The Arrigetch Peaks: Alaska’s Last Great Climbing Wilderness

 

 

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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.

Get­ting There

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.

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Pho­tos cour­tesy of Bryan Friedrichs

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.