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Adventures in Alaska’s Remote Arrigetch

North Buttress (V 5.9) on the West Maiden, Arrigetch, Alaska, takes the sun/shadow line on the middle peak. Sam Johnson and Ryan Hokanson “warmed up” on this 3,000′ R/X route before establishing The Pillar Arete (V 5.10b, 16 pitches plus plenty of simulclimbing) on the eastern ridge of nearby Caliban in late August, 2008. [Photo] Ryan Hokanson

The summer of 2008 was exceptionally rainy in Alaska. This was evidenced by extensive flooding in Fairbanks and Nenana. Fortunately, the rainy spell that plagued the interior for the first half of August ceased several days before Ryan Hokanson and I left for our trip, providing us stable, bluebird weather. After quitting my job of almost a year, I climbed off the couch and drove to meet Ryan in Fairbanks. We flew from Fairbanks to Bettles, from Bettles to Circle Lake via Brooks Range Aviation, then took two days to walk our 95-pound loads up the Arrigetch Creek drainage to our remote base camp.

After arriving, we spent time exploring the area, sitting out a rainstorm and carrying a rack up to the base of the North Buttress of West Maiden peak in preparation for our warm-up climb. We elected to allow the rock to dry and instead explored farther up Arrigetch Creek, finding several appealing lines. Early the next morning, we launched from base camp and spent 16 hours repeating the North Buttress (V 5.9, 3,000′). We found twenty-two 60+m pitches up to 5.9 R/X (one pitch of quality 5.9 slab had a 40m runout above two terrible pieces off the belay) that offered a grand total of 4,400 feet of climbing. With the exception of two runout pitches, we found the North Buttress to feature safe, excellent climbing on high quality rock, and above all, wild exposure. After four rappels from the summit onto the opposite side of the peak, we spent the next 13 hours traversing across talus on the south side of West Maiden and walking over a pass to return to base camp 29 hours after beginning our climb.

We then turned our attention to the south face of Parabola. Unfortunately, this golden face was littered with loose flakes, and we decided to abandon this avenue. We spent the afternoon, instead, exploring the Aquarius valley and the opposite side of Arrigetch Creek.

We found what we were looking for after inspecting the eastern ridge/arete of Caliban, the highest peak in the Arrigetch. The following morning, we launched from base camp at 4:45, walking several miles up valley and across Arrigetch Creek to the base of the eastern ridge of Caliban. We spent a couple hours scrambling up a talus ridge to access the wall. We spent another 15 hours or so on exposed terrain, climbing on both the south and north sides of the serrated arete that splits the two major faces of Caliban. We climbed about four pitches to top out on a pillar, then rappelled once or twice to reach the next col, where we set a belay and problem-solved the next tower. This was then repeated again… and again. Descent options on route were questionable and unappetizing: they would have involved extensive rappelling (2,000-3,000′) on the north or south face.

We climbed sixteen full pitches in addition to plenty of simulclimbing. We also made four rappels on route before reaching the east summit in the last usable light of dusk. Highlights included splitter cracks, protectable moderate face climbing, the “spiral staircase” pitch that ended atop a massive roof, and an ultra classic J-Tree-style pitch on the final summit ridge. After reaching the east summit, we rappelled three times down the southwest ridge to a col and then descended about 4,000 feet of talus and heather to access the valley floor, arriving back at base camp around 27 hours after beginning our climb. Reflecting on the roller-coaster ride over so many gendarmes, we named the route The Pillar Arete (V 5.10b).

Sam Johnson starting up Pitch 4 of The Pillar Arete. The route was defined by the striking gendarmes visible here. [Photo] Ryan Hokanson