Ascent to Mount Fairweather-West Valley on 2014-05-16

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:James Barlow -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Edward Earl (Stayed behind)
Date:Friday, May 16, 2014
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Airplane
Point Reached:Mount Fairweather - West Valley
    Location:United States/Canada
    Elevation:11950 ft / 3642 m
    Remaining Elevation:3375 ft / 1029 m (61% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

Thursday May 15th:

Flew from Seattle to Juneau 7:55 to 9:50 AM, then Seaplanes Alaska puddle-jumper flight from Juneau to Haines from 11:45 to 12:15. Our glacier pilot Drake had another client and was taking off as we landed in Haines. So we sorted and organized gear for a while and then waited in the hot sun until 3 PM, when Drake returned. He took us to the glacier in two trips--I went first with most of our gear--it was very windy at the landing zone and I had to chase down some stuff. During the 90-minute wait I dug a tent site, pitched a tent, and tried to stay warm in the cold wind. This time was almost certainly the most isolated I had ever been from other humans in my life, perhaps over 20 miles from the anyone else (likely on a cruise ship in Glacier Bay).

Aside from the wind it was a beautiful day. After Edward and James arrived on the second flight we finished pitching camp and organizing gear. It was now a bit late, and the cold wind dimmed our enthusiasm for a carry this evening. So we cooked dinner and went to bed in a cramped tent.

Friday, May 16th:

Edward was not feeling well and decided to stay at basecamp while James and I went up the mountain. We left at about 7 AM with huge packs, likely close to 80 pounds each. James led as we skinned uphill on our skis, easily avoiding lower crevasses and then heading up the west valley on a straight line. It was a clear, picture perfect day. The snow was powdery and deep, and the effort of skiing in it, the weight on our backs, and the sudden altitude slowed us down quite a bit from our normal pace.

The best line seemed to be to the right, and after some rests we suddenly came to the lip of a yawning chasm, a crevasse up to 100 feet wide splitting almost the entire valley. The only way around was to our left, so after a long rest/nap James led across. He punched through a small crevasses right after we left--he got himself out easily, but we had to pick a lower traverse line and there were some icy sections that were somewhat harrowing to navigate on skis.

We neared the left end of the big slot, where a zone of iceballs that had fallen from huge ice cliffs above were scattered about. Here James got bogged down in a dangerous zone of iceballs and bottomless snow and had to retreat. He was pretty freaked out by the daunting nature of this terrain.

We took a long rest here and considered our options. There were only two of us, and this was James's first experience with a big Alaska mountain. The only way around this big crevasse was on questionable snowbridges or across some steep mini-bergschrunds, all in the iceball zone. Our intended "balcony camp" was visible above, but beyond that a maze of more big crevasses blocked access to the col above. Two more big slots pretty much crossed the entire valley, and to me it seemed like a 20% chance of getting through, and that only with some risky moves, especially for a two-person party.

So we decided to bail--it was agonizing, but there was no other realistic option. I led us back across our traverse route, staying roped up and with our ski's skins on, until we were near our uphill track. We took a rest and stashed our rope, took off our skins, and then carefully started skiing downhill in the powder snow. We felt that the risk of falls due to tangled rope while skiing was greater than skiing unroped, so we made "dollar sign" tracks around the center line of our upward track. When our track crossed incipient crevasses, we briefly stayed right in our upward, perpendicular to any possible crack.

After some nice skiing, marred only by our fatigue and ridiculously heavy packs, we got down to the flat part of the glacier and had to kick-and-glide most of our way to camp. Here we were both very, very tired and would stop to rest often--I fell a couple times just standing, and the effort to get my pack back on was herculean.

At camp Edward welcomed us, and we dug a new tent site so we'd have more room this evening. We hung out, gradually recovered our energy, left a message for Drake to get us tomorrow, and were sleeping before the Alaksa sun had set.

Saturday, May 17:

I called Drake on our satellite phone at 7 AM and he said he would come get us in a couple hours, and sure enough we heard his engine drone sometime before 10 AM. He landed right nearby, and was able to get all of us and our gear on for a single flight back to Haines, even if it did take him a little longer than usual to take off. It was a spectacular flight, with Drake skimming summits. We landed in Haines around noon, disappointed after all our preparation to be back so soon and unsuccessful. But I was somewhat heartened that, due to excellent weather, we had realized very quickly and efficiently that the mountain was simply not in a climbable state for us this spring.

Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2140 ft / 652 m
    Round-Trip Distance:5.8 mi / 9.3 km
    Route:West Route
    Trailhead:Grand Plateau Glacier  9810 ft / 2990 m
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Rope, Skis, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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