American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Vancouver Episode

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1950

Vancouver Episode

William R. Hainsworth

THE Seward Glacier storm was running true to form when Walter Wood suggested I take advantage of the “socked in” day to jot down a few notes, while memories were fresh, on the ascent of Mount Vancouver. Immediately my thoughts wandered through a maze of trifles rather than to such important matters as the route of ascent, logistics and technical difficulties. The layer of ice and frost crystals inside our shoes in the morning; the socks and inner soles which were frozen in our shoes when we tried to remove them before getting into the sack; the bowl and spoon which served all courses, finally coming clean with the coffee, which was almost strong enough to dissolve the porcelain; gasoline-impregnated supplies; the snow crystals which formed inside the tent and turned to miniature rainstorms when the sun announced a good day; the debates between nature and the fact that it was cold outside: these and similar trifles were the important things. Even the whiskbroom, which first impressed me as a foolish luxury, gained my respect after failure to use it had resulted in puddles of melted snow on and in my sleeping bag.

These trifles were important at the moment. Far more important is the grand fact that in 1949, for the second summer, Mount Vancouver was included in plans for Project Snow Cornice. The expedition was under the able leadership of Walter A. Wood, Director of the New York office of the Arctic Institute of North America and then President of the American Alpine Club. His long experience in Alaska was the primary factor in the success of the trip.

Since the climb was integrated with the scientific activities of the expedition, we were able to take full advantage of the ski-equip- ped Norseman for airplane support, and of the comfortable facilities of a Jamesway base camp hut on the Nunatak1 adjacent to Mount Vancouver. We had excellent food and equipment—all the result of many hours of hard work and planning long before the 1949 expedition reached the Seward Glacier. Contrast our fully airborne approach with the early expedition of the Duke of the Abruzzi, who travelled 38 days, hauling enormous loads over heavily crevassed glaciers to St. Elias; or think of the long-drawn-out hardships of the approach to Mount Logan!

Without regret for the good old days, I left New York by commercial plane on 12 June 1949, spent a few days in Seattle, and landed on the excellent air field at Yakutat, some 300 miles north of Juneau, on the afternoon of the 15th. On June 16th Maury King flew us in to the Nunatak, following a route across Yakutat Bay and the Malaspina Glacier, through the Seward Glacier Gap and on into the Seward Glacier Basin. They told me this was a record for “in transit” stay at Yakutat. On July 5th I arrived on top of Mount Vancouver with three companions. Others in our climbing party had equally or more surprising experiences. Alan Bruce-Robertson, Canadian medical student, arrived in Yakutat by plane from Toronto on June 28th, flew to the Seward Glacier in the Norseman, and started the ascent of the mountain the same day. Bob McCarter’s experience paralleled mine: he left his graduate studies at Leland Stanford on June 14th and arrived on top July 5th. Both Robertson and McCarter had been members of the 1948 Snow Cornice Expedition. Noel Odell, Visiting Professor of Geology at the University of British Columbia, followed a more leisurely path northward: he left Vancouver by boat and joined the party on June 16th. His high mountain experience on Everest, Nanda Devi and elsewhere proved to be of great value on the mountain.

Walter Wood and his son Peter were also all set for the climb, but both were plagued by bad luck. Vancouver had a special meaning for Walt. In the summer of 1948 he, in effect, opened up the Seward Basin territory with modern expeditionary methods, using air supply. Vancouver, rising to 15,850 feet, was the highest unclimbed individual mountain mass in the region, although it should be noted that King Peak (17,000 ft.) is the highest, and a beautiful mountain in its own right, even though it is sometimes considered a part of the Logan massif. Walt was President of the American Alpine Club, and there was clearly just one course to pursue: Climb the mountain! But the Norseman turned over on a glacier landing. Since Walt was responsible for the expedition, he stayed on the job to work out some way to get out of the basin. In the meantime, Mal Miller led an expedition attempt on the North Ridge; but the party was turned back by the approach of a severe coastal storm and a shortage of supplies. This left Vancouver unconquered in 1948, and even more desirable than before. Then, in 1949, after starting the ascent, Walt was knocked out by gasoline poisoning and could not continue, and Peter, who was also in the original climbing party, had to return with him to the base camp to repair a split finger.

But I am getting ahead of my story.

