Eric and I wanted to climb Benevolent (7126′). We biked out the Eklutna road, hiked 2.5 miles down the East Fork until we reached Tulchina Falls and then followed a narrow and overgrown hunter/climbers trail complete with fixed ropes and alder tunnels to treeline.
Biking around Eklutna Lake.
Alder tunnel going up. Yes that’s a good trail.
Fixed rope circa 1982.
At treeline we tried to get to Benevolent by first going low… but were stopped by brush. Then we tried going high…but were stopped by cliffs. To make a long story short, we gave up the Benevolent attempt before we even started and opted to console ourselves with Baneful Peak.
Hermit thrush nest.
Eric checking out the map and confirming we way off route.
Baneful Peak at 5,495′ would be a worthy objective were it else in Chugach State Park, but when dwarfed by 6,000′, 7,000′ and 8,000′ peaks like Bashful, Baleful and The Mitre, it seems trivial and hardly worth the effort. Thus we halfheartedly started our scramble up the grassy tundra slopes just above treeline. However – within a couple hundred feet the ridge quickly transformed from a tundra stroll to an exposed 3rd class scramble as we gained elevation. The north side of the ridge was a 1500′ cliff to our left – and the south side of the ridge was a 4000′ steep slope on our right. We scrambled on – every step of the way becoming a little more intricate and interesting.
Typical scrambling along the West Ridge.
Eric route-finding in the one exposed section.
For the most part the ridge consisted of moderate scrambling around big loose boulders with little exposure or danger. One spot the ridge narrowed and we were forced to scramble onto a short sidewalk with big air beneath our feet, but the exposed scrambling was easy and within 6 hours of leaving the trail head we were standing on the summit looking out at perfectly clear hot sky in all directions.
Peak 6350′ and the Red Spot Glacier.
Benevolent Point. Standard route takes the obvious couloir.
Big bad Baleful – summit is the left point.
Bashful – south face. You can see the area where Chickenshit gully is and the final summit ridge.
Bold – south face. Final scree field pictured. Stivers Gully is hidden by the ridge in the foreground.
Eric asleep on the summit in 70 degree summer sun. Across the valley is the massive North face of The Mitre.
This is the face the Cory Hinds and Matt Hickey rappeled down after their aborted traverse of the skyline (Mitre > Ovis > White Lice).
It was 2pm – way too early to be on top of your objective when you have almost 24 hours of sunlight and a 24-hour hall pass. We looked in all directions trying to figure out what to do next. Eric scrambled down the ridge in the hopes of piecing together a route to the next point on the ridge (6530′), but the ridge quickly turned into crumbling knife-edged choss so he returned to the summit and promptly fell asleep in the 75 degree sun. Thus ended our route up Baneful. Returning to the valley via our ascent route would have been an easy scramble and we would have been home early for once.
But that’s not what happened.
Eric and I were retracing our steps down the West ridge when I began to eye the southern slopes and picking out an alternative descent route. The conversation went something like this:
Me: I think we should descend the south face – I can see a scree gully that will take us all the way to the river.
Eric: Umm… pretty sure that’s not a route. What you’re looking at is foreshortened and you can’t see the entire route.
Me: No – I can see a route. I think we should try it.
Eric: Umm… pretty sure that’s not a route.
Me: No – I can see a route. Right there.
Eric: That’s not a route. You’re going to totally F us Billy, I know it… But sure – I’ll try it!
This should have been a sign. If Eric hesitates then I should also hesitate. I interpreted Eric’s willingness to try the route as a sign that he too thought the route would go…as opposed to the reality of the situation – which was that Eric saw a challenge. Be it attempting to replicate starvation while biking to the McCandless bus, bushwhacking with his fatbike, or surviving HAPE – Eric loves a challenge.
And so we went down. I should preface this by first saying that I had run out of water rather early in the day and was super parched. We reached water soon enough and I was able to rehydrate – but the damage was done and I was already suffering from signs of dehydration. Dehydration coupled with 75 degree sun, coupled with an allergy attack from the high pollen count meant I wasn’t as strong as I needed to be. But once again I conveniently ignored the signs and plowed on.
