Mt. Marcus Baker, attempt via Pi Ridge. In a Whittier, Alaska, warehouse of dry-docked boats we studied maps and photos of College Fjord. Rain drummed on the metal roof, and our breath spilled out in plumes of fog. Mik Shain and I were planning a trip that would fuse maritime adventure with climbing exploration and involve several climates. In an 18-day effort we hoped to pioneer a route from the sea to the summit of the highest point in the Chugach, Mt. Marcus Baker (13,176'). I had just completed a 600-mile solo kayaking trip down the Copper River and through Prince William Sound from Glennallen to Seward. Mik had just finished a stint on Denali as a mountaineering ranger.
We chose a ridge that bounded the Smith Glacier to the east. We hoped the ridge would lead to the Knik Glacier at 9,000'. From the Knik, the summit seemed an easy eight miles. On July 20, with ice axes and packs strapped to our kayaks, we began the 60-mile paddle to the ridge. We feasted on salmon we caught during our days on the ocean.
Where the Smith Glacier calves into College Fjord, we hefted 10 days’ of supplies onto our backs and began climbing in the rain.
Our route became a wondrous journey so bountiful with challenges, matched by creative solutions, that we could only digest it one savory moment at a time.
From the sea to 3,000' we thrashed through alder thickets, dodging devil’s club, cow parsnip, and bears. Occasional easy 5th-class rock provided faster climbing. One failed chest-beating contest with an aggressive bear sent us in a panicked run, ice axes waving above us. Unending rain and poor visibility pinned us at our 4,000' camp for four days. To avoid a series of gendarmes, we continued in the rain along the margin of the Smith Glacier and up a 5.6 gully to the crest of the ridge. The gully is just southeast of an icefall spilling from the Baltimore Glacier.
We camped at 4,400' at the Baltimore. We continued along the Baltimore’s margin to a spur that rose west to regain the ridge. Slushy point releases avalanched all around in cascades of mud, rock, and snow. Our position on the snowy crest was safe, though twice I nearly buried Mik as he belayed me. At 7,300' we were again on the ridge. We camped.
The climbing above was spectacular: a knife-edge ridge followed by a crevassed maze and steep snow. We reveled in our tenuous position. An azure sky, brilliant snow, and an unending glacial landscape punctuated by black spires of Chugach rock contained us in a boundless wilderness vessel. Our path seemed the only passage from the sea. At 8,700 an easy climb along a cornice and up a mound appeared to be all that separated us from the Knik Glacier. We were out of food, fuel, and time, and another storm had arrived from the Aleutians. We had pioneered a route from the sea to where we stood, but we would not reach the top of Marcus Baker this time. Two days later we were back at sea level. During the climb we had read aloud The Life of Pi—a parable about the nature of reality, a survival story of a boy, Pi Patel, on an improbable ocean voyage. Our climb and the story became the same the night we returned to the sea and finished the last pages, igniting a discussion about perception, reality, their relation, and our creative roles in both. Our route was Pi Ridge: AK Grade 3, 6 miles, 8,700' gain.