First, let us pause for a better look at the St. Elias Range, to which Vancouver belongs. It is a land of vast expanses and deceptive distances; it is a land of extremes. At times the midday glare and heat on the glacier are almost unbearable. Storms come and go in a matter of hours, or last for days. Winds are high and cold, or there is a dead calm. The snow is as hard as ice one day, and the next you sink to your knees in it. It is spectacularly beautiful from all directions; it is all new. It is the delight and despair of the camera fan. Delight —the daily temptation to photograph everything in sight. Despair —the needle of the light meter jumps repeatedly beyond the end of the scale in its effort to warn against overexposure.

The basin of the Seward Glacier to the west of Vancouver, in which the base camp was located, is a rather inaccessible place, to say the least. It lies only 25 miles from tidewater, but the circuitous approach over the Malaspina Glacier, or along any of several alternate routes over the Hubbard Glacier to the east of Vancouver, would normally require a great deal of time and heartbreaking labor in relaying supplies over heavily crevassed areas. The basin itself covers roughly 750 square miles, and is surrounded by the enormous mountain masses of Mount Cook, Mount Augusta, Mount St. Elias, Mount Logan, Mount McArthur and Vancouver. The basin appears relatively flat, has large areas free from crevasses, and has excellent landing fields, especially in early summer. This, of course, facilitates airborne operations with a ski- and wheel-equipped plane such as the expedition’s Norseman.

While I was working with the expedition, I heard a great deal about the firn. I became thoroughly acquainted with Mr. Firn during four days of shovelling to release last year’s cache from 18 feet of the same. As a symbol of my respect I propose to call a ski- wheeling plane a “Terrafirnian”— distant cousin of amphibian.

We were all well supplied with Snow Cornice and personal equipment. U. S. Army double sleeping bags proved to be very practical in combination with air mattresses. At the hut the outer bag alone was satisfactory, with occasional temperatures of 15° at night. To conserve weight, we used only the inner bag on the climb, with the lowest night temperatures at about zero and moderate but gusty winds. I listened to several discussions at the Nunatak base camp on the alleged advantages of crawling into one’s sleeping bag without benefit of underwear, but I decided to forego experimenting. It seemed the better part of valor to retain some clothes and put the rest between the air mattress and the bag. Wood’s modified Meade tents, used in pairs, gave us two bedrooms and a connecting vestibule, and proved to be very satisfactory. On two occasions the parachute loads dropped on the mountain provided a box which served as a storage cabinet and kitchen table on being placed in the vestibule. Of much greater importance were the things which came to our door in the box. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the door came to the box, since two of our camps were established at places where we found parachute loads.

Thanks to Walt’s expeditionary philosophy and the airplane, we lived in comparative luxury on the mountain. We had all the food supplies we desired, and if anyone suffered for lack of equipment it was certainly not because equipment was unavailable. The 5-in-1 Army rations were supplemented with canned fruits, vegetables and dehydrated foods. We were well supplied with raisins, dates and figs. On the way up the mountain, except for one stretch, it was necessary to backpack only sleeping bag, air mattress, personal belongings, climbing equipment, camera and film, and daily food supplies. The exception was between Camp I and Camp II, where there had been no drop load: it was necessary here to include larger quantities of food supplies and camp equipment. Our ropes consisted of two 120-foot lengths of 7/16-inch nylon climbing rope, and 500 feet of ¼-inch manila fixed rope. Very little relaying was required. As we came down, our loads became progressively heavier as we recovered essential equipment from the three camps. Extra food was left where it landed.

Let us go back to the climb.

There was considerable information at hand on which to base our plans for the climb. Walt had flown around and over the mountain several times. In addition, the Arctic Institute party of 1948 had climbed the North Ridge to a point whence no serious difficulties could be seen ahead.

The mountain is a big mass, typical of those in the St. Elias Range; and the selection of a route was not entirely obvious, even with the information gained in 1948. There are three minor summits on the mile-long summit ridge. An approach from either end seemed feasible, provided it did not involve a long summit traverse. This, of course, depended on the relative elevations of the summit peaks. One purpose of the Arctic Institute studies was to determine accurately the elevations and positions of the peaks in the Seward Glacier area, and adequate equipment for the purpose was at hand. Walt established a 960-foot base line on the Seward Glacier and triangulated the summits with a theodolite which could be read accurately to one second. This corresponded to an error of three feet at the distance of the summit from the base, which is in the form of a symmetrically shaped pyramid. The North Peak was found to be 150 feet higher than the South Peak. A boundary survey had established the latter at 15,700 feet; therefore, Vancouver was found to have an elevation of 15,850 feet, with the North Peak the higher.

