Mount Bear, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, Alaska
The stillness of camp in the early morning.
We awoke to a tent filled with sparkling condensation in the morning light. Feeling our efforts from the day prior, movements were initially slow. Every bump and jostle propagated a shower of frost from the tent walls, so we were careful to be delicate as we geared up for the day ahead. Perched at 12,500 feet high on the side of Mount Bear, we were awaiting an opportunity to push for the summit. A brief head poke out the rear vestibule revealed cold and clear conditions, just as the forecast predicted.
I was sharing a tent with Harrison, the lead guide on our expedition. We were two of a party of ten, all fellow guides at SEAG, some in the role of guides for this trip, and others there to learn and participate in an epic adventure. Every year, SEAG returning guides have the opportunity to tackle a large summit in our backyard. This spring, we found ourselves on Mount Bear, a surprisingly obscure peak considering it’s the 9th tallest mountain in the country!
Located in the Eastern reaches of the Park, just shy of the Canadian border, Mount Bear truly defines a remote and isolated setting. Surrounded by the ice-clad summits of the Saint Elias Range, the only evidence of human civilization is the occasional tiny contrail from a commercial jet passing far overhead. At 14,829 feet tall, Mount Bear is big in every way – a heavily glaciated, high-altitude peak with big mountain weather and the Alaska factor to boot! The non-technical route is perfect for a first Alaskan expedition and the possibility of a 6,000ft ski from the summit makes it a dream ski-mountaineering objective.
Mt. Bear’s massif as seen from the air.
Having spent the prior months pouring over maps of the Mount Bear massif and imagining the awesome ski turns along the way, it was surreal and also a relief to finally start packing food and gear on May 7th. The day went by quickly, with more experienced guides walking our less experienced compatriots through the whirlwind that is a Pack Day. Moving efficiently, our tent groups packed 11 days of food and fuel, inspected ropes, tents, stoves, sleds, skis, snowshoes etc., and filled personal bags and duffels with the essentials. By the evening, we were packed and ready for our flight with legendary pilot Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Lodge the following morning.
The flight was about 45min of continuous mountain glory – knife-edge ridges splitting the sky, enormous cornices creaking over the edges of thousand-foot faces, endless needles, spines, and spires of snow, ice, and rock. As Paul confidently weaved us through high passes and right up close to all this mountain drama, I took about 100 photos, getting beta for future objectives and trip ideas.
Views from the plane window.
Our team flew in two flights due to our large number. Arriving with the first group, I quickly got to work preparing for an afternoon of moving. By the time the second flight arrived, ropes were laid out, and sled rigging had begun. Our first afternoon of movement was short, in order to allow our bodies to adjust coming up to 8,800ft from about 1,400ft in McCarthy. After a few hours of getting acquainted with our heavy loads and rope teams, we moved to and pitched Camp 1 around 9,100 feet.
We were climbing in “expedition style”, which means moving up the mountain over multiple camps, caching gear up high up each day, and returning to sleep low. Although a heavier setup, expedition-style climbing allows us to sit out storms and acclimatize progressively, significantly reducing the chances of altitude sickness affecting the climb. In Alaska, the atmosphere is thinner so the effects of altitude are magnified significantly and this can be very serious concern.
On day two we awoke to stormy conditions with low visibility. Although frustrating to forgo upward progress in favor of listening to the sound of nylon flapping in the wind, the weather warranted us staying put, and it was another opportunity for acclimatization.
The team stretching their legs after some serious tent time.
The following morning, visibility improved and we determined conditions good enough to move. We packed up camp, eager to continue taking bites out of the elephant. Outside of causing discomfort, the cold winds funneling down the glacier did little to hamper our upward progress. With heavy packs and fully laden orange companions (sleds) in tow, we steadily progressed to 10,200 feet for Camp 2.
With clear skies overhead once more, it was a great opportunity to soak up our surroundings! To our South, the view was dominated by a foreboding peak crowned with an immense hanging glacier and a debris field that was ample warning to steer clear. Hemmed in by a ridge to our North, our view to the East was filled with glaciers, peaks, and icefalls. To the West, our route continued to wind up the mountain through a heavily crevassed slope. To be the only party present in such an awe-inspiring environment truly felt like a privilege. No other ski tracks, camps, or fellow mountaineers in sight, not a single foot of rope fixed on our route, and no lines to wait in at the summit.
The cook tent in the foreground with an immense hanging glacier catching sunlight behind.
