Mount Saint Elias is a part of the cultural homeland of the Eyak and Tlingit peoples. We acknowledge that these people and their ancestors have lived in this region for millennia, and that colonization of this region has had many harmful impacts on them. The Alaska Native Heritage Center (alaskanative.net) is a great resource to learn more about these cultures and how to support their continued existence and wellbeing.
I heard the faint echo of a guttural scream before the wind whisked the sound away over the Pacific Ocean. I knew it only came from 60 meters away, at the other end of our rope, but that distance felt like miles. In front of me the rope ran through the anchor and over a convex roll, before disappearing down a mixed gully and traversing across a slope of 60-degree neve. I knew Brett was on that slope now. I felt a little relief every time I pulled in a couple feet of slack, knowing that Brett was still climbing, making his way to the summit. The nighttime sun wasn’t nearly as warm as I wanted it to be, and the northerly wind, though tame compared to what it could be 18,000 feet above the ocean, found a way to bite through all my layers. And we still have to get down.
(The author’s imagining of what his partner, Greg, was thinking while belaying him to the summit of Mount Saint Elias.)
There are countless reasons why we choose to spend time in wild places, and those reasons are different for everyone. I love the combination of humility and joy I feel in immense natural landscapes; the deep, trusting relationships that are built or enhanced on expeditions; and the mental and physical challenges required to manage risk, make decisions, climb, and ski in the mountains. The process of learning how to move through the mountains efficiently while remaining aware of existing hazards and making appropriate decisions to manage them is truly never ending. This past June my friend Greg Hewitt and I climbed and made a partial ski descent of Mount Saint Elias in southeastern Alaska. It turned out to be a perfect objective in that it drew on every ounce of experience, knowledge, and physical ability we had; and that was just enough.
Greg and I have been regular adventure partners for ten years. We share many of the attributes that make for good mountain partnerships, including enjoying the same types of objectives, tolerating similar levels of risk, and having the ability to spend long periods of time in a cramped, damp tent without resorting to violence. As Greg graduated from law school this spring and had some time off before starting a new job, we wanted to celebrate with a big adventure. Mount Saint Elias, rising 18,008 feet straight from the ocean and including technical difficulties up to 5th class rock and AI 3, fit the bill.
For a mountain of its prominence, Saint Elias has seen few ascents. While an exact number of people who have stood on the mountain’s summit would be impossible to track down, it is common for entire seasons to go by without a successful expedition. Of the dozens who have made it to the top, even fewer have started from sea level. And fewer still have descended on skis! As a result of the lack of traffic on the mountain, we had a hard time finding much information about the route beforehand. By far the most helpful resource was a video produced by Mark and Janelle Smiley about their successful trip on the same route. And the least helpful was the Red Bull movie, named after the mountain, which exploits a tragic accident, big egos, and inter-team conflict for dramatic effect. But I digress…
From the (fairly limited) information that we could gather about the route, we expected that we would need 12 days of good weather to get from the shore of Icy Bay to the summit and back. Unfortunately this region is notorious for its lack of “good” weather. Based on this reputation, and our desire to avoid being shut down by a prolonged storm as we had been on nearby Mount Logan three years ago, we more than doubled those 12 days and decided to set aside four weeks to accomplish our goal. There was just one catch; Greg would have to study for the bar exam while on the trip!
June 10, 2021: Move from 10,500’ to 13,100’
The gusty wind had died overnight, and we awoke to clear skies and a light breeze. Far below, low clouds hung over Icy Bay, the shore of which we had been dropped off on six days prior. We still found it hard to believe that we had made it so far in that short period of time, climbing from the ocean up into a world of permanent snow and ice. We had flown into the mountains with 28 days worth of food, in hopes that setting aside so much time would allow us to succeed despite the region’s notoriously stormy weather. Now, less than a week later, we were setting out with enough food and fuel for three days, ready to attempt to reach the summit and descend before this rare stretch of stable weather inevitably ended.
Each day up until this point had its own challenges. We crossed broken up glaciers; postholed in isothermic slop; managed wet sloughs; climbed loose rock, steep snow, and ice; dodged falling rocks; and sped under hanging seracs. We had just taken our first, and only, full rest day the day before. The rest felt necessary to help us (partially) recover from having climbed 18,000 vertical feet (due to our cache and carry style) with 50 to 70 pound packs in the previous five days, and also give us a chance to acclimatize a bit in what was undoubtedly a rushed acclimatization schedule. Now a combination of excitement, anticipation, and awe filled me with a nervous energy that helped reduce any lingering fatigue and kept me moving forwards.
