The Ascent of Mount Lucania

Publication Year: 1938.

The Ascent of Mount Lucania

Bradford Washburn

EVER since the conquest of Mt. Logan in 1925, the ascent of Mt. Lucania has loomed as one of the most difficult and involved mountaineering problems in North America. Rising to an altitude of 17,150 ft. in the extreme S.W. corner of the Yukon Territory, a few miles E. of the Alaskan border, Lucania enjoyed at the same time the reputation of being the highest unclimbed peak as well as one of the most isolated mountain summits on the continent.

First seen and named by the Duke of the Abruzzi from the summit of Mt. Saint Elias on July 31st, 1897, Mt. Lucania was never approached closely until nearly forty years later. In the Spring of 1935, working for the National Geographic Society, Pilot Robert Randall and I made a photographic flight from our base camp on the Lowell Glacier to reconnoitre the southern and eastern approaches to the Lucania massif. In July and August of the same year, the fine Wood Yukon Expedition succeeded in climbing Mt. Steele (16,600 ft.) a peak which rises less than 10 miles to the E. of the summit of Lucania. In March, 1936, Russell Dow, on another photographic flight for the National Geographic Society, further added to our knowledge of the southern approaches to Lucania by taking a beautiful series of detailed aerial pictures of the valley system at the head of Walsh Glacier.

Working with the facts gleaned from these various reconnaissances, both from the air and on the ground, Robert Bates and I planned a serious attempt to climb Lucania in the summer of 1937. The isolation of the peak made it financially impossible for us to contemplate approaching it by packtrain either from McCarthy on the W. or Burwash Landing to the E. The approach to Mt. Logan was considered one of the most difficult parts of that expedition, and to tackle Lucania from the W. meant a complete duplication of the Logan approach up the Chitina Valley and Logan Glacier, with a 30-mile ascent of the Walsh Glacier heaped on for good measure. The only possible access to Lucania from the E. was directly over the summit of Mt. Steele, in itself a very long and arduous march from Burwash Landing in Canada.

The Yukon Expedition had taught us the value of the airplane in solving just this sort of problem. Several of our pictures showed us that there was an excellent landing-place near the head of Walsh Glacier. There we decided to land our party and supplies for the climb. We hoped to be picked up and flown out to civilization in August, after our trip was over. We felt it of great importance, however, to take every possible precaution in case the plane should fail to be able to return for us, and before we left the East we made up a little waterproof album of a dozen aerial pictures illustrating in great detail every part of the route that we would have to follow to get out from the Walsh Glacier to Burwash Landing. We also secured a set of maps of the Logan area and the Chitina Valley and took them with us, mounted on muslin. Long talks with several members of the Mt. Logan Expedition familiarized us with all of the problems of the retreat down the Chitina River.

Our party was to consist of four men: Robert Bates, Russell Dow, Norman Bright, and myself. Bates needs no introduction to readers of this Journal. Russell Dow, of Woodsville, N. H., was a member of the 1933 and 1934 Mt. Crillon Expeditions, as well as having made glacial observations along the Alaskan coast with Osgood Field in 1935, and photographic flights for the National Geographic Society in the St. Elias Range in the winter of 1936. Norman Bright of Chehalis, Wash., had had no previous Alaskan experience but had done extensive climbing in the Sierras, the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains of the West.

Bob Reeve, our pilot, and Dow made three flights into the Walsh Glacier and cached all of our supplies safely there early in May at an altitude well over 8000 ft. These flights were made in a Wasp-equipped Fairchild 71 monoplane using skis, and operating off the snow-covered airport at Valdez, Alaska.

On June 18th, Bates, Reeve and I took off in Reeve’s smaller plane (a Fairchild 51) on special skis from the Valdez mud-flats, and made a three-hour flight, landing on the Walsh Glacier successfully late in the afternoon in the face of a heavy southeast storm. The storm broke before we could get the plane unloaded and camp established, and both plane and pilot were marooned with us for five days on the glacier. During that time the temperature rose even at night to higher than 60°, and we were simply deluged by heavy rain and thunderstorms—as unseasonable and amazing as the occurrence of a summer rainstorm in Florida.

The surface of the glacier aged months in those few days. Myriad crevasses cut our 6000-ft. landing strip nearly in half and it was only after digging the plane out of four hidden crevasses and changing the pitch of the propeller that we were able to get Reeve safely off for Valdez again when the weather cleared. The original plan had been for him to bring in Dow and Bright on a second load, but the condition of the surface of the glacier was so bad that this plan had to be entirely abandoned. Dow and Bright never came in, and Bates and I were marooned on the surface of the glacier, with a mighty long walk between us and civilization.

