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Ascent of Mount Fairweather on 2018-06-22

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Eric Gilbertson -- Trip Report or GPS Track
H-Steven Song -- Trip Report or GPS Track
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, June 22, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Airplane
Peak:Mount Fairweather
    Location:Canada/United States
    Elevation:4671 m / 15325 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Useful Information

The standard route on Mount Fairweather is the West Ridge, starting from a flat area on the Grand Plateau Glacier at about 9600 feet. Glacier pilots from Haines will fly climbers into this spot—I highly recommend Drake Olson, who has been ferrying climbers and skiers for over 15 years. You can drive to Haines (a long trip from anywhere), or fly there on a scheduled small-plane airline from Juneau. There are commercial flights to Juneau from Seattle and Anchorage.

Do be aware that flying to basecamp can be the crux of the climb—many parties find themselves waiting in Haines for days before flying in due to bad weather or conditions, and some just go home before ever setting foot on the mountain. If possible, it’s smart to be flexible with your dates and only fly to Haines after consulting with Drake (or other pilot) about likely weather patterns—this could save you a rainy wasted week in a local motel.

Once on the glacier, it’s only about 5600 feet of gain over 5.5 miles to the summit. However, several obstacles make it much harder than those stats would suggest. The weather can be terrible, leaving climbers stranded in their tents for days on end as snow falls by the foot. Huge crevasses can block the route, sometimes shutting it down completely. Deep snow can make for exhausting travel, even on skis or snowshoes, and the danger from avalanche and serac falls is always present. And, finally, the altitude can be an issue when flying directly to almost 10,000 feet.

For most climbers, an intermediate camp is recommended, the best place being at the “balcony” flat area at about 12,300 feet. This spot has proved to be relatively safe from avalanches and seracs. An acclimatized climber only has only to climb 3000 feet to summit from this camp, and this is usually feasible if there is a route around the massive crevasses.

For the super-fit, it is possible to hike the entire route as a day trip. Given the short good weather windows, this can be an attractive option on a bluebird day. But make sure you are at peak fitness, have experience at altitude, and watch your time if you get bogged down in deep snow or route-finding issues. You don’t want to be caught in a storm high on the mountain far from your camp.

Our Story

After two failed attempts on Fairweather, I knew what I wanted to my third and hopefully final one: strong and experienced partners, who had flexible dates for the trip, and wanted to ski as much of the route as possible. I got in touch with Eric over our shared goal of completing the Canadian province/territory high points, and we did a few big-mountain Cascade ski trips over a couple years where we talked over Fairweather options. I was keen on a May trip, but Eric’s job didn’t finish until June 13th of this year, so I had no choice but to wait. I was concerned that by June the crevasses on the peak would be more opened up.

We couldn’t find a third person for a long time—people with the time, money, skills, interest, and flexible dates for this peak are hard to come by. Oddly, both Eric and I heard about Steven separately—I from my friend Adam, who hiked with Steven in B.C. the previous summer, and Eric from getting beta on a Jack Mountain trip. So when Eric invited him on this trip, he was already known to me as a strong and experienced partner. We now had a good team.

We got all packed and ready to go by June 13th, and I started a series of near-daily phone calls with Drake (our glacier pilot) where we mulled over the weather. We aborted our original plan to fly right away and waited as storms blasted southeast Alaska (and Steven went off to do a huge trip in the Robson area). It looked better the next week, so we pulled the trigger and bought airline tickets for Tuesday, June 19th.

Waiting Around

On Tuesday morning we met up in the Sea-Tac Airport--poor Steven had to drive south from Vancouver, since there are no flights from there to SE Alaska. We got our seven large bags checked, flew to Juneau, transferred our luggage over to the Alaskan Seaplanes counter, and after a 40-minute flight we were at the tiny Haines airport. Drake had told us there was a good chance we could fly to the mountain this evening, so we eagerly carted our luggage to his hangar. I knew Drake from my 2008 and 2014 attempts, and I introduced him to Eric and Steven. But he said it was too windy to fly this evening, and it was kind of late, so we instead had to fall back on my reservation at the Captain’s Choice motel—they seemed to be the only lodging offering free rides to and from the airport at all hours, an important factor for us.

