Fold up your Imus Geographic Chugach State Park map and the peak nearest the exact center is Compass Butte – a “fugitive nunatak… escaping from the icy clutches of the Organ Glacier which surrounds all sides of this peak except the north” (Tim Kelley, November 1994, Scree). Compared to surrounding peaks like Polar Bear, Organ, Flute and Eagle, it’s an obscure 5,390’ peak, but it is situated in a unique spot above Eagle River and below ice spilling over cliffs into the dark and seldom visited valleys.
The first recorded ascent of Compass Butte was in the winter of 1988 by Karl Swanson. Karl’s girlfriend opted to keep sleeping in the comfy snow-cave they had spent the night in, while Karl and his dog Nakita, a springer spaniel mix, ascended a snow gully on the northern side. According to Karl there were sheep droppings on top, so he’s not sure it could be considered a first ascent.
Tim Kelley, Tim Miller, and Bill Spencer made the second ascent on August 21, 1994 via the Northwest Rib, and Bill named it Compass Butte because it reminded him of a compass rose surrounded in a circle by the Organ Glacier and the headwalls of the higher mountains in all directions (see the November 1994 Scree). Richard Baranow and Wendy Sanem made the third ascent of the peak via the East Face / left hand couloir (with four dogs – Hooligan, Vista, Keepers and Yzerman) on May 19, 1996. Unaware of Bill Spencer’s name, they dubbed it “Little Nunatak” in a note they left on the summit register They descended the Southwest Ridge.
On June 27, 1998 Chris Brown and Jim Sayler approached the peak via Flute Glacier and (presumably) ascended the Southwest Ridge. Since then the peak has seen a trickle of ascents, with about half via routes on the north side in late May / early June and the other half via the Southwest Ridge in mid-summer as the approach from South Fork Eagle River allows one to get to the peak without having to cross Eagle River. Notable ascents include JT and his dog August (the 6th canine ascent) via a solo ascent of the Northeast Ridge in June 2008, and Dave Hart who made four attempts on the peak before finally reaching the summit on his fifth attempt on July 21, 2018 – thus becoming the 6th person to climb all 120 Chugach State Park peaks. His partner, Joe Chmielowski produced a bottle of french champagne on the summit to commemorate the occasion.
Routes on the north side are best approached via Eagle River in late spring. There is a faint trail through the brush near Heritage Falls, however the trail is overgrown and hard to find. By June Eagle River is often too high to safely cross and attempts to cross the river have resulted in shenanigans involving glacier river swims and lost gear. Routes on the south side can be approached via Flute Glacier and the Flute / Organ col (61° 8’26.69″N 149°16’37.93″W). Once across the col descend the glacier to reach the peak. Be aware that this glacier is highly crevassed.
First Ascent: Karl Swanson, Winter 1988
This was the first recorded ascent route. Swanson and his dog ascended a snow gully on the northern side; presumably the gully between the Northeast Ridge and Northwest Rib.
First Ascent: Tim Kelley, Tim Miller, Bill Spencer; August 21, 1994
Rating: Class 3+/4
This route ascends the rib west of the northern gullies. The first ascent party belayed a steep pitch to gain the summit plateau and rapped on the descent. When Helzer, Allely and Gano climbed this route in May 2015, they belayed 4 steep snow pitches near the top. Subsequent parties have had good conditions and did not used a rope.
First Ascent: JT Lindholm; June 6, 2008
Rating: Class 3+
This is the northeast trending ridge that ascends from Organ Creek. Expect steep loose rock, especially near the bottom of the route. JT Lindholm climbed this with his dog, August, in June 2008. August was an exceptional climber so don’t use that as an estimate of route difficulty.
First Ascent: Richard Baranow, Wendy Sanem; May 19, 1996
Rating: Class 3+
In the summit register Richard describes this route as the left hand couloir on the East Face. Satellite imagery shows a prominent gully trending up and left to just below the summit. Richard’s dogs also climbed this route, but Richard’s dogs were also exceptional climbers.
First Ascent: Chris Brown, Jim Sayler; June 27, 1998
Rating: Class 3+
This route was presumably first descended by Richard and Wendy and presumably first ascended by Chris Brown and Jim Sayler (their summit entry read “from the Flute Glacier” and the Southwest Ridge is the obvious route from this approach). Best approached from the Flute Glacier col, gain the ridge via an obvious gully on the South side of the peak. By June this gully will have melted out and will be steep loose dirt. Once on the ridge contour around to the left (west) and ascend 300’ of steep exposed grass ledges until you reach the Southwest ridge which gradually broadens as you approach the summit.
* A big thanks to Steve Gruhn for help with historic ascent details for this peak.
Notes from an ascent of the Southwest Ridge
Yvonne and I climbed Compass Butte over a weekend in early June 2020. We dropped off our daughter at the grandparents and by mid-morning were hiking up the South Fork of Eagle River trail towards Eagle Lake. We took the southern “trail” around the lake, waded through the swamp above Eagle Lake (courtesy of the South Fork beavers), hiked up the talus slopes by the waterfall and finally dropped our packs on a nice patch of grass 4 1/2 hours after leaving the car. It’s only 10 miles / 2400’ to the campsite, but the swamp and talus makes it feel longer than it should.
The afternoon brought brief showers so we turned in early and set the alarm for 5am knowing that getting over the Flute / Organ col, climbing the peak and returning all the way to the car would make for a long 20 mile / 4500’ day.
Up early on Saturday June 3th and hiking by 6:30am. We had camped in the basin below the Flute Glacier and I was eager to see the glacial lake that had formed since the last time I was on the Flute Glacier in June 2008. (Paxson Woelber has a great photo of the changes on this glacier here.)
Around the lake then up the glacier and finally up the gully to reach the Flute / Organ col where we ate a snack and looked down at the summit of Compass Butte which was 3 miles away and 200’ below us. Then down and across the rapidly softening glacier to finally reach the base of the route by 10:30am.
We took turns scrambling up the South Gully which was about as bad as you can get. The top steepened to near 50 degrees and every single hand and foot hold was moving and tumbling several hundred feet down the slope below. The crux was a dirt mantle that I was uncomfortable enough with that I found an anchor, tossed down the rope and insisted Yvonne tie in for the steep grovel. Above the dirt mantle was an easy gully to a nice broad grassy bench where the gully joined the actual Southwest Ridge.
The ridge began up with an upward traversing pitch of loose rock that transitioned to very exposed wet grass ledges above a 500’ cliff. Yvonne wanted a belay so I looped a questionable rock and wedged myself into an alcove hoping that at least the friction would keep me in place in the event of a fall. She made it across without issues and the angle eased off enough to where we put away the rope and scrambled up the remaining ledges to the nice solid rock on the ridge proper. The final 300’ of the route was wonderful enjoyable climbing – which was a nice change from the wallow of the glacier, the dirt gully and the wet exposed grass ledges.
We reached the summit a mere 3.5 hrs after leaving camp. It was a perfect day amazing views in all directions. Over the years Yvonne and I have climbed Eagle, Polar Bear, Organ and Flute together and it was nice looking up at them and fondly remembering the days we had spent on them.
And then down. I belayed Yvonne across the grass ledges and then we downclimbed the dirt gully sans rope – since a belay wouldn’t really do anything for you anyways.
Back across the sticky soft glacier (miraculously without a crevasse fall!), back up the col and then down the Flute Glacier back to camp and then down to the swamp (where Yvonne took a nice swim after getting knocked over by the current in a thigh deep pool) and finally back home for a wonderful overnight trip in the backyard.