Alaskan First Ascent Adventure
The First Ascent of Mount Hope, Wrangell Mountains of Alaska
For many climbers the climax of a mountaineering career is to stand on the roof of the world, the point where they are higher than anything else. Mount Everest represents this goal well. However, it has been argued that other mountains may be considered higher when sea level is not the measuring point. Denali in the Alaska Range, like many other mountains is a longer climb from top to bottom, Chimborazo in Ecuador, is the furthest point from the core of the Earth and Mauna Kea in Hawaii is higher if it is measured from its origin many fathoms under the ocean.
The dream of reaching the highest summit when measured from sea level will always remain unreachable to me. Not necessarily because of its altitude or its technical difficulties, but because of the enormous financial commitment & time off from work that Everest demands. I always climb to fulfill an inner desire to explore not a need to be at any particular altitude. It was to this end that was born the dream to reach Mount Hope.
For over a year Mount Hope was an idea more than it was an actual mountain. I did not know exactly where Mount Hope was or what it looked like, but I was drawn to the idea of exploring, summating and naming (officially or even unofficially,)an unclimbed, unnamed peak in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska.
We spent up to sixteen hours a day working the logistics, sponsorship, media, photography and a documentary we wanted to create, to get an educational message across of world peace, using the excitement of nature as a backdrop: We even arranged for a satellite phone to update our website and to broadcast live on ABC. We trained with weights, on artificial rock walls and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But when all was said and done, most of our logistics was thrown out the window. The mountain we were about to climb had been unclimbed thus far because of its protector. Without his blessing we would have no chance of even approaching it.
Our team arrived in Anchorage with 1200 pounds of equipment in mid July 1998. This was late in the climbing season if the objective had been Denali but it was fine for an ascent in the Wrangell’s. With everyone flying in from different parts of the country we found the best hotel in town (The Hampton Inn) to regroup. Our trip started with a ride on the Alaska Railroad through the Chugach Mountains to the small town of Whittier. Black bears scurried into the forest as the train rushed by. From behind the lunch counter, Dennis, our bartender, recounted tales of Captain Cook and Turn-a-gain Arm. Thinking that the Arm went straight through, Capt. Cook set sail. He had to "Turn" his boat "Again" when he realized that it was a cul-de-sac. Arriving in Whittier, we boarded "The Emerald" and chugged our way through Prince William Sound. Bald Eagles and Kittywakes floated through the air above our boat with the greatest of ease, while seals and otters played below us in the icy waters. We sidled up to Black Stone Glacier and watched in fascination as the glacier calved and crashed down.
My Near Death Experience: White Water kayaking enroute to Mount Hope
Leaving the thunderous glaciers behind, we met with our raft support Jeff and Stu from River Wranglers, on the shores of the Lower Tonsina River. The white water in this section was rated Class 3+ but it is nothing like the rivers of the Northeast. It churned and boiled by us as we stared at it. A little apprehensive, we headed out one by one in our tiny Dagger Kayaks into the chaotic waters. Instantly, months of planning became unraveled as the never-ending rapids knocked the team around like rag dolls. In the raft, the rest of the team, photographer, Fred Birchenough and Videographer / reporter, Angie Wyatt couldn't keep up with our sleek boats to capture the action for the documentary and there were too few eddies for us to pull over in and wait for them.
Suddenly the river took a twist and the rapids got harder and harder to negotiate. It was a constant struggle just to stay upright. I had received information from our rafting outfitter that the Tonsina was a good river to shoot video on and that we could find numerous areas to scout the river from. So far the river did not live up to the information that we received. Mike Daly (Climbing Leader) was the first to bail. He was concentrating so hard on staying upright that he didn't see the low hanging branch coming straight for him. His boat flipped instantly and I didn't see him get out. Nervous, I followed his overturned kayak down the raging waters staring intently at what I thought was a hand holding on from underneath. After several minutes I came to the realization that he would not be alive if and when I caught up to him. Our boats traveled at the same speed and I had to paddle with all my might to catch up. My one thought was on that of my friend and before I knew it, I was in a section of whitewater that had never been negotiated before. I hit one strainer after another, ducking, but getting hit in the head with branches anyway.
