Sunday, May 3, 2015

The NW face of Mount Deborah

For a couple of years I've been thinking of alternative Alaskan trips. That is alternative to the Central Alaska range. Soaring granite faces dripping with ice, endless daylight and easy access via ski plane make the Central Alaska range undoubtedly one of the world meccas of alpine climbing. However there's a lot more to AK than Denali, Hunter and the Ruth Gorge and it was during one of my favourite pastimes - scouring the world on Google Earth for big cool looking faces - that i discovered there were some huge looking unclimbed faces in the more eastern "Hayes" range.

Central Alaska range on the left, the eastern ranges on the right.

After a little more research; reading the incredible account of the tenacious 1978 north face of mount Deborah expedition, and the FA of the east ridge in 1982 by John Barry, Roger Mear, Rob Collister, Carl Tobin and Dave Cheesmond (this is an awesome read)Mount Deborah, arguably the baddest of all the mountains in the Hayes was well and truly burned in to my brain as a mountain of mythical presence. After sending a couple of photos to Jon back in November it took the whole of 2 seconds until my Skype window was flashing orange with a "lets do it" kind of reply and it was on.

There are huge 2000m+ unclimbed faces on both the north and south side of Deborah. We ruled out the south side as we thought by the time we got there (mid April) it would be receiving too much sun for its exfoliating schist to cope with. The stunning NE face has a true "dream" line on it at first glance, but further probing reveals a suicidal approach amongst other problems. The NW aspect however looked promising; a pyramidal face with no apparent serac issues. It felt like a huge gamble going purely off the 3d image of Google earth and no actual photo, but then again, that was part of the attraction of this wild and relatively unexplored range of mountains.
Google earth view

The real thing.
The trip was a full on adventure: an organisational cock-up early on left us unsure that we could even access the upper Gillam glacier (and the base of Deborah) at all. Hitching up the Alaskan highway to Fairbanks with 200kg of kit. Becoming helicopter mechanics for two days before the pilot could give us a lift in to the range. Trying to halve our weight so the tiny R44 heli could take off. Having our base camp destroyed on the first night in a storm that made Patagonian winds seem trivial.  

Alex said he'd fly us on to the Gillam glacier if we spent a couple of days helping him fix this heli first. Only in Alaska!

Flying in at last!

The first two days on the glacier were pure survival after our tent got destroyed. We spent two days digging this hole which we lived in for the rest of the trip.

Reading material - very important.

The climb itself was one of the hardest three days either of us have spent in the mountains, and the face was undoubtedly the most spooky and unnerving thing I've ever been on. However i don't want to ruin it and i'll write up the story of the climb in detail another time, once I've let the whole thing sink in.

Here's a small selection of photos from the mountain:

When stood at the bottom of some faces they lie back and look a lot more manageable.This one reared up and looked truly nasty!
Half way up the face where things start to turn a bit spicy.

Jon on a traverse high up.

Myself feeling it on the second morning.

About to start the never ending knife-edge summit ridge.

Stay tuned for some awesome shots over on Jon's blog in a day or two!

Many thanks to Outdoor Research, the BMC, Alpine Club, Alex Shapiro, Alex's wife, Clint Helander, Rob Wing, the dudes that picked us up when hitching and the many other very generous helpful and friendly Alaskans who made this trip work out!


  1. Congratulations on your ascent Will, well done. How about giving credit to the other two climbers who were part of the 1982 first ascent of the east ridge? I'm not sure if you left their names off because they weren't British, but Dave Cheesmond and Carl Tobin deserve to get credit for what was in my opinion an integral part of that ascent.

  2. You're right Jason, it sounded like it was tobin who saved the day high up also! I think I was subconsciously writing from a British point of view. Cheers! Will

  3. What a amazing journey of bravery, persistence and survival. Glad you made it home safe and sound! Great photographs.

    All the best

  4. Thank you very much for sharing such a useful article. Will definitely saved and revisit your site best nice number - beautiful number