The Southwest Face of King Peak
Personal evolution on an overlooked gem
by Joe Josephson
A profound form of love. This is how a long-time friend once described obsession. Ten years ago I used her words as a kinder, more acceptable justification for doing whatever the hell I wanted. In my impetuous youth, I really had no idea what that was. But I did know one thing. For the better part of a decade I desperately wanted to climb a new route on King Peak in the St. Elias Range of the Yukon Territories, Canada.
My taste for King Peak began in 1989 while on my first big mountain trip: the Trench Route on Mount Logan (19,540’). At 16,971 feet, King Peak is dwarfed by its neighbor, Logan, but nonetheless it is the ninth highest peak in North America. The north face rises in Eiger-like proportions in one dramatic 5,000-foot sweep. The south ridge falls from the summit with Peruvianesque flutings and ends with several tendrils submerged deep in the Seward Icefield. From an eastern or western vantage point, references to Nepal’s Pumori are not uncommon.
In this age of trophy climbing, one would imagine a mountain like King Peak to be world-famous and climbed often, yet it remains unique in every sense of the word. When Steve House and I arrived at the base on May 31, 1998, only five parties had stood atop King Peak via four different routes. Of those, only one was alpine style and within the last 30 years.
When it comes to trophies, chasing numbers and focusing solely on achievement, I carry my share of guilt. In terms of climbing King Peak, I found myself wanting to climb the coldest, steepest and, more importantly, the most recognizable feature of the mountain. The austere, unclimbed north face of King Peak became a drive that, although not constant, was nonetheless obsessive.
In the early 1990s, I had made several narrow-minded attempts to organize an expedition to the north face. It was Canadian pioneer Chic Scott who first alerted me to what he called “a route of the 21st Century” on the southwest face of the mountain. In 1995, while attempting to guide Logan, Troy Kirwan, Barry Blanchard and I skied over from base camp with this carrot of information for a look.
The southwest face rises close to 7,500 vertical feet from the Quintino Sella Glacier. The first 4,000 feet is a sweeping 50- to 60-degree ice face which narrows into a small but passable icefall. The upper half of the face is all rock save for a splitter gully that rises to meet the west ridge. The first 500 feet of the gully, with mixed climbing, is clearly the crux, after which the route slants left and becomes a more straight-forward ice couloir.
The line is not visionary. It’s obvious. Anyone with a compulsion toward new routes, alpine mixed climbs or just direct lines on big mountains would feel drawn. But in my mind I continued to defer to the hallowed ground of the north wall. The southwest face would be the “warm up”—the consolation prize. Unfortunately, due to horrific weather, Barry, Troy and I barely got off Logan alive. We hardly saw King Peak, let alone attempted a route.
In the years after our stalled trip, my vision of climbing King Peak evolved from doing one particular route for all the wrong reasons to doing a great route for a few of the right ones. As I mentioned, the southwest face route didn’t take a visionary to figure out. But perhaps vision lies in style, and it definitely is found in the relationships required to succeed. Alpinism is all about relationships—with the range, the mountain, the weather, the conditions, yourself, your life, your friends, your lovers, and your climbing partners, if any. None of these take precedence over another. Intimate respect and heed is placed simultaneously on all these factors.
The vision of climbing the north face dimmed. Not to be mistaken, King Peak remained very much in my consciousness. Steve and I were both intrigued by the north wall, just as we would be with any spectacular feature. But by the time we arrived on the Quintino Sella Glacier, there was no longer any desire, latent or otherwise, to climb it.
Instead, we had a simpler objective: the southwest face. We also had an important attitude: a willingness to fail. We wanted to make a continuous ascent of the route by beginning around midnight and climbing the ice face and the crux gully. Then, after 14-16 hours of climbing, we would stop for several hours during the heat of the day to eat, brew up and nap. Once we started getting cold, we’d tag the summit and descend the east ridge to our camp at King Col. We would carry no sleeping bags or tents. Our only bivouac gear would be a single shovel blade and an extra coat each. We would either climb the southwest face in this style, or not at all.
Within days of our arrival, we had moved a small camp to King Col, where we joined the critical mass of guided Logan parties. Over the next few days, in the name of acclimatization, we socialized, putzed about, did a little skiing and enjoyed our time together. One fine day we hiked up to the base of the east ridge of King Peak. From this vantage it became obvious the ridge is much steeper and icier than we had anticipated. To down climb it after a long and tiring ascent would be very dangerous, so we quickly decided to descend the 1952 West Ridge/North Face route instead. We moved our cached skis to a spot in the Trench at about 12,000 feet directly below the north face.
