Learnard Peak (West Ridge)

Spring 1898 – Portage Glacier

In the last vestiges of the 19th century America’s westward expansion, coupled with President McKinley’s embrace of expansionism, compelled the US to once again expand beyond established borders.  Alaska was purchased in 1867, Hawaii was annexed in 1898 and that same year the United States mobilized to war with Spain which resulted in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines being ceded to the United States.  Meanwhile reports of Alaskan gold reserves filtered into American papers and large numbers of people began migrating north. The American army followed with multiple Alaskan expeditions that sought to establish outposts, as well as develop key routes to further develop American assets in the state.

All which sets the stage for Captain Edwin Glenn who, in April 1898, departed from Seattle aboard the steamship Valencia 1 with a group of soldiers and cruised to Valdez where they transferred to the steamer Salmo which eventually deposited the passengers on a beach at the head of Passage Canal – a location that would eventually become the town of Whittier.

Steamship Valencia leaving Seattle, April 7, 1898. 2

Salmo at dock, 1898. 3

Portage Glacier from Passage Canal, Prince William Sound, 1898. 4

At the camp were dozens of transient miners and trappers awaiting boats to take them south.  The miners and trappers had come over Portage Pass which provided a route from Cook Inlet over Portage Glacier to the head of ice free bay.  This pass was a historic trade route that had been used by the indigenous Dena’ina from Cook Inlet and Alutiiq peoples of Prince William Sound long before the transient miners and trappers and Russians occupiers that proceeded them.   Mikhail Tebenkov, vice admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy, had described the pass in his 1872 book, “Atlas of the northwest coasts of America“:

“This isthmus [Portage Pass] consists of a pass between the mountains, covered by ice, under which streams flow, melting during the summer into sheer ice fields. The boldest of the Natives set out across the isthmus in winter, when the icy passes and the channels of the streams are strewn with snowdrifts.”

– Teben’kov, Atlas of the Northwest Coasts of America 5

Image from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey Historical Map & Chart Collection. 6

Glenn had orders to explore the region north of Cook Inlet and search for a practical route to the Tanana River and over the mountains to the Yukon River. To do this he first needed to get to Cook Inlet – so he ordered First Lieut. Henry G. Learnard and nineteen enlisted men to follow this route over Portage Pass and down Portage Glacier.  First Lieut. Learnard  was 31 years old and fresh to Alaska from Michigan and his glacier experience was limited – but orders were orders so he set off to find a route:

H.G. Learnard

I left the main camp at Portage Bay [Passage Canal] the latter part of April, and proceeded across the glacier at the head of the bay and about 1 mile beyond the head of Turnagain Arm… The glacier is 44 miles wide. The highest point crossed had an elevation slightly less than 1,000 feet above sea level. The grade from Portage Bay side is very steep in places – so steep , in fact , that most of the miners used a block and tackle to get their supplies to the top of the first bench. After that point is reached the grade is not steep, and the summit is reached about a mile from the beginning of the glacier. The foot of the glacier is about three-fourths of a mile from salt water on the Portage Bay side, and no difficulty was encountered in reaching that point. From the summit the grade is very gentle . After leaving the glacier the trail enters a valley about 2 miles wide , through which flows a stream from the glacier to Turnagain Arm, about 7 miles from the foot of the glacier. Turnagain Arm, a bay of Cooks Inlet , has several streams flowing into it at the head; all but one, marked Quartz Creek [Ingram Creek], having glaciers at the head of or on tributaries  Turnagain Arm, at the head, was full of stranded cakes of ice at the time of our arrival.

