American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kichatna Spire's East Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983

Kichatna Spire’s East Face

Scott Woolums

WE COULD HEAR THE roar of powder avalanches coming. Seconds later they would hit our porta-ledges, smashing the tent flies against our faces while we waited out a 48-hour storm. The spindrift had already soaked our bags and us in this miserable camp. Bill Denz and I were deep in our own thoughts as the winds buffeted our ledges. Five hundred feet of overhanging granite were below us and 2500 feet still to climb. We read or scribbled our thoughts down. On the second day I had to move, to do something different. In all my clothes and then covered with a Gore-Tex and Thinsulate suit, I crawled out into the wind and spindrift. Belayed by Denz from inside his ledge, I managed almost a full rope-length before retreating freezing to my porta-ledge for a hot drink and another long night.

We had flown to the Shadows Glacier two weeks before in early April and placed Base Camp at the foot of the huge east face of Kichatna Spire. We had chosen this time of the year since in my experience in the Alaska Range April has the best weather. We were the earliest party to try a route in the Cathedral Spires. I had read accounts of waterfalls, wetsuits, rockfall and 30-day storms on the precipitous walls. It was a gamble to be so early, but it paid off. In April there was no water running off the big walls. The snow was so light that we could blow it off the face holds. Temperatures dropped to -20° F but the weather was usually clear during the early spring high-pressure systems.

It was hard to envision this as the wind bit intensely during our first two days on the face. On the first day we had climbed three A4 pitches off the glacier and worked our way up a small prow which led to the major comer and crack system in the center of the face.

Sunshine warmed our ledges on the fourth morning. Both of us were anxious to start grinding away at the pitches above, glad to be moving after being confined for so long.

Finally, on the seventh pitch, at the top of the prow, the angle eased. I was free-climbing in mixed terrain, first 50 feet, then another 60 feet and still no real protection other than a poor small stopper. I climbed another 50 feet and heard Denz yell, “No more rope!” What now? I traversed, hacking out massive quantities of ice, and at last smashed an angle placement into the ice and rock. I tied off 15 feet of haul line and moved up some more to where I could place an A1 Friend. After belaying Denz up and hoisting our two haul bags, we were at our second camp.

For the next couple of days the climbing was vertical with short overhanging sections. Everything was chocked with ice, forcing us to chip and scrape for each placement, which limited our free-climbing. The routine was the same: fix three leads and then pull camp up. We had strings of hook moves, Friends behind loose flakes or seams into which we bashed small RPs. Fortunately the rock improved with the altitude and the worst, at the start, was behind us.

We placed our third camp almost halfway up, under a huge roof, which from below had looked like the major obstacle. Luckily for me, it was Bill’s lead. I belayed from my ledge, enjoying the sunshine while he tackled a 25-foot, upside-down, flaring groove. Just cleaning this pitch was as hard as anything I had led so far!

The next day we started up the overhanging flared chimney above the roof, very strenuous climbing for 200 feet. The weather took a turn for the worse. It was as hard as climbing to stay warm in the hanging belays in the spindrift. I had all my clothing on plus Bill’s duvet and my half-bag. Fortunately the powder avalanches hissed by about ten feet out from the belay.

Clearing weather got us started early the next morning and, moving camp up, we attacked progressively easier pitches above. The clear weather brought bitter cold, a trade-off. We climbed almost in a trance, putting pitch after pitch behind us, past our fourth and fifth camps, but still in great weather. We traveled at a snail’s pace, having to clear each placement and finding only rare protection in the free-climbing sections. Late on the eighth day, we fixed rope to the bottom of the summit icefields and rappelled back to our porta-ledges.

At first light we could see from the thin, high clouds approaching bad weather. We threw minimal bivouac gear into our packs and kicked off our haul bags, watching them bounce only twice before sliding out onto the glacier nearly 3000 feet below. We were now committed to getting down soon. We had thrown down all our extra food, fuel, ropes, hardware and our porta-ledges. We climbed the fixed ropes to the summit icefield and then fourth- classed up a steep snow-and-ice gully, interspersed with several mixed sections, to the summit. It was odd to be able to see 360° around with no more rock above. The granite spires of the Cathedral Mountains rose out of the huge deep valleys between them. But by now, the storm was moving in fast, with the wind whipping in from the south.

We were committed to traversing the mountain and started down the north ridge, the first-ascent route. After weaving around mixed sections and traversing ice and a corniced part, we began to rappel. The increased wind was blowing our rope horizontal. At each rappel we crossed our fingers, hoping the rope would not hang up on the many perlon-eating flakes. Our prayers didn’t help; our rope hung up. Bill jümared up and freed it. After ten rappels, we came to the top of “The Secret Passage,” a 1500-foot-long couloir. With perfect snow conditions, it took us an hour to descend to the glacier.

It was a relief to walk on flat terrain again. Bill grabbed the haul bags and I retrieved the snowshoes we had stashed at the foot of the climb for the endless walk back to Base Camp. We collapsed there with no thought for anything but sleep.

We were scheduled to fly out the next day, but instead of the plane, a seven-day storm came, dropping five feet of snow. On the first decent day our pilot, Jim Okonek arrived. As we flew out through the clouds, I felt it had been a dream. Had it actually happened? Then I looked at Bill’s big grin. I knew it was very real!

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska.

Third Ascent by a New Route: Kichatna Spire, 2748 meters, 8985 feet, via East Face, April 1982 (William Denz, New Zealander and Scott Woolums, American).

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