American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Ascent of Mount Bertha

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  • Publication Year: 1941

The Ascent of Mount Bertha

Bradford Washburn

DURING the last forteen years six expeditions have attacked the western ramparts of Alaska’s Fairweather Range. Three of these were directed against Mt. Fairweather (15,318 ft.) one of the world’s highest and most beautiful coastal peaks. The last of them succeeded in reaching Fairweather’s summit after a terrific siege on June 8th, 1931. The other three were a series of assaults upon Mt. Crillon (12,728 ft.) the second highest peak in the range, which was finally scaled on July 19th, 1934.

Until last summer no expedition had ever attempted to breach the barriers which guard the great peaks of the Fairweather Range from Glacier Bay. In the days when the summit of Mt. Fair- weather had not yet been reached there were many speculations as to whether its eastern approaches might prove easier than those from the Pacific coast with all of their difficulties of landing in the surf and struggles through miles of tangled virgin forest before the best glaciers could be reached. But the aerial photographs taken by the United States Navy in 1929 showed such a savage succession of icefalls and jagged lesser peaks bristling between Tarr Inlet and the smooth upper reaches of the Margerie Glacier that no attempt has ever been made to climb any of the northern peaks of the Fairweather Range from this side.

In 1926 Osgood Field led a party into Glacier Bay shortly after the return to civilization of the first unsuccessful Fairweather expedition, and his description of the Brady Glacier and the eastern walls of the Crillon-La Pérouse Massif, as he saw them from the crest of the hills at the head of the Geikie Glacier, has always remained vivid in my memory. The glimpses which we had in 1933 and 1934 down those tremendous westerly cliffs of Crillon, across the Brady Icefield and into the Glacier Bay country made all of us on these expeditions eager to explore the glacial wilderness on this side of the mountains, so utterly different in character from the forested valleys and slopes about Lituya Bay and Crillon Lake.

To attempt to climb Mt. Crillon from the E. would be the objective of a major expedition. Ten years ago this climb was considered virtually impossible. Today after a thorough reconnaissance of all its eastern approaches, both on the ground and from the air, I believe an experienced, well-equipped party could succeed by way of the great eastern ridge. This climb has never been made and it appears to me to be one of the finest mountaineering challenges in North America.

The Glacier Bay expedition of 1940, jointly sponsored and equipped by the New England Museum of Natural History and Harvard’s Institute of Geographical Exploration, made no pretense at launching an intensive campaign on the eastern side of Crillon. Of its eight members only one had climbed in Alaska before and but three had had any previous mountaineering training. Its purpose was to make an exhaustive study of the eastern approaches to all the peaks of the Fairweather Range from the air and to attempt the ascent of Mt. Bertha (10,182 ft.) an extremely precipitous and beautiful rock and snow peak which dominates the western rim of the Brady Glacier about halfway between Reid Inlet and Mt. Crillon. Our party was composed of my wife, Maynard Miller of Takoma, Michl Feuersinger of Norden, Calif., Thomas Winship, Alva Morrison and Lee Wilson of Boston, Lowell Thomas, Jr., of New York, and myself.

We chartered the 74-ft. Diesel-powered “Forester” at Juneau from Mr. Lloyd H. Bayers and set out for Glacier Bay on June 29th. We landed easily on the west shore of Hugh Miller Inlet, after a very pleasant boat trip, early on the morning of June 30th and established our Base Camp on the broad, rock-strewn lowland that separates tidewater from the stagnant, retreating snout of Hugh Miller Glacier. This entire inlet has been so recently engulfed in ice that there is scarcely any evidence of life of any sort, except for the many water birds that frequent it during the summer months. We pitched camp near two little ponds a quarter mile W. of the inlet, at a point from which we could have a good view up the whole valley of Hugh Miller Glacier.

After studying two aerial photographs which I had taken of this region early in June, 1937, we discovered an excellent route up the center of the glacier to its main fork about 4 miles from tidewater. There we established a dump on a small rock island in the ice 1430 ft. above the sea. Working in daily relays we rapidly pushed thirty days of supplies to this campsite, in the meantime keeping in as close touch as possible with Juneau by means of a small portable radio set installed at the Base Camp.

On July 10th the weather dawned beautifully clear. Miller, Morrison, Thomas and Feuersinger took a light load to Camp II and proceeded all the way over the pass at the head of the N. fork of Hugh Miller Glacier on skis. Thence they descended gently for 3 miles to the foot of a conspicuous nunatak or rock island 4060 ft. high, from which there was a superb view of the entire Crillon massif and the broad expanse of the Brady Icefield. We contacted Juneau by radio and at 8 o’clock Alex Holden of Marine Airways landed his Lockhead Vega seaplane only a few hundred yards from our doorstep. We made a short flight to visit Mr. and Mrs. Joe Ibach and Tom Smith, 15 miles away at their small gold mine in lonely Reid Inlet, and told them that we expected to come out from the Brady early in August by way of Reid Glacier, one of its two northern distributaries. We then located our four advance scouts from the air and showed them to Holden, who returned an hour later to toss out to them half a ton of unbreakable food, rope, dog food, and other supplies. The plane returned to Juneau shortly after lunch after having successfully completed three dreadful weeks of backpacking for us in forty-five easy minutes. That night our four companions returned and announced that every one of our thirty-three parcels had landed safely, even including a thermos bottle full of hot coffee and a half dozen Reader’s Digest, tossed 100 ft. to the glacier in a burlap sack.

