Mountain Profile: Mount Deborah

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

My first time seeing Mount Deborah up close. I took this photo in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying after a trip in the Clearwater Mountains.

My obsession with Mount Deborah began after reading the classic mountaineering book, Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative. In it, David Roberts describes an epic journey through a remote Alaskan Wilderness, full of failure, suffering and enlightenment. Undoubtedly one of the great books of mountain literature.

Mount Deborah was named in 1907 by James Wickersham for his first wife, Deborah Susan Wickersham. Its first ascent was in 1954 by mountain legends: Fred Beckey, Henry Meybohm, Heinrich Harrer, via the South Ridge.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah. This is the impossible North Face. Taken from the Gillam Glacier.

During rare clear weather, Mount Deborah can be seen in all its gory from the Denali Highway. To reach Mount Deborah though, involves a grand journey through some of the Alaska Range’s roughest and most isolated terrain.

I attempted to reach it by skis from the Richardson highway in 2004, but was turned back by miserable snow conditions. I attempted again in September 2013, but the weather shut us down. So in April 2014, I cheated and flew right to the Gillam Glacier, at the base of the north face.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah. The vertical gain from the Gillam Glacier to the summit is over 6,000ft of steepness!

Mount Deborah is one of Alaska’s most beautiful and intimidating mountains. It is a mountain of myth and legend. I hope that some day, it, along with her surrounding neighbors, will get the protection and celebrated wilderness status they deserve.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah. The beauty of the Eastern Alaska Range rivals any place in Alaska and deserves to be protected and celebrated just like other mountain regions in Alaska.

 

The Famous and the Nameless

Clouds and shadows,  Peak 9073 and the Gillam Glacier

I went to the Gillam Glacier to photograph Mount Deborah and fell in love with the lesser known peaks like Geist, Balchen, Hess and this nameless beauty Peak 9073.

During our 2012 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn't the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

During our 2013 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn’t the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

I have never been an icon chaser, never been interested in mountains only because of their notoriety or their size. I have always been attracted to the nameless, the remote and the ignored peaks and glaciers of Alaska. As a photographer I care about light, form and texture, not fame and names.

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Of course, with the Alaska Range project, it is important to tell a complete story which includes both the famous mountains and the places few have ever seen. This summer will be full of both.

The Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

The rarely visited Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

I am exciting by my next trip into the Nutzotin Mountains at the far eastern end of the Alaska Range. My partner and I will be exploring the last glaciated peaks of the eastern Alaska Range and will also attempt to climb one or two of them.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska range.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

There is a good chance that few, if any, of the peaks in the area have been climbed. Only one of the glacier’s has a name, which appropriately is, Carl Glacier!

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

One of harder peaks to photograph in the Alaska Range is the grand daddy, Denali. I find Denali pretty unattractive, a big, massive mound of rock and ice. For the 14 years I lived in Alaska, I have never taken a photo of it. I have never had an interest in climbing it. Obviously, Denali needs to be in the book, so the challenge will be to get a few images that are unique from the millions of images of Denali that flood the internet, books and calenders, it will be tough and I am looking forward to the challenge.

First image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Project. One of this year's goals is to try and get some unique image of the beast.

This is the first image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Range Project. One of this year’s goals is to try and get some unique images of the beast.

See you in a few weeks.

In search of foreground!

If I searched, I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the the winter world of blue and white.

I was able to find some beautiful rocks that helped add some color to the alpine world of blue and white.

I know it seems preposterous to complain about endless blue skies and as an explorer, I am not. However, as a photographer, perfect blue skies combined with a world of white creates a monochromatic world that after a few days,  begins to look the same,  Another photographic difficulty I had on my last trip was that we were so tight in the mountains that we never got low angle light, which can reveal the beautiful texture of snow, which is shaped by the wind into wonderful patterns and waves called Strastugi, great foreground subjects.

Glacial erratic and Mount Deborah.

Carl_Battreall_gillam-5

Same rock, different light, different mood.

Yes, this all seems petty, but it can be frustrating when your desperate to create, creative images. So I explored every rock, looking for a splash of color. I looked in crevasses, and was luckily able to find some unique ice next to one of the medial moraines.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Cool ice and Mount Deborah.

Ice and Mount Deborah.

The ice was too cool and became the main subject.  Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The ice was too cool and became the main subject. Accumulation and moraine layers, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

About to fall.

About to fall.

 

 

 

High Peaks of the Gillam Glacier

First light on Mount Hess (center) and Mount Deborah (right).

First light on Mount Hess (center) and Mount Deborah (right).

I have been wanting to go to the Gillam Glacier for ten years. I attempted two times to reach it, once by foot and once by skis. This time I took the easy way, Super Cub.

The Gillam descends from the north side of the eastern Alaska Range. It is shaped like a stubby Y, with one branch heading towards the base of Mount Deborah and the other to the bottom of Mount Balchen and Mount Geist. At the fork rises the imposing Mount Hess.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah.

My primary photographic goal was the 12,339 ft, Mount Deborah. A legendary peak, known for its steepness and epics. One of the first mountaineering books I read was David Robert’s Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative, a classic book of mountaineering literature. Mount Deborah was first climbed in 1954 by mountaineering legends, Fred Beckey, Henry Meybohm and Heinrich Harrer, via the South Ridge. Our first camp was below the 6,000 ft north face of Deborah and the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

Beautiful light on the north ridge of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

North side of Mount Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Amazing east face of Hess.

