An early winter stomp up in Northern BC at Kwatini Creek in search of skiable snow produces little snow but a great hike up Kwatini Canyon past the old cabin there and into the alpine… complete with a mountaineering finish. A perfect day marred only by me pretty much destroying my brand spanking new (first time wearing) Arcteryx bibs…😫😢
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn” – John Muir, 1901.
Looking for a bit of fun and adventure finds Angela and I heading north out of town and up into the high country to parts unknown. We packed the truck with bicycles, packrafts, hiking paraphernalia and some snacks. About halfway up Marinka’s Hill, we stop to gawk at the Northern Takhinsha/Southern Alsek’s baring their blue and stoney ice in the spectacular late summer light. I have never seen these peaks so devoid of the previous winter’s snow. The result is visually striking; the glaciers are on full display and the rocky summits piercing the deep blue hue above. Once past Three Guardsmen, it is decided a paddle across the mystical Kelsall Lake is in order, and soon we are bouncing the truck down the 4WD track to it’s shores.
Once in the water, a pleasant paddle two or three miles to the inlet stream that feeds the lake comes around and we stop for lunch and a swim on the sandy beach below the glacier of Kelsall Peak. Back in the boats, a great wind swells up and we fight the lateral rollers all the way back to the truck and happily scurry back over The Pass and head back home.
Since moving to Haines from Fairbanks nearly 5 years ago, I have been fascinated by a local piece of wilderness called the Takhin River Valley; a river born of the Takhin Glacier high at the western end of the Takhinsha Mountains at the far northern most tip of Southeast Alaska. The nearby Tsirku River is born from the Tsirku Glacier far into the western reaches of the range where massive ice sheets dominate the landscape. Further down stream a Tsirku feeder, the Le Blondeau Glacier, comes very close to the Takhin Headwaters and is separated from it by a 500 foot high, two mile wide swath of an ancient moraine covered in Alder thickets and Devil’s Club, and is know locally as Heartbreak Ridge. I had heard many folks talk of the Tsirku… it is of fairly easy access by bush plane, or by foot, is big enough for a full size raft at spring and summer water levels, and is fairly tame overall. But I never ever heard anyone speak of it’s sister, the Takhin. After asking around about it, I discovered that there is a locally operated bush airstrip about 3/4 the way up the Takhin Valley known as the Fox Airstrip, but it seemed there was no way to gain plane access to the headwaters at the Takhin Glacier itself.
Last year I decided that the best way to investigate was to hike up the Tsirku on foot from the Devil’s Elbow, where one can park a vehicle, and attempt to get to the Le Blondeau and have a look at Heartbreak Ridge. At the time, I had no packraft, and made many dicey river crossings on foot until deep snow, and high water blocked passage about a mile and a half from the landing strip near the Le Blondeau. After spending a night in the upper Tsirku watching and listening to a pair of Wolves, I packed out, vowing to return better equipped.
This year, Angela and I, armed with packrafts, hired Drake Olsen and his Super Cub to get us landed on the tiny gravel air strip near the Le Blondeau near what is locally known as Horse Camp, a group of seasonal tin cabins from which hunting and guided Tsirku River trips begin. It’s from this place we could easily hike to Heartbreak Ridge, and begin it’s Alder thrashing, which more than one person had guessed would be “extreme”.
The tiny Super Cub plane holds one pilot, one passenger, and a wee bit of gear. That’s it… so Drake takes Angela in first; it is about a 20-25 minute flight in and I wait by the Haines landing strip for his return, eagerly anticipating viewing the Takhin from the air to inspect for any obstacles we may encounter. The Super Cub re-appears, and in minutes gear is loaded and we are airborne and slicing through the crystalline sky along the lower reaches of the Takhin. Drake flies as low as possible so we can look for log jambs, wildlife, gravel bars, and any other thing of interest on the ground. We pass the fantastic Bertha Glacier and her giant iceberg filled tarn; the lake is still partially frozen over. It is May 17th 2018…
After Drake drops me off, Angela and I watch as he hits the air and disappears over the ridge and is gone. We shoulder packs and begin walking the Gravel bars of the Tsirku in search of a supposed trail leading through the forest to Horse Camp. After a bit of wandering and doubling back, we find the trail and find ourselves deep within the confines of the bush. A large Moose antler is found on the ground, likely dropped the previous Winter. The cabins of Horse Camp are dilapidated and run down… animals have had their way with them and are in pretty bad shape. The tarn of the Le Blondeau Glacier is partially frozen over, and great slabs of icebergs are float here and there. The views of the glacier and peaks are amazing… one peak, known as Tomahawk, has gorgeous plumes and flutings descending from its jagged and corniced summit. Not all mountain ranges have these flutings, but are common in Alaska, The Andes, and Himalaya. Truly a signature of deeply glaciated peaks and severe weather.