– Report of Lieutenant H.G. Learnard

View of Portage Bay (now known as Passage Canal) from the summit of the Portage Glacier, Prince William Sound, April 1898. 8

Cyanotype photograph of six men wearing snowshoes pulling a sled on Portage Glacier; a seventh man pushes the sled. 9

Cyanotype photograph of a snow-covered mountain, taken from the summit of Portage Glacier in 1898. 10

Upon reaching Turnagain Arm, Learnard set up camp and sent a small group of men up Twentymile Valley in search of a route that would lead to Matanuska Valley. Given that it was late in the season they didn’t get very far.  Melting snow, open water and spring avalanches made travel all but impossible so the effort was abandoned after only a few miles.  At this point Learnard, lacking both basic winter safety skills and goggles 11, was suffering from snow-blindness. He briefly alluded to this in his report – but Captain Glenn described a much more bleak perspective:

Edwin Forbes Glenn

At this time I received reports from Lieutenant Learnard, who had crossed the glacier, that were far from encouraging. Having lost some of his rations, he would have been in bad shape indeed had he not been fortunate enough to meet a prospector who very willingly turned over to him all of his rations…

For some days Lieutenant Learnard had been suffering from snow-blindness . He was affected so seriously that he had to be led back to camp by one of the command. Later information received the same day showed that he was much improved, although his eyes were still in very bad condition. As he had neither medical supplies nor attendants with him, he specially requested that the surgeon or hospital steward be ordered to report to him at once.

– Report of Captain E.F. Glenn

After his recovery Learnard lead his group back up Portage Glacier and returned to the main camp at Passage Canal. It was mid-May and the annual shed cycle was in full swing:

Most of the snow had disappeared from the valley, and it was very soft on the glacier . A snowslide had recently slid across the trail on the Portage Bay side, and some apprehension was felt while passing through the short canyon at the foot of the glacier. Snowslides were of almost hourly occurrence on the mountains.

– Report of Lieutenant H.G. Learnard

Once safely back at the main camp Learnard reported the difficulties of travel in the warming temperatures.  Glenn, recognizing the difficulties, ordered the party to find another route. The Portage Glacier, he noted, “is not very high and is a perfectly safe and feasible route for traveling during the winter months; but, like all other glaciers, during the summer months when the snow has melted crevasses appear and render travel over them both difficult and dangerous.” 14  Learnard never returned to Passage Canal or Portage, but in 1910 his expedition was officially commemorated when the glacier just north of Whittier was named Learnard Glacier.

Learnard Glacier in 1914. 15

Learnard Glacier in 1939. 16 For more photos of Learnard Glacier check out Time Kelley’s page “Whittier Area Historical Photo Re-creations”.

* * *

Approaching the Learnard Glacier icefall.

Spring 2021 – Learnard Glacier

40 years after Learnard passed through, the USGS investigated the feasibility of constructing a railroad from Turnagain Arm to Passage Canal.  A detailed survey of the surrounding peaks and glaciers was made and in November 1941 construction commenced. Three years later the link was complete – along with a 2.5 mile tunnel that bypassed the complexities of Portage Glacier.  50 years later the tunnel was modified to allow motor vehicles and it was officially opened to traffic in July 2000.

All of which sets the stage for our easy commute through the Whittier tunnel on a beautiful May morning.  We drove through the tunnel and hung a left and parked right next to the head of Passage Canal; our goal being to climb the West Ridge of the 4500’ glaciated peak that lies at the head of the Learnard Glacier – a peak dubbed Learnard Peak.

The first recorded ascent of Learnard Peak was by Tim Kelley and Bill Spencer on August 9, 2000. Given they were attempting the route in late summer Kelley reported that the icefall of Learnard Glacier was an “ice and rotten snow bridge maze”.  Above the icefall they found travel easier and soon were nearing the West Ridge.

Bill Spencer leading the summit block and rapping off during the August 2000 first ascent. Photos by Tim Kelley.

As we traveled up the glacier we eyed our route.  From some angles it looked doable.  From other angles we had our doubts.  The only way to tell was to keep climbing until we got to the crux section.  When we got to the bergshrund we realized that we had luck going for us.  Serac and cornice fall had left a bridge across the ‘shrund that put us right on a small buttress of rock that lead to the edge of the hanging glacier.  I lead the rock pitch to a slot between the glacier and the ridge cliffs and belayed Bill up.  Bill then took the lead and climbed out of the slot onto the crest of the hanging glacier and took us onto the ridge just below the summit.  A short un-roped scramble up the sun drenched summit block and we were sitting on top.