We started the day traversing across the glacier below Haydon Peak towards the col between Haydon and Saint Elias. Crossing the glacier was largely uneventful by Saint Elias standards. The only notable events were a small hop over a crevasse and the discovery of debris from a naturally triggered wind slab avalanche from the day before. Which I suppose by most standards would be an eventful glacier crossing. But that had been the nature of our trip so far; no piece of it was a gimme.
From the col, at 10,100 feet above sea level, we planned to climb 3,000 vertical feet to a bench on the southwest ridge at just over 13,000 feet. The terrain above us looked consistently steep, so we switched to crampons before starting up. A section of thin snow and ice in a rocky gully, followed by a pitch of 50-degree firm snow and ice proved to be the technical crux of the day. We simul-climbed, keeping one or two pieces of running protection between us, through this portion until the slope angle mellowed and the snow softened.
Waves of sastrugi (a fun word for wind-carved features in snow) crested perpendicular to the fall line all the way up the remainder of the slope, giving it the appearance of a stormy ocean frozen and tipped up at a 45-degree angle. Greg and I took turns setting the bootpack through the choppy sea, falling into an easy rhythm we had established over the preceding six days. Towards the top I began noticing the effects of our altitude, getting winded a bit more easily and feeling a touch of hypoxic fog clouding my mind. Though, for how quickly we had climbed to this point, I was happy to feel as good as I did.
Arriving at the bench on the ridge we found what appeared to be the flattest place for our tent and started setting up camp. Despite us both feeling tired and mildly altitude sick, we quickly set about the tasks that needed doing. I probed the area for crevasses, we both dug out and flattened our tent platform, and then I put the stove together and started melting snow for water while Greg set up the tent. In short order we were both in our sleeping bags with our rehydrating freeze-dried meals enjoying the view through the open tent door while the stove continued to purr just outside. I appreciate these moments as the fruits of a decade of adventuring together. I see this both in the logistics of us each having standard roles that we fill, as well in our mutual trust that even when exhausted or in the middle of a storm we will do what we need to do to take care of ourselves and each other.
That evening we received another weather forecast update via inReach, confirming that the next day looked to be our best option for summiting. We discussed when to start, and ended up deciding on a later start for a few reasons. The sun wouldn’t hit our bench on the southwest ridge until around 8:30 in the morning, but the ridge would stay in direct sun until around 10 at night. Greg unfortunately suffers from poor circulation in his feet, and we thought it made sense to avoid starting too early and risk a cold injury right out of the gate. We also assumed that, even if we moved fairly slowly, we could climb the 5,000 vertical feet to the summit and descend before the sun set that night. Even if we missed the sunset, it’s never fully dark in June in Alaska. We decided that we would leave camp at 8:30, just as the first rays of direct sun would reach us.
June 11, 2021: Summit day!
We started walking away from camp, roped up and in crampons, at 8:45am. Morning bowel movements had put us fifteen minutes behind schedule, but we were both happy to have gotten those out of the way! We enjoyed easy travel to the end of the bench where, as the ridge steepened again, we found a pitch of 30 to 45 degree water ice. The ice posed little difficulty for climbing with crampons and an ice tool, but we made note of it so as not to be surprised on the descent. Above the ice the ridge undulated, rolling between steep and mellow steps, with snow varying between hard neve, breakable crust, and shin-deep powder. Around 15,000 feet we encountered crevasses with some thin snow bridges that we belayed each other across.
Once across the snow bridges the ridge mellowed until the start of the summit headwall, about 800 feet above us. We decided to switch to traveling on skis with skins for as long as we could. The snow turned out to be consistently hard and icy, preventing us from skinning up anything remotely steep. We only ended up being able to gain about 500 feet with skins, but the change in stride from cramponing to skinning felt good for our leg muscles. We were now at nearly 16,000 feet, and definitely moving more slowly as a result of the altitude. We decided that it might be time to deploy our secret weapon; dexamethasone! Dex, for short, is a steroidal drug often used to treat altitude sickness. While it doesn’t help to speed acclimatization, it does a good job of relieving the symptoms of the condition. We hoped it would give us a chance to summit and descend without feeling the full effects of the altitude.
I led us, simul-climbing, up a steep pitch to gain a rocky portion of the southwest ridge. From there we would traverse out onto the edge of the south face and climb the headwall all the way to the top. On the ridge Greg and I checked in. I told him I felt pretty drained, but he still felt fairly strong. He said he would be willing to set the bootpack all the way up the south face if necessary. I thought that if Greg was kicking steps I could follow behind for as long as it took, so we agreed to keep going. We did have trouble deciding if we should bring our skis to the summit or leave them on the ridge. The traverse onto the face looked steep, icy, and exposed; not very enticing for skiing. Once we got onto the face, however, the snow conditions improved. We decided to keep our skis with us in hopes that we’d be able to slide down at least some of the headwall.
