The Stikine Story

It is said that true adventure begins when things start to go wrong. Or at least not-as-planned. By this measure, if none other, Nate and I did little besides adventuring on our trip. The Coast Range created cruxes that our months of training had done little to train us for. And the ability to climb the scariest M-whatever, or jam the most painful ringlock did little good when we were getting swept downstream by rivers, or nervously dodging the grizzly whose tracks we'd followed all morning. It also didn't help us when trying to build ourselves a pair of boots...

Does this look mountain-worthy to you?

Pack it up, pack it in...
From the border crossing at Bellingham, we'd had 20 hours of winding roads and Canadian Public Radio until reaching the dock at Tattoga Lake, 100 miles East of Petersburg, AK.

Doing my best to not fall in. I usually succeeded.
Collecting our gear into an Eisenhower-era float plane, we were transported 50 miles west by a bush pilot kids might imagine to be Paul Bunyan's shorter, surlier, and more chain-smoking uncle. He personified the societal-fringe castaways that one only finds at Tattoga, the DMV, and other remote outposts of humanity. And somewhere in the course of loading gear and flying the plane, my partner Nate's boots had left our company. We still don't know if they were left on the plane's pontoon, or else improperly stored and unintentionally jettisoned mid-flight. But we did know that our intended route, the North Ridge of Mt. Ambition, was not a climb for Nate's barely-there Nike tennis shoes.

Putting our years of bushwhacking experience to work
Dismayed by the boot situation, we began hiking as planned, expecting two days of rough travel to reach the icecap and surrounding peaks. We were soon enjoying a few hornet nest 'adventures', river wading 'adventures' and surprise crevasse-spelunking 'adventures' on route to the Scud glacier. At times these would combine to create 'superadventures', such as when I stumbled into a hornets nest and nearly tripped over backwards into the river.

And after gaining the toe of the Scud , we were treated to the further 'adventure' of determining just how far our food, pitons, and climbing shoes had traveled from the initial impact site of our obviously-exploded supplies airdrop.

Fortunately, these days of adventure provided us with ample time to design shoe improvements using now-expendable parts from A. my tennis shoes B. the plastic frame sheet from a backpack, C. Dyneema, SilNyoln, Tyvek, and other space age fabrics from our ill-fated glacial bombardment, and D. a brain-damaging quantity of Seam Grip. Nate and I had met five years ago, when we studied politics and Econ, respectively, at Western Washington University. And so lacking in any knowledge of design or engineering, our boot construction brainstorms were not subject to the types of pesky limitations (reality... for one) that would likely have plagued a more well-informed team of alpinists.

Nate rocking the omni-shoes

We were the third ever group of climbers to the area, with mountains peaks having seen one or no prior ascents. Gazing up to the summits, we watched the peaks shed seracs and stone thousands of feet down to onto the Scud. I sorted, rationed, and fretted over our drastically-reduced food stores while Nate went to work, transforming his well-used around-town kicks into what he dubbed the "omni shoe." They may never win an Editor's Choice, or a Guide's Choice, but without alternatives, they were pronounced to be Nate's choice, and may merit contention for the 2010 Golden Seam Grip Award. With stiff-plastic insoles (thanks Cilogear framesheet) Nate's shoes were made stiff enough to frontpoint. We'd been out 3 or 4 days and had already used EVERYTHING we'd brought (minus the first aid kit), often for things other than the intended purpose. We racked up and set the alarm for 2AM.

Our neve and alpine-ice route lead us 1,500' up the wall between Mt. Ambition (to our South) and Mt. Endeavor (to our North). Nate compared this part of our route to something like the Nisqually Icefall on Mt. Rainier, and we were happy to hit the ridge crest and no longer be under seracs as the sun rose. 

I was relieved to put on rock shoes and begin my lead block, but immediately realized that the grey stone we'd hoped would be clean granite was in fact some band of sedimentary garbage. Calling this stuff kitty litter would be an insult to the makers of Fresh Step. After 4 pitches of "oozing" up the crumbling filth, we had some introspective moments, deciding weather we wanted to commit ourselves, our one backpack, sleeping bag, and can of fuel, to several thousand feet of rock-climber Russian Roulette. We backed off.

Choss-aneering on our soon-aborted attempt

Fortunately, the rock in most of the range is granite, or granitic.From the col above our icefall, we turned north and the stone instantly improved. We rallied our spirits and adjusted to a new reality. Mt. Ambition was yesterday's news, and we were now going to make the most of our already-completed climbing by heading North up Mt. Endeavor. Though less visually striking than Ambition, Mt. Endeavor is only a couple hundred feet shorter and still a significant hunk of rock and ice. Our route from here would entail an additional 2-3,000' of easy rock climbing to reach the summit. We were the second party to reach the top of Endeavor, and named the climb Arete sans Chaussures (arete without boots) D 5.6 Moderate-Ice 4,000’ - difficulties in getting off the mountain, after a 4,000 foot route, were exacerbated by the fact that we had not intended to climb the mountain during that weather window, and knew nothing about its complex architecture. We ended up making a series of v-threads, leaving rock anchors, doing some downclimbing as a storm came in, and sacrificing about 70 feet of tat, along with many nuts and pitons. In homage to ratings in the black canyon guidebook where we'd trained together this spring, we give the descent from Mount Endeavor a "PDW" for Pretty Damn Western.

