By JONATHAN SMITH
“We’ve had some great weather lately, but today is really something special” says Tom, our Kiwi pilot.
Above the din of the Helio Courier’s propeller Liam and I nod in agreement. For the past twenty minutes our eyes have been silently roaming the jagged ranges and crenelated glaciers of Kluane Park.
Our destination is the Quintino Sella Glacier, the drop off point to climb Mt Logan via the popular King’s Trench route. At 5,959m Mt Logan is Canada’s highest mountain, and the second highest peak in North America. Logan is, however, more infamous for its remoteness, difficult access, and its unforgiving cold. Temperatures are regularly below -20C, before even considering wind-chill. And it can get very windy indeed. In fact the International Mountain Guides website says that “50-100mph winds are commonplace”.
We are soon deposited on the glacier and immediately set about repacking our equipment for sled carrying, and establishing an emergency cache of food and fuel just in case we needed to descend to this ‘base camp’ and wait out bad weather for several days before we can be airlifted out. Tom arrives soon after with Nick, another Kiwi and the third member of our team, and within half an hour we are roped up for our ‘carry’ to camp 1.
Thanks to a handful of teams already on the mountain we’re able to follow a line of ski tracks through some tightly crevassed terrain, weaving our way slowly up the head of the glacier and onto the lower tongue of King’s Trench.
The sky is a sapphire blue with the sun out in force, searing any exposed skin and melting the bodies within. The sun stays high above the horizon until well after we have set up our first camp several hours later.
Carrying all our equipment, food and fuel for twenty days, we have managed well on our first day. As we tuck into our first foil-wrapped dehydrated dinner we silently congratulate one another on a solid start – many previous teams had waited at either base camp or the airstrip for over a week before having the opportunity to start their journey up the mountain.
Nick, the elder of our trio, is strong and fast, and his pace and walking style matched mine. Nick is a hard-working old-school Kiwi, with – as I will find out in the next week – more than his share of Kiwi determination and grit.
Uncharacteristically Liam struggles as we make our way up to Camp 2 over the next couple of days, and confides that he is keenly aware of his pre-disposition to altitude sickness, given that two years’ previous he had to be airlifted off Mt Logan’s east ridge with oedema (build-up of fluid in the body which causes the affected tissue to become swollen).
At Camp 2 we meet Rich Paraska, a very experienced mountain guide, and his two clients. With something like 17 years of guiding on Mt Logan, Rich is without doubt the most experienced person to have visited the Logan massif in the last decade, and we feel fortunate that we’ll be progressing up the mountain alongside Rich and his team.
The continuing fine weather allows us to carry and cache another load of gear at Camp 2 just below King Col – this is to be our primary cache of food and fuel on the mountain in case of bad weather. As we ascend to 4,000m for the first time I feel my lungs working harder in the rarefied air. In the afternoon patches of cloud intermittently pass over, interrupting the harshness of the sun, and we feel both weary and sweaty when we pull into camp.
The following morning we set off early, immediately up the steep terrain toward McCarthy Gap. The headwall involves several hundred metres of steep, somewhat sérac terrain. It is arguably the crux of the entire route to the summit. The snow is soft and I decide to remove my snowshoes and posthole it in my boots. Crampons would make life more comfortable, but these are back at camp (we expected the ramp to have firmer snow cover).
Amazingly Rich is so confident in his client’s ski-mountaineering ability that he decides to short-rope them as they ascend on skis.
Liam finally hits his straps on the route up to Camp 3. He sets a fast pace for the route to our campsite, with Nick and I struggling to keep up. Both of us are surprised at Liam’s turn of speed, but we are happy to take in the majestic mountain-scape as Liam surges ahead. The terrain has become more forgiving and the slopes are less menacing.
Soon after reaching Camp 3, Liam suffered a relapse. Thoroughly exhausted, he curls up in his sleeping bag and waits patiently for some boiling water.
