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[TR] Good Neighbor Peak, Wrangle-Elias / Kluane

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Long TR. Warning - big words ahead!. You can skip to the end and read the three line summary if you're in a hurry. Pictures to follow when I get them back from the lab.






Good times on Good Neighbor Peak


In May 1993 I met Bill Pilling and Karl Dietrich in Yakutat, AK. I was one of a team of four who had just completed the forth ascent of Mount Augusta (14,070’) while they had put up a new route on the south summit of Mount Vancouver, Good Neighbor Peak (15,500’). Bill wasn’t the World’s biggest advertisement for the route, despite having good things to say about it. He’d smashed his leg up in a crevasse fall on the descent and had just spent several days getting back to their basecamp. His leg was about twice this size it should have been and didn’t seem to bend so well.


Now it had come full circle. Simeon and I had arrived on the Valerie Glacier the previous week recced the route and aclimatized by climbing a 1,500’ couloir on a 9800’ peak near our camp and the W face of Point 9695’. A further few days were then spent waiting for better weather. Simeon and I were now camped below the initial couloir on the S Spur at 8260’. We had four day’s food and fuel for maybe six days. Our plan to climb the route in three to four days and descend the 1967 Centennial Route (S Spur of the SE Ridge) in another day. The Mark Twight packing algorithm had been applied to the full and all extraneous gear had been left behind.


It was now May 16th 2005. That afternoon we’d skied from our basecamp and descended a 600’ couloir to gain the glacier below Good Neighbor’s SW face. The whole thing didn’t get off to an auspicious start when the bergshrund completely collapsed on Simeon leaving him hanging in free space. Thankfully I had a good belay and we extracted ourselves from the whole mess. I found a rock anchor and after blowing some of our precious rappel tape was able to join him. We had briefly pondered how we were going to get back up the couloir, and then set off up the edge of the glacier to our proposed bivvi below the foot of the S Spur.


Day 1


The following morning we awoke at 6am to find the tent clouded in. An hour later the weather had cleared somewhat and we set off up the initial couloir. The bergshrund at the base proved insurmountable but we were able to gain the couloir by climbing a gully to the left and then traversing some mixed ground. Simeon got the ball rolling and kicked steps up the already soft snow to the top of the couloir at around 9150’. The rock on the S Spur was rumored to be of dubious quality in places and came up with the goods. We simul-climbed the entire day trying to stick with the crest wherever possible, although employing slightly different tactics to deal with the looser sections. Simeon being of the leave it be school, whereas I’m firm believer in the Don “trundle” Serl ethic.


We eventually found a reasonable bivvi spot at 10,630’. At this point the ridge becomes snowy and has some flat sculpted spots large enough for a Bibler. Traversing the final icy section to get to “bivvi nirvana” provided the opportunity for more entertainment when one of my crampons detached. I swore even more than usual while pondering the possibility of an exciting, if brief, final inspection of the S face. Simeon fixed up a belay and worried about the possibility of a forced retreat, albeit a slower one. Thankfully the strap had kept it hanging from my ankle and we were able to get our shit back together and make flatter ground where we anchored ourselves and the tent before settling in for the night.


Day 2


We awoke to find it cloudy and colder with some wind. The inevitable wait for the sun on the tent ensued. Simeon and I aren’t exactly the best practitioners of the prompt alpine start and this route didn’t look like it was going to change things.


This was probably the last point on the ridge at which retreat would be possible, as you could descend a snow couloir on the west side of the ridge. We were also able to spend some time looking at the SE Ridge descent route; it looked less than promising. There appeared to be a big break in the ridge at around 11,000’ where it became a jumble of seracs. Still, it had been climbed so presumably could be descended.


Above 10,500’ the route moves to the west side of the ridge and climbs a couloir system for two thousand feet. We could see this from our tent, although getting into the base of the couloir from the ridge seemed tricky. Eventually we were forced to rappel into the couloir at about 11’000. Simeon set off up the couloir and disappeared into a narrow section about a hundred feet above me. It soon became apparent that things weren’t going quite as planned. “Bad words” started to float down to me from above. I swear like a drunken Glaswegian pretty much all the time when climbing but in Simeon’s case this is a bad sign. Above the gully had turned to a mixture of wet gravel, slush and poorly bonded wet ice. Its shale sidewalls offered little opportunity for protection. We were forced to simul-climb for several hundred additional feet until Simeon found something approximating to an anchor. I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on the anchor and continued up, finally finding a better one in the rock to the right as the couloir widened.


