8900′ Aydon Peak via Boonje Couloir

This route and peak are in my top 3 of all time. The other two are Icefall West Ridge and Baleful North Ridge. Having done a guestimated 300 peaks in my lifetime, that puts Aydon in the top 1%. A key difference between those other two bold undertakings and this one, however, is information. With Icefall and Baleful Peak I had adequate beta and was pretty confident that the summit would be attained. With this one, I had no information aside from my own reconnaissance pictures and satellite imagery. I knew it would take substantial effort just getting to the base of Boonje Couloir, but from there on up I had not a clue what to expect. I was incredibly anxious to see if it would pan out.

I am not the only one who thought so highly of Aydon Peak. Ryan writes this:

“It was the greatest climbing trip that I had ever partaken in, not only for the adventure, remoteness, and beauty of climbing but for the shear proximity to mount Blackburn. And while it wasn’t the most technical of routes, it proved to be more physically demanding than both Ham and Eggs (19-hours) and the Japanese Couloir (23-hours) that I had done many years prior [in the Alaska Range].”

I had pegged June as a good month to do this peak after making a June trip to the Nugget Creek Cabin in 2020, climbing Peak 7050 with Ian Borowski. A video of that trip can be found here: Hiking Into Oblivion // Bikepacking in the Wrangells! – YouTube . That trip was in early June and from the Nugget Creek Cabin the top of a large peak can be seen with a prominent snow chute (Boonje Couloir) splitting the twin summits of 8900′ Aydon Peak. On a clear day, Blackburn can be seen behind it too. The peak and route are so striking and I’d spent many hours after that trip sitting at the computer scheming into the odd hours of the night and mulling over the success odds. I knew the payoff of this peak would be mindblowing (and it was); gnarly summit views galore from a peak of 1500′ prominence with Mount Blackburn just 6 horizontal miles and over a vertical mile away. But how would I pull it off…. The stars started to align with a good weather forecast in the Wrangells on a weekend bookending a company fishing trip that would already put me in the Chitna area. I’d already seeded this trip idea in Ryan Cudo’s mind over the winter, so I called him up on Monday (just 4 days prior to embarking) to see if he would be able to mobilize quickly. Ryan had longstanding plans to take some friends on a mountaineering trip in the deltas that weekend…. buuuut all the same, they could be doing a trip to the Wrangells instead. And just like that, we added Adrian Kersten, Steve Zweber, and Kerry Christine. The team roster was a nice total of 5. Over the course of the week, Ryan and Adrian found ATV’s we could borrow for the 16 mile approach to Nugget Creek Cabin and I watched the weather forecast like a hawk. Everything was going perfectly.

Route up the mentioned Peak 7050, as seen from Aydon Peak

Friday June 11th 2021

Summit Lake, driving through the Delta Mountains

After work, the team conglomerated at the Glenallen gas station, got dinner, and embarked to Tonsina to gather the second ATV’s. We found that the ATV Ryan had allocated did not have a trailer, nor ramps. And, so, we had to make room on his trailer for both, using a neighbors driveway to provide a slope for driving the ATV’s onto the trailer. Unloading them at the Nugget Creek Cabin at 11pm was an equal challenge. It didn’t help that one of the ATV’s had issues about half way and we had to do two relays of gear and people to get everything to the cabin. Thankful for the land of the midnight sun and the second ATV. Adrian took Kerry and Steve to the cabin first along with half the gear, eventually coming back for Ryan, myself, and the other half. By 3am all members and gear were safe and asleep at the Nugget Creek Cabin.

Saturday June 12th 2021

5 hours later we were back on our feet. By 9am the 5 of us crowded onto the single ATV and we made it about 1 more mile north. From here, the approach would take us about 4000′ of vertical and 7 miles just to get to the base of the 3000′ climb. So we left the ATV and popped out of the woods and into a nice field with pristine views of the Kuskulana (rock) Glacier, Aydon Peak with Blacburn behind, and the ~10,000′ Castle Peaks including The Snave. The flat field was an easy going mile but the heat of the day was apparent. Not wanting to go down to the Kuskulana River for fear it’d turn into a canyon and dead-end on our side, we bushwacked on a series of ledges to eventually get onto the Kuskulana Glacier. (Note: on the way back we would give walking along the river a try and it turned out to be just fine and much preferable to the bushwacking variation).

Once on the Kuskulana glacier, we found many large lake pools and wobbly rock hills forming a kind of maze. It wasn’t so much a challenge crossing the Kuskulana Glacier, but the challenge was in doing it efficiently and conserving energy. At this task, I think we got pretty lucky with a fairly direct path and minimal elevation waste. And oh my goodness did I mention that the day was HOT!

With the Kuskulana behind us, we got up on a ledge that would take us north to the entrance of the hanging valley. On this ledge, I found at one location, two hollow rock carins which I am guessing the local Wrangell guides would use for storing food on camping/traversing itineraries. Beyond this point, we wouldn’t find any signs of any other human activity.

We filled up and drank our fill of water from the creek pouring out of our hanging valley and then we pushed up into the hanging valley ourselves.

After rounding a corner and clambering up the rocky terminus of a glacier, we could once again see Boonje Couloir. I just kept telling myself that things look more difficult than they are from afar. As we got closer it did indeed get better. However the sun, which had been too much of a good thing all day, now became separated from us by a film of fog. And then it started to rain.