– Tim Kelley, November 2000 Scree

Upon return Kelley couldn’t find any references for the peak, so he proposed the name Learnard Peak. While not an official name, the name has stuck among locals.

The snow had melted at sea level so we shouldered our skis and began walking towards Learnard Glacier. 30 minutes later we entered the valley and could finally see the glacier. I was with friends Aaron Holmen and Isaac Swanson. Isaac, at 23 years old, was ridiculously fit and liked to remind me I’m old enough to be his dad.  Aaron is closer to my age and speed, and despite trying to keep up, we were soon far behind Isaac as he ran up-valley probing for crevasses.  Another hour of travel and we were at the base of the icefall.  It was still well below freezing and the crust on the snow makes for easy booting so we donned crampons and started working our way upward.

The start. Passage canal to the right.

Through the choke. (Note ave debris.)

Looking up at the icefall.

Despite the imposing seracs that guarded the base of the icefall we found an easy route and were soon on a ramp that angled up and away from the teetering seracs that  threatened the lower part of the route.  Another hour of travel and we were above the ice fall and on a lower angle. On the upper glacier the snow was soft enough to ski so we swapped out crampons for skis and continued working our way towards the upper glacier.  We could now clearly see the West Ridge and the large gaping bergschrund that cuts across the entire South Face.  The ridge looked straightforward but the bergschrund looked angry. To quote Kelley, “The only way to tell was to keep climbing until we got to the crux section.

Approaching the icefall.

Easy hiking above the icefall (crampons due to hardpack).

Back to skis on the flats above.

Easy skiing got us to the base of the ridge where we spied a ski length sized bridge across the bergschrund.  We switched back to crampons and I lead up through the slots onto the upper face and then we simul-climbed easy slopes to the summit. A flat perch was found just below the final high point where we dropped our packs and skis and scampered up the final rocky outcrop to the true summit.  It was partially cloudy and our view of Prince William Sound was obscured, but we could spy Portage Lake almost 4500’ below us where scattered icebergs floated listlessly.

Aaron (left) and Isaac crossing the bergschrund on the final pitch to the summit. Note Portage Lake in the background.

Final steps to the top.

Isaac on the summit.

Summit selfie.

Sitting on the summit in my dark ski goggles and snacking on trail mix my mind drifted to Learnard – 123 years ago on this day – apprehensively working his way across the glacier that is now a lake, out of food and suffering from snow-blindness.

* * *

Explorations in Alaska 1898: Sushitna [sic] River and adjacent territory / survey of Sushitna River by party under George H. Eldridge, Geologist, topography by Robert Muldrow; Survey of Yenta and Squenta Rivers by party under J. E. Spurr, Geologist, topography by W. S. Post. (source)

Summer 1898 – Susitna River

Upon Learnard’s return to Passage Canal the expedition set sail to Resurrection Bay where Learnard and a group of men were dropped off.  Learnard’s party proceeded overland to Sunrise which, at the time, was the largest city in the territory of Alaska with a population of 800, several stores, saloons, a restaurant and hotel. Glenn, meanwhile, sailed around the Kenai Peninsula and up Cook Inlet where he anchored at Tyonek and waited for Learnard to charter a boat and rejoin the party.  In Tyonek new orders were given: Learnard would proceed up the Sushitna [sic] River in search of an overland route to the Tanana River, while Glen would proceed up the Matanuska River in search of an overland route to the Tanana (which could then be taken to the Yukon).

Detailed accounts, notes and gossip from the ensuring expeditions were published in the 1899 omnibus, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, but the gist of them are as follows:

Learnard’s party set sail from Tyonek on June 20 and worked his up the Susitna River.  Eventually the river grew too shallow and swift for a sailboat so they transitioned to a flat bottom boat and over the course of a month, sailed, oared and lined their boat up river until they reached Talkeetna.  Upon reaching Talkeetna their party split with Learnard leading a group to the headwaters of the Talkeetna River and Sergeant Yanert leading a group up the Susitna River and past the headwaters of the Chulitina to the headwaters of the Cantwell River before turning around. Learnard then ordered his party to backtrack to Tyonek – which they eventually reached in mid-September.

