When I arrived in Alaska for the first time four years ago, my mother and I flew through the mountains. I remember how good they looked, but I wasn’t ready for an Alaskan-level mountain. They all looked so big, steep, and gnarly, even the small ones. I was an amateur at the time, but was so enthralled by what I saw that yet again, as I have done before, I pushed everything in my life away and decided to move to Alaska the next spring. I wanted an authentic relationship with the land and for the last four summers I’ve grown just that.
I recalled that first flight and looked through its photos. Wow, what I had missed! Not only did the mountains look as beautiful as I remembered, but they were also in excellent condition! From here, I began scheming up a wild idea. One that climbers like John Frieh and Jess Rosskelly inspired – autumn climbing in the greater ranges of Alaska. While reading through John’s reports I quickly noticed these were short trips. It seemed the fickle weather, waning daylight, and colder temps warranted “smash & grab” style tactics as the preferred method. So that became the plan.
I began to poke my head into lesser known corners of Alaska with my climbing partner Alex Hansen this past May. The door opened when we decided to go on a trip to the Hayes Range. In the middle of the bright Alaskan night we drove far east down the Glenn Highway, the car heavy with our expedition kit, until we pointed north along the Richardson. I had never driven north of that junction, though I used to live south of it in Valdez.
Making that turn was a decision we would never get back, and it changed more than just the trajectory of the car. It’s a moment, a turn, that can impact you for the rest of your life. Under the midnight sun we weaved through thick muskeg forest and pointed out moose and bear in the headlights. We sat, helpless, as our hearts turned over in waves of torrent joy, an untouchable curiosity being fueled by big peaks teasing us behind dark, swaying clouds. We slept on the side of the road near a military base that morning after driving through the night.
The next morning, we walked into The Lodge at Black Rapids and for the first time I met Annie Hopper, the owner of the lodge. She would come to save me later that summer from the rut of lack of guide work available for me in South Central Alaska. Annie wore thin-framed glasses and had sandy hair with grey accents, a streak of purple communicating her liveliness. Although in her early sixties, her spirit is caught in the past of several generations earlier. “Climber dudes!”, she said with a welcoming smile. The rest is history. Annie and I would go on to spend the majority of the summer together. She is an exceptional woman who has spent over a decade building this lodge in the Alaska Range and welcomed me into her world with no hesitancy. Her friendship is a token of gold and our lifelong relationship to the mountains is a centerpiece of this connection.
On Friday September 11th the mountains around Black Rapids popped out of the clouds and we drove forty miles north to Delta Junction to hop in a bush plane. Jesse from Golden Eagle Outfitters was taking us to scout for an autumn line on the bigger peaks. We brought Annie with us; she was beaming with excitement to fly through the great mountains of her homeland. Our Native friend, Ray DeWilde, came as well. We work together at the lodge and Ray had never been that close to the big mountains before. He was psyched to say the least. Ray is a tall skinny man with long hair and glasses, often wearing his signature blue bandana. He is an exceptional hunter. Having grown up in the small, northern village of Huslia in interior Alaska, he is a man of the land. Ray continually inspires with his stories of the land, of his fourteen brothers and sisters, and of the great animals we live amongst. If you see him, he’s either riding his motorbike – hair flowing in the wind down long Alaskan roads – or he’s on foot in the bush, a man in tune with the forest & tundra.
If you’re lucky, Ray DeWilde will share stories with you. Stories so deeply authentic that you are wrapped up in every word. And so it was the five of us in the five-seater bush plane for the next 1.5 hours. Every single person on the plane, even the pilot, was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as he weaved close to every major peak in the range and we scoured for beta. At times we’d round a corner and a massive wall would tower above the clouds and bask in the southerly sun, each one of us smiling ear to ear.
