Hard New Route in Alaska's Hayes Range

Johnson leads the crux M7 pitch on the Alchemy Ridge. Photo by Matt Klick.

The lower north ridge of Mt. Balchen, as seen from Mt. Geist. Samuel Johnson and Matt Klick approached the base of the ridge from the opposite side, but then climbed mostly on this side of the ridge. Photo by Jeff Apple Benowitz.

Samuel Johnson and Matt Klick made the first ascent of the northern ridge on 11,140-foot Mt. Balchen in Alaska’s Hayes Range in a lightweight two-day climb. The pair climbed 14 long pitches to complete the Alchemy Ridge (V AI4 M7), the most technical route to date on rarely climbed Balchen.

After flying to the foot of Mt. Hayes’ northwest ridge, the two men walked seven miles up the Hayes Glacier to a base camp at about 6,500 feet below Balchen. They climbed the ridge during the only two days of semi-decent weather in their two-week trip, and endured high winds throughout the climb. “The fact is that we walked into a sucker hole with eyes open wide because we figured it would probably be our only chance to have any clear weather en route,” Johnson said. “We got [only] five hours of clear, warm weather.”

The most technical climbing was during the first half of the ridge, with an AI4 mixed pitch at the beginning and a crux 40-meter vertical pitch of well-protected M7 dry tooling. Many of the pitches involved traversing across 70° to 80° snow and rime, with some sections straddling the knife-edge ridge.

Klick headed into the lenticular cloud atop Mt. Balchen on summit day. Photo by Samuel Johnson.

Johnson at a brew stop just below the crux pitch, trying to keep the Jetboil burning in high winds. Photo by Matt Klick.

The two bivied after the last hard rock pitch, chopping a small ledge into a 70-degree slope and then enduring a cold night with no sleeping bags, during which they struggled in high winds to keep their stove lit to melt snow for drinking water. “The worst punishment was on the upper ridge and summit, where we were engulfed in a lenticular cloud with less that 50 feet of visibility at all times and lots of blowing snow,” Johnson said. “It was hard to stay warm.” After summiting, the two descended to the top of the ridge and then made six rappels down the east face to reach snow and ice, which they downclimbed for about 3,000 feet to reach the glacier.

Mt. Balchen was first climbed in 1974 by Dusan Jagersky and William Sumner, via a traverse along the east ridge from neighboring Peak 9,800'. In 2003 and 2005, Jeff apple Benowitz visited the peak twice with various partners and made the first ascents of the west buttress and south ridge.

See more photos from the climb at Alchemyridge2009.blogspot.com.

Date of Ascent: June 2009

Sources: Samuel Johnson, Alchemyridge2009.blogspot.com, American Alpine Journal

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