Gus Barber, Lang Van Dommelen and Chris Williams recently established a 2,500-foot first ascent of a Grade IV+ 5.11 on the east face of Caliban (ca. 6,400′) in the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic National Park. They haven’t settled on a name for the route yet, and Dommelen told Alpinist they’ve been referring to it as the East Face for now.
Near the northern tip of Alaska, the Arrigetch Peaks encompass approximately 40 square miles within the Brooks Range. This cluster of sharp, granite peaks has seen sporadic activity by climbers since the 1960s. The trio of Anchorage locals took a different approach from most other parties, opting to drive to Cold Foot instead of flying from Fairbanks to Bettles. A bush plane flew them from Cold Foot to a remote gravel bar on the Alatna River on July 23. From there, a two-day, 12-mile bushwhack to their Arrigetch Creek base camp tested their wills and legs, as they carried 110- to 120-pound packs loaded with aid gear and double racks (including large cams up to 7.5 inches), bear spray and handguns.
Aside from overall good rock quality, the Arrigetch Peaks are synonymous with atrocious weather, grizzly bear encounters and mosquitoes that yellow the sky.
“Bugs were moderate at worst,” Van Dommelen said. “We hiked in at the tail end of a stretch of days and days of splitter weather.”
The team immediately got to work after establishing base camp on July 25. First, they climbed a 1,500-foot, 5.8+ variation to the first gendarme on the Pillar Arete (V 5.10b), a route established by Alaska locals Samuel Johnson and Ryan Hokanson in 2008.
Sporadic squalls pinned them in camp for several days until they made a brief attempt on a new route on Albatross Peak. After hiking up valley to scope Xanadu, the group spied a line on the far left side of Caliban’s east face. In a 25-hour round trip, they navigated up “three roped pitches and a fair amount of fourth- and easy fifth-class soloing,” followed by another 14 pitches of roped climbing with difficulties up to “hard, solid 5.11.” Barber led the technical crux of the route, a thin tips crack protected by micro-nuts and small cams. “It required him to cut his feet on a tips lock to swing his feet over to a foot hold,” Van Dommelen said. “It looked so hard.” A traversing 5.10 R pitch just below felt scary for everyone, as they balanced over sharp flakes between sparse gear.
They reached the upper parts of Caliban as Alaska’s midnight twilight waned, but they had difficulty establishing which of the peak’s many highpoints was the summit.
“It can be hard when you’re stumbling around at 1 a.m. to know where you are,” Van Dommelen said. “It turns out the first summit we stood on was the true summit. It’s complicated up high and the rock quality had decreased.”
The team believes they descended the 1993 route with a mixture of rappelling and technical down climbing. Of the route, Van Dommelen says “it was surprisingly straightforward and the rock quality was just impeccable–finger crack after finger crack after finger crack.”
“I’m scheming [about returning] already,” Van Dommelen said. “That’s what’s so unique about the Arrigetch: you could climb there your whole life and establish new routes each week…if the weather was good.”
The usual whiteout conditions, dense fog, heavy winds and rain settled in by the end of the trip. Satisfied with their experiences, the team donned their backbreaking loads and hiked to the Alatna River bar, where they noticed continual signs of wolves, bear, coyote and moose while waiting for their pilot.
“We’d walk to a spot that we’d been to several hours ago and there would be giant, fresh bear tracks,” Van Dommelen said. “One night, I woke up to a bear outside my tent.”
Gus Barber received an $800 American Alpine Club Mountaineering Fellowship Fund Grant for this trip.