Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is America’s largest park, “it is the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined.” Additionally, it contains 60% by volume of all of Alaska’s glacial ice. It is a place with barely any roads or trails, and therefore often requires bush planes to access the backcountry. The pinnacle of our true Alaska experience, Sadie ‘Alpine Babe’ Skiles and I established a new mountaineering-backpacking route even the locals were interested to hear about.
The “Hole in the Goat” loop travels half on the ‘The Goat Trail’ before crossing a pass to gain the “Hole in the Wall” glacier and is followed by five miles of crevassed glacier, five miles of rock glacier and one knee-high river crossing before returning to the start at Skolai Airstrip. It took us four days to accomplish this route with 8-10 hour, seven mile days. The route is 25 miles and 7,000 ft elevation gain as the raven flies, but we aren’t ravens so probably more like 30 miles and 9,000 ft. It hosted caribou, siamese looking Hoary Marmots, a cute red backed Ermine, dozens of mountain goats, a pair of blonde curious brown bears, fifty unique geodes and views of puffy white 15,000 ft peaks. Speaking with a very interested 20 year bush pilot veteran of the park and the owner of a guide service, people have thought about this loop but never attempted to pierce ‘The Fin’ rock wall separating the Upper Goat Route and Skolai Basin.
Day 1: Animals of Chitistone Pass
With six days of food, backpacking gear and ice axe/crampons Sadie and I hopped into a 4 seater bush plane. Our pilot, a self-described climber named Bill, took us along the Mile-High Massif. 3000 ft cliffs twisting from geologic forces with low quality northern limestone.
Next he took us along Skolai Creek so we could get eyes on the backside of The Hole in the Wall glacier and get more information on crevasses and current glacier extension. Seeing the hanging glaciers, we opted to descend the dirty right split of the rock glacier instead of down the main white tongue of the Hole in the Wall ending in a huge cave opening over a murky, muddy, silk-laden glacial river.
Landing on the ground we began our hike on the invisible Goat “Trail” across soft sinking tundra towards Chitistone Pass. On the way, I spotted two bounding brown bodies as we spoke loudly hiking through thin brushy head high trees along swampy basin toward the pass. In 20 minutes we stopped to de-layer and looking back towards Sadie in conversation. A blonde Mama bear was walking up our trail behind us two cubs in toe. Stopping 50 ft away she stood up for a look at us as I got my bear spray ready before bounding away, her cubs each taking a moment to stand up for a look at us as Sadie clacked her poles. The adolescent cubs were nearly 4 ft tall standing and almost as big as their mom. We kept an eye on our shoulder until we gained Chitistone Pass to ensure they were not still following.
On the pass we were greeted by a family of stalwart Alaskan Hoary Marmots (the biggest marmot species) which were the coloration of siamese cats, the shape of XXL guinea pigs and had a surprising, red, six inch tail.
Next I bleated some greetings to the dozen mountain goats on the hill above. Two miles later, we stepped behind a rock to put on full rain gear with the constant mist and 10-15 mph wind. As we did, a harem of Caribou with buck in lead sauntered up the river and after identifying us as non-threats before resuming grazing.
Dropping on the other side of the pass, on our left we could see the Russell Glacier headwaters of the Chitistone River.
A mile down the slope from here, I happened upon a split rock boulder, an abnormality among the conglomerate-limestone-basalt mixture that doesn’t provide much for crack climbing. Excited for any opportunity of crack climbing, I lie-backed to stemmed the V0- alpine boulder as a funny, obnoxious first ascent that would unlikely ever see a second ascent 7 miles from an airstrip in chossy Wrangell-St. Elias. A few miles later we bedded down behind a rise in the land of the midnight sun.
Day 2: Geodes and Scree
Our second morning we awoke to a cloudless sky revealing the wide valley with pointy rocky mountains on either side. Downstream we crossed an all-woman group going the other way on the Goat Trail across a high stream running down a rocky gulley into the Chitistone. The trail would come in and out all day. Often a whisper, it would be easy to find at least every half hour when we came across it on more erode-able terrain.
Often watching our feet as we made our way along the Chististone Gorge, we commonly found crystals sticking out of porous holes in volcanic rock, inside chips of orange rock and expelled out of their rock-shells of white circular or triangle latices.
The next steep scree section of the Goat Trail weaved through black bulbous basalt was lorded as wild and exposed, but in reality was cool yet overrated in technicality.