I visit a large British team that has recently returned from caching food at Camp 4. They welcome me with a hot cup of tea and tales of the cold we can expect up on the summit plateau. Other teams have already been up to the summit plateau this season, but for various reasons only one team has summited the mountain so far. I leave the British tent with the added knowledge that at various times in the coming days strong winds are forecast up high. Great.
A combination of less than ideal weather, inadequate acclimatisation and general lethargy results in us taking an ‘enforced’ rest day and we enjoy the opportunity to lounge around in our sleeping bags, dry gear that has succumbed to condensation during the night, catch up on journal writing, eat, and rehydrate.
The following day is cold but clear and we carry a small portion of our remaining food and fuel up to Prospector’s Col, located above camp 4 at about 5,400m. As we descend Nick, Liam and I agree that Camp 4 is unnecessary. Instead we will jump from Camp 3 straight to Camp 5, and collect our small store of cached food on the way.
The route up and over Prospectors Col is straightforward. We quickly descend from the col into a large basin that is the summit plateau, and hustle along the western edge of the basin toward our fifth camp. The climb to the col has wearied us and we stop to debate briefly about where camp 5 should be.
Rich and his team soon appear behind us. Both clients appear to be struggling. One, Bryan, needs some strong encouragement from Rich. Rich confirms where Camp 5 should be and we scurry ahead, eager to set up camp before the sun disappears behind the crest of the mountains and leaves us to the mercy of the cold night air. It will be -25C tonight.
The following day we wake early and don our summit gear. By 7.30 we are plodding up the north-western flank of the massif, and an hour later a stiff breeze is hitting us in the face. The sky is overcast and silvery, and visibility is limited to 200 metres. Half an hour later we make the decision to turn back. Nick, who has spent his life working off the south west coast of NZ and is used to doing things in terrible weather, is unhappy but abides by the majority views of Liam and me. We agree that if the weather improves, we will try again later in the day.
Just after noon, we begin our second attempt. We are approaching the peak directly from the north-west, where we intend to summit the West Peak and then traverse the snow slopes on the eastern side to reach the main summit.
Mindful of our late start I push on in the lead. After a couple of hours we meet Rich and his team on their way down from the west peak. He does all the talking. His team are silent. They are spent. We push on up a ridge to the base of the west peak.
Suddenly I feel very weak and tired. I am unable to remove my snowshoes in order to replace them with crampons. I tell the guys and they are both understanding. Liam in particular shares my view that it is getting too late in the day to continue to the main peak and I decide to descend. Liam joins me.
Nick believes that the route to the summit is achievable and says he will take it on alone. Liam and I know that this game of ghosts is a very personal game, a mental game – and Nick is comfortable with the risk he is taking on going solo. Without further ado, we wish him well and begin our descent.
On the way down Liam and I chat about the climb with some disappointment – we had made a risk-based call to turn back but had not made it to the summit. Will the West Peak suffice? The more we talk about it the more we agree that it will not. We decide that unless the weather is really horrible we will make an attempt on the true summit, via a longer but less direct route, the following morning.
We arrive at the tent about 6pm, eat and curl up in our sleeping bags. I wake up just after 11pm for a call of nature, and less than 500 metres away I can see Nick swaying down the tracks leading to our tent. We welcome him in with a pot of hot tea.
“Yep, it was a fairly long way around to that main peak…and I stuck my foot into a crevasse a couple of times on the way back” says Nick
We are both thrilled for Nick, and with some anticipation look forward to our own attempt the following morning.
Liam and I start our summit bid under a clear blue sky, dropping down to the summit plateau a few hundred metres below, then traversing southward to the foot of as headwall below the summit ridge. We can see four members of the British team ahead of us, and are able to use their tracks to guide the way through the crevasse field.