This reduced the choice of routes—North Ridge, or a direct ascent up the glacier from the northeast basin. It was agreed that the ridge would be better, even though it held the prospect of several long and steep icy pitches. Actually, the snow conditions in July 1949 were considerably improved over those in August 1948, as observed by Bob McCarter, who was on both trips. It was contemplated that there would be three camps on the mountain: the first in a cirque just below the ridge, the second on the ridge, and the third on a slope behind Institute Peak, facing the final ridge.

On June 27th the weather appeared promising, so Walt and Bob took off in the Norseman, from the glacier airstrip, with parachute loads containing tents, cooking equipment, food, some rope and other supplies. They dropped one in the cirque back of Arctic Peak on the approach to the North Ridge and another on a slope back of Institute Peak, which is at the junction of the ridge with the main mountain massif.

Our start up the mountain was a complicated affair, full of anticipation, uncertainties about the weather, and disappointments. On June 28th five of us made an early start on skis—Walter Wood, Peter Wood, Noel Odell, Bob McCarter and I. Peter was nursing a badly cut finger. Several days before, a falling rock had split it to the bone while we were climbing and looking for coneys on Arctic Peak, just back of the Nunatak. Penicillin ointment proved very effective in preventing infection; but the cut should have been stitched, and we were without sewing experience. Our route lay up the comparatively flat glacial arm leading to the icefall and cirque where we hoped to establish Camp I. By the time we parked our skis just below the icefall, the weather had turned: we were confronted with low clouds and no sunshine. Nevertheless, it seemed best to go ahead and establish Camp I—which we did. Later that afternoon Bob McCarter and I went to the ridge above Camp I and found the food cache which had been left there by Miller’s party in 1948. There was a high wind, with temperatures around 15° (thermometer at Camp I); and the cache was thoroughly frozen into the rocks. This part of our adventure ended with some extra food, a nipped finger and a broken ice-axe.

Since the weather was still uncertain on the following morning, Walt and I returned to the Nunatak to conserve supplies at Camp I and to get another axe. There we were pleasantly surprised to find that Bruce Robertson had arrived at the airstrip camp on the glacier, which was located about two and a half miles from the Nunatak camp. He immediately packed to join the party. Right from the start it seemed to me that about 50% of Bruce’s load always consisted of medical supplies and things which he insisted on carrying for other people. Now there were six planning to climb the mountain.

Since there was a spare parachute load of tents and equipment at the airstrip, it seemed a good idea to drop this at Camp I. This became a project for Maury King (our pilot), Bruce and me. After receiving instructions, we piled into the front of the plane, to help lift the tail out of the snow, and took off. There was an oversized door opening—equipped with no door—uncomfortably close to where we sat. We tied ourselves in with ropes to keep from going out with the load when we pushed it out of the plane. It was an exciting experience to observe the ridge from a few hundred feet above and to push the load out on a split-second signal from Maury. Not the least tense of our moments was the one in which Bruce grabbed my movie camera just as it was sliding out the door, trying to follow the load. Shortly afterward, we saw Noel and Bob on their reconnaisance trip on the ridge above Camp I.

Finally, Walt, Bruce and I started from the Nunatak on the 30th to catch up with the climbing party. The snow was frozen so hard that we found it easier to tow our skis than to wear them. Walt had in his pack a large can of gasoline for use in the Primus stoves. On the way up he jokingly remarked several times about the “cloud cap” of gasoline vapors which seemed to be following him. Later this became serious, and jokes gave way to nausea. Nevertheless, we continued to Camp I. There, after examining Peter’s cut finger, Bruce recommended that Pete return and agreed to accompany him back to the Nunatak the next day. Now there were four. We continued to the ridge above Camp I, where it was cold and windy. We put on our parkas, but unfortunately the fur on Walt’s parka was saturated with gasoline. This was too much, and Walt became too ill with gasoline poisoning to go on. As leader of the party, he overruled any plan to delay. It was a sad and difficult decision. The capricious weather was on good behavior for the moment, and Walt insisted that we go ahead. I then returned to Camp I with Walt, intending to join Noel and Bob later. Meanwhile, they continued up the ridge to choose the site for Camp II.

