Member Trip Report



The Failed 1975 Expedition to Mount Saint Elias

June and July of 1975

Written for the LAM History Project

Author: Don Liska.  Trip report dated December, 2007.

Participants: Fred Beckey, John Rupley, Andy Harvard, Walt Vennum, Don Liska, Keith Rousch, Doug McCarty, George Oschenski, and Bruce Tickell

I'd like to point out that I have always been unhappy about this trip.  I have put it out of my mind for decades as a miserable failure full of colossal screw-up's which broke for me a 16-year long string of numerous successful climbs, including nine expeditions up to that time, with many first ascents and new routes.  For me, this exceptionally fruitful period lasted from the late 50's through the mid 70's.  Though many years of active climbing continued for me beyond 1975, with mixed results, at my present stage in life my past failures are as valuable to me as my past successes.  Therefore, I appreciate the opportunity offered by the LAM History Project and with the help of my old logbook to try to reconstruct in detail the mess that this extended trip somehow got itself into and which doomed its noble, adventurous and extreme objective.  The result is amazing even to me as the first cogent rendition of this failed attempt that even I have ever attempted to put together.

  Image ID: line2102, NOAA's America's Coastlines Collection

Mount Saint Elias is one of the largest mountains visible from the sea on the
North American continent. It rises to a height of 18,008 feet in a distance of
less than 20 miles from sea level at Icy Bay.
Photo by David Sinson via NOAA.

Of possible interest for anyone who reads this tiresome account may be the lessons it reveals as related to things that could go wrong during the "golden age" of mountaineering, that fast disappearing world when independent mountaineering expeditions preceded the advent of today's guided eco-adventure group tours.

The 1975 Mount Saint Elias Expedition had the strongest and largest climbing team I have ever accompanied on my dozen expeditions.  The leader was the eminent Fred Beckey who, along with John Rupley, Andy Harvard and Walt Vennum formed the powerhouse players in that specific game.  Andy Harvard had just come off Dhauligiri and had co-authored the book "Mountain of Storms."  He was riding high with graceful confidence and Himalayan capability.  Others were Keith Rousch, Doug McCarty and George Oschenski, all from Montana. Keith supplied a new 4WD 3/4 ton pickup truck and loads of donated Jansport Equipment, while Doug and George were contumacious rebels replete with Montana's "screw the government" attitude towards law, order and drugs.  There was also Bruce Tickell out of Juneau, a cordial tough Alaskan, and myself, nine of us in all.  We were generally well seasoned on world-wide and Alaskan mountains, accustomed to the rigors expected for a major attack on the biggest, wildest and most remote coastal mountain in North America.  I myself already had three successful Alaskan expeditions behind me, two to Southeast Alaska for first ascents, one of which was with Fred Beckey himself, and the third to Mt. McKinley, in those days of the early 60's a far less banal objective than today as guided climbs have become de rigueur.  So I naively assumed our powerful team had an excellent chance to succeed with our new route on "The Saint" which lay in the heart of its namesake Saint Elias Range of Southeast Alaska.  This mountain has no easy route to the summit.  No summit in North America over 16,000' is harder to reach.  We intended to attempt a new route up the formidable Northwest Ridge which involved over 11,000' of climbing and a route length of several miles.

Beckey, however, had a problem.  As an outstanding writer of mountaineering history and guidebooks and America's greatest explorer/climber of that day, he had a contract to finish a book and he had all his notes with him.  So his mind was somewhat preoccupied and he spent too much time isolated from the group while busily writing.  We had all gathered in Yakutat, Alaska in early June, 1975.  Yakutat weather is generally so dismal that we were forced to hang out in the chilly, decrepit FAA hangar where we fried Salmon, boiled crabs outside in the rain, spent our days in the airport coffee shop and our nights in the bar.  We had a lot of crazy energy and after a week had passed we began to wonder what the hell was holding up the show.  We depended on the resident bush pilot Dick Nichols to fly us into the Saint but he steadfastly demurred and Beckey cautioned us to "play it cool - let Nichols call the shots - don't pursue and bug him."  I myself trusted Nichols who had provided the airdrops on my previous Beckey expedition in which we conquered the unclimbed Mt. Seattle in 1966 and I assumed he had agreed to this admittedly much more risky venture.  Fred worked on his book and the rest of us hiked to the beaches, ate fiddle-heads, began to smoke pot and slowly go stir crazy.  It gradually became clear that Nichols had no intention of undertaking such a dangerous mission.  The man-killer weather of Southeast Alaska's St. Elias Range was too much for him.  He finally and with consummate cleverness conveyed that to us by asking for a $40,000 security bond ($175,000 in today's dollars).  I think Beckey had already divined this while he wrote away and the 9-day delay slowly drove the rest of us into despondency.

