Magpie (Southeast Gully)

Magpie Peak (5,812’) lies hidden in a southern pocket of Chugach State Park just due west of the Crow Pass Trail and tucked between Raggedtop and Crow. It is generally is overlooked due to its proximity to other Crow Pass peaks, lack of easy access and especially rotten rock. There is no easy route to the summit and all routes requires exposed difficult scrambling on terrible loose rock.

There are 5 known routes on the peak:  The Southeast Ridge, Southeast Gully, Northeast Ridge and North Couloir.

The Southeast Ridge is the long exposed rotten ridge between Magpie and Raggedtop.  It is easy travel from the Raggedtop / Magpie col to approximately 4500’, but afterwards turns into a sharp ridge of rotten gendarmes with Class 5 climbing.  This was first ascent route that Grace Hoeman soloed on  June 22, 1969.  A first hand account from the July 1969 Scree is below.

Vin & Grace Hoeman. Mt. Kiliak, Sept. 1968. Photo from UAA Consortium Library.

I cache the tent at 6:30 on June 22 and under marginal weather conditions, I ascend towards Magpie’s SE ridge, today loaded down with a rope, hammer and irons for self protection. I visit point 4805 in a blowing storm and whiteout, adding one layer of parkas to another to keep warm. I find the proper landmarks as the clouds lift momentarily and begin the SE ridge, which I’d like to christen: “from bad to worse.” It is obvious that the flaky, rotten slabs will make any kind of self protection impossible and as the exposure on both sides grows severe, I dump most of my load since balance becomes vital. One bad gendarme follows the other, but finally , after one or two class 5-3 stretches of climbing, I reach one of the high points of Magpie. (*) It has started to spit a bit of snow as I go along the summit ridge and reach the top, where there is no sign of previous ascent. I eat sardines with my fingers, lick the tin clean and dry it with a tissue to make it a fit register. A substantial cairn of slabrock material finishes the job and I start the descent. At the end of the summit reverse I build another smaller cairn and then commence the battle of the gendarmes in reverse. An obliging cloudlift permits me to check the cairn, it is on the high point all right. As the ridge broadens I relax and  speed down to my possessions and then off the mountains. Under the clouds the world looks a but more cheerful.

Grace Hoeman, Scree July 1969
* Editors Note: Magpie has been attempted at least four times over the past nine years.  Hart, Bailey and Gardey claim a first ascent in 1960, but this has not been substantiated.

The Southeast Gully is a Class 4 gully up rotten dirty rock to the ridge.  You top out just a couple hundred feet east of the summit. The route is generally Class 3+ until the final chimney which is 20’ of rotten Class 4.

The Northeast Ridge is a long exposed rotten ridge that requires solid snow for purchase as you are required to traverse steep rotten shale slopes above the North face. An ascent without solid snow turns this route into an incredibly high risk route. This route can be accessed via the slopes above Crystal Lake. An account of this route from Willy Hersman in the July 1990 Scree along with a historical note about Hoeman’s ascent is below.

Magpie Peak (5812) is one of the Crow Pass peaks sitting between Raggedtop and Crow. It has easy access for several possible routes, from the Crow Pass trail or from the pass itself. None of the routes is very appealing in term if the rock, of course. On June 12 Jim Sayler and I climbed from Crow Glacier to the NE ridge, mostly on snow, and followed a fairly reasonable line along the ridge to the summit. We were pleasantly surprises to find that the several gendarmes, visible from the parking lot, were no obstacle to us.

The climb was interesting to me in that it cleared up some early climbing history. Grace Hoeman, in 1969, just two months after Vin’s death, decided to do some register housekeeping in the area, apparently to tie up some loose ends that Vin had intended to get to some day. Alone, she climbed the NW ridge of Raggedtop to find no register, only a cairn. Then she traversed the gemdarme-plagued ridge connecting to the SE summit to get a register left by Vin two years earlier. Not finding this, she re-traverses the ridge, getting bruised by the fins of slate protruding up, put a new register on the summit and climbed back down her ascent route.

Then she set her sights on Magpie’s SE Ridge, and proceeded with ropes, pitons, etc. to climb to that summit in order to locate another register, if it existed, left by the Hart party of 1960.  The nature of the rock, becoming apparent to her as the ridge steepened, she abandoned her useless pitons and other hardware and just went for it. She reached the summit, found no register and no cairn, wondering at the time whether or not the 1960 ascent was a false claim. Her solo descent of the same ridge must have been a lot of fun.

