Big New Routes Near Glacier Bay, Alaska

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Mt. Bertha from the Johns Hopkins Glacier. The New Zealand team climbed the four-mile-long northwest ridge (facing the camera, dividing light and shade) over four days in April. Photo by Paul Knott.

Mt. Bertha from the Johns Hopkins Glacier. The New Zealand team climbed the four-mile-long northwest ridge (facing the camera, dividing light and shade) over four days in April. Photo by Paul Knott.

Sunrise on summit day on Mt. Bertha (10,200'), looking toward Mt. Fairweather. Photo by Paul Knott

Sunrise on summit day on Mt. Bertha (10,200

In April and May, Paul Knott and Guy McKinnon from New Zealand visited the Johns Hopkins Glacier in southeast Alaska, and they came away with two major new routes, including the first ascent of an 8,599-foot summit. Knott, a Brit living in New Zealand, provided the following account of this remarkable short trip:

The Johns Hopkins is one of the major glaciers of the west arm of Glacier Bay, and it features in numerous photos taken from tour boats in the Johns Hopkins Inlet. Surrounding it are major summits of the Fairweather Range, from Mt. Quincy Adams in the north to Mt. Crillon in the south. Thanks to the local knowledge and enthusiasm of our ski-plane pilot, Paul Swanstrom, in April 2009 Guy McKinnon and I were able to climb the first known major routes above this glacier. The price for this was an inconvenient 2,000-foot descent from the landing site on the west shoulder of Mt. Abbe to the 2,000-foot contour on the south arm of the glacier.

Our aerial reconnaissance showed problems with icefalls and seracs on the approach and descent from our original objective, the long-coveted north ridge of Mt. Crillon (12,726 feet). Instead, we took advantage of the stable weather forecast to tackle the unclimbed northwest ridge of Mt. Bertha (10,200 feet). Bradford Washburn’s party was the first to climb Mt. Bertha, in 1940, and the mountain had since received only three ascents, all from the Brady Glacier to the east. Four miles in length and rising 7,100 feet from the glacier, the undulating northwest ridge turned into a trial of stamina as we successively encountered unconsolidated winter powder, breakable melt-freeze crust, and compressible wind deposits. Long sections of ridge also featured typically exposed Alaskan cornices. We reached the summit on our fourth climbing day, April 26, enjoying panoramic views from the expansive Brady icecap to the mixed alpine faces of the Mt. Fairweather group, the alluring rock spires of Mt. Abbe, and the distant giants of the St. Elias Range.

Guy McKinnon on the summit of Peak 8,599' at sunrise, with Mt. Bertha in the background. Photo by Paul Knott.

Guy McKinnon on the summit of Peak 8,599

The north and east faces of Peak 8,599' (“Fifty Years of Alaskan Statehood”). Knott and McKinnon made the first ascent of this beautiful peak by the east spur and upper south face, out of view to the left. Photo by Paul Knott.

The north and east faces of Peak 8,599

After two days refueling our bodies at base camp, we felt compelled in continued good weather to tackle the striking, unclimbed 8,599-foot peak that lies north of Crillon and east of Mt. Orville. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we propose the unofficial name Fifty Years of Alaskan Statehood for this peak, following an old Russian naming tradition. Taking the only amenable line we could see, we waded up isothermic snow on the east rib. We stopped early at our second camp, at 7,560 feet in the bowl below the upper south face, and spent the day watching avalanches let loose on the face. Early on May 2, we crossed the bergschrund and continued up the south face via a couloir and snowed-up rock rib to reach the summit in predawn light. Still before midmorning, we left a three-foot trench as we descended the lower snow rib on wet slopes that were close to sliding. Early next day, our southwest-facing re-ascent to base camp started up a collapsing snow tongue over an increasingly exposed and water-covered rock band.

With the pressure falling rapidly, we flew out on May 5 before bad weather set in. The next day, Juneau reverted from record high temperatures to cold, wet, and windy.

This expedition was supported by the Mt. Everest Foundation.

Dates of Ascents: April-May 2009

Source: Paul Knott

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