American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mt. Orville (10,495'), north ridge, attempt; Peak 7,400+', northwest ridge, attempt

Alaska, Fairweather Range

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Paul Knott
  • Climb Year: 2011
  • Publication Year: 2012

In April 2011 I returned for a second visit to the Johns Hopkins glacier basin in the southern part of the Fairweather Range. In 2009 Guy McKinnon and I had been the first climbers to access the main glacier and had made two ascents. This time Vaughan Snowdon joined me, and we planned to attempt the north ridge of Mt. Orville. This is one of the awe-inspiring peaks photographed from tour boats in the Johns Hopkins Inlet. Climbers had only attempted it from the south, and only one party had summited.

As in 2009 ski-plane pilot Paul Swanstrom dropped us on the west shoulder of Mt. Abbe, at a little under 4,000', but this time in deep powder snow. A low cloud base limited our reconnaissance of Orville.

We retraced the 2009 route to 2,000' on the Johns Hopkins Glacier, finding tough snow conditions but well-bridged crevasses. We easily accessed the lower slopes of the eight km-long northeast spur, which weaves up to Orvilles north ridge. The key to this spur would be a traverse of its southern slopes in the lower part. We passed the striking pinnacle (5,908') by descending, crossing its south rib, and climbing the avalanche couloir on the far side. Beyond a second rib and Point 7,803', we gained the ridge, but an awkward gendarme forced us into a steeper bowl, with a steep bergschrund to exit.

Early on our fourth climbing day, April 20, we reached a fore summit at 8,074'(GPS), with a fine view of the upper mountain. The ridge beyond became rocky on both sides and featured a cornice- encrusted knife-edge crest. This sustained, exposed ground made up half of the remaining 2.7km to the summit. We would have to rappel into a notch in front of us and could see two more deep notches beyond. Having to return the same way compounded the level of seriousness. An approaching front sealed the decision, and we retraced our steps to base camp.

After four days of damp snow showers, the sky cleared and we set off for the imposing granite peaks southeast of Mt. Abbe. Several of these summits were reached by Alan Givler, Dusan Jagersky, Steve Marts, and Jim Wickwire in June 1977, but the area has since remained untouched. We gained access to the northwest-facing bowl by traversing debris below the ice cliffs that drain the hanging glacier southwest of Abbe. We first turned our attention to an unclimbed snow summit on the southwest side of the glacier. Maps give no spot height for this sharp summit but do show a tiny ring contour of 7,400'. We rejected the northeast rib, due to avalanche risk, and instead approached a col to the northwest. On the 27th we overcame the bergschrund and followed avalanche debris to a col. We continued up a snow arête to a forepeak, on which my altimeter, calibrated that morning against a GPS reading of our high camp, recorded 7,484'. A steep drop-off, a north-facing rib, and a couloir separated us from the summit pinnacle. Due to unstable powder in the couloir, we retreated.

Another potential objective was unclimbed Peak 8,410', immediately south of Abbe, via a broad couloir on the south face. However, the couloir funnels into a cliff of broken granite and is essentially inaccessible. Our final option was Peak 8,290', farther southeast, also unclimbed. It sports smoothgranite pillars on the north side, but we hoped to access the southeast ridge via the col used by the 1977 party. However, we were unable to reach the col, due to a gaping bergschrund and steep powder-covered slabs. We returned to base camp and flew back to Haines that afternoon, ahead of a forecast storm. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support awarded by the Mount Everest Foundation.

Paul Knott, New Zealand

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