Traverse of Juneau Icefield, Possible First Ascents, and Ski Descents

Alaska, Boundary Ranges
Author: Oli Lyon. Climb Year: 2011. Publication Year: 2012.

In April Alex Appelby, Ben Bizwell, Tom Francis, and I arrived in Haines to ski-traverse the Juneau Icefield, while making as many ascents and first descents as possible. Although all British, we were a diverse group, living in different parts of the world and using diverse planks: Ben on telemark, I on skis, and the other two on splitboards.

We first flew to Devils Paw (2,616m/8,584'), the highest peak in the Icefield, where there are two steep 1,000m couloirs that provided the main goal of the trip. For over a year I’d visualized myself skiing these couloirs. Before us they looked even more incredible.

The weather was good on our first day, so we warmed up by climbing unnamed Peak 1,920m, to the east of the Paw, across the border in Canada. We skinned nearly the whole way, wrapping around to the north and then booting back to the summit. During the ascent I’d been staring at a 50-55° chute in the middle of the south face. It gave a 350m descent, and I named it Royal Wedding, for the celebrations going on in the U.K. at the time.

A few days later we all climbed the west couloir on Devils Paw, taking three hours to cover the 1,000m of ascent in excellent condition. In perfect weather we made a probable first ski descent, at 50-55°. Later I climbed and skied the southwest couloir, which was perhaps a little longer and steeper; 55-60°. Other members gave up at various heights during the climb. The weather was awful, with high winds and low visibility. [Editor’s note: It’s not clear whether the first couloir had been climbed before, but the second was climbed in July 1976 by Fred Beckey, Dougal McCarty, Jack Tackle, and Craig Zaspel when they made the first ascent of the south summit of Devils Paw. It was first skied in the 1990s, with helicopter access, but has been climbed and skied since.]

We moved two hours west to the base of Couloir Peak (l,898m/6,227'), waited out several days of horrible weather, and climbed the prominent 500m central couloir on the south face, first climbed by Fred Beckey and Andrew Griscomin 1949. We didn’t go to the summit but skied the 50-55° couloir in bad weather and snow conditions. [This couloir had also been skied by Americans.]

Our satellite phone broke, and we felt we had no choice but to start our 200km traverse of the Icefield, towing pulks. After 12 days there was a rare pocket of good weather, and we got a food drop from a pre-arranged flight near Mt. Ogilvie, on the Alaska-British Columbia border. Back onto full rations at last.

While in the area we climbed OgilvieNE4 (2,307m/7,569'), via the east ridge. We stopped at the top of a south- facing couloir 5-10m below the summit. Descending the 450m couloir gave skiing of 45-50°, with 60cm of new powder. We named this run Surprise, as it slid on me.

We continued our crossing, arriving in Skagway on the 28th day of the trip. During the last two weeks, mountain conditions really changed. Winter snow was being shed, and the pack became too dangerous to ski. We generally spent eight-hour days, starting at 4 a.m., when it was still icy. By midday the thaw started, making travel much harder. Weather was generally bad, and we often had whiteout conditions. It was almost summer at the journey’s end.

It was a fantastic experience, and we loved the beauty and the people of the north.

Oli Lyon, U.K.

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