The north ridge of Mt Hayes (13,832’) is a quintessential Alaskan backcountry mountain climb. It has it all: Super Cub bush landings on a remote strip; steep, exposed climbing among an endless sea of peaks; long days of bushwhacking and postholing; and a demanding float on a river with unknown risks and obstacles around every corner. To add to it all, the line is visible on a clear day from Fairbanks, 85 miles to the north. Sunrise and sunset silhouettes the ridge against the surrounding range. In the winter when the sun barely rises above the mountains, the massive NW and NE faces glow a magnificent pink. In the summer when the sun circles high in the sky, the shadow of the ridge contrasts from the white of the huge glaciers cascading down its sides.
Ben Smith, Curtis Henry, Keane Richards and I attempted to climb the north ridge in May 2022. My interest in the north ridge started early in my mountaineering career. After taking the Introduction to Ski Mountaineering Clinic through the Alaska Alpine Club and participating in a few club trips, Keane mentioned his dream to climb the north ridge. From there I was hooked.
Being a poor college student, I wasn’t keen on paying for a flight in, so I initially planned to ski in 35 miles from the road. I could not find a partner willing to suffer that much. In the fall of 2021, Ben, Keane, and I discussed the climb, and we agreed to fly in. After studying maps for hours, I devised our exit: we would packraft out the Little Delta River. In spring 2022, we received the CalTopo Adventure Grant and the MacKeith Grant, a climbing grant from the Alaska Alpine Club. These would cover our one-way airfare entirely and make the trip possible.
Sean stacked and adjusted the opacity of multiple layers to create the custom maps shown above. To learn more about how to use base layers to create your own customized view, visit the Working with Base Layers page in the CalTopo user guide.
We each climbed throughout the spring to build our skills and prepare for the climb ahead. A week before our first climb as a team, Ben sprained his ankle kite skiing. Curtis ended up taking his place on the training climb, and we planned for him joining us on Hayes in case Ben’s ankle wasn’t better by the time we left. Ben’s ankle healed and Curtis still wanted to go, so we now had a team of four.
We left Fairbanks on a May 8th and headed down the Richardson Highway. The past three weeks had been perfectly clear, offering a view of the entire range with virtually no wind. We awoke Monday to fresh snow and a low ceiling. After waiting all day, we decided to take advantage of the 18 hours of daylight and headed to the south side of the range. As soon as we exited the main pass, the clouds disappeared, and we kite skied in warm sunlight all evening.
The weather was the exact same on Tuesday, so we headed down to the same spot and practiced crevasse rescue scenarios. We finally got a call from the pilot Wednesday morning as we were eating breakfast. We packed up quickly and dropped Keane off at the Golden Eagle Outfitter hangar. He would fly out from Delta Junction, and we would meet the pilot at an airstrip farther down the highway.
We were all shuttled into a small patch of snow protected from the glacier around 4,200’. A stash of packrafting gear and extra food was buried as deep as we could dig to protect it from curious critters. From there we travelled 4 miles up the Hayes glacier to a set up camp on a smaller side glacier. Despite the huge cracks visible in the satellite imagery, we had no crevasse encounters. We set up camp at 6,500’ across from a stunning ice fall.
Excited to get up to the ridge, we were moving by 5:30 am. 1,000’ of soft and punchy snow brought us to the ridge, and Ben and Curtis stashed their skis. The rest of the day was a straightforward ridge climb with one or two leg punches in crevasses. 10 hours of travel brought us to our campsite at 9,000’.
The forecast called for a storm rolling in the next day, so we dug in expecting winds and snow. Our camp was dug into a snowdrift that blocked most of the winds, but occasionally a gust would whip spindrift around the camp in circles. We dug a cooking shelter into the snowdrift, a latrine in a neighboring crevasse, and set up our tents. An hour after Curtis and I crawled into our tent for the night, the storm blew in and nearly blew our tent down. We packed up in haste and quickly expanded our cooking cave. As soon as we finished the cave, the winds died down and would not pick up for the rest of the night. Surprisingly, the cave was more pleasant than the tent.
We slept in expecting the bad weather to continue, but at noon it started clearing up. We decided to pack up and make a push. The first thousand feet of the climb brought us to the false summit at 9,900’ and the first exposed section.
Following in Curtis and Keane’s footsteps, Ben and I avoided a couple holes Curtis had found. The top of the false summit narrowed and felt a bit like a tight rope walk. From there we had 400’ to descend. As I plunge stepped down, I suddenly felt the ground beneath my leg give way. I looked back at my leg to find it disappearing into a bottomless crevasse.
After extricating myself from the hole, Ben and I continued to the col where Curtis and Keane were eating lunch. It was 5 pm. We briefly discussed our options and decided to continue. The next section would be the toughest climbing yet. As Keane and Curtis set off, Ben and I took in the sight: a knife-edge ridge with thousands of feet of exposure and massive hanging glaciers on either side.
We started climbing, the last of us collecting the pickets loosely placed for protection. The going was slow, the cornices huge, and the drops long. By 10 pm we made it to 11,000’ and decided to call it a night.
The only problem was any flat area was extremely exposed to storms. We decided to chop a tent platform into the west side of the ridge, but the snow was more like ice at this elevation. We spent 2 hours chopping away to get a tiny tent platform. The back of our platform was bordered by a crevasse of unknown size. After a carefully choreographed dance to pitch the tents, we crawled in and got to sleep by 1 am.