Finally Beckey offered us Mt. Lucania in the interior as a substitute climb for the Saint but we had become so focused on Beckey's new route, the unclimbed Northwest Ridge that he had defined in his invitation to join up that we unanimously said we wanted another shot at the beast.  Had we known what would occur later we would have been wise to accept the safer alternative.  Anyway, we collectively decided to try to approach the Saint from the inland side at Chitna where the weather is better.  This was an audacious move and an expensive one. It involved an almost complete encirclement of the mountain from Yakutat to the southeast to Chitna to the northwest.  So, we all flew back to Juneau and were again delayed there because our 700 pounds of gear had to await another flight due to higher priority granted to shipments of frozen King Crab out of Yakutat.  Now we needed Keith's 3/4 ton pickup which had been left in Juneau.  This meant a standby reservation on the Alaska ferry up to Haines.  These delays further rankled us and we spent a raucous afternoon drinking in Juneau's Red Dog Saloon.  In 1975 the Alaska pipeline was being constructed and a lot of well-paid pipeline workers were in Juneau on rest and relaxation leaves.  Unfortunately one of the Montana ruffians got into a fight with one of the oil workers and was losing as we dragged him out of the place.  We luckily were allowed to squeeze the truck onto the ferry the next day.  On board up the Lynn Canal the Montanans gleefully terrified the tourists aboard by putting on their sunglasses and staring at unlucky passengers until they would leave in fright and discomfort.  We finally reached Haines from which we started the 600 mile marathon drive along the Haines and Alaska Highways to the Tok Cutoff and finally the Edgerton Highway to Chitna and McCarthy.  Weather improved as we moved inland but our expedition food was inaccessible so we would stop at riverside campgrounds and raid the garbage cans for half eaten scraps.  By now we were full of a devil-may-care gang mentality and besides, the wild Montanans had illegally shipped their pot stash across the border into Canada and then back into Alaska so we were also often a bit high.  A disconnected observer could probably see the seeds of disarray in this powerful but somewhat uncontrollable group of incipient ruffians.  Our famous leader Beckey had unfortunately weakened his authority early on in Yakutat and was finding it harder and harder to manage this bunch.  We passed Kluane Lake in the night and reached Glenallen the following day.  This was the flying base for the eminent bush pilot Jack Wilson who had flown reconnaissance for us on Mt. Seattle nine years before.  Fred, Andy and George stayed at Glenallen to negotiate flights into the Saint with Wilson while the rest of us drove Keith's truck to McCarthy, an old mining town in the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park just south of the Wrangell Mountains and some 125 air miles northwest of the Saint.  McCarthy later would become infamous when a citizen went crazy and shot a bunch of people.  It was a beautiful setting but in mid-June infested with mosquitoes.  We could only get relief by huddling in the middle of the runway as far from the forest and tundra as possible.  Two more days passed before a message from Fred arrived for us to drive back to Chitna to pick them up.  They had negotiated with and chosen Wilson for the job instead of several other cheaper but less reliable alternatives because of his reputation and his recommendation to use helicopters.  Wilson's reason was that the choppers were already involved with pipeline work so dead-head costs would be reduced.  And also that glacier landings were a cinch with choppers.  Finally we sprung into action.  At midnight Fred and Walt helicoptered off for the mountain and the rest of us flew into a sand bar on the Tana River about 50 miles WNW of the mountain.  At 3:30 AM the chopper returned and Keith, Bruce and I were lifted onto Mt. St. Elias, landing at 7000' about 4:30 AM.  Fred and Walt were already climbing up to an advanced base camp at 8100'.  We joined them and did heavy carries to advanced base.  That first night on the glacier revealed the fault in Keith's fiber fill sleeping bags that he had provided for everyone.  They were too light, exposing us all to many cold nights.  In early morning a ski plane appeared with our four buddies aboard but it didn't land and eventually flew off not to be heard from again.  The "crack" in our trip had started to widen though we didn't realize it at the time.  We were alone in our preparations for this gigantic objective but weakly supplied and separated from half our party.  In the next few days we packed more gear up to advanced base and then Fred, Bruce and I went on up the route to the 10,700' level.  The snow was very soft and exhausting.  Nonetheless our little party continued its work and subsequently moved an equipment cache to 11,400' just below the Northwest Ridge.  As the fine weather began to break Fred and I went down to stamp a message in the snow reading "Airdrop here--land gas-airdrop OK-Chopper OK.  Days later, on June 26, we changed the word "land" to "need" as our fuel began to run low.  We turned in that night under a heavy snowstorm. It was cold in the inadequate bags.  I was chilly despite wearing long johns, turtle neck T-shirt, wool pants, wool shirt, booties, cap and mitts, with head inside bag and lying on twin pads. When I later added a fiber fill vest the bag became marginally comfortable.

