St. Elias Expedition Part 3: The Trench
May 30
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Logan Basecamp

So we were at the base of Canada’s highest mountain with no map, no route description, no idea of how many camps were possibly needed, or how long it might take (had a malfunctioning GPS with a tiny screen).  All I knew for sure was that my gloves were pathetic, my down jacket wasn’t full of enough down, my sleeping bag was over 15 years old, my TLT6 liners were unproven in extreme cold, and my 35L pack could barely fit my sleeping bag.  All my gear worked fine at -15C, but -55C with wind-chill seemed a bit unreasonable. But changing gear wasn’t an option, so I focused my attention on strategy. With the Inreach, we got weather forecasts, number of camps, camp elevations, and how long the average tourist took on Logan. It was something like 16 days, which didn’t really help us since we only had 5 days until the next major storm came in.

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This seemingly easy hill in the trench destroyed us.

Mt. Logan is an interesting challenge. Although our proposed route up the King Trench is a piece of cake, the absolute massiveness of the mountain cannot be underestimated.  Logan is considered the world’s largest mountain, and much of the distance we’d be crossing would be at altitude on the summit plateau.  Whereas most mountains involve climbing to the summit and then skiing or climbing back down, Logan has multiple elevation gains and drops on the way to the main summit. So even if you get to the summit, you still need the strength and good weather to climb the hills on the way back to the bottom.  Furthermore, the summit plateau has vast open spaces where many climbers have gotten lost in poor weather, so we had to be sure that we had the good weather and speed so as not to be a statistic for future climbers.

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We came up with a rudimentary timeline, brought the bare minimum in climbing gear, 2 tents, our warmest clothes, most of our lightest freeze-dried food and energy bars, and about 8 days fuel. We didn’t skimp on the food or fuel, since we had no idea how long it would take, and we didn’t want to be turned back from the summit because we needed just a sip more of fuel.

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Can see the skin track on the left. This crevasse doesn’t have much longer until it cuts the entire slope, then the route will be much tougher!

It snowed overnight and we got a late morning start when the weather finally cleared. I had lost at least half the weight of my sled, and felt good as we passed the spot for camp 1. Then came a hill. The type of hill you could tour up without breaking a sweat. But with our sleds plowing through the fresh snow, the Logan slog began in earnest.  The warm sun slightly cooked the snow, so it began to stick to the bottom of our sleds.  My sled was the shortest, and the front soon began to submarine rather than glide.  When leading the skintrack, pacing and energy-conservation wasn’t an option since massive seracs loomed above.  You just had to get primal and suffer through it.  From the beginning I knew this Logan mission was going to tread the fine line between actual fun and total suffering.  The only way to semi-enjoy the experience was the embrace the suffering, the heavy loads, and the high-altitude headaches. The kicker, was that in the end the chances of us making any quality turns was basically nil.

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Camp 2 at 16,000ft on the ‘football’ field, with the summit of King Peak showing.

We reached the 13,500ft camp in the early evening, and were surprised to come across 2 other tents.  A group of 3 swiss guys was being guided by Coastal hero Rich Prohaska. Since he had a ton of Logan experience, I picked his brain on the route description and feverishly scribbled in my notebook.  The complexity of the route became apparent, and we certainly would’ve been lost without his help. A highly memorable episode occurred when I asked if he knew of others who’d done the route light and fast, and where they’d staged their final camps.  Indeed he did.  With a smile, he pointed to his map and said that Hans Kammerlander had done it from there. I laughed out loud. Kammerlander was for many years the world’s pre-eminent high altitude ski mountaineer, and there was no way we could compare ourselves to this legend! But ya, nice to know that he had climbed the same route as us. Then Rich pointed to another spot on the map, and produced another smile, “well Christian Stangl camped and climbed from here.” I laughed again. I’d partied with Christian in Georgia last year, and he is one of the world’s fastest high altitude climbers.  Once again, it was highly entertaining information, but not much help (although thanks to the miracle of technology, I was able to get ahold of Christian within 24hrs, and he was nice enough to give us some details – thanks Peter).

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My drawing of the middle 3rd of the route, as dictated by Rich Prohaska.

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View from camp 3. Taken at midnight.

The next day was a welcome rest day due to bad weather. We left late the next morning in lousy weather, but were able to follow the tracks of Rich and his crew, who had already traveled up and down this part of the route. Unfortunately Chris stayed behind due to a lingering sickness and a lack of gear suited for the higher altitudes to come.  That evening we set up camp at 16,000ft.  The next day was a short one up to our high camp of about 17,600ft.  It was committing, but we planned to go for the summit from this camp. It saved us from climbing up to Prospector col and then dropping down 1200ft onto the summit plateau with all of our gear.  Unfortunately Jon’s condition deteriorated in the night. It seemed as though he had contracted Chris’s sickness, but it was impossible to determine which symptoms were related to the sickness and which might be altitude-related. We had to make some hard decisions. It was too dangerous for Jon to head down by himself, but his condition didn’t seem bad enough for us to all turn around. Furthermore, although we had a backup stove, we managed to bring only one pot.  Either Jon or Tobin and I would not have the ability to boil water if we split up.  After a couple of hours of deliberation we decided to push our camp further along the summit plateau. This would allow Jon a drop in elevation, and would keep our summit day relatively short. So we packed up and climbed over the top of Prospector col and skied down the other side. The snow was so dry that my skis would barely glide.  A few km of skate-skiing had us setting up our final camp.

Big thanks to Jon and tons of respect for grinding it out, and letting us go for the summit . . . it was hard to see him in that much pain.

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Jon de-skinning with St. Elias in the back.

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Camp 4 (our last). Serious jacket envy at this point, since Tobin’s down looks extra fat compared to mine.

To be continued . . .

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