Ascent of Baleful Peak on 2017-07-21

Climber: David Hart

Date:Friday, July 21, 2017
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Baleful Peak
    Elevation:7990 ft / 2435 m

Ascent Trip Report

Baleful Peak (7,990 feet), Northeast Ridge, Western Chugach Mountains
Text by Joe Chmielowski and Dave Hart

On July 21, 2017 Dave Hart and I successfully summited Baleful Peak. Five days prior, Dave, J.T. Lindholm and Eric Parsons took a helicopter from Knik River Lodge to 1,700-feet on the West Fork of Hunter Creek near the base of the mountain, but due to marginal weather, Dave decided not to attempt the climb and flew out with the chopper. J.T. and Eric opted to press on, and despite the poor visibility, were successful (see September 2017 Scree Article). Dave was disappointed in his choice, but several days later a weather window opened giving Dave and I a crack at the mountain.
In this article, I will focus on a detailed route description of Baleful’s Northeast Ridge in order to assist future climbers. Baleful has notoriety as a complex and challenging mountain. As a result, bear with me as I elaborate on specific times, elevations and landmarks. Here is how Friday, July 21 unfolded…
At 5:30 a.m. I woke up and finished packing my gear which was strewn across the garage floor from the night before. I had some peanut butter toast for breakfast which was still lodged in my throat when Dave pulled up in my driveway at 6:45 a.m. in his “peak-baggin’-wagon’” (a.k.a. a mini-van with a bad battery). We hit the road, took the Old Glenn Highway exit to Knik River Road and arrived at the Knik River Lodge at the end of the narrow 11-mile paved road at 07:45 a.m. Our R44 helicopter flight was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. so we had a chance to talk with the Dutch lodge owner, Peter Schadee. His 4,000 square-foot high-end lodge was built two years ago to support their 22 cabins. They focus on independent adventure tourism using two helicopters to shuttle people to Knik Glacier flight seeing and heli-hiking, Lake George camping and sea kayaking and Colony Glacier dog mushing. Anchorage-based Tanalian Aviation provides his helicopter support using a four-seat R44 and a larger seven-seat AStar. We utilized his services for a quick flight to the 3,300-foot Blissful Lake at the base of Baleful Peak. Peter’s summer business is extremely busy (in addition to his normal tourism runs, he was working with a Korean rock-n-roll band shooting a music video at three sites on nearby glaciers). An alternative flight service is Pollux Aviation on Wolf Lake in Palmer who flew Dave into the nearby upper Hunter Creek Glacier area in 2009. Costs range from $375-$500 per person, round trip depending on party size, helicopter and flight service. It is important to note that it is illegal to land aircraft in Chugach State Park. Blissful Lake is ¼ mile east of and outside of the Park boundary so our approach was legal.
Right on schedule, at 8:15 a.m. we were introduced to a young guy (fresh from the Lower-48 the day before) in his mid-20s who was to be our pilot. We loaded up the aircraft, did a safety briefing and were in the air by 8:30 a.m. Fifteen minutes later at 8:45 a.m. we were at Blissful Lake. Our pilot picked an angled slope near the lake and parked with his tail rotor downslope. The three of us hopped out and started unloading our packs. When we did the 1,450-pound helicopter started tipping over. I quickly stood on the uphill ski as counter-weight, chucked gear out, and when the pilot got in the cockpit we stood back and it balanced. A minute later he was gone.
We decided to first set up camp because we knew it was going to be a long day. So we pitched our tents a couple hundred feet from the lake and sorted our gear. We noticed a lenticular cloud on the summit, but with the rest of the area in sunshine, we assumed it would burn off later in the day. It never did.
At 9:45 a.m. we hefted our packs and looked up towards the base of the mountain. Our gear consisted of one 60 meter 9 mil climbing rope, 6 nuts, 8 double-runners with biners, and some rappel cord. From Blissful Lake (Point A; 3,300-feet), the mountain looks gnarly and it was hard to know where to begin. But we hiked up a moderate slope towards the hanging glacier and into a rubble strewn bowl (Point B; 3,800-feet). Once at this location, the route becomes obvious. For historic note, Dave mistakenly tried to climb the hanging glacier in ~2002 with Todd Steele and quickly discovered that this was NOT the route up the mountain. Do not climb the glacier because this will just leave you with the 3,000-foot north face to ascend.