It was snowing out as we finished our third week on the trip.  We had prepared the lower part of the route and now needed the full party or at least additional gear, especially fixed ropes, to continue much farther.  This climb which had been so hard in getting started was again dejecting us, now because of this critical party separation.  We figured that the oil companies and the pipeline had so much work and money for the available bush pilots, choppers and fixed wing aircraft that our little party was maddeningly low down on their priority list.  We slowly realized we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We should have chosen a mountain that we could have walked into from some back road.  Still, we were in some of the most stupendous country in North America; nineteen miles to the east lay the ten mile long summit of Mount Logan and the vast glory of the Bagley Icefield spread at our feet.  The Saint itself towered two miles overhead --one of the wildest and least attempted major mountains in the world, the west wall rivaling the Rupal Flank on Nanga Parbat for vertical rise and awesome topography.  Avalanches and thundering icefalls reverberated from its flanks.  Our proposed route however seemed reasonable and relatively safe.  So we wanted badly to continue.

Beckey was at wits end attempting to figure what went wrong.  Why was half our party stranded on the Tana River sand bar while good climbing weather was being wasted?  We were now consuming our high altitude rations and were running low on Blazo.  Only one gallon left which amounted to six more full days of hot food and drinks.  The next day was clear and new snow covered all our tracks.  Fred, Walt and I set off up the glacier to reach the ridge while Keith and Bruce went down to the lower camp to wait hopefully for a ski plane or chopper.  We climbers had a glorious day.  We worked very hard on breaking trail with snowshoes up 3300' to the cache beneath the ridge.  There we picked up some hardware, ropes, food and wands and climbed higher finally reaching the ridge crest, which now displayed some of its difficulties up towards Windy Peak and most (but not all!!) of the remaining 6000' of the climb which lay ahead of us including the gigantic northwest shoulder, a level stretch of a half mile leading to the upper slopes of the Saint.  As we headed for Windy Peak our first major technical problem was encountered, a deep notch just our side of Windy Peak.  Fred went down and found a spot where he thought a 40' rappel might clinch the descent.  We then backtracked finding what we thought was an even more attractive route down.  We could not check it out further as it was late in the day and we had a long way back to camp.  As we descended we had the feeling we had the route over Windy Peak aced.  As it turned out we were sadly wrong. Snowshoeing back to camp was a pleasure and we were elated as we imagined we had cracked the key to our route. Keith and Bruce returned near midnight with no news of the missing party.  And so we sat out more days of reasonably good weather.  We felt it risky to push the route much further as this would represent over 4000' vertical of climbing above this camp.  Without a higher camp such distances are risky in these weather dominated coastal mountains.  St. Elias lies only 18 miles from the Gulf of Alaska and its great glaciers bespeak of abominable weather much of the time.  Our low fuel supply concerned us and we had the feeling that we were beginning to lose impetus on the route despite our successes so far.  As an aside I finally conquered my cold sleeping bag by adding a sweater and padded overpants.  However, that small victory did little to quell our general feeling of being held back, now due mostly to shortage of fuel and gear, as we waited for our companions at our 8100' camp.  Had we foreseen such a situation we could (and should) have made ourselves into an independent climbing party by bringing in two dome tents, four more gallons of fuel, two more weeks of food, two spools of fixed rope and more anchors.  It was too late now, but a lesson for a big and strong party in the future that could be threatened with separation.  Though we had radios we could not raise our companions 50 miles away on the sand bar.  Had we done so we would have requested them to instruct Wilson to try to drop the above supplies to us so we could have pushed the route vigorously on our own.