Mercifully, the river slowed down to Class 2+ and finally I caught up to Mike's boat. A sick feeling welled up in the pit of my stomach as I realized the kayak was empty. Just then Mike rounded the corner on the raft. Our raft support had plucked him out of the water to safety and they were on their way to rescue our Dagger Freefall kayak. I breathed a sigh of relief and followed Mike down river. Several miles later, which went by in an instant, things started falling apart again. We had reached the most difficult section and there was no place to eddy out and scout the river from because the crumbly cliffs rose straight from the river's shore. There was nothing we could do but shoot the rapids. A 6-foot wave hit me unexpectedly from the side like a Mack truck. Before I could roll or even wet exit, a submerged rock crashed into my head. Thank God I had worn my Leedom snowboarding helmet. Dazed and confused, I wet exited and began the inevitable struggle to get to safety.
My lungs filled with water and a dreamy, peaceful feeling begin to overcome me. I realized I was dying. Just as I accepted my fate, I breathed one more time and caught enough air to get my determination back. After "filling" my lungs with air, I reached a hand out and caught hold of a slimy rock. With a last great effort, I pulled myself up onto the rock. Between gulps of air and emptying my lungs of what felt like the entire Lower Tonsina, I caught a glimpse of my wife, Serenity; catch a partial eddy to see if I was all right. She struggled to stay there but succumbed to the current when she realized I was O.K. The Animas kayak was gone when I looked up, presumably on its way to the ocean. Once again our raft support came to the rescue. I eventually found the boat but the paddle was history.
We caught up with the rest of the team and I watched with dread as Serenity ran the toughest sections. She paddled the biggest rapids with style but eventually the relentless big water and class of whitewater proved to be too high for even her. The river is rated a class 3+ or 4 depending on whom you talk to. The river was definitely not a class3+ and to call it a 4 is an understatement. Just as the Alaskan Mountains have there own special rating system the rivers should too. We have paddled a class 4 in New England but it was nothing compared to the raging Tonsina in its present condition. My heart sank as I saw Serene's boat flip over. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Helpless, I watched her struggle in the waves briefly before losing sight of her. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her straddling a strainer a couple of minutes later. For a third time, our raft support came to the rescue.
This had to be the lowest point in our expedition. In all of our prior expeditions we were instantly successful in sports other than climbing. I hold the Guinness Book World Record for the highest altitude luge run in history. I have wake boarded with crocodiles and Piranha on the Mamore River of the Amazon. However I have never come across anything as powerful as the 'Mighty Tonsina River'. I have a new respect for white water and for the athletes who thrive on paddling it.
The Lower Tonsina led us to the Chitina airstrip where we were to meet our bush pilot, Paul Claus from Ultima Thule. Feeling good again, we headed up to the airstrip. Of course, our bush pilots were fashionably late and we spent several hours lying in the dirt of the runway. After a couple of hours, we began to wonder which of the dozen or so mountains in front of us we should climb instead. It was another hour before we heard the whine of two planes. We packed up our gear along with supplies for the lodge and flew into the Alaska wilderness. The Ultima Thule Lodge is situated deep in the heart of the Wrangell Mountain National Park: Our first team meeting with Paul and Mimi Bourquin (Climbing Advisor for our team Expedition Outreach, an amazing guide in her own right, and basically a human being extraordinaire!)
Outside Magazine had just run a feature article on Paul and we knew that we were not only talking to quite possibly the best bush pilot in the world but to a man who could destroy years of planning if he didn't like us. This was his kingdom and we had to play by his rules. Later we realized that his rules would get us to our objective and back home safely.
The staff at the lodge fed us like royalty for the next 36 hours while we waited for Paul to fly us to basecamp. We re-packed gear, lounged in the sauna/bathhouse and watched as Paul and his assistant pilot Mark flew clients for fishing trips and bear watching. Angie transmitted her first broadcast to ABC. At 5AM the next morning, we were off.
As we flew towards Mount Hope, Paul named all the mountains that he or his friends had made first ascents on. Each mountain bore the name of a friend or loved one: Mt. Siri, Mt. Donna, etc. He also pointed out some of the unclimbed peaks in the area. Paul had been saving the area that we were flying into for something special and by luck he deemed us worthy to join him: The plan was that he and Mimi join our team; Expedition Outreach and fly back in a couple of days and summit with us.
