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Four New Lines and a Pack Raft Adventure in Alaska’s Neacola Mountains

Craig Muderlak ascends alpine ice during an attempt on The Citadel (8,305′).

[Photo] David Fay

May 23, 1 a.m., Neacola Mountains, Alaska: As I pulled down on my tools in the steep neve, thick spindrift poured down, collecting on my shoulders and swirling in my face. To breathe I had to tuck my head into an armpit. Once the spindrift slide stopped, I down climbed to a cave, crawled inside and made space for my partners David Fay and Craig Muderlak. We waited several hours for conditions to improve on the northwest face of The Citadel (8,305′).

For the previous twelve days, changing weather cycles had produced alternating hazards of wet avalanches and fresh, heavy snow. We learned to climb at night to minimize the danger. But high on that face we had to reassess the risk.

We were three weeks into a six-week expedition, making first ascents on three peaks: Dogtooth Spire, the Wing and Spearhead. Pack rafts and handmade wooden skis would, with some luck, get us back to civilization. We’d flown in by ski plane with four weeks of food and a few hundred pounds of equipment.

From left to right: the Berserker Face of Peak 8909 and Spearhead (7,140).

[Illustration] Craig Muderlak

The Neacola Mountains, a subrange of the Aleutian Range, are 45 miles from the Pacific Ocean, yet feel far more remote because they’re tucked behind volcanoes and icefields. The range is composed of granite and compact meta-basalt. We explored the range’s climbing potential from our base camp on Pitchfork Glacier, one of two main glaciers in the region.

The American Alpine Club (AAC) archives editor told me before our trip that only eight parties had visited the Pitchfork Glacier since the ’60s, and half of these were teams focused on ski descents.

David Fay jams up Pitch 2 on the Red Dihedral (5.10+, 1,200′) on Dogtooth Spire.

[Photo] Craig Muderlak

First Attempt on Citadel: May 12

Our first objective of the trip was the northwest ridge of Citadel Peak, where British alpinists Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey had made strong attempts last spring.

Our initial try ended when we retreated low on the face because warm conditions created soft snow and melting ice.

New Routes on Dogtooth Spire: May 15-17

While it was too warm to climb snow on The Citadel, we climbed a new 1,200-foot rock route on the southwest face of Dogtooth Spire, (which ended up being a variation to another route we climbed later on our trip). Dogtooth is a rock buttress on Peak 7235. Although a team climbed the peak’s east ridge in 2011, to our knowledge, the steep southwest face had not yet been attempted.

The first line we climbed, the variation, followed crack systems to the left of the peak’s south prow. All three of us free climbed until we encountered a corner stacked with loose blocks. Here we pendulumed left and jammed crack systems to the top.

Twelve days later, we repeated the peak via another new route (see below) and during the descent we rapped into the loose corner and trundled the blocks. With the dangerous blocks gone, we straightened out our previous line of ascent. We called this direct route the Red Dihedral (5.10+ 1,200′).

The team made three attempts to climb Dogtooth Spire. They completed two routes up the wall: Red Dihedral (5.10+, 1200′) and Birthday Jorts (5.11a, 1000′).

[Photo] Craig Muderlak

First Ascent of Spearhead: May 18

Between attempts on Dogtooth Spire, we completed the likely first ascent of Spearhead (7,140′), a triangular-shaped mountain right of Peak 8909, at the head of the North Fork of the Pitchfork Glacier. My friend at the AAC said there were no reports of any teams climbing this peak. We ascended to a col then followed snow couloirs to reach a mixed step near the summit. We called this new route Shred Mode (70 degrees M4 2,000′), and named the peak Spearhead.

Final Attempt on The Citadel May 23

After quickly gaining 1,500 feet of elevation, we found ourselves in the snow cave, waiting to see if conditions would allow us to continue. On this attempt we climbed a deep notch to the top of the northwest buttress, 3,000 feet up, about three quarters of the way, but retreated when warm temperatures made the terrain unsafe due to avalanches. We called the feature we attempted The Sliver, and encountered difficulties up to 90 degrees AI4 M3.

Birthday Jorts on Dogtooth Spire: May 27-28

We attempted Dogtooth Spire’s south prow, climbing four pitches before retreating because of difficulty and for a lack of protection. The climbing consisted of steep slabs and a few flaring cracks. The next day, we climbed sustained cracks up a large, continuous right-facing corner system on the left side of Dogtooth’s southwest face, calling it Birthday Jorts (5.11a 1,000′). We named it in celebration of David’s birthday, May 28. On that day, we chose to wear cut-offs, jorts, which we brought on our trip for morale.

New Line on the Wing: May 31

For our last route, we descended to the Neacola Glacier and climbed a likely previously unclimbed, attractive spire on a sub-peak of Peak 6310, which we called the Wing. Climbing at night, we followed snow slopes up the peak’s northeast and north sides to reach the west col. From the col we ascended another 100 feet of steep 5.7 cracks to the summit.

The team climbed Spearhead via snow slopes up it’s northwest side. They called their route Shred Mode (70 degrees M4 2,000′).

[Photo] Craig Muderlak

The Adventure Out: June 2-9

The focus of our expedition was not only climbing: we included a human-powered element as well. Instead of flying out of the range by ski plane, we planned to return to the sea by ski, foot and pack raft.

After three weeks in the range, we packed our equipment and schlepped 100-pound loads down the Pitchfork Glacier on handmade wooden skis. We burned the skis when we began bushwhacking. We then spent six exhausting days of shuttling loads, scouting and running whitewater rapids in pack rafts, and slowly hiking through thick alder forests filled with fresh grizzly tracks.

David Fay drops into Class III rapids in the headwaters of the Big River.

[Photo] Craig Muderlak

The final journey was arduous: our food dwindled to scant rations, and we had serious doubts that we would make it to the ocean. At one point, we thought we’d have to cut our objective short by stopping at a lake where a plane could pick us up. But, on June 9, we floated out the mouth of the Big River at Cook Inlet. We were exhausted, hungry and incredibly happy.

We are grateful to the Copp-Dash Inspire Award from the American Alpine Club and the Shipton-Tilman Award from GORE-TEX for their generous sponsorship of our expedition.

[To learn more about the Neacola Range, check out the NewsWire “Spindrift Snow and No Pro: First Ascent of Mt. Reaper,” from June 9, 2015–Ed.]

Sources: Drew Thayer, The American Alpine Club,