American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Peak 9,336', West Face

Alaska, Hayes Range

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Jeff Benowitz
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2009

In late May Andy Stern and I skied, walked, and swam into McGinnis to attempt the north ridge route’s second first ascent. But we had to take down my Bibler and bail as the wind whipped up my arse hole, while I screamed at Andy to get all his stuff on, because in two minutes everything was about to blow away through the skylight that opened in our tent. Andy is all jacked from a spinal injury 20 years ago, so I have to carry ridiculous loads when I’m with him, do all the trail-breaking, all the leading, all the cooking, and always keep an eye on him, because his brain is focused on moving his legs. We walked out dragging skis and sleds over gravel.

After that trip, flying into the mountains sounded great, but pilot Rob Wing’s skis were being repaired. This meant a 15-mile walk from the lowlands to our base camp in the upper east fork of the Gillam Glacier. Our objectives involved both science and climbing. Since the science involved collecting over 250 pounds of rocks, walking down to the lower gravel strip was not something we looked forward to, or even thought possible. We collected countless 3kg samples over a 15km grid for my Ph.D. dissertation on the uplift history of the eastern Alaska Range. We also climbed two small 8,000' granite peaks. I won’t describe them in detail, so others can have the pleasure of making the second first ascent of them. Or possibly the third; it is hard to keep track when no one is counting.

For our main objective we settled on enchaining Peak 9,336', via its west face, with a route I had done previously on Mt. Balchcn. The original approach to the “Handicapped Ramp” hadno climbing on it and was subject to serac fall and avalanches. The crux of our mid-June 2,000- foot climb of Peak 9,336' was the overhanging bergschrund. It had some grade-something- mixed on it, but it was short. We appreciated the occasional cam and nut placement, but how do you give a grade to tip-toeing onto the undercut edge of a huge detached block of snow, overhanging the abyss, and then climbing overhanging unconsolidated snow while your belayer has has 50' of slack wrapped around his feet because he is trying to remember how to short-rope and walk at the same time, while you’re trying to high-step on a leg with no ankle?

By the time we got to the summit of 9,336' (by GPS; ca 9,150' on map), Balchen was in a tempest and so we failed on the Bal n’ Enchainment. I have been to the upper east Gillam four times now and there is still endless potential for new routes and second first ascents in the area.

After 16 days of backbreaking rock carrying, we dialed Wing. A few hours later he landed and took us and our rocks home. In terms of science, the short of it is the Alaska Range is a lot older than previously believed. Amazing, considering the rate at which it is falling down. This climb and my research were supported by the American Alpine Club research fund.

Jeff Benowitz

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