Bertha succumbs to Anglo-New Zealand team

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 21/07/2009
Bertha, with the NW Ridge facing the camera. Paul Knott

Supported by an MEF grant, Paul Knott (UK but resident in New Zealand) and Guy McKinnon (NZ) made two, fine, first ascents in the unfrequented Fairweather Range of South East Alaska.

Thanks to the local knowledge and enthusiasm of their glacier pilot from Haines, Knott and McKinnon became the first climbers ever to visit the Johns Hopkins Glacier, where they climbed a new route on Mt Bertha (3,109m) and made the first ascent of a lower but striking unnamed peak.

The original goal had been the elegant North Ridge of Crillon, an objective that had already defeated five parties. None of these had made any significant progress but Knott and McKinnon felt that access to the crest would be considerably easier from the upper Johns Hopkins.

Unfortunately, they discovered an icefall added considerably to the commitment of the approach and that their descent option of the unclimbed North East Ridge was broken by unstable seracs.

An alternative presented itself in the form of Bertha's six-kilometre-long and undulating North West Ridge. Four days were needed to reach the summit through unconsolidated winter powder and exposed cornices.

Bertha was first climbed in July 1940 by Bradford Washburn's five-member team (Barbara Washburn was also in the summit party making her first ever climb: the couple was on honeymoon at the time).

There have only been three ascents since: in 1972 via the West South West Ridge, in 1982 via the North East Ridge and in 1998 from a solo climber who accessed the area by kayak. All these parties approached from the east, the opposite side of the mountain to the Johns Hopkins

Bertha first appeared on a USGS map in 1910, and according to Washburn was named after a prostitute in Skagway who was acquainted with members of the survey party.

From its summit Knott and McKinnon were immediately attracted by a feasible route up a striking, unnamed and unclimbed peak across the glacier. Six days later they were on its 2,621m summit, having climbed a 1,700m snow route up the East Rib to upper South Face.

With an eye to the old Russian tradition of peak naming, and the Russian colonial history of Alaska, they have proposed the strictly unofficial name 'Fifty Years of Alaskan Statehood': Alaska is currently celebrating its statehood, which was formally granted in January 1959.

Fairweather was named in 1778 by Captain Cook, presumably due to good weather at the time of his sighting. However, it is one of the World's best-known misnomers, being the culminating point of a coastal range and catching all the bad weather coming up the Gulf of Alaska. The Anglo-New Zealand pair was lucky to time their stay with an exceptional two weeks of perfect weather.

West, in the Central Alaska Range, one of this year's BMC-supported expeditions was unsuccessful with its plans. Emily Andrew and Cat Freeman, both resident in the Chamonix Valley, hoped to become the first all-female team to summit Mt Foraker (5,303m). They planned to acclimatize with an ascent of Denali's West Buttress but after a week at the standard 4,267m camp, one of the team was still having problems adapting to the altitude. They descended for a rest, after which a huge storm arrived and prevented any further attempts.



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