The next day we sledged our five dogs up the moraines, rocks and ice of the lower glacier to Camp II and on July 12th the whole party evacuated the Base Camp. Two days later with continued mild, sunny weather we sledged and packed our way to Camp III at 2570 ft. in a beautiful ski basin halfway up the Hugh Miller ice- fall. All the terrain above Camp II was well covered with smooth, hard corn snow which made both excellent walking and perfect sledging.

The slopes above Camp III were too steep for dog-teaming, and we had to backpack our supplies in a series of relays to the broad pass 800 ft. above. The dogs hauled up the empty sledges and thence everything was hustled across the 3 miles of snowfield to our airplane dump. Here we spent only one night and a day. The beautiful weather still held, and we had a perfect chance for a side trip to the top of the nunatak behind camp, from which the view across the Brady Glacier to the great peaks was truly magnificent. We collected several extremely interesting geologic specimens from this little rock island, as a very important contact zone between the granitic and sedimentary rocks of the range cut exactly across the ledges on its peak.

The descent to the level surface of the Brady Glacier was unexpectedly simple. We piled our entire outfit onto two enormous sledge-loads, and guided them carefully down the 2-mile grade, working for all we were worth to hold back the dogs and prevent a catastrophe on the last steep hill.

The Brady Glacier is flatter and smoother than any snowfield I have ever seen before. Our camp on its eastern border was pitched almost exactly at the height of land between Reid Inlet and Taylor Bay, 3000 ft. above the sea. July 16th was spent in a thorough reorganization of all our equipment. We took fourteen days of food ahead with us and cached roughly a week of supplies at this Brady Base. We worked the dogs very hard for the next two days, sledging three relays 5 miles across the Brady in thirty- six hours, and finally establishing Camp V in a dense fog at the very base of a long easterly spur of Bertha. From our aerial photographs it appeared as if the best climbing route to the summit of Bertha lay by way of the deep cleft between it and Crillon, but two days of reconnaissance from an advanced camp three miles farther to the W. showed us that the approach to this pass was not only exceedingly steep, but badly exposed to avalanches of ice from the hanging glaciers of Crillon on the left and falling rocks from the impressive western cliffs of Bertha on the right.

On July 20th we beat a retreat northeastward around the base of Bertha to the foot of a very steep rock and snow buttress which we had studied for some time on the aerial photographs, and which we had been holding as a last resort in case our pass route did not prove as good as it had appeared in 1934. Camp VII was pitched at 3800 ft. and comfortably dug into the upper limit of the snow- slopes at the head of Brady Glacier—just as far as the dogs could haul our supplies.

Although we had run into dense fog and a cold drizzle for two of the last three days below Camp VII, the day after we arrived dawned clear as crystal, and we carried out a reconnaissance of the lower 3000 ft. of the buttress that rose above us toward the main eastern ridge of Bertha. The rocks and snow which had appeared unpleasantly steep from the lower glacier turned out to be rough but straightforward clambering except for a few short bad pitches.

On July 25th we established Camp VIII on a narrow snow pass at an altitude of about 7000 ft. and in full view of the summit of Bertha. The actual peak, which had been invisible from Camp VII, now rose 3000 ft. above us on the other side of a deep basin, filled with an impassable chaos of ice blocks and crevasses. Only five of our party ascended to Camp VIII for the first attempt on the summit, Thomas, Wilson and Morrison remaining at the base of the mountain to sledge the Brady Base cache several miles over toward Reid Inlet. If we had good weather and good luck with the mountain, we planned to have them ascend for a try at the peak after we had made our first attack, but wretched climbing conditions above this camp, and a dwindling supply of food resulted in only our original group of five ever actually living on the ridge.

The day after our arrival at Camp VIII was unexpectedly clear. We had not established camp until late at night, and, unfortunately, were all so tired the next morning that we did not get off until just before 11 o’clock for a reconnaissance of the pitches which rose above us. The ridge was a series of rock towers and ledges, very steep corniced snow drifts and occasional deep banks of loose snow. Five hundred feet above camp we struck a veritable flame of ice, festooned with a beautiful cornice so thin and delicate that every footstep sent masses of snow thundering into the gulfs on both sides of us. Again at 8200 ft. we encountered a 50-degree slope of black ice plastered with deep, loose powder and surmounted by a good-sized cornice which had to be excavated from underneath and overcome by a rather precarious and exposed courte- échelle. At six in the evening after six and a half hours of almost constant climbing we had attained an altitude of only 8550 ft. Leaving a supply of willow wands, lunch, socks, camera and film under a sheltering ledge on the crest of the ridge, we retreated to camp and arrived just after pitch darkness had fallen at 10.15 that night.

