Jefferies Glacier Expedition 1992

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In 1992 I was anxious to explore Alaska beyond Denali. After researching options I signed up for an American Alpine Institute expedition to climb peaks surrounding the Jefferies Glacier in Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. This was the third year the AAI organized trips to the Jefferies to climb unclimbed peaks. While the trip’s biggest lure was the opportunity to make first ascents and see a large swath of southeastern Alaska, the size and remoteness of this newly designated National Park was the deciding factor in making the choice.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest U.S. national park, six times larger than Yellowstone National Park. It is a land with thousands of peaks, most unclimbed, and massive glaciers which parent incredible braided rivers and tidewater glaciers. The park is the home of four mountain ranges and includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Beyond the major peaks like Blackburn, Bona, Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell are wave after wave of peak festooned ridges. The volcanic Wrangells are found in the northern interior. The Chugach Mountains are on the southern coast. The Saint Elias Mountains rise abruptly from the Gulf of Alaska to the east of the Wrangells while the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains-forms part of the preserve’s northern boundary. The Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness covers 66 percent of the park’s terrain. It is by far the largest designated wilderness in the United States.

Thanks to the nearby ocean waters precipitation totals are impressive. As a result, the park’s mountain ranges see massive snowfall totals during the year and the park contain 60 percent of Alaska’s glacial ice in Alaska. Our destination on the Jefferies Glacier was just one of the massive ice glaciers found in the park. I cannot adequately put into words the size of these glaciers and as big as the Jefferies is, the Bagley Icefield, which is just south of the Jefferies looks on the map to be 20 times larger. One source states that the park’s glaciers cover more than 1,700 square miles. As with glaciers worldwide, the Wrangell-St, Elias glaciers are in retreat. However, in 1992 there was no evidence of global warming.

After landing in Anchorage we met the other members of the team and our two guides. Soon we all piled into a 12-passenger van and left immediately for McCarthy, Alaska. The four-hour ride was thrilling, not only because of the spectacular scenery but also because the driver thought the van was a sports car. The last 59 miles followed the McCarthy Road, a narrow, gravel road which begins in Chitina, Alaska and follows a former railroad route. The road actually ends 1/2 mile before McCarthy where it buts up against the Kennecott River. After many close calls, we arrived at the end of the road. We had to cross the Kennecott River and then a smaller stream using manually propelled cart and cable system suspended high over the river. (I learned that there is now a footbridge over the river.)

Crossing the Kennecott River.

McCarthy was founded as an alternative to the Kennecott company towns and it prospered while mining activities continued. In 1992 the town was in the later stages of a renaissance but still very much a quirky place: think of the town in the TV show Northern Exposure. Our hosts at this point were the Saint Elias Mountain Guides, probably the biggest employer in the village. Our group set up camp on the edge of town along the river.

The Kennecott Mines ruins.

The next day we hiked up the Root Glacier to an ice wall, where we had a short ice climbing school which allowed the guides to determine the skills of the different climbers. In the afternoon we spent our time visiting the Kennecott mining ruins. Kennecott is an abandoned mining camp five miles north of McCarthy and just east of the Kennecott Glacier. It was the center of activity for several copper mines. The town and the mines are a National Historic Landmark and a monument to poor reclamation practices. In fact, there has been no reclamation of the mining debris.

The third day we all loaded into a de Havilland Beaver and flew to the Ultima Thule resort on the Chitina River. Ultima Thule is a very high-end backwoods resort. Upon arrival we were told that Stephen Segal had reserved all of the facilities and instructed to avoid Segal and his family. We were shuttled to the far end of the runway where we set up camp. Curiosity got the better of us and we walked back toward the resort where we met Joe Runyan, an Iditarod champion. He was there with his sled dogs because Segal had hired him to take him dog sledding on a nearby glacier. This involved hauling the sleds and dogs via air to high country.

McCarthy from the air.

Flying to Ultima Thule.

The Chitina  River.

Part of the flight was along an impressive cliff with spectacular water falls tumbling down the cliffs.

On the ground at Ultima Thule. The de Havilland Beaver is a workhorse in Alaska. The planes were built after World War II and have flown ever since. This one had been rebuilt twice.

