American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Ascent of Mt. Steele

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  • Publication Year: 1936

The Ascent of Mt. Steele

Walter A. Wood, Jr.

ABOUT 40 miles north of Mt. Logan, in Yukon Territory, lies a group of peaks which, while more publicized neighbors have been visited, climbed and studied, has remained comparatively neglected. Due to the proximity of the International Boundary the principal peaks were recognized and their positions and heights determined during the operations of the International Boundary Commission survey in 1909, 1912, and 1913. Since then the group has received scant notice. The Mount Logan expedition mentions Mt. Lucania, the highest unclimbed peak in North America, and Allen Carpe reports having seen Mts. Lucania, Steele, and Wood from the summit of Mt. Bona. But with the exception of hunting parties which have periodically visited the more accessible valleys to the north and east, the glaciers and peaks of the groups have remained unexplored.

It was the purpose of the Wood Yukon Epedition of 1935 to conduct an experimental aerial survey of the region, using recently developed methods of mapping from air photographs. The survey formed part of the research program of reconnaissance aerial surveying of the American Geographical Society of New York under whose auspices the expedition went into the field.

A study of existing maps indicated that the heart of the range could most easily be reached from the east via Whitehorse and Kluane Lake, but final decision on routes once Kluane Lake was left behind was reserved until a flight could be made to discover the reliability of the few maps which indicated glacier systems leading from the range.

Although the scientific program was of primary importance, it was nevertheless hoped that the expedition would be successful in climbing one or more prominent peaks, and at the outset Mt. Lucania had been tentatively selected as the climbing objective. To this end the personnel of the party included six mountaineers, I. Peace Hazard, Joseph W. Fobes, Harrison Wood, Hans Fuhrer, guide, Mrs. Wood and myself. Miss Adeline Hazard accompanied the climbing party to one of its upper camps and Mrs. Harrison Eustis journeyed to the advance Base Camp.

Toward the end of June all the members of the party gathered at Burwash Landing, a small settlement near the northern end of Kluane Lake. The Jacquot Brothers, who for more than a score of years have bred and raised horses for outfitting hunting parties, supplied the necessary pack train, and on July 1st we set out with thirty-four pack and saddle horses westward towards the mountains.

Though it is but 30 miles from Burwash Landing to the Donjek Valley, we made it in two stages. The entire way led across water-soaked tundra into which the horses sank at every step and we were thankful indeed when the firm floor of the Donjek Valley appeared below us. The Donjek River flows northward from the Donjek Glacier which in turn is fed by the snows of the St. Elias Range. Its waters join those of White River, one of the principal tributaries of the Yukon. To the west of the Donjek and between it and the International Boundary rise the peaks in which we were interested.

A flight over the area to obtain photographs for mapping purposes had given us a good idea of the topography. It had also dispelled an important illusion. Existing maps showed a large glacier system flowing northeast from the slopes of Mt. Lucania and draining into the Donjek Valley a few miles below the snout of the Donjek Glacier. In so doing the main ice stream is indicated as flowing between Mt. Wood on the north and Mt. Steele. Actually nothing of the sort occurs, for a 12-mile ice-encrusted ridge connects Mt. Wood and Mt. Steele, and its lowest point cannot be lower than 11,000 ft. Thus we would be cut off from Mt. Lucania unless a series of camps could be established from the Donjek Valley up 20 miles of glacier, over the ridge and onto the slopes of the mountain. The idea was anything but entertaining. Such a program, besides being fraught with considerable danger through our being cut off from our base in the event of prolonged bad weather, would have seriously handicapped our scientific program. Our flight did show, however, that though the features of the glacier shown on the map were somewhat distorted, such a system did exist and afforded an avenue of approach to both Mt. Wood and Mt. Steele. It was decided, therefore, to investigate this system and if possible climb one of those two peaks.

On July 5th Base Camp was established at an elevation of about 4000 ft., just below timber line, and above the snout of the glacier which we had observed from the air. To conform to the local name applied to its valley we named it Wolf Creek Glacier. Some 10 miles to the west the glacier could be seen to bend towards the south a few miles short of Mt. Wood which towered 12,000 ft. above us, framed by the abrupt valley walls which we came to realize are characteristic of the topography of the region.

