Carpathian Peak as seen from the summit of Byron.
Carpathian. It beckons to every climber and skier who happens to catch sight of it on a clear day. It looms above Turnagain arm like an impregnable fortress. You can’t help but gawk at the prominent summit as you drive by. Every time you top out on a peak in Turnagain, you turn and look to the Northeast hoping to catch a glimpse. See it on a clear day and you can’t help but start planning an attempt.
Most climbers have at least one attempt story. Many have multiple attempt stories – the stories all seem to have the same theme: Get to high camp, endure an epic storm, shovel like mad and then escape as soon as the snow relents. My 4 attempts span 14 years and fall into the above category as well as a couple others.
My first attempt was in May 1997. We were shooting for a weekend trip and had planned to fly up onto the Isthmus Icefield in Alpine Air’s Cessna. This was back when it was affordable to fly into peaks for a weekend. Alpine Air has since gotten rid of their fixed wings and now only fly helicopters – so the days of $30 hops are gone. Alas. Anyways- we packed our bags and drove south. It was raining so hard in Girdwood that the pilot never even showed up. That morning is permanently etched in my mind because after I got home I drove to a house in Muldoon and picked up my first dog – Pharaoh – a squirming dirty 6 week old puppy. I almost named him Carpathian.
My second attempt was in 2006. We loaded up the sleds and slogged up the Burns Glacier and then over to the Spencer Glacier. It snowed a ton and we shoveled for dear life. Food and fuel ran low, sleeping bags got wet and a mutiny within the ranks threatened our group. We ran home with tails between our legs. The memorable quote I have from that trip is Wayne Todd saying, “I’ve always wondered how these tide water glacier got so big”, while shoveling at 2am.
The third attempt was in 2007. Eric Parsons and I loaded up packs for a planned traverse from Byron to Carpathian. We climbed a fun ice route on Byron, got to the top, looked over the edge at a manky band of loose dirty rock and decided to go home.
Which brings me to my forth attempt. A high pressure system had been sitting over Alaska for 3 weeks. With the high pressure had come winds and all the good snow had blown away leaving wind ridges, sastrugi and blue ice. Skiing was as bad as it gets. People were falling down Flattop and calling for heli-rescues and I had to resort to climbing ice to stay sane. But thankfully the winds finally calmed down leaving behind ridges of perfect styrofoam snow. So after checking and rechecking (and rechecking) the weather forecast we loaded up the overnight packs and headed south to give Carpathian a try.
We started skiing around 9:30 Saturday morning with absurdly heavy packs. The initial lake crossing was percent – with just enough snow over blue ice to skate ski and double pole. Once across the lake we took the gully next to Portage Glacier and by mid morning were roping up on Portage Glacier.
The route up Portage Glacier was mellow and went by quickly and 7 miles / 5 hours after starting (with lots of stops for photo taking) we reached a plateau at 3000′ where we dropped our packs and set up camp.
After water melting and dinner we sat around enjoying the view, but by 7pm the temperature had dropped to -15 so we were in bed pretty early and didn’t stir until 7 the next morning.
The next day we were moving by 9:30. We skied another 2 miles up valley aiming for a col that lies to the Northeast of the peak. We were able to ski all the way to the col where we dropped our skis, switched to crampons and then began trudging up the North Ridge. The views were immaculate. Once topping out on the col we were looking down into Price William Sound on a perfect cloud and wind free day. Immediately to our east lay the 14 mile deep Blackstone Bay with the active Blackstone Glacier dumping icebergs into the water even in the dead of winter. Further south we could pick out Kings Bay and to our north Passage Canal glimmered in the sun. All areas that we’ve explored in summers past when the ice and snow gives way to water and salmon.
The slopes leading to the north ridge were quite mellow. About an hour of hiking brought us to a broad 40 degree ramp which deposited us on the ridge proper. From there it was about 500′ of narrow catwalks, bumps and icy slopes to the base of the summit pyramid. Perfect weather and perfect conditions made the route moderate and safe and we lazily worked our way up the ridge stopping frequently to take photos of everything from Portage Lake and the massive exposure on the north face to the Isthmus Icefield and Kings Bay.
The final summit pyramid consisted of about 400′ of 50 degree snow though rock bands to a broad summit platform that easily fit our party of 5. We sat around looking in all directions marveling at the views and picking out places we’ve been and places we want to go.