First of all, the clouds/fog was very not cool because the anticipated views were one of the greatest things about this peak. To climb this peak without views would be leaving a lot to be desired. That said, I still wanted to give it a go. The rain however, would be making the snow heavier, which matters from a safety perspective because a snowslide on this 3000′ line would end badly. The snow we’d been walking on down in the hanging valley was pretty saturated as it was. It was also fairly late; nearly 6pm, and we were all pretty fatigued from the approach. In light of our situation, Steve, Kerry, and Adrian did not feel like continuing and would turn around. They were not used to this kind of climbing and these conditions weren’t making for the best introduction to it. For Ryan and myself, we were willing to endure the crappy weather (as long as it wasn’t unsafe), and we were willing to keep taking step after step after step after step after step without a guarantee of either views nor summit.

So with not the highest of spirits, Ryan and I donned crampons, roped up, and accepted that we would be very tired by the end of the day. ..

We started off pretty strong, maybe thanks to the 5hr energy we split between us. We crossed one bergshrund near the begining. In retrospect, we probably could’ve unroped at this point, but we didn’t. In a way it forced both of us to keep at a faster pace than we otherwise would have, which was nice. I was in the lead, having more energy than Ryan and being able to blaze steps. Ryan called up for breaks with, which I was always more than in the mood for. The clouds kept showing signs of letting up, then re-thickening. This toyed with our heartstrings, which so badly wanted to have the summit views. In the end, the good weather won, YES! Boonje Couloir maintained an incredibly consistent 45 degree pitch and the snow, styrofoam consistency. My biggest worry was that we would be held up by a single steep section, or that it would get steeper towards the end, or that the snow pack would become hard -thankfully it didn’t. Towards the top, we were so beat, taking 3 breaks to cover a 100′ stretch. Which would be pathetic if it was anywhere other than at the end of a very long climb.

We reached the saddle around 10pm and looked west towards a rocky summit block and east towards a small snowy summit. From earlier research, we had assumed that the true summit was this west one and we had come prepared with cams for some mixed climbing, but we no longer possessed the mental attentiveness, nor the physical energy or time, to do so. We figured that a summit bid was out of question, but before heading down, we decided to push to the east summit to at least collect upon the prized views on Mount Blackburn. 

One more break before the summit. I can just feel the exhaustion of the moment when I look at this picture

Then, something magic happened; as we pushed on, the East summit kept going further back and higher. Further back and higher. We were excited that it might grow higher than the western point, and we believe it did! Upon standing on the east summit, we clocked in at 8,933-ft, and using a water bottle as a level we found the west summit to be lower although very close in elevation. The views were breathtaking and offered panoramic views of the west face of Mount Blackburn, distant views of The Snave and Castle, a sunset over Mount Wrangell, and more. We started our descent at 10:40pm. Even in the peak of summer it still gets chilly up at nearly 9,000′ and the chill had definitely settled into us.

Ryan glissaded down super fast. Fir myself it took a bit of front pointing and heel-stepping before I got comfortable enough to glissade. We were now very low on food. I had three small handfulls of trail mix and three small handfulls of goldfish. We had been communicating with Adrian, Steve, and Kerry by walkie talkie the whole time and in anticipation of this, we had told them earlier on to leave some extra food in the hollow rock carins. In addition they told us that walking along the Kuskulana River was fine, but that crossing it was not. (I can’t believe they crossed it -and at night!).

Ryan and I found the food stash, and the food stash found us with quite the appetite. The sky now seemed to be getting brighter rather than darker. Having a gps track, Ryan and I would follow our footsteps back over the Kuskulana Glacier (to avoid having to cross the river) and then follow the Kuskulana River back to the flat field (instead of repeating the bushwacking ledges). Adrian, Steve, and Kerry were kind enough to leave the 4 wheeler for our tired asses. We pulled up to the Nugget Creek Cabin a bit after 5am. Adrian, Steve, and Kerry had made it back 2 hours before us and were mostly asleep. They stirred for a quick and excited debrief from Ryan and myself while we made up our dinners. Then back to bed.

The couloir was named Boonje Couloir on this trip, named after the boujee nature of the expedition; luxurious cabin accommodations and the ability to travel most of the miles by ATV are a welcomed rarity in the world of Alaskan climbing.

When I got home, I checked with mountaineering historian Steve Gruhn and found no other recorded ascents, making our trip a likely first ascent. Steve Gruhn added that maps denote the eastern summit as the higher peak.

Sunday June 13th 2020

We weren’t too pressed on time, so we slept in. We knew there would be some interestingness with the second ATV but weren’t to worried. After packing our things Adrian took Ryan and I back to the other ATV. It started, so we loaded it up and got moving while he went back for Kerry and Steve. About 7 miles shy of the Trailhead it died again. The mosquitos were horrible, but I had fortunately packed a teepee style bugnet which ended up preserving our sanity for a total of 2 or 3 hours. After Adrian brought Kerry and Steve back to the trailhead, he came back and towed the other ATV. Crossing Strelna Creek in this manner was interesting.

Kerry and Steve headed off to Kennicott for a few more days of their vacation (up from Colorado). Adrian, Ryan, and I went back to Tonsina real quick to drop of the ATV, then Ryan and Adrian kept chugging back to Anchorage for work in the morning. I stayed behind in the greater Glenallen area to dipnet on the copper river in some of the Class 5 Boatworks – Rough Duty Boats that our company manufactures in Fairbanks. Indeed, everything worked out -amazingly!

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