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First-Ascent Blitz in Alaska

Posted on: July 27th, 2009 by admin

Southeast Ridge

Jason Nelson leads stunning cracks on the southeast ridge of Mendenhall Tower, one of the area's most "popular" routes. Photo by Blake Herrington.

Iron Curtain

Blake Herrington leading low on The Iron Curtain, the first ascent of a big rock wall between the main Mendenhall Tower and Tower 4. Photo by Jason Nelson.

Mountain Fellowship winner Blake Herrington reports on his recent run of big new rock climbs in Alaska.

On July 9, Jason Nelson and I caught a helicopter from Juneau to the Mendenhall Glacier’s upper reaches, intending to climb new routes among the Taku or Mendenhall towers. Jason is from Ouray, Colorado, and knows how to climb rock and Ice. I am from Bellingham, Washington, and know how to schwack through brush, cook one-stove meals during a storm, and flounder in soft snow. We seemed to have all the bases covered.

The weather was sunny, the daylight lasted 20 hours, and we couldn’t believe our luck to be there during a heat wave. First we climbed the mega-classic southeast ridge of the Main Tower (IV 5.10+); as the area’s “trade route” this climb may have seen as many as a half-dozen ascents. In subsequent days we climbed three new routes, all in the grade IV or IV+ range. These routes featured minor glacial travel, but were predominately rock climbs on splitter cracks and the knobs that covered the walls of the towers.

The Iron Curtain led up the Main Tower, with 5.10 and 5.11 pitches, capped by a 5.12a thin-hands roof. We dubbed our second new climb Resisting a Rest. This climb tackled a long corner system up the steepest part of the Curtain, a wall between the Main Tower and Tower 4. After dealing with a 100-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide chasm high on the route, we proceeded to the summit of Tower 4. Finally, we made a direct ascent up the South Arete of Tower 4, following a long line of cracks and roofs in a stunning location. The final pitch had us stemming higher and higher between a thin flake of granite and the main wall, before rocking over and commiting to a long section of protectionless face-climbing up the arete to the summit. Jason and I had arrived in Juneau just days after the governor’s suprise exit from politics, and our stash of local newspapers was full of articles and editorials regarding her sudden departure. In honor of the event, we named this final new climb The Resignation Arete.

This route also marked our resignation from the area, as storms, fog, and the typical Alaskan weather soon returned. We spent two days skiing, hiking, rappeling, schwacking, and hitch-hiking back into Juneau via the Mendenhall Glacier and West Glacier Trail.

I am eternally grateful to the AAC for the Mountain Fellowship funding, which paid for a significant part of the transportation on this trip.

To read more about this trips and see loads more photos, visit Blake’s blog:

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