at a narrow spot I could touch the overhanging snow on the uphill side, but it was soft and wouldn’t hold a tool. I finally struggled over the problem by doing a few insecure snow picket aid moves—a first in my experience.

On the face, we were presented with perfect ice. We simul-climbed for 2,000 feet, switching leads as we used up the screws. At last we reached the summit ridge, from where we could look down the complex of gullies on the south side of the mountain. Beckey’s first ascent route had worked up through that maze. A few pitches of exposed ridge traversing took us to the summit, the last pitch consisting of nasty, rotten snow studded with loose rock. At the summit I fashioned a hanging belay on a rock horn protruding from the snow a few feet from the top. Wes came up and we took turns crouching on the tiny summit, too concerned with the descent to celebrate. We rappelled the route using v-threads. The descent of the glacier was harrowing, with very poor visibility and soft snow. We postholed down in the murk and fell repeatedly into the small crevasses, fortunately never going deeper than our bellies. The climb and descent required 26 hours of continuous movement.

Upon returning to Petersburg, we enjoyed the hospitality of resident climber Dieter Klose, the self-appointed mountaineering historian for the Stikine region. While perusing his journals we discovered there had been several previous attempts on Noel’s west side, but the everpresent coastal weather had prevented success.

Sam Grubenhoff and Judd Stewart, unaffiliated

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