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Neacola Mountains: New Routes, Attempts, and Packraft Adventure

A couple of years ago, a photo of unclimbed spires rising out of glacial ice sparked the inspiration for an expedition to the Neacolas, a remote subrange of the Alaska and Aleutian ranges. The dream soon grew beyond climbing these peaks to include forging an overland route back to civilization through the wilderness. Craig Muderlak, David Fay, and I planned to fly into the Neacola Mountains, attempt climbs on the granite spires, and then make our way back to civilization using skis and packrafts.

The obvious problem was the amount of gear we’d need. Climbing big, technical mountains and surviving on a glacier requires tons of equipment—the fact that we’d be returning by boat and on foot meant we’d have to cut corners. We crammed food into burnable containers and made hand-sewn camera bags out of Dyneema fabric and foam. Seats came out of the packrafts—we’d use sleeping pads. David constructed the Settlers of Catan board game out of cardboard. We even hand-made wooden skis that we could use on the glacier and then burn to avoid having to bushwhack with them. When the plane dropped us off on the Pitchfork Glacier on May 12, we didn’t really know if the skis would last for three weeks, but we were committed.

With much favorable weather, we were able to make attempts on several mountains above the Pitchfork and Neacola glaciers. First we set our sights on the prominent northwest buttress of the Citadel, first attempted by a British team the year before (AAJ 2016). However, our attempt ended early due to warm conditions. The ice had melted to slush and wet avalanches rumbled all around us. After a warm spell we returned to the peak and aimed for a narrow slot on the northwest face that we called the Sliver. Climbing at night when the snow was firm, we ascended névé and ice through some mixed steps to a corniced ridge atop the northwest buttress. Facing deteriorating snow conditions and a prominent headwall above, we retreated after 3,000 (AI4 M3 90°). Our attempted route provided expedient and fun climbing to the upper headwall of the mountain, and would be best completed in colder conditions.

The real prize on this expedition turned out to be what we least expected: splitter rock climbing. While ice melted and wet avalanches rumbled all day, we turned our attention to the east buttress of Dog Tooth (ca 7,150’), a 1,200’ gem of clean granite first climbed in 2011 (Chriswell-Johnson-Thrasher, AAJ 2012). We first established Red Dihedral (1,200’, IV 5.10+) on quality stone on the main south-facing wall of the east buttress, left of the original route, and then a week later returned to attempt the picturesque south prow. After climbing four pitches up to 5.11c, we retreated when the cracks disappeared into shallow seams. The good weather continued, and the next day we tried another crack system, clad in the cut-off jean shorts we’d hauled up for fun, because you can’t put a price on morale. Following continuous finger cracks linked by tricky face climbing, we put up Birthday Jorts (1,000’, IV 5.11a) on David’s birthday, all free and onsight. [Editor’s note: The group’s two completed lines and their attempt all lie to the left of the 2011 route, which generally follows the eastern ridge of the Dog Tooth. Both of the 2016 routes end atop the summit of the east buttress, without continuing to the summit of the mountain. A rappel line was established down the right side of the buttress’ south face.]

Climbing at night when the snow was firm allowed us to also make the first ascents of two peaks. A triangular-shaped peak at the head of the north fork of the Pitchfork Glacier caught our eyes from camp. On May 18 we ascended to the west-northwest col of the peak, then followed snow couloirs around the northwest aspect to a mixed step near the summit, completing Shred Mode (2,000’, 70⁰ M4). We named the peak Spearhead (ca 7,100’, 60°49'58.5"N, 153°18'43.3"W Google Earth).

A week later we skied down to the Neacola Glacier and climbed an attractive spire along a shoulder east of Peak 6,310’ that we called the Wing.[Peak 6,310’ was first climbed by Joe and Joan Firey with George and Frances Whitmore on June 25, 1965. This ascent had been unreported previously, but is documented in correspondence archived in the University of Alaska Anchorage / Alaska Pacific University Consortium Library. See also AAJ 2016 for a climbing history and map of the Neacolas.] We climbed the peak, again at night, via snow slopes on the northeast and north sides to the west col, from which we climbed 100’ of fun, steep 5.7 rock to the top (ca 5,700’, 60°51'11.4"N, 153°24'02.5"W Google Earth).

During our time spent on the Pitchfork Glacier a larger unknown loomed in our minds: our return to the sea through some 60 miles of wild terrain. Our loads weighed 110 pounds each when we began skiing down the Pitchfork in the Arctic twilight. Sixteen miles later we reached the toe of the glacier, where we shuttled loads over moraines to the headwaters of the Glacier Fork of the Tlikakila River. The next morning we inflated our packrafts and pushed off into the rushing current.

Camped at the confluence of the Glacier Fork and the main Tlikakila the next day, we faced a major decision. We either had to schlep 330 pounds of gear over a mountain pass and then descend the Drift River, or we could try to bushwhack and raft our way to the Big River over terrain where we wouldn’t be able to use the map. This territory had been submerged beneath a glacially dammed lake when the map was drafted in the 1950s. That glacier has since receded, and now a descent through thick forest and along a rushing river would lead to a new lake. Eager to be done with snow travel, we burned our wooden skis on a gravel bar and committed ourselves to making it to the Big River.

After hauling our boats over Lake Clark Pass, we encountered Class IV and V whitewater that was too burly for us to float, and we were forced to portage. Shuttling loads through slide alder was slow–in two days we gained less than four miles–and we spent the night camped in the rain and mosquitoes, dreading our return trip in the morning for the remaining gear. Stress, doubt, and scant rations wore us thin, and countless grizzly tracks meant we couldn’t let our guard down. After two days of bushwhacking and running rapids, we finally reached the iceberg-studded lake at the headwaters of the Big River. The next day we floated 35 miles out into the vast coastal plain. Shorebirds and seagulls appeared, and Craig spotted a harbor seal. On the sixth day of our voyage from base camp, we paddled the last miles to the river’s mouth and awaited our pilot at the edge of the ocean. – Drew Thayer