At 10:00 a.m. (Point C; 4,080-feet) we encountered three large snow patches which we could link by moving up, traversing east and then up again to the end of the snow at 4,800-feet just below main north ridge crest which we gained at Point D; 5,050-feet. On Dave’s earlier June 2009 attempt, there was considerably more snow which allowed them to climb several hundred feet higher on snow, but the exit onto the ridge was much more exposed. Our lower route was easier, regardless of season. The conditions we experienced were almost perfect, and will likely remain so through August, though with a bit more dirt and scree exposed as the snow slopes melt out. On these steep sections of soft snow we used crampons, a standard alpine axe and a whippet as a second tool. We also donned our helmets here and kept them on all day as there is abundant rock fall throughout the climb. The snow varied from 30-45 degrees in steepness with some cliff bands below, so falling would not end well.
At 11:15 a.m. we were on the north ridge proper. The views of the Western Chugach were breathtaking. We could clearly see Siwash Peak (5,705’) and Hunter Peak (7,549’) to the east as well as numerous glaciers and the Hunter Creek Valley. At this point, JT and Eric mentioned that we would not encounter significant snow again, but we kept our crampons and axe with us just in case. But they were correct than the small patches of snow on the route could easily be walked around.
From 5,000-feet to 5,700-feet altitude, the ridge is straightforward with some 3rd class scrambling. We stayed left of the ridge crest in this section, mainly on ascending sheep trails. At 11:50 a.m. we took a snack break at a large, perfectly flat gravel plateau at 5,700-feet that would be an amazing place to camp, or land a helicopter. After our break, we started with an easy 200-foot vertical hike up the gravel shoulder where it eventually narrows, forcing us to the base of the first headwall crux at 5,890-feet. This is where the true climb began.
At 12:00 p.m. we put away our ski poles and started scrambling directly up the north ridge arête in front of us. The next hundred feet were fun steep blocky 4th class terrain with a few moves of very easy 5th class climbing near the top with big exposure on both sides of the ridge. This section also happens to be the crux of the climb, and the only spot where we rappelled on the descent. We did not use a rope on this or any section of the ascent. As I climbed up I found a 1-inch loop of red webbing near the top. I pulled on it gently in a slightly downward direction and it easily slid off the low-angle boulder it was looped around. “Hmmmmm…I wonder if someone actually rappelled off this or what? Is this JT and Eric’s? If so, it seems pretty sketchy.” I continued to carefully climb another 10 feet and found a white runner with an old biner still attached to it. The biner had a red piece of electrical tape wrapped around it and I jokingly yelled down to Dave, “Hey, is this old carabiner yours? It has red tape!” He yelled back, “Yes – it is! It’s from my 2009 attempt.”
When Dave climbed up to me, he explained that on June 27, 2009, he, Ross Noffsinger, David Stchyrba attempted the route. However, due to a recent summer snowstorm, two inches of fresh snow covered the mountain and they elected to turn back at 6,300-feet right above the Squeeze Boulder. They rappelled down this section of the ridge (top of rappel at Point E; 5,930-feet). What turns out to be relatively smooth climbing on a sunny day like ours, would be an absolute nightmare with a skiff of snow, rain or even moisture from fog/clouds. The climbing would be challenging and the exposure daunting if the rock is not 100% dry. Typical Chugach recommendation I know, but worth reiterating on this large isolated mountain.
From the top of this rappel station, we kept thinking that we would have to break out the rope and do some proper climbing pitches, but we never did. What looked difficult, or like we couldn’t keep going, always had a way through. Above the rappel station, we stayed on the right side of the blocky ridge, and ascended rampy 3rd class ledges for ~250 vertical feet, never very steep, but with some exposure below. We were a couple hundred feet below and west of the ridge crest. We found several small cairns along the traverse that JT & Eric left at particularly confusing spots. We also added a few along the route to help on the way down. After 30 minutes on the ascending traverse, we chose one of several steeper 4th class or easy 5th class chimney/gullies on our left to regain the ridge crest. Depending where you regain the ridge, continue up the crest until you find the big Squeeze Boulder (Point F; 6,260-feet) barring progress on the ridge crest which we reached at 12:45 p.m. One can barely squeeze through a crack in this 10-foot tall boulder to continue climbing (see photograph). There is a rappel station just below the Squeeze Boulder that Dave used in 2009, though we came up slightly sooner than this anchor.
