American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

An Attempt on Mt. Wood, St. Elias Range

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  • Publication Year: 1940

An Attempt on Mt. Wood, St. Elias Range

Foresta Hodgson Wood

Permission for the Third Wood Yukon Expedition having been granted by the Canadian authorities, we set out on June 27th for Seattle, Skagway and Whitehorse. Walter Wood, Anderson Bakewell, Roger Drury and myself made up the personnel. We hoped to complete a program, begun in 1935, of perfecting field techniques of a method of mapping wilderness areas by means of high-oblique aerial photographs, which has been developed at the American Geographical Society during the last nine years.

The weather is the greatest unknown factor in this southwestern section of the Yukon Territory. We were supplied with carefully considered equipment and properly computed food values for two months in the rugged mountainous country; but the weather was out of our hands. No way of supplying ourselves with the desirable number of fine days for the photographic survey. However, we had plenty of optimism.

From Whitehorse we flew 150 miles N. W. to Burwash Landing, a trading post on Kluane Lake. It was here that the Jacquot Brothers outfitted us with horses for the first reconnaissance into the heart of this section of the St. Elias Range in 1935. Several days of checking equipment, sorting and repacking supplies followed, and on July 15th we were off with a pack-train of thirty horses. Two days across high, swampy tundra, then down into the broad flood plain of the Donjek River which carries the swift water of uncounted glaciers. This river of ever-shifting channels must be crossed in the early morning before the sun melts the snow and ice above, causing the waters to rise too high to make a crossing safe, or even possible. Then up the boulder-strewn moraine of the true right bank of Wolf Creek Glacier for two days, where we found traces of the trail and most of the cairns we had made in 1935.

At our first camp above timber-line, the main pack-train left us with orders to return two months later. We kept with us three horses and one Indian, Sammy, to help relay our stuff forward to our eventual Base Camp over the increasing upheaval of moraine and boulder slopes and through the many turbulent tributary streams, rumbling with unseen boulders, which crossed our way. Near one of these streams we came across the sad rock-chewed remains of a rucksack and a suit of huge long woolen underwear. Knowing that, besides ourselves, Bradford Washburn and Robert Bates were the only living beings able to make use of long woolies to have passed this place, we came to the conclusion that they had discarded them on their long trek out after their climb of Mt. Lucania in 1937. Ten days after leaving Kluane Lake we were established at our Base Camp at the bend of the glacier, at an altitude of 550 ft., with Mt. Steele1 strikingly beautiful to the S. and and Mt. Wood, massive and majestic, the same distance W. across the glacier.

Careful reconnoitering proved the great stagnant glacier with its rubble, icefalls, and crevasses impossible for horses, and on July 25th we said good-bye to Sammy, the competent Indian, and the last of the horses. We also said good-bye to good weather, although we were happily unaware of this, for the next day the first snow fell in Base Camp, a month earlier than it had done in 1935. A week of arduous back-packing more than a ton of supplies across the glacier followed. Advance Base Camp (ABC) was established at 5700 ft. in the valley on the far side and, on August 2nd was occupied by the entire party.

Mt. Wood, rising to 15,880 ft. eleven miles to the W., was the objective for high photographic ground survey stations to link up the groundwork of the previous expeditions. The mountaineering impulse in each of us quickened with the nearness of the mountain. Spirits were high, but the barometer was low. Sure that it would soon rise, we decided to start establishing camps on the mountain itself to be ready to take advantage of good weather when it came. The old optimism was still with us.

Familiarity with our photographs of the mountain taken on reconnaissance flights helped in deciding the route and the number and positions of necessary camps. During the next few days gopher-chewed tents were mended, wild mountain sheep (Ovis Dalli) were shot to supply us with fresh meat for the high camps, and when the clouds lifted and the sun shone for a few hours we were able to get a necessary survey station. The unpromising weather bothered us very little, for overcast days were fine for backpacking, and we made arrangements with light hearts and great dispatch to move toward the high places.

The way to Camp I led over soft tundra covering the lower talus slopes, more roaring glacier streams to be crossed in the early morning, past high blue glacial lakes edged with moss and flowers and set in the midst of desolate moraine. On over tiring rubble and rock and at last up a steep, high moraine to the vicinity of snow line. On August 8th, at 7200 ft., we found ourselves camped on rock beside a singing, silt-laden stream (undrinkable) with a broad glacier below and a glorious view of snow mountains all about us. The next day was a rare one with a good share of sun and Camp 2 was located about 2000 ft. above and stocked with food for a week. The next morning dawned beautifully celar and with heavy packs, including scientific equipment, we climbed the boulder-strewn moraine till it disappeared beneath the surface of the ice. On the highest rocks a survey station was established and a complete round of photographs taken. From this point on we were almost continually on snow. We roped to cross the now sun-softened, deeply snow covered glacier, sinking sometimes waist deep, never knowing how far the next step would let us down. Hidden crevasses, impossible to see due to the flat light, made progress slow, and the leader had the worst of it of course.

