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North America, United States, Alaska, St. Elias Mountains, Oasis Peak, First Ascent

Oasis Peak, First Ascent. In July, Kelvin Vail and I left our homes in southern British Columbia and drove and ferried through the rain to Petersburg, where in the ferry terminal at 3 a.m. we stumbled into our climbing partner. Fred Beckey was bivied on the floor of the waiting room, where we joined him until they kicked us out in the morning.

Thanks to Fred’s friend Deiter, we had shelter for the five rainy days in Petersburg, where we explored, fished, and climbed trees with ice gear until the clouds gave way to high pressure.

Although heli-alpinism isn’t usually my style, the team’s physical limitations required it, and no one complained that it only took us half an hour to reach the base of the mountain and the flats of the Oasis Glacier. Despite numerous attempts, the aesthetic Oasis Peak had never been summited. We waved goodbye to the pilot and quickly started packing for a higher camp. We could see our intended route outlined against blue skies: 2,500 feet of broken glacier led to a beautiful south ridge that ascended directly to the summit, with a shallow scoop in the middle about 200 meters long with steep buttresses on either side. We dubbed this feature “the Sidewalk;” it was the only class three climbing of the route. The glacier averaged only about 35 degrees but had one little icefall to negotiate and some rather large slots to work around. By evening, the three of us had reached a col near the base of the ridge, where we set up a high camp and scoped the route.

The sky was mixed as our alarms summoned us to consciousness at 3:30 a.m. on August 2. Fred was not well rested and opted to leave the job to Kelvin and I. By headlamp, we weaved our way through the final crevasses to a notch at the start of the ridge and started climbing. A couple of exposed 5.7 moves led across cracks to more cracks, hand jams, and a gully that we climbed into the first sunshine of the day. Four more rope lengths of mostly mid-fifth class up to 5.7 took us up through two gullies and dropped us on the Sidewalk. The rock quality was not what we had hoped but was still granite, and the protection seemed good.

Some cold postholing in rock shoes and deteriorating weather finished the Sidewalk and pointed us toward the only visible route up the headwall: soaked rock from a draining snow-bowl. Things were looking grim until a hidden left-facing corner revealed itself with a four-inch crack that went for about 70 meters. This proved to be the crux of the route with sustained 5.8 to 5.9 jamming and stemming. Protection for this section largely consisted of sliding up the number 4 Camalot between smaller gear placements. More fifth-class led into the drainage gully, followed by another easy slab and a 45-degree snowfield. Luckily, we had one ice axe, which Kelvin shuttled back to me on the rope after leading the snowfield.

We were now on the scenic upper ridge, with awesome views of the Devil’s Thumb, Burkett Needle, and the Stikine Icecap. The threatening storm blew away, and the sun came out in full force. Another easy fifth-class pitch led to nice 5.6 stemming up a chimney, followed by 5.6 slabs and hand cracks. The final pitch was a steep compact wall about 20 meters long, split by a beautiful 5.9 crack that widened at the top. Nothing like ending with a little offwidthing and the most strenuous moves of the day, just to make sure you got your money’s worth! After swapping leads for 14 pitches, we were at the top of the rock with roughly 150 meters of low-angle snow separating us from the summit. At about 4 p.m. we got as close as we dared—15 feet from the large summit cornice, which was baking in the sun. We snapped a few quick photos, thanked the mountain, and hurried on our way back down to camp. Eleven rappels, mostly from tied-off blocks and horns, took us safely down our route and by ten o’clock, 17 hours after starting, we were back in the tent, tired but happy.

The following day we returned to base camp, surprised at how much the lower icefall had changed in two days. We spent the rest of the week climbing snow and cragging on the beautiful glacier-polished bluffs near base camp, generally having a good time.

Jon Walsh