Logan East Ridge, solo

Canadian Alpine Jouranal 1999, pages 28-31

CAJ 1999 My first information about this mountain came from the book In the Icefield Range of the Yukon by Dusan Macko, a member of the Slovak expedition that climbed the East Ridge of Mount Logan in 1984. But part of the beauty of climbing in the St. Elias Range is that there is almost no information available. This greatly increases the sense of adventure. I was told by a climber from the area that those who climb in these mountains do not want to bring the crowds in. As a result, those who have the knowledge to write some kind of guidebook debate producing one. Since my return from the mountain, I can understand why. There are endless glaciers as well as mountains and routes that have seldom, if ever, been climbed. At a time when crowds are everywhere in the mountains, it is hard to imagine that there are still quality mountains devoid of people.
    I wanted to traverse Mount Logan by ascending the East Ridge and descending the King Trench. I felt fortunate when three very good friends became excited about this route and our team was formed. The search for information was left to me, since the winter months are relatively free for a person who makes a living by guiding hiking and biking groups in central Europe. I spent hours in the Mountaineers library in Seattle reading stories written by expeditions that had climbed in the Icefield Range. However, my most important source of information was a person who had climbed the East Ridge the previous year and who showed me the slides.
    Finally, on May 12, 1998, I found myself hitchhiking on the Alaska Highway from the Whitehorse to Kluane Lake - alone. My partners had changed had changed their minds and decided to go a few weeks later to attempt the Cassin Ridge of Mount McKinley. I felt betrayed by them, especially since they knew that just three months earlier I had been forced to climb the Polish Glacier on Aconcagua alone when my partners backed out at the last minute. Still, I did no want to give up this climb after several months of intensive planning, so I decided to climb alone.
    The Kluane wardens were not happy when I told them that instead of four of us there would be only one person. For safety reasons, they do not like to see solo climbers. Even I became a bit nervous when the pilot asked for payment in advance; climbers in groups were allowed to pay at the end of their trip. Finally, on May 15, the weather was clear and Andy Williams dropped me off on the Hubbard Glacier, about five miles from the East Ridge.     All of the other parties I met on Logan climbed with relatively light packs, and used sleds and skis on the Hubbard Glacier. They would carry loads up high and sleep low, always leaving some food behind in snow caves. And of course, all of the other parties carried ropes and group climbing gear such as ice screws, snow pickets and shovels.
    In one sense it was much easier for me. Because I had no partner, I had or group climbing equipment. This gave me a big advantage. Since everything I was taking was in one pack, I did not have to ferry loads and do everything twice.
    On the Hubbard Glacier, old tracks from sleds and skis were visible and my snowshoes helped a great deal. According to the pilot and rangers, there were a few climbing parties on the East Ridge; however, I found nobody in the camp below the face. Listening to the music of avalanches from nearby HubSew Ridge, I fell asleep, spending my first night in the Icefield Range.
    Climbing in Alaska and the Yukon offers one great advantage (and many disadvantages): you do not have to get up early. You can comfortably start climbing at a time at which in other regions, such as the Alps, you do would have to be off the mountain and down at the huts. I found the snow to be in very good condition, and progress was smooth It was windy on the ridge, but I found it still relatively warm if I kept moving. It is difficult to describe the weather: partly sunny, partly foggy, mostly windy.
    The weather soon worsened, and I met a party of four climbers. They had summitted and were running down the mountain as fast as they could. A little higher up, I found a campsite with a tent and other climbers. The weather suddenly cleared, and the wind was blowing only on the upper parts of the mountain. I was at 11,000 feet, with incredible views of HubSew and McArthur peaks.
    I spent the night there, sharing the camp and cooking in a snow cave with two Canadians and one British climber. The next morning brought perfect weather: bright sun and little wind. The Canadian and British climbers had left already, but I met them again a couple of thousand feet higher. They offered to let me stay with them that evening, but I felt good and decided to set up camp higher up.
    The climbing was wonderful! It was mostly hard snow, a few cornices (but only to one side) and some easy water ice. My pack was heavy, but I was gaining altitude fast. I finally placed my tent at about 13,000 feet. I was a bit worried about altitude sickness irrelevant.
    Clouds surrounded the valley, and a strong south wind started to bring fresh snow from the Gulf of Alaska. Storms her can last a very long time, and this one was majestic, with nine feet of snow accumulating overnight. On the third day of storm, I gave up leaving the tent to shovel off the snow. My tent was completely buried by snow, and the comfort level could not have been lower. Icicles were hanging from the ceiling of the tent, the space was barely big enough to sit in, everything was wet, and the battery in my altimeter watch died. Things were grim.
    Finally, on the seventh day of the storm, the weather cleared a bit and I could climb out of the tent. I saw a ground of people coming down; with icicles on their beards, they looked even more miserable than me. They had sad out the whole storm 3000 feet higher on the plateau and had been forced to dig a snow cave completely exposed to the wind in 40-below weather. But they told me that high pressure was coming and offered me their leftover food and fuel. I felt very pleased with the news about the coming good weather, but I refused the food and gas.
    The sun does wonders for one's attitude, and I was in a very positive mood. The others left, and I decided to eat well that evening and to be ready to move higher up to next day. Unfortunately, the next morning looked quite different from the high pressure I had expected. There were strong winds, and clouds were moving in and out. The good times were gone, and I started to dream about the previous offer of extra food and gasoline. In the afternoon, I decided to the move my camp higher up the mountain. The others had told me about the cave they had made 3000 feet higher, and I was hoping to get there by the end of the day.
    But that was not to be. There was snow up to my knees, and I slowed to a crawl. The face was steep - not a knife-edge like lower down, but unstable slopes with ice seracs. After three hours with zero visibility, I saw a wand and a hole below it. What luck! I had found a large snow cave made by some other group of climbers.
    In the middle of the storm, I could have only dreamt about a place like this; but even this luck was not perfect. I had to dry my down parka and fleece pants, which would certainly be needed higher of the mountain. After getting wet, they had frozen during the seven-day storm. Now I was trying to dry the inside my sleeping bag - on my body. I shivered most of the night, getting little sleep until the early morning.
    Suddenly bright light came trough the holes in the roof of the cave. Sun! High pressure had finally arrived. But for how long? Maybe three days? This would be enough to get me over the summit and to the safety of the lowers slopes on the other side. Then I could probably survive another, shorter storm with my remaining food and gas.
    The deep snow was taking away some of my excitement about the great weather, but I was still slowly gaining ground. Long upper slopes and a traverse to the left took me onto the plateau. There were no more technical difficulties ahead, but crevasses and strong wind - and bad judgment - remained dangers.
    I finally found the cave the climbers had told me about, and I spent a relatively comfortable night, though they could have made the ceiling higher. I was able to dry some of my clothes on my pack, and even though my sleeping bag was wet it was still warm.
    From this point on the mountain, climbers usually go for the summit and return - without their large packs. Although I was committed to crossing the mountain and had to take my packs with me, I hat the advantage of having snowshoes to cross the plateau. Because of them I was able to move relatively quickly.
    Mount Logan has several peaks, so the summit day has to be accompanied by good weather; otherwise, it is not possible to climb it. This was the second day of high pressure, but high winds made everything difficult. After reaching the col between the East and Main peaks, I decided not to carry the pack over the highest point. Instead, I began traversing from the north and decided to cook dinner, climb the mountain fast and light, and then keep descending the plateau until I found a place to camp. But again the weather had other plans for me.