Our predicament was made doubly serious by the terribly broken up condition of the lower Walsh Glacier, which was really our shortest way out to civilization and safety. We gave this up as too dangerous for two men to attempt alone. The only other possible way out lay over the summit of Steele or by way of a pass near Mt. Walsh, 10 miles S. of Steele. Although we had good aerial pictures of this valley, neither of us wanted very much to risk everything in trying to get down it. To fail and then to have to climb back over the crest of the range to replenish our food supply and to take another try elsewhere would have been well- nigh impossible.

We finally decided that the safest and surest way out would be over the top of Steele. Although this involved a first ascent of the W. side of the mountain, and climbing to a great altitude with heavy loads, we would at least have the assurance, once atop Steele, that others had safely reached that same spot from Burwash Landing, and where they had been up, we were convinced that we could get down somehow.

Arming ourselves with fifty days of food, a Logan tent and the minimum of climbing equipment, we abandoned practically all of our valuable photographic and survey apparatus at the Walsh cache, and set out for Steele on June 25th. Using a small ski-sledge, we dragged two loads of supplies to Camp II, at about 9000 ft., 5 miles up-glacier, and thence, working on foot, relayed our supplies ahead as rapidly as possible, reaching our fifth camp at the very head of the Walsh Glacier on the morning of July 1st. Up to that point we had had but few clear hours. It snowed and fogged almost incessantly and we were forced to have our camps very close together because of the labor of breaking trail. By having them only 2 miles apart instead of 5 or 6, and by relaying loads over the trail two or three shifts a day, we constantly kept our trail well beaten down, and despite the weather managed to make fairly speedy progress. We used willow wands constantly to mark our routes. Without them we would scarcely have been able to move at all.

Camp V was located on the floor of a superb basin at the foot of the great 4000-ft. wall dropping southward from the 14,000-ft. plateau beween Lucania and Steele. A narrow ridge or buttress rises up this wall, and it was by this that we felt sure we could reach the pass and thence the summit of Steele. An evening clearoff on July 1st permitted us to reconnoitre and mark a route up the lower part of the wall, advancing as we did so through a barrier of seracs to the site for Camp VI on the ridge at 12,500 ft.

At Camp V we threw away one of our sleeping bags, an air mattress, about half our gasoline, and a good many small incidentals that were not absolutely necessary. Climbing on the ridge was abominable. The snow ranged from knee to waist deep and we were completely fagged out when Camp VI was finally established later on the night of July 3rd. A 2-ft. snowstorm further complicated matters and made the steep upper part of the ridge particularly hard going in several places, especially as it was nowhere gently-inclined enough to let us use our bearpaw snow- shoes.

After three relays to 13,800 ft. through heavy snow and dense fog, we dug ourselves in at Camp VII at midnight on July 5th. The following day, working with our aerial photographs and in dense clouds, we succeeded in worming our way around a very high serac barrier at the head of the buttress, and by noon had willow-wanded a route to the Steele-Lucania pass. The only way in which we could tell that it was our pass was because the slope descended on the opposite side. One load that night and three the next day over the short, steep route between Camp VII and Camp VIII and we were finally established on the great divide later on July 7th.

Our only plan till that time had been to save our skins by a speedy retreat to civilization and safety over Steele. We knew that it would be hopeless to try to relay down the E. ridge of Steele. When we left this pass camp we must have on our backs everything necessary to get us out to Burwash with no relaying whatsoever.

We had there, however, about ten days more food than we would possibly need in our dash into Canada, and we decided to use this in a last desperate attempt to get Lucania, rather than simply to abandon our plans on the pass. We had worked unceasingly up to this point without a single day off, in hopes that we could use the bad weather low down and then profit by clear skies higher up where our every move depended on them.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed a very long rest. After a long sleep on the 8th, the weather suddenly broke. We loaded our camp rapidly onto our backs, leaving a cache of food and gasoline at the pass, and at ten that night established Camp IX at the very foot of the final mass of Lucania. We had been forced to descend about 1000 ft. on the N. side of the mountain in order to make a traverse and get camp at the bottom of a good route up the last steep slopes.

On the next day, climbing unloaded at last, we wallowed our way upward through interminable powder snow to the summit of Lucania, which we reached at 4.45 in the afternoon after nearly eight hours of continuous climbing.

