Britons make three first ascents in Alaska

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 27/08/2010
Peak 8,329' seen along ascent ridge. Stuart Howard

Supported by grants from the BMC and MEF, Stuart Howard and Dave Swinburne have recently made three exploratory first ascents in the Wrangell-St Elias Range of Alaska.

With good weather but generally poor snow conditions the pair climbed three peaks between c2,100m and c2,500m by routes up to AD.

The Wrangell-St Elias (the largest national park in the US) includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, including the second highest, Mt St Elias.

May and June are the favoured months for climbing in this region but the pair, both teachers and forced to go later, found no issue with operating here in August, particularly if attempting the higher peaks.

After extensive prior research Howard and Swinburne had uncovered a small range of unclimbed peaks - the Barkley Ridge - just east of Mt Miller on the south side of the huge Bagley Icefield.

However, on arrival in Alaska their experienced glacier pilot, Paul Claus, himself a climber, informed that unsettled weather in the region would delay their access flight by several days at the very least. He also suggested that the previous month's unsettled weather would have left extremely poor snow conditions on these hills and advised an alternative venue further north.

While climbers had previously visited Lower Granite Creek on the opposite side of the Icefield, peaks in the upper basin remained untouched.

After a drop-off on a sand bar below the moraine, the two made the first ascent of Peak 8,329' (2,539m) in Upper Granite Creek, following a sweeping ridge over rock and snow. This gave 1,100m of ascent on a continuously interesting crest almost four kilometres in length. The grade was AD-.

They then turned to Peak 7,679' (2,341m), which sits snugly in the far corner of a branching glacier connecting Upper Granite Creek to the more substantial Jeffries Glacier.

An elegant rocky spur with granite towers and buttresses led for 500m to the snow-capped summit. Though many of the towers were basically of sound granite, in common with most of the rocky peaks in this area, there was a lot of loose material that had to be treated carefully.

Despite this, the pair found a highly enjoyable climb of AD standard.

Their third new mountain was Peak 7,178', which they climbed easily on skis and skins via the glaciated western slopes from a camp on the southern edge of the Jeffries.

No other humans were seen during their travels, and fortunately no bears, though characteristic paw prints were in evidence between the landing site and glacier snout.

There is still plenty of opportunity in this area of Alaska for first ascents of moderate difficulty. They'll have great appeal to adventurous mountaineers prepared to explore options in areas with little or no climbing history.
 



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