Baleful Peak (7,990′) lies in the southeast corner of the Bold / Bashful / Baleful massif that sits tucked between the East Fork of the Eklutna and the headwaters and glacier of the West Fork of Hunter Creek. The summit is a sharp buttress that juts sharply 1000’ above the surrounding ridgelines and Rod Wilson proposed the name because “of its rugged and sinister appearance” during the July 18, 1959, ascent of Bashful Peak.
The name Baleful Peak became official on September 8, 1964, after the MCA proposed it to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in December 1963. The peak saw several attempts before it was finally climbed by Art Davidson and Vin Hoeman in 1965 – and subsequently only saw a handful of ascents over the next 30 years. Renown for difficulty and poor rock quality, the peak has three known routes to the summit as well as several routes that have thwarted climbers.
There are 3 known routes to the summit. 2 parties / 3 people have climbed the Southwest Ridge, 1 party / 2 people have climbed the East Face and a dozen+ parties / 30+ people have climbed the Northeast Ridge. The ascents span 50 years and the peak is considered one of the hardest in Chugach State Park. Tucked into a far corner or the park, the peak is hard to access and all routes require ascending thousands of feet of shattered steep Class 4 or harder rock. Eric Parsons referred to it as the “Chugach final exam” – if you pass this you can move onto bigger and greater things.
First Ascent: Art Davidson, Vin Hoeman; August 8, 1965
Rating: Class 5
Davidson and Hoeman gained the Southwest Ridge from the East Fork of Eklutna River, climbed the entire ridge to the South Summit and then down to the notch and up to the North Summit. They encountered difficult climbing above 6000’ (where the Southwest Ridge steepens above the Red Spot Glacier) and traversed the South Summit to gain the North (true) summit. Art Davidson described the ascent as follows:
“We began to encounter what difficulties as they were above the col at 6000’. Often on incredibly rotten rock, we followed the ridge up and down, over and around gendarmes, onto broken faces, into gentle areas, and onto numerous knife edges. The crumbling rock made climbing not as difficult as dangerous in many places. We climbed unroped, but in retrospect felt that we might have roped up in several places. Though we were benighted on the descent, Baleful can be done in two days if one gets an early start each morning.”
– Art Davidson, Scree, September 1965
An interesting historical aside about this route:
Art Davidson and Vin Hoeman got separated on the descent and when Art called out for Vin, Vin didn’t respond. Art got back to the truck first and drove back to town, thinking he needed to get a search party going. After rounding up a search party Art returned to Eklutna and encountered Vin on the drive back to the East Fork of the Eklutna River. Vin was steamed that Art had left him and Art was miffed that Vin hadn’t replied, when he called for him, even though Vin had admitted to hearing him.
54 years later this route is still considered one of the more respectable and difficult routes in the Western Chugach. It has seen one known repeat via a variation that gained the ridge from Red Spot Glacier (Greg Higgins, Jim Sprott; August 5, 1980) as well as several repeats to the South Summit only. Higgins and Sprott climbed together to the South Summit, but Sprott elected to remain behind as Higgins soloed down the notch and across to the North summit. According to Higgins the crux was the downclimb from the South summit to the notch:
The descent to the notch towards the N Peak was very treacherous, but we were able to pick out a possible line on the far side enroute. The crux turned out to be a low 5th class off-width crack above the rotten black face and scree chute seen from the S peak.
– Greg Higgins, Scree, September 1980
First Ascent: Tom Choate, Willy Hersman; June 23, 1990
Rating: Class 5 / Steep snow
The East Face was climbed by Tom Choate, Willy Hersman, Jim Sayler on June 23, 1990. They ascended the rock face below the hanging glacier that is on the East Face (3 pitches 5.4) then crossed the glacier and climbed the 2000’ couloir to the notch. Sayler opted to remain at the notch while Choate and Hersman scrambled up gullies and rock to the North Summit. This was the third ascent of the peak in 25 years. Willy described the route as follows:
On the morning of June 25th, Tom (Choate) began the first of three leads which would take us above to the glacier. He had scoped out a nice crack the night before and wasted no time proving it would work. Natural chockstones were used as much as anything for protection and a large one provided a great anchor for a fixed line.