I think we’d both had enough of couloir climbing long before it finally ended and were a tad upset to be confronted with more rock ridge. Time was pressing and with no bivvi spot in sight we pushed on, eventually we reached a snow rib at 12,700’ but no obvious flat spots.


With a stiff wind blowing across the rib and the weather looking somewhat dubious we opted to try and pitch the Bibler on a chipped out ice ledge below the crest, which turned out to support about a third of the tent’s floor space. I’ve often wished that I could make my claustrophobic Bibler seem larger and frequently wondered what could be more foolish than using a gasoline stove inside it. After a night spent melting snow with the stove balanced on my knees and then sleeping in a fetal position in one of the two usable corners of the tent I think I have both questions nailed.


Day 3


Needless to say the following day got off to an early start. Neither of us wanting to lounge around in a half pitched tent waiting for the sun. We skipped the next snow couloir, fearing a repeat of the previous day. The rock on the ridge became more solid but with harder climbing, eventually defeating us at a steep wall that looked like about 5.9 at sea level in rock shoes. We spent some time finding an anchor and then rapped into another couloir in our seemingly endless pursuit of the summit. On this occasion things proved better. We simul-climbed it for five or six hundred feet getting good gear most of the way and only finding a very short section without snow.


I vaguely remembered the route description mentioning a knife edge ridge but as we pulled over the final rock section it still caught me a bit by surprise. Thankfully it wasn’t as corniced as it had been on the first ascent but still though provoking with big drops into the cloud on either side. We’d bought just enough screws, three, to make it all reasonably sensible and leapfrogged each other’s leads; sometimes balancing on the crest, sometimes shuffling astride it or traversing on the icier east side. Simeon finished the last rope length to the base of the serac below the summit slopes and I led another few hundred feet up the side of the serac and onto its upper slopes.


We eventually made the promised flat bivvi spot on top of the serac at 14,300’ after 7 pm. We’d gotten super cold on the traverse and the final push up the side of the serac. Even after getting in the tent Simeon took a couple of hours to warm up. The Twight packing technique had denied us real belay jackets.


Day 4


The weather was still concerning with cloud moving in and out throughout the day. Should it cloud in on our summit day navigation would be difficult. At least now we could see the rimed seracs that guarded the south side of the summit plateau. The ground below them seemed like it would be straightforward.


Of course we’d failed to factor in the altitude, which had finally caught up with us. Simeon had felt nauseous and short of breath the previous night but thankfully seemed OK during the day. I kicked steps to a large crevasse 300’ above the bivvi. Above that the slope turned to hard ice. We simul-climbed some of it but for the most part were reduced to swinging rope lengths as it was just too tiring to move any faster and falling off seemed inadvisable.


There’s something quite amazing about watching someone give it all they’ve got and then some more. Simeon ran his leads out half a dozen moves at a time before resting and going again. I expect my turns on the sharp end looked pretty much the same. Simeon put in a final lead and then ran out of gas just below the rime formations. A steep runnel led to the top of the seracs and hopefully flat ground. I did some Gu and moved up to Simeon to finish things off.


We topped out at 2 pm, five and a half hours after leaving the tents. Above the lip of the serac the terrain abruptly became horizontal. The cloud gave us views along the ridge to Vancouver itself but that was about it. We ditched packs and postholed to the highest point on the lumpy summit crest. A few photos and congratulations on a job half done followed before we headed back to our gear and started to consider our descent options. A descent to the North a la Pilling and Dietrich seemed overly optimistic, especially considering the mediocre weather. So we stuck with our existing plan of heading down the SE Ridge. I figured we’d manage it somehow, even if things got tricky.


We dropped down onto the N side of the SE Ridge to avoid some seracs and were immediately in knee deep unconsolidated powder. This seemed like very bad news but we hoped it was localized to north facing slopes. For most of the descent to the col on the SE Ridge we were able to stick to the ridge crest where the snow was much better.