On Tuesday June 23, after three weeks on the trip, all but Fred climbed back to the ridge in foggy weather and made another effort to raise our pals on the sand bar for them to again contact Wilson with our request for additional supplies.  Unfortunately, we couldn't work on the route because of poor visibility.  On the way back down I had a shock.  Crossing the lower crevasse, Walt stepped through the fragile snow bridge which had been gradually deteriorating in the early summer warmth.  I was last to cross and decided to cut it as far right as possible.  I probed the bridge and could see I was on center-span.  Suddenly, to my right the whole bridge began to collapse.  At that point I shouted "Oh shit!!" and after a short pause it gave way and sent me almost 30 feet down into the huge crack to be caught dangling by the rope which cut deeply into the lip.  While hanging disheveled, I had the presence of mind to snap a few pictures of blue icicles and gaping blackness reaching downwards to an unfathomable depth.  I was amped to an extreme and was able to stem across and with the aid of my buddies pulling me up with brute strength, I managed to extricate myself without resorting to my Jumars.  Unfortunately, I ultimately left my best pictures, including those crevasse shots, behind as we were evacuated from the mountain ignominiously several weeks later.  This is one of my greatest regrets today.  Anyway, back at camp the weather set in again and we had to delay any further action on our route.  This was a bad situation as one tends to reflect too much on one's personal regrets.  Without day-to-day progress, no matter how small, the momentum of an expedition tends to wither.  The British have also known this.  They insist on some small advance or load-carry every day if at all possible.  But for us, our situation had us stalemated.

So we sat and waited while reducing our food consumption to one meal a day with some pilot bread. We melted snow on tarps to save fuel.  We began to seriously discuss a somewhat desperate attempt to continue the route and hopefully bag the Saint on our own despite our shortages.  What a coup that would have been.  But we were now at a crux point, the bugaboo of today's guided expeditions where the customers having been led by a ring in their noses toward their objective with little if any independent thought and no freedom of decision decide to go for the summit on their own such as happened on Everest on a disastrous 1996 expedition.  We were now beginning to break our dependence on Wilson, which was a tough mental rearrangement indeed.  It became clear that 7-8 days would be required to climb the Saint.  We could stretch our food to 6 days and severely ration our fuel.  Beckey gave us the go ahead to try while he would continue the wait in case the backup party finally arrived.  To prepare for the big push required that we gather all our available resources so Bruce, Walt and I went down to the lower camp and brought up the big Logan tent and more cocoa.  We packed all our personal gear and community possessions and all the water we could find bottles for.  At 10:30 PM we started back up the chute for our high camp under very heavy loads.  I broke trail to 9100', Bruce to 9800', Walt to 10,700 and me again to 11,400'.  It got frightfully cold around 11,000' but we arrived and set up camp at a crevasse just at 4 AM.  Later that morning we rested in warmth as the sun rose higher and pondered our next steps.  We planned to move higher, further into the trap, and establish a camp at 12,500', two miles away.  If a big storm comes -- look out!! If so we will attempt to dig snow caves.  Our big worry was that we would have to melt all our water with our one small Primus.  We'd have to give up hot meals and our freeze dried meals were no good except to soak the meat cold or eat with snow.  Fortunately we had 20 pounds of high altitude candy and two 8" pieces of Salami, five one pound blocks of cheese, 125 packages of cocoa (to be eaten dry of course), a couple dozen packages of powdered milk, ditto, some pilot bread, freeze-dried meat tins and soup.  But very little gas.  The 20 pounds of candy seemed our salvation at the time.