Jim and I essentially destroyed the cairn looking for Grace’s sardine-can register, gone by now. On our way back along the gendarmes, I paused for a moment on the high point and noticed an old jar lying on the surface. This was the register Grace had searched for. The decaying paper had one entry, 30 years and 2 days old, from the five-member Hart party. It was pretty obvious they hadn’t gone further, and why not is still a mystery, since the climbing is not bad and the weather, by their admission, was fine.

Willy Hersman, Scree July 1990

The North Couloir is a beautiful couloir that drops from just below the summit all the way to the valley between Magpie and Crow.  It has seen at least 1 ski descent (Brunton & Harder 3/11/17).  An ascent of this route would require either a sketchy downclimb of the Crow / Magpie col or a convoluted tour via the Magpie / Raggedtop col > Fishs Breath / Magpie col > base of the route.

Northeast Ridge / North Couloir of Magpie. Summit is the far bump to the right. Picture taken in August 2011.

Of those routes the Southeast Gully should probably be considered the standard route – however it should be noted that there isn’t really anything standard about it.  The route sees very few ascents and of those ascents, many are characterized by colorful stories of near epics.

The route is extremely conditions dependent:  Too early in the season and the couloir is steep snow / ice with a mixed pitch to reach the ridge.  If you climb the route before the snow has melted entirely you will be forced to climb several hundred feet of wet mixed terrain with one foot / hand on rock, one in snow and ice and the crux pitches will be wet with an ice ramp underneath you if you happen to slip.  There is a brief window in July / August where the route is dry and moderately straight forward – but if you wait too long and miss that window and attempt it late summer (or after the August rains come) you will find the entire Southeast face becomes a bowling alley of loose rock.

Goat on the SE Ridge

Looking down at the pocket glacier – August 2017.

To get to the base of the route hike up the Crow Pass trail until you reach treeline.  Pretty much at the exact point you reach treeline there is a scree slope west of the trail that drops straight down to Crow Creek.  Descend this slope to the creek aiming for the obvious drainage on the other side of the valley (61° 2’13.41″N / 149° 7’24.95″W).  Throughout most of the summer there is a huge pile of avalanche debris  at the bottom of this slope which would easily get you across the creek without having to get your feet wet, however the two times I’ve been there the snow bridge was too suspect for me to trust so I opted to just wade across the creek.  (Tip: I would recommend carrying a pair of tennis shoes that you can slip on for the creek crossing and thus save your mountaineering boots from getting soaked. You can cache your shoes by the creek if you’re heading back that way and don’t want to carry them.)

Snowbridge across the creek. August 2017.

Across Crow Creek.

Once across the creek ascend the drainage above you for a couple hundred feet until you can easily scramble up and right (south) to gain the grassy slopes below the East Ridge of Magpie.  Traverse these slopes south and west aiming for the valley between Magpie and Ruggedtop. Once in the valley continue ascending aiming north and west towards the hanging glacier that is below the Southeast face of Magpie.  Girdwood locals call this cirque the “Crystal Palace”.

Ascend the slopes the hanging glacier and then aim for a couloir leading to the ridge just east of the summit.  There are actually several couloirs on the southeast face – the one you want is characterized by an upside down Y of brown rotten rock in-between bands of steeper and darker / more compact gray rock.  The base of the couloir is 61° 2’18.11″N / 149° 9’50.78″W.

Base of the route. Note the upside down Y.

There will inevitably be a moat at the base of the couloir and if it is too rotten / deep it  can be bypassed via a Class 3+ scramble climbers left of the gully.  Work your way up into the main gully and then ascend the gully up and left towards the summit ridge.  About 2/3 of the way there will be one short step of steep rock around a chockstone and then right before the summit there is about 25’ of Class 4 climbing where you need to ascend a rotten chimney to the summit ridge.  Once on the summit ridge scramble west up easy slopes to the summit.

Descend the route.  We rapped twice – once right off the summit ridge and then again at the chockstone.  The rap off the summit ridge had a decent anchor, but the anchor at our lower rap wasn’t that great and should be removed by the next party.

All that said – Yvonne was suckered into joining me for my 4th attempt in late June. My previous attempts had all ended due to poor conditions / poor route finding but I had scoped the route a couple seasons prior and finally figured it would be in condition. So out of town early one morning with an overnight pack since we hoped to climb Magpie and then camp and traverse over to give Rubbletop a try.

We dropped our overnight gear in a meadow and then hiked up to the hanging glacier which we reached in early afternoon.  The Southcentral Alaska heat wave  was just starting and the Swan Lake Fire was beginning to send smoke towards the Western Chugach and upon reaching the glacier we opted to rope up given I had punched through a slot a couple years ago.  We continued up and then belayed each other up and across the moat and into the gully where we stowed the rope and started scrambling up.

Yvonne lower portion of the route.