We bought more food at the local grocery store, snacked in our room, and turned in. It was unusually hot out, and we found it hard to sleep in our stuffy, non-air conditioned room. I took the roll-away bed this first night, and we each eventually had a turn on it.

Wednesday morning we got an early text from Drake and he told us he was ready to fly us on to the mountain. It would take him two trips, so the plan was for me to fly in first, with my big tent and all the gear I would need to survive alone, in case the weather suddenly turned bad. I would then pitch the tent and build storm walls, so we could start for the summit soon after the others arrived. So we got a motel van ride to the airport, and I got changed and organized the best I could before hopping into Drake’s little Cessna skiplane. The area near Drake’s hanger was under construction, so we had to do all of our organizing out on the tarmac near the gas pumps.

Drake and I took off at about 7 AM and it was a warm, sunny, clear day. He played music over the headphones at first (“When I Die” by Blood, Sweat, and Tears, a funny choice considering the risk factor of this kind of flying!) and we chatted a bit—this was my 10th flight with him over the past 10 years. We arrived at the Fairweather base camp area after 40 minutes, and it was under a very high overcast. Drake started circling, looking for where to land, and was checking his thermometer. He freaked out when he saw it was 47 degrees at 12,000 feet—hotter than he had ever seen it. The snow below was pillowy with runnels in it, which was also new to him. All the fresh now slides were also a bad sign. He was very worried that the snow was too soft and could suck his plane into bottomless mush, trapping us.

It was also very windy at this spot, and as Drake circled again and again, buffeted by the wind, I started getting violently airsick, eventually reaching for a barf bag. He really wanted to land us on the mountain but was also very scared of repeating Brad Washburn’s 1937 Lucania expedition, where the plane got stuck in the slush. The bottom line was that he had never seen these conditions before in 20 years of flying here, it was just too hot, and the wind too strong for a touch-and-go test run. So after ten circles, muttering and cursing the whole time, he finally turned back.

I gradually recovered from my airsickness as we cruised back, and Drake and I talked about global warming and how this situation was just one tiny symptom of the problems it was causing. We landed in Haines, and I sadly observed Eric and Steven putting on their ski boots as we landed, then take them off once they saw I was still on the plane.

We left the bulk of our baggage with Drake and took daypacks back to the Captain’s Choice, paid for another night’s lodging, and rested a bit. Wanting to make the most of our day, we did a day hike of nearby Mount Ripinksy in the afternoon, and had a good pizza dinner in a sweltering restaurant—they simply did not get many 85 degree days in Haines and we felt sorry for the employees working near a brick oven all day.

Thursday was another hot day in Southeast Alaska. We got a text from Drake in the morning telling us it was still too hot to fly, but that Friday looked better. We had the free motel breakfast and then spent an hour on our phones and laptops looking at all the weather forecasts. The jargon-rich National Weather Service Juneau Forecast Discussion seemed to have the best info, but it was very difficult to really know what would happen. The weather here was just really hard to pin down.

We then moved to another motel room (our one from last night was noisy and had bad wi-fi), waited for it to be cleaned, and once in there the three of us split up for the day. Eric went to the library in town to use its computer to do some work, Steven decided to sleep and rest (he was still tired from his big climb the previous weekend), and I walked over to the Fort Seward neighborhood to rent a bicycle for the afternoon. I biked all over Haines, and even managed to hike up a lame little forested bump. I particularly enjoyed the scenic four-mile ride out to the ferry terminal—it was a hot, sunny clear day and the mountain and fjord views around Haines are truly spectacular.