We opted to simul-climb the headwall, keeping the rope between us clipped to one piece of running protection at all times. Greg would place a picket in the snow, or sometimes a screw in a patch of ice, then we’d climb 60 meters until I reached that piece. We’d pause while he placed new protection and I removed the old one. Then, every 300 meters or so, he’d belay me to him and I’d give the pickets and screws back to him. He held true to his word; he was willing to lead the entire headwall.
Theoretical physics says that time is relative, and that human measurement of it is merely an arbitrary construct. If that’s true, then the top of Mount Saint Elias must exist in a wormhole. Greg climbed consistently through a mix of firm snow, ice, and breakable crust. Though I felt exhausted I was able to follow his bootpack without slowing him down. The headwall, from where we traversed onto the face to the summit, was only 1800 vertical feet. Yet somehow hours started passing and the summit still looked far away!
The next time that Greg and I exchanged gear we discussed how late it had become, and if we should descend or continue. We were both digging deep into our physical and mental reserves, but we also recognized that the weather was clear and calm, nightfall would mean twilight but not full darkness, and if we turned around we might not get another opportunity like this. We made the decision to continue climbing just as the sun left the south face, making us feel immediately colder.
By the time we were just a couple rope lengths from the top I had put on all my available layers. I stomped my feet and shook out my arms between steps to keep blood flowing to my toes and fingers. Kicking into each step required my complete focus, and each step up the full force of my will. Anywhere else I would have turned around well before this point, but the enormity of what we had nearly accomplished kept drawing me upwards. Only the knowledge that my legs simply could not cramp in that moment kept them from seizing up. Ahead Greg traversed a slope of 60-degree neve, searching for the easiest route through a short, mixed gully that would lead to the summit. As I followed him onto the steep ice, I let out a deep scream that somehow helped keep me focused on what I needed to do. I’ve pushed through pain to reach summits, especially high altitude summits, before, but this felt like a truly maximal effort.
I arrived at the anchor Greg had built and we walked the last few feet up to the true summit together sometime around 9:30 pm. The low evening sun painted the west sides of the mountains, glaciers, and icefields that surrounded us a pale orange, with the east faces left in a shadowy purple. To our south we could see the midnight blue finger of Icy Bay and the Taan Fjord snaking its way out to the open ocean. The pyramidal summit of Saint Elias cast its triangle shadow far across the range to the east. I spent a couple minutes looking around, barely comprehending what I saw. We had trained and prepared for this moment for the past six months and, by extension, the past ten years. Yet my mind felt dull and blank, shrouded by exhaustion and anxiety about still needing to descend safely to camp. Had Greg not braved the cold to take his hand out of his glove to take a few photos, I might think that standing on the summit had just been a dream. Though before descending I did have the presence of mind to take a moment and spread some of my friend’s ashes, leaving a part of him in a place he would have found inspiring and magical.
The top 800 feet of the summit headwall was too steep and icy to consider skiing, so we took turns belaying each other down the first three rope lengths. From there we reversed our process from the ascent, keeping one piece of protection between us as we downclimbed. After 800 feet we reached the point where, on the way up, we had thought it might be possible to start skiing. However, as being on the shadowy south face in the late night dusk made it difficult to distinguish the patches of ice from the pockets of powder, we decided that skiing would be too risky for our exhausted legs. We continued to downclimb back to the ridge at 16,200 feet.
June 12, 2021: Still descending
We reached the ridge sometime around midnight. I decided to put my skis back on there, while Greg opted to downclimb one more steep pitch. I unfortunately found that a bit of frost had collected on the base of my skis and that I had no good way of removing it, making my skis sticky and challenging to ski. I skied down to where Greg was transitioning to find that he had a very persistent piece of ice jamming one of his bindings. As I waited for Greg to fix his bindings, I noticed hints of alpenglow kissing the northeast faces of the peaks in front of me. Sunset had transitioned seamlessly into sunrise!
The light had become quite dim and flat in the last hours, so I was relieved to know that it would only improve from here. Greg got his skis on and we picked our way down low angle but treacherously icy snow. We retraced our steps over the snowbridges and found better snow, a mix of breakable crust and settled powder, on the rolling slopes below. We descended efficiently to the section of water ice that we had found just above camp, where we built a V-thread anchor to rappel from. We skied back into camp around 2:30am, nearly 18 hours after having left in the morning. We jumped into our sleeping bags and started melting snow to drink and to rehydrate food, although I think I nodded off and left Greg to tend the stove!
