British-New Zealand first ascents in Alaska's Coastal Ranges.

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 13/06/2014
The unclimbed west face of Peak 2,527m. The granite pillar is ca 450m high. Paul Knott
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Supported by grants from the Mount Everest Foundation and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club, Paul Knott (UK/New Zealand) and Kieran Parsons (NZ) made three first ascents in the Fairweather Range of Southeast Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Knott had visited this area previously, in 2009 with Guy McKinnon, when at the time the goal had been the elegant unclimbed north ridge of Crillon (3,879m).

However, they were unable to find safe access, so instead made the first ascent of the northwest ridge of Bertha (3,109m) from the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

They followed this ascent with the unofficially named Fifty Years of Alaskan Statehood (2,621m) via the 1,700m east rib and south face.

This spring the chosen objective was also Crillon, but via the unclimbed east ridge, a challenge first proposed by Bradford Washburn in 1941.

However, after being deposited on the glacier by ski plane, the two found that heavy snowfall, high winds and unseasonably warm temperatures made the approach to the ridge too avalanche prone.

Instead, they made a 20km traverse across the Brady Icefield to an area north of Bertha, where they reached a col on the edge of a high glacier basin overlooking the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

From here they made first ascents of two snow summits on the south side of the basin.

Peak 2,288m, by the snowy north ridge, and Peak 2,217m, by the west ridge, were both climbed the same day. From these summits they saw the clean-granite-topped Peak 2,527m, though a direct approach, via the southeast face, was deemed infeasible due to a threatening ice cliff.

Next day they climbed the southeast ridge from their camp by the col. Beyond Pt 2,044m they had to cross a knife-edge section with a series of corniced mushrooms and towers. It took nearly three hours to negotiate a few hundred metres.

Above, an easier snow arête dumped them at the foot of the granite pyramid. It was steep, but the rock was superb, providing secure juggy climbing with plentiful protection.

Three pitches of New Zealand 15, or US 5.7, brought them to the summit, and a fine vista over the great untapped potential for climbing and big walling in the surrounding knot of granite peaks.

In fact the granite here has lain more or less untouched since Jim Wickwire and friends visited in 1977. The west side of 2,527m alone sports a fine rock pillar ca 450m high, while other summits in the nearby Mt Abbe group have pillars up to 750m.

The afternoon descent, in increasingly warm temperatures, proved taxing. Much snowy ridge had turned to rock. Sodden snow, collapsing cornices and disintegrating granite concentrated the mind.

Ominous clouds gathered over the ocean ahead, and by the time the pair had regained the tent at 6:30pm, it was snowing lightly.

This was worrying, as next day they would have to descend large snow slopes that could quickly turn avalanche prone. Last year Knott was trapped for eight days when hit in a committing position by a prolonged and heavy snowfall, and was unlikely to want a repeat experience.

Fortunately, the weather held. Next morning they post-holed down the slope below the col, and near the base noticed a huge cone of ice blocks extending over the glacier.

More significant was the realization that their stashed snow shoes lay within this cone, making the 20km return to base camp a distinctly unappealing prospect.

Luckily the weather cleared that afternoon, allowing bush pilot Paul Swanstrom to evacuate them directly by ski plane.

After such a vivid experience, "the spring shoots, fragrance and birdsong on landing in Haines were exquisite".



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