Benny Lieber and I attempted Mt Drum from May 3-8, 2021.
Benny texted at lunch on Friday with an idea; within a couple hours, my flights were booked. Benny is living in Alaska right now and seems to be flying into the mountains and climbing every chance he gets – this is not the kind of invite I could turn down. The goal would be Mt Drum, a rarely climbed peak in the Wrangell Mountains. Drum is known by locals to be a hard mountain to stand on top of; Benny had attempted it in July 2019 but failed due to conditions. This time, we hoped to find much colder and more solid conditions earlier in the season. We planned to attempt the Southwest Ridge, also known as Hurricane Ridge.
After I arrived in Anchorage on Sunday evening, Benny picked me up and we blasted through a 6 hour drive. Moose whizzed by outside the windows as we bantered about climbing, Alaska, the beauty of a Subaru Outback, and whatever else came to mind. Operating on a tight schedule, we needed to rush to one of his gear stashes, which seem to be all over South Central Alaska. By 3am, we were busily packing everything we would need for the next week in a primitive, semi-abandoned roadhouse that’s coming up on 120 years old.
The next day we met up with Chuck McMahan, a true legend of Alaskan mountain flying, who quickly became a friend to Benny and me. Chuck had done a reconnaissance flight the day prior and decided that he would try to land us at 6000 feet on the glacier beneath our objective. After we checked out the family fleet of planes and toured the hangar, it was time to fly. Our plane was a super cub with wooden skis, which only seats two people plus a small amount of cargo. Benny got flown in first, but not before I helped free the plane’s skis from the mud by pulling on the wing while Chuck revved the engine. Chuck wasn’t gone long before he came back to pick up me and my gear. My first-ever bush plane flight was incredible – it’s pretty amazing to ride in a plane that weighs less than 1000 pounds with a master pilot. On the flight in, Chuck pointed out a couple of backup landing spots in case he was unable to land at our LZ to pick us up later; I tried not to imagine the death march it would take to get there. After a smooth-as-butter landing on the glacier, we found Benny happily sitting on a duffel, having a bite to eat.
We cached a couple of duffel bags at the LZ with extra food, fuel and clothing. Not wanting to waste the day, Benny and I skied as high as we could before caching the skis and continued hiking to our first camp at about 8100 feet. We ended up hanging out at this camp for two nights, sitting out unsettled weather. We brought along a silnylon tarp which we used to great effect throughout the trip. These tarps can be used to make a tiny single wall tent much more livable in poor weather with some creativity.
On Wednesday we made a short move up to our high camp at 9500 feet, which is the traditionally used high camp on the peak. The terrain started getting steeper here, and we were trying to follow the rock as much as possible on the wind-blown ridge crest to avoid soul-crushing postholing. Eventually, the ridge broadened and became heavily crevassed. Benny was surprised, saying he hadn’t seen any crevasses in this area on his prior attempt. I probed for cracks with my trekking pole as I broke trail to high camp. We spent the rest of the day focusing on hydrating and resting before our summit attempt.
The next morning, it was go time. We left camp with packs that felt feather-light compared to the days prior, where we were carrying the full kit. We made quick progress up crevassed slopes. The ridge became more defined as we climbed higher, quickly turning into a knife-edge of ice.
The hours flew by as we romped up unprotectable but fun three-dimensional icy ridge climbing. The snow was amazingly sugary in places, which made detecting crevasses difficult. One section in particular was a nightmare: I belayed Benny off of a buried ice axe as he set off into the unknown. The crevasses here were pointed in every direction… think of a piece of shattered glass. Benny partially fell into three crevasses here before finding a way through. I nervously followed and fell in another hidden hole. Things were getting spicy, but we stayed persistent and got through this section.
Above, the snow became deeper and more sugar-like than before. Benny was breaking trail like a champ until we swapped leads at the base of an intimidating ice wall. I fought through the deep snow and began to try to find a way around the crevasse at the base of the wall. I was balanced on the lower lip of the crevasse, probing as far as I could reach with my trekking pole, finding nothing but a layer of sugar snow and air underneath. This was a huge crevasse and the slope above would involve a new level of risk as we would be simulcimbing steep terrain that was laced with significant crevasses. Here, the cold calculus that every alpine climber knows took place: we would be lucky to return to our high camp before midnight at our current pace. We were less than 1500 feet below the summit, but we had miles more of this tortured ridge to climb. We wouldn’t be doing it today.
We retraced our steps and downclimbed the ridge to high camp, where we packed up and continued the descent all the way back to the landing zone. Along the way we discovered that one of Benny’s cached skis had been hit by rockfall, ruining his brand new skins. As I got within 200 feet of camp, I stepped over fresh bear tracks – wild to see at 6000 feet on a big glacier!
We spent a couple of nights at the LZ waiting to get picked up. Chuck tried to come get us once, but had to bail due to high winds. Finally, on Saturday morning, Chuck gracefully landed and pulled up near our camp, which we were still frantically breaking down. Leveraging a lifetime of mountain flying experience, Chuck called an audible: we would fly off the glacier in one flight, rather than two separate flights as we’d done on the way in. Benny crammed into the cargo hold between our duffels while I sat in the passenger seat with a pack in my lap. These planes weigh less than 1000 pounds and we were pushing 500 pounds of passengers and cargo! Chuck flew us back to his place safely, then invited us in for showers while he whipped up some blueberry pancakes and told us about shooting a polar bear when he was 11. The stuffed polar bear stands about 10 feet tall in his living room – awesome.
Overall, this was an amazing trip even without a summit. I learned a lot, had some old-fashioned fun, and have a new appreciation for Alaska’s incredible mountains.