I had read about ice climbing in Alaska in Jeff Lowe's The Ice Experience (1979) and been inspired by it. In various American Alpine Journals, and Climbing, Rock and Ice, and other magazines, there were articles about new routes, Valdez ice routes (Bridal Veil Falls, Keystone Greensteps, Wowie Zowie, Hung Jury...) and ice fests hosted by the late Andrew Embeck (author of the Valdez guidebook Blue Ice and Black Gold). I knew I would have to go someday.
Jeff Lowe wrote, "Ahh! Alaska! For the ice climber Alaska has everything. From the long glacial and snow slog of the West Buttress of Denali (McKinley) to huge ice faces such as the north faces of Deborah and Hunter to incredible gully climbs in the Cathedral Spires to big winter falls around Valdez, the Portage Glacier, Juneau, and on and on. Alaska is an ice climbing paradise. Like everything in Alaska, the ice climbing there is on a grand scale. In terms of the amount of climbing and size and quality of the climbs, Alaska is second to none. Its potential has barely been scratched..."
Although, I had climbed a few times in the Alaska range in the months of April - July over the past three decades, I had yet to make a winter trip to get on Alaskan waterfall ice, until this February.
My wife has pointed out to me, as recently as today, that my biological clock is ticking and I should get on with it -- do the climbs and trips that I want to do while I still can.
Me to my dear wife: "Looks like these dates could work with the family calendar and your travel plans. What do you think?" She to me: "Go!"
Harry was my host and climbing partner. As Harry mentioned over dinner at his home after fetching me from the airport, much of the adventure in Alaskan ice climbing is in the getting there. The plan was to climb locally for a couple of days and then head to Valdez for some classics. BTW - we could not see Russia from his house.
What follows is a chronological series of pics of some of the places we went and our climbs. Enjoy!
After getting takeout coffee and some baked goodies in the town of Eagle River a few tens of minutes away, we headed onwards to Hunter Creek. The approach was to be the longest we would do on foot - a couple of miles and, we hoped, no snowshoes or skis required.
After we rapped off The Lost Chord, we headed farther up the creek.
Another chunk of our approach trail collapsed into its pool of mid-thigh-deep water after we hiked over it...
Back at Harry's in Anchorage, we checked the weather forecast - stormy weather was to hit in 2 days which would complicate our 6-hr drive to Valdez. Solution? Head to Valdez a day earlier while the driving weather was still good.
About 10 minutes of nicely-graded trail (an old miners trail?) delivered us back to the truck to continue our drive to Valdez.
Got over the pass and down to Keystone Canyon shortly before sunset. Sunday of a 3-day holiday weekend and there were only 2 other climbing parties... the party that had just finished Keystone Greensteps were friends (John and Tanya) of Harry's from Anchorage and had come to Valdez for the weekend. John would catch up with us later in the week.
The ice cave was at least 60 or 70' across.
After Harry belayed me up the Killer Pillar, we rapped off and went touring to check conditions on other routes.
Nothing much happening ice-wise around the bay. But no worries as we had planned on 2 more days in Valdez - we'd climb Keystone Greensteps on 1 of them and find another route in the pretty-reliable Bear Creek Canyon (Big Brother?) for our other day.
The weather forecast for our 2nd day in the Valdez area called for snow and higher winds, so we modified our plans from climbing Keystone Greensteps in the wind-swept Keystone Canyon to ice climbs in the more sheltered Bear Creek Canyon.
On Wednesday-February 20, we headed back up the Richardson Highway to the Keystone Canyon with snow blowing across the road and Harry's truck buffeted by the wind... It had been almost calm up Bear Creek Canyon the day before. The 20th was our last full day before heading to Chickaloon (more on that later) and my last chance (on this trip) to climb Keystone Greensteps (WI5 200m).
Down off of Keystone Greensteps and into town just before sunset. Bridal Veil, Raincheck, and Keystone Greensteps. What a great trip and not over, yet, with 3 more days to climb before my Sunday flight home...
The plan for Friday was to snow mobile up the Chickaloon River for some remote ice.
Could be warmer...
I was thrilled that we were able to right and restart my ride (John's 2nd machine) on each of the several times I slipped off the track/trail and dumped it, and especially thrilled that I did not lose it and me in the river. Took me a while, but I learned that hitting the throttle got me through sketchy bits much better than trying to crawl through. Stuart and John gave me some essential advice that I stand on the uphill side of the snow machine and lean my weight far to the that side pulling on the handlebars to keep the snow machine upright on the sloping snow and ice shelf along the river...
Harry had been following close behind me (when I had been able to take reduce my forward focus and hazard a backward glance) and several times helped me get my machine upright and out of deep snow. Note the narrowness of the shelf relative to the width of the snow mobile. Also, note the fracture in the ice shelf and sag in the ice and snow just ahead of Stuart. I found the stretches of riding like this to be extra exciting.
Rode more miles and then switched to snowshoes (John used skis) for a ways farther up the narrow boulder-strewn riverbed before arriving at this "cave" where we got out our ice tools and put our crampons on. We were going to get to the ice a bit late and left the rack behind, taking just a rap rope.
Although tagged by some branches, I was pretty jazzed because I did not dump John's snow machine even 1x on the 15 miles or so ride back down canyon - much of it after dark.
Packing necessitated beers for the others in Harry's cabin. I was already buzzing so much from the adrenaline of the 30-mile round trip snow machine ride, the ice we 3rd classed, and the ice we saw, that I waited until dimer for some Alaskan ale.
Some info here on the incredible tidal bores in the Turnagain Arm: http://alaska.org/bore-tides.jsp
Got back to Anchorage with easily enough time for my flight. The trip was great thanks to Harry Hunt.
Route info is available in AAJs, out-of-print books like Blue Ice and Black Gold and Fat City (below), and others.
Info also online: http://www.alaskaiceclimbing.com/
As Harry had mentioned over dinner at his home my 1st night in Anchorage, much of the adventure in Alaskan ice climbing is in the getting there. And get there we did. We did some really fun climbs in a handful of areas with varying levels of approach adventure. Some climbs in some newly developed areas, in some older but still being developed areas, and did a couple of the uber classic Valdez ice routes (Bridal Veil Falls and Keystone Greensteps). A great trip made all the more so thanks to Harry (especially!) and also to my other new partners, Cindi, Stuart, and John.