AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Sukakpak Mountains, Arctic Haze

Sukakpak (typically pronounced suka-pak, 4,459') is a prominent landmark to Euro motorcycle tourists, RVers, and long-haul truckers who ply the Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot. To a climber, Sukakpak’s west face is even more conspicuous. Its 2,000' high and two- mile-wide wall of “Marble of Devonian Age Skajit Limestone” (from some book I once saw) beckons, and climbers have established several water-ice lines. Most likely, bygone Fairbanks hardmen (or placer miners on a drunken dare) have clambered over the rock faces too, though we know of no complete ascent, and there were no signs of previous ascent on the face.

In one sense, Sukakpak is remote, six hours north of Fairbanks and north of the Arctic Circle, at 67°37'. From an Alaskan perspective however, it could not be more accessible. Looking for an adventure and inspired by a post on the Black Diamond website about a “chossaineering” trip in Utah, Andy Sterns and I traveled north in his battle-scarred F-150 on July 25. Smoke hung heavy from forest fires across the state when we pulled off the trans-Alaska pipeline road below Sukakpak. We gawked at the massive face, stunned, before tenting on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River.

Saturday morning we drank coffee, glassed potential lines, racked, and starting walking up tussock and talus slopes until finally standing under what appeared to be a promising and fairly solid-looking start. Between the recon, approach, and back-and-forth about suitable lines, much of the day had passed. We agreed to stash water and rack at the base and return for an early start the next morning, anticipating a long, long day on the route.

We returned early, and the climbing began well. Two consecutive rope-stretchers danced between lousy rock, fun corners, exposed face moves, and run-out slab. After this initial progress, things deteriorated. We angled farther right than intended. It was only 5.5, but steep, gravelly mud was curiously bonded to the face. We were tethered to the face in theory only, with nearly worthless anchors and pro, belay ledges collapsing below our feet. We finally rounded a massive yellow block and delicately traversed onto an expansive belay meadow, six pitches—but only 600' vertical—from the start of the climbing. We looked at the massive face looming above, capped by huge overhanging blocks of dubious rock, and looked at our skimpy rack. A direct line was not in the cards. We untied and traversed back left along the ledge, sucking water from seeps through straws snagged at the last truck stop, and then scrambled to the distinguishable ridge. We continued by scrambling and hiking the ridge to the summit, topping out in a beautiful, smoky, Arctic midnight-blue haze, with a view over the Brooks Range. After a long half-circumnavigation of the massif, we finished by tussock-hopping back to Andy’s truck, 20 hours after we left.

The Voice of America boomed from Andy’s shortwave radio while we snacked, brewed, and discussed the projecting necessary for a big-wall route on Sukakpak’s face, happy to be off safely. We called our unfinished (because we wanted to go direct) route Arctic Haze (5.9+ A0) and clambered out of the smoky air and swarming mosquitoes, into our tents, before the bumpy ride back home.

Matt Klick, AAC