A couple of hours later, at the foot of the headwall, we stop for a short break and Liam changes from snowshoes to crampons. It takes us 45 minutes to scramble up the steep slope, zig-zagging up the face, half out of breathe. It is hard work. By the time we reach the top the clouds have closed in and we are in a whiteout.
We drop our packs in a saddle, and then begin the scramble up and along the short summit ridge. We meet the British team descending – they are all smiles after summiting – but with limited visibility and a rising wind (we can barely hear each other) they are keen to continue on their way down the mountain.
We continue to weave our way along the southern edge of the ridge until, rather surprisingly, we find ourselves atop the summit. Liam can barely contain his excitement and sense of relief at reaching the top – after 4 attempts he has finally achieved the summit. It is cold, windy, and snowing now, so we quickly snap a couple of photos and begin our descent.
Returning to the saddle we collect our packs and begin our descent of the headwall. Snow has blown into our footprints and all we can see is white. I step down into a bowl of snow and suddenly the ground has fallen away. I’ve lost my footing and within a second I’m sliding on my back down the face. A second or two later I realize that I’m not slowing down, I’m gaining speed. Flailing, I plant my axe and it fails to take. I push the axe in harder, but it feels impotent in slowing my progress. Eventually, after 20 metres or so, I come to a halt and breathe a few big lungful’s of air.
Prompted to take extra caution, we decide to navigate our way down the mountain using GPS, backtracking on our ascent route. Visibility is down to about 20 metres. With some difficulty we locate Liam’s snowshoes and begin the long, slow descent to the summit plateau. Mindful of the crevasse danger, Liam is staring fixedly at the GPS to navigate our route. Meanwhile I am staring fixedly ahead to advise Liam of the undulations in the terrain – the stuff the GPS will not tell us. It feels like the ‘blind leading the blind’ – for both of us. I tell myself that next time I will plant more bamboo wands.
After a couple of hours we have descended to the edge of the plateau, and the sun is pushing hard against the cloud cover to expand our field of vision. After nearly 8 hours we are beginning to tire and keen to return to the warmth and security of our tent. We decide to take a short cut.
Suddenly I see Liam has half-disappeared. No more than 20 metres ahead of me he has plunged into a crevasse and within seconds is furiously wriggling himself out of it.
“My feet were dangling free”, he recounts to me, clearly spooked by the experience. We agree to revert to the original path of ascent. I tell myself that next time we will rope up. And not take short cuts.
An hour or so later we arrive at the tent of the British team, a couple of hundred metres below ours on the fringe of the summit plateau. They welcome us in for an inviting cup of tea and shortbread biscuits. Everything feels good and Liam and I are both very grateful for the hospitality. Liam’s hand is still shaking from his crevasse fall experience, and he struggles not to spill tea throughout the tent.
It is almost 9 am by the time we depart the following morning. Nick is already below us at Camp 3. Liam and I decide that we will travel as fast as we can to get as far down the mountain as possible today. We know we need to be on the other side of Prospector’s Col by midday, as the weather is expected to turn in the afternoon – with an unhealthy onslaught of 100mph winds predicted…
The following day the weather is beautiful and we descend all the way to base camp. After an overcast start the sky is clear by mid-morning and we are approaching the col. We can see the British team following some way behind. From the col we descend to Camp 3 in quick time, where we meet a solo Japanese climber and offload much of our remaining food. He is very grateful.
We continue down to Camp 2, but the afternoon sun has softened the snow and made the headwall traverse rather precarious as a result. I take over half an hour to descend the lower part of the face, being cautious with each step. No sooner am I resting at the bottom of the slope than the British team ski the same slope in about 20 seconds and join Liam and I for a snack break at our Camp 2 cache.
Nick has done a great job ahead of us uncovering the caches, making it easy for us to load them onto the sleds and continue our descent. Several hours later, at dusk, Liam and I pull into base camp exhausted but happy. Nick, Rich and others greet us with hugs and a hot bowl of tea – this mountain may have a reputation for being cold but the people help to make it a very warm place.