Progress now resolved itself into establishing a line of camps up the glacier. This was by no means an easy task for the glacier itself could not be used as an avenue. The gradient is slight, and the lower 15 miles are in a state of stagnation. It resembles nothing so closely as a long succession of refuse heaps. Here and there, where watercourses have cut their way down to the glacier bed, ice shows through the mantle of detritus. Small lakes are constantly being formed by damming only to break their bonds and continue the disintegration of what must once have been a fine ice stream. Our only alternative was to follow the true right bank, which, though composed of morainal material, and consequently most disagreeable going, at least occasionally afforded narrow sheep trails along which progress was easy and a delight.

We were still about 20 miles from the foot of Mt. Steele and, in order to prevent much loss of time through backpacking the entire supply of equipment and food up the glacier it was decided to investigate the possibility of pushing the pack horses further up. While Hans and I went off on a three-day reconnaissance the remaining members in Base Camp began the construction of a trail over which to lead the horses.

Our investigation, though beset by the same rainy weather which dogged us all summer long, was successful in that from a summit of about 10,000 ft., above the bend in Wolf Creek Glacier, we were able to catch glimpses of the upper reaches of the glacier and to determine that, by following it, we could reach the base of Mt. Steele. We also discovered the upper limit to which horses could be led. This limit took the form of a tributary glacier entering the main ice stream about a mile above the bend and across which horse transport was quite out of the question.

On returning to Base Camp we were amazed to find a graded route almost suitable for motorcycles had been constructed for about 2 miles up glacier. In addition, a tributary torrent had been bridged with five spruce trees and lashed to boulders on either bank, and since the nearest trees were half a mile below the torrent, it is to the credit of those engaged in its construction that without it it is improbable that the higher camps could have been established in time to benefit by the eventual spell of fine weather during which Mt. Steele was climbed.

As the highway progressed upwards, survey operations were being carried out, and when finally the pack train, which had returned to Kluane Lake for additional supplies, arrived, all was in readiness for the advance to a higher Base Camp.

There can be little doubt that the eventual success of the expedition’s program, both scientific and climbing, was made possible by the horses. My experience with pack trains was limited in the extreme and I had imagined that the tundra passage would approach the limit of what they could do. Briefly, any such illusion was quickly dispelled. On reaching the end of the graded trail they made their way over boulder-strewn slopes, across rock slides, and through raging torrents high from recent rains and melting snow, with but the single slip on the part of one horse which lost its footing on a smooth slab, somersaulted down some 50 ft., then collected itself and its load and placidly rejoined the file as though nothing had occurred. In two trips they brought forward in equipment what would have required a month or more to pack on men’s backs. It was therefore with regret that on July 20th we said good-bye to them and turned to the problem of advancing up the glacier to the foot of Mt. Steele.

As mentioned previously, the gradient of Wolf Creek Glacier is gentle, about 125 ft. per mile, so at the advance Base Camp we found ourselves still below the 6000-ft. contour and about 11 miles in a direct line from Mt. Steele which towered glistening white at what appeared to be the head of the glacier. An intervening ridge around which the glacier sweeps masked its lower slopes, but that Wolf Creek Glacier would lead us to them there was little doubt. No other drainage was possible.

Mt. Steele stands on the watershed of the Yukon River and is characterized on the Yukon side by three ridges and two faces. From our advance Base Camp, which came to be known as Camp 6, two of these ridges were clearly visible, one the aforementioned ridge connecting Mt. Wood and Mt. Steele, and the other a long, broad ridge sweeping from below the summit southeastward towards Mt. Walsh (14,700 ft.). The third or east ridge descended from a plateau below the summit towards Camp 6 then bent sharply southeastward and became lost to view behind an intervening ridge. The northeast face, in full view of Camp 6, consisted of a long snow and ice slope descending from the plateau and was much broken up with séracs. Of the face enclosed between the east and southeast ridges we could see nothing.