We weren’t sure about water on the route, so I started the climb from Blissful Lake with two liters while Dave had three. The next 150 vertical feet scrambled along a mellow ridge as we approached the second headwall which looks very intimidating from below. As we approached a prominent upper snowfield (Point G; 6,430-feet), the path of least resistance continued up and left over more 3rd and 4th class terrain. Note that there was a usable trickle of running water below this snow field, but we didn’t recharge our bottles here until the descent. There was more snow and water just below the summit as well. So when preparing, keep in mind that there may be a couple snow patches where you can fill up.
We scrambled up the left side of the snowfield up blocky steps, and kept angling left up ramps and ledges when faced with any difficulties. There was a rappel anchor near the top of the snowfield which might be useful descending earlier in the season with more snow. The 3rd class scrambling continued as we slowly ascended and traversed to the upper east face of the mountain around 6,600-feet where the pitch steepened again. At this point the path of least resistance forced us right, back into the steepening terrain. We ended up at the base of a 10-foot almost vertical crack wide enough for our boots which led to a 50-foot 4th class gully. This was the second crux of the route, and during our foggy descent we missed the gully, but eventually found it after a 10-minute detour before our GPS tracks set us straight. We could see the mellower upper scree slopes appearing above and to our left, so we traversed that way once above the gully.
At 1:15 p.m. we reached the relaxing upper scree slopes at 6,700-feet and we were able to take a break from the tricky ridge scrambling. You can see this feature on the topo map because the contours are more widely spaced here. We traversed climber’s left, and then up to get back on the ridge at 7,100-feet where we were able to briefly look down the north face. Scree never looked or felt so good. We continued up scree and ledges, on the left side of the ridge as we neared Peak 7325, then regained the ridge proper just below Peak 7325. This afforded us our first view of the true summit since we left base camp. The summit is still a half mile distant and an 800-foot climb from the saddle beyond Peak 7325. And it doesn’t look easy.
As we approached the top of Peak 7325 we didn’t see an obvious descent to the saddle. While exploring our descent I scrambled up Peak 7235 at 2:00 p.m. We then scrambled down some ledges and a short 30-foot chimney to the south which allowed access to a narrow ledge leading right, or east, towards the descent to the saddle. This Catwalk (Point H; 7,235-feet) is a narrow ledge about 1.5 feet wide and 30 feet long which skirts south below Peak 7235. It is easy to navigate, but the exposure is a bit unsettling. The Catwalk ended at the top of the White Slab (Point I; 7,210-feet) which we must down climb for 50-feet to reach the easy scree to finish our descent to the saddle. The slab itself is obvious as the ridge forces you down to the lowest spot where it becomes a white slab about 10 feet by 20 feet square, and covered with patches of black lichen. It is smooth and angled just right for a fall to the southeast. If it were wet, the lichen would be slick as snot and a real climbing hazard. While no harder than 4th class, a slip would be serious. This is the third crux.