Cyanotype of a group of Alaska Native men, women, and children sitting outside a log building at Tyonek, Alaska in 1898. A wooden ladder is propped against the building, and a chicken wire fence extends from it. A cache is visible on the left. Dogs run in the foreground. Photograph taken by Walter Curran Mendenhall during the 1898 Cook’s Inlet Exploring Expedition led by Edwin F. Glenn on behalf of the U.S. Army. 17

Cyanotype photograph of Lieutenant Henry Grant Learnard and his party standing in a boat, making preparations to depart for their exploration of the Susitna River on June 19, 1898. The photograph was taken at Tyonek by Walter C. Mendenhall during the 1898 Cook’s Inlet Exploring Expedition, which was led by Glenn on behalf of the U.S. Army. 18

They endured swarms of mosquitoes, low rations, and the near steady rains produced flooding that washed out camps and soaked provisions.

While ascending the river great difficulty was met with in trying to get around the numerous log jams found between the head of one island and the foot of the next . Generally, the water was much swifter at the head of these islands where, if a log jam existed, the water was much deeper. Frequently men would step into deep holes, and not a day passed that everyone did not get wet to the waist in the icy cold water. The hip gum boots afforded some protection, but even with them it was impossible to prevent getting wet during the day. At first the men were much afraid of the quicksand, but it was soon found that at about 12 inches below the surface of the sand a bed of hard gravel was reached. After learning this they were not cautious enough. The first thing after stopping for the night’s camp two men would start a large fire, around which later all would gather and dry out the wet clothing and then prepare their beds. Many a night it would require three hours to dry out the woolen underclothing and socks. Everyone worked hard , and at times under the most trying circumstances.

– Report of Lieutenant H.,G. Learnard

Meanwhile Glenn’s party worked their way up the Matanuska trying to reach the Tanana. The party worked east towards the Chickaloon River then traversed overland south of Lake Louise until reaching what is today the townsite of Glenallen.  They then worked their way up the Gulkana River and north to the headwaters of the Delta River. At the Delta Glenn ordered Lieutenant Castner to continue on in search of a route to the Yukon.  Glenn then turned around and headed back to Tyonek which he eventually reached on September 30.

Castner in turn lead on and endured one of the more Homeric Alaskan military expeditions as he attempted to get to the Yukon.

Camp was made early to enable us to secure enough wood to keep from freezing during the night. Our scant clothing was almost burned off at night in our efforts to keep warm, getting too close to the fire. Without covering, we lay shivering in the snow. The pus-running sores on our feet closed a little at night, only to cause additional pain as we stumbled along the next morning over the hard, frozen ground, which broke them open again. Each morning found us weaker, our clothes more torn and burned , and our sores more painful… As my men often said, it would be impossible to make others understand what we suffered these days . No tongue or pen could do the case justice.

– Report of Lt. Castner

Out of food and with hardly even clothes on their body Castner’s party gave up on attempting to find a new route to the Yukon and instead worked their way down the Tanana to the junction with the Yukon – which was reached just as the river began to freeze over.  Castner then took a dog sled up the Yukon and overland to Skagway which he reached in March 1899 to complete an 11 month / 2000 mile odyssey. Castner is often celebrated for his tenacity (Rick Sinnott write, “Although it can be difficult to take the full measure of a man by reading his journal, selected letters, and after-action reports, I’d pick Castner over Glenn as a supervisor, mentor, and friend.” 21) however scrutiny of his journals reveals a harshness and and disdain for Alaska Natives.

That winter reports were gathered and sent to Congress.  These reports resulted in the creation of 1899 military District of North and additional Alaskan expeditions were funded. Glenn returned in 1899 to further explore Learnard’s possible route to the Tanana.  Late summer he reached the Tanana and concluded “there is no doubt that a railroad could be readily constructed from Tyoonok up the Sushitna River Valley and thence… to the Tanana.”