Speculation was rife as to which of the various faces or ridges would provide a safe route to the summit. The northeast face was immediately discarded as too dangerous and the southeast ridge was also counted out as too circuitous, but possible, should the other ridges prove undesirable. This left the north and east ridges and the unseen southeast face. Of the two ridges, the east seemed to provide the most direct route if certain steep slopes and knife-edge ridges could be overcome, and it appeared also that it might be possible to establish a high camp on a shoulder about 4000 ft. below the summit.

Before any definite climbing plans could be made, however, it was necessary to approach the peak and study it more closely. Accordingly, during the week following the pitching of Camp 6, supplies were pushed forward to Camp 7 on the right bank of the main glacier. Unseasonable weather which, we found out later, was prevalent all along the Coast Range during last summer, prevented occupation of Camp 7 since the food supplies cached there were intended for a camp on Mt. Steele. Finally, on July 25th, after a night at Camp 7, Hans and I pushed on up the glacier which at this stage was beginning to resemble what the word signifies. Mt. Steele was obscured behind the ridge mentioned previously as obstructing the view of the lower slopes from Camp 6, but the glacier could be seen to sweep around the end of it and on reaching the bend we were rewarded with a view of our peak rising over 9000 ft. above the glaciers at its base. It was immediately obvious that the east ridge was worth an attempt. In fact, from this angle it appeared to be the only possible means of safe approach. We continued on and six hours after leaving Camp 7, arrived at the lowest point of the east ridge and selected a sheltered site for Camp 8 on the moraine of a tributary glacier draining from Steele’s northeast face. After pitching a tent and stowing away other paraphernalia, we retreated back to Camp 7 where we were joined by Hazard, Fobes, and H. Wood who had come up from Camp 6 the same day with additional equipment.

The following day all five of us advanced to Camp 8 with two more tents, sleeping bags, food, and clothing. It was the hardest day’s packing of the trip, the average load being about 75 pounds with at least one pack being nearer 100. It was planned that the next day would be one of rest, and on the day following we would attempt Mt. Steele. This program was only half completed, for although we enjoyed a day off after seven consecutive days of hard packing, the weather, which for three days had been very fine, resumed its attempts to drive us out of the region. By the morning of July 28th two feet of snow had fallen and we were only too glad to retreat down to Camp 7 where we were greeted with hot food and drink by Mrs. Wood and Miss Hazard. When the weather showed no signs of clearing up we all continued through to Camp 6, planning to bring up more food at the first opportunity.

Two days later the advance began again only to be stopped at Camp 7 by even worse weather than before and again we retreated to the comfort of the advance base. Finally, on August 6th, after nearly a week of foul weather during which Mt. Steele was visible only two or three times, and then but for a fleeting moment or two, the day dawned cold and clear and we decided on one more advance. Conforming to schedule we retired to bed that evening to the sound of gently falling snowflakes on the tent roof.

By this time our frequent advances had stocked Camp 7 with sufficient food for a two-weeks’ residence for four men, so rather than retreat again we proceeded forward to Camp 8 despite the weather. Snow continued to fall through August 7th but at midday on the 8th the clouds broke quickly and we decided that, should the night be clear, we would leave at midnight and have one final go at the mountain. Consequently all was put in readiness before retiring for a few hours’ rest at 6.00 p.m.

At 10.30 p.m. we awoke and breakfasted, but those last-minute arrangements which invariably seem to occur in mountaineering, prevented our setting out until half an hour after midnight. The weather was clear but not cold, only 26° F., and we made our way quickly upwards over rocks and finally a long snow slope to the top of the first buttress which marks the end proper of Steele’s east ridge. From here we had our first view of the summit from a point on the mountain. Looking across the sheer southeast face with its occasional rock pitches but predominantly icy character, it was difficult to believe that the summit still towered nearly 7000 ft. above. The east ridge rises in a series of moderately steep snow ridges with gradual intermediate lessening of slope until the shoulder where it bends towards the summit is reached. This shoulder was visible from the first buttress and conservative estimates seemed to indicate that we should reach it in about four hours. Although we did not set foot on the shoulder we reached its altitude in slightly less than seven hours.