Not many words were said on that flight. In fact, Alex only spoke once. When he did, he turned frantically to me and broke his dedicated silence, tapping me and pointing off into the distance at a lesser peak North of Mount Deborah. “That looks mega!” Out the window I looked at a steep face of obvious gullies and proud buttresses, perhaps two-thousand feet high, nearly south-facing and loaded with ice. One of the gullies caught our eye – a true plum line. It split right up the middle of the face and choked in several places where steeper ice squeezed its way through the clefts. It went all the way to the top of the ridge and there was no doubt now that we were going to do whatever it took to bag it.
That night we stayed up late (a common affair for us) looking at maps, Google Earth, and our recon photos. We dug through our expedition equipment and built a kit in the basement of the isolated Lodge at Black Rapids. Many years of work were on display as we sported a stash of equipment built for seemingly any Alaskan expedition. Our new residence in the heart of the range felt so far from my childhood in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Alex’s in Minnesota. One of the problems we had to solve was that we’d left our smaller solar panels in other locations and were at a loss for obtaining power, though we were stocked with Goal Zero batteries to carry in. Our solution to remedy this problem was to bring our Goal Zero lantern equipped with a hand crank for emergency power. We’d stash it at the air strip in the tundra and if we arrived without power, we could still fire up our inReach and continue comms with Jesse.
Analyzing the logistics equation, we weren’t psyched on carrying all our equipment and food up the seven miles of moraine to the base of the wall. “What if we just push it all out of the plane below the face?” I asked Alex. He immediately cracked a smile and put his hands on his hips. “Definitely.” Rearranging our kit, we packed two duffels to the brim and bundled them up in cord. We tried our best to pack them for the hard, blunt force impact they were about to undertake when they dropped from the bush plane and down onto the rocks and grasses of the lower mountain benches. With our kit packed, we had a short night of sleep and got up early to fly. Unfortunately, a whole day went by before I hopped in the two-seated super cub on Sunday, September 13th at nine in the morning in Delta Junction. Entering the latter half of the good weather window now I was on the way, scrunched behind Jesse with a duffel on my lap. Alex would fly in after me, though arriving nearly two hours later as the flight is over 45 minutes to the remote Gilliam Glacier.
The weather was splitter and the entire range enjoyed a cloudless morning. For the first time, I saw the monstrous summit pillar of Mount Deborah, the Queen of Alaska. For the next few days this fabled peak, glistening in her steep snow spines, corniced ridges, and prominent rock faces, would watch over us. We answered to no one except the Queen. And as you do in the presence of any Queen, be on your best behavior and keep things dialed. Banking right down the West Branch of the Gilliam Glacier, below the proud North sides of Deborah & Hess, our face came into view. We flew straight for another three miles and circled a bench area that showed an alpine lake on the map. It was fall and that lake no longer existed, but rather its dry remains. It was disappointing but we had fresh snow nearby to use for water instead.
Jesse flipped the clamshell door open that made up the right-hand wall of the aircraft and I carefully lifted the duffel from my lap and onto the bars that support the right wing. The wind rushed along my hand and face, both of us feeling the cool air at speed. As I held onto the bag, Jesse lined us up and got low to the dry lake. Speeding towards it we locked focus and my adrenaline rushed as I dialed in on the target zone. Then it was time. “Okay push it! Now!” Jesse said to me over the intercom. I gave the bag a soft push backward and let go of the handle. It shot back out of sight immediately and I peered backward to watch it smack against the rocks and tumble into the grasses. The plane ripped high again straight towards Deborah and we sped off with the door open over the Gilliam Glacier. I was smiling as big as ever and fully blown away by what we had just done! “That was awesome!” I said laughing. While it was certainly a wild setting for air mail, Jesse’s exceptional pilot skills made it “another day on the job” as an Alaskan bush pilot and he continued on course back down glacier to the tundra air strip. Touching us down on his massive Alaska Bush Wheels, we bounced along the rocky runway and only a few minutes went by before I was alone. Jesse flew off and the valley became completely silent. A beautiful silence. The kind you often long for. For nearly two hours I lay in the rocks, my head on my pack, and I relished in my unique positioning. For a guy who grew up reading books of adventure but not pursuing it, I was certainly beginning to live up to the vision I had for myself in the world. “This is what I live for…” I thought to myself.