One of the things I most like about alpine climbing is the need to be resourceful, creative, and willing to adjust to surprises as a team. Our trip to the coast range provided ample opportunity to revel in these facets of climbing. And although overcoming such challenges isn't something easily reflected in a route description or journal article, it remains my most endearing impression of the trip, and the part of our performance for which I am most proud.

After a couple well-deserved rest days of rationing our calories, rebrewing our dwindling coffee supply, and eating "oatmeal plus" (it's oatmeal, + whatever scraps, crumbs, and gravel we'd collected off the glacier), we set out to climb the West Buttress of Peak 8,692’.  

Pitch numero uno

A few miles and maybe 2,000' of elevation gain on a glacier brought us to the base of the route, whereupon Nate fell into a crevasse, just to keep the adventure quotient up there.

Nate leads out on some nice rock

Soloing high on the crest

We climbed through shattered by mostly solid granite in four steep pitches to the aesthetic ridge crest, which continued, at around 5.7, on up to the summit. This had also been reached once before.  Our route was named  the Dalestrom (Dale + Maelstrom) in honor of our human-tornado of a seaplane pilot. We rated it 5.9  2,500' but after finally being able to pull on some decent holds, it could have been 5.8 or 5.10c, it was just nice not to be raining rock down on the belayer. 

Simulclimbing on the upper buttress

Following the descent off this peak, we knew we'd be cutting up slings and rope for any future rappels, and the ongoing 1,000-calorie diet was taking its toll. Without a lot of energy, we decided to spend a day in camp organizing and cleaning up. I built the ultimate alpine shower system (sorry ladies, no pictures) and we took turns scrubbing off the accumulated grit, gravel, and gunk of the past week. I was probably cleaner than Nate to begin with, as I had unexpectedly gone "swimming" in one of our first day river crossings.

The shower was created by finding an overhanging van-sized boulder, and tying a trekking pole such that it hung over the top of the boulder, but was anchored into the base with a climbing rope. I boiled 2 liters of water, put them in our dromedary bag, and clipped this to the trekking pole. Strip down, open up the valve on your dromedary, and voila... you've got burning hot water splashing you in the face while the rest of your body is freezing. It felt amazing...

Happy to be off the glacier
Marine Schwacking
On our final day out we were hoping to get off the glacier and into the stream crossings before the river had risen to its peak. Unfortunately, the river was MUCH HIGHER hiking out than hiking in. Experience helped us to know which side of the valley to be on, but we still enjoyed a thorough tour of the flooded woods on all sides, complete with crotch-deep wading, slide alder schwacking, and a bizarre combination of the two activities that was somehow even worse than it sounds. 

The fact that our river was full of glacial silt meant that you couldn't tell if a given spot was covered in 3 inches or 3 feet of flowing icy murk. Many times we'd suddenly step in holes or trip over hidden logs and rocks, shouting out beta to the person behind. Reaching the shores of Yehiniko Lake and building a much-dreamed-of fire was satisfying beyond words.

Thanks to the American Alpine Club and the Mazamas for helping us pay for the trip, and thanks to Nate for being a great partner on the adventure.

Mt. Endeavor is at the top left

A few notes on logistics and gear - The drive North from Bellingham took about 19 hours, and was memorable. BC just keeps on going! We narrowly avoided running out of gas after refusing to refuel in Stewart, Alaska, but it's a good idea to fill up whenever possible anywhere North of Smithers, BC.

Nuts and Bolts:
  • 2x 60L Cilogear Backpacks
  • 2-person expedition tent
  • MSR Whisperlite Stove and 4 bottles of white gas (used 3)
  • 2x 20-degree sleeping bags
  • 2x 3/4 length thermarests, the lightweight orange ones
  • Insulated Jacket, and ultralight rain shells
  • windstoppery Softshell pants and long johns
  • Rock shoes, tennis shoes (left at toe of glacier) and boots (one pair)
  • 2x 60m half ropes
  • 12 slings, a double set of cams, 1.5 sets of nuts, 5 pitons, 6 ice screws, crampons and 2 tools each
  • 3-Liter dromedary bag and 2 nalgenes

Bring an iPod, make sure your airdrop is done onto soft seasonal snow, bring more tat (100' feet), bring a small book with lots of pages, expect the unexpected, take more photos of non-climbing time, keep camera out of the river when you fall in, don't fall into the river, watch out for hornets, don't let Nate make "experimental" dinners, bring a big bag of all-purpose soup mix, bring more snickers and fewer powerbars, Seam Grip and Duct Tape are invaluable...


  1. Hahaha! Marine schwacking sounds terrible.

  2. Thanks for the awesome trip report! Sounds like a full-on adventure, and therefore a successful trip.

  3. I climbed Ambition Peak in 1967 as a first ascent as well as Endeavor Peak. I am glad that some climbers have finally returned to that area.