On June 28, going on our fifth week into the trip, Walt, Bruce and I set out for the summit of Windy Peak from which we would be better able to see all of the great Northwest Shoulder leading to the summit slopes.  Everything went well up to the saddle just before Windy Peak where we earlier had thought a straightforward descent was possible.  Now we saw to our dismay that the route down to the ramp was in fact an icy knife edge on rotten, crumbly rock for 700' or more.  Following that was an interminable slog up the ramp to the Northwest Shoulder beyond.  We were dumfounded because we had earlier so misjudged this portion of the route.  It was now clear that this extension would require additional camps and much more time and equipment.  As we retreated with this glum assessment the sun was touching the horizon and lo!! a chopper arrived down on the icefield and dropped off some boxes at 7100'.  It was so far below we couldn't see any signs of movement of our missing gang.  When we finally reached camp, Fred and Keith were all geared up ready to go down.  From their vantage point they couldn't see where the chopper had landed but assumed our lost party had also arrived.  We related our discoveries above and the difficulties they entailed.  Fred, in a clearly disgusted and frustrated mood made up his mind and exclaimed "bag the route."  Suddenly it looked like all our efforts were cooked -- a result in part of the long delays, loss of momentum and continuing uncertainties.  So Fred and Keith took off for the lower camps while Walt, Bruce and I stayed high.  The next day we waited, expecting to see the others coming up or at least a message from below.  Again -- delays in good weather -- and no word.  Now we began to ponder our scheduled pickup date of July 6, a week and a half off -- too short a time to climb this giant mountain.  Now what?? I began to feel trapped like Gleb Nerzhin in First Circle.

As it eventually resolved, two chopper flights did in fact come in, and with them all the missing members of our group.  When they were met by Fred and Keith, our assessment of the Windy Peak route resulted in the others turning away from it to an alternative they termed the "Trench Route."  We at high camp did not immediately know this but after 13 days of delays and uncertainties the three of us on Sunday, June 29 decided to also head on down in fine weather expecting to pick up some supplies and head back up to push our route anyway, having nothing better to do.  We were uninformed and felt abandoned in our diminishing small world.  At the base we were amazed and overjoyed to meet the others who had just returned from a 30-hour reconnaissance of the alternative route, the so-called "Trench Route," all enthused.  We three high climbers agreed to hang around and continue the Trench recon into that very night.  Even though all our overnight gear was still at high camp, the very thought of climbing back up at that point was dismal, especially now that climbing efforts seemed to be switching directions.  What was happening to us was that we were thankful to shift responsibility to the other fresher climbers for leading this new route due to our weariness of carrying the ball up high for so long.

Still, it was dumb to leave our gear up high while the weather was reasonable!!  Naturally, in late afternoon the weather broke for the worse.  So now we canned the planned recon, leaving that to the others, and with Fred and Keith in tow raced back up trying to outrun the coming storm to retrieve our gear.  We didn't make it! At 10,000' we ran into thick snow, sleet and numbing whiteout and were forced to retreat following our wands back to base.  Now we were without even the minimal donated sleeping bags so we essentially had to "bivouac" in borrowed overpants, sweaters and parkas for the next three nights while the heavy snow continued.  What a shivering ordeal that was!  We were squeezed into a Logan tent and two smallish Dome tents.  The squeezing got worse when Keith went into the Dome tent and lit his lighter.  He had left a big Optimus expedition stove running to heat the tent for drying some wool garments in the miserable damp and cold and had closed the entry sleeve upon leaving.  The stove went out from lack of air but its warmth continued to percolate fuel and when Keith crawled inside, closed the entry sleeve again and lit his lighter to restart the stove, the gasoline-rich tent atmosphere exploded.  Keith had not noticed the fumes because of mucous-filled nostrils and the reek of wet wool.  He survived the explosion with a badly singed face, beard and hair and also burns around his eyes and on his hands.  It would have been worse except for his heavy wet beard and the cold dampness of his clothes and everything about him.  He was in shock but otherwise OK and we were all wiser for the experience.  However, this meant six of us now had to fit into the Logan tent with three more in the remaining Dome tent.

