Johns Hopkins Glacier, Fairweather Range, Alaska
In April and May, seeking “the old-fashioned aesthetic” of properly snowy peaks, New Zealanders Paul Knott and Kieran Parsons spent nearly a month in Southeast Alaska’s Fairweather Range, completing three first ascents. The duo arrived with hopes of authoring the first ascent of the east ridge of 12,727-foot Mt. Crillon, an endeavor proposed by Bradford Washburn in the 1941 American Alpine Journal: “To attempt to climb Mt. Crillon from the E. would be the objective of a major expedition. This climb has never been made and it appears to me to be one of the finest mountaineering challenges in North America.” But snow conditions, winds and unseasonably high temperatures thwarted their Crillon attempt. The duo instead made a 20-kilometer traverse and summited three previously unclimbed peaks in the Abbe group.
“We spent four days sitting in the tent while it snowed,” Knott explained of their first attempt at approaching the Abbe peaks. “[We] ended up getting buried, 20 kilometers from base camp. We were almost out of supplies. When it cleared and we headed for base camp, after the first 2.5 hours the GPS put us 614 meters from our starting point! The abortive first week made us all the more focused when we finally had stable weather.”
Knott and Parsons’ weather window arrived on May 3. The pair made the first ascents of Peak 7507 and Peak 7274 on May 6, two snow summits between Mt. Abbe and Mt. Bertha with a view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier and Brady Icefield. From these perches, the two had a good view of a striking 8,000-footer with a “pyramid of clean granite on its summit.”
The mountain, Peak 8290, had originally captured Knott’s interest during his 2009 climb on Mt. Bertha. He attempted the summit in 2011 with Vaughan Snowdon from the Johns Hopkins side, but a gaping bergschrund and unstable snow conditions turned them back below the summit. This time around, Knott and Parsons had their eyes on a direct approach via Peak 8290’s snowy southeast face, which leads to its granite pyramid and summit. However, wet slides racked the face each afternoon, rendering an attempt from this aspect unsafe.
Knott was reluctant to commit to the remaining line, the two-kilometer-long southeast ridge. “I was concerned about hidden steps on the approach ridge, especially given that it is composed of the poor quality sedimentary rock characteristic of most of this range,” Knott explained. Adding to the duo’s hesitation was the unknown quality of the granite apex. “The size, steepness and rock quality were very much unknown to us, and looked different depending on viewpoint and light,” Knott said. “[T]here was definitely a strong sense of anticipation and trepidation.”
On May 7, the team set off along the ridge anyway. “We had noted the potential for time-consuming difficulties along this ridge, and beyond Point 6,706 we found ourselves tackling a series of narrow corniced mushrooms and towers,” Knott wrote. “It took us nearly three hours to negotiate a few hundred metres of ridge.” Despite these difficulties, the team reached the granite apex.
“The transition from alpine choss and snow to pitched climbing on perfect granite was quite exquisite,” Knott wrote. “I remember feeling that we were climbing an instant classic (classic to me, anyway, even if it doesn’t get repeated). Those top pitches certainly felt like real climbing–some big moves between holds good enough for rigid boots. But the gear was just perfect. I think we used every piece of our modest rack.”
After reaching the summit, the pair began their descent in warm afternoon temperatures. Where before the ridge had been covered by snow, rock was now exposed. “Collapsing cornices, sodden snow and disintegrating rock concentrated our minds,” Knott wrote. “At one point, a huge piece came off right next to me, maybe two meters wide and 10 meters long. My ice tool ended up dangling down the face.” The duo finally reached their tent at 6:30 p.m. amidst light snow and menacing clouds that threatened to dramatically increase the risk of the lower slopes, which are avalanche prone. “Fortunately, high pressure held off the worst of the weather, and early the next morning we post-holed down from the col, finding our footprints obliterated by wet slides.”
Their adventure still not over, Knott and Parsons realized that their stashed snowshoes lay within a “huge cone of ice blocks extending out over the glacier,” a reality which made the 20-kilometer trip to base camp “distinctly unappealing.” Luckily, the weather cleared enough for their pilot, Paul Swanstorm, to pick them up directly. “The uncertainties of our descent to the Brady only added to the vividness of the whole experience.”
Knott and Parsons’s expedition afforded a wide view of the surrounding area, which sees only a small number of expeditions. “[W]e could see just how much untapped potential exists for climbing and big walling in this knot of granite peaks,” Knott wrote. “Amazingly, the granite has been virtually untouched since Alan Givler, Dusan Jagersky, Steve Marts and James Wickwire climbed here in 1977. The west side of Peak 8290 sports a continuous 1,500-foot pillar, and other summits in the Mt. Abbe group sport similar monolithic pillars up to 2,500-feet in height. Our experience on the granite of Peak 8290 suggests there is a good chance this rock really is good–unlike most of the rock in the range. Which, to me, points to a fantastic opportunity–for the right team. ”