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Frieh Finds Two Late-Season Ascents In AK

Mt. Burkett (9,730′) from the Canadian side of the Coast Range, showing Can’t Knock The Hustle (IV 5.8 M4 AI4). The route, established by John Frieh and Doug Shepherd on October 6, marks the first recorded ascent of Burkett’s northwest face. [Photo] John Scurlock

In 16 hours, camp-to-camp, over October 5 and 6, John Frieh and Doug Shepherd climbed the first recorded ascent of the northwest face of Mt. Burkett (9,730′) in Southeast Alaska. Can’t Knock The Hustle (IV 5.8 M4 AI4) follows a central line up the circa 2,500-foot face, reaching its technical crux in the final pitches up to the summit.

Mt. Burkett, part of the 1,000-mile Coast Range, borders south arm of the Baird Glacier on the Stikine Ice Cap. “Glaciers run out to sea-level from peaks of 9,000 to 10,000 feet of mixed ice and rock (both igneous and sedimentary, nearly always loose and badly shattered),” Derek Fabian of the Scottish Mountaineering Council wrote in the 1996 American Alpine Journal. With a recorded annual rainfall of 110in in the nearest town of Petersburg, climbing success on the Stikine has been severely limited by weather through the decades.

Mt. Burkett was first climbed by a Scottish-Canadian team of Kenneth Bryan, Norman Harthill, George Liddle and Edward Thompson in July 1965. They traced a 2,000-foot line dividing the exposed granite on the southeast ridge and the steep ice and snow of the east face, finding climbing that was “continuously steep,” wrote Fabian, who led the expedition.

The second ascent came 15 years later when Bruce Tickell and Walter Vennum climbed steep, snow-covered ice, fifth-class rock and ice flakes and slabs up the northeast ridge.

John Frieh navigates a patch of alpine ice roughly one-third of the way up the northwest face of Burkett. [Photo] Doug Shepherd

John Frieh closes in on the summit of Burkett. The technical crux of Can’t Knock The Hustle came in the final few hundred feet. [Photo] Doug Shepherd

Michael Bearzi and Dieter Klose, now the Stikine Ice Cap Manager and “the Stikine’s most inspired and accomplished explorer,” said Washington alpinist Jens Holsten, visited the peak in 1980. They finished off their 35-day trip to the area by simulclimbing and soloing nearly all of the prominent couloir on the left side of the south face, including 700 feet of black ice. While their ascent of Golden Gully took just 7.5 hours, base to summit, the duo had to wait out a five-day storm at their base camp before hiking the 24 miles out to Thomas Bay.

In 1994, Seattle climbers Dan Cauthorn and Greg Collum made a successful ascent after turning back on their initial attempt and spending ten tent-bound days at the base of the south face. Climbing the concave southeast face, they found difficulties up to 5.9. They radioed their helicopter from the summit and were back in Seattle within 24 hours.

Burkett saw its first solo ascent in 2005, by an AI3 variation of the 1994 South Face route. Unseasonably warm weather left just the south face in condition for Petersburg-resident Zac Hoyt. He left camp on April 23 with a bivy sac, 40m of rope and two days of food and fuel. Soft snow limited his pace for the first 400m, until temperatures dropped around midnight. Gaining the southeast ridge required tunneling through thick rime without his pack. Hoyt then moved quickly along the ridge to the middle summit, fixing the final pitch.

In 2009, from the summit of a yet unnamed peak across the glacier, Max Hasson and Jens Holsten spied “a huge, snaking granite arete splitting the snow climbs on Mt. Burkett’s south face.”

“A chord rang within me–the immensity and obvious difficulty of that feature demanded my attention,” Holsten wrote in the 2010 AAJ.

Two days later, Holsten was struggling to find protection on the tight, granite seams on that same ridge. Though they turned back on that attempt due to Hasson’s shooting back pains, the two climbers returned two days later and finished National Public Ridge at 5.10R AI3.

This October 5, Frieh and Shepherd flew into Petersburg and used the remaining hours to get as high on the south face of Burkett as they could. While their goal was to climb the opposite, Canadian side of the peak, there are no air services that regularly fly into the area. More importantly, gaining the face from the west would have required much more serious glacier navigation, says Shepherd.

“Not sure it would of been possible in the time period we had. John’s previous trips gave us perfect beta for getting from the heli-landing site to the bivy site next to the glacier with minimal hassle.” It took them around two hours to get from the helicopter to camp.

