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Tipping The Scale In Favor Of Bailing

[Photo] John Frieh collection

Dave Burdick, Zac West and I arrived in Anchorage early on April 21. After completing our errands around town, we departed for Chitina, Alaska, around 11:45 a.m. Five hours later we had just barely finished unpacking the car at the airstrip when Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Outfitters arrived. We quickly loaded up our kit in Paul’s Otter and a short 30 minutes later we arrived at the Ultima Thule lodge in McCarthy, where we unloaded onto the still, frozen river and each waited our turn to be flown in a Super Cub, a smaller, more nimble plane capable of the handling the short landing zone found on the Hawkins Glacier. I was the first to be flown in, and after circling the glacier twice, Paul decided the standard landing zone below the west face of Middle Peak was too dangerous for him to attempt given the conditions. Fortunately for us he was able to locate an alternative landing zone up-glacier, underneath the southwest aspect of University Peak. Physically getting to and from this landing zone to Middle Peak would require some serious time and effort. By 8 p.m. Paul and his son Jay, using both of their Super Cubs, were able to transport the three of us to the glacier. Paul and Jay really went out of their way (flying two planes at once) to get us all on the glacier, late in the day no less. Had they not, we would have likely missed our weather window and festered at the lodge for at least a few days waiting on weather to fly.

Monday and Tuesday was a mixed bag of weather, containing everything from snow and graupel to blue skies (though mostly clouds and light precip), so we spent the majority of the time improving camp and checking out possible lines on the surrounding peaks through the binoculars. Calling out on the satellite phone on Tuesday confirmed our best chance for the week to be Wednesday, sandwiched in between likely precip on Tuesday and Thursday, so Wednesday it was. Unfortunately the snow and low visibility (less than 500 feet) of Tuesday afternoon’s weather didn’t cease until after 4 p.m. We attempted to make the best time possible crossing the Hawkins, but by 8 p.m., though we had crossed the Hawkins and reached Middle Peak, we had not rounded the southern point or laid eyes on our intended line on the west face of Middle. We set up our bivy tent in the evening light and discussed getting on the west face the following morning without actually having ever seen the route in person. We concluded that this was too much of a gamble and decided to attempt the other viable line on Middle Peak, the southeast face, which was right above our bivy site.

John Frieh low on Middle Peak. [Photo] Dave Burdick

Following a false start on the morning of Wednesday, April 25, (forgotten sunglasses) we re-departed bivy camp at 5,500 feet on the Hawkins glacier around 7 a.m. and made rapid progress up the southeast aspect of Middle. At around 7,500 feet we began pitching out moderate terrain: steep snow, mixed climbing to M6 and ice climbing to WI3+/4. As we closed in on the intersection with the final summit ridge, we could tell the elevation was impacting the snow quality as sugar snow underneath the breakable crust became deeper and deeper. Above 9,500 feet our progress slowed, and at circa 10,400 feet (less than 700 vertical feet below the summit) we were stopped dead in our tracks, or to be more accurate, in our snow trench. The final pitch required 40 minutes of hand/foot matching in a self-extracted snow chimney for exactly 40 feet of progress. Frustration.

Zac West climbing into the runnels high on Middle Peak. [Photo] Dave Burdick

Tipping the scale in favor of bailing was knowing the summit ridge of double cornices that lay ahead would be in even more dangerous in the sugar snow conditions we were swimming in, so we took a vote and the “walk of shame” back to bivy camp promptly begun. We left v-threads, nuts and minimal tat at rap anchors in an effort to minimize our trace on the mountain. We dragged back into camp after a 16-hour effort and finally crawled into the tent.

Thursday started slow for us; we skied farther south down the Hawkins Glacier and scoped other potential lines. Unfortunately clouds and foreshortening prevented us from getting a good look at the entire west face of Middle Peak, but we did get a good look around the rest of Hawkins, including possible lines on Ultima Thule Peak and Hobbs. We stayed as long as we could before the predicted weather arrived and chased us back up the Hawkins to the majority of our supplies in the landing zone below University. The intention was to resupply and return to our camp below Middle as soon as we felt recharged for a second attempt. However, late in the day Thursday, it started to snow. By Friday, when it was all said and done, it had snowed 18 inches in about 12 hours. We had finally been properly introduced to the Wrangell-St. Elias. Friday, as a result, turned into a ski day intermixed with heroic eating efforts as we watched avalanches rip all around us. We had the enjoyment of one particularly large powder blast courtesy of University that nearly took the Megamid down.

Zac West levitating up mushy since high on Middle Peak. [Photo] Dave Burdick

Saturday, April 28, had us stir-crazy but motivated to see if the 18 inches was (hopefully) just localized to our camp or covered the entire glacier. We used the day to test snow slopes and climb Point 8730, just southeast of the col south of University, near our camp. It seems this was the first ascent of Point 8730. During our ascent it was determined the 18 inches was quite widespread and would likely take much longer than the amount of time and fuel we had to settle out and allow safe climbing conditions to return. The forecast was calling for five-plus days of unstable weather on top of already dicey avy conditions. We called for pickup, and Jay Claus managed to get us all in two flights on April 30, thus ending out trip to the Hawkins Glacier.

The potential for new routes the Hawkins Glacier holds is mind-boggling; as I write this 7,000-foot, unclimbed lines still await. That said, though the possibility exists, claiming a first ascent will require a rich, diverse skill set and a bit of luck with the Wrangell-St. Elias weather and is the very reason the Hawkins still boasts an extremely low success rate. I look forward to returning to the Hawkins as soon as possible.

Dave Burdick taking advantage of the storm’s aftermath. [Photo] Mark Westman