At Camp I Walt asked Bruce to rejoin the climbing party, whereupon he packed up his usual quota of medical supplies and took some of my pack, and we proceeded to Camp II. We met Noel and Bob patiently waiting at the top of a steep pitch, at which point they had placed 500 feet of fixed rope. Since it was not convenient for the parties to pass each other on the pitch, they could not return for loads which had been left at the col until we reached the top of the pitch. Finally, at the end of a long day, there were four of us established in Camp II with several days’ provisions and a parachute cache somewhere on the mountain above, near a place which we hoped would be Camp III.

I have related this in some detail to illustrate the need for a type of planning which will take care of unplanned events. A leaky gasoline can and a cut finger changed our whole undertaking, even to the party and the time schedule.

July 1st in Camp II proved to be cold and foggy. Bob and Noel finally tired of looking at the top of the tent from the inside and decided on a reconnaisance up the ridge. A rocky band flanked by ice and séracs looked rather formidable, particularly as it faded away into the icy slopes just below the next higher step in the ridge. While the two were above, Bruce and I went down a bit to bring up the rope which we had left in a fixed position. It looked as if it would be much more useful higher up. After caching the rope some distance above the camp, we all assembled again at Camp II for a 5-in-l repast.

The trip to the site for Camp III was a matter of weaving back and forth, under compulsion of cornices, from slightly below the ridge to the ridge itself. As we had expected, we encountered two steep pitches with a thin snow coating over ice. These ran to about 40 degrees in places and required considerable care. A plateau below Institute Peak provided a breathing spell and a chance for interesting close-up pictures of snow formations, but we still had to face a long traverse along the east side of the peak to a point considerably above the saddle between Institute and the final ridge. This seemed to give the only access to the slope where we hoped to find the parachute load. On rounding the shoulder, we were disconcerted to see ahead a slide mark which appeared to be about the width of our parachute load—and to end in a large crevasse. My toes were frostbitten, and visions of a camp without supplies or, alternatively, of a long pull back to Camp II began to take realistic form. Luckily, after some searching, Bob and Noel spotted a corner of the box, almost buried. The red parachute was covered with snow, and the marker flag was still in a horizontal position. With characteristic forethought, Walt had tied a small shovel to the outside of the box. It was a pleasure to use this to clear a level platform for the tents on the 37-degree slope.

At this point I should like to digress long enough to express the opinion that, for this sort of climbing in Alaska, Bramanis (or similar cleated rubber soles), with crampons, are superior to nailed boots and less frequent use of crampons. Bob and I had nailed boots and did not use crampons so much as Bruce and Noel, who wore Bramanis. I am sure that their feet were warmer and that they would have been in much better shape to return to Camp II if we had not found the parachute load. Of course a young fellow like Bob did not mind it so much as I did.

Following the usual pattern, the weather prevented an early start for the summit the next day, so we enjoyed an afternoon of wandering around on Institute Peak and planted a section of red parachute cloth on the top. We were disappointed, later, that we could not see this from the base camp. Late in the day Walt and Maury King came up in the plane to look us over. They missed us on an optimistic first pass high up on the final ridge, but finally spotted us on Institute Peak. The weather on the mountain as observed from below appeared excellent, and we found later that Walt was puzzled to find that we were not on the final ridge. Early morning fogs and cloud caps are deceiving unless you are in them.

July 5th seemed reasonably favorable, but not until the sun had dispersed the morning fog. We started for the top at 7.00 A.M., Bob and I on one rope, Noel and Bruce on the other. The going was heavy, and leads were switched often. Occasionally we placed willow wands, but they were not needed on the return. There were a number of small cracks which were annoying to us. Perhaps they were equally annoyed by us—judging by the way they curled their upper lips at us. We begrudged the loss of several hundred feet of elevation in getting to the col between Institute and the final ridge, and again in skirting a sizable hump higher on the ridge, which was decorated profusely with enormous séracs. About noon we built a small cairn on the flat, rocky saddle between the hump and the final summit ridge. Clouds were coming up from below, and the summit cap reduced our prospects for pictures from the summit.

We then came to the worst pitch encountered on the climb—ice covered with a film of snow. Estimated angles are always subject to impressions. The angle of this pitch permitted one to touch the snow with the fingertips while standing vertically in the step cut in the ice. One hundred and twenty steps and two hours of labor at this point….On the return, Bob and I skirted the slope, preferring to flounder through the snow and across the half-filled cracks between seracs below the icy ridge. We concluded that it would not have been practical to go uphill across these same cracks.

