Mt. Logan, East Ridge
By: David Hart | Climbers: David Hart, Paul Barry, Kurt Bauer, Bob Hempstead, Harry Hunt |Trip Dates: May 2-26, 1998
Photo: David Hart
At 19,540 feet or 5960m (1992 GPS survey) Mount Logan is Canada's tallest mountain and the second tallest peak in North America. It is located in the Icefield Range of the Canadian Saint Elias Mountains, a scant forty miles from the Gulf of Alaska. Arguably the most massive mountain on earth, Logan has forty square miles exceeding 15,000 feet (4570m) in elevation. Its notorious storms result from its massive height and proximity to the Gulf. Surprisingly, as of 1997 only 1,490 people have attempted to reach the summit since its first ascent in 1925. Roughly one-third of these climbers reached the true Central Summit, most via the popular King Trench Route where about 75 climbers try for the summit each season. Our chosen route, the East Ridge, was first climbed in 1957 and is rated an Alaska Grade 3+ with mixed rock, snow and ice climbing on slopes angled up to 60 degrees. Minor cornicing and several knife-edge traverses also add excitement to the route. With an average of 25 climbers per season, its popularity is second only to the King Trench. Since the East Ridge leads directly to Logan's smaller East Peak (19,400'+. 5940m+), most climbers turn around here due to fatigue, weather or snow conditions. Consequently, the success rate of East Ridge climbers who continue the two miles to the true Central Summit has been historically estimated at only about 10%. We hoped to be part of this small fraction.
Our trusted pilot, Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Outfitters, ferried our group of five climbers from Chitina to Mount Logan on May 2, 1998. Bad weather forced Claus to leave us below McArthur Peak for two days until he could shuttle us to our 7,700' East Ridge base camp on May 4. Claus' landing site is only ¼ mile north of the base of the ridge - much closer than the two competing air taxis which deposit climbers a full day's ski from the route. This same morning, Claus shuttled a trio of very experienced Montana mountaineers to the East Ridge. For the next 22 days we would leapfrog up the mountain with Joe Josephson, Jack Tackle and Jeannie Wall. They were great folks and it was a pleasure to share the route with them.
During the next six days, we could climb on only two. By May 8 we had moved up to our spacious Camp 1 at 10,400'. We bypassed an intermediate campsite where we gained the ridge at 8,800'. From 9,000' to 10,400' we found mixed rock and snow scrambling and used occasional running belays for protection. Most parties may want a few nuts to supplement the abandoned fixed line anchors that litter the lower ridge. Initially the history of these abandoned fixed lines was somewhat intriguing, but ultimately this eyesore appeared as nothing but trash left by those too lazy to clean up after themselves.
"Fifteen two, fifteen four and a pair is six," Kurt said, counting the first of 6000 cribbage points we would accumulate during the climb. "It's still blowing; I wonder how much longer this one will last?" Our morale was beginning to wane; we had left home ten days ago and here we were still at Camp 1. Fortunately, May 11 dawned cloudless. That morning we dropped down to retrieve a food cache at 8,800' before continuing up the ridge. From 10,400' to 11,800' the firm 40 to 50 degree neve snow slopes made for wonderfully secure though exposed climbing. We placed occasional pickets to protect the steeper bulges. Our rack of four pickets and six screws was adequate for our early May conditions. Mid- to late-season climbers would likely encounter more ice and might consider a couple extra screws in addition to a few nuts.
"Nice lead, Harry. Looking good!" I shouted to our Mountain Yeti as he balanced himself across the crest of a knife-edge at 11,700'. To his right: 4,000 feet of exposure. To his left: 3,000 feet. Harry was in his element. We all followed in turn, clipping our rope through pickets as we tip-toed along. We cached our loads at a protected site at 11,800' before returning to Camp 1. We found no suitable campsites between 10,400' and 11,800'.
The next morning we packed up Camp 1 and reached our 11,800' cache by noon. Between here and 13,300' was the technical crux of the route. Snow and ice slopes up to 60 degrees made for superb climbing. Our early-season ascent provided secure step-kicking up the steep snow. Later in the season these slopes would turn to ice. We passed a nice campsite at 12,500' and continued climbing up the exposed ridge. The snow and ice slopes ended at 13,000' at which point we faced a four-pitch knife-edge traverse. Again, firm snow helped our progress through this crux as we protected ourselves with running belays.
"Thirteen-three? I can't believe we're here already." Anxious to utilize our continued good weather, we had pushed all the way to the top of the ridge proper to the point where it intersects the Logan massif. Past accounts describe this as the end of the technical difficulties, although we would later contend this generalization. In any event, we dug a bombproof campsite for our two tents, then dropped back down to retrieve our 11,800' cache that evening. It was a long day, but a great feeling to finally have all our gear with us above the crux at Camp 2. Up to this point we had climbed the entire route using one ice tool and one ski pole. The firm snow conditions allowed us to forego our second tools on all but the steepest icy sections during our descent two weeks later.
