Lower Spire (West Ridge)

A sunny day in Hatcher Pass is a rarity… a sunny day in late August in Hatcher Pass is about as close to divine providence as you can get so we took advantage of it. Jake Gano and I met up at 7:30 and drove to the pass. We were racked up and had started hiking by 9:45. 1.5 hours later we were at Prospect Pass under clear blue sky so up we went. Elsewhere I’ve written up a lengthy story of Lower Spire’s West Ridge so this time I’ll give a ridiculously detailed route description.

No one climbs these routes anymore. On a sunny day there will be 4 parties stacked up and waiting to commit death by top rope on The Slot (and I admit… The Slot is a good route), gobs of people lined up to tick off their latest project at Weekender Wall and 100 hikers up Wolverine on a Saturday afternoon, but no one climbs chossy wet ridges in the Talkeetnas anymore. Maybe people have wisened up. Maybe loose moss covered slabs topped with shaky chest freezer-sized blocks ready to topple with a mere touch aren’t meant to be ascended on a regular basis.

Regardless… these routes shouldn’t fall into obscurity. After all – any route first ascended by Anchorage legends Bob Spurr and Nick Parker should be repeated.

Everyone in Anchorage knows Nick Parker – but younger climbers might not be so familiar with Robert Spurr. Spurr was a UAA professor as well as an accomplished climber / mountain runner who was active from the late 50s through 1995. He climbed Denali in 1968. His first ascents include Isthmus, Lower Spire, Pastoral, Sheep Mountain, Temptation, Yisbo and other local peaks. He did the first winter ascents of Kickstep and Byron. Tragically he died in a fall on Colorado’s North Maroon Peak on Aug. 11, 1995. The annual race up Bird Ridge (the “Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb“) is named in his honor. You can read his obituary in the 1996 American Alpine Journal.

Spurr tried this route three times before finally getting up the West Ridge on July 6th, 1968. He had previously attempted the South ridge with Nick Parker (but turned around due to weather), the Northeast ridge with Dave Schneider (but turned around because of wet 5th class rock) and slogged up for an October reconnaissance (but opted not to try it due to winter conditions).

Spurr returned on July 6th, 1968 with Nick Parker, Jack Miller (from Washington) and Bill Burnett (from Colorado). They worked their way up the West Ridge all the way to 5800′ where they roped up. From there they climbed the up blocks and slabs to the summit. Once on the summit they left a register… but unfortunately it fell down inside the crack just below the summit slab. So if you’re up there peer down inside the chasm to see if you can see it. They then reversed the route – rapping one step and down climbing the rest. If you want the full write up it’s in the October 1968 Scree.

And with that said… the point is that Lower Spire is right there and that you should go climb it.

For the most part this route is pretty easy. Most of the route is 4th class with maybe a couple pitches of easy 5th – but these are the Talkeetna Mountains. Which is another way of saying that more than likely everything will be loose and wet. So take my route descriptions and recommendations with a grain of salt. If you’re lucky you’ll climb it in the midst of a high pressure system and the moss clods will be solid enough to stand on and the rock sticky and dry. If you luck out on those conditions a rope will be nice for getting down but you’d probably be all right without one for half of the pitches we roped up for. But don’t count on it. Count on black lichen acting as natural lubricant and on moss clods disintegrating under your feet if you try and stand on them.

To get to the base of the route follow the well marked trail up Glacier Creek from Reed Lakes all the way to Prospect Pass. This trail has recently been well marked by about 1000 cairns. Normally I’m not one to defend cairn construction but Harry Hunt & Co. have worked hard to turn what was once a network of trails into a single corridor. With the construction of the Snowbird Hut almost complete, more and more people will be working their way up this valley. Follow the cairns to stay on the trail / reduce impact and you can easily get to the pass in 1.5 hours. Once you’re there turn right and head up the jumbled talus slopes that are at the base of the west ridge.

Spoiler Alert! If you’re the type that doesn’t want a detailed route description then quit reading right now. You’ll be able to figure out the route- it’s a ridge. Route finding means going up. So quit reading and go climb the route.

If you want a route description then here you go. To illustrate the nature of the route I have named all the pitches. Maybe the Spurr and Parker had some names for the pitches but they climbed so much that they never bothered recording those obscure teetering ridges. So here you go…

Ascend the talus for several hundred feet. At first it’s a wide jumble of blocks but after a while everything starts pinching together. Stay on the ridge crest and after about 500′ you’ll reach a grassy sidewalk that narrows. Scramble over some boulders and across a sidewalk width grass ramp and up to an obvious stance just beneath two large boulders that block your progress. This is the start of the “technical” portion of the route and where most people will rope up. From this point to the summit we belayed a total of 6 1/2 pitches.

Pitch 1: The Dank Chasm: The first pitch is characterized by a single move over a 10′ chasm; scramble up blocks to a stance 10′ above a drop into a dark chasm and make an exposed step over to a covered lichen slab. You can bypass this pitch by crawling inside the chasm and squeezing through a narrow chimney gully to a grass sidewalk but it’s not as fun. Step across the “dank chasm” and then scramble up 100′ of moss / grass and over a rock step to a stance at the base of a rock slab.

