American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, St. Elias Range, South Walsh, First Ascent; Mt. Walsh, Southeast Ridge; Other Ascents

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2007

South Walsh, first ascent; Mt. Walsh, Southeast Ridge; other ascents. On May 28 Graham Rowbotham and I reached the pointed summit of South Walsh (4,223m). This was the highest unclimbed peak in the St. Elias range and, as claimed in AAJ 2006 (p. 199), in North America. Prior to our visit the complex south side of the Walsh massif seems to have been untouched* apart from minor Peak 3,450m, climbed in 2005.

Twelve days before, Andy Williams flew us in from frozen Kluane Lake to 2,855m on the upper Donjek Glacier. As Andy flew off, our attention was drawn to the striking cirque formed by Mt. Walsh and South Walsh. The generous plastering of fresh snow quickly convinced us to attempt South Walsh by its southwest ridge rather than one of the possible routes on the west face. On our first attempt we retreated from 3,900m due to wind. Our second, successful, attempt is described here.

After skirting the avalanche-prone entry slopes, we weaved around rotten rock and waded ‘schrund-infested snow to a spacious campsite at 3,700m. Above, we traversed a sharp corniced arête, before being forced onto the south face to avoid rime-encrusted rock towers. On the face we relied on a thin covering of sugary snow over shattered quartz-veined limestone. There were no belays. In our search for a viable route we traversed into a series of couloirs, crossing buttresses where the snow allowed. Luckily it was cold enough that the snow did not deteriorate, even in the direct afternoon sun. We escaped by trenching up steep wind deposits to a ledge below a huge triangular ice cornice.

Buffeted by a gale on the summit of South Walsh, we descended to the plateau connecting the massif. Since there was no effective shelter from the relentless maelstrom, we dug in the tent but found ourselves compressed overnight by deposited snow. The next day we traversed the long ridge over Pt. 4,227m (also unclimbed) to the main summit of Mt. Walsh (4,507m), via its previously unclimbed southeast ridge. Below the final wind-scoured slopes we found a sheltered, sunny bivy-schrund in which we could revive the stove and our dehydrated bodies. From the summit we descended the West Ridge, the route taken on the 1941 first ascent (called the northwest ridge in AAJ 1942, p.348). In doing so we completed the first full traverse of the massif. After a more congenial night near the base of the ridge, we waded through a heavily crevassed bowl to reach the Walsh-Steele col. The postholing back to our stashed snow- shoes was mild by St. Elias standards, as there was a wind crust on the glacier.

Earlier, on May 18, we had made the first ascent of Jekden South, a ca 3,745m summit west of our base camp, climbing via the shallow, snowy east rib. On our return flight to Kluane Lake, the controls were taken by Donjek Upton, son of Phil Upton, who flew climbers and scientists here from 1960-84. We found we had been lucky to complete our climb: the unsettled weather had disrupted the plans of practically every other party. We would like to acknowledge financial support from the British Mountaineering Council and UK Sport.

Paul Knott, New Zealand

*Knott adds: While researching the ascents of Mt. Walsh, I found the following route, which was not reported in the AAJ. CAJ 1997 includes an account of a route climbed by Dan Clarke and Mark Sowinski on what they called the “South Face of Mt. Walsh” (pp. 34-37). Based on their description and annotated photo, the location of their route might be more precisely described as the southwest ridge of Mt. Walsh, reached at 3,800m via west-facing slopes. The route shares no ground with our traverse from South Walsh. Including ours, there are now four recorded routes to the main summit of Mt. Walsh (4,507m): West Ridge (1941), West Face to Southwest Ridge (1996), Northwest Ridge (1997), and Southeast Ridge (2006).

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