None of us had any idea what was above since wed never seen it, but felt very relieved to find that a long couloir extended from the hanging glacier to the major notch between the south and north summits. It was taylor-made, with an easily crossed bergschrund and great step kicking for 2000 feet. It seemed we’d be on top in no time, only 500 feet to go, but then the route-finding got interesting. Tom the master-scrambler, was in his element.
Quite a bit of time was spent deciding on the route; the ridge looked good in profile but turned out to be very knifey. Increasingly the gullies looked less inviting too, but Tom insisted that the previous parties must have taken a gully somewhere. I spent some time checking the ridgelines as he sped on ahead, and then I waited for his report. He’s been right, because the next we heard from him was a yell from the summit.
– Willy Hersman, Scree, July 1990
First Ascent: Phil Fortner, Jim Sayler; June 1993.
Rating: Class 4
The 4th ascent of Baleful was by Sayler and Fortner who climbed the Northeast Ridge (note – some people refer to this route as the North Northeast Ridge – they are the same route) during a spell of great June weather in 1993. They had good snow up to 6000’ and then described the remaining 1000’ as “not as bad as usual and requiring very little belaying”. The route has since become the standard route with a dozen+ repeats since 1993 – the majority of those repeats happening in the past 3 years. The September 2017 Scree provided two descriptions of this route – a 3 page story by Eric Parsons and Joe Chmielowski / Dave Hart’s 6 page / 3000 word essay meticulously describing the entire 5000’ route. Joe and Dave’s essay removed all the mystery behind the route and since its publication the route has seen 13 ascents. If you are planning on attempting Baleful, I highly recommend that you join the MCA so you can download this guide.
West Face (attempt): On July 4,, 1980, Jack Duggan, Gunnar Naslund, Dave Staeheli, Jeff, and Al (surnames unknown) attempted Baleful via the West Face. They hiked into Tulchina Valley and then ascended a slope to gain the ridge somewhere near Benevolent Point and downclimbed / rapped a gully to gain the cirque at the base of the West Face. They then climbed steep snow gullies somewhere near the North/South summit notch to gain the ridge. They encountered loose snow and several avalanches while gaining the ridge, endured rock fall that severed their 9mm rope, bivied on the ridge and endured high winds while attempting the summit. They turned around just shy of the true summit due to deteriorating conditions.
North Face and North Ridge: There is an immense “ice hose” on the North Face that Willy Hersman called the “biggest unclimbed challenge in the Western Chugach”. Likewise the 4000’ North Ridge is one of the great steep ridges of the Western Chugach that has yet to see an ascent.
Full Traverse: And of course there is perhaps the greatest challenge in all of the Western Chugach: the entire Boisterous > Bashful > Baleful ridge traverse. A 5 mile technical route on poor rock over 4 summits, several sections of which have never been attempted.
Map of the routes embedded below. Click here to view it full-sized.
Thanks to Steve Gruhn for his meticulous note keeping, we have a record of all (known) ascents of the peak. Note that there are several local climbers who eschew talking about their climbs, so we can’t be sure of all ascents. Likewise there have been several ascents of the South Peak via the complex Southwest Ridge which are not recorded here.
In early August 2019 a spell of good weather set in and I pretty much emailed and called everyone I knew in the hopes of finding a partner for the Northeast Ridge of Baleful. Finally at the last minute Mike Meyers joined and we made plans to leave early the next day.
