With any number of exotic destinations, including trekking peaks, why go to Alaska rather than Asia or South America?
“Because here I can break wind with confidence”, was the considered if earthy, response of Dean James our group leader. Dean should know, as a guide for KE he leads treks all over the world but always returns to Alaska. Continues
The rest of our group had trekked in the Himalaya, Karakorum or South America, but we’d been lured here by a single common thought, the chance to stand on part of the planet where no human has ever stood before.
“When you see how many companies advertise Mera or Island peak you know the place is going to be crowded”, said Peter, a veteran of many such treks. He pointed past the tent door, “But just look out there. Rock, snow, sky... and nothing else for hundreds of miles.”
After a six hour drive from Anchorage to the tiny mountain town of Chitina, a small ski-plane dropped us in the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park at the head of the Jefferies Glacier, a long corridor of ice separating two walls of mountains, many of them unclimbed. Provided you know where to look, there are hundreds of such mountains in Alaska, of varying heights and difficulties just waiting for a first ascent.
We were all fairly experienced winter walkers, some were climbers, but this is such alien territory we needed an experienced guide like Dean. We planned to spend two weeks hiking down the glacier, climbing as many peaks as our fitness and ability allowed, carrying all our gear in backpacks and on sleds pulled behind us.
Our first mountain was the easiest. We left our camp at 7,880ft and by lunchtime had claimed our first virgin summit (9,650ft). True enough, it was not what you’d call a difficult climb, more a gentle snow plod, and anyone used to crampons can quickly get the hang of walking in snow shoes. Moving together, roped in two teams of four, we made light work of it. I couldn’t help thinking that if all the mountains were this easy, we’d knock off more than half a dozen!
How wrong I was.
Our first day on the glacier was also our last day of perfect weather. Alaskan mountaineering starts in March when it’s cold enough for the snow to be stable but after the heavy falls have stopped, except this year, they hadn’t.
That night the temperature plummeted below -15c inside the tent, and I snuggled deep into the Everest down bag I’d borrowed from Mountain Equipment.
Despite being rated at -40c, I sleep cold and it took several nights of shivering in all my clothes before my body adjusted to the night time temperatures. More importantly it snowed all night and day, giving no chance to establish a freeze/thaw cycle to consolidate the ground. The avalanche risk was high. We were confined to camp. So all day we just read, played cards and tried to look on the bright side; at least there was plenty of the stuff close to the door to melt for drinks.
Two days and two novels later, the ground was good enough for us to tackle our second mountain. It was more demanding, but no harder than an average Scottish Munro in good winter conditions, albeit with an absolutely spectacular upswept cornice that looked like a breaking tidal wave of snow and ice.
The trickiest part of the climb was the approach walk across the glacier.
Dean was in front, probing the snow for crevasses with one of his trekking poles which he’d fitted with a smaller snow basket. Alaskan “slots” make Alpine crevasses look like amateurs.
They could swallow a whole house but the snow bridges don’t start to collapse until you’re in the middle, perched over the jaws of these monsters.
That’s exactly what happened to Dean.
He dropped though to his waist and although we pulled him clear, during that horrifying split second when the snow was crumbling beneath him, he’d seen what lay below.
Or rather, what didn’t, because the walls of the crevasse were so far apart, we’d all been standing on fragile crust.
For all the objective dangers of such adventures, the greatest hazard must surely be the risk of sharing a tent with someone who snores.
On my first trek in Nepal I’d been paired with a nocturnal industrial cement mixer, or so it seemed. I now trek with a walkman and, where possible, my own tent, but weight was at such a premium I couldn’t take either to Alaska.
So I was delighted to discover that my tent partner Adrian not only slept silently, but was a tolerant companion, a vital quality when you live, eat, sleep and (rarely) wash in a few meters of space.
Sled hauling is a feature of Alaskan mountaineering.
I'd seen pictures of explorers pulling pulks across the trackless wastes of the Arctic, so I was a little taken aback when Dean handed me a child’s red plastic sledge.
This was not the stuff of heroic adventure, it was a toy!
Nevertheless, when the time came to move camp it proved an excellent way to carry heavy loads. And believe me, the loads were heavy. Tough tents, big sleeping bags, mountaineering equipment, a gallon of fuel each and two weeks of high calorie food just will not fit into a rucksack.
Split the weight between a backpack and a sledge hauled behind on ropes (attached to the sack NOT the climbing harness - it’s easier to ditch if you fall into a crevasse) and the whole thing becomes far more manageable.