Now it rained for a day and a night before turning again to heavy wet snow.  Though snowing, the visibility was sufficient for three of us to go up to retrieve the tents and gear at 8100'.  The heavy snow had smashed down the tents and of course everything was also soaked.  We dragged the wet gear down.  Finally on Wednesday, July 9 the weather cleared and we went up glacier to study the Trench further from our side angle and retrieve our high camp.  We made slow progress in the deep slush and arrived after four hours to find the tents again smashed down, all gear inside frozen and wet, and the campsite a complete fill-in of packed powder.  The snow had driven the center pole of the Logan right through its floor.  Since the Windy Peak route had by now effectively been abandoned, our frazzled mental state and the deep snow made any thoughts of upward progress from this point doubly repulsive.  So we shoveled out and spent a miserable night up there in our frozen, wet sleeping bags.  We pictured the others doing their recon of the Trench route and wished them success.  About 4 AM Fred and Doug arrived at camp having left the others in disgust because of their slowness and resistance to drive ahead in the Trench.  The recon party told of a great avalanche that crossed and filled the Trench and blew over their frame packs at 7300' and two miles away.  On Thursday, July 10, now in even greater confusion, we brought down our high camp only to find the others still in camp, the recon incomplete.  They had not finished the job because of the avalanche scare.  That was the effective end of our efforts on the Saint; the Windy Peak route had been abandoned and the Trench route was not a proven alternative.  The weather deteriorated and heavy snow commenced, too dismal to push any more reconnaissance.  We all had reached the point of disarray that spelled loss of momentum in our efforts and were now on the verge of encroaching glacier lethargy.  We had been on this trip for almost six weeks and had made little effective progress other than probing the lower part of two prospective routes.  At best we reached barely half way up the Windy Peak route with most of the unknowns and difficulties still ahead.  The Saint now thumbed its nose at us as we huddled, discouraged, at its base in dismal weather.  We nonetheless held a vote on the prospect of proceeding and decided the heart had gone out of the trip and we should bag the whole affair.  By Sunday, July 13 we had descended all the way to the Columbus Glacier, evacuating all upper camps and supplies. We stamped out a runway for a possible fixed wing landing.  However, we suspected that Wilson would use a chopper instead, at greater cost to us of course.  We also knew by now that the choppers were very busy with pipeline work and suspected that further waiting still lay ahead for us.  A third factor that we had learned involved the difference between the nature of fixed wing and helicopter bush pilots.  Chopper pilots generally feared mountains more than fixed wing pilots did.  They would be more conscious of the limitations of their craft, more anxious to get quickly the hell out of there and less understanding or adaptive to the needs of the rescued party.

By Wednesday July 16 we were still waiting for Wilson for the 11th day.  Our once powerful team was now a somnambulating shell of its former self.  Wilson sent flyovers informing us to prepare for a chopper pickup several days ahead.  Of course, weather set in and all was further delayed.  We were now down to 1/3 rations and again almost out of gas -- a little over two gallons for nine climbers -- not much.  Wilson had dropped a minimum of stuff on a flyover but it was quickly consumed.  My personal feelings at the time are revealing.  I felt the effect of a wasted summer, much time and money spent and little accomplished -- all the result of being out of touch and isolated for such an extended period.  But we all felt this, a self-pitying cry for escape from this spectacular and awesomely beautiful prison.

All of a sudden, at 3 AM on July 17, with no warning at all, the chopper arrived.  The pilot ordered us aboard with no delay.  He would take no gear, only bodies.  We were forced to make instantaneous decisions to salvage small items, get dressed, grab cameras, etc., while the rotor was spinning.  All our gear -- tents, packs, sleeping bags, high altitude boots, extra clothes, technical equipment, snowshoes, stoves, food, etc., had to be abandoned.  In the confusion we all left crucial stuff behind, in my case the bulk of my slides including the pictures I took while dangling from the rope inside the crevasse.  It was an awful mess, but by this time we felt so dependent on this chopper to escape this glacier, we blindly followed the pilot's orders, clambering aboard and dropping our valuable gear on the snow without much regret.  It was a rout, paralleled by the other rout around the world as our forces evacuated refugees from the rooftop of the Saigon Embassy only three months earlier in April, 1975.  This rankled of a bit of panic and our manly pride felt some pangs of shame.  Soon it was all over and by 2 PM we gathered in Gulkana, just north of Glenallen, suddenly back in civilization and now faced with the necessity to negotiate the high payment for the lousy service we had received from Jack Wilson.