On June 7, we moved back to Base Camp to wait for the weather. On June 10, we laid around all evening and, after just falling into a nervous sleep, awoke at midnight on my 31st birthday.
Those individuals who have done a lot of alpine starts with me know I can be frustratingly schizophrenic. One morning I’ll be outwardly talkative and hardly containable; the next, I’ll stay buried somewhere inside myself and mumble barely a word. I’ve learned that, for me, both can be equally stimulating, but Steve had yet to understand this. He thought I wasn’t psyched. In the hour it took to get ready, Steve had to deal with his own preparation while feeling like he had to motivate me. It turned into a classic case of polar responding. His attempt to motivate me simply plunged me deeper into my introverted side, which accelerated his own excitement.
If I’m feeling lazy or scared, I’ll often just want to wallow there like a moose in deep snow until I figure out my feelings. Beginning climbers talk about developing a head so they can get over their reticence. I’ve worked hard to go the other way. In my tenure of alpine climbing, I’ve learned to listen to my “spidey senses.” But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in my years of climbing is that intuition isn’t infallible. I’ve been lucky. With that hard-earned knowledge I’ve gotten slower, more cautious, and less likely to go for it. I call it “Retro-Head.”
At times I noticed myself getting annoyed at Steve’s seemingly endless drive. In moments of impatience, I would want to shout, “Why can’t you just calm down!” But this internal dialogue would be quickly replaced with, “Get a grip, JoJo. You know it’s not him.”
I know few people in this world who are less competitive or have a better understanding about their own mortality than Steve. My irritation was simply my own uncertainty about my feelings, laziness, and fear. Perhaps that is why Steve and I had connected and become friends and climbing partners. Unbeknownst to him, Steve had exposed a weakness and forced me to face it.
We left the tent at 1 a.m. It was a three-hour ski from Base Camp to the bottom of the face. By the time we got there, Steve realized that, in the frenetic pace he set for himself at the tent, he had forgotten one of two water bottles and his extra fleece jacket. Because we barely had anything in the first place, it was a noticeable oversight. I was a little surprised Steve would forget such things and simultaneously felt disappointment and perhaps a little hope: disappointment that we might not get to try what we had planned, and hopeful that perhaps we’d get to ski back to the certainty of base camp. Steve was just pissed. I gave him an extra hat I had planned to leave at the skis and figured we could manage.
Once we got above the bergschrund, we took the rope off and continued up the 4,000- foot ice face we later termed the “Great Sweep.” Upon arriving near the base of the crux gully a little less than five hours later, Mount St. Elias was enveloped in cloud. Within minutes, the top 3,000 feet of King Peak disappeared in a large lenticular cloud. We started down together yet alone. Rappelling would have taken too long and been exposed to objective hazards with anchors too timely and difficult to make. These facts weren’t up for discussion.
We barely spoke the entire way down. To ease the monotony, we’d alternate grabbing the top of the ax in piolet panne, holding the shaft just under the head. At times we’d be forced to swing both tools into the steeper, icier sections, but we generally avoided that as much as possible. We’d look for anything resembling deeper snow or softer névé where we could stand without front-pointing or cocking our ankles like the head of a curious dog. I would hone in on the next outcrop or ice feature to break the descent into manageable portions, only to find that I didn’t want to look down too often lest I notice how painfully slow we were in reaching those chosen yardsticks. And looking down was only marginally better than looking up at the seracs that threatened the bottom half of the Great Sweep.
Getting off took over six hours of tedious crabbing. At no point could we turn around and face out. Flopped at the base in utter exhaustion and frustration, we agreed it was perhaps the worst thing either of us had ever done in the mountains.
We spent a few days recovering and socializing with new friends in Base Camp. A closer look at the crux gully and time in camp allowed us to rethink our packs. Among other things, we took out our 6-mm rappel line. This left us with one 9.1-mm 60-meter rope, seven ice screws, four cams, six pitons, six stoppers, a shovel blade, a MSR stove, pot, two freeze-dried dinners, tea, about 20 GU packets a piece, a down coat and extra pair of gloves and mitts each. Our packs weighed about 30 pounds combined, including the rope and rack.
