Photo by AAC Member John Harley, Black Cap Peak
by Franz Mueter
In 1952, a group of students and faculty from the Geophysical Institute and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, founded what is now the Alaska Alpine Club. The first officers were Phillip Bettler (President), Elton S. Thayer* (Vice President), Charles R. Wilson (Secretary-Treasurer), Alston Paige, Paul Livingston, Chester Errett, and Terris Moore* (Councilors). Other persons thought to be charter members were Keith Hart, George Argus, Les and Teri Viereck, Gordon Herried, John McCall*, Edward Little*, Bill Attwood, and "Moose" Gonnason (* - deceased).
The purpose of the club was described in the first journal published by the club, shortly after it was founded: "The Alaskan Alpine Club was formed to promote the exploration and enjoyment of Alaskan mountain areas - areas which are unrivaled. The eventual goal of the Club is to bring together as many climbers, both in the Territory and in the States, as is possible. Through this informal co-operative the Club will be able to collect and compile information on all of the major climbs; to provide information to interested climbers; and lastly, to publish in the Journal accounts of the major climbs and other articles of interest. This first Journal is, we believe, a big step toward that goal."
In the beginning informal meetings were held to talk about possible climbs, plan trips, and chat about the mountains. Slide shows or movies were organized 3-4 times every semester to promote mountaineering and recruit new members. At that time not many students were interested in mountaineering and endless possibilities for first ascents awaited those inspired to make climbing history.
During the club's informal meetings at Hess Lounge, students and faculty a UAF considered two new routes on Denali during the 1954 season. Both were inspired by Bradford Washburns illustrated proposals, after he had carefully mapped the mountain. Donald McLean, Charles ("Bucky") Wilson, William Hackett, and Henry Meybohm teamed up to attempt the Northwest Buttress. Fred Beckey, an acquaintance of Hackett, was a late addition to the team. After flying in to a lake at the foot of Straightaway Glacier on May 2, 1952, the team reached the North Peak on May 27 from their high camp at 18,500 feet. An attempt at the South Peak was thwarted by high winds and the team was forced to withdraw. A long and slow descent was followed by a 50 mile hike to Wonder Lake, ending the successful first ascent of Denali's Northwest Buttress.
Even before the Northwest Buttress team had left Fairbanks, another party, consisting of Elton Thayer, Norton Wood, George Argus, and Les Viereck, had already reached Ruth Glacier. The team had carried in heavy loads for 50 miles from Curry on the Alaska Railroad, negotiating rivers, grizzly bears, and tangled alder growth on the way. The team had planned on traversing the mountain from south to north via the South Buttress. They reached the South Peak on May 15 from their high camp at just over 17,000 feet on the Karstens Ridge. On their descent down Karstens Ridge a tragic accident lead to the death of team leader Elton Thayer. After spending 6 days in a tent and hoping for a plane to fly by, Viereck and Wood improvised a sled to get the injured Argus downslope over exposed terrain. Leaving Argus behind at 11,00 feet, they descended Muldrow glacier, reached Kantishna in record time, and organized a helicopter rescue for Argus.
Most of the small number of early Club members were experienced mountaineers and some of the notable climbs during the first years of the Club included the first ascent of 17,000-foot King Peak, two new routes on Denali (see inset), the first ascent of 15,000-foot University Peak, the first ascent of Mt. Drum, and first ascents of Silvertip, Black Cap, Old Snowy, Aurora, Meteor, Icefall Peak, and Institute Peak in the eastern Alaska Range, among others. The first ascent of Mt. Hess in 1951 predated the Club's existence, but included in the party of five were two students from UAF who helped found the Alaska Alpine Club: Elton Thayer and Alston Paige.
Informal meetings, during which new trips were planned, and slide shows continued to be the main activities of the club until the early 60's when the "hut-building decade" began. In 1962, club members carried heavy loads up the Castner glacier and erected a shelter at the foot of Mary's Rock. The Thayer hut, named in honor of Elton Thayer who died on the first ascent of Denali's Southwest Buttress, was followed by two huts on the Cantwell glacier in the next years. The Thayer hut land was leased from BLM and the Club had to become incorporated to do so.