For dinner we went to the Chilkat Bakery/Thai restaurant, and spent our third night in a row in a motel. We were getting quite a bit discouraged by now—we had tried our best to minimize this kind of waiting around, but here were, stuck in Haines. We had known that flying to basecamp in clouds, rain, and snow was not possible, but we had never guessed that it could be too warm and sunny to fly, too!

Friday June 22

We got a text from Drake at 5:30 AM and quickly packed up, checked out, and got our last free airport ride from the helpful staff at the Captain’s Choice motel. At the airport we met Drake at his plane and it was Eric’s turn to quickly get his stuff together, since he was going on the first flight—I was still wary of possible airsickness despite taking a whole bunch of Dramamine. It was partly cloudy, but it looked clearer to the north, so we were hopeful. At about 6:30 AM Drake and Eric took off, and Steven and I hung out with our massive gear pile, sorted and organized some more, got dressed for the mountain, and then waited.

Drake’s blue Cessna came buzzing back around 8:10 AM, so we quickly put on our ski boots and were happy to see no Eric on the plane. However, Drake jumped out and tersely informed us that he needed to make a quick repair related to the manifold pressure line (or some such thing). He directed us to look for wire fragments on the ground, near a fence. Somewhat alarmed, we did as he said and scrounged up some pieces. He took of the cowling of his engine and, with some effort, extracted a long piece of copper wire, and I guess our found pieces were not what he wanted, because he drove his truck back to his hangar to get proper tools and parts.

Steven and I could do little but wait, and after about an hour he had his plane back together with a new manifold wire. He taxied over to the nearby fuel pump, but now the old key-lock pump control was not working, and he could not get any gas. Furious and cursing, Drake called the service number on the pump but only got an answering machine, and he started hitting the pump lock control several times with forceful hand slaps. He also yelled at a passing airport employee about how they needed to get this thing fixed—this was not the first time it was balky. Finally, his banging of the device activated the pump and he could fill up his plane.

Steven and I loaded up our gear, piled in, and by about 9:30 we were finally taking off and heading for our mountain and waiting partner. Once above the broken cloud layer at about 8000 feet it was a gorgeous blue-sky day above, and the Fairweather massif ahead was mostly above the undercast. But we had one more scare—halfway there, Drake suddenly announced that he had some trouble and had to turn back, and abruptly turned his plane around. Turns out one of the cylinder head temperatures was running too high. But it was borderline, and was starting to drop a little, so after a minute or two he figured it would be OK and turned back around and continued his journey. Steven and I breathed a big sigh of relief.

(Please do not take these tales as any indictment of our pilot or his plane. This is all very standard for Alaska bush pilots, who fly very old planes they don’t make any more, and they act as their own mechanics. Drake is as competent and safe as any pilot in the crazy business of landing climbers on remote mountains.)

At 10:10 AM we arrived at the Grand Plateau Glacier and Eric’s lonely camp at 9750 feet, Drake expertly landed, and after a quick unloading he was off. Due to our delays, Eric had lots of time to pitch our big basecamp tent and build snow walls. The weather was perfect—clear, calm, and cool—so we quickly got organized for our climb. We threw most of our gear in the tent and loaded up with just some food, water, and clothing. Our survival gear was a shovel for cave building and a stove for melting snow. We roped up, put on our skis, and were off at 10:30 AM for the summit.

The Climb

After three days of travel, waiting, and setbacks, now, finally, everything had fallen into place. The heavy snow from the past weekend had turned to mush from the hot sun midweek, but now the mush had frozen into a hard surface that made for easy skiing and cramponing. The low snowfall the past winter had apparently slowed the glacial flow in our northwest valley route so that the massive crevasses all had good bridges or end-around routes. The weather was now perfect and stable. All we had to was climb it now.

