By Mike Bromberg
Lou, as a regular follower of WildSnow.com and neighbor from across the range (Crested Butte), I wanted to share a recent trip of mine that you and your ski alpinism loving readers might be interested in exploring for yourselves.
|Mike Bromberg descending the West face of Mt Dickey.
The Alaska Range, and more specifically the Ruth Gorge, has long been considered a proving ground of sorts for todayâ€™s modern alpinists. With the Gorgeâ€™s massive Eastern walls rising 3000â€™ feet out of glacier ice, it is no wonder this area has attracted so much attention. However, for the ski mountaineer, it is the Western aspect, boasting elegant ridgelines and glaciated terrain that made us salivate. Some further research indicated that the western rampart and more specifically an area known as the â€˜Backside Glacierâ€™ had been barely visited and never climbed.
|L to R Mt Johnson, Mt Grosvenor and Mt Church from Backside Glacier
With help from a Mountain Fellowship Fund Grant from the American Alpine Club, our skis were packed and we were on our way. On April 11, Ben Traxler (Boulder, CO) and I were flown into the Backside Glacier by Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi. This being our first visit to the range, we were surprised and admittedly a little intimidated, to learn that in the veteran pilotâ€™s many years of experience, we were the first party to be delivered onto Backside Glacier.
Our first several days were spent exploring route options and evaluating the unstable snow conditions at lower elevations and on the unnamed peaks to the west. The dry and cold February and March weather contributed to unstable snow conditions with cohesive snow perched atop of a 15cm layer composed of greater than 5mm advanced facets (like Colorado depth Hoar near the snow surface!), producing some alarmingly large collapses but no significant avalanche activity.
After skiing up the glacier and making a ski descent from 8,500 ft on the West Face of Mt. Dickey we directed our attention to our first objective, the West ridge of Mt. Wake. Ascending the low angle glacier to gain the west ridge proper, we climbed low fifth class rock and moderate rock and technical post-holing to 65 degrees before being thwarted by unstable snow and rock with ButterfingerÂ® like characteristics in a prominent notch at 7,600 ft, just below Mt Wakeâ€™s glaciated summit dome. Descending near our route of ascent, we discovered a more direct couloir up to 50 degrees in steepness.
|West Ridge of Mt Wake stretching toward the camera.
The following day, we skied south toward â€˜Backside Lakeâ€™ and attempted the S face of Mt Church in low visibility weather. After crossing several massive old wet slides, we ascended fully isothermal snow to the glacier between Mt Grosvenor and Mt Church, skiing to just below the prominent Church-Grosvenor Col, before retreating as inclement weather and complete lack of visibility began to take hold. From the Church-Grosvenor col, the route intersects the South Face on Mt Grosvenor (III 55 degrees, Walsh-Westman, 2005)
|L to R Mt Johnson, Mt. Grosvenor and Mt Church showing the West Ridge route on Mt Grosvenor.
Making the most of several weather induced â€˜rest-daysâ€™ we skied a few of the numerous E facing couloirs to 50 degrees off the unnamed summit 6,500 ft bordering the west side of â€˜Backside Glacierâ€™. This summit is likely unclimbed and would make a nice short daytrip from basecamp.
As high pressure began to take hold on April 21, we focused our attention on the West Ridge of Mt Grosvenor and under clear skies, we skied and climbed the snowy ridge (to 50 degrees), before intersecting the striking summit pyramid. From here we climbed the SW face via moderate rock and snow to 75 degrees before again intersecting the South Face route (Westman/Walsh 2005) below the first of two prominent fingers near the summit. We descended the route of ascent on skis encountering perfect ski conditions with brilliant exposure and striking views of Mt. Huntington, The Rooster Comb and Denali. Upon return, we both agreed that this elegant line is comparable in commitment to the West Face of Mt Dickey and only slightly more technical. (West Ridge, Mt Grosvenor, III 65 degrees)
|Mike Bromberg during the first ascent of the West ridge of Mt Grosvenor.
After succeeding on one of our main objectives, we spent our last several days engaging in a little aprÃ¨s-ski, exploring ice and mixed lines on a peak we named â€˜False Bradleyâ€™, a prominent snow dome that dominates the head of the glacier in the 747 pass area, which in reality is only a false summit on the Mt Bradley massif. Taking the rightmost line of the X, we climbed 600â€™ of mixed terrain to WI5 M5 before retreating due to the garbage chute nature of the warming route, and a mishap with a malfunctioning ice screw racking system.
|Ben Traxler ascending one of the many couloirs above our basecamp.
Overall, the Backside Glacier offers many possibilities for moderate ridge climbs in a superb setting, perfect for those looking for seldom explored and/or new route possibilities. Mid-April or earlier seems to be the most appropriate time to visit this area, as we experienced a significant shed cycle on solar aspects towards the end of our trip.
The skiing possibilities remain limitless, although your safety in this area is entirely contingent on your ability to assess snow conditions as most routes involve prime avalanche terrain. Many obvious routes remain unclimbed and each summit has seen only and handful of ascents. With convenient base camp locations and easy access, the Backside Glacier is perfect for a short foray into the range, a multi-day adventure from the Gorge over 747 pass, or a shuttle trip from another nearby destination.
For beta or to inquire about guided trips to this area, contact www.crestedbutteguides.com.
Mike Bromberg is full time alpine enthusiast from Crested Butte, CO, where he makes his living as a guide and instructor with Crested Butte Mountain Guides, the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, and Colorado Mountain College.
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