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Climbing in Alaska's Mount Fairweather Region

June, 1974

Written for the LAM History Project

Author: Don Liska.  Trip report dated August, 2001.

Participants: Larry Dauelsberg, Don and Alice Liska, Mike Allen, John Neal, Cindy Anderson and Walt Gove

We left Juneau in the early afternoon of June 5,1974 aboard two float planes and landed on a small lake at the snout of the Grand Plateau glacier about one hour later.  We packed four miles up the glacier to our first camp carrying 5 days food, 1-1/2 gallons Blazo and all our gear.  No one had ever traversed this glacier before us.  We were to be the first ever to attempt to climb the virgin peaks just north of Mount Fairweather. Larry Dauelsberg, Don and Alice Liska, Mike Allen, John Neal, Cindy Anderson and Walt Gove made up the party.  We carried an emergency crash transmitter in case of a disaster but no other contact with the outside world.  We depended entirely on Ken Loken's pilots finding us 18 miles up the glacier system at 8000' within our initial food supply and also picking us up back at the lake upon our return.

  Mt. Fairweather from the Fairweather Glacier.

Mt. Fairweather from the Fairweather Glacier.
Photo courtesy of Gary Clark (NACLASSICS).

We spent the first two days probing the icefalls in bad weather but couldn't find a way through.  On the third day we finally found a route but also went on half rations.  We climbed a cleaver west of our initial probe and suddenly broke through to ascend 3700' to the 7000' level in one day of very heavy hauling.  Spirits and weather greatly improved. Liska and Allen then probed up glacier to be stopped by another icefall at 7800', just a mile or so short of our intended airdrop site. Rations were reduced again.  The turbo-Beaver arrived on schedule but the pilot didn't spot us though we frantically waved and he flew back down glacier in lowering clouds.  A storm hit that night and the next day it raged while we were tent bound with growling stomachs.  We dropped down to quarter rations on our 6th day.  Nonetheless, we found the energy to probe the icefall again and after a 200' descent and a long traverse around a huge snowdome found a way through and ascended to 8800' at the edge of the first cirque.  We were all very hungry from hard, slow going in heavy snow and whiteout.  John and Cindy were on skis, the rest of us on snowshoes.  The skiers were extremely slow and uncontrolled in the dangerous crevasse fields while the snowshoers made relatively good time.

We had by now run almost out of food and decided to make a desperate dash for the base on Friday if the airdrop didn't arrive.  By that time we would have been out 10 days on our initial five day food supply.  If we reached base we would have to try to walk out to the ocean and find shellfish to eat and perhaps flag down a fishing boat.  Finally on Wednesday it cleared and we all did small reconnaissance's of the wild and unexplored glacial basin we were in.  Larry and I set off to explore the cirque and John and Cindy went to the base of Mount Root.  The weather set in and John and Cindy didn't return so Larry and I went out again with one Toblerone bar between us to search them out.  They finally returned late in miserable whiteout and the whole party was pissed off, dead beat and literally starving.  That night John and Cindy were heard crunching lemon drops in their sleeping bags which is a no-no for a starving party.  All emergency personal food remains unconsumed until it is absolutely needed and then it is shared equally.  On Thursday the weather again cleared and Mike, Alice and Don set out to explore the Root cirque with one roll of Lifesavers between us.  We learned that a roll contains 11 candies and there were three of us to split between.  Alice relinquished her claim on one Lifesaver so that Mike and I could have four each.  Only hungry people discover such trivia and also that inside a prune pit is a delicious kernel that can only be had by chewing the pit in half with hungry jaws.

On Friday, our 10th day out, the weather was flawlessly clear but still no airdrop.  We assumed that 1) Loken had dropped our food to another party on the mountain, 2) He had crashed on attempting to reach us, or 3) World War 3 had started and our gooses were cooked.  We had no choice but to begin our rout off the plateau and dash for the base of the glacier.  It would be a desperate race with an uncertain finish.  We started down at noon with growling stomachs and within a half mile, in comes Loken.  He starts the drop at our low position and we race around trying to stamp a message in the snow to hold back some food boxes since our trip is now overextended.  We get tangled up in the ropes like Keystone Cops while the drops continue to their finish and Loken flies off.  Now we have way too much food and supplies. Nonetheless we gorged ourselves and then ferried some loads back to our camp, finally ready to begin the climbing on the morrow.