It was a 4000′ descent to get to the valley floor. The first part of the descent went by quickly as we connected grass ramps and wet rotten snow gullies that avalanched as we sprinted across them. Then we reached a series of rocky ledges, which we easily connected by weaving back and forth. By then we had descended more than half of the 4000′, but progress was slowing. What had before been a series of large ledges with easy steps to the next ledge now became a series of sidewalks that required steep downclimbing to get to the next ledge. Some of the downclimbing was downright scary – loose rock, wet rock, hand over hand down willow and alder branches to ledges that wouldn’t catch you should you take a tumble.
After 500′ of sketchy rock climbing we reached a series of ledges that were covered in dense thickets of brush. We were then forced to climb down steep loose chossy steps into 45 degree alder and devils club thickets. Our feet left the ground for extended periods as we alder surfed downhill in the hopes of finding a weakness in the cliffs below. After a false turn that ended atop a 300′ cliff we climbed out onto a ledge and spied a potential weakness 500′ to our left. I set off through the brush in search of the hopeful route with Eric behind me – then Eric took over the route finding and quickly left me behind.
Once the feet leave the ground for extended periods the grade climbs to BW4.
Up until this point I was feeling fine…I was nervous and tired – but physically I felt fine. But as I continued thrashing I suddenly started hyperventilating. I stopped for a while and tried to catch my breath – but as soon as I tried to clamber over an alder I collapsed in a pile breathing heavily. I tried again and again to get up – but each time my heavy breathing caused me to collapse. Finally I removed my pack, helmet, lay down and closed my eyes. In about 5 minutes my labored breathing had slowed down and I was able to dig into my pack and pull out my water, which I quickly finished. I then dug out some energy gels which I ate before once again collapsing.
I probably lay in a heap for about 15 minutes until my body reversed and I began to get serious chills. I got up, put on my fleece (for I was now shivering) and gathered my stuff to start moving again. To add insult in injury I dropped my helmet and watched it tumble 150′ down the slope below me. I considered leaving it – but knowing I had some bad downclimbing to do I resigned myself to crawling down 150′ of brush and then fighting my way back. In hindsight I now realize I experienced mild heat exhaustion – and had I not had the extra water and energy blocks with me I probably would have gone downhill very fast.
After once again catching up to Eric we scrambled down a short bench, across a steep creek and then once began bushwhacking across yet another steep slope. All of this finally culminated in a stance above a 20′ blocky corner that had an ancient piece of parachute cord tied to an alder acting as an anchor of sorts. How that parachute cord got there or how long it had been there I can’t imagine – but whoever left it had to have been experiencing the same oh shit feelings that we were dealing with. I was still feeling weak and a little dizzy so Eric volunteered to downclimb first. He carefully felt his way down the initial rock moves – and then wrapped his arms around an alder that acted as a rappel anchor and rope and carefully lowered himself down. He then stood at the bottom and spotted me as I eased myself into the rocky corner and carefully felt my way down the rock until I was able to grab the alder. Using an alder as a rappel rope of sorts was a first for me. I tried to avoid looking at the 4″ roots flexing in the 2″ of dirt…
Eric easing himself into the corner. The ancient cord can be seen next to his arm. It was so old the alder had grown around it. Would love to hear the story of how it got here.
Note how Eric uses hands, feet, knees, arms and chest as contact points. This is the full body Chugach grovel. Each additional contact point acts as an anchor for when a foot or handhold inevitably breaks.
But it held, and it put us on a ramp that allowed us to quickly drop down below the cliffs bands. Within 10 minutes we were down and traversing out of the brush into a broad scree field that dumped us onto the trail.
Looking back at our descent route we saw an improbable 2500′ broken cliff band that ended with a +300′ cliff broken only by a single strand of alders that we had somehow stumbled upon.
I looked at Eric and waited for the inevitable I told you so. Instead he just collapsed doubled over in a fit of laughter. “Great route!” he shouted and then set off down the trail with me in tow.
We reached the bikes an hour later, and were back at the car by 11pm. Our only consolation was that we had salvaged what could have potentially been a leisurely 9 hour day and turned it into a 15 hour suffer-fest. Satisfaction.