Enjoy the View, But Don’t Stay Long – NW Ridge of Mt. Blackburn
Photographs by Evan Ross
Standing on the longest valley glacier in North America , we turn to study our summit objective: Mt Blackburn rises 9000 feet above. An icefall and a lone rock tower quietly guard the bottom, new snow sparkles everywhere, and a misty cloud lingers mid-mountain on an otherwise clear and calm day. We stand in awe; humbled by the size but feeling the strong allure of a truly high peak. Unannounced, an icefall avalanche erupts in the foreground; refrigerator sized blocks of glacial ice shatter and grind down a gouged blue face. The powder cloud clears and silence returns. This is our introduction to southeast Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
Forming the northern boundary, the Wrangell Mountains are big and broken, with half a dozen lofty volcanoes dominating the skyline. Large glaciers pour down from these volcanoes, and like churning rivers they dump into a sea of sub-10,000 foot peaks. Blackburn is certainly the crown jewel of the Wrangells; at 16,390 feet it’s the highest and biggest in the range, and also ranks in at number five in Alaska. With no climbing rangers, fixed lines, or people, it’s definitely a true wilderness peak. By Alaska standards it’s only a moderate climb, but it’s still a hard one to get and a prize to be won with bad weather, crevasses, altitude and route conditions being the big players in failed attempts. Some say as little as ten to twenty percent of climbers who try actually tag the summit.
Evan Ross, a ski mountaineer from Colorado, and myself, have set our basecamp on the largest glacier under the highest peak; our intention is to climb and ride the NW ridge. Although the route itself should only take several days, we’ll stay seventeen, factoring in mandatory buffer time for the notorious weather.
Our plan is to skin about a third up the mountain, set a highcamp, and go for the summit from there. We plan to go alpine style—light, fast, and in a single push.
“Whoa, that was a big one!” Ross exclaims. He’s referring to both the Armageddon-like rumbling outside and the ground, which appears to be vibrating. Outside our tent, avalanches are rushing full force and seracs come toppling down – the mountain is very much alive. Mid-storm, we’re pinned down at 9,800 feet. I stick my head outside, but through the blizzard I can’t see any avalanches, let alone the ground in front of me.
We had failed on our second attempt on the mountain, chased back to highcamp by this doozy of a storm. Sure, playing chess and listening to destructive avalanches was zen all, at first, but hours had now dragged into days, and the possibility of not summiting at all is becoming painfully clear – up or down we’re trapped. We sit inside our tent for yet another day as the storm looks to bury our dreams under feet of snow. A lucky break in the weather sends us scrambling back to basecamp.
Blackburn is in such a state of change that the standard northwest ridge route can be different every year. Literally every slope on this mountain is a glacier; pulling, pushing, creaking. Over the years reports varied from “no steeper than 40 degrees” to “good sustained ice climbing.” But nobody has been here this season, and to us it looks to have good coverage—although ice can linger just below a dusting of powder in these mountains. The age-old adage of climb what you ride certainly applies here.
With a hard swing, the pick of my ice tool securely sticks into the brilliant blue surface. At 12,700 feet, we’re on a short 60-degree pitch of ice climbing, using a rope and screws as protection against a fall. Rejuvenated from a week of weather-induced rest we’re back on the mountain, making our third summit attempt. We’ve still got a ways to go, but the technical difficulties are behind us, and now it’s just one foot in front of the other. Under sunny skies, Blackburn beckons us onward.
Standing on the summit dome the scale of Alaska kicks in: we’re just two tiny specs in this vast expanse of forever winter, completely immersed in snow, ice and sky. But the reality is it’s cold, and we’re far from our tent. The mountain seems to be telling us, “enjoy the view, but don’t stay long.”
Off the top, we scratch our way down edgeable rime ice. The ridge is broad and mellow, but tapers down to less than 100 feet wide in places; the 6,000 foot voids on each side kindly reminding us of our position. Conditions slowly change to powder and turns become relaxed and natural. Under evening light, we descend from the Alaskan sky.
“It feels great to actually be skiing,” jokes Ross. He’s right. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, but that’s just it. Bagging a huge peak in Alaska is all about getting weathered out, being isolated, and feeling small. Under the spell of a powerful peak, the weeks of time, patience and physical exertion blend into a mantra—your existence on the mountain deepens into something more than an epic line.