Finally, the trail tracked back right toward the mountain to avoid an unpassable, deep, creek carved ravine. At the corner we crossed through the high river, off the Goat Route onto the High Goat Route and then leaving that across another smaller stream. We were now pioneering our new route. Five dozen white dots indicating mountain goats could be seen across the valley and as we reached an outcropping of rocks a curious and cute red-backed, black tailed weasel known as an Ermine appeared.
Within eyesight of our prior unseen prospects over the pass we camped for the night, discussing some options to gain the Hole in the Wall from ‘the bubble’.
Day 3: Glacial Cravasses
Hiking up rocky moraine mounds we finally were able to map out how to gain the bubble. There were a couple smaller carved weaknesses through the rock band guarding the bubble, but we decided to choose the wide, right scree bank to its left edge through a broken rock band. The path was straight forward as the scree but as it became steeper it coupled one step forward with a half slide back.
Gaining ‘the bubble’, the wind increased to 30mph gusts, but eventually died down as we diagonally crossed above the bubble towards a black rock wall section to the right of the glacier.
Over the next two hours we witnessed a dozen head-sized rocks zoom down this right glacial path. To avoid the high risk of injury from rock fall we gained a short easy 4th class section of blocky limestone for 80 ft before we were nearly level to the big VW-sized block marking the rock fall nursery of projectiles.
One step attempting to crossing above this rock and the glacier proved difficult as the thin scree beneath my feet slipped and slide uncontrollably as it stripped off the glacial ice hidden underneath. It was crampon time. Sadie moved slowly trying to create berms to step in as with normal scree, but combined weight with the backpack seemed to make that impossible and I had to traverse left with tips in.
Finally past the rock fall, we gained the glacier and were surprised to find it snow-covered, but we made a lot more progress on level snow covered glacier than scree. After a 100m we realized that a large crevasse had formed on our right where our current glacier section was fed by another bending slightly over a hump. Given the slope angle, we had expected no crevasses here. Given the temperature and time of year, we expected no crevasse-hiding snow bridges. Both assumptions were wrong here, and as we’d find out, also throughout the next five miles of glacier… We made these assumptions from google earth and topo maps, but there was no human-beta and we couldn’t check out the glacier from the flight in due to clouds and rain.
Given the difficulties of the 30 degree scree topped glacier above the crevasse, we decided to cross a snow 20 ft wide snow bridge section to get on the upper glacier. Sadie crossed without issue and I tentatively began on follow on my first ever crevasses crossing. However, my front foot post holed as I eased forward with my center of gravity over my back foot. Pulling my foot up revealed a dark hole and a cavern over a dozen feet down and several feet wide. “Holy Shit!” raced through my adrenaline pumped veins.
We didn’t bring crevasse rescue gear. Ropes were heavy and we didn’t expect this crevasse, especially on a rise of 20 ft. If I fell in… I would have have to self arrest and crawl out or if impossible, Sadie would have to instigate a rescue with her SPOT while I slowly froze in a glacial refrigerator. Sadie and I discussed options: going back, jumping the crevasse, etc. until I decided to give it a go. Throwing my backpack as far as I could and then crawling on my stomach like across thin ice over the crevasse.
Now on the upper glacier, we saw another huge crevasse connecting this upper glacier and another. We navigated around several other crevasses as I calmed my nerves over snow we were pretty sure was over closed ends of the cracks.
There was no way around this huge crevasse though, so we walked along it to an exposed rock outcropping where beautiful small streams of water carved curvy rivers into the snow-free, glacial ice. Below this the massive crevasse closed on a snowless surface and we passed over this obstacle as I sighed relief and released the tension throughout my body from the last crevasse navigating hour.
We made good time now on snowless glacier. Taking in the wind carved glacial walls above us on cliffs and ice falls sliding into our glacial flat to the sides. Soon we reached the next slope to navigate down to the bowl of the lower glacier.
The right side was a steep ice fall mess as expected, but unexpectedly the moderate slope in front became more and more crevassed. We spent a good amount of time weaving back and forth until going for an escape far left toward a snow-free glacial basin that eventually flattened out. I walked with an ice axe in self arrest ready position and muscles tense as I passed by deep crevasses on either side or over a probable covered edge. I took heavy self talk to stay focused and keep my fear of dropping into the a crevasse in the alaskan backcountry without rescue gear. We tied a 400 lb rated-parachord between us to help slow any fall of either of us and connected to our backpacks to avoid the parachord cutting through our skin in the event of 200 lbs of force pulling on small diameter chord.