Indeed, the Alaska Railway would eventually be constructed on this very route – likewise other explorations laid the foundation for eventual roads bisecting Alaska: Glenn’s route to the Copper was foundation for a 180 highway from Anchorage to Glenallen, Castner’s route to the Tanana parallels the northern part of the Richardson Highway and Learnard’s explorations of Portage Pass parallels the railroad.

* * *

Isaac off the top.

Spring 2021 – Learnard Peak

It was time to go down.  I expressed hesitation about the hard pack and the gaping bergschrund below and said that maybe we should consider downclimbing the face.  Isaac laughed at this comment. “Yeah we’re not downclimbing this,” he said and clicked into his bindings.  Aaron and I exchanged a nervous glance and then promptly clicked in.  And so a few minutes later Aaron and I sideslipped down the hardpack while Isaac made fluid jump turns below.

Isaac dropping off the summit.

Looking back up at our route.

Turns down the icefall.

Me down the icefall ramp.

The snow was hardpack – but carvable – and we were able to link turns down skier’s right of the face where we reached a perch above the open bergschrund below. It was a double bergschrund with a skinny bridge across the first opening to a stance, then a mandatory right turn and slip across another bridge to safety. Isaac executed a perfect jump turn and slipped across the first bridge. He followed it up with another perfect hop, shot across the second bridge and out onto the flat glacier below.

I’m more of a falling leaf skier.  I made a backwards leaf dip and slid across the bridge to the bridge.  Then I executed a perfect kick turn that required zero dynamic movement and slide across the next bridge.  Aarons followed – his proper turn technique across both bridges notedly better than my falling leaf kick turn combo specialty.

Below the face the glacier was fast and smooth and we easily skied across low angle hardpack looking across the valley at the glaciers above Whittier. We drifted quickly down glacier until pulling up short as the glacier broke apart into the icefall below.

The icefall had a relatively safe path that we could ski. The upper part a wide ramp that appeared to be (mostly) crevasse free. But the icefall exit necked down into a single ramp slight wider than our ski length with crevasses on either side.

Isaac once again took the lead and quickly skied through the final icefall and down the ramp and out onto the safety below.  Aaron followed shortly afterwards and soon they were both out on the glacier looking up.  I slid into the icefall choke.

* * *

“A lesson for Anti-Expansionist” Showing how Uncle Same had been an expansionist first, last and all the time. Victor Gillam, 1899.

1899-1902 – Philippine–American War

The Alaska military explorations coincided with territorial expansion beyond our borders and many of the soldiers who crisscrossed the territory were later deployed overseas. Learnard, after leading 1898 expedition, transferred to the Philippines to take part of the Philippine–American War. In the Philippines  he fought in the battle of Zapote River – the second largest battle of the war and a year later he shipped out to China where he participated in the Siege of Peking. Learnard then returned to the Philippines where the US continued fighting a brutal counterinsurgency war.

Captain Glenn arrived in Philippines in 1900 where he was appointed as a judge-advocate. It was at this time that Captain Glenn’s story took a harrowing turn. By 1900 the war had entered a gruesome phase with atrocities and war crimes, including torture, mutilation and executions committed by both sides. The official Philippine-American War lasted for 3 years, but was followed by a counterinsurgency that continued for another 10 years (a scenario that is eerily familiar). 4,200 American soldiers died during the war as well as 20,000 Filipino soldiers and an additional 200,000 civilian deaths. In retaliation to guerrilla by tactics by Filipino nationals the US embarked on a military campaign with systematic torture, razed villages and forced relocation to concentration camps, where thousands died. These practices continued unhindered throughout the duration of the war, and Captain Glenn played a key role in these military campaigns.

In 1900 and early 1901, while serving as the judge advocate, Glenn orchestrated a systematic campaign of arrests and torture. In the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar, he led a mobile team of crack water cure experts who arrested community leaders (some called it kidnapping) to extract information about the insurgency. General Nelson Miles . . . reported privately to Secretary of War Root that Glenn and his team had become notorious for moving around the islands and arresting men “for the purposes of extorting statements by means of torture.” Glenn soon became so well known as the chief administrator of torture in the Philippines that the torture squad was called “Glenn’s Brigade.”