After breaking down camp the following day, we buried some gear at Camp 2 for later and continued up the mountain. Our plan was to end up at 12,500 feet, within striking distance of the summit. It was steep and more technical here but we hauled our sleds up with 4 days of food and fuel to maximize our opportunity for a summit bid. A full day of enjoyable route finding with one unplanned detour through some crevasses brought us to Camp 3. Unyielding loads, increasing altitude, and days of cumulative hard work were starting to take their toll, but everyone did their part to set up camp without complaint.
All three rope teams on the move between camps two and three. About 20mi away from us, Mount Bona, Churchill, and University tower over the other summits.
To our delight, an evening weather check-in with our home base revealed a full day of good weather to follow, the perfect opportunity to try for the summit! We arrived at camp relatively late in the evening but still planned a wake-up time of 4:30 am for the next morning to maximize our chances of success. With the summit in reach and clear weather predicted, excitement was too high for a good REM cycle anyways.
Emerging from our tents to temperatures hovering around -15°f, the mood was subdued, to say the least. Down was in abundance, and fingers were clumsy and stiff. At those temperatures, even stoves have a hard time coping. For our summit bid, we planned to leave camp pitched, with each rope team carrying a single sleep system and a stove for emergencies. With breakfast complete and bags packed, our rope teams lined up, eager to depart before our toes and fingers started to go numb. Moving in our down parkas in the shade of the upper mountain, I added leg swings and lunges into my shuffling gait, doing my best to maintain feeling in my lower extremities.
At the base of a short headwall, we switched from skinning to crampons. Some team members opted to ditch skis to save weight, as the snow we had seen most of the trip was very wind-affected or “sastrugi” and didn’t inspire everyone. Wanting to make turns from the summit, my skis remained A-framed on my pack. Climbing over a mellow ridge and descending a short slope, we found ourselves on a glacier leading to the summit plateau. One of our three rope teams had paused to rewarm a team member having issues with cold digits, but they were once more on the move slightly behind our two lead teams.
Two rope teams catching a quick break on the final push to the summit!
Stomping our crampons into the neve, we ascended the last few steps to what we perceived as the summit and emotions began to well up to the surface. How lucky to be allowed passage to the summit by Mount Bear, and in conditions that could not be clearer! This was my third attempt at a large mountain objective in the Wrangell and St. Elias Ranges and to achieve what I perceived as success after so much hard work, suffering, and sacrifice was an incredible feeling!
However, anticlimax was soon to follow, as the high point on the map was clearly not the highest point on the mountain anymore. With glaciated peaks, high points move around with heavy precipitation and the moving ice, so we spent the next twenty minutes tramping about attempting to find the actual highest point. Finally picking our spot, we soaked up the pleasant weather and reveled in our achievement. The views from high on a remote Alaskan summit and the company I was with couldn’t have been more inspiring!
Summit Photo captured by Harrison’s extra-long arm!
Four of our group of ten had opted to carry their skis to the summit. Preparing for the way down, we coiled our rope, ripped our skins, and clicked in. Our three fellow guides on rope team two began their own descent to be reunited with their skis, which were stashed lower on the mountain. Outside of walking 50 vertical feet of sastrugi, we were able to link 2000ft of turns from the summit of the 9th highest peak in the US!
Careful not to fall into a state of complacency, we understood that the summit had only been our halfway point. On the descent back to camp, we passed our third rope team, all of whom were in good spirits on their way to the top. We noticed some weather quickly moving in so we kept an eye on it and before descending the headwall, and Harrison made contact with group three via radio – they were near the summit! With seven of us back in camp, we awaited the return of our third team as visibility came in and out. At 6:30pm they finally returned, elated by their experience of a successful summit and a just-in-time descent!
We spent Day 6 of our trip descending from Camp 3 to the Landing Zone (LZ). At around 11,000 feet, we were able to point our sleds towards our cache at Camp 2 and release them to the fall line, an incredibly cathartic experience having hauled them 4,000ft up the mountain! Arriving at the LZ without incident, we spent the next two days waiting for the weather to clear for a pickup.
While a little claustrophobic in the tent, those 48 hours provided ample time for reflection. Expeditionary climbing is a difficult activity to label. While undoubtedly a team sport, the rope joining you to your partners represents a life and death bond, it is also an incredibly personal act. The intensity of the experience and challenges of such a wild and hostile environment reveal a lot about personal character and distill the important things in our increasingly complex and cluttered lives. To have the opportunity to experience discomfort, problem-solve, and ultimately succeed in our goal, while being the only 10 people on the mountain, is something I will never forget and will always cherish.
Guides waiting for pickup with Mount Bear in the background.