Ascent of Skagway High Point on 2008-06-17
|Others in Party:||Edward Earl|
|Date:||Tuesday, June 17, 2008|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
|Peak:||Skagway High Point|
| Elevation:||8239 ft / 2511 m|
Ascent Trip ReportThe skies looked clear in the morning from our motel in Haines, so today seemed like the perfect opportunity for a trip to the Skagway Borough high point, an unnamed 8239-foot peak. Our pilot Drake Olson had done some reconnaissance of this mountain for us last month and it seemed like an easy plane-assisted day trip. We called him and he was up for it, so we told him we’d get out to his hangar by mid-morning.
First we had errands to run in town, though. After a breakfast at the dependable Bamboo Room we annoyingly found out that our Captain’s Choice motel had no beds for tonight, so we reserved a room across the street at the cheaper Thunderbird Motel. Then we walked down to the Alaska Backcountry Outfitter store a couple blocks down Second Street, where I rented some alpine-touring skis to use since I had lost a snowshoe—I preferred skis anyway and on today’s short trip there was no need to be roped to my snowshoeing companions. This took a little while, and I had to settle for boots about two sizes too small, but I figured that they would be OK with just a liner sock for a few hours.
Dave had arranged a ride with the Captains Choice van—driven by the burly salt-of-the-earth pure-Alaskan guy we knew pretty well by now—to the airport, and soon we were back at Drake’s hangar, sorting though gear once again. Peak 8,239’ was a hike of about 1500 vertical feet that was likely to take only a few hours, so we took just what we needed for a day trip. Drake was planning on climbing with us, and as he loaded up his skis alongside my rentals he muttered how “I hate friggin' snowshoes and don’t know why anyone uses that crappy stuff”. Although I would not express myself quite that way, I did agree with the sentiment.
By noon or so the four of us were airborne, heading north up the bed of the Ferebee Glacier. After flying over some icefalls and awesome jagged pinnacles, Drake found Peak 8,239’ easily, a relatively easy-looking snow peak that appeared to be the highest in the area. He circled the area a couple of times, did a test landing run, and then he made a perfect landing on the flat floor of a basin just north of the peak, elevation about 6,800’.
We jumped out of the plane and got ready for our climb. I had to put my too-small ski boots on there and get my skis all set up, and Dave and Edward were roping up for their snowshoe trudge. It was a bright, sunny day with just a few clouds here and there, so we all lathered up with sunscreen, too. Drake got impatient with our preparation, and he just took off alone on his AT skis, heading for the peak. I was ready next, and Dave urged me to take off, too, while he and Edward got their rope arranged. On snowshoes, they were much more likely to punch through a crevasse that Drake and I on skis, even though it didn’t look like there were any nearby.
I followed Drake’s ski tracks across the flat basin and then up a broad snowy ridge, skinning along easily on my rented gear. Drake was far ahead, and Edward and Dave way behind, so I got to enjoy a bit of solitude—it felt funny to feel so alone in a remote Alaskan wilderness of snowy, unclimbed peaks. Drake’s tracks led me up to a notch north of the summit of Peak 8,239’, and near the notch I had almost caught up to him, but I waited a bit to make sure that Dave and Edward were coming along OK before taking off.
Past the notch Drake had made a rising traverse across the snowy northwest face of the peak, aiming for the southwest ridge. I was slightly concerned about some cornices above the face, but the risk seemed minimal. The final steep slopes to the ridge tested the holding ability of my skins to the limit—somehow Drake, a very thin, wiry guy, was getting better traction due his gear or skinning technique. Drake was waiting for me near the crest of the ridge, where a miniature bergschrund was bridged by a wide snowbridge. He wondered if I had a rope, in case he punched through, but when I told him it was with the others, visible way down below, he decided it was not worth the wait and skied across the snowbridge anyway and headed up the ridge towards the summit.