Steven led at first, and I was the middle-person on the rope all day. We skied uphill gently for about 2.5 miles and 1700 vertical feet, crossing only one crevasse on a huge bridge, and a ways afterwards crossing an area of frozen snowballs from peripheral serac falls. A bit past noon, as the slope got steeper, Steven requested that we start cramponing, and Eric and I at first thought to put our skis on our packs to get more of a ski run later. But they made my pack awkward and top-heavy, so after a few minutes we decided to just cache our skis here. The snow surface was excellent for efficient cramponing anyway.

Steven led onward, past the top of the frozen snowball zone and some easily-avoided big slots, to the flat area at 12,300 feet, the “balcony” where many teams place their high camp. We kept going as the slope steepened quite a bit above, and Steven had little trouble finding a clear and relatively direct route up the headwall, barely having to weave among the crevasses. The previous weekend he had done a climb of a peak near Mt. Robson called The Helmet that had a much more difficult crevasse maze to solve, so this was child’s play to him. Only one short section could even be called a snowbridge, and it was wide and not remotely sketchy. We never placed any protection or belayed once during our entire trip.

At 3:20 PM we had climbed out of the valley to the snow humps marking the col between Fairweather and its west sub-peak, and here we took a break. The main technical issues that had stopped me on my two previous trips had been surmounted, and I was excited to tackle the last 2000 feet to the summit. I was feeling the altitude a bit, though, and holding back my younger companions, so Eric kindly took some gear from my pack to help me out. He then took over the lead from Steven and we started up towards the summit.

After a short decent and some easy low-angle climbing we came to the technical crux of our climb, a short cliff of semi-consolidated ice. It was not too hard to kick good steps, and we used our ice axe (or whippet) picks to get ourselves up. By my admittedly low standards, that counts as “ice climbing”. Above this the climb was mostly just moderate-angle cramponing up slopes that alternated between pockets of windblown power and crunchy rime ice crystals.

I was starting to run out of gas, though, and I could tell I was holding my partners back by having to rest and catch my breath. The weather was still quite nice, but there were some high clouds creeping in, so eventually we decided that Eric and Steven should go on ahead—I didn’t want my slowness to affect their summit chances, and if I followed their wands and footsteps there was very little chance of mishap on this ridge terrain. So I unroped, they took off, and I started chugging up the mountain at my own pace, feeling better now that I had no rope management to worry about.

However, I found it was a monumental effort for me to keep moving, mentally and physically. Coming from sea level this morning to climb to over 15,000 feet was probably the main issue, and I found myself very dehydrated, with not enough water to drink what I really needed, which made my mouth too dry to eat hardly anything. I was certainly thinking about turning around, but I also really, really wanted this peak badly—this was my third attempt, and the investment of time, money, and energy had brought me to a point where the route was in shape, the weather was good, and I had strong partners breaking trail ahead. So I just kept putting on foot in front of another, pausing to catch my breath whenever I needed to.

I was very thankful for the boot paths Eric had made, which allowed me to get in to a nice rhythm, and the wands which kept me on route on the rime-crystal parts of the ridge where bootprints where invisible. After cresting the first big rise after our split I saw my partners somewhat close, and on the next rise they were further away, but at least I hoped that they could see I was making progress. The last 1000 feet were a real grind, but I kept going, trying not to look at my altimeter too much. At the base of the last rime ice slope I saw a figure up above—the summit at last!—and five minutes later I staggered to the small flat area, the summit of Fairweather.

It was now 7:50 PM. Eric and Steven had gotten there at 6:25 and had very patiently waited about an hour and a half for me, for which I will be eternally grateful. It took me almost 4 hours to do the 2000 feet of gain from the col rest, and without me they would have done it in half that time.

There was very little emotion for me at this long-sought-after summit—it was now late and we had to get down soon. There were still some high clouds, but overall the weather was still nice and it would be light out for several more hours. Steven took a couple self-timed summit shots of the three of us, and I took a short rest, and I wandered around the summit area for a minute or so. There was not much to it—just a small flat icy area, maybe 10 by 20 feet, and no single identifiable point marking the apex of British Columbia and the 27th most prominent peak on earth.

