By Martin Lefebvre
Standing on ridge top with our skis on, looking at the biggest run of our lives, after the biggest climb of our lives. Doubts still running through our heads whether we could be the first to ski this face without the use of rappels...
University Peak (4410m) sits tucked away in the Wrangell/St Elias reserve of Alaska. As a ski mountaineer it is impossible not be inspired by such a unique and awe inspiring face. And that is exactly what happened to Ali and I after I received the 50 Classic Ski Descent as a christmas gift. We've always wanted to ski in Alaska and with a bit convincing from Ali, we figured go big or go home. And it doesn't get much bigger than this, with a massive uninterrupted 2300m glaciated face and a constant 55 to 50 degree pitch its's no wonder the 50 Classics calls it “Gods own ski shot”.
After a three day drive to the Chitina airport from Canmore we camped and met up with our pilot Paul Claus at the airstrip. Due to poor conditions we flew half an hour from Chitina to Ultima Thule lodge where we camped and waited for the weather to improve. After two days we got the go ahead from Paul and he managed to bring us into the range. The weather still wasn't ideal and we had to be dropped off about 20km east of University Peak. All of a sudden we were looking at a ski traverse through broken glaciated terrain while hauling toboggans to get to base camp. It took us 3 days of slow travel, ferrying loads through the more broken areas, dealing with heavy snowfall and whiteout conditions to reach our base camp. We set up camp (1950m) in more heavy snowfall about 1km from the bottom of the face still waiting for our first real look at our objective.
The next morning we woke to a cold, clear morning and got our first look at the South Face. We stared and high fived with a mix of excitement and fear as the huge face loomed above us. The face was caked in snow with no blue ice to be seen in the main chute. It was in prime condition! We spent that day skiing other runs in the drainage near camp, getting a feel for conditions and watching how the new snow was going to react to the sun. We watched for two days as several loose size 2's poured out of the infinite number of start zones that threaten the ascent/descent route. Looking at the upper seracs through the binoculars it looked as though we could ski a chute from the ridge that would bring us back on the face without the use of rappels. After watching the South Face shed it's new skin we concluded that the best way to minimize our exposure to avalanche danger was to climb during the night and ski the line before it had to much sun affect.
We pushed off from camp (1950m) at 6pm and skinned to the base of the face through massive piles of debris only gaining about 100m before the start of the epic boot pack. We ditched our skins at the base, put on our crampons, grabbed our tools and started up the face. Switching leads and kicking steps for 100m at a time, by 930pm we were up to 2700m and took a break in the “nook”, the last real rest we would have until the summit ridge. We kept travelling at a good pace up the face enjoying the incredible late sunset colours over the Wrangell/St Elias with the massive Mt Logan in the distance. Our spirits were high but the legs had already started to feel to work of front pointing up the steady 45/50 degree lower pitch. We took another break at a rock band (3500m) before we hit the steeper upper face. We had to dig ourselves out a ledge with our axes just large enough for us to put our packs down and fuel up. By now it was 2am, the snow conditions were still good but the legs were wearing down so we switched our leads to 50m. Looking down brought no comfort as a fall would be very hard to arrest if at all possible. As we gained elevation encouraging who ever was in the lead with our war cry of “I'm on vacation!” it was hard to tell if we were making any progress at all except by looking at our altimeters. We hit 4000m, which felt like an achievement in it's self, at 7am and took another rest. We had been moving up the face for almost 12 hours and ridge top was in reach.
As the first rays of sunlight were coming around the skyline bringing a bit of heat to our bones we felt a boost in energy. Another 300m of climbing lay ahead of us before we could take our first real rest off our feet. But it was to be the hardest climbing we've ever done. Trying to keep decent pace we stuck with our 50m leads. Both of us physically tired, dehydrated and hungry, we could hardly do 10 steps without crumpling onto our tools. The mental exhaustion of having to focus on each step knowing a mistake would be unforgivable was also taking its toll. Very slowly we gained more vert, finally reaching the upper serac band at 8am (4200m). I had just finished my lead and Ali joined me below the next pitch, a 100m chute through the seracs. The same chute we were hoping would be our descent route. There was snow the whole way up, but how much? Getting into the chute demanded a few steps on ice. Just when we thought we were home free, the face saved the most technical climbing for the very top. “Sorry to say this bud, but it's your lead” like I really needed to remind him. “Yeah, I know” he said. “Looks like we're gonna have to pitch it out”, Ali was already grabbing the rope as I was saying it. I placed some pro for an anchor and Ali pushed off. Exhausted, Ali put on a great display of climbing placing pro to get through the main crux, while i just tried not to fall asleep at the belay. We swapped leads 2 more times in easier terrain and finally reached the ridge (4310m) at 930am! We hugged it out and I immediately dropped my pack and fell on my back totally punched. We had done it! 2300M of climbing with 2200m of boot packing in a 15 hour push. We caught our breaths for an hour, soaked in the amazing view and got some fuel back in the tank. The South Face has never been climbed all the way to the summit so I decided to go look a bit farther up the ridge. I got another 40m higher just to be stopped by massive gargoyles with steep drop offs on both sides. We decided that it would be to time consuming to try and climb through the gargoyles to summit the peak. We worried that by the time we got back on the lower part of the face, solar heating would increase our exposure to avalanches.
Even after all that climbing, as soon as I clicked into my skis I felt my tenth wind come over me with the excitement of the run of my life. But we still had to get through the serac chute. We opted to not to rappel. I dropped into the 55 degree chute and my first turn told me right away this wasn't going to be an easy descent, 10 to 15cm of snow above blue ice was hard to trust. I skied the whole pitch very cautiously with a pole in one hand and an axe in the other. There was just enough snow and it was sticking to the ice even with the weight of a skier. Except for the bottom of the chute, the sluff from above had flushed out the snow we had climbed and turned the exit into 5m of blue ice. I inched my way down as much as I could and committed myself to the ski. I managed to ski over the ice and ditch all my speed on the upper part of the open upper face. Ali was next, only I had sluffed out the whole skier's right side. I yelled up to Ali to let him know what was going on and that he would have to go skier's left. Ali inched his way to the edge of the snow before the nerve-racking turn. This was it, if he made it out safely we were home free. Ali made his jump turn hit the slope and lost his edge and slipped out! The whole thing lasted about 2 seconds but it felt like 2 minutes. I was looking at Ali slipping down the face gaining speed, thinking to myself, stop, stop, stop! And he did, once he hit the softer snow he managed to self arrest using his skis and an axe. “Holy shit! Don't do that again”.
He agreed. Once we were both ready to go we pushed off and enjoyed nice dry snow down the steady 50 degree upper pitch. Fighting the leg burn I just kept going as long as could hold on ,enjoying the everlasting pitch. From about half way down the snow turned to perfect predictable corn snow and arcing massive turns down this incredible face is something I'll never forget. We reached camp at 1230pm after an 18 hour journey.
The rest of the trip was spent enjoying the bluebird spring weather and getting great “heli runs” in the range until it was time to ferry our loads back to the pick up spot. We flew out after 13 days in the range directly to the truck. We drove 20km up the road to Chitina where we had the pleasure of eating our first yack burger, drank a few beers and tasted the moonshine with the great locals at Uncle Tom's Tavern. Perfect end to an amazing trip.