Good Times on Good Neighbor Peak
In May 1993 I met Bill Pilling and Karl Dietrich in Yakutat.
We had just completed the forth ascent of Mount Augusta while they had put up a
new route on the south summit of Mount Vancouver, Good Neighbor Peak. Bill
wasn’t the World’s biggest advertisement for the route, having smashed his leg
up in a crevasse fall on the descent and had just spent several days getting
back to their basecamp. His leg was about twice this size it should have been
and didn’t seem to bend so good.
Now it had come full circle. Simeon and I were camped below
the initial couloir on the S Rib at 8260’. We had four day’s food and fuel for
maybe six days. Our plan to climb the route in three to four days and descend
the S Spur of the SE Ridge in another day. The Mark Twight packing algorithm
had been applied to the full and all extraneous gear had been left behind.
It was now May 16th 2005. That afternoon we’d
skied from our basecamp and descended a 600’ couloir to gain the glacier below
Vancouver’s SW face. The whole thing didn’t get off to an auspicious start when the
bergshrund completely collapsed on Simeon leaving him hanging in free space. Thankfully
I’d had a good belay and we extracted ourselves from the whole mess. I found a
rock anchor and after blowing some of our precious rappel tape was able to join
him. We briefly pondered how we were going to get back up the couloir, and then
set off up the edge of the glacier to our proposed bivvi below the tip of the S
The following morning we awoke at 6am to find the tent
clouded in. An hour later the weather had cleared somewhat and we set off up
the initial couloir. The bergshrund at the base proved insurmountable but we
were able to gain the couloir by climbing an adjacent one to the left and then traversing
some mixed ground. Simeon got the ball rolling and kicked steps up the already
soft snow to the top of the couloir at around 9150’. The rock on the S Spur was
rumored to be of dubious quality in places and came up with the goods. We
simul-climbed the entire day trying to stick with the crest wherever possible,
although employing slightly different tactics to deal with the looser sections.
Simeon being of the leave it be school, whereas I’m firm believer in the Don
“trundle” Serl ethic.
We eventually found a reasonable bivvi spot at 10,630’. At
this point the ridge becomes snowy and has some flat sculpted spots large
enough for a Bibler. Traversing the final icy section to get to bivvi nirvana
provided the opportunity for more excitement when one of my crampons detached.
I swore even more than usual while pondering the possibility of an exciting, if
brief, final inspection of the S face. Simeon fixed up a belay and worried
about the possibility of a forced retreat, albeit a slower one. Thankfully the
strap had kept it hanging from my ankle and we were able to get our shit back
together and make flatter ground where we anchored ourselves and the tent
before settling in for the night.
We awoke to find it colder and windy. The inevitable wait
for the sun on the tent ensued. Simeon and I aren’t exactly the best practitioners
of the prompt alpine start and this route didn’t look like it was going to
This was probably the last point on the ridge at which
retreat would be possible, as you could descend a snow couloir on the west side
of the ridge. We were also able to spend some time looking at the SE Ridge
descent route; it looked less than promising. There appeared to be a big break
in the ridge at around 11,000’ where it became a jumble of seracs. Still, it
had been climbed so presumably could be descended.
Above 10,500’ the route moves to the left (west) side of the
ridge and climbs a couloir system for two thousand feet. We could see this from
our tent, although getting into the base of the couloir from the ridge seemed
tricky. Eventually we were forced to rappel into the couloir at about 11’000.
Simeon set off up the couloir and disappeared into a narrow section about a
hundred feet above me. It soon became apparent that things weren’t going quite
as planned. “Bad words” started to float down to me from above. I swear like a
drunken Glaswegian pretty much all the time when climbing but in Simeon’s case
this is a bad sign. Above the gully had turned to a mixture of wet gravel, slush
and poorly bonded wet ice. Its sidewalls offered little opportunity for
protection, being made of shale. We were forced to simul-climb for several
hundred additional feet until Simeon found something approximating to an
anchor. I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on the anchor and continued
up, finally finding a better anchor on the rock to the right as the couloir
I think we’d both had enough of couloir climbing long before
it finally ended and were a tad upset to be confronted with more rock ridge.
Time was pressing and with no bivvi spot in sight we pushed on climbing in
crampons. Eventually we reached a snow rib at 12,700’ but no obvious flat
With a stiff wind blowing across the rib and the weather
looking somewhat dubious we opted to try and pitch the Bibler on a chipped out
ice ledge below the crest, which turned out to support about a third of the
tent’s floor space. I’ve often wished that my claustrophobic Bibler would seem
larger and frequently wondered what could be more foolish than using a gasoline
stove inside it. After a night spent melting snow with the stove balanced on my
knees and then sleeping in a fetal position in one of the two usable corners of
the tent I think I have both questions nailed.
Needless to say the following day got off to an early start.
Neither of us wanting to lounge around in a half pitched tent waiting for the
sun. We skipped the next snow couloir, fearing a repeat of the previous day.
The rock on the ridge became more solid but harder, eventually defeating us at
a steep wall that looked like about 5.9 at sea level in rock shoes. We spent
some time finding an anchor and then rapped into another couloir in our
seemingly endless pursuit of the summit. On this occasion things proved better.