The buzzing of the plane down the Gilliam Glacier valley woke me from a half sleep and I watched it cruise up the glacier and out of sight. It was Jesse, back with Alex this time and headed for another airmail operation. Only twenty minutes later Alex and I were alone with our little thirty-litre packs and getting ready to find our way seven miles up glacier to our bags. The hike was surreal. The massive rock-covered tongue of the Gilliam stretched out through the dry valley and dominated the lowlands. Up above, sharp rocky peaks, frozen North Faces, and lofty summits loomed. We were together in the big mountains again, and in our now-usual fashion, we were in a place that rarely sees visitors. We used to be intimidated by the scale of our isolation, but now we embraced it. We were in our favorite environment. Trekking with light packs and poles, we had a blast traveling the moraines below these amazing mountains.
In the early afternoon we reached our bags at the dry lake. Alex & Jesse had lined up a pretty serious round two, dropping two more bags within 30 feet of mine. They were in good shape, some small tears here and there. Inside however, any packaged food with excess air had popped and crumbs occupied the bottom of the bags. Overall, things went pretty well and we set up camp in a beautiful place before going for a walk to check out our face.
When we got in view of our proposed route, we noticed that the chokes in the couloir were actually quite steep and looked to be of real quality! Alex looked at me and said, “We’re going to the top tomorrow.” And that was it, so we were. An interesting piece of alpine climbing is your mental fortitude. Sheer will and grit can carry you quite far. Add in the right skills, fitness, and plan, and you’re teed up for an amazing adventure.
Back at our camp we blasted tunes and watched the mountains at sunset. We’d hit a gas station before arriving at Jesse’s air strip that morning and stuffed the duffels with extra snacks. Chow time! We then packed our kit and went to bed. That night the air was cold and we knew conditions would be good. I had an awful night of sleep. I had seen a bear print near our camp shortly before bed. It wasn’t necessarily fresh but my years of backcountry travel in Alaska had made me very ‘Bear-anoid’. Specifically, in 2019, I spent nearly forty nights alone on the hard ice of the Spencer Glacier and had a few less than ideal bear encounters that had freaked me out. I tossed and turned restlessly for hours. Alex slept like a rock and in the morning he was up and at it as I lay exhausted in my sleeping bag. I felt terrible and my stomach turned over. It felt like I’d slept only an hour! I had some low-quality coffee and put some granola in my gullet. Alex was patient with my lack of enthusiasm that morning. His patience is one of the best elements of his partnership. But when I put my boots on and looked up at the face, I felt completely inspired again and my poor night was nothing but a poor excuse to give less effort. We put our packs on and set off with a solid pace for the three-quarter mile moraine walk that gained about one thousand feet.
The weather was wonderful and a high-altitude, light grey sheet of clouds blanketed the sky. Patches of light poked through and the wind was minimal at its strongest. Deborah looked down on us as we put on our kit and the whole scene felt like a dream. The entrance to the couloir was a broad fan of low angle terrain with a dusting of snow on it. Further up, the first pitch was a beautiful flow of fresh ice steepening to AI3 in tiers of blue and white. We decided early on that we were going to simul-climb as much as possible. This was an exciting challenge for us and the route’s conditions made it possible! Alex took to the sharp end right away and I didn’t see him for well over an hour as we simul-climbed through flows of ice and steep snow, weaving up the couloir, always out of sight of each other.
