AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

North America, United States, Alaska, Northern St. Elias Range

Northern St. Elias Range. The Sierra Club’s St. Elias Expedition, led by Alfred W. Baxter, had as objectives the peaks at the head of the Wood and Brabazon glaciers: Mount Wood, 15,880 feet; Mount Craig, 13,250 feet, and several unnamed peaks between 13,000 and 15,000 feet. On August 19, all 25 members of the expedition were flown in to a small lake at the edge of the mountains and one-half mile south of the lateral moraine of the Klutlan Glacier. Three days later, we gathered on a bench near the base of the northwest ridge of Mount Wood, overlooking the area of about one square mile over which our main airdrop was scattered. As a demonstration of the advantage of numbers, in four hours of systematic searching, all the boxes, bags, and cans (except one) had been located and collected at our base camp, altitude 6500 feet. Up to this point the sky had been clear and we were more worried about routes and the miles of loose moraine than the weather.

The decision was reached to split into three groups: one group of eight to attempt the unclimbed 9000-foot northwest ridge of Mount Wood, which rose directly above base camp; one group of five was to stay near base camp and attempt some of the smaller peaks near the head of Wood Glacier; the third group of 12 was to make the long hike up Brabazon Glacier and attempt Mount Craig and other peaks on the divide. However, two days later, the weather turned and thereafter became worse.

Within the two remaining days of good weather, the party which operated out of base camp was successful in ascending a few of the peaks, about 10,000 feet, near the Wood Glacier-Wolf Creek Glacier divide. The party of eight on Mount Wood reached about 13,500 feet before the storm forced a retreat. The decision to turn back was dictated by the growing avalanche danger. There were already 18 inches of new snow on the ridge, which in places is narrow and corniced, and the promise of the bank of black clouds rolling in from the sea was unmistakable. The good weather lasted just long enough for the Mount Craig group to reach the base of the peak. After building two igloos, they were able to sit out the storm in comparative comfort. But after six days, our time was nearly up and they, too, were obliged to return to base camp.

We left base camp two days later in 14 inches of snow. Four long days were required to walk out the lateral moraines of Wood Glacier, cross Klutlan Glacier, and finally reach our rubber life-rafts which had been airdropped at the head of the Klutlan River, which bursts forth full-grown from under the glacial ice. Although this point is over 40 trailless miles from the Alaska Highway, in two short, but wet, days we had raced out to civilization on September 6.

Leigh Ortenburger