Space makes it impossible here to tell of the magnificent view from the top of Lucania. The temperature stood at close to zero and scarcely a cloud lay in any direction except to the E. over the great lowlands of Canada. Every peak in the St. Elias Range, from Bona 60 miles to the N. to Fairweather 225 miles to the S., stood out crystal clear. It was scarcely possible to believe that Logan was well over 30 miles away—its immense summit ridge and cliffs stood out in such colossal scale.

Late that night, stiff, weary but triumphant, we straggled into camp and had a royal banquet as the sun was setting in a glorious blaze of color behind the lofy crest of far-away Bona. Our long shot had been a success and Lucania was conquered !

Thrilled as we were with our success, we were by no means out of trouble yet. Sixty miles of mountain, glacier and muskeg, as well as the summit of Steele, still lay between us and our next sleep in a bed ! On the morning after the climb we threw away nearly all our food, our largest cooking pot, most of our clothes, and cut half the floor out of the tent to save weight. By noon we had again reached Camp VIII, on another cool, clear, windless day. That night we reconnoitred and broke trail to a point 200 yards below the summit of Steele and left two 50-lb. loads where our willow-wand supply ran out at 15,500 ft. Almost every night above Camp V the temperature had hovered about zero, with the minimum of —14° the night before we had climbed Lucania. On the night of July 10th, an icy northerly wind bore down on our little camp. The thermometer dropped only to —9°, but the weather was so bitter because of blowing snow and cold that we did not get started till nearly nine on the morning of the 11th. That noon, with two 75-lb. loads, we made the 16,400-ft shoulder that we had reached the night before. Leaving our loads there, we climbed the final cone of Steele under ideal weather conditions. The St. Elias Range was again cloudless from end to end, except for a reddish haze—the certain forerunner of bad weather— over the peaks to the S. W.

One of the grandest thrills of our whole tiny expedition was the discovery now on the very tip-top of Steele, of a large bundle of willow-wands jammed on the highest snowdrift about two years before by Walter Wood. The fact that these wands had not been buried 6 inches in their long cold vigil on that exposed, snowy outpost is mute evidence of the terrific wind that must scream and lash across that desolate drift when the weather is not so pleasant as we found it on that balmy July afternoon.

After an exultant half hour rest on top of Steele, we returned to our loads at three o’clock. There we threw away from our 75- pound packs, food, our last spare clothing, the shovel, the tent pegs, our only air-mattress, and all the gasoline but three pints. We cut the entire bottom out of the tent and sliced off all the guy ropes as well in a last desperate effort to cut weight.

At 3.20 we started down the long E. ridge and, after an endless tussle with deep snow, ice and breakable crust, we finally pitched camp 9000 ft. below on a moraine at the head of Wolf Creek glacier at 8.35 that night. Continuing in general along the route followed by the Wood party two years before, we descended the glacier the next day to a point 2 miles below Wood’s “advanced base” (Camp 6).1 The night of the 13th saw us camped on the shores of the Donjek, 20 miles further toward Kluane Lake and Burwash Landing.

The crossing of the Donjek proved one of the most formidable obstacles and harrowing experiences of the trip. Its treacherous, icy waters, impossible at times to pass even on horseback, forced us to detour nearly 20 miles upstream before we could find a safe ford.

With food running low, we descended the E. shore of the river, bolstering our nearly empty larder with red squirrels and a rabbit killed with our six-shooters, and mushrooms picked in the woods at every rest.

On the afternoon of July 19th, as we were bogging our weary way through a swamp on the last pass before our goal, we met a friendly pack train which took us to a nearby cabin. There we feasted with them for twenty-four hours and thence rode in state to Burwash, each astride a pack-saddle on one of the most docile packhorses in all the Yukon.

That 35-mile ride will always linger in my memory as the most excruciating torture that I have ever endured. The proudest of mountaineers, unfortunately, may find themselves to be the very humblest of horsemen ! The superb reception given us by Gene Jacquot at his Burwash Trading Post, however, will happily linger far longer in our memories than our limbs will bear evidence of the horrible ride. But we found our reward at the Trading Tost. I have never eaten so much sheep steak or lemon meringue pie in all my life!

On July 20th, the beautiful silver Electra of Pan-American Airways dropped out of the skies to take us to supper in Fairbanks, and the Lucania climb was over. We had done what we set out to do, but by no means exactly in the way we had hoped we would do it !

Two factors more than any others contributed to our success. The first was the superb piloting of Bob Reeve, who, in landing us at the bottom of Lucania, accomplished four times in succession the highest freight landings ever made anywhere in a ski-equipped airplane. The second was the fearless determination and inspiring companionship of Robert Bates.

1 See A. A. J., 1935.