There are few places around the world that have been able to keep up their wild and mysterious aura. There are even fewer places that remain relatively unexplored and unclimbed. Deep in the heart of Gates of the Arctic National Park of Northern Alaska lies more than 37,000 acres of wild granite spires, so remote that many of them are only classified by number.
Remote and Wild
These are the Arrigetch Peaks, a collection of towering rock columns that have seen just over 50 expeditions since 1963. Famed climbers such as Fred Beckey, Galen Rowell, Jon Krakauer, Mikey Schaffer and Tommy Caldwell have established bold, innovative and exploratory routes throughout the range, going without guidebooks or markers and relying on old-fashioned route finding and good climbing intuition to make astounding alpine ascents.
The Brooks Range and the Arrigetch Peaks were mapped out for the first time in 1911, but did not see their first ascents until 1965. Because of the wild and remote nature of the range, many of the climbs have gone unreported and unrecorded, making it difficult to differentiate a first ascent from what’s already been climbed.
An expedition into the Arrigetch starts with a flight from the city of Bettles and its neighbor Evansville, which in 2010 had a combined population of 40. A bush plane typically drops climbers in the plains more than 100 to 150 miles south of the range. From there, they’re forced to packraft, hike, or ski into the Arrigetch Valley, where they are then able to access dozens of spires, ridges, and peaks that dot the range.
The towers are characterized by dramatically pointed summits, sharp ridges and loose, treacherous, third and fourth class approaches. Many of the formations, such as Shot Tower and Albatross, feature steeply sloped approaches leading to a vertical column to the top. The climbing across the range combines mountaineering with a unique brand of alpinism that incorporates aid, big wall tactics and long difficult-to-protect pitches.
Not for the Faint of Heart
Shot Tower is one of the most famous spires in the park. First climbed by David Roberts in 1971, the 6,069-foot peak features a 16-pitch arête that soars up the West Ridge to a near vertical finish.
Inspired by his mentor’s exploits, Jon Krakauer set off to ascend the 7,100-foot West Face of Xanadu, a massive fin that involves an upward traverse across scree to reach an imposing arête that gains over 1,000-vertical feet of climbing. While Xanadu has had routes set on both sides, its mammoth West Face, allegedly an unfinished dream by Mugs Stump, has never been finished.
Creativity in the Wilderness
Even by the standards of modern climbing, the routes are still exploratory and require a creative approach. In 2011, when climbers Tommy Caldwell, Hayden Kennedy and Corey Rich attempted, in the midst of winter, a new line on Xanadu, they found themselves swinging between pitches to reach the next crack system. The pitches were long and run out, which, according to Kennedy, required at times placing the first piece of gear 50-feet above the anchor. They graded their line, “Deep In The Alaskan Bush,” a 5.11 X M2.
Current guides to the Range are extremely vague. When climbers arrived in the Kobuk Valley, they left little indication of their climbs whereabouts, noting in their journals: “prow-like formation” and “formation similar to the Diamond on Longs Peak.” Given the remoteness of the formations, the delicateness of the tundra and the exploratory style of climbing, there isn’t much to go off of, save for personal journals, dated websites and the occasional expedition that provides updates on the current state of the peaks.
Well above the Arctic Circle are the last great alpine wildernesses. The Arrigetch represents a little-explored and still pristine climbing environment. For those who are willing to invest in the trip of a lifetime, the peaks represent some of the world’s next great alpine objectives.