Finally, on May 20th our group loaded into two Cessna and we flew to the Jefferies Glacier and set up camp. Based on observation made as we flew in the guides decided to focus on the peaks on the north side of the glacier. The flight in was even more spectacular than the flight from McCarthy to Ultima Thule. We landed on the Jefferies at roughly 5,600 feet. (I have to admit, I have had a hard time pinning down our exact location and I am not absolutely sure I have correctly identified the two peaks we climbed. The guides had provisional USGS Quads which I studied but when I tried to add my ascents on Lists of John, I was overwhelmed by the number of peaks on the north side of the Jefferies. I finally located two peaks of the right elevation situated as I remembered.)

Visiting with Joe Runyan and his sled team.

 

We flew into the Jefferies in newer planes equipped with skis. The second plane is in the center of this photo.

Landing on the Jefferies Glacier.

Our location was a land of almost absolute whiteness. A bit of exposed rock was present on the surrounding peaks but snow and ice dominated the terrain. The glacier was covered with fresh snow and other than nearby ice falls dropping off the peaks, there were no crevasses visible. We dug into the glacier and used snow walls to build a storm secure camp on a perfect day.

Digging in.

Our location was a land of almost absolute whiteness. A bit of exposed rock was present on the surrounding peaks but snow and ice dominated the terrain. The glacier was covered with fresh snow and other than nearby ice falls dropping off the peaks, there were no crevasses visible. We dug into the glacier and used snow walls to build a storm secure camp on a perfect day.

Raising the walls.

Home, Snow Home.

The next day, May 21st, we set out early to climb a peak. Evening temperatures hovered around freezing causing the snow to harden a bit. We had two rope teams of four, three clients and a guide. Our first goal was Peak 7920. We made a long trip up the glacier and then turned north and started to gain elevation slowly at first. Our proposed route ran to a saddle east of the peak and avoided an ice fall that dropped down off the peak’s flanks. The last part of the route to the saddle was around 30 degrees. Our route did not cross any open crevasses. Once on the saddle it was an easy ridge walk to the pointy summit.

Roping up for our first climb.

The route the guides chose worked up the snow ridge from bottom left to mid-right and then turned toward the ridge in the background.

Travelling from camp to the base of the peak.

Gaining some elevation.

We had good snow conditions and never used our snowshoes.

Rest break.

On top of the ridge we had a great view of Saint Elias to the east.

The first ascent of Peak 7920 is completed.

We returned to camp by Noon. The temperature was now tropical in nature and keeping cool was the number one priority. As the day wore on, clouds came in and by early evening it was snowing and blowing. While not a fierce storm, it continued into the next day leaving us tent bound on May 22. The low clouds and moderate wind kept us in our tents most of the day.

Bring a good book.

Back in camp the afternoon was scorching hot.

 

Climbing in Alaska requires the ability to hang in a tent to wait out bad weather. Not everyone can handle those long days stuck in a tent.

This was our view the next day.

On May 23rd the weather improved quickly. Once again we got an early start and started for our next peak, Peak 8073. This climb was a nearly a duplicate of the first climb with an approach over the Jefferies and then an ascent to a saddle east of the peak. The ridge to this summit was a bit more pronounced than Peak 7920 but not technically challenging. Once again we had no encounters with crevasses.

Peak 8073.

Nearing the crest of 8073.

The summit.

The glacier is a giant solar oven on sunny days. However, there are not many sunny days.

In my experience, the weather is always the 800lb gorilla lurking during Alaskan climbing. The gorilla struck hard on the 24th and 25th leaving us tent bound by a stronger storm. The storms on the Jefferies were not as intense as those I have experienced on Denali. The storms were warmer but they dropped a lot of snow.

On the 26th, we started out to climb a peak just northwest of our camp by turned back because of deep snows, high avalanche potential and deteriorating weather.

The bad weather continued throughout the 26th which was our last day on the glacier. We thought for a while the planes would not arrive to pick us up on the 27th but the weather cleared on schedule. The planes arrived and we flew out as scheduled.

In sum, we had four good days and four bad days on the Jefferies. Unfortunately, two of the good days were taken up by flying in and flying out. The peaks along the Jefferies are nothing special from a technical climbing standpoint but from a wilderness perspective they are extraordinary. The weather will determine how much time you can spend climbing on these big ice fields. We were probably lucky to have four good days. Keep in my that spending days in a tent are a large part of my Alaskan trips from Denali to the Brooks Range. So, be prepared with plenty to read and have music available.



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