Camp 2 was finally reached in mid-afternoon and, as clouds came rolling in, we pitched our two small tents, facing each other as usual, on a rock platform. The rubble-covered ice slope on which we were situated rose steeply from the edge of the glacier for several hundred feet and was crowned by a great icefall above and to our right. Small stone falls rattled down from the jagged pinnacles above and we had a stream of ice water (drinkable) running conveniently between the tents. We went to sleep to the sound of stone falls, of melt water running under our rock platform, the occasional roar of séracs falling from the icefall of the upper glacier, and the soft plop of snow on the tent roof.

It lifted enough by 10 o’clock next morning to explore the route upward and to locate Camp 3 at 10,300 ft., on a small snow ledge 100 ft. above the catchment basin of the East Valiant Glacier,2 with the lip of a crevasse on one hand and the knife-edge ridge of Mt. Wood rising abruptly on the other. A veritable Shangri-La we thought it, in a world of snow and ice. From here, given decent weather conditions we felt that the mountain could be climbed. Back at Camp 2 we went happily to sleep with dreams of an early start the next morning for the final relay to Camp 3. But the next day it snowed, and the next, and the next. On the fifth day retreat was in order for although there was food for a week at Camp 3, more was necessary at Camp 2 for safety’s sake.

Down to ABC and a day and a half of what we called rest but which was, in reality, one continuous meal, after which, on the 17th, we started up again for Camp 1. Clouds were cascading over the Steele ridge but the barometer was rising slowly. The next morning a rose and flame sunrise awakened us at four and we were up and away by six. Snow conditions were a joy compared to the last trips; crevasses were well bridged, and we made Camp 2 by 9 A.M. Our site was well chosen, for avalanches had fallen to the right and left of our two little tents, but these were safe and dry. While we rested and had a small lunch the ominous portent of the night before was fulfilled. Snow began to fall, everything closed in and there was no hope of pushing on to Camp 3 that day as we had planned. At midnight a terrific wind hit our tent startling the sleeping camp into immediate watchfulness. It banged down on us from the mountain, and then, continuing to grow in force, perversely roared up from the valley and occasionally hit us broadside down the steep slope under which we were camped. The tiny tents strained and tugged furiously. It seemed impossible that they could stand against this wild unpredictable bombardment. Snow rattled on canvas and even sifted through the finely woven tent walls, covering the sleeping bags and I gathered my cameras into mine to try to keep them dry. The great force of the gale died down after several hours and we slept in damp eiderdowns, exhausted.

The following day it stopped snowing about noon and the spirits soared again with the rising barometer. Tomorrow we would surely make Camp 3. On August 20th we were up at 4 A.M. rejoicing in a clear morning. Before the breaking of camp was accomplished, which took time due to ropes being frozen to anchor rocks and buried in ice and snow, high cirrus drifted in and the barometer fell a few hundredths as we started. Soon it was overcast, and we were thankful for the wands placed on the first trip to guide us, for it was hard work breaking trail through soft wet snow with seventy-lb. loads. After five hours, which should have been nearer two, we gained the base of the ridge and found our tent bone dry on the wind-swept surface. The view was shut away by mist and clouds and as we pitched our second tent the eternal snow began to fall. But we had reached this goal at last after ten days of weather watching, one complete retreat, snow-bound days and wind swept nights. Now let it blow but let the sun come out to settle the snow and we will take our chance when it comes!

Two more days and nights of snow and wind alterating and intermingling, both inside and out. Tent floors were pools of water by day and sheets of ice by night, and on the third day the sun rose, miraculously revealing range on range of snowy mountains in a great semi-circle, broken only by the pyramid of the Fore Peak to the E., the glacier below gleaming in the foreground and Mt. Steele clear cut against the sky. A reconnaissance of the ridge to the shoulder was in order. Step-cutting would thus be accomplished and the first quarter of the climb to the summit would be made easier and therefore quicker. Today’s sun would have time to settle the new snow and we would get photographs that could not be taken on an earlier start. Thus we reasoned; and we prayed for the weather to hold.