People approach the Northeast Ridge three different ways: (1) Via a 15 minute chartered helicopter flight out of Palmer where you can land right at Blissful Lake, which is just outside of the park boundary. People who choose this option then to leave first thing in the morning which means they can be climb the route that day. (2) Via Bold Ridge Trail > Hunter Creek Pass > West Fork of Hunter Creek. This is the approach Maresa Jenson and Max Neal took in 2018. They hiked out via the East Fork of the Eklutna. (3) East Fork of the Eklutna > Baleful Creek Valley > Baleful Pass > West Fork Hunter Creek Glacier. The most-common approach by-far being the latter – although the distance and difficulty of the route should not be taken lightly: the entire approach / climb / return ends up being 52 miles round trip with 17,500’ of elevation gain and loss. It should be added that less than half of that distance is on a trail – the rest being in dense brush, steep grass, loose rock and snow.
The Eklutna River route follows the Eklutna Lake trail, where you stash your bike and hike up the East Fork of the Eklutna River all the way to the end of the trail. Gain a sheep trail high above the river at roughly 3500’ and follow it to Baleful Creek Valley. You then have to hike up and over a pass to gain the West Fork Hunter Creek Glacier which you descend to the jumbled moraine piles at the base of the glacier / East Face until finally ascending to Blissful Lake. The route takes approximately 12 hours and is very difficult. If you are a climber and want the GPX for the approach please email or comment and I will happily share them.
Mike and I met in the early morning hours and drove to Eklutna Lake where we biked the initial 10 miles, stashed the bikes and began the hike. The first 3 miles of the East Fork Trail was in decent shape but it soon turned into an overgrown jungle of devils club, cow parsnip, alder and downed trees. Eventually we found remnants of an old trail that got us up and out of the valley and onto the hanging bench above the river. We then ascended the grass slopes to finally gain the sheep highway that leads you to Baleful Creek Valley which we followed until finally turning the corner and side-hilling down to the meadows beside Baleful Creek. It was hot and we had neglected to bring enough water and our pace slowed to a crawl due to dehydration. On the flip side the heat worked out because it turned out Mike had left his shirt at home and had only brought a rain jacket and fleece. 3 days of shirtless posing lead to a lot of jokes.
We reached the meadows in the early evening and took a break. It was here that we saw our first bears: 2 black bears cavorting on the hill we needed to ascend. They hadn’t seen us so we remained hidden in a draw until it became apparent that they were heading our way. After much debate we positioned ourselves next to a pair of large boulders we could ascend just in case and started yelling. Thankfully they were good bears and took off running as soon as they heard us.
It was 7pm and we had already covered 18 difficult miles and were exhausted – so we took a nice long break before shouldering the packs for the final 2000’ climb to West Fork Hunter Glacier Pass. Then down 2000’ of steep snow fields and glacier to the jumbled talus at the toe of the glacier.We had neglected to read Charlie Sink’s Scree entry where he said that attempting to traverse the rotten moraine slopes to save elevation gain was pointless – and spent too long tiptoeing across loose boulders before finally stumbling into the flat campsites by Blissful Lake at midnight.
“A short time later, we began the climb to the bench to Blissful Lake. Ross had cautioned not to begin the climb until one is just below the bench, as any attempt of traversing in higher and earlier would be an unnecessary exercise.“
– Charlie Sink, Scree, October 2012
We were up at 7am and moving by 8 the next morning. The route ascends 6400’ over the course of 3 miles – and we knew much of that would be on exposed Class 3-4 rock – so we wanted a full 18 hours of daylight just in case. The route pretty much starts from camp – you hike 1/2 mile and ascend 500’ and you’re on an old rock glacier and starting to piece together your ascent.
The lower slopes are often covered in hard snow and require steep crampon work to ascend, however when we climbed the initial slopes we found them to be mostly snow-free and were able to quickly ascend the first 1000’ to gain the Northeast Ridge proper.
