By a stroke of luck I happened upon a full 3 free days over Labor Day Weekend. With dry conditions I opted to head back into Eklutna in the hopes of climbing a couple of peaks above the glacier. Joe Chmielowski was reeling from working too much at his new job and a single text message was all that was needed to prompt him to join me. And so by 8am Saturday morning we were leaving the Eklutna parking lot and biking around the lake.
Around the lake for 12 miles, bikes stashed in the bushes near Serenity Falls hut and then up the old trail on the east side of the river (emphasis added because if you take the road all the way to the end you are forced to ford the river which is waist deep and moving fast in late summer). We made quick time up the canyon and by 11am were deep at the base of the moraine where you have to choose whether to go left or right. Unlike years past (2013) where access to the Eklutna Glacier required a dicey traverse across the ice covered dirt (with loose boulders above you) on the west side of the river followed by a pitch of ice, access in 2018 was via the rocks on the east side of the river. We easily scrambled up a faint trail over glacier polished rock until finally reaching the toe of the glacier. Crampons strapped on and 100’ of careful French technique put us on the glacier proper and it was easy walking until we finally carefully climbed off glacier around 2500’ and scrambled up to the valley between Ovis and White Lice by 2pm.
A quick snack, stash of gear and we were off again around 3 and hiking up valley to give the South Ridge of Ovis an attempt.
Ovis Peak was first climbed by Bill Hauser and Vin Hoeman in August 1966. They first ascended the West Ridge of the Mitre, downclimbed the South Ridge and then ascended the North Ridge of Ovis and downclimbed the South Ridge. A touch of Chugach lore: Vin Hoeman named Ovis after Ovis Dali – the Latin name for Dall Sheep – since they saw a large ram on the summit. Likewise Hoeman named the peak south of Ovis “White Lice” as a quip based on seeing so many sheep they looked like “White Lice” (I believe this is a John Muir quote). The peaks in that region still have large numbers of Dall Sheep (we saw several on our ascent of the Mitre), and while seeing large numbers of Dall Sheep isn’t necessarily unusual in the Chugach, at base of the Mitre there are often large numbers of Mountain Goats (Oreamnos americanus), and is unusual to see both species in the same vicinity.
Joe and I started up the valley between Ovis and White Lice around 3pm. We quickly gained the upper bench and skirted along the left side of the pocket glacier in the upper valley. By 4pm we were at the Ovis / White Lice col and scrambling up the ridge. The rock was wet from a previous storm that had coated the mountains in the snow so we moved carefully to avoid a slip.
By 5pm we were well up the ridge and the route had transitioned from Class 2 to Class 3 until finally progress was blocked by a pitch of Class 4. I had carried 60m of 8.5 and some gear so we dug out the rope and tied in. I headed up; it was an awkward wet crack system but had decent gear so I went for it. About 10’ up and a few feet above my only cam I had an awkward move: an under-cling on the right and a slimy sloping handhold on the left (with poor feet). Ignoring every lesson I’ve ever learned in the Chugach, I learned far left to get a better purchase while pulling hard with my right hand on the under-cling. You can guess what happened. The under-cling broke off and I barn-doored left into the poor handhold. I help on for a brief second (just long enough to tweak my shoulder) and then took a pendulum fall.
Somehow I missed the rock that was jutting out at hip level and slammed back first into the wall. The cam caught me just fine and my pack absorbed the fall, but my palm was spewing blood and the wind had been knocked out of me.
Joe wrapped my hand with some tape, fed me some water and chocolate and let me take a breather. Then he took the sharp end and carefully worked his way up the route. The under-cling that I had pulled off had turned into a decent foot hold and he cruised the pitch without incident.
Above the crux Class 4 pitch the angle eased off and we were able to pack away the rope and continue the rest of the way to the summit without encountering any additional difficulties.
We topped out at 6:30pm on a perfect evening with amazing views of the Western Chugach. Shadows rising tall around us we didn’t linger for very long before beginning the descent.
Careful downclimbing brought us to the crux, but a little bit of route finding put us in a scree gully skiers right of the crux and we were able to drop down all the way to the glacier without incident. We were back at the tent a little after 8 and in bed by 10pm.
It should be noted that the route we took up Ovis isn’t the standard route. Most people hike towards the col, but a couple hundred before of the col they take the obvious gully that is climbers left of the South Ridge. This gully bypasses the Class 4 chimney and the majority of the Class 3 climbing before it joins the ridge. Once on the ridge you only have a little bit of Class 3 before reaching the summit.
The South Ridge itself is a pretty fun route and one I’d recommend if the rock is dry and you have a rope and a little bit of gear (2-3 medium cams / slings). The crux chimney move has a good crack that fits a .5 (purple) camalot perfectly. Above the crack you can find a couple more placements or sling a questionable chockstone. Before and after the chimney there is a few hundred feet of exposed Class 3 climbing on decent rock. Descend the gully to avoid having to deal with rappels.
The next morning we were up early and hiking up to the West Ridge of The Mitre. The Mitre is one of the more difficult Chugach State Park peaks and every route requires hundreds of feet of exposed Class 3 climbing with a few short sections of Class 4. Of the routes climbed it is generally accepted that the West Ridge offers the best rock quality and enjoyable climbing. The South Ridge has been climbed, but the rock is generally rotten for most of the route.
The North Ridge has not been climbed – despite a strong attempt by Cory Hinds and Matt Hickey around fall 2012. There is a writeup in Scree about this attempt, however I attempted Redoubt with Matt Hickey several years ago and he told me the entire story and the brief writeup is a severe understatement in regards to what they endured. Feats such hundreds of feet of poor rock without a rope, rappelling off trees the size of fingers and swimming a swollen river in the dark. If you can corner Matt it’s a good tale.
Anyways I digress… the West Ridge is complex and in essence it goes like this:
It’s a complex route and the initial scramble forces you to focus right away and the rest of the day was spent concentrating hard since the difficulty or angle never really relents.
The Class 4 ridge pitch was the highlight of the climb. We reached a perch at the base of the ridge and the only way up was via 150’ of knife edge rock. I took the lead and carefully worked my way up the ridge, slinging a decent rock horn right where the difficulty started feeling out there. It was a wild lead in a wild setting and one that still makes my heart flutter.
Joe lead the second pitch which was 100’ of decent rock just before gaining the mellow summit ridge. Following it and topping out on the summit ridge with the Eklutna Glacier under our feet was exhilarating.
A quick stroll to the summit where we dug out the original 1966 glass jar summit register left by Hauser and Hoeman. The jar was full of Chugach lore from Hoeman’s original signature to several entries from Richard Baranow. The last entry was from Kathy Still and Az Sellers in 2015. I found this particularly funny because I had gone to the dentist a couple weeks prior and Kathy had given me beta for The Mitre while scrubbing my teeth.
Back down the route. We rapped the first rock step but opted to descend the gully instead of rapping the ridge. In regards to the ridge vs gully variation: neither is particularly easy and both required careful climbing. The ridge can be protected (somewhat), the gully cannot, however in general the gully had easier climbing. I would say come prepared to climb the Class 4 ridge and evaluate conditions once you get there. If the gully is dry it’s not really a big deal. If it’s wet or has snow in it, take the ridge.
Once at the bottom of the basin we traversed over to the final ridge where we rapped one final time to gain the grassy bench.
Back down the grassy bench and back to the tent for a total round trip time of 10 hours.
The next morning we slept in and didn’t get moving until almost 11. Down the glacier and into the canyon by 1 and finally back to the truck by 5pm. A wonderful Labor Day weekend. Thanks Joe!