I thought I might be able to find another snow cave, since some spots with pieces of ice looked like they might hold a cave. There were none. I then tried to make my own but was unable to do so. The worst thing was that I did not know exactly what I need to do, yet I knew that making the right decision was crucial. It was critical for reaching the summit and for not getting frostbite, as well as for staying alive. Descending further from the main summit, I found a bunch of rocks that was visible from everywhere. I was finally able to dig a hole under the rocks, which offered some protection from the wind. It was obvious that I would not make the summit that I would not make the summit that evening, and I was not even sure if I would be able to make it the next day. I could not start my stove and was therefore unable to melt any snow for water. And without water, I could not eat.
    I put on all of my clothes and climbed into the frozen sleeping bag. Sleep was impossible. I knew at this point that I would keep going down the other side; it was just a matter of whether I would first make it to the summit. The next morning was even worse. I felt as if I had a huge hangover, and I could not move. I was completely dehydrated and it was impossible to put even a few peanuts or a bit of chocolate into my mouth. I looked at the summit, which was two miles away though only a couple of hundred feet higher. After a good hour, I climbed out of my boots (I slept with the inner boots on) and then my overboots. Even with all this technology, my feet immediately became cold.
The wind was even stronger than the previous day. I did not even try to start the stove, because I knew it would be futile. I grabbed the camera, one ice axe and one ski pole and went and went for the summit. Exhausted, I could take only forty steps; then I would have to sit down and breathe. I hadn't eaten or had anything to drink for 24 hours. I was slowly moving towards the small col on the summit ridge. But as soon as I reached it I was nailed down by the wind. There were long periods when I lay on the ice slope - just getting ready to fly away. For the first time in the mountains, I was begging the wind to slow down, begging the mountain for mercy. I finally reached the summit on my knees. I stayed there for about ten minutes. After taking several pictures, I quickly climbed down the steep west side, which was relatively wind-free.
    I returned to my snow hole, where I had left the pack, quickly packed up and started the long traverse of the Logan plateau to safety. About an hour later, the wind stopped completely. I immediately started the stove and made a hot drink and a meal. These are small but important pleasures in the mountains. It helped, and I received some energy.

The Logan plateau is a huge icefield at about 18,000 feet. The route I took down is the one climbed by the first expedition in 1925. The route starts at the Quintino-Sella Glacier and goes under the north face of King Peak. From Prospector's Col it goes lower, and then higher up the plateau. At one point, the first expedition had turned around and started to walk back towards the summit. Thing did not look quite right, and they decided to turn around. This saved their lives.     I was moving somewhat blind up there: I didn't know exactly what Prospector's Col looked like` I was having troubling judging distances` and my altimeter was dead. Traversing West Peak, I saw King Peak ahead of me so I climbed up to the ridge and saw an easy glacier heading towards King Peak. I headed down. An hour later, I realized that this glacier was not going to take me to King Col but was instead taking me directly to the south face. I had missed the right col by about three miles.
    Suddenly I fell into a crevasse. I only fell in up to my butt, but this was the wake-up call. I immediately returned to the plateau and spent the night before, I was able to cook and sleep.
    The next morning, I saw a group of 10 people skiing down from Prospector's Col. On the other side, there was a comfortable glacier heading down by the north face of King Peak, where there were plenty of people, few crevasses and warmer weather. For the first time in four days, I was lower than 18,000 feet. The evening sun was shining into my eyes as I walked towards the landing strip.
    Two days later, I was hitchhiking from Kluane Lake back to Whitehorse.

This story was edited by my good friend and climbing partner on the Cassin Ridge of Denali from three years ago - Ric Otte.

Canadian Alpine Journal (CAJ) 1999, pages 28-31


» (photogallery) (more publications) (slovak translation)