After the first Journal published in 1952 there seemed to be little written accounts of climbs and other club activities. A bulletin had been planned in the late 50's, but didn't materialize until the "DESCENT" first appeared on the scene in January 1969 as a bimonthly newsletter. It continued to be published six times a year until 1974, and has been issued on a hit and miss basis 1-4 times a year since then. For anybody interested, the Rasmuson Library has a copy of every issue published in it's Alaska Periodicals section. The club continued to meet every Tuesday at noon in the Hess Hall Lounge to organize trips and other club activities. These included the "Ice School" (crevasse rescue, prussicking, belaying practice) led by Dan Osborne, an Alpine First Aid class, Ice Ax belay practice, and rock climbing trips to Grapefruit Rocks. The first full-blown climbing class was organized in the fall of '69 by Kathleen Davies. Although the format has changed over the years, the climbing class has been taught every year since then and is now one of the most important functions of the Club. Dan Osborne, Ben West, Fred Pratt, Mike Masters, and John Keller have been in charge of the climbing class at one time or another. Since 1989, Stan Justice has spend a lot of time and energy to coordinate what is now taught as a two-part Ski Mountaineering course for beginners and intermediate climbers. With the event of the climbing class, membership rose steadily from 20- 40 in the late 60's to around 120 in the late 70's/early 80's and to over 200 currently. However, many of the members are students that sign up for the class, go to the lectures, and maybe on one or two of the trips, and are never heard of again.
The DESCENT reported on a number of first ascents in the years from 1969 to 1976. Most of these took place in the eastern Alaska Range, the traditional "playgrounds" of the club. Some of the "Firsts" were: Snow White in March 1968 (John Boyd, Hans Nielson, Doug Bingham); Double Exposure in July 1969 (Dan Osborne, Tom Kensler); M'Ladies in August 1969 (Dick Nelson and party(?)); Mt. Gakona in March 1970 (Dan Osborne, Toby Wheeler, Mark Hottman, Steve O'Brien); Mt. Hajdukovich (North Peak) in March 1970 (Doug Bingham, Don Wallace, Sid Whaley); Monument Peak in July 1970 (Bob Spurr, Royce Purinton, Bob Pelz); North Ridge of Mt. Hess in May 1976 (Steve Hackett, Thomas Hillis, Dan Osborne).
In the spring of 1969 the Club started another great tradition to introduce members of the Fairbanks community to the mountain environment. This was the Great Cantwell Glacier Stampede which drew an unexpected 101 people between 7 and 57 years of age to the lower Cantwell hut in its first year. Participants, who had to carry their own food and camping equipment, skied to the hut at their leisure or entered into a ski race. The winning time in the first year was just over 2 hours, set by Eddie Denbow. The fastest time on record was set in 1972 by then 12-year old Jim Lokken, who arrived at the hut after only one hour and 42 min. Participation rose from 101 in 1969 to 243 in 1971 and supposedly reached close to 300 people in some years thereafter. In its haydays, the Stampede drew people not only from Fairbanks, but from Anchorage, Valdez and other communities as well. To deal with the masses of skiers, many of them new to the mountains and to winter camping, the Alpine Club worked together with the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks for several years to coordinate logistics for this annual event.
In 1983, due to concerns over sanitation and clean-up, the Glacier Stampede was discontinued. It was replaced by a scaled-down version for club members and their guests, the Glacier Rendezvous. The Rendezvous was held every spring at different glaciers in the eastern Alaska Range until at least 1987.
Apart from promoting mountaineering, educating prospective mountaineers, and entertaining the public with slide shows, the Club has been active in a number of public policy issues over the years. In the early 70's the club was instrumental in preserving the Grapefruit Rocks area, which was threatened by a proposed pipeline pump station. Due to the efforts of club officers, an alternative site was agreed upon between BLM, Alyeska, and the AAC.
Other issues of concern related to National Park Service policy, in particular the expansion of McKinley Park in 1975, the name change from McKinley to Denali in 1977, and Park Service rescue operations. Club members encouraged withdrawal of the Park Service from its rescue function in the Park, because it was felt that rescue operations of ill-prepared climbers encouraged inexperienced climbers to attempt performances beyond their ability, and that they divert already scarce agency resources from management and user education. Doug Buchanan let efforts in 1976 to establish an alternative to Park Service rescue operations and founded the Alaska Alpine Rescue Group, that is still in existence to this day.
In 1979 a heated discussion ensued within the club, relating again to National Park Service regulations. A faction within the club, let by Doug Buchanan, was vehemently opposed to mandatory registration of climbers within Denali Park (or any other park). Differences in opinion eventually let to a split in the club and as a result two Alpine Clubs (Alaska and Alaskan) populate Interior Alaska today.
Comments on several management plans, including the Gates of the Arctic proposed management plan and the Tanana Basin Area Management plan, were compiled and send to the appropriate agencies in the early 80's. Few other public policy issues have been addressed since then. In recent years the club has become very active in establishing an indoor climbing wall at the University and there are renewed efforts to build another hut, but the main function was and remains to be the Ski Mountaineering course.