Getting a Beatdown on the World’s Largest Massif
Where to go, where to go? It was late December, but my friend Greg and I were already looking towards spring. We both wanted to go on a trip, somewhere with big mountains. Not big like anything in the lower 48, but big on a global scale. A couple years prior we had climbed and skied the West Buttress on Denali together, an experience that kindled a deep appreciation for high altitude, big glaciers, harsh weather, and the humility that it takes to safely move through some of the wildest terrain on the planet. In the time since then we both continued to spend significant portions of our lives in the mountains, building more experience and technical competence. Now, the embers still smoldering from our expedition in the Alaska Range, we wanted to step it up. The West Buttress had been a perfect introduction to the big mountains. We wanted to try something more challenging and remote. Nothing reckless of course, but something that would push us in a way that we could manage safely.
With 3.5 weeks available to work with we concentrated our search in Alaska and Canada, as we felt that the logistics of traveling out of North America would eat up too much of our time. Mt. Logan, being the highest mountain in Canada and second in North America, was one of the first locations we researched. The Kings Trench route, the most commonly climbed on the mountain, appeared to be quite similar to the Denali’s West Buttress in technical difficulty, but with far fewer rescue resources than the latter. It looked like an amazing location, but we wanted a little more. Digging deeper we found the East Ridge of Mt. Logan, the second most frequently climbed route with only a small handful of attempts per year. With quite a bit of 4th and easy 5th class mixed scrambling, ice up to AI 3, and a continuous ridgeline from the glacier at 8,000 feet to the East Summit at 19,500, our interest was piqued.
Being skiers that also climb, we did want to pick an objective with at least a modest ratio of potential skiing to climbing. Looking at pictures and reading reports about the East Ridge, it appeared that nearly all of the technical climbing was between 8-13,000 feet, with continuous snow above that point. If successful, we were cautiously optimistic that we would be able to ski from the summit down to 13,000 feet, and potentially even mix skiing with downclimbing below that. It looked good enough to try!
The plane stopped rattling as its tires lifted off the gravel airstrip, although the rest of the flight couldn’t be accurately described as smooth. Gusts of wind, seemingly from every direction, buffeted our flying lunchbox as we slowly buzzed our way towards the white teeth of the St. Elias Range. Greg and I barely noticed the turbulence, as we were too entranced by the world outside the plane windows. Flying over jagged peaks, massive glaciers, and icefields the size of small states, we may have had trouble keeping our tongues in our mouths. After about an hour of having our minds blown the East Ridge came into view, and any bits of our minds that remained were instantly scattered through the cockpit. Our pilot crested one last ridgeline, circled a potential landing site, and put the plane down on the Hubbard Glacier.
Bump, bump, whoosh! The windshield turned white as the plane scored the deepest face shot of the trip. I hopped out of the plane and immediately sank up to my belly button. Just over a meter of snow had fallen the night before, and the plane was very stuck. We unloaded our gear, went straight for our shovels, and started digging. Forty-five minutes later we had dug out enough of the plane for the pilot to try taking off. As he stepped into the cockpit he requested that, if he were to get stuck again, we come help him dig out. Given our natural human decency, and desire not to piss off the person responsible for picking us up at the end of our trip, we agreed.
The pilot fired up the engine, got the plane turned around, and started going full speed down the glacier. Unfortunately full speed appeared to be about 25 miles per hour. The deep snow was dragging at the plane’s skis, picking up speed seemed to be impossible. Greg and I glanced nervously at each other as the plane traveled half a mile, then a mile, then further down the glacier (in the opposite direction from our objective). After what must have been a mile and a half the plane disappeared over a rollover, and we both thought that we might be skinning that distance to find the plane in a crevasse. Just as we were about to resign ourselves to a long rescue slog, we heard the buzz of the engine and saw the plane pulling up off the glacier. Upon returning at the end of our trip we learned that the pilot had then gone to pick up another party on a different aspect of the mountain, and gotten so badly stuck that he had to camp with the party for three days before they could fly out.