A two and a half hour climb brought us up the corniced ridge above camp, a 50°-60° grade in places; over a deep gaping schrund and onto the shoulder about 1500 ft. above camp, where deeply drifted snow covering an icefield made progress exceedingly slow. From this point the route to the summit was studied. From time to time the top of Mt. Wood showed golden through the clouds encouraging us ; but the questionable snow conditions and the uncertainty of the weather made it seem wiser to save ourselves for the morrow when the snow should have settled somewhat and the steps already cut up the ridge would greatly shorten our time. Down to Camp 3 we went in high spirits where all preparations were made to climb the next day. At 3.30 that afternoon it began to snow again. All night it snowed, and for the next day and night the vigil we kept was unrewarded. We lived in a world of blank mist, cold, and snow which all but covered the tents, until the evening of third day, when with one more day’s food to go, we cheered the sun ; and that night a half moon rode high and clear over the summit of Mt. Steele. That night was the coldest we had, 10° F. at 6 A.M.

The next morning brought the perfect cloudless sunrise we had waited for so long. We scraped the snow from the buried rope and crampons, and though Walter was not too hopeful of the snow conditions, it was up today or down to ABC for more supplies. At 6.45 A.M. we started up with Walter saying, “We go only so far as snow conditions will let us in safety.” The cornice on the ridge had completely reversed itself. It now overhung to the S. W., having been formed by a northerly wind, and was far bigger. All our carefully made steps had vanished and the new cornice had to be swept away and the possibility of avalanche weighed.

A gruelling few hours of alternating hope and doubt brought us at last to our cache of willow wands, left on our reconnaissance climb and now buried in twelve inches more of new snow. Here boots were removed and numb toes massaged to ward off threatened frostbite. After a meal of sausage, cheese, chocolate and a few dates, we roused ourselves and started off again across the plateau toward a steeper ascent. Because of the deep snow, Walter abandoned his first route which lay up the face between two icefalls and took a curving, uphill route to the S. W. Leaving the icefall on our right we traversed a steep wind-blown slope, on the alert for avalanches, to the base of the most easterly of three black rocks, the highest and, I think, the only exposed rock on this face of the mountain. Here the snow was feathery deep and insecure around the rock. After several attempts on the rock face, Walter selected the ridge itself and, with rarely a handhold, gained a tiny spur above us where he was secure. Two hours later we had all negotiated the rocks and the feathery ridge which rose steeply to another high plateau.

During this time, shortly after noon, a breeze had sprung from somewhere and gradually freshened, ruffling and blowing the snow. At 1.30 we stopped for another lunch and more rubbing of fingers and toes, and here, at about 13,000 ft., we decided to abandon the crampons. Walter estimated that it might be another five or six hours to the summit, the snow being as it was, which would get us there about 6 P.M., several hours later than we had hoped. But the downhill would be nothing by comparison ; we would be in camp by midnight, and the nights were not yet very dark here near the arctic, and besides there was a moon.

The snow surface was difficult to read and with the drift and crust alternating interminably, the lead changed every half-hour. At about 13,500 ft. we had a magnificent panorama starting with Mt. Lucania to the S., the ridge to Mt. Steele; Mt. Hubbard, 75 miles away; Mt. Walsh and finally the peaks of the Wolf Creek Range flattened and dwarfed below us. In the distance Kluane Lake, and to the N. E. the ice-free country merging into the Yukon plateau.

Up and up, ice-axes creaking in the snow, mittens stiffened with ice, the sky above the summit a brilliant darkening blue; and then we noticed the snow beginning to plume away from the top of the mountain. The wind had gradually increased in velocity and soon we were bending our heads into the gale. The sky was dark with blownig snow. Our route from here lay in shadow and without the sun the cold was intense. Walter called a halt, for he remembered this wind from the Mt. Steele climb, and against it we would not be able to stand on the summit and therefore no survey station would be possible. We risked frozen feet and the force of the wind was slowing us dangerously. The snow was now streaming out a mile from the summit ridge above—at least a 70-mile gale. And so, at a little before 4 p.M. with about 1800 ft. to the summit, we turned our backs on the mountains. On a high shoulder, where the driving wind had already obliterated our tracks, we established our photographic survey station.

Six-thirty that evening found us drinking hot tea and rum in our small tents and the clouds were rolling in below and all about us. Oh well, “He who climbs and comes away will live to climb another day,” quoted someone cheerily, and we all felt better.

The weather really never gave us a break during our whole 60 days in the field, although by biding our time and watching for clouds to lift, we were able to get all the necessary survey stations. In retrospect and on consulting Roger’s meteorological record, we found that we had been blessed by only four fine days, “fine” meaning better than 70% clear all day. On the 15th of September, in a truly fine blizzard, we left Base Camp for the trek down to the Donjek and over the tundra to Burwash; but all the clouds and mist and snow could not dampen our hopes for an early return to this valley and to these mountains.

 “Ascent of Mt. Steele.” A. A. J., ii, 439.

2 Names used in this article are largely provisional and subject to ultimate acceptance by the Canadian authorities.

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