From the buttress upward the climbing was never difficult though more than once we were forced away from the ridge by deep snow and followed the margin of rock to the left. After reaching the 11,000-ft. level we came to the bottom of a long, steep snow slope, one which was clearly visible from Camp 6 and about which we had often speculated. It was certainly steep, 50° by our clinometer, and we soon found that it was going to be laborious, for the recent snow falls had left a deep blanket of new snow on its surface. Especially arduous was it for Hans as leader, and only after two hours of heart-breaking effort did the slope lessen and we found ourselves on a section of nearly horizontal ridge but still below the shoulder. It was 7 o’clock and we halted for a much-needed breakfast. The weather was glorious but higher up on the ridge and on the summit slopes we could see streamers of snow being eddied into the air. This did not particularly concern us, for scarcely a clear day had failed to show the presence of wind on the upper slopes and we were prepared for it, or at least thought we were.

From the breakfast place the ridge narrowed to knife-edge proportions and the fresh snow did not make for rapid progress. Shortly after 8 o’clock we first felt the wind and stopped to put on our down-lined parkas. A few moments later ice was encountered beneath the thinner coating of snow where the wind had blown away the most recent fall. With each upward step the wind seemed to increase, and when we stopped to put on crampons we found the maneuver almost impossible. Snow sifted into everything and stiff fingers refused to obey orders. Harrison and Hans in some as yet unexplained manner managed to affix their irons but Joe and I desisted after feeble efforts. In order to give Hans a much needed rest we changed the lead and continued upward and across the slope, aiming at a point on the east ridge above the shoulder.

Now for the first time we began to doubt our eventual success. The wind still increased in violence and we were high enough to observe milky colored clouds drifting toward us from the sea. Despite the warning we kept on going until at 10 o’clock a halt was called to discuss the situation. We had progressed only 500 ft. during the last hour and the wind was now picking up slabs of crust two feet in diameter and hurling them across the ridge above us. The summit was scarcely visible amid a swirl of blowing powder snow. To the south Mt. Logan stood up gray and unimpressive while the sky above us had acquired the same milky appearance at first noticed toward the ocean. Though we were all comfortably warm in our parkas, it was evident that at our rate of progress we could not hope to reach the summit before the storm broke in earnest. Ten years previously another party had experienced the severity of a high-altitude Yukon storm at a point clearly visible from our present position. We had no desire to repeat the experience. Besides, the deep snow had taken its toll lower down and the altitude was beginning to tell on us. Reluctantly, though as it turned out, wisely, we turned back and, following the wands inserted in the snow, were soon down to the knife-edge ridge. Here we were subjected to the full force of the wind and, despite the care which such a ridge necessitates, one of us was blown clear of his steps and tossed out onto the northeast face. The rest of the descent was uneventful and we arrived in camp shortly before the storm broke.

All that night the blizzard raged, at times the flapping of the tents sounding like the fire of a machine gun battery, and we were frequently brought from our sleeping bags to hold them down. On August 10th the storm abated momentarily and Hans and Joe went down to Camp 6. Harrison and I remained, hoping against hope that the weather would clear and allow us to complete necessary survey operations. Another attempt on Mt. Steele we did not even consider. But the blizzard did not let up. After allowing Hans and Joe a two-hour headstart, it resumed its attack with more ferocity than ever. For two days and nights we were confined to our sleeping bags with three sorties a day to the food tent.

At noon on August 12th the weather staged one of those about-faces to which we were accustomed, and in the afternoon we managed to establish a survey station on the lower slopes of the mountain. Then the clouds closed in again and to bed we went. Joe and Hans ploughed up from Camp 6 the next day and reported over a fot of snow there. At Camp 8 we had had 3.5 ft.

The morning of the 14th broke clear and cold, the coldest we had experienced there (+12° F.). Wishing to get one more station as high as possible on Mt. Steele we set off at 9 o’clock and after reaching the first buttress, followed our footsteps of the first attempt. To our amazement the surface was firm and the going far easier than on our previous visit. In less than three hours we reached the foot of the long 50° slope and soon completed our observations. By two in the afternoon we were back in camp and discussing the advisability of another attempt on Mt. Steele. The weather was fine and no wind had been observed on the upper slopes. We decided to leave after midnight.