We then turned and downclimbed the route – reversing the top steep snow with pickets and then safely picking our way across the ridge and back down to our skis. Then down the col, carving turns in the hard pack and back to our tent 7 hours after starting.
We packed up camp and then set off again, roping up briefly for the upper icefall but then unroping when tensions flared (I hate roped up skiing). 3 hours after leaving high camp we were back at the car.
And then driving away at dark tired and happy glad to be warm. Carpathian had finally been climbed and I was already trying to figure out how to get to the next peak on the horizon.
Carpathian Peak (5846′), North Ridge – 3000′, glacier travel, exposed ridgeline, snow to 50 degrees
Of course I have to add some info about potential ski descents. Carpathian begs to be skied. It’s one of the biggest peaks in the area, it looms above everything on the drive south and you look at it from every summit in Turnagain Pass. All of which makes many skiers lust for a descent. Carpathian does get skied – but it gets skied by the best of the best. It’s the type of run that’s in the ski movies (see Warren’s Millers “Wintervention” for footage of Hagen and Davenport making a heli descent of the peak). I won’t add any ski beta for the route – if you’re good enough to ski it you don’t need me telling you how it may be done. But if you’re going up there keep in mind that the mountain has all 5 elements of big mountain skiing: (1) No Fall Terrain, (2) Avalanche Danger, (3) Sluff Management, (4) Crevasses, and (5) Icefall. Choose your day and route wisely.
If you have any questions about Alaskan peaks just email mountain historian Steve Gruhn. I dropped him a note asking about the first ascent and he replied:
Carpathian was first climbed in April 1959 by Ted Barrett, Keith Hart, and Mat Nitsch. They ascended via Portage Glacier. The second ascent was on July 26, 1964, via the Skookum Glacier by Keith Degenhardt, Paul Crews, Jr., Jim Phelps, and John Fisher. Also check out the May 1959 Scree and the August 1959 Scree for more information on the first recorded ascent. There’s not much there, but the May, 7, 1959, Anchorage Daily Times article is archived in the Grace and John Vincent Hoeman Collection at the Consortium Library Archives and Special Collections Room (open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays).
If you’re looking for something spicier consider a third ascent of “Local Hero” – Sassera and Dugan’s 1983 route on the West Face. Charlie Sassera describes the route as follows:
In Sept 83 Bob Dugan and I crossed over the notch on the West Ridge of Byron and camped on the Skookum Glacier. There was heavy fog and rain, but the next morning it cleared up enough for us to launch up the dike (greywacke) that runs in a plumb line from the summit just left of the hanging glacier on Carpathians’ West Face.
We took a 120′ 7mm, about 12-16 pieces of protection, crampons, an ice tool each and lunch. The route ended up being about 30 pitches though we simul climbed the majority. At about 3/4 height the dike faded into a slate/shale/&(@#$ with intermittent snow and ice. It took us 10 hours to climb the face so by the time we down climbed the South Ridge and went around the Nunatak it was dark. The moon came up and we were able to make our way through the lower icefall. We figure the hardest climbing to be 5.8, but most of it 4th and easy 5th class.
It was a brilliant day where everything clicked perfectly. The next weekend John Markel and Dave McGivern climbed the route, but had to bivi when one of their route choices proved complicated. As far as I know, it has not had another ascent. Dugan was into Dire Straits at the time, so we dubbed it “Local Hero”.
Carpathian was also the scene of an August 1977 climbing accident where 3 climbers died in a fall. The climbers names were Don Pahlke, Jeff Moeller and Linda Hesting. You can read more about the accident here. Don Pahlke was an accomplished climber who was on the team that the first winter ascent of Mt. Blackburn in 1975. Jeff Moeller was from the suburbs of Philadelphia and had done a fair bit of climbing. He had just been accepted into Harvard Law School and was in Alaska for a 2 month climbing vacation when his life was cut short.
For more online sources check out:
And a final note… just to put these photos of sunny glaciers in perspective: This area sees an average annual precipitation of 197 inches of rain and 241 inches of snowfall. That’s more than 16 feet of rain and 17 feet of snow! Needless to say take the weather into account when planning to head up there. This is what it usually looks like up there:
Wayne & Carrie on the Spencer Glacier