We stomp around the east side of the lake all the way to just shy of the ice and right up against the mountain where we believe the easiest passage through the two miles of Alders might be. After having spoke with some people who had seen it, and seeing it from the air myself, I estimated it would take us about 4 hours to get through it, over Heartbreak Ridge, and to the toe of the Takhin Glacier. Soon, we cannot go any further and so we dive into the Alders to our left and begin the extreme thrashing. The paddles sticking out the tops of our packs make the going much worse. Alders are notoriously bad for this sort of bushwhacking and this is no exception. We gain a lateral snowfield and follow it, postholing in knee deep snow to ankle breaking downed Alders beneath. Two hours later we come to a stream where we break for snacks and water before committing to more thrashing. Occasionally, we find old avalanche chutes to traverse up, then down, up, then down, avoiding short sections of thickets. It is time consuming and exhausting to say the least. Hours later, we are at the base of the final climb up Heartbreak Ridge proper. It’s nothing short of a heinous and evil Alder thrash. Did I mention Devil’s Club? We gots that too folks. Lots of it. We emerge on top, bloody, sweating, exhausted… and ornery. The Alder thrashing we did last year on the approach to Mt Archibald in the Yukon was actually worse, but this was sustained. It had kicked our ass, but we did it. In fact, I do not believe any one in recent memory (or ever) has gone over Heartbreak Ridge during the non-winter months (skis, snowmachines, etc) The view down to the Takhin Glacier is breathtaking and the descent looks steep and dangerous. After the initial loose and steep drop in, it is easy going and soon we are on the rubble covered glacier and boulder hopping to the toe to find our camp.
After reaching the snout of the Takhin Glacier, a gaping ice cave appears and the very utmost of the Takhin River is born, emerging as a rapid and icy tongue from it’s innards. We thought since the goal of this trip was to packraft the entire Takhin from it’s beginning, it would be especially cool to start from inside the ice cave and emerge in true fashion. However, it looks dicey so we decline, stumbling off to find a camp spot. We pitch the awesome Hyperlight Mountain GearUltamid 4 that was loaned to us by the company for testing and inspecting; I find it extremely light, easy to setup, and bombproof. Many thanks to HMG for this shelter. After camp is constructed and I lay in my sleeping bag, it occurs to me that it took us over ten hours to get from the landing strip on the Tsirku to the Takhin Glacier; I severely underestimated Heartbreak Ridge.
The morning sees the weather in fine shape with early morning light splattering the fluted ridges high above us. We walk for about a half mile downstream on the gravel bars in search of water deep enough to put the boats in. Since it is morning and the temps still chilly, the water has not yet come up, but we finally find adequate water and we inflate the rafts. A pleasant float downstream on class I-II, puts us in a forested area, where log jams and shallow water force us once again on foot. Another paddling section begins and a mishap with a strainer and a missing paddle ensues. We thought that the paddle had floated away, but was in fact stuck underwater in the submerged thicket. We were soaked and needed to dry out. Luckily it was hot out… too hot in fact and we were both getting somewhat sunburned. back in the water, we paddle through another alluvial fan and spot a large Mountain Goat about 200 meters off walking right towards us. We eddy out and watch silently; the Goat stops and finally takes notice to us. We stare back and forth and the Goat decides these strange creatures near by are best not to get tangled with and starts trotting south and away from us. What a magnificent animal…
Back on foot again to avoid low water levels, we decide the best way to travel is to mount the inflated rafts to the tops of our backpack and hanging down with the bottom of the boat facing behind you; doing this makes one look like a giant alien Beetle. We walk through the open forest like this for a spell and I spot a Grizzly 100 meters away (close!) staring us down. I freeze, Angela freezes. It appears to be a lone male Grizzly, not giant, but not small either. We stare at each other for several seconds and the Bear flips 180 and bolts the opposite direction. After that, I decide that the Bear spray will go in one pocket, and the Colt 1911 .45 in the other.
Eventually, we begin paddling again, and even though the water is low, we are able to float big sections and simply drag the boats through the shallow areas and then jump back in. Soon we come to end of the big braided section of the Takhin near where the Fox Airstrip is, and realize that it is getting late and that we are very tired. We pitch the ‘Mid on a sandbar riddled with Grizzly prints and attempt to sleep. Soon however, a great wind pick up and after a bit, blows a steady 30 knots, showering us with sand and dust. It was miserable, but we hunkered into our bags deeper and got through it. Eventually it died off and we drifted into needed slumber.
Another fine morning of gorgeous weather finds us paddling immediately and entering the “Boulder Field” we had heard about from one person who claims to have jet boated up the Takhin. The river slices through the tight forest here and turns into a different animal than we had previously seen. Small rapids appear… class II-III; twists and turns and rocks and holes all become the experience. The paddling is excellent; this is what we came for. One nasty looking class III section with a big rock at it’s bottom that would surely flip you we decide to portage around. Following that, the Takhin turns into one set of glorious Class II-III rollers after another for several miles. It is an instant classic Alaskan paddle in my mind. We pass the Dickinson, Willard, and Bertha Glaciers, and into the final twists of the river a few mile before it’s confluence with the Chilkat River, where enormous log jams bar passage and force us out of the boats. We drag the rafts through the sand past Wolf and Bear prints and back into the water where more Class II rollers and some technical navigation around strainers and timber force a keen and sharp attention. Angela has a mishap with a pesky log and flips the boat, but all is well. We stop for a breather and laugh about the incident as we pour the water from our Extra-Tuffs and wring out our wool socks.
Back in the water and around the next bend in the river, we can now see the peaks of the Tahshanuk, indicating that we were extremely close to the Chilkat. We ponder for a moment if we should spend another night, or just simply paddle down the Chilkat back to the Haines airport where the truck is parked. After reaching the mother Chilkat, a great wind picks up and it is decided instantly that paddling home is the ticket; three days and 35 miles of bushwhacking and paddling behind us, our weather window had closed, and it was time to end this adventure and begin looking forward to the next…
It had been a grand summer in the northern interior, but is was time to head south to meet up with Angela and have an adventure in the Yukon, so after tying up loose ends in Fairbanks and getting the archaic Toyota back into travel mode, I say goodbye to Sven and all the great folks I had met during my stay in Fairbanks this summer, gas up, and hit the highway. Driving south and seeing once again the massive central Alaska Range dominating the skyline, it is decided nearly instantly that I wish to head back to Delta for a few days to have a closer look around to do my own thing, shoot some photos and video, and look for animals. That evening at my familiar camp along the Delta River, another sublime sunset graces the southern horizon and showcases the white giants I dream of so often.
