Note on photos: It was so cold Tobin’s camera never worked the entire day, and mine would freeze up periodically. Many of the photos are a bit soft because my viewfinder and my automatic focus was frozen (so I just had to put the focus near infinity and hope for the best).
Summit day – Tobin and I wake at 6am. The last 2 nights have been torture. As soon as I lie down and try to relax the subtle suffocation begins. Breathing faster to get more oxygen in, the mind begins to obsess about breathing and the lack of oxygen. My mind can’t distract itself by daydreaming of better days, because it doesn’t seem to have the ability to hold a thought or image. When I wake I have a splitter headache and immediately pop some advil. The condensation inside the tent has created 1cm thick surface hoar on our sleeping bags. The weather is perfectly clear, but it is probably the coldest morning I’ve ever had to operate in. 2 merino undershirts, my ultra-light puffy and my light down jacket are all compressed under my slim-fitting Gore-tex shell. My liners are frozen and refuse to conform to my boot shells. Jon graciously warms them in his sleeping bag while I finish packing. Soon we’re skate-skiing across the vast expanse of the summit plateau. The route starts to climb and traverse above and below seracs on the flanks of the west summit. Without Rich’s route description, we’d have no idea whether the east, west, or main summit is highest. They all look so similar.
As the main summit comes into view for the first time, we find ourselves on the first committing terrain of the route. A few route finding errors and a short down-climb has us back on easier terrain. From here the path to the summit is clear. As we get closer though, the perfect weather is foiled by a nasty plume of cloud that descends on the summit. Add the high winds, and navigating to the true summit would be next to impossible. But we’ve come so far, so we head upwards in the hope that the cloud will pass. After some tense moments of the cloud engulfing us down on the plateau, which would seriously hinder our escape, the cloud seems to dissipate little by little. We transition to crampons and pull out our snow axes. My little gloves weren’t meant for this, so I make a fist inside the gloves and let my pole and ice axe just hang from their leashes.
On the summit ridge the visibility is manageable, but the wind is absurd. Getting blown over is a real possibility. We reach a cleft near the summit. With the ridge being knife-edge, this might be the only place to put our skis on without them blowing away. We disconnect from the rope and carefully remove our packs. With some grunting noises, we decide to leave the packs and climb the last remaining steps to the summit. After a bit, Tobin shouts that he’s turning around. I don’t blame him, as the exposure isn’t great, and it’s hard to maintain balance. Not to keep him waiting long, I move quickly up the last 50ft. But it’s not the true summit. Adrenaline spurns me on and I traverse another low-angle knife-edge. I arrive at the summit and immediately collapse and hyperventilate for 30 seconds. The summit has a nice 15 by 5ft perch. The weather clears, and except for the howling wind and blowing plume of snow, I can see everything. After enjoying the view for a few minutes, I head back down.
In hindsight I should’ve run back down the ridge and brought my skis back up to the true summit. Although a mistake would send you sliding off the south face and onto the Seward almost 10,000ft below, the terrain was within my abilities. But in the moment, with my mind turned to mush by altitude, face, hands and feet becoming frostbitten, and my core becoming dangerously hypothermic, I honestly didn’t even consider the possibility of skiing from the very top.
Soon Tobin and I are making exposed south facing turns back down the ridge, and then continue back down the easier slopes of the north side. We keep a good pace, and are soon back in camp about an hour later (about 8 hours after leaving the tent). Jon is ready to leave and meet up with Chris at 13,500, but I can’t stop shivering. My core temp had dropped too low, and even touring fast uphill in all my clothes can’t warm me. I quickly jump in my sleeping bag, and Tobin soon passes me some hot water. Maybe a half hour later, I’m chilled but ready to go. The slog up to Prospector col is brutal, but Tobin saves me from floundering the last few hundred feet, and comes back to carry my pack. From the top we are home free. As the sun dips, we’re treated to the most beautiful evening I’ve ever witnessed in the mountains. A few hours and some decent powder skiing later, we reach Chris at maybe 11pm and set up camp for the night.
The next morning we coast back to basecamp, and begin the waiting game for our pilot. That day was clear, but he’s busy elsewhere in the range. The next day bad weather comes in. The next day is heartbreaking. In the clear morning skies he circles our camp several times and then flies away – the wind being too strong. But late afternoon, he returns and makes the 4 flights late into the evening to retrieve Rich’s crew and ours.
There probably is no other mountain range on Earth where icecaps this massive meet up with mountains this massive. This is one of those magical places, like Concordia in Pakistan, where every mountain person should visit once in their life – and you’ll be happy even if you don’t get anything done. So even though we climbed and skied off a mountain that’s been done many times before, via a route that is as easy as it gets, it was just great to have another adventure in the zone. I don’t care about records for the highest, and the motivation for me to climb peaks like Logan, Denali, or Everest is minimal. So to stand on the highest point in Canada in an unintentional way was an amazing surprise.
Stay tuned for a gear review.