American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, P 12,659

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987

P 12,659. In July Fred Beckey, Bill Lahr and I started out to complete a climb Fred, Jim States, Chris Kopczynski and I had attempted in 1985 when we failed in bad weather. Our objective was P 12,659 in the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. It lies near Bona, Bear, University Peak and Churchill. The 30-mile-long Barnard Glacier flows past the peak’s western end. The peak rises 7000 feet above the glacier. Getting to the area was full of difficulties. After various problems, we were helicoptered from McCarthy to the glacier east of the peak. At four A.M. the next morning we set out for the northeast ridge on frozen snow. Once on top of the ridge, we roped up and began to thread our way along the huge cornices. The exposure on the northwest side was over 3000 feet and the view of the surrounding peaks was breath-taking. The firm snow of early morning started to give way. The ridge presented vertical walls of mush which at first forced us out onto steep, mushy and unstable snow on the south face and finally stopped us. The retreat was no easy matter due to the soft snow. We decided that our second attempt would be on the steep 3500-foot east face. A storm moved in that night and kept us in the tent for the next two days. In the evening of the second day, Bill Lahr and I decided to go for it. Fred Beckey wasn’t well and chose not to go. We two departed at eleven P.M. on July 13. We started up a 45° gully directly below the summit. After 500 feet, the gully narrowed to 20 feet and was filled with endlessly flowing snow. We looked for another gully farther north which forced us to drop 150 feet and traverse snow-covered rocks in the semi-darkness. Bill started and was carried off by a wind-slab avalanche. I managed to grab a pile of rope and quickly loop it over a rock horn; I brought him to a halt after a 40-foot slide. The slope got continuously steeper and more exciting, especially since we had no rock gear. After nearly 300 feet, the final pitch to the summit ridge steepened to nearly vertical and the ice became soft. I finished the pitch by digging deep holes for my arms and doing half pull-ups until I reached the crest of the ridge. The final 600 feet up the ridge to the summit were less steep but far more dangerous, due to wind-packed snow. I was nearly buried when a large crevasse bridge collapsed. Twice we heard the snow around us settle with a sickening thud. Finally we reached the tiny summit. On the descent it was Bill’s turn to have a crevasse bridge fall out from under him. Moments later, all the snow below me broke loose and slid off the mountain, leaving me on the fracture line. From Base Camp we spent 2½ days enjoying the views of dozens of unclimbed peaks as we passed several of the Barnard’s tributary glaciers on the way to the air-lift spot.

Gary Silver

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