I decided to wait for my companions, more for the sake of party solidarity than rope insurance, so I took a seat in the snow just below the bergschrund and waited fifteen minutes for my snowshoeing companions to arrive. When that they did, I let them cross the snowbridge first, and then I followed—it was pretty trivial, clearly not a glacial crevasse. Once on the ridge, the snow was south-facing and very mushy, with bands of rock showing through. It was also pretty steep—I tried to follow Drake’s skin track, but once again I didn’t have the traction and was forced to switchback, which was sometimes impossible given the nearby rock fields. I had to take my skis off at one point to get over some rocks. Still, overall this was an extremely easy ascent—definitely Class 1/Grade I snow, and in May the bergschrund and summit ridge rocks are probably not even a factor.
Eventually I reached the snowy summit crest, where Drake had been waiting a while, and Dave and Edward were not far behind me. It was a great moment—we were ecstatic about summiting a fairly major Alaskan peak, especially one that for all we knew was previously unclimbed. The random clouds in the area were on the increase, but it was still a bright sunny day and the views of endless mountains in all directions were great. The actual summit snow was an overhanging cornice, so we got as close as we dared, and spent some time taking pictures, eating summit snacks, and otherwise resting. Dave even took out the satphone and tried calling office-bound friends to let them know where he was and stoke some jealousy.
Suddenly, though, Drake saw some clouds approaching the landing zone below, and he cut short our summit sojourn by announcing we had to get back to the plane pronto, or else face being trapped overnight on the mountain. It was back to fire-drill mode as we hurriedly packed up. Drake took off on his skis and was down at his plane in about five minutes, and I could have been there in ten if I had taken off and tried to keep up, but I thought it best to try to stay with Dave and Edward.
So I waited for them to get roped up, and I then skied down on a mushy snowfield away from our ascent route that avoided more rocks—but I still managed to ski over at least one partly covered rock and gouge the P-Tex on my rental ski base. After making a bunch of nice, wide turns, I had to take my skis off and make an annoying postholing hike across a rockfield/mush mixture in order to regain our upward route near the bergschrund. I got there at the same time as Dave and Edward, skied carefully across the snowbridge, and then ripped some nice turns across the face to the notch. I had a two-way radio on me, and while I waited for the snowshoers I hailed Drake, who told me to “get your friggin' asses down to the plane”. I told him we were going as fast as we could—Dave and Edward were actually jogging down across the face, and they had removed their snowshoes to gain speed.
When they reached me at the notch area, I took Dave’s big pack with both pairs of snowshoes lashed to it, and gave him my smaller one, allowing them to move faster with less weight. I then skied down to the plane as fast as I dared, the big pack a minor nuisance. For the last stretch I checked my speed a little and then schussed down to the long run-out of the flat area, and then unlocked my heels to stride over to the plane. As I approached, Drake told me the clouds were holding back, we were OK, and there was no longer a need for urgency. Better safe than sorry seems to be the motto of Alaskan bush pilots, and I can’t argue with that.
So I threw Dave’s pack in the plane, exchanged my tourniquet ski boots for my sneakers, and waited a few minutes for Dave and Edward to arrive, jogging along. They had come down in about a half-hour, an amazing time without skis. Soon we were all back in the plane, with Edward in the front passenger seat, and Drake started up, made a U-turn in the snow, and headed down the snowfield for takeoff.
To me, it seemed like we were cruising along on the snow a bit longer than usual as Drake fidgeted with his fuel mixture, and when it seemed like we had finally taken off, we almost instantly were back on the snow for a second or two before finally becoming airborne. Once in the sky Edward looked back at Dave and me, his face white as a sheet—as a pilot himself, he knew what had just happened and he had been scared.
Drake started monologuing shortly—“Man, that was interesting—very interesting—oh crap—that was a close one—let’s see what happened there”. He circled back to get a view of our landing zone, and we could see his takeoff track in the snow, including the short gap corresponding to our brief airborne stint. That gap was clearly over a depression in the snow that was the continuation of a large crevasse. Seems as if our takeoff had nasty tailwinds and he was having trouble getting the mixture right, and we were lucky that we had enough lift to get over the crevasse depression and then shortly get off the ground.
It took half the flight back to Haines for Drake to settle down and stop replaying that takeoff over and over—“you never know what will get you”, he kept saying. We flew back via Skagway and Taiya Inlet, and saw an eagle in flight nearby before the now-familiar Haines airport came into view.
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