The areas around Delta Junction had fascinated me for sometime, and a venture with Dennis up nearby Donnelly Dome just south of town had wet my appetite for the vast tundra and river valleys of the region. It’s an area of concentrated wildlife, dense forest mixed with open tundra, raging glacial rivers, and giant mountains. In the morning following, I whip up some tailgate coffee and breakfast and soon head south to an area surrounding Donnelly featuring herds of wild Bison, Caribou, Moose, Grizzly Bear, and a vast network of dirt roads unexplored by yours truly. After stomping the brush filled valley below Donnelly and scaring up a large bull Moose near the Alaska Pipeline, I decide to drive up a dirt road I had spied some weeks prior that led past an old military installation and winding down to Jarvis Creek, but a sizable pool of water and it’s inherent mud hole prevents passage to the places I seek. So I stomp the area on foot on search of anything of interest. Grizzly tracks lead from and abandoned military bunker where once inside, I scare up several big Owls who are surprised by my presence and flee the scene entirely. Walking through the thickets, a large bull Caribou trots past not far off and climbs a short brushy hill to get a better look at me. Such a magnificent animal in silhouette against the storm encumbered sky; he smells the air briefly before descending the north side of the escarpment and soon is gone from my sight. Another Caribou appears and gallops fast to catch up, and soon I am alone walking the old dirt road en-route back to the truck. It begins to rain in earnest and soon it I am engulfed in a frigid downpour; in the dry and warm confines of the truck, I call Angela to solidify our plans to meet in the Yukon in another week or so for a climb up Mt Archibald in the beautiful and enchanting Kluane region less than a three hour drive from Haines. But for me, the drive will take a full day or so, but I have time to kill and decide to take my time and explore and maybe even climb a peak on the way south. I drive the old truck back north to Delta and back to my camp along the Delta River, where it rains hard for most of the night.
The next day is spent driving slowly, stopping often, exploring dirt roads and gawking at one of my favorite parts of Alaska. This place has the sensation to me of an ancient and somehow significant nature; people have lived in these vast northern valleys for thousands of years, flourishing in this striking and beautiful land. So many rivers, creeks, and un-named mountains here… It is a staggering thought to try to encompass all of its geography into my psyche. There is a thousand lifetimes of exploring to do here, and I can only hope to come back again and again to see and experience as much of it as I can in this one life. I pull down a dirt road and scope out an area for a hike and possible peak climb in an area north of Tok about 20 miles. Feeling satisfied that I have my bearings about me, I head down the road to Yerrick Creek, one of my favorite creeks in the area, to gather drinking water and bathe my stinking carcass. After a pleasant bath I drive to Tok for supplies and head back up valley to a sweet camp along the Yerrick. Once again, that night it rains a rain that can only be described as intense. Morning arrives and the rain shows little signs of dissipating, so I pack the truck and ponder my next move.
I decide to head back to Tok and do some laundry and fuss around town some where I drop into the visitor’s center for a look at the weather forecast that tells of inclement weather gaining momentum; after a walk through the old Tok cemetery during a rush of raindrops, I decide that the best way to spend my time before Archibald is to simply head back to Haines and catch up on much needed house projects that have been neglected all summer. Driving south of Tok through the maze of high forested ridges and immense wetlands, I emerge into the great taiga filled river valleys of the Robertson River, Johnson River, White River, and the beautiful Donjek River, all giant glacial fed braided specimens born of true and unrelenting wilderness. The Kluane region is now at hand and a pair of blonde Grizzlies graze at road’s edge as I pass. I camp down an old dirt road overlooking the fantastic St Elias Range where a small herd of Dall Sheep can be seen on a neighboring hillside grazing in the midnight twilight. Passing near Haines Junction the following day, the mass of Mt Archibald comes clear and its steep and glaciated east face dominates my view. Back in Haines hours later, I settle into my little house and fondly breathe in its strangeness; I have not been here for over two months, and it seems foreign to me. Nonetheless, a good nights sleep is to be had, and now preparing myself for the new electrical breaker panel that needs to be installed at the power lines adjacent to my house was in order. Five days later, the breaker panel is installed, the truck worked on, and gear and supplies gone through for the next Yukon adventure with Angela mostly taken car of.
The day before departing again back into the Yukon, Angela comes over and we spend several hours organizing gear and prepping for the Archibald climb. It feels good to be in a state of anticipation of an adventure goal once again, and soon we are ready. The plan is to leave late morning or even mid-day and casually head to Haines Junction to re-group and find the dirt road that leads Thunderegg Creek where we will spend the night before the hike in to our basecamp for Mt Archibald. Casually driving up the Haines Highway and up and over Haines Pass, AKA Chilkat Summit, it feels good to be in the high country once again. We take our time stopping from time to time to explore a little here and there and taking in the peaceful valley where the stimulating Klukshu River flows; it is a tiny river with runs of large King Salmon, but none are seen here today. It is a place of crossroads where cultures of the Aishihik and Champagne peoples would meet with the Chilkat Tlingits to trade goods and furs for the highly sought after Hooligan fish oil. In Haines Junction to gas up, we get to the visitor’s center just before closing time to secure our permits for backcountry travel, but are told that we need no permit to enter the area we are going as it is just outside of the Kluane National Park boundaries. Suits us fine, and we hit the Little Green Apple, Haines Junction’s tiny grocery store, for our supper supplies and hit the road north towards Thunderegg Creek.