All alone on the glacier (we were the only party on the eastern half of the mountain for the first 14 days of our 18 day trip), we repacked our gear to haul towards our base camp at the bottom of the ridge. Looking up glacier we appeared to be farther away from the start of our route than we had expected. We had anticipated getting dropped off about three miles away. We would later confirm that we had started about eight miles from the base.
This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it wasn’t for the snow. The 40 inches that had fallen the night before was super low density fluff, but had developed a few inches of breakable wind crust on top. With every step our skis would try to keep us on top of the crust, which would inevitably fail and result in us punching in to our knees. For a few hours we tried to haul all of our gear (~125 pounds each) in one go, but eventually resigned ourselves to double-carrying. The grueling physical work was vastly improved by the fact that we had good weather and 10/10 scenery. If you’re going to slog, at least make sure you’re slogging in a beautiful place.
It took us 2.5 days to reach our base camp below the access couloir at the bottom of the East Ridge. The weather had mostly been clear and the snow conditions slowly improved. Installed at our base camp, we received a weather report calling for one more morning of clear weather followed by a storm. We decided to use our last clear morning to cache some food and fuel on the ridge.
From our base camp we only skinned about 200 yards up the apron of the access couloir. After that the terrain steepened, and we roped up to cross the bergschrund. In the couloir we found the exact same conditions that had nearly halted us on the glacier approach, except now we didn’t have the benefit of traveling on skis. A thin breakable crust capped a meter of unconsolidated snow, and we took turns wading waist deep up the 50 degree couloir. It took us 2.5 hours to gain 800 vertical feet. Yikes!
Once on the ridgeline the conditions eased a little bit, but only a little. The snow wasn’t quite as deep (now we were only post-holing to our knees), but also involved quite a bit of 4th and easy 5th class mixed snow and rock. We mostly simul-climbed for another 800’ (this time it only took us two hours), until we arrived at a snowy bench. The weather was starting to turn, so we buried our cache, downclimbed and rappelled back to the top of the couloir, and skied funky snow (including a fun jump over the bergschrund) back to camp. At the time we did not know that those would be the only true ski turns we would make on the trip.
“Fuck off snow!” Those words felt strange coming out of my mouth. I have structured my life around snow. Playing in it, sliding over it, it is has always been one of my favorite things. But, after hunkering in our base camp for a week, this became our mantra. First, 2.5 feet fell in a three day storm. Then the weather teased us with a perfect bluebird day that we had to burn waiting for avalanche conditions to settle out. That teaser day rolled right into another two feet in two days. Coming out of that storm we saw that we had a weather window, but still had to burn the first day of it to let conditions stabilize. After that, we were itching to go.
The next morning dawned clear. We packed up, buried our base camp cache, and set off towards the couloir. Nearly six feet of snow in the past week didn’t make conditions any easier, and we still took nearly 2.5 hours to swim up the couloir to gain the ridge. We cut thirty minutes off our time up to our cache, and above there the terrain eased to third class with steps of fourth. After a full day’s climbing we arrived at a snowy bench at 10,300 feet, where we dug in and set up camp.
The next morning I thought I lost my mind. There were voices, far away but distinctly human voices. Of course that wasn’t possible, we had been alone for nearly two weeks. We were the only people on this half of the largest mountain (by volume) in the world! And then a head popped up on the downhill side of our bench. Relieved that I wasn’t going crazy, I walked over to chat with the two-person party that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. They had been dropped off a couple days earlier, had camped a couple miles down glacier from us, then climbed through the night. They set up camp next to us on the bench and, as we were leaving to grab our cache and move it to our next camp, they were turning in for the day. How strange to be around other people!
Returning to our cache was uneventful, and the climb back to camp went quickly with our new friends having improved our bootpack from the day before. At camp we stopped for a quick lunch before launching higher on the ridge. The next 1500’ of ridge were fun and exciting, with a higher ratio of snow to rock than the lower section, some cool knife edge sections, and even a pitch of quality alpine ice. We climbed until the sun set behind the southeast ridge of the mountain, at which point we were just about 200 feet below our next intended camp. We decided to bury our cache on the ridge, return to our lower camp, and retrieve the cache the next day when we moved up.