We simul-climbed it for five or six hundred feet getting good gear most of the
way and only finding a very short section without snow.
I vaguely remembered the route description mentioning a
knife edge ridge but as we pulled over the final rock section it still caught
me a bit by surprise. Thankfully it wasn’t as corniced as it had been on the
first ascent but still though provoking with big drops into the cloud on either
side. We’d bought just enough screws, three, to make it all reasonably sensible
and leapfrogged each other’s leads only it; sometimes balancing on the crest,
sometimes shuffling astride it or traversing on the icier east side. Simeon
finished the last rope length to the base of the serac below the summit slopes
and I led up the side of the serac and onto it’s upper slopes.
We eventually made the promised flat bivvi spot on top of
the serac at 14,300’ after 7pm. We’d gotten super cold on the traverse and the
final push up the side of the serac. Even after getting in the tent Simeon took
a couple of hours to warm up.
The weather was still concerning with cloud moving in and
out throughout the day. Should it cloud in on our summit day navigation would
be difficult. At least now we could see the rimed ice cliffs that guarded the
south side of the summit plateau. The ground below them seemed like it would be
Of course we’d failed to factor in the altitude, which had
finally caught up with us. Simeon had felt nauseous and short of breath the
previous night but thankfully seemed OK during the day. I kicked steps to a
large crevasse 300’ above the bivvi. Above that the slope turned to hard ice.
We simul-climbed some of it but for the most part were reduced to swinging rope
lengths as it was just to tiring to move any faster and falling off seemed
There’s something quite amazing about watching someone give
it all they’ve got and then some more. Simeon ran his leads out half a dozen
moves at a time before resting and going again. I expect my turns on the sharp
end looked pretty much the same. Simeon ran it out one more time and then ran
out of gas just below the rime formations. A steep runnel led to the top of the
ice cliff and hopefully flat ground. I did some Gu and moved up to Simeon to
finish things off.
We topped out at 2pm, five and a half hours after leaving
the tents. Above the lip of the serac the terrain abruptly became horizontal. The
cloud gave us views along the ridge to Vancouver itself but that was about it.
We ditched packs and postholed to the highest point on the lumpy summit crest.
A few photos and congratulations on a job half done followed before we
trudged back to our gear and started to consider our descent options. A descent
to the North a la Pilling and Dietrich seemed overly optimistic, especially
considering the mediocre weather. So we stuck with our existing plan of heading
down the SE Ridge. I figured we’d manage it somehow, even if things got
We dropped down onto the N side of the SE Ridge to avoid
some seracs and were immediately in knee deep unconsolidated powder. This
seemed like very bad news but we hoped it was localized to north facing slopes.
For most of the descent to the col on the SE Ridge we were able to stick to the
ridge crest where the snow was much better.
We pitched the tent at the col on a nice site dig into the
ridge and started to sort our gear out for the night. Simeon confessed to being
very tired and then, as if to emphasize the point threw up. Not a good sign,
but at least we were going down not up. We crawled into our now icy Bibler and
brewed up, hoping for clear weather for the descent the following day. The tent
had been getting frostier by the day and we were now quite keen to be done with
Saturday dawned with a slight clearing in the weather but by
the time we left the tent cloud was moving across the 14,300’ summit on the SE
Ridge and seemed to be much thicker below us. We made it to the summit and then
turned south to descend the spur. The unconsolidated snow from the previous day
put in a very unwelcome reappearance and we trenched our way down the shallower
slopes and down climbed the steeper ones. There were a few small crevasses but
Thankfully the storm cleared and at 3.30am we were treated
to a spectacular dawn. Keen to get down we were up and out within the hour. In
the poor conditions the previous day we had headed too far right and had
stopped just in time. We traversed back left and continued to trench our way
down several thousand more vertical feet.
Eventually the ridge divided and we came to the top of an
ice cliff that spanned the complete right hand spur. I started to dig a snow
bollard with my axe, Simeon suggested we break out the shovel and things got
Below the serac the snow cover decreased to about four
inches of new powder but was sliding spontaneously. We belayed each other down climbing
lest a small slide pushed us off the side of the ridge. Another hour got us
down to the lower snow dome on the ridge at 10,500’ and past the worst of the
technical difficulties. We continued to down climb, belaying each other in
avalanche prone areas.
The last piece of excitement for the day came as we were
descending the finally gully to the glacier. From the top it looked like a huge
terrain trap so we rapped off a thread to another anchor in an alcove. I rapped
a second rope length and was looking for an anchor when Simeon started yelling
“Avalanche!”. I hung on the ropes as a slide ripped down the center of the
gully a few feet to my left. Thankfully Simeon hadn’t heard my off rappel call
so was still in the alcove when the slide went past him.
We traversed off right rather than descend below the gully.
Another hour brought us back to our original bivvi and a cache of fuel and food
we’d left. After a few hours rehydrating, eating and gloating we hiked down the
glacier and managed to climb the original couloir we’d descended after some
brief shenanegans with the bergshrund.
Good Neighbor Peak, South Rib 15,500’ (7000', AK 4+, 5.5, AI 3+').
ascent of the route and first British ascent. Route details can be found in “Alaska
a Climbing Guide”, Michael Wood & Colby Coombs, p170.