In the aftermath of this trip we tried to convey to Wilson what a waste his delays had cost in terms of our expedition goals.  We got no satisfaction and little concern in this regard other than some assurance that a potential flight to our base on the Columbus Glacier might be arranged to retrieve the pile of gear abandoned in our rout.  We didn't take this "promise" too seriously as we saw what little concern for our plight was expressed by Wilson's men.  In those mid-summer days of 1975 the pipeline was the big issue and climbing expeditions were taken less than seriously.  Though the members of our strong team felt a general loss of pride at our relatively weak showing on this magnificent mountain, the greatest material loss was to Keith Rousch.  As we soon learned, summer storms had wiped out the long dirt "road" into McCarthy.  This meant that anything we had left behind there was now lost, including Keith's 3/4 ton pickup.  Again we consoled Keith and even offered to make a return trip to Alaska in the near future to help retrieve his truck.  However, like the offer of retrieving our gear from the glacier, we didn't really take this gesture too seriously.  We had all lost and what we felt that summer of 1975 preyed on our minds but oddly hardened us to any additional losses.

With the exception of a river trip and a night time climb of the Golden Gate Bridge with Walt Vennum, the 1975 Mt. St. Elias Expedition was the last time I climbed or communicated with any of the other expedition members.  Though we had done 10 major or minor trips together and stayed in touch by phone, the only other time I saw Fred Beckey was in Moab several years ago as he hunched over a huge rock climbing rack in the driveway of the Rock Shop preparing for more forays into the wilderness of the canyonlands accompanied by a muscular young companion.  Fred's loss of control over our 1975 expedition plus the Alaska Pipeline priorities in that year had doomed the best efforts of the strongest climbing team it had ever been my honor to be a member of.  I returned to the Saint one last time in 1979 to make an attempt on the South Face but again the mountain won, in this case by almost killing our small four man team with avalanches.  Again we were routed.  That is another and considerably less ignoble story.  St. Elias is a very big object for any but the most skilled, determined and lucky climbing party.

Lessons to be learned from this trip:

The greatest single thread that runs through this story and resulted in its demise is lack of communication.  Most of my expeditions carried little or no communications gear in earlier days. On our 1974 Fairweather trip for example, we only had a crash transmitter which would signal the point where a symbolic icefall had killed us.  We had good radios supplied to us on Mt. Seattle mainly because we were a KING TV-funded expedition and were expected to stay in touch with our base for transmission of daily "climbing reports" to Seattle.  We reveled in excellent knowledge of exactly where our climbing members were distributed and also with the airdrop pilot.  It can be seen in the story of St. Elias how this lack of good radios resulted not only in a deadly lack of knowledge as to what was going on during our party separation, but also stole the momentum of the expedition to strive to succeed when we were again united.  The crucial decision to abandon the Windy Peak route might have been a fatal mistake which communications would have at least clarified.  A reliable communications network with good radios must be established during the planning stages of a big climb.  This is an area of considerable expense which is too easy to downplay when money is tight, but is essential to holding the party together if anything goes awry.

Another lesson was the mistake of depending on air lifts during the period when the Alaska Pipeline was being built.  Separation of the party might have been anticipated.  At least every climbing party set down on the mountain should have been adequately equipped to carry on the climb much as a high altitude party is supplied to make its own bid for the summit.

The use of Yakutat as a base for an attack on such a monster objective is fundamentally flawed.  It worked for us on the 1966 Mt. Seattle climb because we were able to use a fishing boat to reach the beach with our party intact and all our equipment landed.  Bush plane service out of Yakutat is especially risky and can't be depended upon.  Boyd Everett himself, whose death on Dhauligiri in 1969 is described in Andy Harvard's "Mountain of Storms" and who did an audacious new route on the Saint in 1965, proclaimed that "Only the masochistic and impoverished will use Yakutat as an expedition base."

Strong leadership is essential, especially when the climbing party is large and strong.  Expeditions can be spoiled by things such as poor food choices (Norman Dyrenfurth's International Expedition to Everest), or in our case Fred Beckey with his choice of Yakutat and his writing frenzy.  Fred was most qualified to lead this trip, but the combination of his lack of attention to progress out of Yakutat early on with the lack of a strong deputy leader combined with our misreading of Dick Nichol's intentions started the demise of our trip before most of us realized it.

Finally, crucial "creature comforts" such as adequate sleeping bags and plenty of fuel are absolutely essential to a happy climbing party.  On a much larger scale, kerosene leaking through the bung caps of his fuel tins helped doom Robert Scott's party returning from the South Pole in 1912.  There is no other more compact and easy to transport commodity than a few extra gallons of Blazo!!  As we have become more dependent on freeze-dried foods, fuel must be considered as an essential "part of the diet."

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