First Winter Ascent of Sugarloaf Mountain – 1981
Last month I caught up with Chris Larson, an old friend who lives with his wife Kellie in Hawi on the Big Island of Hawaii. Chris is a teacher at his church’s mission school and is still super fit. We began the day together paddling long and far looking for whales, occasionally spotting the telltale rising mist on the horizon. Afterward, we got some solid body surfing in at Hapuna Beach. The waves were perfect, like powder can be. Earlier this winter, I discovered my slides from the ascent of Sugarloaf Mountain that Chris and I made together, so the timing could not have been better to develop and write the story of friendship and backcountry success that took place “back in the day”.
I met Larson in 1980, my first winter in Valdez. He and Kellie had moved here from Traverse City, Michigan. Our friendship immediately blossomed. Chris knew how to telemark ski and was full of the exploration urge. Early that winter, we boon-docked up Sugarloaf’s northerly slopes doing telemark turns. By 1981, a small, eclectic group of mountaineers, including Chris and me, were racing around the Valdez mountains grabbing first ascents of mountain tops, ice falls and white water. We were into it, establishing both winter and summer first ascents. Winter ascents are defined as happening from December 15 to March 15. We couldn’t wait to share our latest attempts and successes and challenged each other with the moniker “Peak-A-Week Club”.
Chris Larson stands out as one of Valdez’s most accomplished mountaineers and skiers. He was always in amazing physical shape that left all of us a step behind. During the nine years he lived in Valdez, he left his mark on a generation of Valdezans. Larson’s Notch, which is on the route to Snow Dome, was named after Chris because he discovered the key to this route in 1985, the year before our avalanche incident on that mountain. In my guide book, this route is shown as Snow Dome (Nemok) after Chris’s dog who died in the avalanche.
As Chris and I spent the day together under the sun in Hawaii, his Alaska accomplishments rolled through our collective memories of skiing and climbing in the snowiest place in Alaska. A sample of these mountaineering accomplishments includes:
Valdez First Ascents
- East Peak – with John Weiland, Scott Ethrington, Jim McMahan/Summer
- Meteorite – with Bob Shelton/Winter via Southwest Ramp
- Mile High – Solo, Summer
- Mount Francis – with Shelton, Matt Kinney/Summer
- Sugarloaf Mountain – with Jim McMahan, Matt Kinney/Winter
- Sapphire Peak 1987
- First Ski Traverse Valdez to Cordova, 1979
- Valdez Ski Expedition – with John Weiland and others Abruzzi Route Attempt– Mt. St. Elias, 1985
- Sanford – with John Weiland and AJ Bennet Winter Ascent Attempt Feb1984
- Mt. Drum 1985
- Denali via West Buttress (Twice)
- Aconcagua, South America 1999
After barely a season of exploring Valdez, Chris and I along with Jim McMahan rallied to summit the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain in the winter of 1981. Whether or not it had been climbed before may be disputed, but I believe we made the first winter ascent. After conducting cursory research on the mountain’s history, it could have been climbed during the summer by adventurous soldiers from Fort Liscum or teenagers from Old Town, though no one from those periods recorded an ascent. Miners were not likely to have summited as they were more interested in following gold traces up creeks than bagging peaks.
Someone in the past certainly tried as that is the spirit of those who live under mountains like ours. In actuality it is the smallest mountain in Valdez, but that did little to dissuade attempts. Before our attempt, Bill Lorch and Kathy Embick made a dash for the peak via the north ridge and were stopped by a gendarme. Unable to traverse around Needle Col, they retreated to sea level. (Kathy later summited with Chuck Comstock after our success via the entire south ridge.)
During a cold sunrise in late February 1981, Chris, Jim McMahan and I mounted skis with packed ropes and harnesses and left the Allison Point trailhead. Once over the hydro dam, we skied under the shrubby, cliffed-out west face that drops steeply to Solomon Lake. It looked impossible, but we didn’t want to ski all the way around to the south ridge since that would have taken too long.
We decided to gain elevation as quickly as possible and climb straight to the summit. We dropped our skis and soon the three of us were post-holing up through the snow. Using the occasional alders that protruded through the snow, we yanked our way upward, grabbing branches and swapping the leadership position among ourselves.
We all wore Ramer avalanche beacons. At the time, ski poles connected to each other and were acceptable as “probes”. Above the brush line, the mountainside became a compound angled snow ramp to the ridge. We scrambled up through a minor rock band after strapping on crampons and connecting ropes. Encountering a steep snow wall, we got our shovels out and tempered it enough to climb over, then stepped onto a hard and massive wind slab. We got good purchase on the concrete-like surface with crampons, a relief after swimming up to that point in knee-deep snow. My feet grew cold in my leather boots, but that mattered little to me. Chris led most the way up to the ridge.
Finally on the summit ridge, we gathered and agreed that we could not go down the way we came up as it had spooked us. At times, we had each thought that we may have gotten in over our heads. As we gazed north across the Port of Valdez and watched Arctic air pour over Town Mountain, more spindrift was falling on our up-route, causing us to be concerned about avalanche hazards. Ahead lay an easy walk to the summit, so we made quick work of that. After snapping some pictures, Larson went off belay and wandered toward a gendarme. McMahan and I waited nervously as he disappeared into the hidden col. About ten minutes later he came trudging back toward us. With blowing snow and the full depth of the Chugach Range behind him he said, “I think I found the way down, let’s rope up again”.
We began a steep side-hill descent, requiring the classic French technique foot and crampon work. As I took my turn on belay, the earth disappeared in front of me and a touch of nervous doubt entered my mind. Then, Chris waved and pointed. I scooted a bit further, the traverse eased, and we found ourselves at the top of what is now known as the Needle Couloir. The exit route brought us jubilation and soon the snowy earth opened up beneath us. Not only did we summit, but we were going to traverse the mountain west to east, a technical achievement climbers track.
I don’t recall much of the trudge down to Dayville Road and our exit near Abercrombie Gulch other than the realization that we’d left our skis on the other side of the mountain—on Solomon Lake. The descent probably took a few hours and once we reached the road, it wasn’t long before our group of Gortex-clad, worn out puppies had a ride back to the trailhead.
The next day, I had to work at the Coast Guard station, but we were, of course, worried about our left-behind gear. Chris and Jim, wearing borrowed skis, raced against a storm and gathered our stash of skis and poles from the frozen shores of Solomon Lake.
During my early years in Valdez I was lucky to meet and be part of a group of skiers and climbers who seemed to know no bounds. Larson was not only a big part of those experiences but also a trusted, close friend. Today Chris has dedicated his life to his religion and teaching children, far from those days in Valdez risking his life for high adventure but at peace with with why he took another road to another place.
In speaking to Chris recently he definitely gets that same shimmer in his eyes when we planned our short time together on the Big Island doing water sports. Just like 35 years ago in snowy Valdez, our body surfing sessions were full of the same enthusiasm and risk as waves pounded around us on a stretch of sandy beach. Though he is far from snow, his skis are handy just in case Mauna Kea gets a dump of tropical snow. Besides being an excellent ocean swimmer, he is pursing the sport of free-diving. Recently he free-dived to 60 feet, holding his breath for nearly three minutes. Of course, he is trying to go deeper just as he used to go higher!
by Matt Kinney
Photos with Yashica FX2 with Kodachrome60. Scanner provided by Paul May(Valdez)