We pitched the tent at the col on a nice site dug into the ridge and started to sort our gear out for the night. Simeon confessed to being very tired and then, as if to emphasize the point threw up. Not a good sign, but at least we were going down not up. We crawled into our now icy Bibler and brewed up, hoping for clear weather for the descent the following day. The tent had been getting frostier and our sleeping bags damper by the day so we were now quite keen to be done with it.


Day 5


Saturday dawned with a slight clearing in the weather but by the time we left the tent cloud was moving across the 14,300’ summit on the SE Ridge and seemed to be much thicker below us. We made it to the summit and then turned south to descend the spur. The unconsolidated snow from the previous day put in a very unwelcome reappearance and we trenched our way down the shallower slopes and down climbed the steeper ones. There were a few small crevasses but nothing major.


Eventually the weather deteriorated to a few feet with increased snowfall and with no good idea exactly where we were on the descent we sat down and waited for it to clear. Apart from a few brief moments when we managed to move a few hundred yards we spent until 3 pm sitting on our packs waiting. We finally pitched the tent in the lee of an ice cliff to protect us from avalanches and sat in it periodically checking the weather. By 6 pm we resigned ourselves to another night in the Bibler and half of our remaining dried meal.


Day 6


Thankfully the storm cleared and at 3.30am we were treated to a spectacular dawn. Keen to get down we were up and out within the hour. Clear skies greeted us and we were treated to incredible views of the whole Elias range from Mount Fairweather in the south to Mount St. Elias itself further north.


In the poor conditions the previous day we had headed too far right and had stopped just in time. The slope below us dropped sharply off over a series of ice cliffs. We traversed back left and continued to trench our way down several thousand more vertical feet on the ridge. Eventually the it divided and we came to the top of an ice cliff that spanned the complete right hand spur. I started to dig a snow bollard with my axe, Simeon suggested we break out the shovel and things got serious. After much shoveling we excavated a bollard over five feet in diameter. I was more than glad of this as the rappel took us over a 40’ high serac that overhung by at least fifteen feet. The snow bridge at the base held and we were on what looked like easier ground.


Below the serac the snow cover decreased to about four inches of new powder but it was sliding spontaneously. We belayed each other while down climbing lest a small slide pushed us off the side of the ridge. Another hour got us to the lower snow dome on the ridge at 10,500’ and past the worst of the technical difficulties. We continued to down climb, belaying each other in the more avalanche prone areas


The last piece of excitement for the day came as we were descending the finally gully to the glacier. From the top it looked like a major terrain trap so we rapped off a thread to another anchor in an alcove half way down the gully. I had rapped a second rope length and was looking for an anchor when Simeon started yelling “Avalanche!” I hung on the ropes as a slide ripped down the center of the gully a few feet to my left. Thankfully Simeon hadn’t heard my “off rappel” call so was still in the alcove when the slide went past him. He descended and we traversed off right rather than descend below the gully.


Another hour brought us back to our original bivvi and a cache of fuel and food we’d left. After a few hours rehydrating, eating and gloating we hiked down the glacier and managed to climb the original couloir we’d descended after some brief shenanigans with the bergshrund. Paul Swanstrom flew us on the next morning and less than twenty four hours after completing the descent we were drinking beers in Haines. bigdrink.gif




An ascent of Good Neighbor Peak, 15,500’ (AK 4+, 5.5, AI 3+). Third ascent of the route and first British ascent over a period of six days in May 2005. The exact height of Good Neighbor is subject of some debate, although the Mount Vancouver is almost certainly higher, the quoted heights for Good Neighbor vary from 15,500’ to 15,700’.


Ascents of W face of Point 9695’ and E face couloir on a minor peak (approx) 9800’ near our BC.




Route description in “Alaska a Climbing Guide”, Michael Wood & Colby Coombs, p 170. Account of the first ascent in the American Alpine Journal (AAJ, 1994, p87-9).


A useful summary of previous ascents of Mount Vancouver and Good Neighbor Peak can be found in the American Alpine Journal (AAJ, 2004, p216-7).


Accounts of the first ascent of the Centennial Route (S Spur of the SE Ridge) can be found in the Canadian and American Alpine Journals (CAJ, 1968, p34-41 & AAJ, 1968, p36-9).

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Is is in that you can get people to give you money to go do them. Which isn't to be sniffed at.

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Long TR. Warning - ...In May 1993 ...


Any TR that starts 12 years ago is a really long TR!


Great job guys!



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