Larry and I set out on Saturday to fix the route up the couloir of the unclimbed Mt. Watson.  We climbed the couloir and explored part of the east ridge to the final rock step.  Whiteout again descended as we returned elated to camp.  Walt, Alice and Larry went to the food dump and brought in more supplies while John and Cindy ferried some food towards Mt. Fairweather.  On Sunday five of us climbed Watson, using the fixed lines Larry and I had put in.  It was a steep and hard climb in very cold and windy weather and I frostnipped two fingers on a rock pitch.  Cindy and John turned back at the rock step.  The steep slopes were covered with fresh snow with ice beneath and reached about 70 degrees.  The summit slope was 45 degrees and corniced.  We descended in a whiteout and on one rappel the knot slipped.  I was saved by the safety knot jamming against the descending ring.  A close call!  John and Cindy were waiting for us at the top of the couloir when we reach them at 6 PM and we descended the couloir together.  Alice slipped several times on the underlying ice and I caught her on belay.  The party split up once we reached the easier slopes below and we straggled into camp over a three hour period.  We were very satisfied with our first ascent and we turned in with a good meal while a light snow fell outside.

On Monday we set up a high camp at 12,200' under the unclimbed north face of Mt. Fairweather.  Then, early the next morning in clear cold weather we attempted this awesome north face climb.  We crossed under a dangerous hanging icewall and approached some dicey looking seracs, debating on whether or not to risk our all in this terrain.  Suddenly behind us an estimated 20,000 tons of ice broke off the glacier face and obliterated our ascending snowshoe tracks, left by us only hour before.  The matter was thenceforth determined for us.  We decided then and there to retreat back to our high camp and give Fairweather up for good.  The following morning we descended back toward the cirque and took a detour up the east ridge of the beautiful unclimbed tooth-like peak just to the west of Fairweather.  After ascending to 10,500' the route above took on a foreboding appearance and only Alice and I were game to continue so just she and I finished this beautiful, exposed climb which we remember as one of the highlights of our climbing life together.  We rejoined the others about 3 hours later and as we continued our descent to the cirque a strong eastern wind storm arose.  We were forced to construct wind walls to shelter the tents as the hurricane intensified and a blizzard moved in on us, now happy that we were not high on Fairweather.

On Thursday, our 16th day out we began our descent to base, abandoning a lot of food and some gear, especially that from Cindy and John.  The whiteout was the worst yet as we approached and then passed the airdrop site and encountered the crevasse field below.  Larry and I shared the leads through this dangerous maze and had to lead by compass through covered crevasses and opening blue holes.  It was extremely harrowing and turned our hair gray.  Cindy and John on skies were even worse off.  At least on snowshoes one could gauge his progress in a whiteout and know if indeed he was stationary while the skiers could be slowly gliding forward without knowing it.  In addition, the loaded platters they pulled behind them kept slipping off toward the nearest void.  Very, very dangerous for them.  Larry and I both feel that snowshoes are far preferable to skis in a descending crevasse field during whiteout conditions.  In fact, during the entire trip there was only one afternoon where we envied the skiers on a long snowy descent.

Nonetheless, we made it down the glacier and finally emerged at the lake with a couple of days to spare before the scheduled pickup.  During that time a few of our party attempted to reach the ocean, our intended line of survival had we not received our airdrop, and were followed down the creek bed by a huge Alaskan Brownie (coastal grizzly bear).

Finally, Loken appeared and flew us back to Juneau.  We had two first ascents to our credit, an excellent exploration of wild and virgin country, some narrow escapes, and a load of wisdom to embellish our mountaineering careers.  Not satisfied with the stupendous country we had explored, Loken's men flew us into Lituya Bay on the west coast of Glacier Bay National Monument and we saw the scar left behind by the great tsunami wave which rose to over 1700' during the great landslide of 1957.  We returned home with a bellyful of mother nature's wondrous sights.
 


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