Not often have I gone onto a 7,500-foot alpine face with one rope. Yet we knew the rope wouldn’t be uncoiled before the crux gully, and once we got over that it would probably be easier to go over the top than retreat. The concept was simple. We were unwilling to down climb the ice face again due to objective danger and the sincere belief that we had burned a few lucky stars the first time.
Understandably, we were nervous about committing to the route without very stable weather. For days, there had been some fog and unstructured, high cirrus clouds streaming above, but the weather remained stable, with about 14 hours out of every 36 being perfect. The entire time we were in Base Camp the altimeter moved very little, if at all.
Our pickup date was June 21. By the 17th, everyone else on the mountain was gone. We were beginning to believe we wouldn’t do King Peak. But the weather refused to change, so in the first hours of the 18th we left Base Camp for the second and last time.
Skiing toward the face, the frozen texture of the glacier reminded me fondly of the rumpled white flannel sheets I used as a child. There was none of my moody trepidation, and none of Steve’s frantic packing nor forgotten crucial pieces. We knew more about the route and the conditions, we knew greatly more about each other, and we knew more about what we were there to do. The Great Sweep was under us quickly and we arrived at our previous high point by 9:30 a.m. Going a little higher, we found a rock anchor on the right and started belaying.
The first pitch was a nice moderate ice pitch with some thin ice. The second pitch climbed a short bulge to an easier gully that led to a prominent collection of icicles pouring off a thumb of rock to the left. The surrounding rock was proving to be some of the most bizarre, twisted, cooked rock I’ve seen. Decent rock protection was sporadic at best.
It was Steve’s lead. The pitch would clearly be the crux—and it was beautiful, with good, hard mixed climbing to the right of the thumb of icicles. At first I felt a brief twinge of disappointment that it wasn’t my lead, but I learned long ago not to argue if my partner draws the short straw and/or wants to do the hard pitch. I’ll get my share naturally enough.
From the belay, Steve went into the gully and climbed up a vertical ice pillar in the back of the comer to the right of the icicles. After about ten meters, the angle eased. At this point the prominent icicles were level with and out in space directly behind Steve. Fifteen meters of hard mixed climbing with very little gear led to an invisible stance on the ice above the icicles.
The rope stopped. For 40 minutes I heard nothing except the occasional jiggle of the rope. Clumps of crusty ice shot over the lip, the bigger ones trying to smash my hands and shoulders, the smaller pieces searching a way into the back of my collar. Steve managed to get four pieces of gear: a slung horn (the best piece), a knifeblade behind a flake, a second (worse) piton and two equalized, tied-off, stubby ice screws. For the last half hour I had been watching the sun come around the face. My thoughts were preoccupied with its arrival—that is, I was looking forward to its heat but praying we’d finish the pitch before it hit.
“Okay,” Steve said, breaking the stillness. “I’m going for it.”
With Steve’s call the sun disappeared, and my only thoughts went up the rope, into my partner and whatever he was dealing with. In all my alpine climbing experiences, it is exactly moments like this that are the most hopeful, the most dreadful, the most intense, the craziest, and the most savory. I concentrated on my belay, adjusting the rope so as not to give unwanted tension and ready to feed it out if he needed slack for a desperate clip. But the desperate clip never came. The rope fed upward at a steady rate and I heard nothing save the pattering of hard snow crystals and the occasional ice chunk bowling down the gully. When I was hit by a pillow of spindrift Steve had knocked down and then heard a telltale hoot, I knew he had reached easier ground.
Upon following the pitch, I seriously wondered if I would have attempted it. Above Steve’s gear there was but one narrow strip in the rotten smattering that took good tool placements. This strip was on the right side of an overhanging groove that pushed me backward onto a pillar of unconsolidated ice that resembled wax drippings more than an icicle. This also leaned, forcing me into gymnastic body positions reminiscent of cragging close to the car. Yet the entire 20 meters of this overhanging section was covered in a tapestry of useless crusted snow that is typical of and really only found on alpine routes and for which no roadside waterfall route could ever prepare you.
I was proud of Steve’s lead, and thankful it was his. Ten years ago it would have been my focus as well. Today, it was merely a pain in the ass. But it dawned on me that I was at the point I’d evolved to in the last ten years: in the middle of an adventure with an incredibly talented partner and awesome friend, knowing that every aspect of our route and the trip were equally important and valuable.
After a brief, relieved break at Steve’s belay, we continued up, sharing the work and the hopefulness. The entire upper face was about 50 degrees and, although it had a lot of rocks sticking out, pure ice. We climbed roped up, placing ice screws and the occasional rock piece between us as we moved together. After nine rope lengths we moved left onto a broad ice slope that, in another four rope lengths, gave easy access to the west ridge. All told, it had taken 13 hours to reach the west ridge from where we left the skis.
