Please note: the following report was written by my friend Ben Gilmore and originally published in the 2008 American Alpine Club Journal…
Our shopping and packing had gone as smoothly as possible, and Maxime Turgeon, Freddie Wilkinson, and I were in Talkeetna ready to fly out to the Yentna Glacier with TAT two days after meeting each other in Anchorage. We had twenty days to work with, and we were hoping to try one or several new mixed routes on the upper Yentna. Freddie and I had climbed the Fin Wall with Peter Doucette in the same area last year, and now we were back with Max to try another new route on a nearby-unclimbed peak we had started calling the Bats Ears.
The approach to the Fin Wall in ’07 was difficult and loaded with objective hazard, but getting to a base camp on the upper Yentna and approaching many other climbing and skiing objectives in the area is relatively easy by most Alaska standards. The longer flight to the Yentna at $600/person in ’08 is a bit more expensive than a regular Kahiltna base camp flight, but Paul Roderick at TAT has established a landing site on the eastern edge of the Yentna, right at the edge of the wilderness boundary and about four miles from where we made our base camp. On some years the surface of the glacier may be too hard and bumpy to land due to high winds in the region. This might necessitate a landing further down glacier and a much longer approach to base camp, but it is still fairly flat and easy skiing. Given good firm snow conditions in both ’07 and ’08, we were able to ski sled loads from the wilderness boundary to our base camp in about an hour, and then coast back down to the landing strip in about fifteen minutes.
Skies were blue as we installed base camp and reveled in the quiet, remote feeling of the place. We were lucky to have good weather for ferrying our gear and setting up camp, but soon the clouds were thick and snow was falling. The weather shut down for about five days, giving us a chance to organize, rest, and develop a keen angst only motivating us more for getting out of the tent and up on a route.
On the first clear day we decided to explore the 3000ft approach to the Bats Ears and carry some gear up to the base of the wall. The approach was a grunt, but it turned out to be straightforward and took us about four hours to the bergschrund below the south face. It was tempting to just start climbing right then, but after caching some gear, we descended back to base camp. Clouds were approaching, and it snowed on and off for another two days. Our preview of the approach combined with more tent-boredom angst convinced us to try the route in a single push when the weather cleared.
Stars were out on May 1st, and we skied out of base camp at 1:30am to go for the Bats Ears. The climbing was fun and hard enough to stay interesting, but not desperate. The route follows mixed and thin-ice terrain up the obvious gully system in the middle of the south face. It was mostly 60-80 degrees in the gully with several short vertical cruxes. We switched leads after every two or three pitches for a total of about fifteen pitches and two sections of simul-climbing. Rock quality on the sides of the gully was excellent fractured granite, but the gully seemed like a rotten dike feature. A lot of the ice climbing felt like climbing frozen gravel, and our picks were constantly bouncing off rock. On several of the mixed pitches, we found it easier to holster our tools and climb with our gloved hands.
Max kicked steps up the last section of simul-climbing and brought us to the summit at 6pm. The panorama was amazing, especially the straight-on view of the Fin Wall right next to us. It was tempting to start descending right away, but we had climbed almost 6000ft that day, and we were still unsure about what the way down would be like. Freddie fired up the stove, and we had fluids and a meal that made a big difference for our energy later. As we traversed the summit ridge, clouds started building again; intensifying both the views and our feeling that we should start down right away while we could still see our descent ridge. Luckily, the descent turned out to be an easy walk-off down the southwest ridge with only one rappel in a short gully. We were happy back in base camp at 12:30am, and it started snowing about an hour later.
We really couldn’t have asked for a better climb or a more straightforward descent. Our weather window was perfectly timed. Now we just had to decide what to do with our remaining week of time. We entertained the idea of trying another route on the Fin Wall, but the weather just wasn’t stable enough to commit to going up into that avalanche-threatened cirque. Instead, we used our satellite phone to arrange a bump flight over to the Kahiltna Glacier where, in 52hrs r/t from base camp, we climbed the Moonflower Buttress to the summit of Mt Hunter.
We’d like to express our deepest thanks to the American Alpine Club for supporting our climb with the Lyman Spitzer Award.