Why it takes two weeks to climb an Alaskan 14er
No, this is not an Alaskan 14er…this is Mt Rainier (Tahoma) in WA
Aspiring and experienced American mountaineers alike, have all at least heard of, if not summited the great Mt. Rainier of the Pacific Northwest – a classic climb in a climber’s mountaineering career.
“Mount Rainier, the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, offers an exciting challenge to the mountaineer. Each year thousands of people successfully climb this 14,410 foot active volcano. There is access to over twenty different climbing routes and ski descents via four main trailheads to approach the mountain…”
– National Park Service
With roughly 10 miles of travel and more than 9,000’ of elevation gain, the classic route up Rainier takes most climbers about 3 days to approach, ascend, summit, descend, and make their way back to their car. For most there are a few extra days of travel, prep, and logistics but for a well-prepped climber, Rainer could be a weekend trip.
So why does Mt. Bear out here in the St. Elias Mountains, a remote peak of similar elevation (14,831’) with an even shorter route take a full 10 days to climb? And an additional 3-5 days of travel and logistics??
Similar to Rainier, Mt. Bear’s classic route does not require great technicality and is a great training expedition for other, bigger adventures at high elevations. There’s a reason this spectacular summit sees only about .2% of the traffic than its southerly sister. In short, it’s the Alaska Factor – a combination of dynamics that makes Mt. Bear a longer but also much wilder climb!
Mt. Bear’s summit rises out of a sea of ice
The first major factor here is the remoteness. Five miles away from the Canadian border and deep in the Alaskan backcountry, Mt. Bear towers over the far Eastern reaches of the vast wilderness of Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. Staging, prep, and packing all happen in McCarthy, AK, an hour-long bush flight away from the start of the approach. Where’s McCarthy? Oh about 300 mi East of Anchorage- that’s an 8hr drive just to get started! (The common starting point for a Mt. Rainier climb, for contrast, is a trailhead about a 2hr drive from Seattle.)
Flying bush planes around these mountains is extremely weather-dependent, so drop-offs and pick-ups don’t always happen on a climber’s preferred schedule. Extra itinerary days are built in as a buffer for icy, foggy, or otherwise non-flyable conditions.
And although the remoteness of Mt. Bear adds additional travel time and logistics, it also means that you’re really out there in the wilderness. No other tourists, crowded trails, or camps – the remoteness means only the most adventurous travelers make it out this way and the brave souls to stand on the summit number under 100.
The remoteness also means that Wrangells climbers are further away from helpful resources like weather stations or rescue resources. With that in mind, climbers need to prep differently and be much more self-sufficient on a Mt. Bear climb. Slower expedition-style climbing with additional redundancies produces better results than the fast-and-light approach when scaling these remote giants.
Moving through a storm…not ideal
The weather in the mountains dictates everything about the climb and as all mountaineers know it can change in a snap. Alaska’s high-altitude summits are big enough to create their own micro weather systems to add to the fray of meteorological factors brought in from the nearby coast, the ocean of other huge mountains all around, and the largest glaciers on the continent.
While sunny weather can delight even the most crusty mountaineer with a t-shirt day at elevation, it can also bring about slushy snow, avalanches, and rather serious sunburn under the nose. Sometimes climbers may opt to climb at night when the snow is firmer – a tip from Dora Keen’s historic Mt. Blackburn expedition!
Blizzards with fierce winds and absurd amounts of snowfall are ideally taken on at camp, not on the go. This means that sometimes climbers must wait out several days of a mighty storm before it’s safe to move again.
Stephen is ready to dig out his tent
Altitude sickness can hit when your body changes elevation dramatically and isn’t given enough time to acclimatize. Up North in Alaska, because of our high latitudes, the atmosphere is naturally thinner than at the equator, so the effects of altitude are significantly amplified. A changing pressure system can change your body’s perceived elevation even if you haven’t moved up or down the mountain. Climbers in Alaska can experience similar elevation effects to those climbing at higher elevations in the Himalayas or the Andes.
The views up high pretty much outweigh your backpack
To give ourselves time to properly acclimatize and give us the best chance of a successful summit, we take a “climb high-sleep low approach”. During the day we’ll bring gear up the mountain with us, wanding a route through crevasse fields for the next day. Then we’ll return to our lower camp to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. This “two steps forward, one step back” technique definitely boosts our success rate but does take some extra time in the field.
Macro navigation is pretty straight-forward on a clear day
Being remote and rarely climbed can prove to be a logistical challenge for climbers attempting Mt. Bear, but the wilderness factor also means that there isn’t a lot of good beta, there are no fixed ropes and no one has left a skin track to follow. Mountaineers must navigate heavily glaciated terrain with house-swallowing crevasses and an ever-changing landscape of snow and ice. Fresh tracks are there for those who are bold to go first and step out into the unknown.
Although the general route is familiar to us and our waypoints tell of preferred camping areas, each guide must route find this dynamic mountain for their team and no ascent will ever follow the exact same path. A trailless, undeveloped, and raw experience allows us to engage with the wilderness on another level. This makes the journey to the summit a little longer but just as rewarding as the view from the top!