The difficulty of the climbing can best be understood when one notes that we spent nearly seven hours in making only a 1350-ft. ascent above Camp VIII. The upper part of our route was turning out to be every bit as difficult as it had appeared from below. However, with steps cut and two fixed ropes waiting to speed us over the worst pitches, we went to bed that night convinced that the summit could be reached if the precipitous, narrow stretches of the ridge which lay between our high cache and the 9500-ft. snow shoulder of Bertha did not prove too difficult to negotiate in a single long day from Camp VIII.

Three days of intermittent fog, snow and drizzle kept us close to camp after our first trip up the ridge. Winship and Feuersinger went down to Camp VII one noon and returned long after dark with two days of extra food. They reported that supplies were running low on the Brady Glacier. Thirty days are none too many for an attempt on an Alaskan peak over 20 miles from tidewater, and we knew that we must hurry for all we were worth when the weather broke.

The skies cleared at 5 o’clock on the morning of July 30th and we set out at 5.45 determined to reach the top that day if it could possibly be done. The lower part of the ridge which towered above the tent and which we had first taken nearly seven hours to negotiate turned out to go rapidly with well-kicked steps, firm fixed ropes and the crisp early-morning air. We reached our cache at 8 o’clock, picked up our reserve of food, except for a small supply of dry socks and iron rations, and descended 500 ft. into the deep notch which lay between us and Bertha.

The early-morning clear-off slowly fizzled into mediocre weather. Thick clouds swirled around us as we climbed a steep snow ridge out of this first notch and then descended 200 ft. more into a broad snow pass. But our tiny book of aerial photographs indicated to us exactly where we were, and occasional patches of blue sky far above us cheered us with the hope that we would later climb out into the sunshine on the shoulder below the summit.

The steepest pitch of the whole climb rose out of the western side of this second break in the ridge. Miller and I kicked and chopped for forty minutes in waist-deep snow sticking precariously to a 70-degree ice slope, till finally we had our last 100 ft. of extra rope securely fastened to a 5-ft. picket and the rest of the party joined us. The ridge now alternated with patches of rock separating stretches of beautifully corniced drifts. At noon a rift in the clouds showed a clear route ahead to the shoulder, and we took a much-needed hour’s rest for lunch.

The clouds drifted lazily up and down on the wings of a faint westerly breeze, and it was not until 2 o’clock, when we finally reached the broad snow-dome of the 9500-ft. shoulder, that we were out in gloriously clear weather above a sea of silver mist. The views of the eastern walls of Crillon and La Pérouse were stupendous as we strolled confidently across the mile of gently- rolling snow plateau out of which rises the summit cone of Bertha. It was hard to believe that such a series of jagged rocks and knifelike ice ridges could possibly lead to so pleasant a wonderland above the clouds.

Miller and I lagged behind to photograph Barbara, Win and Mike as they slowly fought the deep, powdery drifts of the final ridge—a perfect story-book peak ending in a sharp, symmetrical point of pure white snow, cutting the cloudless sky. At 3.30 we reached the top together. The scenery was unforgettable. Crillon, Fairweather, La Pérouse and that wild profusion of unnamed peaks that form the backbone of the Fairweather Range—all rose before us in their full magnificence, a peaceful sea of clouds slipping gently eastward and hiding almost everything below us.

It was so warm and pleasant in the afternoon sun that we ate and chatted and photographed for over an hour on the summit. But we had a long descent ahead. Two steep uphill pulls confronted us on the way down to camp, and the ever-thickening clouds would bring darkness much sooner than it had come on our reconnaissance of several days before.

We bade farewell to our old friends Crillon and Fairweather as we rounded the shoulder, and then the cool mist caressed our sunburned faces soothingly as we dropped slowly into the clouds. The fixed ropes and carefully cleared steps were superb. At 9 o’clock we reached our cache, nibbled a bite of chocolate and drank our last powdered lemonade. Then darkness came rapidly. We put on dry socks and gloves and descended carefully and slowly over the most delicate part of our route. A flashlight and an extra set of batteries left at the cache proved a godsend in tackling the steep face and the ice pinnacle, and we were a tired but a happy crew when we finally stumbled into camp at 1.45 a.m. exactly nineteen hours after our start the day before.

Shortage of food and nasty weather caused us to abandon all hope for another attempt on the summit with the rest of the party. Barbara, Mike and I descended to Camp VII in a cold rain on July 31st, and Maynard and Win followed the next day, climbing carefully down the ticklish rocks buried beneath a foot of fresh snow.

On August 3rd, after a long 13-mile day of sledging down the Brady Glacier, and 4 miles of rocks, gravel and bare ice, we reached Reid Inlet, and the genial hospitality of Joe Ibach, Tom Smith and their little mining camp. Freshly baked cakes and cookies, oranges, apples, delicious vegetables and the warm, pleasant breezes of Glacier Bay have left fond memories of Reid Inlet with all of us, and it was a sad day when the boat at last arrived on August 13th to take us out again to Juneau. The plane had spent the afternoon of the 12th with us photographing the glaciers and peaks in the last blank spots on the map of the Fairweather Range, and as we headed eastward again, we felt the warm satisfaction of a perfect six weeks’ vacation amid some of the grandest of America’s mountain scenery.

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