The fourth and final crux of the climb is the actual summit block. JT & Eric warned us, “Do not to be disheartened by the summit. It’s closer and not as bad as it looks. Just take the big short crack on the right side of the lower summit cliffs below the diamond face, take a ramp left below the diamond, ascend back up to the ridge and stay on the ridge.” I’m glad they gave us that encouragement and advice, because the summit block looked real ugly. We paused and stared at it and I was sorely tempted to move far left to the largest looking gully, but I could not see if it truly tied into the summit ridge. So we followed their advice and Dave identified something that looked like a big short crack (Point J; 7,335-feet) on the very far right side of the summit cliffs. We climbed up 15-feet, and then went left up the ramp below the diamond face for 30-feet until we exited at scree slopes above the cliffs. There was a rappel station here in case it is wet, but we didn’t use it. We continued up left on scree until we were back on the narrow ridge. We progressed along the ridge crest and at 2:50 p.m. and 7,535-feet we encountered the top of the big gully that I was tempted by earlier. I looked down it and I am convinced that it would have worked. As a matter of fact, Dave remembered that Josh Sonkiss described ascending a similar gully on their 2002 ascent.
The rest of the climb was straightforward and we obtained the 7,990-foot summit at 3:20 p.m., (sure on time?) almost exactly 6 hours after starting from camp. I should mention, the last couple hours of ascent were in shifting clouds, but the visibility was always fine. On the summit proper, the lenticular cloud began to thicken and we only had broken views of the north and south sides of the mountain. We took a full hour break to enjoy some food and rest. But there was no wind to speak of and the temperature was warm in our long sleeve shirts. During this time I investigated some other little features along the summit ridge but I did not find a summit register. I did however have the opportunity to marvel at the huge vertical drops on either side of me as I poked around the gendarmes and snow. Once rested, we decided to “get while the gettin’ was good” because the clouds were piling in and our visibility was becoming difficult for the descent. And of course, as we all know, something that is easy to climb up, is always much tougher to climb down.
All in all, the climb down was less difficult than anticipated, but we relied heavily on our two independent GPS tracks. Due to the clouds, limited visibility and confusing drops/gullies/ridge system, I would highly recommend taking continuous GPS tracks on two different devices. On many occasions this saved us a lot of route finding and work. Even still, we missed a gully and lost about ten minutes on a detour.
We thought we might do a few rappels at the four fixed rappel stations, but ultimately we felt safe downclimbing the whole ridge and did not rappel until we got back to the 5,930-foot first crux. At this point, we utilized Dave’s old anchor, and repositioned the loose red sling just below for a double-equalized anchor with two biners as a bombproof rap anchor. Dave hooked in and said, “OK, I’m going to boogy,” and disappeared over the edge. I followed and we both relaxed after completing the steep upper section of the ridge descent. The rest of the ridge and the lower snow patches went smoothly and we returned to camp at 10:00 p.m. for some much needed dinner. I had ramen and a meat stick and we hit the sack at midnight. As we were chatting, we both agreed that the climb was smooth, comfortable and fun. That said, conditions change year to year and day to day, so it is imperative to exercise caution on this mountain.
As we closed our eyes for sleep, I muttered “Congratulations Dave, only one more to go.” Summiting Baleful was Dave’s 119th peak out of the 120 Chugach State Park peaks.
The next day we spent 14 hours trying to climb 5,705-foot Siwash Peak by both the northwest and southeast ridges before getting cliffed out. It turns out both routes have been climbed; we just underestimated the peak after our big day on Baleful. We flew out at 7 a.m. the next morning after less than 48 hours in this wonderful section of the Park.
Gear: crampons, alpine axe, whippet, helmet, harness, 60m rope, rack of nuts, rappel slings, GPS device
Trip Stats Gaia: time = 12 hours, distance = 4.85 miles, ascent = 4,775’
Trip Stats Garmin: time = 12hours, distance = 6.74 miles, ascent = 5,184’
GPS Track:

Ascent History of Baleful Peak
8/8/1965 Art Davidson, Vin Hoeman
8/6/1980 Greg Higgins
6/25/1990 Tom Choate, Willy Hersman
6/1993 Phil Fortner, Jim Sayler
6/9/1997 John Cafmeyer, Karen Cafmeyer
6/27/1997 Steve Gruhn, Kneely Taylor, Niles Woods
6/30/1997 Richard Baranow, Wendy Sanem
6/15/2002 Josh Sonkiss, Martina Volfova
7/10/2006 Wayne Todd, Carrie Wang
7/10/2012 Ross Noffsinger, Charlie Sink
7/16/2017 J.T. Lindholm, Eric Parsons
7/21/2017 Joe Chmielowski, Dave Hart

Summary Total Data
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by David Hart
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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