The next day was cloudy and snowy. Curtis and I dug another snow cave, not wanting a repeat of the first night. The going was slow as we chopped out ice chunk after ice chunk. Eventually we finished, despite breaking a shovel, and created a cozy home for the next few days. Weather looked good for the following day, so we planned a summit push.
At 3:30 am the weather looked great. A gorgeous sunrise illuminated our tiny perch and the rest of the range. We were off by 5 am.
From camp, the biggest obstacle visible was a huge glacial ice wall blocking the entire ridge. Within 30 minutes, we arrived at its base. Unsure of what to expect on the route, we had brought a handful of ice screws and technical tools. Going straight up and over would be crazy with our amount of gear. Ben and I explored a route off to the right, but the wall just kept going. We ended up going left, climbing 30’ of glacier ice, then nearly a rope length of snice (halfway between snow and ice) that barely took pickets. It took 2 hours to climb 200’.
As we continued up a snow slope above the wall, the winds began to pick up. Keane and Curtis waited for us at 12,000’, and by then the winds were ripping. We made a quick decision to bail based on the winds and the potential for wind loading of slopes.
As we descended into the quickly growing winds, I looked back to see a lenticular cloud engulf the summit and extend miles to the west. It was about to get nasty. At the top of the ice wall, the winds were a sustained 60 mph. Having no good snow to build an anchor in, we placed a few pickets and screws for mental protection and downclimbed. Eventually we used one solid picket to lower off. We returned to camp and were in a blizzard an hour later. We hunkered in the cave, shoveling the entrance every 20 minutes so we weren’t snowed in.
In the morning, we decided to descend off the mountain. Fearful of what could have happened if we were on the summit ridge when the storm rolled in and an approaching time crunch, it was an easy decision to make. We packed up and started down. Reversing the knife-edge ridge seemed easier than coming up; the snow on the west side was perfect for front pointing and super fun.
At 8,500’ we descended into the clouds. With so little ridge left, we kept going until we found the skis that marked our ascent path. Keane and I plunge stepped our way down, leaving Curtis and Ben to get some turns. In the flat light and punchy snow, they decided to walk down, much to the amusement of me and Keane.
Day 7 was the hardest day of the whole trip. Keane and I started down the glacier on snowshoes. Eventually Ben and Curtis would join us on snowshoes once again due to a snow crust. We travelled the 4 miles to the airstrip quickly and unburied our gear. It survived the squirrels!
After a relaxing lunch on tundra, we loaded up our packs and began the 10-mile trek to our put-in on the Little Delta River. With 70+ lb packs, we knew this wouldn’t be fun…but we had no idea. The farther we went, the softer the snow got. Keane and I stopped halfway across the Hayes Glacier for a bouldering break. We got some fun first and likely last ascents in our climbing boots.
Hours later, as we approached the terminus of the glacier, we started to posthole. Our snowshoes made no difference, and every other step we sank to our hips. We struggled for 7 miles, until we descended to Hayes Creek hoping it would be floatable. It was not. We continued our struggle. Eventually we made it to where the snow thinned and we could walk on tundra, but now we had a mile of tussocks to deal with. We met up with Ben and Curtis, who had only a slightly better experience, pitched camp at the river on a sand bar and built a fire. Solid ground was glorious.
The next morning was slow. We got up, built a fire, relaxed, and drank coffee. Eventually we decided we should get moving, so we hiked the last ¼ mile to the river and inflated our packrafts. We pushed off at 2:30 pm.
The first few miles of the float were a fun, splashy, class II river. It was shallow and involved a lot of butt scooting. A handful of small rapids were a blast to run. As the river got larger, the overflow started. Throughout the winter, sections of the river overflowed and froze. Now, these sections were 2’-6’ thick with ice. The river entrenched itself or was diverted. The risk increased dramatically. There was always the possibility to round a corner and find an ice jam, ice bridge, or the river diverting through brush. With the entrenching of the river, there were limited spots to bail if a hazard was encountered, as the ice walls rose to 6’ high on either side.
In one location, the river flowed through a section of alders, so we got out and dragged our boats on top of the ice for a half mile. In another location, the river flowed under the ice, so we dragged again. In some places, the river divided into many shallow channels: more dragging. By mile 23 it was getting late, so we pulled over to look for a camp site. While approaching our sand bar, an ice shelf collapsed near Ben, and he surfed the wave downriver. An exciting end to the day.
Our final day started earlier; we were floating by 8:30 am. We encountered more ice jams and more boat dragging. Then river diverted through the forest, so we dragged. Finally, the river opened again, and we could once again float. We floated through one more overflow section; this one was by far the worst. The walls towered 8’ over us, and the channel narrowed. While Keane and I waited for Ben and Curtis to run the next corner and give us the all-clear, a massive ice ledge collapsed and nearly washed us away.
As we continued, the overflow gave way to logs. Summer runoff had not pushed the winter’s carnage downstream yet, so we navigated around huge piles of logs and uprooted trees. The river picked up speed. By 1 pm, we arrived at the Tanana River and had the only 2 relaxing miles of the whole float. The entirety of the Little Delta was mentally exhausting, constantly being prepared for whatever lay around the corner.
Once we reached the take-out, a short hike brought us to the highway and our shuttle vehicle. Upon reaching town, temperatures soared above 70°F and the trees were in full on bloom. What a dramatic change from 2 days earlier and 11,000’ higher.
We are all still amazed at the adventure we were able to pull off, and incredibly grateful for the support of CalTopo and the Alaska Alpine Club. This adventure would not have been possible if not for that support. Although we did not summit, we all returned safely, and I’m sure we’ll be back to Mt Hayes again in the future.