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Western peak baggers aim for few remaining unclimbed summits

Keith Ridler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Brian Wright climbs the north ridge of Packrat Peak in the Sawtooth mountains, Idaho. They're out there still in West " never-been-climbed summits where a human has yet to set foot. But not many remain in the Lower 48, say some of the country's most prolific peak baggers. (Tom Lopez/AP)
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BOISE, Idaho” They’re out there still in West ” never-been-climbed summits where a human has yet to set foot.

But not many remain in the Lower 48, say some of the country’s most prolific peak baggers, who have left a trail of pitons, rock cairns and summit registers in their wakes.

“Most anything that has a nontechnical way up, most of those mountain tops have been accessed at this point in the game,” said Kirk Bachman, a climbing guide in Idaho’s rugged interior with Sawtooth Mountain Guides. “But as you get into more of the remote backcountry, there is probably still some opportunity there.”

They just may be lesser-known peaks.

“I doubt there are any major summits left,” said Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides, based in Ashford, Wash. “But there are probably some subsidiary summits, and there are probably some spires on ridges.”

No one group is cataloging what’s been climbed and what remains.

“We don’t keep a list of what’s left, and nobody I know does,” said Gary Landeck, library director at the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo. “Everybody relies on self-reporting, so nobody knows for sure whether certain peaks have been climbed before.”

“I would think that there has to be some,” said Tom Lopez, who has written a climbing guide to Idaho. “But if people know about them they’re less likely to talk about them.”

Opportunities to be the first atop a peak in the Lower 48 have mostly disappeared thanks to early adventurers such as Fred Beckey, a legendary figure in the mountain-climbing community who has been assaulting peaks and spires with remarkable dedication for most of his 80 plus years, bushwhacking into the base of climbs before roads or trails existed.

Beckey, who said his exact age is a secret, estimates he has some 400 to 500 first ascents.

“I’m not one of those record keepers,” said Beckey by phone after a day of ice climbing in Canada. “But there are people who have done more.”

Of unclimbed peaks in the Lower 48, he said, “I can’t think of anything worth talking about.”

Still, even he said some remote climbs remain on isolated towers.

“If I were to go back and look for a few tower climbs, I would float down the Green (River in Utah) with a few days’ provisions. If I need more adventure some coming fall season, I might just do that.”

Determining who made a first ascent is often open to speculation. The West has been inhabited for thousands of years, and then waves of backcountry explorers came through in the 1800s.

“As you go back in Idaho history, you’re amazed at how many people have been wandering around in the Idaho backcountry,” said Bachman, who has done quite a bit of that himself to stand atop isolated summits. “These loners and individualists, and you never know quite what they were up to.”

Other states had them as well, one of the most famous being naturalist John Muir. He is credited with the first ascent of California’s 13,143-foot Mount Ritter in 1872.

Even peaks that require special gear and skills could have been climbed at some early point.

“Sometimes you’ll see a rappel sling that indicates someone has been there,” said Glenn Kessler, lead climbing ranger at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. “I’m guessing there are a few peaks. But you would never know if you’re the first one there.”

Bachman has left peaks without a trace of his visits.

“I definitely think that in the Idaho style of mountaineering, a lot of stuff goes unsaid and unreported,” he said. “It kind of leaves that impression to the next person that it has never been climbed.”

But peak-baggers interested in notoriety often leave evidence in the form of rock piles with a summit register (anything from a Band-Aid can to plastic tubing to an ammunitions box) with a note inside containing information on the date of the ascent and the climbers who took part.

Publicizing first ascents by describing the climb in periodicals or books is also a favored method.

“You’re not going to get famous doing a first ascent unless other people can find the route,” said Beckey, who has written comprehensive climbing guides.

While the Lower 48 might be nearly climbed out, there remain plenty of unclimbed peaks in Alaska.

“Thousands, literally,” said Colby Coombs, owner of Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna, Alaska, who has written a guide to that state’s mountain ranges.

He said the logistics of getting to many mountains in Alaska deter most climbers, especially if a ski-equipped plane is unable to land on a nearby glacier.

“You have to be pioneering from the get-go,” he said. “The bushwhacking is very difficult, and we also have these big rivers that you need to get across. And bears ” you’re not the top of the food chain.”

Still, climbers with Beckey’s unyielding determination for first ascents will probably seek them out someday, driven by whatever motivates them to be the first atop a summit.

“I don’t even know, to tell you the truth, why I climb,” said Beckey. “They probably think I’m a nut case.”


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