Peril Peak (South Ridge)

Peril Peak (7,040’) is the peak that forms the boundary between the West and main branches of the Ekultna glacier.  It is a dramatic peak rising 2,500’ above the surrounding glacier with the East Face being one of the larger and steeper walls of the Western Chugach.  Draw a polygon around the peak and the perimeter is almost 6 miles and the total area of the peak encompassing 950 acres / 1.5 sq miles. Simply put – it’s huge and something you stare at from many directions for hours at a time as you’re traveling up and down the surrounding valleys and glaciers.

North Ridge of Peril, May 2013.

As for the name – according to Vince Hoeman’s writeup in the 1966 American Alpine Journal the peak was named by an Army sergeant who explored this areas as a mountain-training site in 1961.  According to Hoeman, the sergeant who named the peak equated the double summits of the ridgeline with the profile of “his favorite movie star and the real peril was that they would walk dreamily into a crevasse while studying them”. (Note: Local mountaineering historian Steve Gruhn claims the movie star was Marilyn Monroe and the mountains early name was “Marilyn’s Twins“.  Thankfully Vince chose the name Peril instead.)

Southwest face of Peril (satellite imagery from Google Earth). Routes from left to right:  (1) West Ridge, (2) Southwest Face, (3) South Ridge / C-Gully approach, (4) South Ridge. Parker and Inukai’s route ascended somewhere in the vicinity of the C-Gully approach but probably took a direct and much more complicated line.

For the most part routes have been concentrated on the southern side of the peak.  As far as I’m aware there has never been a full ascent of the North Ridge – an endeavor that would require close to 2 miles of complicated steep climbing over and around dozens of towers.  There are rumors of a solo ascent of the true East Face in the early 00s – but like the ghostly abandoned fixed ropes that cling to the walls near Road to Nowhere – little has been said.

Lee Helzer on the West Ridge, July 2018.

As for the routes… The first ascent of the peak was made in June 1964 by Helga Bading, Greg Erickson and Jim Fraser and Hans Van der Laan via the West Ridge. (Note: the first ascensionist called this route the Southwest Ridge – however it generally lies more west than south so I’m calling it the West Ridge.)  They ascended the main couloir that is near the base of the West ridge and then followed the ridge to the summit describing one “step” which they rapped on the descent.  This route has seen several repeats over the years.

JT Lindholm in front of the Southwest Face of Peril from Beelzebub. July 2012.

The second ascent of the peak was made by  Nick Parker and Yoshio Inukai in July 1967 via a variation of the South Ridge. They gained the South Ridge via steep rock and then descended the entire South Ridge to a couloir which they descended to the glacier. The crux of the route was descending the shattered rock step at 6700’ which required 6 rappels.  When I asked Nick about the route he nonchalantly claimed that the only reason they ascended and descended that route was because they didn’t know any better… but the truth is that Parker was at home on the steep shattered rock of the Western Chugach and relished the challenge.

The third ascent of Peril was made by Vince Hoeman, Grace Hoeman and Bill Babcock in July 1961 via the East Face / South Ridge. They ascended the East Face reaching the ridge just north of point 6300’ on the South Ridge. They then ascended the entire South Ridge ascending the rock step that Parker and Inukai had rapped (2 pitches of 5.5) and continued to the summit. Bill Babcock was one of the party members who was on Denali in 1976 when a storm killed 7 members of the Wilcox expedition.  Bill and his brother, Jeffery were part of the rescue party that ascended in search of the ill fated group. Jeffery wrote a book about those events (Should I Not Return) and one chapter in the book has details about the ascent of Peril.

After that the routes on Peril more or less followed existing routes with several variations to gain either the South or West ridges. Notable ascents include a repeat of Hoeman’s East Face / South Ridge by John Punamont and friends in May 1974.  They ascended the route and then descended the West Ridge.  Another notable ascent was in June 1976 when Brain Okonek and Dick Griffith blitzed the West Ridge of Peril, the West Ridge of Beelzebub (2nd ascent of the peak and FA of the West Ridge) and the Southeast Face of Bellicose in a 3 day period. Another was Richard Baranow and Wendy Sanem’s ascent of the Southwest Face via the steep compact gully that leaves the glacier at 5700’ and splits the Southwest face.  This is the route that Lee and I followed in July 2018 where we happily discovered and rapped off of their rusty piton at the crux after balking at the shattered crux on the ridge.

The crux of the SW face gully. July 2018.

Lee Helzer halfway up the SW Face. July 2018.

Richard and Wendy’s piton from the late 90s.

And finally Pam Kirk and Chris Ernst’s September 1991 ascent which unlocked the secret to the moderate “C-shaped” scree gully / traverse route to the South Ridge which has become the standard route.

C-Gully Approach Route.

With the history lesson done we can fast forward to 2019.  For some reason many people had their sights set on Peril and over the course of a month the peak saw 9 ascents.  We joined in on the fun and on the weekend of July 4th my wife Yvonne, the son of one Yvonne’s childhood friends – Jack Gumina – and I tromped up Twin Falls to Blue Eyed Lake. Jack was visiting Alaska and had told us he wanted to climb, and as often happens, I suggested he join us for a pleasant mountaineering outing.  We neglected to tell him what the peak would entail – other than it would be a long trip – but he happily agreed to join us.