Now far up from the valley, the couloir began to narrow and I came around a left-hand bend to see Alex taking in rope below a steep chimney. I knew it was mine! I barely took a break when I reached Alex. I grabbed the rack and got going. The ice was incredible! The cleft narrowed and I crawled upward further into the mountain on steepening ice before turning another bend to find an immaculate vertical stretch of pinched ice. Steep! With perfect rock feet that would be sought-after in somewhere like Hyalite Canyon, I had at it and enjoyed every swing. Continuing on after more than one hundred meters of excellent steeper ice ranging from AI3 to AI4+, we went back into simul mode and now we were halfway up the route and daggering sixty-degree neve like bulls on the run! I took us all the way into view of our big question mark, the final chimney which was difficult to see from the plane or on foot below. It continued on for well over one hundred meters of continuous ice and its difficulties were still unknown to me. Alex couldn’t see it yet and called up to me, “If there’s another mega pitch it’s mine!” I started laughing knowing how good the upcoming ice looked. “Oh, there is my friend!” I yelled back to him. We took our only real break on the steep snow below it before Alex set off. “Take us to the top,” I told him as I handed over the rack full of excitement.
Like a cannonball, I’ve known Alex to erupt in fearless efficiency when the rack is in his hands, he’s just that guy and it was his time now! The sky greyed over and a cool wind sank into my thin shirts. We’d been climbing so fast I couldn’t even handle wearing a fleece despite the temperature being well below freezing. Light snow began to fall and I grew impatient. “It’s snowing! Go faster!” I called up to him. He looked down at me and then out at the sky. He picked up his pace, disappearing up the steep chimney. Following through the long chimney, I found amazing ice similar in grade to what I’d just led through, the end of it matching the AI4+ difficulties of lower down. Then the final snow dagger was on. Pulling over our final ice steps I caught a view of Alex breaking trail to the corniced top. There it is! We were almost there! He tried to climb straight up the cornice to the top but its fluffy consistency turned him back. Traversing out of sight to the right, I wondered what was going on. Eventually I turned the corner and saw the rope was hanging from over the top of the cornice… he made it! I flopped like a beached whale over the cornice, laughing and wallowing. We were together on top of a small summit amongst many of a similar height packed together, a higher parent summit was four or five summits away. Ours shared a magnificent knife-edge ridge with the rest and the unsettled snow conditions made travel on it less than favorable. We had hoped to go down the peak’s East Ridge but the complexity of the terrain made this non-tolerable. Back down the couloir it was. But before then, if only for a few minutes, we were content. We stood a few feet apart on the sharp snow ridge, clouds swirling overhead but the weather still very good. We were full of smiles and stoke. We laughed and cheered and for the first time in a while, we didn’t have to give ourselves a hard time. We got to enjoy it. We earned this one!
Long blimps and mothership-like lenticular clouds began to populate the high sky across the range and a stronger wind cast its gusts upon us from the north. Our descent down the couloir was long but uneventful, as you’d want it. We rapped somewhere between ten and twelve times and down climbed sections of moderate snow. When we finally reached our trekking poles at the base of the route, I was exhausted and felt lethargic. My poor night of rest was sinking in now that the excitement of the climb and focus of the descent was over. Alex coiled the ropes and after I scarfed down some food and guzzled some water, I started down the rocks a few minutes ahead of him. It was nice to have a short, non-glaciated trek back to camp. When I arrived, darkness overtook the valley and I walked over to our food duffel which we had wrapped in a tarp and buried in boulders to keep the animals out. Losing your food to lowland critters should be a major concern on any tundra trip. Just as I got the stove going and some ramen out, Alex arrived with a stoke that was through the roof. I’ve been fortunate to see his progression in Alaska. He’s a lot tougher these days. We lay around for a while that night rehydrating and staring out at the great mountains of Alaska. They glistened under the massive star-plastered sky. Bands of the Northern Lights hung over Mount Hayes and the Big Dipper positioned itself above our route. For a few hours life was whole.
