Alaska Mountaineering Trip: July 2006

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Alaska Mountaineering Trip: July 2006

Catlin Gabel team approaches Spearmint Peak


Alaska Climbing Expedition: June 30 – July 9, 2006

Alaska Airlines provided our ticket to adventure in the north country. We first spent two days in Seattle as a way to bond the group – during which we sailed on Lake Union, played Frisbee and swam. Sunday the 2nd of July was a very long day. We got up at 3am to drive to Seatac airport to (barely) catch our flight to Anchorage. Our wonderful shuttle driver, Bob, met us at the airport and took us to a large supermarket in Palmer, where he patiently waited while we shopped for a week’s worth of food. After the supplies were loaded into the shuttle we drove to Chickaloon to leave most of the food and some of the gear with the pilot who was going to conduct the airdrop for us. We were new to this whole idea of an ‘airdrop’, but it seemed to be a common thing in Alaska, so we thought we’d give it a try. We loaded back into the shuttle and drove up toward Hatcher Pass and the Goldmint trailhead. Here we repacked our large backpacks, put on our boots, and headed off on the endless trail to the Mint Hut, just below the Mint Glacier.

The hike was long, but beautiful. We followed the valley of the Little Susitna River to its very head. The last mile of the trail is referred to as “heartbreak hill” because it climbs the headwall up to the meadows where the Mint Hut stands. We got to the hut about 9:30 pm, just a few minutes after the airplane made its drop. “Air Strike” would have been the best term to describe the event, as every bag we had packed burst open on impact, and food exploded across the heretofore serene meadow. We spent hours gathering up elbow noodles, curry powder, pickets (some bent) and beef log from among the heather and boulders. It was late when we went to bed.

On Monday we set off on our first climb. There was no hurry getting started, as the light stayed with us for all 24 hours. The snow on the Mint Glacier was a nightmare, and seemed to stay that way regardless of when we traversed it. We laughed at the idea of using crampons in Alaska, at least at this altitude. Usually the soft snow overtopped our gators. Fortunately for us we never saw a crevasse on any glacier during the week we were there. On this first day of climbing we went up a short subpeak above the Mint Glacier. The climb was a warm-up, and the three pitches of easy rockwork and the long rappels helped get the students in the right frame of mind.

The next day we set off for the very long approach to Peppermint Peak, which forms a striking triangle against the sky to the south of camp. Williams was sick, so he and Mary stayed behind. The remainder of the group trudged up the moraine and down the adjacent moraine and across the drainage stream coming from the Mint Glacier. We then climb long snowfields leading to the aesthetic glacier below Peppermint. We set up a staging area on the right-hand col while Conrad did some exploratory climbing. He found a lodgment in the rock face about 230 feet up and we sent Riley after him with another rope. Together they contrived to get the next pitch set with a fixed line, leaving them poised just 60 feet below the summit. Conrad led the beautiful wide crack in the granite up to the summit. Each member of the team followed and soon we found that all of us had tagged the top and it was time to retreat. Two rappels put us back at the col, and we started the long snow wallow back to camp. The fog came in as we descended and we were careful to keep a close eye on our route.

Despite the meek protests of William and Mary we made the next day a rest day, and we ate food (carefully rationed to make up for what was lost in the air strike). We played bridge and an unsuccessful game of trivial pursuit.

On Thursday we set off early for our major objective: Spearmint Peak. The mountain dominates the view from the lower valley and is prominent from the Mint Glacier. Riley led us up the glacier and up a 900-foot couloir that dropped us onto a beautiful and hidden glacier on the east flanks of Spearmint. Initially we were daunted, even shocked, by the visage of the peak from this angle. Over a period of maybe half an hour with the glass, we were able to convince ourselves we could get up the snow face and onto the rock, and up the rocky ridge to the top. Conrad led up the steep snow and then cut left through some granite rocks and onto the actual ridge. The climbing on the ridge was pretty solid. Though it took many hours, we managed to get the whole gang on top. Two rappels brought us back to the hidden glacier. The descent of the couloir took a good chunk of time, as we set up an intricate belay system to ensure everyone’s safety. Our hike back down the Mint Glacier and to the hut was quick, and we arrived (inevitably) back home in daylight.

A fog descended, or more accurately, ascended, onto camp the next day, so we hung out and organized gear and cleaned camp. On Saturday we climbed up the boulders and scree to Backdoor Pass behind the hut. From here we dropped onto the Pennyroyal Glacier and crossed it quickly to have a look at the Bomber Glacier. Getting down to the Bomber Glacier seemed too difficult, so we headed west and made an ascent of Managemint Peak. It was a fun climb, without much technical difficulty. We did rope the final fourth-class climb to the top. The summit register showed only a few ascents in the last couple of years. We made a leisurely return in the fog to the top of Backdoor Pass, and down to our hut.

Sunday was to be another long day. We cleaned camp and packed up our belongings. The hike down was a bit sketchy near the top so we put in a fixed line. Beyond that it was straightforward endless backpacking with very heavy packs. Bob was there waiting for us at the parking lot. The sun was out so we did some gear sorting before heading into Palmer for a huge meal. The rest of the day was spent at the Anchorage airport enjoying the wonders it has to offer. Our flight didn’t leave until 2am the next morning, putting us into Portland at 5:30am – ready for a new week.

Photos by Riley Peck and Peter Green

The ascent of Peppermint Peak was made along the right skyline

On the Penny Royal Glacier
Just below the summit of Managemint Peak

Ascending the Penny Royal Glacier from Backdoor Pass

Illigitimint Peak

Peter and Mary on the summit of Spearmint Peak