We dug small platforms out of the wind on the north side of the ridge and sat down to eat, brew and attempt a nap. We had hoped to stop earlier in the day but had found absolutely no ledges anywhere and no snow to dig into. Cornices had threatened the bottom part of the upper gully. All day high cirrus had been building, yet St. Elias remained clear. We thought little of it, as it was no different than the preceding days’ patterns.
Around 9 p.m., the clouds got thicker, blocking the warming sun. Caps formed over St. Elias and Logan, and darker rain clouds could be seen lower in the Chitna Valley. Our hydrating nap in the sun turned into a few hours of shivering and choking on indigestible freeze-dried munge. With nothing better to do, we packed up and nervously headed for the summit.
The first pitch from the ledge wandered out across snow slopes to the bottom of a small, broken rock step. A mixed step left put Steve in a shallow snow gully, which he followed to a good belay off a slung horn just below the summit ridge. A short easy section led to the main ridge. We then moved together across the ridge, first on the south side and then, several pitches before the summit, on the exposed north side. We stayed well back from either edge and some ten meters below the true summit for fear of cornices.
All-in-all, it was a disappointing summit. Despite appearances from below, the top was non-distinct and the 11:30 p.m. twilit gloom was ominous. The clouds were thickening and the top 1,500 feet of Logan were already gone.
We returned to the summit rock step, where we made a short rappel off the slung horn (our only rappel on the entire descent). As soon as we got back to the ledge and repacked, the weather really turned. We continued to down climb the ridge by moving together and threading the rope around snow pinnacles, staying on opposite sides of the ridge and only occasionally placing ice screws. We anticipated rappelling the obviously rocky sections we had scoped from the Trench. In the heavy snow and twilight darkness, however, we found not a single rock anchor worth weighting. After battling this peak, I doubt they would be found even under brilliant blue sky and unlimited time to look. On King Peak, they don’t exist. With some effort we were able to find our way around the rock sections by down climbing and traversing through bad snow on the north side of the ridge. It was a white-out pretty much the entire way down and we were frightfully dehydrated, but by then we were so wet that if we stopped we’d get too cold. Our only food, GU packets, stuck to our mouths like half-and-half on a hot day.
The trickiest part of the descent was finding the start of the ramp that leads back below the north face. Steve led out on a likely looking snow bench. I wasn’t convinced, but lacking a definitive alternative, I went with his judgment. It was too high, leaving us stranded somewhere on the north face with eerie shadows of seracs and omnipresent voids invisible through the whiteout. We returned through deep snow back to the ridge, taking some two hours.
I was pissed. How could he be so impatient? Somewhere inside, though, I knew my anger was nothing but my own fatigue and frustration. I didn’t know any more about the descent than he did.
Later on, Steve lowered me down an ice section when I just couldn’t take it any more, and then down climbed it himself. The unspoken give-and-take; the shallow desire to say “told you so,” immediately followed by unrequested assistance just when you need it most; two people allowing each other to feel whatever it is they feel. This is what alpine climbing is all about. These relationships are only spawned out of intimacy—out of a profound form of love.
A big bergschrund guards the top of the ramp. After several belayed probes and more time and energy than either one of us cared to expend, we found an easy way across. The visibility cleared quite a bit, and the route across the ramp proved to be easy. We spent 40 minutes under very big and active seracs. It’s amazing how dread can motivate. It was the best we felt all day as we virtually sprinted to the relative safety of the Trench.
When we got to the skis, I asked Steve if our initial attempt on the face was still the most hateful thing he had done in the mountains.
“No,” he said with a smile.
A quick ski on perfect snow brought us down to Base Camp, 35 hours after leaving. I am a survival skier in the best sense of the word and frequently use the phrase “hating life” when describing my ski experiences. Yet halfway to base it dawned on me that I had been skating down the freeze-thaw surface of the glacier. I was even practicing alpine turns on the steeper parts. At that moment, in the King Trench with Steve gliding down somewhere behind me, I was glad to be alive. It became obvious to me why King Peak has been climbed only six times.
Summary of Statistics
Area: St. Elias Mountains, Canada
New Route: Call of the Wild (VI WI6, 7,500') on the southwest face of King Peak, June 18-19, 1998, Joe Josephson and Steve House