Pitch 2 – Moss Clod Slab: After the chasm pitch you’re confronted a steep wet slab. Both times I’ve climbed this pitch it’s been wet and the moss has disintegrated under my feet. I climbed it in mountain boots and in rock shoes. With rock shoes you can easily walk up the rock slabs but anytime you step on the moss (which is inevitable) your shoes become useless slick soles. Ascend either the moss clods or tiptoe up the rock using an occasional crack for gear. Once at the top of the slab continue 50′ past the rap anchor and over a short blocky section to the base of the second slab.

Pitch 3 – Botanical Gardens Slab: This is an interesting pitch. Climb 100′ of moss barely clinging to granite slabs taking care not to step on any of the clods because of the fragile environment. Were this pitch transplanted to the corner of Tudor and Campbell Airstrip Road it would be the star of the show at the Alaska Botanical Gardens. Maybe one day word will get out and some budding entrepreneur will start leading garden tours up here. Belay at a boulder slung with a sling.

Pitch 4 – Teetering Black Blocks: This is the first vertical pitch. It’s easy climbing – at most low 5th class albeit on loose wet lichen covered rock. Choose any route as long as it goes up and towards the ridge. You’re aiming for a large grassy ledge with a boulder that has 2 slings around it. From the top of the Botanical Gardens Slab to the top of this pitch is about 100′.

Pitch 5 – Vertical Moss Pitch: Pitch 5 traverses over to the north side of the peak and then climbs up mossy corners and ledges. Aim for a flat spot on the ridge with boulders on either side of it. Once you pull up over the final lip you’ll be face to face with a large slung block complete with slings and a biner. This wet pitch is about 100′ and wanders quite a bit due to the mossy nature.

From the top of pitch 5 scramble up the ridge on surprisingly good rock to a stance underneath a large slung boulder. Climb up and over the boulder and you’ll be at a stance above a cleft. From here you need to either down climb or rap off the right (south) side of the ridge. Drop down and left about 20 feet (towards the summit) to a stance at the base of the summit slabs.

Pitch 6 -The Equine Pitch: This is the pitch you’ve come all this way to climb. Everyone loves an au cheval grovel and this one delivers. Climb up grassy ledges to the exposed slabs. You’ll have two fun 25′ au cheval sections broken by a couple exposed blocky moves. There is a stance right below the final summit slabs with good gear where the leader can belay the follower up and you can both tag the summit.

Descending: If you’ve made it this far it’s probably either raining or about to. Look over your shoulder at the clouds, say a prayer (descending those slabs in the rain will suck) and start moving. Down climb the Equine Pitch and scramble all the way back to the slung boulder. From the boulder you’ll have 5 raps with a touch of down climbing in-between some of the stations. Each station is rigged for a single 60m rope. We cleaned a couple old anchors, backed up a couple anchors and installed one new anchor (at the top of the Moss Clod Slab). Rapping a few of these mellow pitches feels kind-a silly (they would be easy down climbs) but if it’s wet then a rope feels good.

It took us about 9 1/2 hours car to car but we were pretty slow on the way up due to the sunny weather and killer views. For gear we took a single 8.5 60m rope and a selection of medium cams from .25-2″ and a couple long pieces of cord. Don’t bother with nuts or a #10 hex.

And that’s about it. Except for the obvious, which is: Go Do It.

Addendum 09/01/11: While writing this I dropped an email to local mountain historian Steve Gruhn asking about Robert Spurr. He passed along a list of Spurr’s first recorded ascents in Alaska; they include the following:

  • Adjutant Peak (8350) in the Spectrum Glacier and Gravel Creek drainages of the Chugach Mountains in 1973
  • Alabaster (8065) in the Spectrum Glacier, Coal Creek, and Gravel Creek drainages of the Chugach Mountains in 1970
  • Mount Gordon Lyon (4134) near Rendezvous Pass in the Western Chugach Mountains in 1952
  • Hut Peak (6695) near Whiteout Pass in the Western Chugach Mountains in 1972
  • Isthmus Peak (6532) in the Spencer Glacier and Trail Glacier drainages of the Kenai Mountains in 1967
  • Katodoyona (5530) near Hatchethead Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains in 1969
  • Mooswa Peak (5020) in the Block Creek and Silvertip Creek drainages of the Kenai Mountains in 1967
  • Pastoral Peak (4764) near Taylor Pass in the Kenai Mountains in 1967
  • Rendezvous Peak (4084) near Rendezvous Pass in the Western Chugach Mountains in 1953
  • Snow Hawk Mountain (3245) near Cottonwood Pass in the Front Range of the Western Chugach Mountains in 1953
  • Trident Peak (6050) in the North Fork of the Snow River and Ptarmigan Lake drainages of the Kenai Mountains in 1969
  • Mount Waw (8615) in the Gooseneck Glacier, Moby Dick Glacier, and Wolverine Crag Glacier drainages of the Romanzof Mountains of the Brooks Range in 1970