We roped up again, I in the middle again, and we started down at 8:05 PM. From my experiences on other high peaks, I knew that my slowness on the uphill would disappear as soon as we headed down, and I was glad this pattern held as we rapidly plunge-stepped down the ridge. The icy slopes had softened just enough to provide good traction for our cramponed heels as we cruised on down. The only real obstacle was the “ice cliff”, which made for some tricky downclimbing, but once down that we had easy terrain to a short 100-foot gain (“heartbreak hill”) up to the col hump, where we took a half-hour rest from 9:30 to 10 PM. Eric broke out his stove and melted a little water, but Steven was getting cold and wanted to just get going, and my thirst had been so acute for so long it hardly bothered me anymore. We did not stay long.

It took less than an hour to plunge step down the headwall and past the “balcony camp” area to our skis, which we reached before 11 PM. I was pretty exhausted, and it took me longer than my partners to undo my crampons, put on my skis, and then navigate a very tricky zone of frozen snowballs (I had one big fall there, always tough with a big pack). Once up again I was on the open lower slopes, where I got my ski legs, turning the 2.5 miles to camp into a blast—it was sure nice to be moving so quickly and efficiently. Only a half-mile stretch where we had to pole across some flats marred an otherwise fun run as we swung wide to our left to avoid the one big slot in the area. Turning was easy on the icy and crusty snow, reminding me of my New England skiing days.

We cruised into our camp at 11:50 PM, with just enough light to not need headlamps. We had day-tripped Fairweather in 13 hours and 20 minutes, a time that could have easily bettered without my slowness. Our first order of business was to break out the gallon jug of water we brought, thankfully still unfrozen, and Eric got his stove roaring to make some dinner. All I could do was drink more and more water, and I was too out of it to get my MSR stove working in the cold and the dark despite several attempts. The main thing I did was call Drake on our sat-phone and leave a message, telling him he could come any time in the morning to get us.

After resting and decompressing for an hour or so on our outside snowy benches, we crawled into our tent and tried to sleep. This was made difficult by the sky starting to lighten up right after we turned in, of course, but we did our best.

Return Home

We were up for a bit at about 4 AM, and then again at 6 AM, when we finally got up for good and out into the bright sunshine of another stellar day—hardly a cloud in sight under a deep blue sky. I called Drake on the sat-phone, getting his machine, and 10 minutes later called him again, and got him in person. He said he would be out to get us in a couple of hours, which was fine with us, since we needed time to take down our camp and get packed. We were not sure how many people and bags he would want to take, but we decided that at least Eric should go, since he had been here the longest. We got pretty well organized, and I was able to successfully get my stove working and melted some more drinking water.

I heard the far-off drone of a propeller plane and roused Eric from a nap he was taking inside the tent, and soon the familiar Cessna 180 was pulling alongside our tent. Drake wanted two people and their gear, so Steven quickly got his pack together and joined Eric on the plane, which soon left me utterly alone on the icecap, the nearest person on land to me maybe 50 miles away. I took down my tent, with removal of the snow-sack stakes buried deeply in ice the main difficulty, and got my gear organized the best I could. Then I had time to sit quietly among the massive solitude of the Grand Plateau Glacier. This had been my third expedition to this beautiful place, and I felt a bit sad that my success on this trip meant I was not likely to return. It’s a place that will always be a part of me.

Drake was back right when expected. He tried to do his U-turn around the top of the camp area, but the icy surface made it difficult, so he gave me a rope and carabiner, asked me to clip it to a hole in his wing, and then pull the rope out as he tried to turn, me acting as a pivot. I didn’t 100% understand, but I pulled as hard as I could while jogging alongside the plane, and it eventually turned downslope. We loaded up the skis, fuel cans, and 2 remaining packs/bags, and were soon off. Drake must have sensed my mood of farewell—he made an extra turn while climbing out, and, unprompted, told me that he felt I needed one last look at Fairweather and the Grand Plateau.

