Big New Route in Alaska's Mendenhall Towers

Ryan Johnson leads beautiful steep ground on The Great White Conqueror. Photo by Sam Magro.

Sam Magro climbing on the first ascent of The Great White Conqueror on the north face of the West Tower in the Mendenhall Towers, Alaska. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

Ryan Johnson and Sam Magro, recipients of a 2008 Mugs Stump Award, have made the first ascent of the north face of the West Tower of the Mendenhall Towers (near Juneau, Alaska), via a beautiful 2,500-foot mixed route. Below is Johnson’s account of the climb: 

We flew in on the evening of [March] 14th under blue skies. We set up a nice little camp under the north face, and spent the next day searching the face for lines. At the time, our eventual line of ascent looked kind of spooky and we didn't really consider it a possibility. That evening the first storm rolled in and pounded the living shit out of us. Sorry for swearing, but it is the only way to describe what happened. We got rocked by gale-force winds that tore our kitchen apart and had us out of the tent every two to four hours to shovel out. This storm lasted four days and dumped a good 8 to 10 feet of snow.

Sam Magro finds a path through steep névé on the lower north face. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

After a short, maybe 12-hour break, the next storm rolled in and finished the job. The wind and snowfall became so intense that shoveling was no longer a one-man job, and it required both of us to tag-team the task to keep from being consumed. The snow level had also risen to a point where it became difficult to get it out of the pit. Imagine two men bailing out a dinghy with a hole in it—that was us. So we dug a snow cave and abandoned terrestrial life. This was what you might call a low point in the trip.

Twelve days in, the weather broke, but we were soaked and spent the first day drying out. We wanted to let some of the snow settle and try to find some way up the West Tower. On our first attempt, what we hoped would be ice or at least solid was sugary crap over a incipient moss-covered knifeblade seam. After getting trounced the first day, we went right back to the same line the next day expecting different results. We really aren't all that smart.

We got shut down again, and at 11 a.m. on the 27th we decided that, rather than going back to camp and reevaluating the trip, we'd go explore some other options. Sam took the first pitch over the schrund and didn't make it 60 feet before he was calling for the packs. The lower part of the mountain was mostly névé, some actually 90-plus degrees—really strange, but wonderful climbing. Around dusk we topped a little snowfield and found an nice little alcove. We had brought a bivy kit, so we figured why not. No sooner had we dug in then the spindrift began. The face cleaned itself for two hours straight. Had we continued it would have been miserable. We had a red sunset, starry night, and awoke to the northern lights over the Juneau Icefield.

Ryan Johnson (left) and Sam Magro on the summit of the West Tower of the Mendenhall Towers. The two climbed the 14-pitch route in a day and a half and descended via the west ridge. Photo by Sam Magro.

It was nice for one more day, then it fell apart again and we decided it best to take a hint and we left. After all, it is the Coast Range and we'd had a taste of what kind of storms can roll through. We were back in town on April 1, and as I write this the weather still has not let up. 

All told, we were out for 18 days, we received 20 to 25 feet of snow, and we did the first ascent of the north face of the West Tower via The Great White Conqueror (V AI4 M5 A1). It was a great trip. 

Dates of Ascent: March 27-28, 2008 

Sources: Ryan Johnson, Sam Magro

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