Thursday, May 20, 2004

Mount Logan – Yukon Territory Via the East Ridge -May 2004

Way, way back in ancient history my partner Jeff and I made a trip to climb Mt. Logan, second highest mountain in N. America and highest in Canada. First you must understand, Logan is a HUGE massif. From - Mount Logan is located in Kluane National Park in southwestern Yukon. It is the highest mountain in Canada and the second highest in North America. The Logan massif rises about 3000 m from the surrounding glaciers and has the largest base circumference of any mountain on Earth. A glaciated plateau, about 20 km long and 5 km wide covers the top of the massif. Suffice to say a big undertaking.

I spent the winter getting all the logistics figured out. I discovered I had a friend in Whitehorse who turned me on to a bus line that would take us from Whitehorse to Silver City on Kluane Lake where we would fly into the icefields. Amazingly it all came together as planned. And even more amazingly we had 0, yes 0 layover days at the airstrip waiting for favorable weather to fly in to the Hubbard glacier. We rigged our packs and sleds and started up glacier. We didn't travel far the first day and stopped below the ice fall leading up to the southern approach to the east ridge which we hoped would be our route to the summit. A second flight brought in another party later that same day, however they elected to stay near the landing zone that first night.

The next morning we got up early to a perfect blue bird day starting a pattern we carried throughout the climb. At the base of the east ridge we dug a cache and buried everything that didn't need to go higher. We intended to make a carry to the ridge crest and beyond to the 2nd ridge camp. Crossing the bergshrund was not an issue. As we climbed higher we encountered soft snow and hard ice. The ridge top was spectacular and someone had made camp there a day or two ago. We would meet this party higher on the ridge. It was now time for the class 4 section of mixed climbing leading to camp 2. The climbing was easy but awkward with our heavy packs but we made camp 2 with no issue. The whole day we climbed unroped. There was no need for the extra hindrance of rope management. Dropping our loads we dug another cache and marked it with wands. Back down the ridge was much easier unloaded. It was now late afternoon as Jeff and I pondered the wisdom of descending the initial deep snow slope off the top of the ridge. We went all the way to camp 2 with the thought of gaining a day. When alpine climbing you never want to waste good weather as it could cost you the summit, or far, far worse.

Doug traversing at the crest of the east ridge

Taking a break in the skiers camp 1 on the east ridge

The slope we now had to descend had been baking in the sun all day. I asked Jeff to keep a good visual on me in case the slope cut loose and I started down. The snow was about knee depth but felt relatively stable. I continued down until I got onto firmer ground at the traverse then waved Jeff down keeping an eye on him the whole time.

Day 3 saw us repeating the prior day but staying up at camp 2. A beautiful and safe wide spot on the ridge at around 10,000 ft the views are just stunning. We couldn't believe our luck with the continuing stellar weather. We caught up with the group who had been ahead of us. They were a group of skiers from Canada who were climbing and skiing the ridge. Tragedy would strike this team a few days after we flew off the mountain. The following day's itinerary would see us tackling the technical crux of the climb at the lower knife edge.

Camp 2

The ski team got out of camp before us starting off before light, however we passed them a pitch below the knife edge. So I got the dubious honor of making the first crossing of the season. Jeff belayed me off a shitty screw in wet ice and an equally shitty picket. Oh well, I guess turnabout is fair play since I had placed them and belayed him up to my position on them. Sun rotted ice met my efforts on the south side of the ridge. With some difficulty I crossed over to the north side which held good solid ice. About half way across I got in a good solid screw and felt much better about the situation. It's amazing the human capacity for unique situations to morph into the mundane. By the end of the trip when descending this section we still had monster loads but we did it unroped and I had a broken shoelace effectively negating proper use of my crampons. We made the carry to camp 3 that day and descended back to camp 2. The weather gods continued smiling on us.

Doug on the sun rotted side of the lower knife edge

Day 5. We were soloing out of camp 2 and stopped again to rope up at the lower knife edge. We made it into camp 3 early. By now we were playing leap frog with the team that had flown onto the glacier just after us. It turned out to be James Blench and the very same client we had met the year before on Mt Robson . After dropping their loads at camp 3 James soloed up the slopes and made a fixed line accessing the upper knife edge before returning to camp in the afternoon. We all visited and they remembered us from last year. Camp 3 was another perfect location on a wide flat spot on the ridge. Probably the best camp of the whole route. We took the afternoon off and enjoyed kicking back in the sun. We also made the decision to cache most of the remainder of our food and tent and use snow caves for shelter the rest of the way up.

camp 3
The next day Jeff and I soloed out of camp 3 but stopped to rope up below the upper knife edge. Not as steep as the lower but with some instability as Jeff led the way across. We were a little lighter without tent and extra food and we intended to go without making any more carry's. We passed the next camp where I made a happy birthday call to my wife with the satellite phone we were carrying for an emergency. Talk about a surprise! Then we continued moving up into the broad upper slopes of the ridge. Climbing until late afternoon we then began looking for a place to settle in for the night. We were not finding anything suitable with out a ton of digging. Finally I spied a crevasse that looked like it had potential. I gingerly dug an entrance and widened out a platform next to a snow choked chasm. It worked out well but was a bit spooky listening to the crevasse creak all night.