Thunderegg creek is the drainage that flows from the un-named glacier that grows from Mt Archibald’s southeastern flanks and is named so for the marvelous round “eggs” of stone that grace the corridors of the raging river. In the morning, we pack up casually and shoulder our relatively light packs and begin the stomp up valley towards the glacier. The accounts we had read on-line gave a thin description of a faint game trail that peters out into thickets of Alder, Willow, and Aspen that must be navigated in order to avoid the impassable shores of Thunderegg Creek. Soon we find the trail disappearing and the thrashing through Alder thickets begins. The descriptions mentioned that the bushwhacking should last “no more than an hour”. True to the description, we emerge from this dense northern jungle in short time to find ourselves clamoring up an exposed ridge where two drainages parallel one another. At the ridge’s top, flat walking lead to a decision: either continue bushwhacking higher to where tree line ends and the glacier and moraine begin, or bushwhack down and to the left into the drainage of the creek that flows from the ice. It seems the downward option is our best bet, and another great and thrashing jungle session begins. The going is slow and methodical; it is very dense, but it is fairly short and soon we are deposited into the dry and rocky creek bottom, sans creek. We had hoped for water here, but none is found. An uphill trudge of about an hour and a half brings us to the very base of Archibald herself, where sprouts of tundra meadows appear. We ponder camping here, but realize quickly that not only is there still no water here, but the base of the Southeast Ridge that we intend to climb would be much better gained higher up the moraine. Getting both dehydrated and exhausted, we trudge on in hopes that drinking water and a suitable bivouac will reveal itself. Following the lead of the description we had read, drinking water could be found at the base of the terminal moraine; we gain the base of the massive scree to find none at all. Working up and around the lower portion of the moraine, a decision is made that we must go up and over this beast to find salvation. Another 20 minutes of scrambling and we are on top of the moraine and looking down slightly to a flowing creek of fine glacial drinking water. Dumping packs, we scamper downward to the creeks edge and fill ourselves with the glorious liquid. Bringing no tent along on this adventure due to the outstanding weather forecast and wishing to save every once of burden from our backs, we spy a small shelf situated at the exact starting point of our proposed climb. It is stupendously perfect. After moving rocks around for a few minutes, we have ourselves a perfectly flat and relaxing spot to throw down our sleeping bags; but it is hot. Very hot. The sun will not be behind the rim for another two hours and all we want to do after supper is go to sleep for our 3 am wake up call for the climb. So we wait… After the sun begins it’s descent behind Archibald’s summit ridge, we close our eyes and…. not sleep. We are both gifted with a bout of insomnia that allows us just scant minutes here and there of real rest. This seems to happen to me a lot on these high mountain bivy’s. Not sure why, but it seems I am just too much in awe of the glorious alpine setting and can’t seem to get my eyes or mind to sleep. Occasionally, when I am camped in these high glacial cirques, there exists sometimes the sensation of faint voices; like souls wandering these glaciers and whispering slightly. It is a strange phenomenon and Angela speaks of it as well… a curious thing these voices. The northern summer twilight that never really gets dark soon gives way to a display of the Aurora Borealis that sets our hearts on fire as we gawk in awe at it’s offering. Soon, the Aurora dissolves into the early morning dawn as the 3 am alarm goes off and we are up packing, cooking oatmeal and tea, and rubbing the lack of sleep from our bewildered eyes.
Following Dall Sheep trails up endlessly steep and sliding scree, we emerge on the top of the lower ridge to find a staggering sight: the un-named peaks to the west of Archibald are adorned with glaciers exhibiting broken seracs and icefalls, lit up by a full moon rising above their rarely seen summits. A post-Aurora alpenglow that sears the sky with streaks of pink and orange light outlines the mountain horizon to the east and north. The sight fills me with the notion of being a part of this grand and ethereal landscape that is not to be taken lightly. I find that being in these place gives me a sense of deep spiritual and emotional connection to the natural world that allows me completeness as a Human Being living on this strange and beautiful planet.
The southeast ridge of Mt Archibald is a long and rocky ridge, perhaps 3 miles in length and rising nearly 6000 feet from Thunderegg Creek to it’s 8,491 foot summit. This ridge is a steep and sometimes narrow feature sporting many sizable ‘summits” along it’s way, several gendarmes up to class 4-5 climbing, and near it’s top, the glacial ice from it’s east face creeps over the top of the upper ridge where steep and exposed snow and ice climbing accesses Archi’s true summit. It is a big mountain with a huge elevation gain for a peak of its height, and requires a variable set of skills to reach its summit. One must be comfortable with loose rock, exposed class 4 rock climbing, route finding, and snow and ice climbing skills. Given the length and elevation gain of Archi’s bulk, exceptional fitness is also a must.
A short scramble from our perch atop the lower ridge and we are surmounting the first of many gendarmes, most of which are in the solid class 3 range. Up and over, side hilling scree, of traversing back and forth across rock ranging from shattered Schist, to loose scree, to blocky talus generally accomplishes dealing with these many features and false summits. The hardest part of this ridge is the elevation gain… then loss, which one must deal with when going up and over these false ridge summits.