The approach kind of set the tone for the trip.  Eagle River was raging and flooding and we ended up wading through deep water in several places.  The trail up Twin Falls was wildly overgrown and the record temperature reached 85 degrees.  When dropping over the pass to descend to Blue Eyed Lakes we encountered a goat who refused to give up his spot in the snow and had a long standoff due to my refusal to approach him (read this).

Jack across Icicle Creek July 2019.

Smoky haze from the Swan Lake Fire.

Devils Mistress.

A nice deep sleep at Blue Eyed Lake refreshed us and we were moving early the next morning and topping out on Inferno Pass by 7:15 where we watched a brown bear traverse the entire upper glacier and drop down one of the rock gullies near Inferno Pass.

Then down glacier in the sop that never froze and up the snow-slopes reaching the base of the route by 10:30am. I had traded route notes with Brendan Lee and Dan Glatz the week before so I knew the route and zero time we spent wandering around trying to decide on the route.

That dot is a brown bear on the Eklutna Glacier. And he’s not roped up!

Yvonne & Jack below Devils Mistress.

A brief stop for water and food and then up.  The initial gully was easy but extremely loose and after a few hundred feet we ended up having to climb it one at a time which slowed everything down quite a bit.  As the gully began to bend to the right the climbing got a little steeper until finally we were scrambling up exposed Class 3 ledges to the base of the final chimney / rock slabs covered in kitty litter pitch which seem to be characteristic of every peak in the Western Chugach. It was here we dug out the rope and I scrambled with rope in tow to the ridge where I anchored in and belayed Jack and Yvonne up.

Yvonne near the top of the gully.

After that it was  1200’ of fun exposed climbing on decent rock with short steps of Class 4 and butt-width sidewalks with 2000’ of exposure below.

Yvonne on the exposed pitches near the start of the route.

Jack, despite being brand new to Chugach choss and portable handholds, cruised the route without issues. I insisted on belayed climbed for the steeper pitches and simul-climbing with natural protection around horns and boulders for the easier climbing – but in retrospect he would have done just fine.

Jack on the lower pitches.

Simul-climbing with 3 people is slow though and it took us 3 hours to ascend to the summit (compared to JT and Eric who ran up and down in something like 2 hours a couple weeks after our ascent).  We hung out in the hot sun for a while enjoying the view and then slowly and carefully retraced our steps – simul-climbing back to the notch where I rigged a rap for Jack and Yvonne and then downclimbed the kitty litter pitch to avoid leaving a rap anchor.

Jack & Yvonne last steps to summit.

Summit selfie.

The summit!

Selfie on the skinny sidewalk.

Yvonne getting ready to rap.

And finally the reverse slog across the glacier, back up to Inferno Pass, down to camp and then up again and over the pass, down to Eagle River and out to the Nature Center and back home exhausted and happy.

Blue Eyed Lake and Devils Mistress.

Heading down.

Route Notes:

South Ridge (C-Shaped Gully Approach)

Rating: Class 4 
First Ascent:
 Pam Kirk, Chris Enns; September 1991.
First Winter Ascent: Paul Andrews, Tim Griffin, Cory Hinds, Bill Romberg, Kirk Towner, Todd Steele; February 2002.
Total Time:  2+ days.
Approach Time:  3 hours from Blue Eyed Lake.
Climbing Time:  Up: 3-4 hours. Down: 1-2 hours.
Route Difficulties:  Glacier travel; loose rock; route-finding.
Equipment:  Glacier gear / small alpine rack / long slings.
Season Notes:  Best in early July when glacier can be hiked and rock is dry.

Approach: Reach Peril via either Pichler’s Perch or Blue Eyed Lake. If you plan to attempt the route in spring the easiest approach is via the Eklutna Glacier / Pichler’s Perch. If you’re planning on a summer ascent then access the Eklutna Glacier via Twin Falls / Blue Eyed Lake / Inferno Pass. The Twin Falls trail was brushed out in July 2018 – but the hot summer of 2019 made everything grow back thick.

Route: At the base of Peril ascend the snow slope climbers left of the crevasses to the base of the Southwest face. Once at the base of the Southwest face traverse across either the snow or the moraine bench to the base of a C shaped gully that is on the South Ridge.  The gully you’re looking for will be broad at the bottom and narrows as it curls to the right.  The base of the gully is at 61°12’44.85″N / 148°59’6.59″W. If you look at satellite imagery you will see that it curves right (south) and narrows at the top.  Do not get suckered into continuing straight up the gully as the rock quality will degrade and the difficulty will increase (Jen Aschoff reported climbing a couple pitches of 5.6 shattered rock to reach the ridge when her party neglected to traverse right). As the gully curves the rock gets more compact and transitions to Class 3 climbing to a final chimney just below the ridge.  The chimney to the ridge is Class 3+ and consists of rock slabs coated with loose gravel (kitty litter). Once at the ridge continue to the summit staying for the most part on the ridgeline with the exception of the final bit before the summit where you’ll trend climbers right to avoid steep shattered rock.  The rock quality is decent lower down but degrades as you approach the summit.  The route has a few short sections of Class 4 and some will find a rope useful.  Natural protection can be found in many places if you have long slings and there are a few spots for medium cams.

Descent: To descend reverse your route. The chimney pitch from the ridge to the gully is exactly 200’ so you can send at least one person down all the way with the rope tied off, but the last person will have to downclimb the kitty letter step without pro.

Note: The gully leading to the ridge is extremely loose and exposed to rock fall from above.  We watched a giant boulder bounce past us as we were descending.  Move quickly and carefully when ascending / descending.



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