The flight back was uneventful, and his plane was running great—the cylinder head temperature issue yesterday was related to his hurried repair of the manifold wire and now totally resolved. There was again an undercast that prevented views of Glacier Bay, but enough holes for him to drop down low once near Haines. We landed at about 11 AM or so, I think.

We got our gear out and started organizing, but needed the bags we had left with Drake, which had our city clothes, wallets, and other stuff. And he was now chatting up a storm with some geologists who wanted to hire his services for some aerial surveys. I finally told him our issue and he ran to his truck and returned with our bags, and we centralized everything outside the “terminal building” at Haines, which is just a one-room hut with a single desk for the Alaska Floatplanes clerk. We hoped to get on the 1:30 PM flight, but they guy said our luggage would probably not fit on the small plane they used on that run, so instead we had to get seats on the 3:30 flight. Eric then used his phone and got us on the 7:00 PM flight from Juneau to Seattle.

After about a half-hour we got changed and got all our stuff jammed into our seven big bags. It turned out that we hardly ate any of our 10-day food supply, so we had just as much stuff to take home as we brought—when we took our bags into the terminal to get weighed they were actually several pounds more than on the way in! After dropping our bags we planned to get a shuttle into Haines and get a meal, but the agent said that maybe they could get all our stuff on the 1:30 flight, since there was no one else on it. They carted our bags out and sure enough, they fit, so we hopped in the plane (not too much bigger than Drake’s) for the 40-minute flight to Juneau.

Now things were really falling into place. In Juneau Eric ran over to the Alaska Airlines desk and got our tickets changed to the 3:30 PM flight, boarding shortly. We checked our bags, breezed through security, I quickly called my wife, and we were soon Seattle bound (I was in a middle seat but was happy that I would not be getting home after midnight). In Seattle all our bags arrived, and we carted/rolled them all to the long term parking and proceeded to pull off perhaps the most amazing feat of the entire trip—getting three people, a 6-foot ski bag, and 6 large packs/duffels inside a Toyota Corolla. Eric had a big bag on his lap and I was curled up into a ball in the back seat, but it worked.

Steven then very nicely dropped both Eric and I off at our separate houses before his long drive to Vancouver. I was home by 8 PM—exactly 24 hours after being on the summit of Fairweather. All in all, a very efficient trip.

I can’t express enough the gratitude I have for my strong and competent partners in this crazy and successful adventure. We climbed our normally-elusive summit on trip where we were away from home for only 4 nights, and three of those were in a motel! We were analyzing forecasts for hours, both from home and while stuck in Haines, but at no point did they say that Friday and Saturday would be perfect days for our purposes, as they turned out—we just got lucky there, I think. Our actual time away from Haines was only about 24 hours, and we proved that if you have the right weather, the right mountain conditions, and the necessary fitness level, Fairweather can be done quickly. But it does take planning, persistence, and a great deal of luck to hit this combination as we did. I do wish all others attempting this great peak similar success.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1775 m / 5825 ft
    Elevation Loss:1775 m / 5825 ft
    Distance:17.3 km / 10.7 mi
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb, Ice Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Skis, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cold, Breezy, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:1760 m / 5775 ft
    Extra Loss:15 m / 50 ft
    Distance:8.9 km / 5.5 mi
    Route:NW Valley-W Ridge
    Trailhead:Grand Plateau Glacier  2926 m / 9600 ft
    Time Up:9 Hours 20 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:1760 m / 5775 ft
    Extra Gain:15 m / 50 ft
    Distance:8.4 km / 5.2 mi
    Route:NW Valley-W Ridge
    Trailhead:Grand Plateau Glacier  2926 m / 9600 ft
    Time Down:3 Hours 45 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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