After a couple of hours of traversing and scrambling, the sun begins to crest just above the distant horizon and the ridge begins to get steeper, looser, and more exposed. Sections of steep scree lead to flatter sections of the ridge, where Dall Sheep sleeping platforms appear; there are several spots grouped together and have been manicured by hoof to produce flat and comfortable sleeping arrangements. Most are right on the apex of the ridge itself where wind and exposure are a way of life for these magnificent and hardy animals.
Higher up, another steep gendarme is negotiated by means of traversing left and scrambling the steep, exposed and shattered rock diagonally and then climbing directly upward and over it’s tiny summit; a brief down climb leads to another short traverse on it’s right flank to a point where the ridge eases off once again before climbing abruptly to the base of what had been described as the crux of the route: a true summit in it’s own right, a sub-peak of sizable proportions that bars access to the upper ridge, and the final stretch of chaotic mass of shattered debris below the steep and forbidding summit snow and ice where the glacier bends itself agonizingly over the summit ridge’s lip. Once the bulk of the gendarme is reached, the climbing turns to extremely exposed and loose class 4 climbing. We brought no rope so great care was taken climbing through this section. Once gaining the broken, tiny summit of this mammoth sub-peak, a view towards the final rib of snow and ice can be seen for the first time on the climb; it appears to be a steep knife-edge leading directly to the Archibald’s summit.
We are extremely lucky today to have the unbelievably outstanding weather we are experiencing, and from this point on the upper ridge, a view west reveals completely unobstructed and crystalline views of the entire Mt Logan massif and all of the big peaks of one of the most expansive glaciated mountain ranges on the planet. After moving through a section of broken towers and blocks, we find a pool of drinking water and fill our bottles and eat; we are both getting tired.
Another long, steep section of extremely loose scree forms a knife-edge and leads to a long flat section of ridge where, at its end rises the final snow and ice where the summit lie just beyond. After donning crampons and ice axe, we begin up the steep snow, Angela above of me front pointing then plunging the axe’s shaft, and repeating till there was no more. We are standing on the tiny summit; in fact it is just barely big enough for both of us to sit. The weather is striking and the views are mind blowing; however, I had been developing vision problems for the last hour or so from sunscreen dripping into my eyes, and now sitting here on Archibald’s summit, the pain is increasing, and my vision getting very bad indeed. We have 6000 feet of dangerous and time consuming ridge to down climb and here I am with only one working eyeball. We snap some photos and then begin the long and arduous descent back down the snow rib and the long loose section leading to the big gendarme. By the time we reach the dangerous class 4 sections, my vision is really bad and the pain increasing still. I have one semi-working eye in which to navigate the down climbing past a deadly exposed section, where if one fell or slipped, it would be the end of you. After managing, I stay close to Angela and she down climbs the bad section; relief hits us both and we are soon traversing and side hilling the long mid section of the route; I have managed to sort of “ski” the scree in my mountain boots, making downward progress a little less tiring, ice axe in hand just in case. After a few more hours, we are at the top of the Dall Sheep trail that leads back to the bivi. I am so tired, I can barely stand, but commit to this last section with abandon. Angela does the same and when we reach our bivi site, we collapse for a brief spell and ponder what we are doing.
Again, my eyes are inflamed and I cannot see at all out of the left eye, leaving only my bad right one still working, which has been of poor vision since childhood. We decide that hiking back to the truck is in order and the possibility of seeking medical attention a reality. After packing up our alpine ghetto, we shoulder our packs, our bodies scream, and we begin descending the debris covered glacier towards the dry creek bed and the route home. The going is slow, but soon we are at the point where we had bushwhacked from the ridge and into the drainage. Not feeling like going up through the thickets, we opt to stay in the dry bed in hopes that we may find a way to navigate around the toe of the buttress and it’s inherent Alder thickets. After stomping down through the Bear tunnels and shouting “Hey Bear!!” every so often so as to not startle one and provoke an encounter, we find ourselves on the shore of Thunderegg Creek. Fed by the glacier we had just come from, this specimen is no creek, but a dangerous and massive river, dark chocolate with debris, very deep, very fast, and very cold. We walk it’s shores for a very short time before realizing that we are trapped by the dense thickets leading directly to the edge of the raging torrent. Everything we had done to avoid the bushwhack just exploded in our faces and the only option left is to aim uphill and attack the matrix of the dense and unforgiving web of Alder, Aspen, Willow and small Spruce. Not 50 feet into it, we are encountering the worst bushwhacking of our lives. I once was a part of a conversation with some Washington climbers years ago about how the locals had a “bushwhacking rating system” for back country travel and mountaineering approaches in Washington state. I thought it was kind of of funny at the time, but now, after living and stomping in Alaska and the Yukon for a few years, it is no joke. This thicket we are in is definitely “class 5+” bushwhacking. Add a full pack and a pair of trekking poles to the mix and you’ve got some real fun. After about an hour or so of this, we emerge on a faint trail that leads to the cliffs at Thunderegg where the truck is parked and rest awaits.