About halfway up the route transitioned from wet rock to snow and we then climbed several hundred feet of rotten mixed terrain with one hand / foot on rock and one hand / foot in snow.  A chockstone 2/3 of the way up ended up being complex and I scrambled up a pitch of rotten rock to the rock and tossed the rope down to Yvonne for a belay.  We then unroped for a few hundred feet before finally roping up for the final crux chimney.

Midway up the route.

It should be noted that the final rock chimney was one of the worst pitches I’ve climbed in the Chugach.  The gully at the base of the pitch was coated with a layer of ice and I tiptoed up with my feet on rotten rock nubs on either side.  The pitch itself is actually two chimneys – both sides being rotten rock that you can’t realty trust.  Climbers right looked easier but was too wet (in late summer it would be the way to go) so I started up climbers left and then traversed right.  Every single hold flexed and at times I thought the entire chimney might collapse on top of me.  Yvonne was tied off to a somewhat solid rock in an alcove below and was giving me a belay – but I never found any gear so the belay  was pretty much useless.  In late summer a fall would mean bouncing 20 or 30 feet down dirt and rocks and probably a broken leg (or two). In early summer a fall would be dropping onto an ice sheet and then rocketing downhill until you splattered into something below.

Looking up at the chockstone pitch / summit pitch.

I threw the dice and went for it.  I figured the chimney had been climbed several times without falling down so luck was in my favor. I distributed my weight carefully and pretended that that flexing handhold were solid.  Luck was in my favor and after several minutes I flopped onto the ridge with my heart rate spiking. I then belayed Yvonne up trying to pretend that it wasn’t a big deal.  Yvonne didn’t really buy my false bravado and demanded a belay the rest of the way to the summit.

Summit Ridge.

We topped out around 5pm – the ascent having taken up much longer than anticipated.  On the summit I scrambled all over the place looking for an alternative descent, but in the end decided to just carefully downclimb our ascent route.

Rapping from the summit ridge. A discerning climber will note I screwed up and didn’t clip the backup into the knot. Shortly after I took this picture I noted my error and put away the camera and forced myself to focus.

Then carefully and slowly down.  We simul-climbed back to the top of the gully. We only had 30m of rope so I tied it off and had Yvonne rap the entire length down then I pulled it up, doubled the rope and rapped 15m to the base of the chimney.  Yvonne was feeling tired so I belayed her down the steep snow slopes and we rapped one more time over the chockstone.  After that the angle eased off and we unroped and scrambled down the rock and snow to the moat.  One more belayed pitch down and over the moat and then back to the glacier and finally back to the valley where we had cached our camping gear.

Yvonne very happy to be back on the lower glacier.

It was late (11pm) and we were trashed. I had worn a pair of leather gloves and my fingers were frostnipped from sticking my hands in snow all day and Yvonne had a nice gash on her hand a huge bruise on her butt from taking a short fall while attempting to cross a creek earlier in the day.

We slept hard and woke up late.  I was still itching to climb and was hoping for an ascent of Rubbletop so we ascended to the Raggedtop / Magpie col and then dropped down a steep snow gully to the pocket glacier on the west side of the pass.  Then down the glacier and across the slopes aiming for a gully between Fishs Breath and Magpie.

Giant cornice bombs in June.

Yvonne headwaters of CA Creek.

I was about 100’ in front of Yvonne and scrambling across a steep slope when I crested a gully to find myself 100’ away from a brown bear and 2 cubs.

This past spring we were chatting with some folks in a ski hut about bear encounters.  One guy said “if you meet a sow with cubs it’s 50-50”.  50-50 that she’ll rip you to shreds. Evidence seems to support this theory (see these articles: 8/19/16, 6/28/18, 9/17/18, 10/2/18, 9/8/19, 11/4/19).  That conversation was the first thing that came to my mind as the sow rose and started charging towards me. It seemed that she covered about 50’ in 1.2 seconds before I could even open my mouth to start screaming.

Once again luck was in my favor.  My blood curdling screech scared the cubs who turned and ran the opposite direction.  The sow, upon seeing that her cubs were running away, stopped her charge and began chasing after her cubs.  At the time she turned around she was less than 50’ away from me.

It was the second closest brown bear encounter I’ve had. The closest encounter featured a charging bruin who misjudged his trajectory as we flew past him on mountain bikes. That time the bear was less than 5’ away and I could see the tarter buildup on his teeth and hear the sound of his claws dragging across the ground.  He probably was emitting a deafening roar that our childlike shrieks drowned out. But that’s another story…

We watched the bear and cubs tear across the valley until they disappeared into the brush. Shortly after that we decided to go home.

You only get so much luck allocated per week and mine was bottoming out.