Above the ice slope the fog closed in, and it was difficult to stay on the ridge. This indeterminate area soon gave way to a sharp snow ridge, leading directly to the summit pyramid, which we reached at 4.30 P.M. Frostbitten fingers and toes, and a shared feeling that we ought to start back right away, kept our stay on top to the bare minimum required for pictures. These were of ourselves, since there was no other scenery around. The ceremony of raising the flag consisted of dropping a piece of red parachute cloth on the snow. Noel managed to find some rocks a few hundred feet below the summit and deposited our record in exchange for geological samples.

The return to Camp III was uneventful except for memories of the enormous chunks of lead that stuck to our feet on the uphill section just below Camp III. It does not sound reasonable, but I am sure that I went to sleep for a minute or two while I was standing up contemplating that final slope. Although we were away from camp only 13 hours, the day seemed very long.

On July 6th we started for Camp II. My diary reads: “We broke camp about 9.00 A.M. All was well to the lower pitch. The fixed rope area was easy. The final pitch was risky. A slip would have been bad because the belays were poor—ice only. Took two hours to descend 200 feet. Slipped twice but recovered without help of rope. Bob fell into several cracks but always managed to crawl out before I could get my camera out. In one place my boot went through on a slope and threw me forward. My head and shoulders broke through. It was quite a surprise to look along the under side of the bridge and see my foot hanging in space. No danger, but it’s tough to get up with a pack on.”

Bob and I reached Camp I at 8.30 P.M., having picked up some of the Camp II equipment. We could see Noel and Bruce moving slowly on the ridge above, but at 11.00 P.M. they were still above the col. We started back to help, but they soon appeared above the camp. It turned out that Bruce had received a painful crampon spike in the ankle while jumping a crevasse and necessarily had to move with great caution. At the top of the couloir above camp, Noel removed his pack to adjust his crampons. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, the pack decided on a trip of its own and a few moments later stopped intact conveniently by the camp, 500 feet below the ridge.

The hot sun had not only placed our camp on a pedestal during the time we were on the mountain, but managed to dish out the snow under the middle of the tent, much to our discomfort that night.

On July 7th we packed most of the gear into the drop box, attached ropes to it fore and aft, and started down, hoping to slide the box most of the way. After a minor struggle we reached the top of the couloir next to the icefall. In spite of a 30-degree slope in the couloir, the box bogged down in the wet snow. We would sink to our hips trying to start the box sliding. Twice in the zeal of our endeavors, I found myself head down the slope, pack over my head, and my legs firmly implanted in the snow on the uphill side. My diary says: “It took a lot of energy to get out.” Finally, we abandoned the box after belaying it at the end of a climbing rope. Later on, snowslides came down the couloir and batted our box over to the side like a big pendulum.

It was a great relief to get back on our skis, and an even greater pleasure to get back to the Nunatak. On the way down, the plane buzzed us, and we tried to signal success by shaking our hands over our heads, boxer-fashion; but Walt and Maury thought we were shaking our fists at them for coming too low, and it was not until we were all together again at the Nunatak that they knew we had had a successful trip.

One of the lasting memories of the whole affair is of Walt’s radio conversations with the Army station in Yakutat. Here is a sample:

CK6W on the Seward, CK6W, CK6W, calling WXD at Yakutat, WXD W-X-D. 54321-12345. Do you read? This is Wood calling. Do you hear me? Over!

CK6W, CK6W, CK6W, this is WXD. We hear you loud and clear. Do you have any message? Over to you!

Ah, yes, WXD. We are in the glorious sunshine of Seward Basin, feasting our eyes on the alpine glow of Mount Cook, the Parrish beauty of St. Elias, and the bold, stark rays cast heavenward from Mount Logan as the sun goes to rest on its broad shoulders. We know you enjoy the palms and wide expanses of the beaches of the Yakutat summer resort—but take your mind off that for a moment. We have news for you! Four of our boys have just come in from the first ascent of Mount Vancouver. They reached the top on July 5th and had a very successful trip. I hjiow you’ll be pleased with the news. Over!

Oh, yeah! What in h … did they want to go up there for? Anyhow, congratulations. Now, about that missing box of seismo- graphic equipment you were looking for. We located it in Juneau and will have it in your hands in a couple of days—weather permitting. That is all, unless you have something else. WXD signing off. Over!

1Rock island in the Seward Glacier.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.