"Argh You suck!" I'm not sure who I was cursing; but it sure felt good to let my frustrations fly as I floundered hip-deep into the breakable crust, wallowing through my morning lead. We would later learn that a NOLS Trio two days in front of us spent all morning gaining only 300 feet up this same section. At 14,200' we found a snow cave the NOLS Trio had built two days earlier. We continued on to 15,100', cached our gear and returned to our fortress at 13,300'. A couple small steep bulges and a few crevasses were the only technical challenges of the day. The next morning we cached our second ice tools, extra hardware and some food (bad, bad, bad ) at 13,300' before moving up to 15,100'. Here we dug a wonderfully protected Camp 3 below a large bergschrund crevasse. We were all beginning to feel the effects of the altitude so it was nice to relax in the afternoon sun. The entire coastal Saint Elias Range was spread out before our eyes, most of which was now below us. Mounts Vancouver, Cook, Hubbard, Alverstone, Kennedy, Steele, Lucania and Bear were visible from our awesome perch. That afternoon reminded us why we continue to endure the discomforts of mountaineering year after year.
If only our pea-brains would remember the subsequent morning, we would all vow this expedition as our last. 6:00 AM the next morning was one of the most terror filled moments I've experienced in the mountains. All five of us were instantly woken to the sound of snow and ice chunks hitting our tents. The sound of BIG blocks augering in next to us was unmistakable. "That's it, I knew it was all over," Kurt later confessed. The barrage lasted less than 20 seconds, although it seemed longer. We hopped out to assess the situation. Amazingly, the tents were undamaged. "No way, where'd that come from?" someone posed. Not ten feet from Harry and Bob's tent was a crater the size of our latrine. Had that chunk hit one of our tents Nausea filled my body. "That's it. We're out of here. Moving camp," Paul said, reading our minds. Our entire 50 foot by 50 foot campsite was sprinkled with debris, although only a few of those were large enough to do substantial damage. Still, it only takes one. Two hours later we were moving camp up the mountain. As we crested a rise we discovered of the source of our scare: a small solitary exposed serac 700 feet above our campsite. Deceptively, it appeared harmless even then.
"How many pickets do we have left?" I asked once everyone regrouped at our 15,600' belay stance. We had just climbed four pitches of 45 degree neve snow and above us looked to be more of the same. Paul grabbed our two remaining pickets and started up the headwall. Thirty minutes later we were having lunch on the eastern edge of Logan's amazingly huge summit plateau. At long last we could sprawl out without fear of falling off the earth. We continued up to 16,100' where a bergschrund crevasse had trapped sufficient snow to dig a campsite. Harry, Paul and I descended to retrieve our 15,100' cache while Bob and Kurt prepared our Camp 4 from which we hoped to summit after a day's rest. What an amazing day: sunny, warm and cloudless. It was almost spooky - lunar, as Kurt described. That afternoon the NOLS Trio passed our camp on their way down from their summit bid. They had reached the saddle between the East Peak and true Central Summit only to find the Summit shrouded beneath a lenticular cloud. To their credit, they opted to nab the lower East Peak and descend - the approaching storm threatening to trap them up high. I was more than a little envious while offering them congratulations as they headed down. We went to sleep that night hoping for just a couple more days of good weather. Considering our prior five consecutive days of decent weather, we knew our time was running short. Little did we know how short.
We spent the next two days, May 16 and 17, tent bound at our high camp as 30-40 mph winds scoured the summit plateau and the temperature dipped to fifteen below. With a week of food and two weeks of fuel remaining, we were in no hurry to risk frostbite from the seventy-five below wind chill on our summit day. The wind mellowed on the evening of the 17th and our new-found Montana friends wasted no time in joining us at our high camp. At this point we had spent only one night above base camp with them, so it was nice to once again share their company.
"Hey, are you awake, Kurt?" Paul asked. "It's calm outside; I don't hear any wind." It was 2:30 AM on May 18 and the two-day windstorm had abated. "What do you say we brew up and go for it?" With that we fired up the XGK and began our morning ritual, albeit slightly earlier than usual. By 5:00 AM our quintet had packed for the summit - food, water, parka and four miles of wands. The minus-fifteen temperature was bearable due to the lack of wind and the indescribable sunrise we witnessed. The blood-red moon setting over Mount Vancouver will not soon be forgotten. By 8:30 AM the five of us were at 18,000', barely half a mile from the summit of the lower East Peak. It's a privilege climbing with Paul, and we've developed a tradition over the years. It's quite simple: he leads on summit day. Not wanting to break tradition, Paul began the traverse across the south face of the East Peak towards the higher Central Summit. Two hours later, the five of us finally reached the 18,700' (5700m) col between the East Peak and Central Summit. Only 800 feet to go; we were almost there! The climbing to this point had been easy although a slip on a few of the steeper wind scoured slopes would not have been advisable.