Climbers and skiers will often say some variation of the phrase, “Don’t celebrate the summit until you’re back on flat ground.” Lying in the sleeping bag that morning, drifting in and out of sleep, the magnitude of the fact that we had succeeded in reaching the summit began to set in, accompanied by feelings of awe, gratitude, and pride. However we knew that we still had lots of complex terrain left to descend, so those celebratory feelings were tempered with anticipation of the challenges we would still face.
Greg noticed in the morning that his toes looked a bit blue. We also noted that after a night in his sleeping bag they had fully rewarmed without becoming painful or developing blisters. The lack of pain and blisters made us optimistic that they had just become bruised from front pointing in ski boots. Either way, the best thing to do was to keep them warm and descend. We packed up and left camp just before noon.
We approached the skiing cautiously, knowing that our heavy packs and tired legs made us more prone to mistakes. As the terrain rolled from our flat bench back to a 45-degree angle, we skied the first couple rope lengths on belay to test out the snow conditions. The snow consisted of a mix of corn, breakable crust, and wind buff, but it was pleasant enough to ski. We descended the next 1500 feet unroped. At the top of a steep face and rocky gully we took out the rope again. For each pitch the first person would ski with the benefit of a top rope belay, with the task of assessing snow quality and finding a route that avoids hidden patches of ice. The second person would then ski while belayed from an anchor below, trading the prospect of a longer fall for the added confidence of having a pre-scouted route. After two rope lengths of skiing down that gully the terrain mellowed again and we skied unroped back to the col. From there we put our skins on and traversed across the glacier back to our cache at 10,500 feet.
After settling into camp for the evening, we debated the merits of descending quickly versus taking an extra day or two to rest and avoid rushing. The appearance of some unstable weather a few days out in the forecast, as well as concern for Greg’s toes, helped us decide to descend all the way back to our first cache at 2,300 feet the next day. We knew we’d be tired and that it was a long way to go, but believed that with an early start we’d be able to do it.
June 13, 2021: Back to the base camp cache
We left at 3 the next morning in a dreamscape of snowy peaks and puffy clouds illuminated by the warm orange-pink of alpenglow. We skinned and skied along the flat expanse of the Haydon Shoulder, then skied 2,000 feet of supportable, edgeable crust back to the top of a chute called the Milk Jug Couloir. In just the five days since we had climbed up the Milk Jug it had completely fallen apart. What before had been mostly smooth snow, both in the chute and on the apron, was now scarred with deep icy and rocky runnels. We switched back to crampons and downclimbed with running protection to the top of a cliff that had recently melted out. Wanting to move quickly through what we knew to be a rockfall prone zone we decided to leave one of our pickets as a rappel anchor. Below the cliff we downclimbed all the way over the bergschrund, moving quickly and intentionally, until we stood safely on the mellow slope below.
Clicking back into our skis we slid across the glacier to the ridge on the other side then made our way down the ridge to the top of the last steep face on our route. The snow on the face hadn’t refrozen overnight, and sloughed easily when we pushed at it with our skis. We adopted a technique where we would ski cut to initiate a slough, then ski down the path that the slough left before making another ski cut. The snow moved slowly and never entrained more than what was directly below it, so we felt safe in taking this approach.
Near the bottom of this slope we encountered our last true obstacle; a cliff band that cut across the entire face. We slung a rock to use as a rappel anchor and were just able to reach the snow below the cliff with our rope doubled. We pulled the rope and skied out to the flat terrain below. There we both collapsed on our backpacks, the preceding ten days having pushed us to our capacities. While not entirely out of the mountains yet we knew that the real challenges were behind us. And for the first time we breathed a full sigh of relief.
Follow Up and Reflection:
Greg did end up having partial thickness frostbite on several of his toes. After about six weeks of treatment and rest he was cleared to resume normal activity, and has wasted no time getting back to climbing and running. We’ve debriefed the trip, talking about what this expedition meant for us, how it fit with our overall risk tolerance, and learnings that we’re taking away.
So many things have to come together to create an experience like this. Climbing and skiing Mount Saint Elias turned out to be a perfect objective, more so than we ever could have known in planning the trip, as it required us to use all of our collective knowledge, skill, and fitness. We also got incredibly lucky with a nearly unheard of weather window that allowed us to climb and descend in only 11 days. Regardless of our success on the route, spending time in a landscape so sublime is a privilege that, for me, is worth the trip by itself.
I like to think that my experience on this sort of trip translates back to the frontcountry. That in persevering when things are hard in the mountains, caring for my adventure partners, focusing on the present moment, and being grateful for everything I have experienced, I am able to do those things better at home as well. From the outside, Greg and I were just a couple of silly, hairless apes surviving in an environment for which we are not adapted. But it’s the internal experience, including the growth of these positive traits that makes a trip like this worthwhile.