Bear Point (Northwest Couloir)

Update 2/5/2021

This post is getting a ton of traffic so I’ll post what I posted elsewhere here since people have said it’s poignant…

I took this photo of a dead climber years ago but never posted it. It’s grotesque and, given the small community and the ease at which you could figure out who it is, disrespectful. I’m posting because sometimes you to step back from the hype that is social media and acknowledge the risk and consequences.

The accident on Bear Point brings this home for me. I’ve climbed the route and written about it, as I often do. We had a great day with no mishaps and it seemed like a mellow route. Recent posts of people skiing it in powder had me thinking I should ski it.

Tom, Matt and Edward obviously had a very different experience. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we can guess: A trigger somewhere, a wall of snow and unsurvivable trauma as they were thrown down the route. Tom had three daughters, Matt had three sons – and suddenly the lives of many people have been upended.

I doubt this accident will really change anyone’s approach to risk. We might rethink climbing Bear because of these three, just as we might rethink climbing Goat because of Danny Dresher, or Yukla because of Dasan Marshall. We might rethink skiing Marmot because of Randy Bergt, Raggedtop because of Joel Schihl, or Tincan because of Todd Frankiewicz. We can tell ourselves that we’d never climb a route like that after a wind event (or ski a run like that with fresh snow) but we all know someone who did and got away with it, and half of us have done it ourselves. The ones that didn’t get away with it are filed away in our collective unconscious as lessons we try to heed.

We move on thinking we’ve learned something based on the mishaps of others while sons and daughters and wives and mothers and brothers and sisters and friends are left picking up the pieces.

NPS slingloading a body out from Denali.

Update 2/3/2021

On Feb. 2nd 2021 three climbers were caught in an avalanche on this route and died. 54-year-old Tom Devine of Chugiak, Alaska, 43-year-old Matthew Nyman of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and 50-year-old Edward Watson, of Miami, Florida were discovered buried at the bottom of the route.  My condolences to the friends and families of these climbers. The Anchorage climbing community is small and these guys were friends of friends, and by all accounts great people.

The official report from CNFAIC is here.

Note: This route is steep and has a large bowl at the top that collects snow & is avalanche prone. The couloir pinches down a few hundred feet below the top and turns the route into a funnel. The bottom of the route always has a huge debris pile. Being caught in a slide while on this route – especially near the bottom or middle – would be fatal. Choose your day wisely.

Avalanche debris at the base of the route.

Middle funnel / choke point.

Upper avalanche prone bowls.

For years I’ve been eyeing the couloirs that snake directly up the north face of Bear Point (the wall above Mirror Lake on the Glenn Highway). There are 2 very obvious lines – a direct couloir that drops straight off the summit for almost 3000′ and a twisty turny line that ascend though rock bands and tops out just east of the summit. This year the couloirs have been melting out and thin ribbons of ice have been appearing, making them quite appealing!

After eyeing them for a couple weeks I talked Bryce and Yvonne into heading up there to check them out. We opted to go for the obvious northwest direct couloir, not knowing what the other would entail. So we left one car at the Peter’s Creek trailhead, parked another car at the scout camp and started the tromp up through the woods.

The approach was quite easy this time of year; there was a little devils club to deal with but little snow and in less than an hour we had reached the base of the couloir and started up. The bottom portion had mounds of debris from a season’s worth of slides, but everything was quite stable so we headed up.

About 500′ up we finally encountered the ice; a thin ribbon snaking uphill. We had hauled ropes, screws, pins and pickets so dug out the ropes and Bryce headed up. Unfortunately the ice only last about 25′ – and then it was back to snow. Bryce set a belay and brought up Yvonne while I soloed up ahead and began booting up the couloir. Above the ice, Yvonne unroped and then we all set off.

The rest of the couloir was straightforward; essentially you climb close to 2500′ of snow that averages 40 degrees with steeper steps while you twist and turn up a very narrow gully with steep rock walls on either side. It took us about 3 hours to reach the top.

Upper slopes. Exposed to sun and wind and often loaded.

Obvious wind loading at the top.

At the top we repacked all our gear and then headed down. As we neared treeline I saw a pit in the snow with tracks all around it; we all started over to investigate it when suddenly we realized the tracks were bear tracks and that there was fur all over the place; in a panic we all sprinted away thinking we had found a bear den. After that the decent was straight forward; except that we didn’t know where the trail was and got a bonus bushwhack down 1000′ of steep willow slopes.

The line we climbed was fun and straight forward. If you’re interested in heading up there for some urban alpine, I would suggest you check out the line that tops out east of the summit. It appears to have a bit more ice in it and is a tad steeper. Leave one car at Peter’s Creek and park at the Scout Camp; it will take you about an hour to reach the base. Be aware of the upper slopes which are avalanche prone.