American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, St. Elias Range, "Mt. Swanson," Northwest Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

“Mt. Swanson,” Northwest Face. During the end of April and beginning of May, Jim Earl and I ventured to a little-explored area in the St. Elias Range referred to as the Fourth of July Cirque. This area is on the Hawkins Glacier at the base of the southwest and west faces of University Peak; to the north are the incredible south walls of the Thwaharpes Celeno and Ocypete peaks as well as a handful of unclimbed prizes.

On our second day in the area, we set our sights on the north face of “Little Ama Dablam,” so named by Paul Claus, who made the first ascent of this 10,000-footer. After the first pitch of beautiful Alaskan ice (up to 85°), we began simul-climbing the middle 60° slopes. After approximately 600 feet of climbing, my crampon broke and we were forced to retreat and one-leg it back to camp.

This small mishap was the cause of great festering in our camp while, during blue-bird days, we waited for Paul to retrieve our spare pair of crampons from his house. This occurred eight days later. The weather had changed, and light snow held us in camp the entire time.

As soon as we were resupplied with fresh ‘poons, we set our sights on another objective, “Mt. Swanson” (named in memory of our friend who perished in a helicopter accident in January, 1997). This 10,800-foot peak features a stunning 5,000-foot northeast face that drained into the Hawkins Glacier at our feet. Leaving at 4:30 a.m. on April 29, we skied to the base, then climbed up the initial 1,000-foot snow ramp and avalanche runnel to the route’s short crux: 100 feet of mixed 5.8 (M4) and thin smears of ice. The crux deposited us onto the 2,000-foot, 70° snow gully that leads to a 140-foot ice gully with bullet-proof ice (60-85°), including some thin technical sections. A short traverse put us into deep snow on 60° ice. After much work and “chunneling” for two more pitches, I was able to top out on the corniced east ridge, 600 feet away from and 200 feet below the summit, in deteriorating weather. I immediately down climbed back to Jim. After a short brew up of hot liquids, we descended our route through poor weather and heavy spindrift back to Base Camp, arriving at 6 a.m. on the 30th after 26 continuous hours of climbing.

The next two days passed easily, despite the weather. We were content to sleep and eat. Unfortunately, the weather remained poor for an additional five days, which cut short the bigger plan of exploring the flanks of University Peak. On May 6, Paul swooped in through a hole in the weather and returned us to civilization.

Brendan Cusick

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