Without a doubt, it is the 11,940 ft Mount Hess that dominates the Gillam Glacier. All of our camps had spectacular views of Hess. One camp, above the east fork of the Gillam was particularly stunning, as was our camp directly below the outrageous east face. One could spend hours (as I did) trying to find a way up that mountain, with its impenetrable hanging glaciers that never quit serenading you with thundering avalanches. The only route not threatened by hanging death appears to be the east ridge, though steep, loose rock would be its challenge.

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The west ridge of Mount Balchen, with it’s beautiful grey, granite spires.

Shadow and Mount Geist. This is the lovely west face.

Shadow and Mount Geist. This is the west face. That is Mount Skarland’s summit peaking out.

At the head of the east fork of the Gillam are two fantastic peaks, 11,140 ft Mount Balchen and 10,121 ft Mount Geist. From the head of the Gillam, these two unique peaks are complete contrast. Mount Geist, is a black, ugly pyramid of loose rock. Mount Balchen is a beautiful series of light grey, granite spires. Balchen is the only peak around the Gillam Glacier, made of this pleasing grey rock.

beautiful light on the homely Mount Giddings

Pretty light on the homely Mount Giddings

I was also able to photograph Geist and Balchen from the west. A skinny spur glacier descends from the west faces of Geist and 10,052 ft Mount Giddings, a huge chunky peak, capped with grey ice. interestingly, Geist and Balchen take on different roles when seen from the west. Geist becomes the poster child of mountain perfection, a perfect triangle of ice, Balchen on the other hand, is a huge dome, my son Walker would describe it as “plump”.

The mountaineer in me was itching to climb. The bullet proof snow begged for crampons and the weather was perfect. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to attempt any peaks nor was my partner a big climber. I am not a technical climber, the routes that looked appealing to me were the elegant north ridge of Geist and the southwest face/ridge of Balchen.

Like on most of my expeditions, I find it’s not always the named peaks that are the most beautiful, in my next post I will talk about some the unnamed beauties in the area.

 

Bluebird

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

The beautiful west ridge of Mount Balchen, Gillam Glacier, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

What can I say? I have just spent a week in the crisp, clean mountain air. A lonely cloud loitered on a mountain or two, but they never lingered long, being sent on their away by the relentless sun. Was it cold? Sure, my hands and toes are still thawing, aching to be warm for an extended period. My body still responds defensively to the sight of the setting sun, knowing the cold suffering that comes with its disappearance.

I won’t be doing my usual day-by-day, blow-by-blow blog posts, the trip was uneventful, a simple routine of freeze and thaw. I experienced more sunny days on this trip then I did the entire previous summer in the mountains, I can only rejoice.

When the sun sets, a world of hurt begins. Cold evening, Peak 9420.

When the sun sets, a world of hurt begins. Cold evening, Peak 9420.

Photography was productive, though predictable. It was a challenge to be creative in a world of white and blue. How many straight, uninterrupted, images of perfect mountain symmetry can one person take? There was no weather to play with the mountains, no clouds to absorb the colors of the sun. I became acutely aware of light and shadow. I searched desperately for color in a monochrome world.

Shadows and Crevasses.

Shadows and Crevasses.

For the next few weeks I will simply post a series of photographs from the trip, some with a theme, others randomly. I may or may not include a narrative or explanation.

Get ready for a celebration of the bluebird day!

 

Heading to the Gillam Glacier

Expedition Season Begins

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. It’s taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I am prepping for my first Alaska Range expedition of the year. My friend Opie and I will be flying into the Gillam Glacier on Saturday. I tried to reach the Gillam Glacier in September but got weathered out (read my trip report here).

Our main focus will be to photograph Mount Deborah and Mount Hess. I would also like to photograph Mount Giddings, Balchen and Geist, which is a beautiful peak that I have never seen a photo of from the ground. I will also photograph many of the unnamed 9000+ foot peaks and glaciers in the area.

We are having an amazing stretch of good weather that I hope will hold, but it looks like a minor storm might move in while we are up in the mountains, cross your fingers. If the weather goes bad we are prepared to do some glacier cave/moulin exploration, something that both Opie and I are very fond of and experienced in. Together we have explored some spectacular glacier caves and caverns throughout the years.

The biggest concern is the wind. This will be my third trip into the Hayes Range during Spring and the wind can really hammer you. We plan to climb and camp on some small peaks to get the right perspective but that makes us very exposed to the elements. Rumor is that the lower section of the glacier is blown free of snow, as are the ridges. This can make for some exciting glacier travel!

Because of the long days of spring and summer in Alaska, I don’t have many opportunities to do night photography in the Alaska Range. However, since it still gets dark out I decided to rent from my friends, Lensrentals.com, a 24mm 1.4 lens to use for some night photography and if we are lucky, some aurora images.

My photo kit for this trip is:

Nikon d800E

Nikon 70-200 F4 (my primary mountain photography lens)

Nikon 24mm 1.4 lens

77mm Polarizer and 10 stop ND Filter

Cable release

6 batteries.

My Gitzo tripod with my old Linhoff ball head.

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Talk to you soon!