First Ascents in Alaska’s Brooks Range
By Erik Peterson, SRCFC Member
Alaska’s Brooks Range is not exactly a preeminent climbing destination. Overshadowed by the higher peaks and better climbing of the Alaska Range and the St. Elias Mountains, the Brooks tops out at a little over 9000 feet, and is noted for its poor quality, crumbly rock, and lots of scree. The Brooks Range sits mostly above the Arctic Circle, so despite its relatively low elevation it hosts unfriendly weather, and remains rugged, remote, and mostly unclimbed. So when I called up Doug for our summer climbing trip, it was as much about the climbing as it was adventure. We were searching for unclimbed peaks and decided to focus our attempts on the northern edge of the Endicott Mountains, with peak 2240, the third most prominent peak in the Brooks Range, as one of our primary objectives. One reason the area was exciting was because of the lack of information, including none of the mountains in the regions having official elevations, only vague references within the 20 meter contours of USGS maps.
One issue we had to decide before we left was whether to bring our snow/ice gear. Alaska had a dry winter, and after a cool spring, May came with summer in full force. 75-80 degrees in Fairbanks, with 60s on the southern end of the Brooks, the week before we left convinced us snow and ice would be minimal. The day before we flew out it was 85 in Fairbanks: we figured leaving behind the snow/ice gear was a good idea.
Our Brooks experience started before we even landed. We flew out of Bettles on May 30th, and our flight to the Killik River is a north-south traverse of the Brooks with a view across the continental divide. Our landing on a gravel bar was followed not 30 minutes later by a lone wolf walking through our landing site. After a few hours of getting our gear organized for our hike, and taking in our surroundings, we began heading up river towards Aniakuik Creek, our access point to deeper into the mountains. We also encountered our first ankle turners: the tussocks of the tundra. The ground as bad as might have been expected, but tundra is tough traveling; wet, swampy ground, with unstable tussocks deceiving you into being able to keep your feet dry. On May 31st we moved high enough to move past the tundra, but the rocks along the river bottom threatened our ankles with every step as well. Near the head of Aniakuik Creek we set up our base camp with our altimeter reading 4705 feet.
We woke up June 1st to a snow dusting with foggy, windy, and wet weather: not ideal for being on steep, unknown terrain. We started up the slopes to our south toward the main ridge leading to Peak 2220 North. The climbing was mostly 3rd class, on scree of various sizes. We stayed along the ridge to about 6500 feet when we met a tricky cornice in a col about 20 feet long. This was immediately followed by a vertical wall about 35-40 feet high. Our visibility was still very poor and we could make out that the wall angled back, but we couldn’t see what happened above. In addition to our limited visibility, the rock was still slick from snow and rain, so we decided to return under better conditions.
On June 2nd we did some scouting, but mostly relaxing as we prepared for a long day over the ridge to our east towards Peak 2240. On June 3rd we set out at 8:00 am and quickly were climbing up scree that was more like boulders. Everyone of these large rocks seemed to be tenuously placed, and it seemed that with every hand and foot placement a rock shifted and threatened to bring down the entire mountain in a rock slide. By 10:30am we had scrambled up our first first ascent, an unnamed peak at approximately 68o 14’ 30” N; 153o 48’ W, that our altimeter recorded at 7191 feet. We dubbed it Donis Mountain, after Doug’s girlfriend. We scampered down the scree on the eastside of the ridge to the valley of the West Branch of the West Fork Okpikruak River. To reach Peak 2240 we had to trek down the river and around a group of mountains then back up the East Branch of the West Fork Okpikruak River a short ways. This trek offered us a good view of the mountain and we chose the southern most buttress to the huge Northwest Ridge. An easy river crossing took us to the base of the mountain at 3435 feet. We started our climb around 6:00pm and almost immediately we were overrun by a thunderstorm, complete with lightning. We found a boulder just a couple hundred feet up the ridge and bivied partially out of the rain. Dry enough to steal 15 minutes of uncomfortable sleep. An hour and 15 minutes later the lightning is gone, leaving only slick rocks.
We continue up various scree of 3rd and 4th class climbing. There were a few spots of easy 5th class climbing (5.1-5.3). The 5th class climbing could have been avoided if one were to choose, but it was the most direct and the most fun. At about 6500 feet more clouds and driving rain move in, although this time we find a mostly dry cave and only have to wait 10 minutes. Other than the need to be careful on wet rocks, the 75 meter knife edge poses little problems. Then the what would be the easy summit ridge is fairly challenging with no crampons, but otherwise it is the mellowest part. At 11:45 pm on June 3rd we reached the summit, for what we believe is the first ascent, of Peak 2240 (68° 17' N; 153° 33' W), where our altimeter read 7529. When we begin our decent at 12:01 am, the land of the midnight sun offers us a clouded view of the sun looking over the north pole. At 2am the sun reaches its lowest point, still visible between the peaks from our lower vantage point back down the ridge.
Our easy river crossing a few hours ago saw water levels rise, with resulting colder temperatures. The much stronger current almost knocked us over, and our feet were losing feeling. We made the far side safely and threw our boots on and started moving before our feet went completely numb. By 7:00am it was already warm enough to take a nap in the sun laying on some rocks near a small creek. Our return trip was in what must have been record setting temperatures around 75oF. As we climbed up the ridge separating the Okpikruak and Aniakuik valleys we were offered great views of Peaks 2220 North and South. After being turned back last time, this was our next objective. 34 ½ hours after we left, we returned to camp for a nice long sleep and a rest day. Before we could even set out on our next climb however, a rock near the stream we used for water turned into one of those dreaded ankle turners. Climbing was out, but a few days later the ankle was good enough to hike out.
The peaks along the ridge of Peak 2220 are the gems of the area. Classic summit pyramids connected by narrow ridges. While the rock in the area is mostly crumbly sedimentary rock, but we did encounter pockets of stable rock good for climbing. We were never able to get a feel of what the rock was like on the summit pyramid (the cornice kept us far enough away), but if it stable enough, these peaks would offer some exciting climbs.
Summary of Statistics
1. Unnamed peak (Donis Mountain) - summit 7191 feet, climb 2,486 feet, 3rd class scramble FA Peterson-Piehl, June 3, 2010
2. Peak 2240, 3rd most prominent peak in Brooks Range - summit 7529 feet, climb 4094 ft, 5.3, FA Peterson-Piehl, June 3, 2010
Pictures (from top to bottom)
1. Our route up Peak 2240 - South Buttress of the Northwest Ridge (of the 4 ridges in the picture, it is the 3rd one.) photo by Erik Peterson
2. Erik Peterson on the lower scramble of South Buttress of Northwest Ridge, looking down on the East Branch of the West Fork Okpikruak River. Photo by Doug Piehl
3. Peterson and Piehl on the summit of Peak 2240. Photo by Doug Piehl
4. Doug Piehl climbing the crux up the South Buttress of Northwest Ridge. Photo by Erik Peterson
5. Peak 2220 North (right) and 2220 South (left). High point at the base of the summit pyramid where it meets the ridge on the far right of the picture. Photo by Erik Peterson