The exhaustion we feel is overwhelming, and my eye is in horrible pain; perhaps the worst pain I have ever felt. It is late and we decide that staying here for the night is the best option, since the closest clinic is in Haines Junction or possibly even Whitehorse over 100 miles away. Oddly, there is phone reception here and Angela gets on the telephone and inquires about the clinics and general eye care with a nurse in Whitehorse. Not only would the drive be horrendous, but the cost of such an endeavor would be very difficult for me. We hunker down for the evening in the tent, sipping a cup of wine and me trying desperately to hold on. The pain is overwhelming. After a few agonizing hours, I pass out and wake hours later to my eye feeling slightly better, but still not good. We pack it in, drive out the long and sustained 4WD road back to the highway and head into Haines Junction for some grub and decide to head home and go to the SEARHC clinic in Haines.
The drive back over the pass is striking as always; the tundra surrounding the peaks laid out like a sub –arctic blanket and the peaks themselves jutting proudly to meet the sky. The drive from the alpine at the pass down the Chilkat corridor to Haines is always an interesting one to me as witnessing the transition from one ecosystem to another is always a joy, even with one eye. At the clinic in Haines, the visiting eye doctor examines my eyes and runs me through a series of tests that determines that the sun screen was in fact the culprit, and that applying some eye drops and rest will alleviate the pain and irritation. The entire experience, from the sleepless bivouac and the early morning Aurora, to a long and arduous route and it’s subsequent beautiful summit, to a terrible bushwhack and a murderously painful eye condition, has been one of great significance in a lifetime of outrageous adventures spent in an array of wilderness places that continue to touch our hearts and souls. It is being in these places that both Angela and I seek, both on a physical and spiritual plane.
The Kluane area of the western Yukon remains one of my most revered place on this planet; it is a place where some of the largest glaciers on Earth are born from some of the mightiest and remote mountains… it is home to scores of Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Wolf, Lynx, Dall Sheep, Moose, and has an ancient Human cultural spanning thousands of years. The wilderness here is far reached and commands respect from any creature passing through it. It is a place near my home and one that I will return to visit time and time again to explore and experience magic.
After leaving Haines and driving my thirty year old decrepit Toyota pickup across the Yukon to the Northwest Territories border, followed by penetrating the Alaskan Interior and riding my bicycle into the Wrangell Mountains by way of the splendid Nabesna Road, it was time to get down to some mountaineering. My old buddy Dennis from California was to meet me in Fairbanks on July 7th and after a day or two of re-grouping, planning, and getting the truck in order, we were off, heading south on the beautiful Richardson Highway bound for the Delta Mountains in the Eastern Alaska Range. The Delta’s are the most accessible and driest peaks in the Alaska Range and sit at it’s far eastern end in the rain shadow of the taller and more remote giants across the highway in the Hayes Range. Most of the peaks here are in the 8000 -10,000 foot range, moderate to heavily glaciated, and approaches are generally made from the Richardson Highway; however the eastern most peaks such as Mt Kimbal are approached via the Alaska Highway north of Tok and these approaches could be considered extreme, as in 40 miles up braided glacial rivers full of Alder thickets and Grizzly Bears. Our aim was to hike into an exceptionally easy area to access know as the Gulkana Group that is situated a few flat miles from the highway. In fact, from the Richardson, a 2 wheel drive dirt road leads to within a mile of the toe of the Gulkana Glacier.
Driving south from Fairbanks, we spot the central Alaska Range rising gloriously behind the Delta River and since this is Dennis’ first trip to Alaska, we pull of to gawk at these Himalayan sized (bulk, not height) peaks far to the south. Passing through Delta, we stop for gas and a cup of coffee before continuing south and into the spectacular scenery the next 70 miles has to offer; to me, it is one of the best places in all road accessible Alaska. It is an area just north of the Alaska Range, where tundra, Spruce and Aspen forest, creeks, rivers, and rising glacial peaks dominate the landscape. The incredible numbers of Moose and Caribou here is staggering. It is a blue bird sky today and as we approach Castner Creek near the toe of the Castner Glacier, the White Princess, a striking triangular ice clad peak pierces the deep blue and we stop for a gander through the binoculars, as it is one of our goals over the coming weeks. But today, we continue on to the Gulkana and our goal of climbing Icefall Peak, which at 7,772 feet would be considered minor at lesser latitudes, but at 62 degrees north latitude, it is of the heavily glaciated variety and carries beneath it a magnificent, if troubling set of broken and daunting seracs known as the Moore Icefall. The slightly lower peak to it’s south, an un-named peak called Peak 7,680’ on the map, is by far the most striking peak in the cirque, with a long and jagged hanging glacial tongue descending from it’s upper flanks down to it’s base in the bowels of the Moore Icefall, and beckons to be climbed. I had seen photos of it and not found any information on routes or description on either peak; such is mountaineering in Alaska, where many peaks are un-named, rarely climbed, and undocumented. It certainly adds to the remoteness and sense of adventure that being in these majestic mountains affords.
The old Toyota rattles up the dirt road perhaps 3 or 4 miles before petering out within a few hundred yards of a suspension foot bridge crossing Phelan Creek, allowing scientists, students, geologists, and climbers access across the small but raging glacial river and into the wide gravel valley beyond which accesses the tongue of the Gulkana Glacier itself. Due to it’s proximity to the road, the Gulkana Glacier area is a place of much study from the University Of Alaska and it’s GeoPhysical Institution, the USGS, and scores of other scientists and geologists. The USGS even built a hut at the 5000’ level high in the cirque back in 1968, which has served as a haven for climbers and skiers ever since.