– Allan W. Vestal, “The First Wartime Water Torture by Americans”

Cartoon on the May 22, 1902 cover of Life magazine depicting American application of the water cure while Europeans watch.

The overall scale of abuse against Filipino nationals remains unknown – but the reports filtering into American newspapers sparked a national outcry and promoted the military to start investigations that eventually lead to several court-martials.  The most infamous of these trials involved Captain Glenn and Joveniano Ealdama, the mayor of the town of Igbaras – a small town of 6,000 on the island of Pany (400 miles south of Manilla).

On November 27, 1900 Glenn’s soldiers entered Igbaras and captured Ealdama. Glenn then directed soldiers to strip Ealdama and subject him to the “water cure”.  The day after the water torture of Ealdama, the American troops put his town of six thousand residents to the torch.

It should be noted that “water cure” and “waterboarding” are often used interchangeably – however the use of “water cure” during the Philippine–American War refers to the practice of forcing the individual to consume water, whereas “waterboarding” refers to the practice of placing a rag over the mouth of a prisoners and pouring water over the rag to induce the sensation of drowning.  The difference is negligible but noted since the US military deemed “water cure” as torture shortly after the Philippine–American War whereas the practice of “waterboarding” existed in a legal gray area throughout the Iraq war.

During the trial Ealdama testified that “My stomach and throat pained me, and also the nose where they passed the salt water through.  Glenn, on the other hand, objected claiming the torture was “a legitimate exercise of force under the laws of war,” and “justified by military necessity.”

After a week of testimony the court found Glenn guilty and he was sentenced to a one-month suspension and a fifty-dollar fine. The trial was perhaps the “most intensive effort by the War Department to punish those who practiced the water cure in the Philippines.” 23 – but it was hardly effective.   Glenn had widespread military support and he returned to the war after his suspension.  A second court-martial for his conduct was tried later in the war for his ordering of the murder of seven poisoners. Glenn was acquitted all on all charges.

* * *

Through the icefall.


The sun had softened the snow to consistent corn and the skiing was relatively easy – but the open crevasses and looming icefall above me required concentration. I slid into the choke and down the ramp my eyes on noting the crevasses on either side of me – and then it was over before I had time to enjoy it and then we were shooting out across the lower glacier to the valley below. The lower valley had obvious crevasses – but they were easily avoided and the tight valley threatened by rockfall and avalanches was still shaded and hardpack and we shot through the gap in minutes and were soon out on the flats gliding to the water.  Total time had been 6 hours and we sat in the by the water looking up valley at the peak 6 miles in the distance.  Again my mind drifted to reflections of the past…

Past the icefall & heading down.

Through the choke & away from ave danger.

Back to the car.

Learnard worked diligently through the military ranks for his whole career. Shortly after returning from the Philippines he went to school in Montana and was deployed to Butte Montana in 1914 to quell the labor riots. He later deployed to Germany during WW1. He was promoted to Adjutant General in 1919 and to Brigadier-General in 1926. He retired and moved to Washington DC where died on March 7, 1937 at age 69.  He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Learnard’s explorations near Portage was commemorated with the naming of Learnard Glacier – and later a WW2 fort on Unalaska Island, active from 1942-1944, was deemed Fort Learnard. However his true legacy lies with the meaningful reports of the Susitna valley and potential mineral explorations that eventually lead to development of the parks highway.

Glenn retuned to the US after the Philippine–American War where, ironically, he was commissioned by the War Department in 1914 to write “Rules of Land Warfare” – a manual on the treatment of combatants and noncombatants. Afterwards he served on the Mexican border during WW1 and was promoted to Brigadier General in May of 1917.  He retired from the Army in 1920 and died in 1926. He is buried in in Arlington Cemetery.

Glenn’s explorations in Alaska are well documented. The Glenn Highway was named for him in the 50s and several streams, lakes and peaks are also named after him.  The town of Glenallen commentates both the Glenn and Allen expeditions. Lake Louis is named after his wife.

