Alaska, Coast Mountains, Mt. Burkett, National Public Ridge; Burkett Needle, South Pillar, free variation; Silly Wizard Peak, Thriller Arête; Mt. Suzanne, West Ridge.
By Jens Holsten, Peshastin, Washington
“If we get off this hill, I’m not climbing anymore on this trip. I’m done, finished.” Max gives me a knowing look in response before tossing the ropes.
The top of Mt. Burkett marks our fourth summit in the last 15 days. Finally, with many thousands of feet to descend, my body sends clear signals of fatigue. Although I am physically wrecked, I keep my mind in the game. Only after sprinting down the final bowling alley of a couloir and coasting onto the flats of the Baird Glacier do we feel the intensity dissipate.
Max Hasson and I arrived in Southeast Alaska on June 9, intent on making a free ascent of Burkett Needle’s South Pillar (Cauthorn-Collum-Foweraker, 1995). Under incredible weather, we began packing and psyching up within an hour of seeing the objective. The next morning we were on the move, climbing quickly up a convoluted glacier toward the base of the route. I took a 50-foot tumbler while climbing a steep ice cliff along the way, adding some excitement, but despite a broken helmet and a bruised left hip, we soon were swinging leads up perfect granite. Only a few hours after tying in, we arrived at the day’s question mark—the A3+ overhang looked utterly unfreeable, so Max struck out right, connecting patina crimps and gold-plated smears above sporadic gear. Our variation covered three amazing pitches before reconnecting and finishing on the original South Pillar route to the summit (2,500′, 5.10+).
Stable weather limited our resting to one day. Looking at so many peaks piercing the blue sky had us up on our snowshoes only hours after finishing our last adventure. We made our way from base camp, located directly under the southeast face of Burkett Needle on the north side of the valley, across the Baird toward a southwest-facing ridge on an attractive peak. Thousands of feet of steep snow and talus slopes pushed us up onto an absurdly exposed, mid-fifth ridge that we carefully soloed to the summit, the shirts on our backs and the water bottles tied around our waists the only gear we carried. We called the route the Thriller Arête (3,000′, 5.7X 50°) and dubbed the peak Silly Wizard Peak.
Long Alaskan rest days gave us many hours of staring at the peaks around us, with new lines conjuring themselves in our minds. Directly south across the glacier from camp was a ca 7,190′ mountain that had a sharp, long northwest ridge. On June 16 we set off in a soupy fog, intent on climbing despite the unsettled weather. The initial mist gave way to a cold sleet, but we pushed on up the ridge, unseen avalanches scouring the surrounding glaciers. It was an eerie scene, and a few times we thought of turning back. Finally we could climb no further, and as I belayed Max up, the clouds broke, revealing a symphony of color. Northwest Ridge of Mt. Suzanne (3,000′, 5.8 M4 60°).
Despite a few serious challenges, Alaska had been treating us well—too well perhaps. With so much initial success, we were looking for a line that would push us to our limits. Only a half mile from base camp was a massive buttress that cut Mt. Burkett’s south-facing glaciers. Thousands of feet of climbing, up to 5.10R, faded into the complexity of the upper mountain, the summit still far above the top of the buttress. The first 48 hours of the climb were defined by scary, icy climbing, and some serious bivy-tent time near the end of the ridge. Although it seemed the snowstorm would never stop, the third day dawned splitter and cold. A circuitous path through Burkett’s upper glacier gave way to a nice couloir with fun alpine ice. The top of the slot blended into endless 60° to 70° snow climbing. We gained the summit (via National Public Ridge, 5,700′, 5.10R AI3 70°) for only a short moment before heading down, the harsh wind and a desire to return to safety encouraging us. Going through the motions of rapping the route went as well as something like that can go, and by the time we were down there was no question about it—we had given our all for this summit, and this trip.