I always get nervous above high camp on summit day. Today was no different. Our twelve-hour window of good weather was quickly deteriorating. Twenty-five miles distant, the once clear Mount Saint Elias was shrouded in clouds from yet another approaching storm, our fifth in 16 days. It was a race. "Let's ditch our packs here for the final climb," Paul suggested. With that, we anchored our five packs taking only the essentials, including my lucky summit bunny my girlfriend Dawn made for me a couple years ago. The last mile-and-a-half proved to be the most physically and mentally draining section of the day. Above the saddle, the ridge narrowed and steepened for 500 feet. Even the perfect neve snow sans packs was a struggle. By noon, we were at the base of the final summit pyramid. There's something very aesthetic about climbing without a rope, so we opted to continue untethered for the final 10 minutes. It was a classic summit ridge; not difficult enough to be of much concern, but exposed just enough to provide the exhilaration of great climbing. Best yet, we were the only group visible on the entire mountain. Seven hours after leaving our 16,100' high camp we all stood atop Logan's 19,540' highest Central Summit just after noon on May 18. Its tiny summit was standing room only. All other Alaskan and Canadian summits I've visited, including Denali and Saint Elias, pale in comparison to the view we experienced that fine day. Below us, the infamous Hummingbird Ridge snaked its way up the 12,000 foot south face from the Seward Glacier culminating at our very perch. It was sunny, calm and five below - simply heavenly. But, all good things must end. Thirty minutes later we snapped our last photo and headed down, reaching Joe, Jack and Jeannie an hour below the summit. Joe had been to the summit years before and wasn't feeling well, so he descended with us. Jack and Jeannie continued on, reaching the top in a quickly developing lenticular cloud. Yep, party time was over.
"Time to get up, Uncle Fester," Paul and I affectionately called to Kurt. We were still at our 16,100' high camp and neither Kurt nor I had left our tent since arriving from the summit three days earlier. The windstorm was howling, and Kurt and I were competing for the official title of Emperor Fester. So far it was 68 hours and counting, but I was ready to concede. Kurt, on the other hand, has this remarkable ability to shut off all bodily functions and simply fester in his bag indefinitely. But, we had been on quarter-rations since summit day. That evening we experienced a pivotal point in our trip. What had been limited to a heinous windstorm now dealt considerable snowfall. Within two hours after digging out our tent, we were buried above the roof with no reprieve in sight. We discussed our options of digging out every two hours for the duration of the storm, or digging a snow cave. We opted for the latter as did Harry and Bob, while the Montana Trio held fast in their tent. At 1:00 AM, after seven hours of digging, our tent was down and we were brewing up in our wonderfully spacious three-man snow cave. Constructing the cave had exposed us to the most heinous weather any of us had ever experienced with -70F wind chill factor and total white out. Outside our snow walls, it was impossible to walk without being blown over. Visibility was non-existent, even with ski goggles. We couldn't see Joe, Jack and Jeannie's tent 50 feet away. Any exposed flesh risked immediate frostbite. Joe later estimated sustained 60 mph winds and gusts to 80 mph all night long. "Welcome to Mt. Logan, here's to our first week at 16,100'. Let's hope we get a break soon " someone offered, as we drifted off into another Cheyne-Stokes sleep.
For the next three days, the storm continued to rage as severely as any of us had ever seen. Would it never end?
"The pressure's risen 500 feet since yesterday. We've got to make a break for it today if there's any visibility at all," we agreed on the morning of our tenth day at 16,100'. At 7:00 AM Joe managed to excavate our ever-lengthening entrance tunnel. Conditions outside had improved slightly but it was now socking in again. "Let's pack up and give it a shot." Two hours later, our remaining half-day of food and gallon of fuel was loaded into our packs and we all started down the hill. Visibility was marginal, but our bamboo wands showed the way down. Before we knew it, all eight of us had descended to 14,000' where we broke out of the clouds and could see once again. Our ten-day stay at 16,100' was finally over! Moments later a helicopter flew overhead. Curious, we pulled out our radio and spoke with a Kluane Park crew on patrol searching for a couple of overdue climbers on the King Trench. Paul Claus also flew by 30 minutes later, happy to hear from us since we were four days overdue ourselves. Cheers erupted from all eight of us when Claus agreed to a pick-up the following day. By 9:30 PM we had down-climbed 8,400 feet all the way to our 7,700' base camp. No rappels were needed. The rich warm air was a joy to breathe. Most importantly, we had FOOD! No more quarter rations. Claus returned the next afternoon and ferried us to his lodge where we indulged in a much-needed sauna and Eleanor's wonderful cooking. May 26 we finally reached Chitina, ready for our extended 25-day adventure to come to a close.