After spending a couple of hours getting our gear in order, we hit the trail and soon are delicately walking across the swaying suspension bridge just up river. On the other side, the trail climbs a short hill, then descends to the gravel basin beyond, where the trail meanders up valley for 1 or 2 miles, passing along the way a geologic gauging station, to the ice cave endowed snout of the Gulkana. We manage to get to the ice cave where we must make a choice: either cross the dreaded fury river in front of us, or climb up and over the massive cave via the endless talus and scree slopes above and traverse around it. Either way, we decide to make the decision in the morning and to make a bivi, but the last good flat spots are a half mile back, so reluctantly we head back down valley a bit to throw down our evening ghetto. That night, during the endless daylight, I hear crashing rock and icefall every so often, reminding me we are now in the real mountains and caution must be afforded. Coming to the ice cave once again in the morning, we decide that the safest way is to bypass the river by going up and over the cave from where the river flows. This circumnavigation leads to not only the toe of the Gulkana, but to another ice cave; this one is not blocking our way, but begs for exploration. I ask Dennis to join me, but he declines, so in I go alone. The ceiling is a deep blue color and scalloped smooth. It goes back a few hundred feet where I can see light… it is a beautiful example of a glacial ice cave and seems to connect with the cave that blocked us previously and the great and fearsome river can be heard erupting from it’s guts. After emerging from the cave, we are once again moving and soon on the tongue proper where a great moulin flows violently. We fill our water bottles and head upward on the debris covered glacier. Once the debris thins out, we are surprised to find that the bare ice is textured nicely with dirt and sand and that travel with out crampons is not only acceptable, but desirable.
A clouded mist forms above and just as the vast and colorful seracs of the Gabriel Icefall show themselves, the mist descends upon us to create a condition of somewhat eerie circumstance; the glacier is silent, the rocky moraines hidden, and visibility becomes low. We truck onward and soon crevasses begin to appear; all are easily zig zagged around, and as the firn line gets nearer, we begin to see the remains of snow bridges from winter, and soon the depths of the menacing cracks are skimmed over with dirty and forbidding snow.Luckily these obstacles are easily avoided, and once reaching the top of a steeper section of the glacier, the upper cirque opens up, yet visibility remains low. We continue to meander and zigzag around the maze of crevasses and looking up suddenly, I spot the USGS hut. The tiny A-frame structure sits atop a large moraine, perhaps 400 feet above the ice, and after another hour of crossing through the crevasse fields and climbing the talus we reach the hut and enter. The steep walls of the hut are a notebook for every climber and skier that has entered this cirque for the last 49 years. Every available space has been written upon. Tales of climbing, humor, and general chaotic nonsense fills these walls. It is entertaining to read these as we prepare our dinner. There is a plethora of food in the hut and decide to take advantage of a bag of military cuisine consisting of Mexican Chicken whatever… these single military pouches contain every aspect of a meal, from main course, to crackers, to dessert, and to coffee at the end, which we saved for morning. After supper, I step outside to see the weather worsening; it is beginning to rain. Let’s face it, in the Alpine Zone on a glacier, nothing feels nastier than rain. And so it is… raining.
Dennis, as I found out on a climb on Silverado Peak in the North Cascades a few years ago, snores terribly. For this reason, I cannot sleep within 150 feet of him. Not a chance… That sound goes right through earplugs. Dennis seems to like the confines of the hut, so I go out onto the moraine and pitch the tent. I crawl in just as the storm intensifies and most of that night was spent trying to keep the tent poles from snapping; Guying the tent out properly was something I got lazy with and was now paying the price. After a few hours bracing from the inside, I put on my parka and go outside to fix the problem by attaching more guy lines and stretching out to larger rocks nearby. That did the trick and soon I was able to drift into sleep. In the morning, the wind had died, but the storm was far from over, essentially eliminating possibility of climbing anything that day or advancing our camp any higher. After breakfast, Dennis and I go out to guy out my tenet even better. Then back to the dryness of the hut for reading some of my book “Shadows On The Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along The River”, the story of Sydney Huntington and his growing up on the Koyukuk River in the Brooks Range during the 1920’s and 30’s. The book is a pleasure to read and is full of vivid descriptions of a life and landscape that has mostly disappeared; one that during that period was indicative of the times. It’s a story of family and community, of hard work and strength, of hardship and survival, and of playfulness and joy. A damn good read. However, I tire of sitting in the hut and ask Dennis if he is interested in taking a trek across the upper glacier to inspect the ridge above us during a lull in the storm. He declines, so off I go alone, cramponing up the low angle ice of the upper lobe, in search of the ridge line and a view of the mighty Canwell Glacier below. It only takes about 30 minutes to gain the ridge and the view I was looking for revealed itself. The Canwell Glacier, 4 miles wide and maybe 20 miles long sits 2500 feet below me, is crevassed significantly, and splits into three branches just up valley, where more un-named peaks push from it’s jagged dormancy. I get some great views of the bigger peaks in the area before the storm intensifies, sending me running back to the hut. More food and reading ensue and we figure the storm will have blown itself out by tonight, so we pack for climbing the following day and hit the sack early.
