Thursday was Yvonne’s birthday so we had a party; a bunch of people came over and we cooked up a bunch of salmon and made halibut tacos. As usual halfway through the night talk turned to where to go for the weekend. The weather looked good and we were itching to go out so Yvonne bailed on work for Friday. Later in the evening Eric stopped by and casually mentioned that J.T. and Tony were headed up Polar Bear for the weekend. J.T. is in the top 3 on my ‘who to call for conditions and beta in the Chugach’ list (along with Wayne and Steve who were both at our party) so our ears pricked up. Polar Bear? It’s high on the list and if J.T. and Tony are heading up there then conditions are probably good. Besides, I figured, if our timing is right then we should be able to jump right into their tracks and boot up to the summit. Wayne and Steve concurred that it would be a good time to try it and Steve opted to join us so we planned to pack up in the morning and hike in Friday afternoon.
The next day we packed up and by 2 pm Yvonne, Steve and I were hiking up the Eagle River trail. Our packs were obscenely heavy for an overnight trip. Yvonne and I both had our winter (-20) bags plus we hauled a stove, pan, tent, bivy sacks, ice axe, ice tools, crampons, snowshoes, pickets, ice screws, rock and glacier gear, a 60 m rope, tennis shoes (to cross the river in) and leather mountaineering boots. Despite the load we made good time and within 2 hours we shed our pants and donned tennis shoes for the Eagle River crossing.
It is still early in the year so the river was low – less than knee deep – and we made it across without difficulty. We then started up what we thought was the trail only to realize, after 45 minutes of bashing around, that we had taken the wrong ‘path’. We descended back to the river, found the right trail and began hiking up.
The trail is well traveled and within an hour we had ascended 1000′ and were near treeline in the meadows above Eagle River. Another hour of bushwhacking and thigh deep rotten snow (we were way off route) put us in the hanging valley below the North face of Polar Bear Peak where we were surprised to see another tent. We dropped our packs and stumbled over to find Mr. Chugach himself – Richard Baranow – cooking dinner with his climbing partner Matt Lee. We were surprised to hear that Polar Bear was his objective as well; the high Chugach doesn’t see too many climbers and now 7 people were going to be gunning for Polar Bear all on the same day? Richard didn’t mind though; when it comes to climbing in the Chugach he is very open and welcoming – and always eager to show climbers the mountains and routes he loves. “If it’s crowded we’ll just fix and rope to the top and haul everyone up!” he bellowed.
We set the alarms for 5am and the next morning dawned clear and cold. A heavy frost had formed a nice crust over the rotten snow and at 7am we began kicking steps up towards the peak. Around 7:30 we caught sight of J.T. and Tony and by 8am they had caught us and passed us by, kicking steps up the lower portion of the route.
The lower portion of the route begins with a rather steep traverse across a slope to reach the lower slopes below the hanging glacier. It’s a no-fall zone but the snow was good and soon we were across and booting up to the glacier. We crested the lower steep slopes at 9:30 and by 9:45 we were booting up the hanging glacier. Unfortunately the clouds began to roll in and we booted the entire glacier in thick mist with about 100′ of visibility in all directions. At 11am we reached the base of the rock band. J.T. and Tony were itching to go so J.T began leading up what he thought to be the route – only to discover that it ended on a sharp ridge of rock that he didn’t want to touch. He down-climbed, traversed right and began booting up the correct gully. However – 100′ up he reached an ice band and given that he had no ice gear and a mountain axe he didn’t feel comfy. So down he came.
By now Richard and Matt had joined us and we began to feel a little cramped. 7 people bunched up at the base of an alpine route feels a little claustrophobic, but Richard was eager to get us up so he jogged up the route and a rope was dragged up. The winds had picked up and we were all getting cold so we stamped and bounced to stay warm. Soon the rope was fixed and Matt, J.T. and Tony jugged up the line. I followed shortly afterwards and belayed Steve and Yvonne up behind me. Richard had lead up the famous “Sassera’s Chimney,” protecting it with a couple cams. The chimney was spectacular climbing – 100′ of mid-5th class rock with an ice band right down the middle; one hand sunk the tool in the ice, the other grabbed decent rock on either side. By 3pm all 7 of us were on top! Richard and Matt downclimbed another route while the rest of us enjoyed 5 minutes of sunlight before the wind and snow came back.
Once on the top we rigged a rap station right off the top. I dropped down to the base of the chimney where I set another pin and then equalized the existing pin with a long piece of cordellte. Rapping off the existing pin would have been good enough for 2 people – but not 5. After rigging the station everyone rapped down to me and then down another rope length to the base of the steep section where they unroped and downclimbed the glacier.
By 5:30 we were back at the base of the hanging glacier and proceeded to downclimb the lower slopes. By 6:30 we were all off the mountain and back on level ground! The clouds that had hung over us all day burned off and we finally put on sunscreen and hiked back to camp.
Back at camp Yvonne, Steve and I opted to stay another night despite being out of food. Tony graciously gave us a bag of trail mix and then they scampered down the trail – reaching their car by 10:30pm. Yvonne, Steve and I crashed hard, woke up at 8:30am and then leisurely hiked out – reaching our car by 2pm.