Led by Dean and his crevasse probe, we spent four hours crossing the glacier under a warm sun and had set up camp in time to watch it set behind our first two summits.
When Dean pointed out the next route, I gulped.
A wall of rock rose almost vertically from the glacier, and was split by a series of snow filled gullies which led to a gently angled snow field and then the summit.
In the early light, our chosen gully looked frightfully steep, but seemed more manageable once we’d reached its base. Yesterdays sun had consolidated the snow, providing sure footing for our crampons.
We moved together in two teams, Dean stomping a clear route to the upper snow field without needing a belay. However, the upper field was not so simple because soft, fresh snow had blown over the ridge, making it avalanche prone.
We picked a delicate line, near the ridge and as close to stable rock as possible. The summit provided the best panorama yet, including a direct view of the stunning unclimbed 12,000 foot pyramid which our pilot Paul Claus, had called “Flightpath Peak”.
An excellent climber himself, he intended to be the first to its summit, and consequently refused to fly in climbers if he suspected they’d attempt to steal his prize.
Without knowing it, we’d saved the best until last, because our fourth mountain had everything.
A challenging glacier approach, a gully climb, a rocky ridge, and a steep-ish ice pitch. At the end of that day, as we staggered back into camp, we all agreed it just couldn’t get any better, so it was time to go home.
Easier said than done. To save weight, we had no satellite telephone. Instead, Paul had given us a tiny, line-of-sight two way radio.
It wasn’t powerful enough to reach the one hundred miles to his ranch, but just perfect, he explained, for contacting jumbo jets as they flew overhead. We were supposed to ask the 747’s navigator to contact Paul on his home frequency and ask him to pick us up.
I now know that jumbo jets are like busses, you wait for ages then they all come at once, with the inevitable confusion over the airwaves.
A Thai Airways pilot refused to believe anyone could be calling from the white wilderness below and, assuming a hoax, angrily ordered us off the air before flying out of range.
Our message never did get through, but Paul can not only read the weather, he also reads minds.
First we heard a drone, not the bass note of a intercontinental airliner, but the mosquito-like buzz of a tiny De Haviland Beaver.
With an aerial flourish, Paul swept over a pass and pulled up next to the tents we were hastily trying to collapse. "We only have a short weather window”, he yelled over the sound of the propeller, “so I want people and I want them now". Bags and bodies were thrown aboard. We clung to each other as the tiny craft hurtled down the glacier and into space.
In fourteen days we had climbed four previously unclimbed peaks, but we had also spent seven days squashed inside our tents with nothing to do except count snowflakes. It was triumph and tedium in equal measure, but it was a true Alaskan mountaineering experience in a tiny corner of The Big White.
This article was first published in 1999. The information is almost certainly out of date!
Information: The United States Department of the Interior is not given to gushing prose, but let me quote from the official guide: “Incredible. You have to see Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve to believe it-and even then you’re not too sure.
The number and scale of everything is enormous. Peaks upon peaks. Glaciers after glaciers”. You get the idea. Don’t blunder around here unless you’re an experienced Alaskan mountaineer or you’ll come to grief. Hire a guide, or go with a specialist operator.
Specialist Operators: KE Adventure Travel www.keadventure.com takes one party a year on its Alaskan Climber adventure. Or try Cloudwalker Expeditions (01222 810 502)
Maps: Trails Illustrated map 249 Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve. Available from Stanfords or over the internet.
When to go: Mountaineering season starts in March, but lasts into July when there is virtually 24 hours daylight on the glaciers. In early June there is only a couple of hours of near darkness at night, but it can be very cold, down to minus 15 to 20 degrees centigrade. The daytime temperatures are surprisingly comfortable, depending on whether there is significant wind chill or not, ranging between 3 and 20 degrees centigrade. The weather is relatively stable at this time of year, but short lived storms are a possibility, and these can put down a couple of feet of snow in a few hours.
Equipment: You’ll need a 80L rucksack and a light-weight, warm sleeping bag (1000 grams of down - minimum). The Mountain Equipment Everest proved ideal, as was their Annapurna down jacket for sitting around camp. Climbing gear and plastic double boots are, of course, a necessity. One of the main considerations when choosing equipment should be its weight as you’ll carry or haul all your own stuff. KE Adventure Travel provided excellent North Face V25 tents (one 2/3 man tent between two) plus snow shoes and plastic sleds.