The alarm awakes me at 3 am to a perfectly still and silent Alaskan dawn. I peer from the tent and the delicate purple alpenglow splashes down upon this amazing cirque. The Deep blues of the seracs of the Moore Icefall with the crisp lavender skyline, the nearly full moon rising over Peak 7680, and the creaking of the glacier as it too slowly wakes, is an experience I will not soon forget. We are moving by 4 am and cramponing the perfect ice and neve towards the Moore Icefall, where it becomes clear some tricky route finding will be a necessity in order to bypass the many clusters of seracs and crevasses which block our way to the upper NW Face of Icefall Peak. Soon we are above the firn line and after sticking my leg through a snow bridge covering a menacing crevasse, we rope up and get to some proper glacier travel. Weaving in and out of the crevasses brings us to the first of several steeper seracs that must be negotiated and sometimes climbed directly. At the top of the first serac obstacle, a short bit of steep unprotected ice is climbed and the upper crevasse field is gained. From here we can see that there are more seracs and gaping holes to weave. At one point, just below the final steep bit before the final face, a crevasse appears so large I can hardly believe my eyes. It is the largest single crevasse I have ever seen. Perhaps 70 feet across and 200+ feet deep, it’s top covered by an enormous and fragile snow bridge that can only be seen from our side vantage. I am happy that it is not something we need to deal with and can simply enjoy witnessing it from our far away position. After crossing this monster it it’s terminus with the upper face, we climb a steeper section of snow and neve to the base of the final face. The weather is glorious and the seracs of Peak 7680 are shining brightly; the blue ice radiating the entire upper cirque – it is a lovely sight.
After a short lunch break, we untie the coils used for traveling the crevassed sections below us and decide to set up a belay and climb the full rope length. I lead upwards toward the upper wall which is steepening significantly. Beyond this headwall is the summit; I can see it. After a rope length, I come to the unexpected: unseen from below, there now sits before me a hidden crevasse barring passage to the headwall. It is maybe 25 feet across and 80 feet deep; the walls below me severely overhanging and rotten. I bring Dennis up and we attempt to traverse to the right in hopes of going around the gaping crack, but we are then blocked by another vertical fracture, essentially splitting the lower crevasse block in two. We must go down and down climbing ensues, bringing us back to from which we came. Time wasted, energy spent. Dennis is feeling exhausted and expresses his wish for me to make all the decisions from this point forward. Again I lead off to the right, this time from our lower position below the serac. I then climb upward to meet the giant and perplexing crevasse it it’s terminus with the steepening headwall to the right. I plant an ice screw and a snow picket and bring Dennis up. Above us looks difficult indeed; a step across the narrowest part of the crevasse leads to vertical water ice and rotten neve and leads to a rotting honeycombed ramp. I can see that the ramp leads squarely to the headwall and the summit, which looks to be only 200 feet away. This ramp is the key to the route. Breaking out my ice hammer for the first time on the route, I gingerly front point upward to the lip of the fracture and manage to just barely stem across to touch it’s far wall and place an ice screw. It feels bad… the ramp is skimmed with honeycombed ice and underneath is rotting neve which crumbles as I plant tools into it. I move up reluctantly and plant the hammer as high as I can but just can’t make it stick to my liking. My feet are underneath a slight overhang and I can’t see my front points. The only thing that is keeping me from breaking my neck on the lip of the lower wall is the shitty ice screw, now just below my feet. I come down. Then ponder… we are so gawdam close. I can practically spit to the summit. I go up again. Getting to the same spot, I feel the risk is not worth the potential disaster of falling off this face and I retreat. My attitude dissolves entirely and suddenly I am in a very bad mood. Dennis looks exhausted and expresses relief that we are not continuing. This makes my mood even worse. I gaze out over the growing shadows of the Moore Icefall and the hanging glacier on Peak 7680 and vow to myself to come back to this place to climb it. For now, all I wish for is to leave this cirque. I belay Dennis down to the base of the serac and after joining him, we begin the long and arduous decent through the jumbled maze of seracs and crevasses. After this is behind us, we are once again back on the lower angle part of the glacier just above the firn line where earlier, perfect crampon conditions made travel easy. Now, in the afternoon heat, the neve has turned to soft and vicious snow which must be post hole’d back down past the firn line to the bare ice, which is now flowing with water in the heat of the day.
We are back at the hut by 2 pm and I am feeling like packing up and walking out to the truck. Dennis does not wish for this and we decide that he will stay the night at the hut and I will walk out alone. I pack up the tent, and load my pack and am back on the ice by 3 o’clock. I tell Dennis that if he is not at the truck in 24 hours, I will come back to look for him. He agrees and we say goodbye and I begin the arduous 5 mile glacier walk to the tongue. The sights along the way are spectacular, but my exhaustion is taking it’s toll. At the tongue, I am faced with the previous decision of whether to go around the ice cave or to fjord the river. I am far too tired to climb the talus to go around, so I opt for the river. I find the shallowest section and stomp across. My boots are mostly soaked but not caring, I stagger the last couple of flat miles to the truck where I collapse and take off my sopping boots. A jump into the icy Phelan Creek makes me feel alive and clean, and soon the tent is set up and I am happily cooking supper and thinking about the next move. The next day, Dennis ambles in about 2 pm and we decide to head back to Delta Junction and re -group. In Delta that night the sunset on the Alaska Range impresses us and a deep sleep comes easily. The following morning, rain drives us into a diner for breakfast and coffee, where we talked of our next climb: The White Princess.
Back in Haines temporarily before heading back to the Yukon to climb another peak in a few days; I haven’t had time to write or process photos from this summer’s adventures due to much neglected chores that have stacked up… that said, after returning from the Yukon in a bit, I will post more detailed tid bits and tasty treats. In the meantime, here’s a shot of the beautiful Moore Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range, which I might add, provided some very challenging and time consuming routefinding and navigational skills to surrmount in our bit for Icefall Peak several weeks ago.