After that we ascended 800’ of Class 3 rock before finally gaining the notch at 5,890‘ which marks the start of the Class 4 climbing. This spot is easily recognizable because the ridge pinches and transitions from a mound of scree sidewalks and sheep trails to a wall of shattered rock. Look up the ridge carefully and you can spy a rap anchor exactly 100’ above the notch.Mike and I were committed to climbing unropes until it got difficult so we scrambled up the first pitch finding the rock to be reasonably solid. The moves were mellow Class 4 – easy climbing, but certainly a no-fall zone. After the first pitch we encountered 2 more pitches of Class 4 on exposed rock before the difficultly eased off and the climbing transitioned to normal Chugach gully scrambling.
A few hundred feet above the notch (6250’) we encountered the “Squeeze Boulder” – an easily recognizable feature from both below and above. Mike squeezed up the short chimney while I elected to climb a short crack climbers left. And then another few hundred feet of easy climbing before approaching the next headwall at 6600 where we again encountered a few short sections of Class 4 interspersed with Class 3 gullies.
At the top of the second headwall we reached the upper scree fields which gave us a much appreciated reprieve after climbing 1000’ of continuous exposed rock. The angle eased off and it was easy stroll to Point 7325, the false summit we needed to go up and over to gain the true summit. From Point 7325 the true summit looked like it was a longs ways away – but several people had told us to not feel disheartened and that it was actually closer than it looked. A quick exposed scramble across the “Catwalk” – an walkway above a cliff that goes from body width to 18” over the course of 200’ and ends with a 50’ white-slab downclimb.
And then the final summit headwall which consisted of yet another Class 4 chimney followed by easy scrambling to the summit.It had taken us 6 hours to reach the summit and we sat down and enjoyed the view. The weather was absolutely perfect and the climb had gone smoothly and, thanks to Joe’s writeup, we had absolutely zero route finding issues.
And then downclimbing. And downclimbing. We downclimbed from the summit, ascended the white-slab and then began the arduous exposed downclimb that seemed to go on forever. Everything was going fine – until at some point I put too much weight on one hand-hold which snapped and sent me careening above a nice drop. I caught my balance and continued downclimbing – but as we approached the notch the angle steepened and I began to reach my maximum mental load for exposed shattered rock.
A final exposed downclimb lead to a rap station where we finally dug out the rope for 2 100’ rappels on existing rap anchors down to the easy Class 3 scree ledges at 5890’. After that it was easy downclimbing back to the valley floor where we collapsed by the lake, pulled out boots and sunk our swollen feet into the water.
There isn’t much to say beyond that. We had 2 more bear encounters – including one that strolled into camp while we were recovering with our feet in the water and another that was grazing in the meadow next to us when we woke up. The hike out was long, but uneventful, and my body was absolutely destroyed. I was back in town by late Sunday evening and the 60 hour marathon seemed like a dream.
The morning after our climb Mike was scrambling around in the boulders near camp when he found a huge bag. He carried it over to our tent and dumped it out where we found piles of climbing gear, clothing, books, a pipe and Richard Baranow’s drivers license wrapped with a long since disintegrated $10 bill. At home home I blurred out the last name and uploaded some pictures to the MCA FB page with a facetious comment about how we had no idea who the climber was.
A flurry of comments followed from people convinced that “Richard Mark” was a long lost hiker before Richard finally chimed in with the back story. The long lost bag of goods stolen by a bear is a story that he has told many a times. Over the years the bag got bigger and the bear got meaner – and the stash inside the pack grew in worth.
Unfortunately Mike and I were too weak to carry out the gear so we stashed it in a place where it can be easily retrieved. If you are heading into Blissful Lake via helicopter and would like to help in returning the gear to Richard, please contact me for details on where it can be found. It has been placed in an old plastic bucket and underneath the large boulders just southeast of Blissful Lake and can quickly be grabbed during drop-off.
Given Parson’s and Chmielowski/Hart’s articles in the September 2017 there isn’t much to add in terms of describing this route, so I’ll just post some notes:
A big thanks to Mike for joining in at the last minute, helping to chase away bears and for sharing his great photos. And thanks to Steve Gruhn for help with editing the historical notes.