Katie Mills is a member of Mazamas, a mountaineering educational organization based in Portland, Oregon. This past summer, she was awarded the organization’s Bob Wilson Grant for a major expedition, and led a group on a three-week excursion to the Arrigetch Peaks in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. We talked to Katie about her climbing background, her experiences in Alaska, and how her team used goTenna on their excursion.
It started with a flight from Oregon to Fairbanks. The alpinist foursome venturing to a remote mountain range in northern Alaska would land in Fairbanks, then board a smaller plane that offered a quick lift to a tiny town called Bettles — an area first settled in 1896 during the Alaska Gold Rush, which has a current population of 12 and where the coldest day on record is -70 F — which exists primarily to accommodate an airstrip.
From Bettles, they boarded a small bush plane and flew north for 45 minutes, where they landed on a lake and disembarked into a river valley. Save the 12 miles of rugged taiga they would have to traverse on foot, they were very nearly at their destination.
In all, it took three trips spread out over nine days to get all the gear from the landing site to basecamp. One member of the four-person party suffered an ankle injury during one of the gear trudges and caught the next bush plane back to Bettles.
“It was way harder than anything I’d expected,” Katie would later say of the treks to and from basecamp.
Katie is used to covering rough terrain to access remote climbing sites. In fact, she is used to pretty much every aspect of serious outdoor climbing. Her father was a climber who conquered Denali back in the 1960s, and he would wow her stories of escaping vast crevasses when she was young. Later, she’d visit Colorado in the summers with her father, where they would hike and scramble the 14ers, a series of peaks all at elevations higher than 14,000 feet.
“I do every type of climbing,” Katie said. “I started off as a mountaineer, scrambling Oregon and hiking up snow volcanoes with an ice axe and crampons. But then I decided I needed to do technical climbing.”
Katie joined up with Mazamas to undergo training after she decided to tackle Mount Hood, and made the leap from “climber” to “alpinist”. (The latter of which, she says, requires a certain type of bravery and self-reliance — “you either have it or you don’t.”) But despite a lifetime of climbing exposure and experience, standing before the jagged rock formations that are the Arrigetch Peaks inspired both awe and fear.
“It was very terrifying,” she said of preparing to take on the Peaks. “You don’t know if the crag you’re climbing will peter out. You don’t know if this giant block you’re climbing on is loose. You don’t know, once you get to the top of the mountain, how you’re going to get down.”
Her interest in this specific mountain range stemmed from a conversation with Lee Davis, the executive director of Mazamas, who went backpacking there back in the 1990s. Davis recounted his experience and told her about the aesthetic beauty of this particular set of peaks in the vast Brooks Range that stretches from Alaska through Canada’s Yukon Territory.
“[The peaks] were like soaring, overhanging, gothic architecture,” Katie said. “They didn’t look like mountains to me. They looked like sculptures.”
The members of the Arrigetch party — Katie, Nick and Todd, minus one due to injury — decided the safest plan of action with an odd number of climbers would be to go two at a time, with a third always back at basecamp. To keep an open line of communication, they used goTennas to stay connected to each other in the remote northern mountain range. One stayed connected to a solar charger with the party member at basecamp. The two climbers would periodically check in with updates for the third.
Safety is as important to Katie as the experience. She occasionally serves as an instructor to those in the beginner and intermediate rock and ice climbing Mazamas training classes. The organization specifically refers to itself as a “mountaineering education organization”, and organizes thousands of classes, hikes, climbs and expeditions each year. Katie is a longtime Mazamas member with plenty of training and expertise, but she’s never afraid to back away from a climbing situation if it doesn’t feel right.
“I’ve never been in a climbing accident, and I’m very safe,” she said. “I think alpine climbing is dangerous enough as it is. If things aren’t perfect, I will come back later.”
In the Portland area and interested in learning more about Mazamas? Check out their website for more information.