Paul circled the glacier twice. On his second time around he threw green trash bags weighted with sand out the window to mark his runway. Paul piled our gear on the pristine glacier and taxied down the "runway" for take off. We watched as his plane became just a speck in the sky which gave us our first perspective of how vast this mountain really was. Then, everything fell silent and we were alone.
The glacier was well over a mile wide and sat at 8500 feet. Even though it felt a lot higher due to Alaska's Northern Latitude, the team felt strong. Team members Mike Daly and Fred immediately carried a small load to up a ridge, which led directly to the unclimbed, unnamed peak. They pushed the route up the headwall, zigzagging their way through crevasses and under seracs. The most challenging section, The Daly Traverse, passes just above the deep bergschrund. While they were negotiating the route, the rest of us dug out basecamp. At 3AM this evening, Serenity woke with a raging sore throat and realized that she would jeopardize the team's chance of success if she went to high camp. With a few tears in her eyes, she told me that she wasn't going. In the morning she brewed coffee and helped out as we packed up and left for high camp. Serene had become basecamp manager and was left to nurse her-self back to health. Paul and Mimi would arrive in a few days and she would climb with them.
We moved slowly under the weight of the satellite phone and the video equipment. Angie's inexperience became apparent as she tired easily but we were still able to reach high camp within a half a day. As we set camp high on the ridge, we got our first look at basecamp. There were many crevasses running on each side. I radioed this information down to Serenity. Even though she was sick, I knew she would want to ride her snowboard. We settled in to eat dinner as the evening snow rolled in. Unsure if the weather would worsen, we made plans to leave in the morning.
The day dawned bright and beautiful and after a hasty breakfast, we began our ascent. The ridge gradually steepened to a knife's edge with a drop of over 2000 feet on each side. As we continued on, it changed from the degree of a double black diamond ski run to a grade three-ice climb. The route was later rated an Alaskan Grade Three, 5.4. Each and every step we took was a first onto virgin ground. There wasn't any sign of human life or animal life to be found. It felt like we were on sacred ground. I silently cringed as our footsteps marred the pristine mountainside.
We climbed through scree and talus, snow and ice. We scaled the self named, 'Birchenough Step' (lower fifth class rock) to reach the upper section of the ridge. As the terrain constantly changed, the exposure became the only constant. Finally, at a broad shoulder we took our first rest. I made a cairn to the memory of my father and silently called the ridge the 'Alfred Coyne Memorial Ridge'. I named this beautiful sub-peak, 'Serenity Peak' and wished that she could be with me sharing this amazing experience.
I scooped up snow in my water bottle to stretch my water supply and moved on. After several more hours, we reached what appeared to be the true the summit, Angie's Summit. Mike Daly and Angie set up the satellite phone and she interviewed me for WSIL (ABC Affiliate) in Southern Illinois. Amid tears of elation, our message of success went out over the airwaves.
Beyond Angie's Summit lay the true, more technical summit climb. WE did not actually know this until the clouds parted for just a moment to see how we ended up on a very convincing false summit! Angie knew that it was above her ability so she took my bivy sack and watched as Fred, Mike Daly and I climbed up the final summit pitches. After surmounting this peak, we were disappointed to find that we had arrived at yet another false summit. As we continued on to the next summit, I constantly reminded myself that if this was all it took to be successful, one step after another, then I would endure any amount of hunger, discomfort or pain to get there. Finally I felt ice under my feet instead of snow, signaling that we were nearing the top. The temperature began to drop and the afternoon snow squall rolled in. Mike front pointed up the final pitch to the summit ridge. Fred and I followed on a scary belay that was more for our emotional benefit than anything else.
The summit was a giant cornice that we dared not mount together: All this way only to stand fifty feet below our summit. We settled on each of us taking a turn at belaying the other to stand for a few brief moments on top. After taking photos and video, we started our long descent. As I dragged my feet down the ridge, it dawned on me that it had been almost twelve hours since I last ate. I dug into my pocket and came up empty. I would have to wait until I reached Angie's Summit where I had left some extra supplies.