The next day proved to be the highlight of our trip. We retraced our steps up to our cache to find that the 200 vertical feet between our cache and our intended camp was the most stunning knife edge section of the whole trip. Vertical snow fell away to the north while the slope angle on the southern side hovered between 50 and 60 degrees. The lack of a cornice allowed us to climb just on the southern side of the ridge crest, even climbing high enough to peer into the abyss, down the shadowy northern aspect as it descended 4000’ to the glacier. We arrived at a bench perfect for camping, with a large wind pillow to dig into, enough space to comfortably move around, and views of an endless expanse of rock and ice sprawling eastward. In going back for our cache we got to travel the knife edge section three times, each time moving slowly and allowing ample opportunity to take pictures and appreciate our incredible position.
That evening Greg and I had a difficult decision to make. Our weather window was closing. We were supposed to get one more day of good weather before another storm moved in. We had enough food and fuel to weather the storm and try to get to the summit, but the week that we spent in base camp had taken a big chunk out of our available time. It would be impossible to try to wait out the storm and get back in time for Greg’s flight out of Whitehorse. Given the shoestring nature of our trip’s budget paying for a different flight and missing work didn’t seem possible, so we enjoyed our last night on the mountain and resolved to use our last day of good weather to bail.
If the previous day was the highlight of our trip, our descent was the most arduous. With pack weights somewhere in excess of 80 pounds, we chose to downclimb the route rather than trying to ski sections. Downclimbing 4000’ of semi-technical ridgeline took us most of the day, and we were worked when we arrived back at our base camp cache. Still, trying to cover as much ground as possible, we dug up our gear, loaded our sleds, and traveled another four miles down glacier before setting up camp for the night.
The next day stormed as expected, and we picked up about a foot of new snow in a day. Luckily it was relatively short lived and by midday the following day we were able to pack up and move all the way back to the landing zone. We requested a pick up from the flight service, and were asked to check in the following morning with a conditions report.
“Bad.” Our actual conditions report was a bit more descriptive than that, but I think “bad” would have been sufficient by itself. We woke up to visibility of less than 100 feet, definitely not adequate to fly in. In addition to the low visibility, our most recent weather report suggested that today would be the last day with marginal weather before another storm moved in. Having exceeded our hunkering quotas for the next year, we were crossing our fingers and toes that the weather would improve enough to be able to fly out today. My noon the clouds began to thin, and within a couple hours we had blue sky above us.
We gleefully notified the flight service that the weather appeared perfect, only to be told that they were grounded due to high winds along the divide. We were told that they would check back in at three, then at five, then at seven. When eight o’clock rolled around we started setting up our tent again, bummed that we would likely spend the next few days hunkering and that Greg would miss his flight despite our conservative decision making. Then, just before nine, we heard the faint buzz of a Cessna in the distance.
The pilot didn’t bother to circle us, he just put the plane down next to our camp. He kept the engine running and shouted “Load up! Let’s get out of here before the weather goes to shit!” We did as we were told.
The flight back was far more turbulent than it had been on the way in. Currents of air would pick us up a hundred feet, just to drop us again. We bobbed like a cork over peaks, through passes, and down valleys. Amazingly, an hour later our wheels touched down and we were safely on solid ground. We packed up, thanked the wonderful folks at the flight service, and booked it for Haines Junction where, two hours after leaving the frozen wilderness, we were toasting cold beers.
While we didn’t summit (or honestly even come very close), and we didn’t get to ski all that much, I think we both found what we were looking for in this adventure. We started this trip knowing that we had picked an objective that would challenge us enough that our odds of success were not terribly high. We were challenged in a way that forced us to use all of our various mountain experience, but didn’t push us beyond what we were capable of managing. We had some incredible moments in such a rugged landscape, moments that were made sweeter by how hard it was to get there. And we came away with a deep sense of humility, a result of playing in an environment where the forces of nature so far exceed those of humankind. I’m always grateful for time spent in the mountains with good friends. Hopefully next time that involves more skiing.