The following morning they headed up the glacier toward the col that would bring them to the northwest face. A snow bridge spanning the final crevasse gave Frieh and Shepherd more excitement than the expected moderate snow climb warranted. “I had to cowboy arete this thing and leave a picket to get down,” Frieh said.

John Frieh crosses a tenuous snow bridge on the approach to Burkett’s northwest face. “I had to cowboy arete this thing and leave a picket to get down,” Frieh said. [Photo] Doug Shepherd

Once they were through the col, they descended as far as they “thought was appropriate,” said Frieh, and started their ascent. Long simulclimbing blocks brought them through steep snow, ice and some granite sections–classic north face terrain. After summiting at 4 p.m., the climbers descended Golden Gully, navigating “more glacier hijinx–again in the dark” before reaching camp 16 hours after they had left.

Doug Shepherd below the Mt. Burkett-Burkett Needle col on October 6. [Photo] John Frieh

With a small weather window and Shepherd just six weeks out of surgery for degenerative arthritis, he and Frieh chose this straightforward climb that they could do quickly and with minimal frontpointing. Shepherd wore his double boots instead of singles and neglected to tell his physical therapist about the trip.

Frieh and Shepherd’s drop-off point at Burkett Boulder on the south arm of the Baird Glacier, with Burkett Needle, left, and Mt. Burkett, right. [Photo] John Frieh

“It was actually awesome to just be doing a super fun moderate FA, I’ve been shut down so much the last few years chasing hard new routes,” said Shepherd, who put up a bold, 5,000-foot line with Frieh in the Ruth Gorge earlier this year, No Such Thing As A Bargain Promise (VI A0 WI5R M6) on Mt. Dickey.

Cook Inlet (V AI4 M4), Mt. Wake (9,100′)

While Frieh and Shepherd’s Burkett ascent was already a bonus for their climbing season (Stikine Ice Cap Manager Dieter Klose allowed the climb despite the area having been closed for the season), Frieh got a bonus to his bonus by climbing a new route on Mt. Wake in the Ruth Gorge two weeks after returning from the Stikine. He tied in for the first time with Jess Roskelley, son of John Roskelley who put up the Northeast Ridge of K2 in 1978 and cover photographer of Alpinist 38.

“It was a blind date,” Frieh laughed.

A tank welder on the North Slope of Alaska, Jess Roskelley works for two weeks and has two weeks off, often time he uses to climb. This was his first trip to the Ruth, but he has soloed the West Buttress of Denali, climbed Mt. Hunter’s West Ridge and attempted Hunter’s North Buttress last April.

Jess Roskelley and John Frieh on the summit of Mt. Wake (9,100′). On October 22, the duo put up a new route through the Johnson-Wake col and up the south face of Mt. Wake, the Cook Inlet (V AI4 M4). [Photo] John Frieh

Flying into the Gorge from Talkeetna, Frieh had several projects in mind (“Don’t ask me what they are. I won’t tell you.”), but the lines were thin and temperatures low enough that they’d have to carry bivy gear and wouldn’t be able to move as quickly. They settled on a Mt. Wake line that was in condition, with good consolidation, little wind loading and relatively stable seracs.

The pair ascended the col between Mt. Johnson and Mt. Wake and then the thousand-foot south aspect of Wake. The lower half of the route features mixed climbing and serac climbing, and the upper section takes a direct line through rock bands on the broad south face to the 9,100-foot summit. They graded the route, the Cook Inlet, Grade V AI4 M4.

While climbing this late in the Alaska season is highly uncommon, it’s not unheard of. Frieh found hints at the possibility of a fall climbing season in the Mooses Tooth massif in the Alpinist 4 Mountain Profile and American Alpine Journals from years past. Though temperatures at this time of year are frigid, the avalanche danger is generally low and cool temperature also mean more stable seracs.

Since then, Frieh has been watching the weather and waiting for that fabled fall season, and this was the first year it came to fruition.” I don’t think it will be a consistent, year-to-year thing, but anyone willing to watch the weather close enough will be rewarded time to time,” Frieh said.

John Frieh and Jess Roskelley gear up for their climb on Mt. Wake. [Photo] Talkeetna Air Taxi

Sources: John Frieh, Jess Roskelley, Doug Shepherd, 1966 AAJ, 1980 AAJ, 1981 AAJ, 2006 AAJ, 2010 AAJ,