At eight in the morning we rolled over in our down bags with heavy winds beating against the tent. Sunlight still scattered itself across the land and we decided it was time to go. Attaching our thirty litre packs to our forty-five litre packs and stuffing them both full, the carry down was to be a necessary burden. The trek was an absolute slog, given the load, but consisted of only seven miles and two-thousand feet of downward travel via moraines and smaller patches of grasses. During the walk I gazed up at the high north walls of Deborah & Hess. They are so inspiring. Deborah’s great summit was still visible, looking down at us as we walked away. In the presence of the Queen we enjoyed one of the finest quality routes we’d ever climbed and walked out humbly before her. At one point, we came face to face with a wolverine about one hundred feet away on the same fin of rock as us. We’d never seen one before. He was a beautiful animal, strong and agile. His predominately dark fur was laced with ribbons of golden brown and his body a respectable size. He ran up quickly and was startled by our presence. Taking only a slight pause he sped off towards the glacier and we’d never spot him again. The wolverine is an elite-level predator in Alaska and his elusiveness was quite impressive!
A few hours later we were trekking along the final mountainside before turning left again into the wide glacial-bed valley where the plane had dropped us. Rain began to fall and the heavy southerly winds of the morning continued. We hadn’t suffered yet and we didn’t want to now! Alex and I picked up the pace and we arrived by early afternoon to the air strip which sat below a mighty north-facing wall, more than three thousand feet high. It was a proud face and while looking at it I noticed something in the glacial bed below. A structure! Gaining a jog, I rejoiced as I noticed how solid it was. At its door, an antler handle was held back by nails. It was a hunting shelter. And just for now, it was going to be our shelter. It was wooden with walls three feet high and a roofless A-frame over the top. We’d brought a tarp and there were several others inside. The rain fell on us lightly but was backed by a strong wind. We immediately went to work on building a tarp roof. We even used our tent to cover part of it. When it was done we were warm, dry, and in the comfort of a solid shelter. What a treat! Now with our hand crank lantern which we’d left at the air strip, we lit up the whole room and enjoyed hot drinks, warm foods, and good music.
Our last obstacle was to fly home, always in question and never in our power. The mountains now socked in and stormy, we were down in the warmer tundra with our new route behind us. Similar to the night before, we lived fully content and enjoyed another night in the desolate mountain wilderness of Alaska. On Wednesday September 16th we flew out in the afternoon one by one in fair-enough weather. As the plane bounced along the air strip and into the air, I looked up again at the mighty glacial valleys of the Alaska Range. They went up into the clouds, their mixture of dark rock, bare glacial ice, and fresh snow was of an otherworldly art, as it usually is. To the north, the mountains fell away to hundreds of square miles of tundra. Massive rivers poured from the glaciers and snaked their way together to lower land. Some of the smaller rivers were painted a creamy coffee-like color and their hue blended into the larger branches. As the plane hummed along, I made future plans for rides with Jesse and we scouted a few of his other tundra strips along the north side of the Hayes Range.
Alaska is the land of infinite possibilities, of a majesty beyond our deepest reckoning, of a power past our comprehension. To be a guest in this great land is a bittersweet treat. Alaska will open the doors to your wildest adventure dreams and when you arrive to pursue them nothing will come easy. It is a hard country and in the spirit of Ray DeWilde we put our own Alaskan vision into motion in the shadow of Mount Deborah.
DeWilde Style: New Route in Alaska’s Hayes Range
2,200ft. AI4+, Southeast Face of Unnamed Peak 9,250 (Parent Peak: Peak 9,630)
West Branch of Gilliam Glacier, Hayes Range, Alaska.
First Ascent: Alex Hansen, Benjamin Lieber. Alaska Wilderness Project
**Our climb is the opening trip of our new pursuit: Alaska Wilderness Project. AWP is a multi-year journey to the far-reaches of Alaska where modern climbers will seek to embody the timeless spirit of Alaskan alpine climbing. Offering a historical review of its past, we will try to connect the dots to its possible future.
Images by Alex. J Hansen