Excursions on the Juneau Ice Cap

Words: Brette Harrington

Photos: Brette Harrington & Caro North

A good friend and climbing partner of mine, Caro North, met me in Squamish, BC on 28th of May.  A stable window of clear weather was about to pass over the Northern Panhandle of Alaska, and we aimed to catch it.  In Squamish we quickly sorted out our climbing and skiing equipment then promptly bought flights up to Juneau, Alaska.  We arrived on the night of May 31st, then flew directly into the mountains by helicopter the following day.  In flight we passed directly over the Mendenhall towers, where my boyfriend Marc-André Leclerc and his climbing partner Ryan Johnson passed away this March. Three months have passed since my last visit to this area, and my last contact with Marc. The sight of the dark, steep north faces rekindled a deep feeling of pain, longing and desire; all of which I now recognize as the universal knowledge of grief. As we gradually flew over the area my mind wavered between the sifted memories of the past, contrasted by the magnificent and mysterious ice field that lay ahead.

NE face of Duke South:  10b, M5+, 85 degrees, 500m

It was 3:30pm on June 1 when Caro and I landed on the ice cap. We established camp on the plateau between Princess Peak and the the mountain group called The Dukes, situated northeast of the Mendenhall Towers. Vast snowfields extended into the distance, broken only by summits of jagged rock towers. I was eager to get a look at the unclimbed east faces of the Taku Towers and even more eager to climb them. To get a vantage, Caro and I skied down a 1000ft slope dropping down to the eastern side of the massif where my eye quickly caught sight of an inviting line: a vertical depression of tiered ice on the north east face of the southern most Duke Tower. In reasoning, I decided the following day would provide the best and coldest conditions to climb the route.

Base Camp on the Juneau Ice Cap.  Photo: Caro North

We awoke the next morning to a thick layer of fog that had settled in over the icecap. Views were nothing more than 360 degrees of reflective white light. Around 10am the cloud layers began to break up and we started off. We stashed our skis at the top of the 1000ft snow slope, where we planned to rappel from the peak’s summit. Then we proceeded to boot pack down the slope to the base of the climb. Caro eagerly led the first pitch crossing the bergshrund, the gap where the glacier joins the rock wall, and continued into moderate mixed terrain. I met her at a belay at the base of an ice chimney.

Running water drained beneath the rotting-out ice gully under us. I climbed up the decrepit ice, using the rock walls for support, then intercepted the ice chimney again on an upper platform. I continued up the wet and lose terrain, then exited the ice chimney to a more inviting rock ramp on the right side. The snow had been very lose and wet, saturating my only pair of gloves. I had made the regrettable mistake of forgetting my spare gloves back at the tent. I knew I could manage the cold by tending to my hands at every chance.

Brette starting up the 6th pitch on the FA of the NE face of the southern Duke. Photo: Caro North

Caro North on her way up pitch 6 of the NE face of the Southern Duke.  Photo: Brette Harrington

Caro took the next lead up a rocky ramp then disappeared around a corner. I waited for a long time at the belay as the rope stagnated. I heard her voice close by,  “The rope is caught!” As she fought to free the tension a thunderous avalanche released from above and came rocketing over the ice chimney to my left. She and I were both entirely clear of the hazard but it did stimulate alarm. We then committed to climbing on the rock face to avoid encountering any avalanches in the gullies. Caro turned over the belay at at the base of a steep corner. I lay-backed my way up using my bare hands and by pressing my front points into the small undulations on the wall. In rhythm, rock walls fed into snow terraces, then into corner systems. We frequently swung our tools into frozen moss for purchase, which is often a great resource in coastal mixed climbing. Pitch after pitch we gained elevation over the ice cap. The fog swirled in and out and the sun never touched us on the shady northern wall. The climbing steepened into dark corner systems, tricky climbing and hanging snow arêtes. As the evening progressed we entered the northern couloir; a steep gully of styrofoam like nevé, then simul climbed to a lofty saddle between the main peak and a sub peak. A dark and deep gully dropped away on the other side of the col. Dense white clouds filtered in and out of it casting an ominous aura. I stopped and switched into my rock shoes, the only pair between the two of us.  I led directly up the prow in two steep pitches of vertical crack climbing.  The position was outrageous as I belayed Caro up to me overlooking the deep chasm to the right, the couloir to the left and the vast ice cap in the distance.  After a long day of climbing we had reached the rounded snow dome of the summit.  As I traversed across the snow towards our descent route I was astonished by what I saw.  The magnificent north face of the Mendenhall Towers had emerged from the clouds in a misty greeting.  It was around 10pm and the western sun cast a golden hue through the clouds. I could feel what I had come here in search of. I felt the energy of Marc, like a greeting from the mountain. I sent my love in return with a ‘Hello Marco!’ I let my mind slip away into memory for a moment before I pulled my attention back to the present; descending from the tower.

