Mt. Drum, Northwest Face
Alaska, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
On March 17, Dave Johnston and I climbed what we believe to be a new route on the northwest face of 12,010' Mt. Drum in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains. This mountain is well known to anyone who has driven the Richardson or Tok highways, as it is the farthest northwestern outlier of the Wrangells. I fell under its spell and felt compelled to plan a trip to come to know a little of this huge massif. We left on March 5, skied from Gakona on the Tok Cutoff Highway for about 35 miles to the northwest glacier of Mt. Drum. We crossed the frozen Copper River and skied up the Sanford River and Northwest Glacier Creek, intersecting the glacier at about 4,600'.
We had hoped to remain on skis all the way up to 10,000', then ascend one of two unclimbed ridges. At 4,600' and up to almost 10,000', we encountered wind-scoured, hard blue ice and heavily crevassed glacier, so we left our skis behind. Crampon work, crevasse avoidance, and running belays were the stuff of several days’ work. At just below 10,000' we suddenly transitioned back to snow. The entire basin between our two potential ridge climbs was filled with thigh-deep wind slab. We sadly remembered our skis cached over 5,000' below, as we laboriously broke trail upward.
We dubbed our 7,280 high camp “Camp Ne'rershine” because of the complete lack of direct sunlight in winter, placed as it was on the Northwest Glacier below the steep north face of Point 8,100'+. We climbed straight up the Northwest Glacier instead of the ridges, and our summit “day” was over 49 hours and included digging a snow cave with a cooking pot and ice axes at 10,600' for a bivy. Our return to Gulkana was by skis and hitching a ride the last 10 miles on snow machines on the Sanford River on March 21.
Good weather predominated the entire time we were high on the mountain, and we enjoyed a balmy (for Alaskan winter) -8° at our snow-cave bivy. On the summit we enjoyed an amazing -2°, with less than 5 mph of wind, and a completely clear day with unlimited views of the Wrangell, Chugach, Talkeetna, and Alaska ranges. The summit block consisted of a 50' cube block of rime ice with a foot-wide crack where it was slowly detaching itself from the rest of the mountain. I wonder if it is still there and if so, how long it will last!
I had originally thought that this was the first winter ascent of Drum, as well as a new route, but we since have found that an Alaskan party consisting of Wayne Kates, Hank Noldon, Berry Kertscher, John Pinamont (and perhaps Gill Todd?) climbed Mt. Drum the first week of January 1975 from a landing at a cabin in the Sanford River valley, and probably via the North Ridge. I believe that this was a previously unreported climb, and this should make our climb the second winter ascent of Mt. Drum.
Willi Prittie, AAC, Mountaineering Club of Alaska