After over an hour of this navigation our crampons were biting into soft glacial ice, snow free and exposing all its secrets. The worst was behind us as we navigated confidently hopping small but deep cracks until we reached the rock glacier at the split of Hole in the Wall around Mt. Baldwin. Mentally exhausted after five miles of crevassed glacial crossing without appropriate gear, we made camp on a boulder.
Day 4: Rock Glacier Tedium
Our last five miles exiting the Mt. Baldwin split on the rock glacier were like walking in a talus-boulder field where each step often sinks six inches. Each step causes everything, pebbles or microwave sized blocks, in a 2’ radius to shift. Football sized rocks constantly trying to role onto or crush your ankle. Unlike traditional scree, you typically cannot create a berm to walk upon because the base is ice, not soil or rock. More often, creating a berm will cause everything to continue sliding down the mound you are attempting to traverse and you to slide six feet when stepping on the two inch ‘top soil’ that remains. Even human sized rocks could slide down these hills given the continual moving / melting glacier never allowed anything to settle. This was our terrain for the seven hours to exit the glacier.
If not familiar with talus, imagine walking across a slanted surface that rises and drops like waves. The surface comprised of random mixtures of golf, bowling, and wrecking balls topping a basketball like floor. Now imagine how that surface would behave when stepping upon, climbing up, descending down or traversing across it.
While the trek this day wasn’t super enjoyable, we had an amazing view of the seven sisters and their six shoulder staircase ice falls on our way out. A great way to measure progress as we kept left and tried to keep on bouldery ridge lines.
Day 5: Fredricka Glacier Lodge
One mile from the airstrip and one day before pickup, we took a day hike to check out the cabin marked on the USGS TOPO, but not the NatGeo map. However, we couldn’t cross the hungry Skolai creek racing down the valley. Gaining a ridge opposite of the cabin side that rose above a 500 to 1000 to 2000 ft gorge cut by the Skolai.
It was a super clear morning despite plotting clouds and we could see all the way up Regal Glacier, into the ice field and clearly pick out Regal Mountain at nearly 14000 ft. Which isn’t that tall in the grand scheme of things except in Alaska where that is 9000 ft above the glaciation line where white pristine pillowy snow lays out for miles up to the peak.
To the right of Regal, a flat plateau with a sand hill looking peak in its center forced Skolai Creek west to join with the output of Regal Glacier. The yellow Golden Horn a small prick off on its left. Finally, to the right of the plateau, Fredricka Creek leading up to its tidewater glacial headwaters. Fredricka Glacier continues up from this muddy lake. A white spine lazily gaining elevation until a protrusion of it, cut by a west ridge line, gained lots of height up to a pointy Fredricka Mountain. This 10k peak has only been climbed a couple times and documented only once in 1990 in the American Alpine Journal on a route with steep 40 to 50 degree snow/ice. Even the owner of the mountain guide company had little beta and tried the west ridge a couple months ago but didn’t like ice and rock fall potential just before summit.
The rest of Fredricka glacier wrapped around the mountain, but from a high enough vantage point you also see the ice field of the Hanging Shelf Glacier that feeds the hungry wide Fredricka around this west ridge.
It rained on us on the way back a little but then got serious as soon as we jumped into our tent at 4pm. A common rain for the next two hours as I read the wilderness first responder manual because I had finished my book and forgotten a charger chord for a days long dead iPhone.
Day 6: One Last River Crossing
We sauntered over to the Skolai Airstrip an hour early after crossing a knee high, muddy glacial river that produced the brain freeze equivalent in our legs starting halfway through. Reflecting on the trip, I felt it was great conclusion of our Alaskan Trip. It felt like wilderness and true Alaska. I also felt incredibly grateful for my romantic and adventure partner for her support, expertise and love of exploration as we established our first Alaskan mountaineering route: The Hole in the Goat.
Tips on the Wrangell’s Backcountry
- Wrangle Mountain Air is the only air service out of McCarthy and likely the only one that services this south side of the park. We didn’t book ahead and had to take what we can get which was the impetus to create the “Hole in the Goat” route since we could only be dropped off and picked up at Skolai. Book ahead if you can.
- The weather in McCarthy is very misleading. 70 degrees was the average high while in the backcountry 50 degrees was the high each day. Bring warmer layers than you expect.
- Take your backpacking daily milage and divide by two for what your pace will be in the Wrangell’s.
- Beware of rock fall, near glaciers you can hear rock fall several times an hour. Some as loud as thunder.
- Water was always abundant
- Rangers do not supply recommendations, but do recommend this book for ideas.
- Route Risks: Rock Fall, 4th class / scree climbing fall, glacial crevasses, bears.