MEF supported expedition climbs hard new route in Alaska

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 02/07/2016
Chris Wright climbing the M6 chimney on the first day of the ascent of the west face of Celeno Peak. Graham Zimmerman
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Supported by the Mount Everest Foundation and New Zealand Alpine Club, Chris Wright and Graham Zimmerman have made the first ascent of the 1,850m west face of Celeno Peak in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska.

Before April 2013 Celeno Peak (4,083m) was probably the highest unclimbed mountain in Alaska, but that month it gained its first ascent courtesy of Jay Claus and Kevin Ditzler.

Claus is part of the Ultima Thule dynasty, now spanning three generations. Ultima Thule is arguably the prime organization for providing bush pilot access to the Wrangell and St Elias ranges, and the flying skills of its most notable pilot, Paul Claus, are legendary.

Jay is Paul's son, and with Ditzler climbed Celeno via the northwest ridge.

However, the west face of this peak had been on the radar for many years: the well-known American mountaineer Carlos Buhler had attempted it as far back as 1990.

Wright and Zimmerman were fortunate to be flown from Ultima Thule Lodge into Canyon Creek Glacier, below Celeno, by none other than Jay Claus, who kindly provided them with detailed information on all possible descent options.

Once comfortably established below the face, Wright and Zimmerman had to sit out a fierce storm that raged through the area for several days. When this cleared they waited two days for conditions to consolidate, then set off in a predicted a one week weather window.

Opting for a line more or less central on the face, the two climbed the first 600m unroped, overcoming snow to 70°, before Zimmerman led superb mixed terrain to M5.

After a taxing M6 chimney, Wright took over the lead on easier but loose ground, and 900m up the face the pair dug in for their first bivouac.

Thirty metres above marked the point of geological contact between the granite on the lower half of the face and the metamorphic rock of the upper wall.

Next day the pair set off for the overhanging ground above, and with Wright in the lead climbed two moderate pitches to what would prove to be the route's crux.

Wright spent the next three hours working through a severely overhanging pitch of loose rock at 5.10X A2+. Very near the top, while making final aid moves through a roof, he dislodged a block that damaged one of the ropes and crushed a karabiner.

Both subsequently agreed that this pitch provides a compelling reason for the route to remain unrepeated by future parties.

Zimmerman now took over and fortunately the climbing, while still loose, became easier. The two stopped to make their second bivouac only 150m above the first.

Beginning at 2 a.m. next day, Zimmerman led up through several quality pitches of mixed ground, before the terrain changed from rock and mixed to snow and ice.

They moved together to the top of the spur, climbing fast through a short section exposed to a medium-sized serac. The angle was relatively sustained at 70°, but rose to 90-95° while crossing flutings. Finally, as the weather deteriorated, total exhaustion and increasing lack of visibility prompted a stop on a large snow terrace just below the summit.

Starting before sunrise on the following morning the two plodded up 60m of snow to the summit, and as the sun rose over the range they were able to enjoy a magnificent panorama of the highest peaks in the Yukon, including Logan and St Elias.

Wright and Zimmerman now followed the northwest ridge to the top of the long couloir leading to the glacier, where they opted to wait until the cold of the evening before down-climbing and rappelling 1,200m to reach their skis.

A little after midnight they were back in base camp very content with their success. With the forecast deteriorating they called Claus that morning and were evacuated the same day. 

The route has been graded M6 5.10X A2+ 95°, was only the second ascent of this relatively remote mountain, and was the first major success of MEF supported expeditions in 2016.

Established with the proceeds of the 1953 Everest expedition, the MEF supports both British and New Zealand mountaineers.

Wright is an IFMGA mountain guide who holds dual UK-USA nationality. Although based in Oregon, he spends a large proportion of the year in the European Alps, notably Chamonix. He has made hard first ascents in Nepal, Alaska, Lofoten Islands, and in various parts of North America (up to 5.12c on rock).

Zimmerman, a geophysical surveyor, lives in America but was born in New Zealand and in 2010 was awarded that country's Mountaineer of the Year. He is also a member of the Alpine Club. He has climbed major new routes in North American, Patagonia, New Zealand, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. In 2014 his ascent of a new route on Mt Laurens from Alaska's Lacuna Glacier was one five major ascents from the previous year nominated for a Piolet d'Or.
 


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