Angie, not realizing that the peak in front of her was another false summit began to get worried as the minutes passed into hours. By the time we reached her, she was formulating a plan of self-rescue. We all roped up and descended together. A nasty crevasse had opened up right on the knife's edge ridge while we were gone. It made life much more stressful. Reaching past the point of exhaustion, Angie leaned against a rock to catch her breath. The rock shifted under her weight and suddenly, several tons of rock began pouring down the windward face of Mount Hope. A large rock fell on the rope, teetering there for several seconds before it was sent on its way down. We all self arrested as Angie was jerked off her feet. In all our effort to walk lightly upon this sacred, virgin ground, we had managed to completely alter the appearance of the mountain. Serenity heard the rock slide all the way from basecamp and radioed in to make sure we were O.K.
We made high camp without further mishap by early evening and fell into a deep sleep. We woke late the next morning, broke camp and headed down to basecamp. Serenity met us at the bottom of the slope with water and offered to carry Angie's pack across the glacier back to basecamp. Upon our arrival, we saw that Serene had done some major remodeling. She had built a snowman and a snowboard/ski jump. While waiting for her shot to climb the mountain, Serene took to surfing Mount Hope. Run after run, she kept going, stopping only when chores needed to be done.
That night the wind howled and shook our tiny tents. In the morning, our Kelty cook tent was flattened. After making some hasty repairs, we crawled inside. We ate and drank while each one of us hung onto bending tent poles. By 2 o'clock it became old and we began to search of ways to entertain ourselves. From my stash of stuff, I pulled out Himalaya, a card game, and a flask of Bolivian tequila. Soon after, winds gusting up to eighty miles per hour shredded our cook tent, while we were still in it!
Despite our efforts to save the cook tent, it shredded and we retreated to our own tents. We ran through an inventory of our food and fuel in case the storm got worse. The next morning was beautiful and we decided to explore the glacier. We found an interesting crevasse and set up a rappel anchor to explore further. We descended into the large black hole one at a time. I have never been in a crevasse before and nothing prepared me for the absolute beauty within. Thirty feet below the lip, the crevasse opened up into an immense chamber of blue ice. Icicles hung from the ceiling like giant chandeliers and I could see "doorways" which led to smaller chambers. As I explored further and further inside, I kept thinking what would happen to me if the ice shifted. It was a spooky feeling.
Back at camp, we sat on top of our dilapidated cook tent and boiled water. Suddenly, we heard the low whine of a bush plane. Paul radioed down to see how we all were. We radioed back our success and said we were ready to leave. After not bathing for a week, the thought of the sauna/bathhouse back at the lodge sounded pretty good. Paul picked us up at seven the next morning and with a final fly by of Mount Hope, we left for Ultima Thule and eventually all the way back to our hotel. The Hampton Inn arranged a hero's welcome complete with interviews on KIMO (the Alaskan ABC affiliate), a meeting with a representative from the Mayor's office and a message on the hotel's marquee: Congratulations Expedition Outreach, Welcome Back!
Now back at home, the work has just begun. We are petitioning the various government entities that control the naming of an unclimbed peak in the Wrangell Mountains. If there is an overwhelming need to name a feature based on an educational need, I propose it to be 'officially named'. "Mount Hope" because I feel the educational component would help many to be inspired... We will be using this mountain as part of a multi-year, world peace awareness program. Even if the government agencies turn us down, Paul and Mimi has told us that they recognize the name "Mount Hope" and all it stands for and would be enough for me as they are some major players in climbing in this amazing part of Alaska: This mountain being recognized in the climbing community as Mount Hope means a great deal to our team.
Mount Hope is an 11,900-foot mountain deep in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska. It is not as high as Mount Everest or as technical as K-2. But none of that matters because to stand on a summit that no one else has set foot on was the real dream. It is this need that some of us have, that will invite exploration of even more spectacular mountains and regions like the chains of Sea Mounts that lie under the ocean or a first ascent of Olympic Mons on Mars or the Carpathian Mountains of the Moon. Each step that human kind takes, pushing our limits further and further, shows us all what we are capable of achieving. This spirit may eventually be the common thread to the meaning of our existence. The faster people everywhere realize that working together is the key to solving our common problems, the faster we can find a cure for AIDS and Cancer, help those confined to wheelchairs, feed the hungry, erase hate, prejudice and crime. The journey has begun the next step we must take together.