Peak 9,968' (?), west ridge. On May 5, Kelly Bay of Wrangell Mountain Air flew Drew Lovell and me into the Martin River Glacier at the western end of the Bagley Icefield. We landed on the glacier at 4,200', just south of the impressive 7,000' south face of Mt. Tom White. Our objective was a peak I had seen some years ago on another trip. I had tried twice to fly in to attempt the peak, but both times weather prevented us from landing. We were lucky in 2002, as Alaska had been enjoying a run of sunny weather.
Depending on which map you look at, the elevation of the peak we were attempting is 9,968', 9,066', or, on aviation maps, over 10,000'. It doesn’t matter, as it rises some 6,000' out of the surrounding glaciers to a beautiful summit pyramid. It sits just outside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and looks down on the Gulf of Alaska, some 15 miles to the south across the Bering Glacier.
As we flew in, we scouted the two routes I had originally thought possible. One route had considerably less snow than in my photograph and was objectively more hazardous, with hanging seracs, cornices, and crevasses. The other route looked more possible, although rather long. It would require us to traverse a long ridge and ascend a couple of smaller summits.
After setting up camp Drew did a ski ascent and descent of Peak 6,311', across the Martin River Glacier and northeast of camp.
On May 6 we headed up the north ridge of Peak 6,970', but snow and clouds stopped us 2,000' up. On May 7 we ascended this ridge in better weather. The slope varied from 35° to 45° hard-packed snow and ice. On the summit we melted snow to replenish our water and left the stove and Drew’s skis behind. We traversed down and along the ridge to 6,700' before picking our way across the bergshrund and ascending moderate slopes up and over Peak 7,700'+. We again descended, before ascending moderate slopes to Peak 8,200'+. More descending and ridge traversing brought us to the base of the west ridge of Peak 9,968'. We took an extended break to rest and look at the final ridge. It was hard to determine how much more climbing was required. I was tired, from heat and intense sun, and less motivated than Drew. He was ready, so he took off along the ridge. I rested for another 30 minutes before taking off. We left the rope and other gear behind to save weight. The final 1,000' was moderately angled; most of it maybe 30°, with a few short steeper sections near the top that required us to climb the 45° ridge crest. The lower-angled sections were exciting, with cornices on one side and 4,000' of exposure on the other. The exposed side began as a 20° slope that was just long enough that you might have been able to self-arrest before going over rocks into oblivion. I reached the summit five minutes behind Drew. We were blessed with continued clear skies and took a few minutes to enjoy the sweeping views from Mt. Bona to Mt. Logan to the Gulf of Alaska and on around to the Copper River to our west. Mt. St. Elias was hidden behind Mt. Steller, just to our east. I shot a string of photos before we headed down. We arrived back in camp just before dark, or in Alaska at that time of year, as dark as it gets. It was a long, 16-hour day that, by the time we climbed back up over all of the subpeaks, included some 6,200' of ascent. We did most of the route unroped, but roped up in sections with crevasse danger. We thought about climbing the south face of Mt. Tom White, but the weather turned on the evening of May 8. We were due to be picked up on the morning of May 10, but Kelly could not get in until the evening of May 12.
I try to keep up on the climbing history in the Wrangell–St. Elias region, and this may have been the first ascent of the peak. But a lot of climbs and adventures in Alaska go unreported.
Danny Kost, AAC