Brette and Caro at the summit of their climb on the NE face of the Southern Duke tower.  Photo: Brette Harrington

Caro and I made five rappels including one tension traverse to arrive back at the snowy plateau where we had left our skis. As we arrived back at camp we fell into sleep with contentment knowing that our trip had started with a success. We dedicate our climb to Marc-André and Ryan; for their inspiration, creativity, and dedication to the mountains.

The NE face of the Souther Duke Tower 10b, M5+, 85 degrees, 500m   FA: Brette Harrington and Caro North June 2, 2018

South East Couloir of Devils Paw: Ski Descent 1000m 45-50 degrees.

6 June 2018. Our next objective was to traverse the Taku Glacier to reach the US/Canadian boarder and ski the southeast couloir on Devils Paw, the highest mountain in the range. This journey consisted of 40 miles of ski traversing to make a round trip from our camp. The traverse felt endless at times; distances were hard to judge and it felt as though we were never getting any closer. We passed seven hours the first day and three the second to arrive at a safe distance to set up camp below the Paw.

Brette on the approach to ski the SE Couloir of Devils Paw shown in the background.  Photo: Caro North

The Devils Paw has four steep summits, three of which are separated by two stunning snow gullies. We chose to climb and ski the southeast couloir which provided views of the Canadian side from the top. We started up the couloir at 3 am to be sure we could get off the mountain before the sun hit the face. Conveniently, the Alaskan sky is perpetually light during this time of year so it does not matter how early in the day you begin. As we boot packed up the steep slope the snow changed from hard avalanche debris, to hollow sugar snow, to compact ice. I followed Caro, then Caro followed me as we swapped leads while breaking trail up the steep snow. At times it became necessary to use our ice tools and front points to ascend. Nearing the notch the snow became lighter from the colder temperatures and the peaks were coasted in a thick flower patterned rhyme ice. It would have been marvellous to stay for awhile and soak in the views, had the winds not been rushing so furiously through the notch. I excitedly thought through my plan of action for the descent: hop turns would be necessary on such a steep grade and we should keep our ice tools in hand for the icy sections. With that, we enthusiastically clicked into our bindings and started down.

Brette ascending the SE Couloir of Devils Paw.  Photo: Caro North.

It was 8 am when we returned to the base of the mountain. I looked back at the couloir situated between the steep rock towers of this gigantic paw, then turned my gaze to the vast glacier that lay ahead. We had a long 20 miles of ahead of us, separating us from our basecamp. Our journey to The Paw was short and sweet, but it was already time to start back.

Taku Towers West Face.  5.10+

12 June 2018. A vicious and unrelenting snow storm hovered over our camp for three consecutive days, casting us to our tent. It wasn’t until June 12 that the skies cleared for one more beautiful day to climb out on the ice cap before the next storm rolled in. We set our sights on the steep rock walls on the west face of the Taku Towers where the granite featured with cracks and holds, ideal for rock climbing.

Brette climbing on the West face of the Taku Towers. Photo: Caro North

We left camp during the early hours of the morning and skied to the base of the walls. Half the face was still hiding in shadow so we chose to climb shorter line up the left hand side that had been in the sun for an hour or so. Our climb consisted of five rope lengths of superb granite face climbing. We quested up the wall in alpine style, switching leads with every rope length. The climbing was steep and sustained at 5.10+ with incredible, sculpted hand holds. The day was still early when we arrived at the summit. Although happy to be climbing, we were both tired from the long days of carrying heavy backpacks and maintaining through the storm. We started down the face, rappelling back to the base and skied back to camp to enjoy one last evening on the ice cap. The long exposure of the sunset lasted for hours. Caro and I skied to different vantage points over the icecap to admire the views: Looking out over the Mendenhall Towers I reflected back to my time here in March. My eyes settled on the line that Marc and Ryan had last climbed. I remembered seeing their tiny footprints on the summit ridge from the helicopter window. It felt surreal to be back, exploring different parts of this curious land. To our backs was the south face of the Dukes where we had descended the face at dusk in swirling clouds just twelve days before. Sitting far to the north was Devils Paw, with its four summits and linear couloirs. We recounted the long journey, skiing across the glacier exploring the steep and powerful mountain. Through virtue of knowledge and experience we have become connected to this land we have now navigated, and through memory it will forever be part of our minds.

Brette looking out over the Mendenhall towers north face while on a ski tour of Snowdrift peak.  Photo:Caro North

The following morning, a helicopter touched down to our camp. We loaded up our gear and flew off, carried away, back to the green spring valleys of Juneau, Alaska.

Follow more of Brette’s advntures on Instagram.