However, many have pointed to his infamies and commemoration of his name has been questioned in news reports and even debated in the Alaska House. In January 2012 the Anchorage Daily News published Rick Sinnott’s article “What do the Glenn Highway and waterboarding have in common?” which was followed by historian David Reamer’s October 2020 article “The Glenn Highway is named for a war criminal who tortured captives during the Philippine-American War”. And in Feb 2022, Rep. Zach Fields introduced HB 352, “An Act requiring the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to establish a consultation process to rename the Glenn Highway“. During a hearing of the bill Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, lead a raucous discussion about cancel culture where he stated, “Do we need all that detail? We’re the Transportation Committee. We’re supposed to be worried about roads and airplanes and ferries, not waterboarding in the 1890s.” The bill never made it out of the House transportation committee.

Cloudy reflections high on Learnard Glacier.

It was a beautiful afternoon in Whittier and we lounged briefly by the water enjoying the sun.  Eventually we packed up and left Passage Canal and drove though the Whittier tunnel where upon exiting we peered up valley at the distant peak that we visited briefly a couple hours before. Looking up at the distant mountain my mind continued to drift…

Some cannot simply look at a name or journey without yearning to learn more about what lead to where we are today. Thinking back to Learnard I imagine staggering across the Portage Glacier with eyes clouded by snow-blindness. Thinking back to Glenn I question how the American public brushed aside the public scrutiny of torture, only to relive the same stories 100 years later when news broke that Attorney General John Ashcroft approved waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in 2002.

This was not lost on commentators during Glenn’s time.  Oft quoted is an April 1902 New York World editorial which describes the American public’s shame as ephemeral:

The American Public eats its breakfast and reads its newspapers of our doings in the Philippines. It sips its coffee and reads of its soldiers administering the “water cure” to rebels; of how water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of the patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting; of how our soldiers then jump on the distended bodies to force the water out quickly so that the “treatment” can begin all over again. The American Public takes another sip of its coffee and remarks, “How very unpleasant!” 24

We drive on – memories of days events, and the past that lead to it, receding with every mile we travel. Out of Portage and traversing Turnagain Arm in minutes across terrain that used to take a week to cross. Our landscape also changes –  Portage Glacier pulls back further every year and could be completely gone in my child’s lifetime. But the American Public doesn’t change that much. Our cursory glance at today’s outrage is forgotten as another moves into replace it.

As McKay abruptly put it, “Do we need all that detail? We’re the Transportation Committee.” 

* * *

South Face / West Ridge of Learnard in the distance. The route traverses below the South Face and ascends the West Ridge (the left skyline).

Learnard Peak (4500+’) – West Ridge

Learnard Peak itself is a mere bump which viewed alongside neighboring peaks – however the Learnard Glacier / West Ridge is a wonderful spring ski mountaineering route when avalanche and snow conditions allow for safe travel. Given the location – and the horrible weather that seems to persist for 300 days of the year – the peak sees fairly little traffic.  However on the few days per season when sun and stability align, there may be a couple of skiers and climbers vying for the route.

Approach: Park at the beach parking lot just past the City of Whittier campground and walk north along the water until you reach the creek that drains the large valley above the road. Hike up the creek for less than a half-mile to enter the valley where you’ll encounter the terminus of the Learnard Glacier.

Learnard from Whittier. The route goes up the valley (note ave / rockfall debris), works it way through the icefall, then traverses far left to the left skyline of the peak.

Looking up at the icefall. May 2001. Note that the path through the icefall is threatened by serac fall.

Learnard Glacier in the summer – and a view of the ridge you can take to bypass the icefall. Photo by Brendan Lee from an August 2022 ascent of Lowell Peak.

Route: Once in the valley assess avalanche conditions because from this point on you are committed to moving up a valley where the avalanche and rockfall from above routinely cross the valley.  Next ski up valley until you reach the icefall and work your way from 1500’ – 2500’ through the icefall via the safest route possible. As of May 2021 there was a straight forward ramp that angled up and (climber’s) right below the seracs. This is a legit icefall – so serac fall (as well as crevasse danger) is a strong possibility.  The icefall can be bypassed by climbing the ridge to the east of the glacier, a Class 3 scramble that will get you to the low angle glacier bench above the icefall. Once above the icefall contour to the west aiming for the West Ridge of Learnard.  The final summit ridge is guarded by a distinct bergschrund followed by an exposed 500’ crampon to the summit.

