4/26/14 – Canadians Kris Irwin, Darren Vonk, and Ian Welsted had a highly successful, though at times frightening, trip to Alaska’s Revelation Mountains, near the southwestern tip of the Alaska Range. After years of inactivity, these relatively low but highly technical peaks have seen many first ascents in the past five years. The Canadians did the first ascent of one peak and climbed new routes on two others. Below is Welsted’s first-person account:
We flew into the Revelations range on April 2 after seeing Clint Helander’s incredible article in last year’s American Alpine Journal, unselfishly revealing the secrets of the range. We didn’t have to look far upon arriving.
We thought we were going cragging our second day there, but unwittingly climbed the Angel by a new route we named the John Lauchlan Memorial Award Route (1,200m, AI4+, M5). Two ice streaks had formed on the east face of the butress behind our base camp. Most of the route was moderate climbing with a short vertical crux. Arriving at what we had figured was the top of the route, we realized we were on a long ridge jutting out from what seemed like one of the bigger peaks in the area. Luckily we overcame our initial laziness to continue along the ridge and arrive at the 9,200-foot summit. Our choice of descent left something to be desired as we rapped through a hanging glacier we would later witness collapsing spectacularily. A few days later we figured out we had summitted a peak 2,000 feet higher than we had originally guessed, which took some of the pressure off the rest of the trip.
Hit by positively sub-arctic temperatures, we had a late start on our next objective, a fine-looking line up one of the 4 Horsemen. When you start from camp at 10 a.m., you can’t be surprised when you decide you have run out of time, but truthfully it was our first experience with steep snow climbing which stopped us. Up to that point, we had climbed six technical pitches where we found amazing, thin, sticky coastal ice. We could not believe the tiny blobs of ice that would stick to rock here in the far western reaches of the Alaska Range, unlike in our drier home range of the Canadian Rockies. We have left this beautiful line for those who visit later.
On the flight in we had spotted a spectacular thin ice line on unclimbed Dyke Peak (7,800 feet). Our climb on Dyke went without a hitch as we had the Rockies Ice Specialist Kris Irwin to lead two thin WI5 pitches to open the passage to the moderate upper mountain. A dreamy line of single-swing névé led us to a huge gully which followed the dyke the peak is named for, passed an impressive chockstone, and on to summit. It was the first ascent of the mountain as far as we know, via Powered by Beans (1,000m, AI5 M5).
With two routes down, we figured we were ready for or main objective, the unclimbed central gully on Pyramid Peak, a 1,500-meter face. A team of four French climbers had been in two weeks prior to our arrival and had done the first ascent of the peak via a highly technical mixed line, but the obvious central plum line remained unclimbed. [The French climbers—Lise Billon, Pedro Angel Galan Diaz, Jeremy Stagnetto, and Jerôme Sullivan—did the first ascent of Pyramid via the Odyssey (1,100m, 6b A1 M7).]
On our first attempt we climbed 10 pitches. The most difficult were vertical snow steps , while the thin ice climbing was again very enjoyable. We hadn’t truly expected to make it in a day, and when it began snowing ever so lightly the gully began spindrifting heavily, and we were happy to bail from our go-look-see foray. How we didn’t register the risk of being in such a gully even with these spindrifts, I’m not sure.
Looking to tack on a “casual” day, as we were all a bit tired by this point, we headed to the east face of Hydra Peak. Here we climbed a 2,200-foot route to the 7,800-foot summit, consisting of only five pitches of technical climbing. Mind-blowing thin-ice climbing was interspersed with a drytooling roof or two, topped off by a spectacular ridge walk where we could look out over to the flats on the western side of the range. We’d been hoping to see folks frolicking on the distant Pacific coast, but had to settle for the Casual Route (600 meters, AI4 M6).
Our joke had been that all routes for the rest of our trip would have to meet the casual criteria of our last route: less than an hour uphill ski approach from basecamp, so we could schuss home at the end of the day, a walking snow descent down a gully which in the Rockies would be terrifying, and starting no earlier than 10 a.m.
We should have stuck to our casual rules. After our second attempt on Pyramid, a half hour after skiing away from the cone at the bottom of the route, we saw a full-height avalanche triggered by a cornice collapse which obliterated the route. Anyone in the gully would have been not been around for long. Perhaps it was late in the season to be in there, as daytime temperatures were becoming quite pleasant. It could have been that we were focusing on a fixed idea of a route to be done, without adequately assessing its hazards; we had flown in with the idea of the route planted in our minds without even having seen it.
As it is we competed three new routes, made the first ascent of Dyke Peak, climbed about 65 technical pitches in three weeks, and visited a range which is sure to draw more interest from climbers and skiers in the future.
Dates of ascents: April 2014
Sources: Ian Welsted, American Alpine Journal