Peaking out from the crevasse camp

Hubsew peak from the crevasse camp

Day 7. Unbelievably the weather was still holding. We packed up and headed upslope toward the summit plateau. We were now ahead of both groups A poor bit of route finding on my part led into a crevasse field with no good way out. I looked longingly at the easy slope opposite my position. I asked Jeff to keep the rope tight and tried to dance as lightly as I could out onto what I knew was a crevasse below. To compound things, I had to walk it some length before cutting directly across. I could hear the hollow snow booming below my feet. I belayed Jeff across and without further incident arrived on the plateau to a screaming wind. We had been wind sheltered the entire climb until now and it seemed as though the wind was trying hard to make up for lost opportunity. We stopped and added layers then continued on. All the way up from camp 3 we had been wanding the route in case of storm and white out conditions on the descent. It was somewhere here that my mind wandered off to more pleasant subjects again. When Jeff hollered WAND, meaning we were a rope length or more from the last one and it was time for another, I heard BLONDE! We made camp in a slope in which we dug a good snow cave. Now at around 16000 ft it would provide excellent shelter in the event of storm.

James Blench comes for a visit

Looking a little haggard in the plateau snow cave

Summit day dawned a little overcast and windy but not super cold. Probably around 0F. Jeff made a call to his brother on our SAT phone to look up a weather forecast. It came back looking like nothing serious for a few days yet. James and his client were camped in a crevasse they had widened out large enough for their tent. He came a visiting to our cave and we discussed whether to make a summit bid. Eventually both us and them decided to go for it. It was all relatively easy ground and while James short roped his client we elected to solo as we had for most of the climb. We climbed a short slope, crossed the plateau and then climbed the remaining couple thousand feet to the summit of the east peak. Jeff made it there ahead of me as I was now feeling the altitude at 19000 ft. James and client also summited around the same time. I think Jeff met them on the summit. We snapped the obligatory summit shots with absolutely stunning views all around. I could even pick out Mt. Bona which I had climbed 4 years prior. We didn't make the long traverse over to the main summit of Logan, a few hundred feet higher. Back down safely to our cave, it was all I could do to complete camp chores. By now our sleeping bags were a bit soggy and it wasn't with the greatest of comfort that we spent what we hoped would be our last night in the cave.

The main summit of Logan with Mt. St. Elias in the distance.

Jeff on summit

Doug on summit

Day 9. Putting on my frozen boots I snapped a shoelace. I tied the broken ends together but with the loss of cord could only lace up about half my boot. Down, down, down we went following first my wands, then James's where mine went foul. We passed the ski group in an interim camp above camp 3. They congratulated us and loaded us with hot drinks.They were genuinely happy for us. A time honored tradition is to have hot drinks waiting when the summit team arrives in camp. Although we were not part of their team, they held up the tradition beautifully, not only plying us with hot drinks, but shortly afterwards the guided team as well. Down we continued all the way to camp 2. At the lower knife edge I spent the entire time cursing my broken shoelace. It struck me bizarre that we were soloing everything but it seemed a waste to rope up.

Day 10. The final day on the mountain was spent getting from camp 2 down to the glacier landing area. All went well until the bergshrund crossing on the lower headwall to the east ridge. I broke through the soft snow bridge and when I arrived at the bottom Jeff said he did as well. Oh well, we both made it down just fine.
Doug about to cross the bergshrund on descent

We dug up our cache, now full of melt water, loaded our packs and headed down glacier hoping to get flown out the same day. We placed a SAT phone call to our pilot and were assured we would get picked up in 45 minutes or an hour. I mentioned in the first part of the narration that it was a different experience flying with Icefields Discovery than it had been with Ultima Thule. Whereas Ultima Thule was very intense and wanted no time wasted, Icefields Discovery somehow took a much more relaxed approach. Something to the effect of -relax we'll get there... This now worked against us as we were very anxious to get off the glacier now that the climb was done. But in due time we heard the drone of the aircraft engine and a short time later we were back in Silver City.

A couple weeks after we arrived home, I heard that one of the ski team members fell while skiing the descent of the peak and was lost. Unfortunately the weather had finally deteriorated and retrieval of the body was impossible. I had some correspondence with a friend of the family and noted how fun and full of life he had been on the climb. She thanked me and I never heard from her again. In the midst of my jubilance at summiting a difficult peak by a technical route, I was saddened by news of his loss. It didn't quell my lust for climbing though as a couple months later a friend from Colorado and I went on another expedition to a difficult range of peaks.