Closeup of Learnard Glacier in the summer to give you an idea of the crevasse danger. Photo by Brendan Lee from an August 2022 ascent of Lowell Peak.

The 2021 route through the icefall takes the obvious ramp right to left.

The summit pyramid of Learnard. Once up close the peak is fairly nondescript and in the right snow conditions an easy ascent.

Descent: Retrace your route.  If you’re skiing the top 500’ is an exposed drop with a large bergschrund below that doesn’t allow for error.  The icefall is an exciting ski that requires study and risk assessment as to whether or not a rope is necessary.

Gear: Full glacier rack plus crampons and axe.

Time: Total distance / elevation is 10 miles / 4,700’ and 5 to 7 hours roundtrip. You could potentially detour and climb Lowell peak to the east – but if you’re doing this as a spring route it is prudent to get down as quickly as possible before the afternoon sun starts loosening up the rocks and snow above the tight valley that you’ll need to exit.


Of interest to visitors keen on climbing Learnard is that a land transfer was recently initiated for a new cruise ship dock. Because of this access will change sometime in the future. The project (“Head of Bay”) is a partnership between Huna Totem Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and is currently moving forward.  You can read more about in a January 2022 ADN article (“Tiny Whittier debates an Alaska Native corporation’s proposal for a second cruise ship dock”) and an August 2022 follow-up (“Whittier receives land transfer enabling cruise ship dock proposal to move ahead”).

The ambitious plan (full presentation here) features a tram up the slope next to Learnard Glacier.  I say ambitious because, while Whittier is certainly an amazing place on a good day, one should remember that it sees an average of 154 inches of rain per year and 249 inches of snow per year. Maybe they’ll open it to skiing?


  1. The Valencia Disaster is an amazing internet rabbit hole that traces the history of this steamship from initial voyages to the final disaster and aftermath – including research of the victims and where they are buried. I highly recommend visiting this site. []
  2. University of Washington: Special Collections []
  3. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage []
  4. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.[]
  5. Teben’kov, Atlas of the Northwest Coasts of America, p. 23 []
  6. These maps can be accessed on NOAA’s Historical Charts website. Set ‘Cook Expedition’ for the title and ‘AK’ for state to see results. []
  7. Learnard, “Report of Lieutenant H.G. Learnard”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.125 []
  8. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. []
  9. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. []
  10. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. []
  11. If you ever get the chance to see Tim Remick’s exhibition “Portraits from Denali” make sure to take the time. It is a wonderful exhibit that is, according to Tim, a “visual exploration of the human condition after climbing North America’s highest peak.” When he’s not taking photos, Tim can be found coaching Devos on saturdays at Alyeska. If you see him to set up another showing. []
  12. Glenn, “Report of Captain E.F. Glenn”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.27 []
  13. Learnard, “Report of Lieutenant H.G. Learnard”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.128 []
  14. “Report of Captain E.F. Glenn”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.18)[]
  15. “Geology of the Portage Area”, Barnes 1939. []
  16. U.S. Geological Survey, Photo by Farrell Francis Barnes. []
  17. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. []
  18. Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. []
  19. Learnard. “Report of Lieutenant H.,G. Learnard”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.141 []
  20. Castner, “A Story of Hardship and Suffering in Alaska”, Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska, (1899), p.231 []
  21. Sinnott, “What do the Glenn Highway and waterboarding have in common?”,  Anchorage Daily News, Jan 2012 []
  22. Vestal, Allan W., The First Wartime Water Torture by Americans, Main Law Review, January 2017 []
  23. Kramer, “The Water Cure – Debating torture and counterinsurgency—a century ago.”, New Yorker, February 17, 2008 []
  24. Frank Schumacher, “Marked Severities”: The Debate over Torture During America’s Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1902 []