When we arose at 11.30 p.m. there could be no mistaking the fact that we were due for a fine day. The night was wonderfully clear and cold (+5° F.) and we prepared to leave to the accompaniment of chattering teeth. Later on the minimum thermometer in my sack registered —4° F. We left camp at 1.15 and climbing quickly in our prepared steps, reached the survey station as dawn was breaking. A slope of drifted snow checked us momentarily, then we encountered the dreaded 50° slope. But today it was different. A bit of searching landed us on a hard surface of wind slab and we had little more to do than to kick steps straight up. The knife-edge ridge, though troublesome, was uneventfully passed, and after a taxing hour on a sheltered slope of deep snow we emerged on the long-sought shoulder. It was 8 o’clock. We were well in advance of our previous schedule with half the climb completed. On this climb we alternated the lead every fifteen minutes to conserve our strength and climbed unroped, each member of the party being entirely capable of looking after himself.

From the shoulder the ridge broadened and sloped only gently for a few hundred yards. Due to its breadth, good snow was hard to find and we wallowed at times to our thighs in powder snow. As we approached the plateau below the summit the slope quickly steepened and the ridge narrowed in harmony. Occasionally we encountered ice and steps had to be cut, but this was far to be preferred to wading. As the ridge steepened we found ourselves enjoying the climb more and more. It was the only technically difficult part, and we made the most of it.

Shortly after noon we emerged onto the plateau and saw the final pyramid at close quarters. Our altitude was estimated at just short of 15,000 ft. This left us less than 2000 ft. to go.

Setting out across the plateau, which must be 1000 ft. wide, we were soon reduced by abominable snow to crawling across the surface. The humor of it impressed me. Here were four supposedly normal human beings crawling across a snow field 15,000 ft. up in the air, engaged in what they fondly believed to be a sporting venture. The humor would quickly have disappeared had a crevasse been encountered. But none was met and we found ourselves on the final slopes. Of the last hour memory bears but fleeting record. Scarcely a step was taken but we measured our progress against the fast-sinking summit of Mt. Wood to our north. We were now changing the lead every 100 paces to reduce the monotony of setting a pace. Finally during my turn in the lead—the twenty-eighth change since the plateau ; we counted them unerringly as an excuse to take our minds off tiring limbs—I looked ahead for the best route. No search was necessary. Before us rose a four-foot wall of snow and nothing more. At 2.30 we stepped onto the summit of Mt. Steele.

Although the air was cold (+15° F.), not a breath of air stirred. Far away to the northeast a bank of clouds obscured the horizon and to the northwest stretched a sea of cloud through which two peaks emerged, Mt. Bona and what was probably Mt. Sanford. The remaining arc of horizon was cloudless. Near at hand Mt. Lucania overtopped us by 500 ft., a fine peak from this angle and worthy of any attack directed toward its summit. Forty miles away but seemingly nearer twenty stood Mt. Logan, probably the most massive mountain in the world, though far from beautiful; Mt. St. Elias, partly obscured by Mt. Logan; Mts. Cook, Vancouver, and Hubbard, farther away but beautiful in the haze of distance; and finally, so distant as to be almost mistaken for a cloud, Mt. Fair-weather. Between the Hubbard-Vancouver group and ourselves stretched the maze of glacier systems and peaks explored earlier in the year by Bradford Washburn.

Only to the northeast was ice-free ground to be seen. Past the Wolf Creek Range, through the heart of which we had come, a dark trench wandered northward—the Donjek—and farther back the hills to the east of Kluane Lake merged into the distant cloud banks. We left the summit after a brief half hour and 9 o’clock in the evening found us glissading the last few hundred feet into camp.

1Mt. Lucania (17,150 ft.), named by H. R. H. The Duke of the Abruzzi for the ship which brought him to America. Mt. Steele (16,644 ft.), named in 1900 by J. J. McArthur for Col. S. B. Steele, in command of the Northwest Mounted Police, Dawson, 1899. Mt. Wood (15,885 ft.), named for Major Z. T. Wood, commanding the Northwest Mounted Police, Dawson, 1900

2For a more complete account of the expedition's activities, see Geographical Review, xxvi, April 1936

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