American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Logan Mountains, 1965

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  • Publication Year: 1966

Logan Mountains, 1965

William J. Buckingham

In 1960, from the summits near Glacier (Brintnell) Lake1, as we gazed out across the myriad clusters of spires and peaks, our eyes often lingered longingly on a particularly fine group of peaks far to the south. We had entertained some hope of reaching this group when we later crossed the Harlin Icefield to the head of the Fools River but our hopes were frustrated when we found ourselves separated from this wild array of peaks by the deep, bush-filled valley of the Rabbitkettle River2. Subsequent research revealed that, as we had suspected, the central peak of this group was the highest peak of the Logan Range; in fact, present surveys indicate that its elevation of 9097 feet may be the highest in the Northwest Territories.

Thus, when Lew Surdam and I proposed a 1965 expedition to the Logan Mountains, foremost among our objectives was this peak, which we called "Mount Nirvana.” After many hours of poring over maps and aerial photos, it seemed that an intricate and devious approach would be possible from the Hole-in-the-Wall valley.

On July 7, we flew north from Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. After airdropping several parcels of supplies on a broad, glaciated pass linking one of the south forks of the Rabbitkettle with a major tributary of the Flat River, we were deposited at the upper end of Lonely Lake, the second in the chain of lakes occupying the floor of the Hole-in-the-Wall valley. We backpacked up the main valley for a couple of miles through low bush and established camp overlooking a small tarn.

Immediately above our camp rose the austere, gray walls of "The Citadel,” and it was to this peak that we first turned our attention. A reconnaissance indicated that the most likely route lay near the south edge of the west face. Reaching the col west of the peak, we started up the southwest ridge to a menacing, overhanging section, where we moved left, on mossy ledges, onto the face. The headwall above required some tenuous manoeuvers in an overhanging, flake-filled crack; two pitches gave access to a wide depression or groove in the face which led without undue difficulty to the summit ridge. Following the ridge north, we surmounted a couple of awkward steps and soon reached the long, narrow summit. We basked in the fleeting warmth of the northern sunshine until the chill of a passing cloud roused us to the business of rappelling as we had come.

On the 11th we walked up the valley to "Beaver Lake” and then turned left up into a flat, glacial basin. Wading through deep, wet snow, we continued south to a col overlooking the Flat River and attacked the west ridge of "Mount Sagittarius”, the small, sharp peak which forms the southwest corner of the "Zodiac Ridge”. Several enjoyable pitches on clean granite followed by some easy scrambling brought us to the deeply- cleft summit by late afternoon. Off to the north and west, seemingly floating above a sea of lesser peaks, "Mount Nirvana” was discernible; we wondered, briefly, whether our proposed route across the tangled intervening valleys and ridges would be feasible.

Our final climb from the Hole-in-the-Wall camp was "Wolf Fang”, the bold, symmetrical peak which dominates the north side of the valley. We climbed it by its west ridge, a steep succession of massive, overlapping, sharply fractured flakes and slabs.

On the evening of July 14, we prepared our packs for the trek westward, but during the night, heavy rains set in, and we were confined to the tent for three days. On the fourth day, prompted by signs of clearing and our dwindling supplies, we started off. Continuing up the main valley to one of several high passes at its head, we dropped westward into a narrow, hanging valley, choked with a labyrinthine jumble of unstable moraines and huge, teetering blocks. Tiny meadows separated by cliff bands came next. Finally we descended into dense bush and, midst renewed rain, made a rather dismal camp on the edge of a swamp. Next day, we dropped steeply into the wooded valley below and turned north. At first there were good game trails, but these soon degenerated, and for several miles we alternated between plowing through heavy bush and wading along the edge of the stream. Eventually we emerged onto firm boulder fields which we ascended to a rolling, lake-dotted plateau, where we made our second camp. Continuing upward over this plateau, we crossed the broad tongue of a glacier and climbed to the pass where our supplies had been airdropped. Here we had our first close view of the splendidly sculptured turrets and pillars of "Nirvana” and its neighbors. We descended the gentle glacier northwards and traversed into the mouth of a narrow, subsidiary valley, where we selected a permanent campsite among luxuriant, mossy meadows.

The north wall of our valley rose in sweeping granite slabs to a ridge of curiously shaped towers, which we called the "Gargoyle Ridge”, and just beyond which lay "Mount Nirvana”. The upper end of the valley terminated in a pair of striking peaks, "Mount Orpheus” and "Mount Eurydice”. A small glacier lying under their precipitous west faces terminated in a milky lakelet just a few hundred yards above our camp.

On July 22, we climbed "Mount Orpheus”. We ascended the glacier until dangerous snow conditions forced us to traverse to a rocky rib, which we climbed to a level crest leading up to the west ridge of our objective. The steepening ridge above yielded several fine pitches; the crux was a difficult move on tiny holds across a vertical wall and into a jamcrack. The ridge ended at a secondary summit, the true summit being a detached pillar which we easily reached after rappelling into the intervening notch. We descended in a howling blizzard, which presaged another period of unstable weather.

On one of the succeeding days, between showers, we climbed to the western end of the "Gargoyle Ridge”, from which we studied the stupendous southern walls of "Nirvana”. Clearly any route here would be more of an undertaking than we were prepared for; we should have to seek a route from the north. On the next good day, we set off very early for the high col between "Mount Eurydice” and the "Gargoyle Ridge”, hoping to find a route around to the north side of "Nirvana”. Upon reaching the col, however, it was immediately evident that there was no practicable route from this side. So we turned left and climbed to the heavily lichen- hung summit of "The Medusa”, easternmost of the "Gargoyles”. After rappelling off its vertical west side, we continued on to "The Chimera”, whose squarish, overhanging, summit block offered two rather strenuous and exciting pitches. A complicated descent westward led us into a narrow scree chute by which we returned to the valley.

It was now clear that "Nirvana” could not be climbed from our present camp, and so next day we loaded up our packs and started down the valley. Before proceeding far, we were nearly stopped by a deep, narrow, shale gorge. After circumventing this obstacle, we turned up into the cirque below the great exfoliated slabs of "Nirvana’s” south face and then toiled up seemingly endless scree slopes to a high col between "Nirvana” and a ridge of grotesque and precarious needles to the west. We descended north over the remnants of a dying glacier to a jade-green lake nestled between towering walls. At its lower end, where its outlet plunged into the Rabbitkettle valley, we found a splendid overhanging boulder under which to camp.

Next morning, we dropped down and crossed to the narrow portal through which issues the tongue of the great, serpentine glacier spilling from the north side of "Mount Nirvana”. With crampons, we climbed up the tongue into the lower level of this supremely wild and fantastic cirque. From time to time, the warm morning sunlight would cause one of the immense boulders lying on the glacier to detach itself and slide, rather comically, down the ice before crashing into the moraine. Above, a pair of steep icefalls cascaded down on either side of a prow-like nunatak. Choosing the eastern of these, we soon encountered a long ice wall, where we expended several ice screws. It was nearly noon when we reached the upper névé basin, below the north wall of the peak. We now bore to the right, crossed the bergschrund, and ascended a fluted sheet of unstable snow, heading for a deep notch in the northwest ridge. After several hundred feet, we moved right onto broken rock and climbed easily to the notch. After a delicate traverse across a slender needle wedged there, we could see that the upper side of the notch overhung unpleasantly, and so we rappelled diagonally back onto the face. This brought us to a long series of shelves, cracks and flakes which we followed up and leftward, below the ridge crest for about six rope-lengths. Regaining the ridge, we climbed a shallow groove and then traversed once again onto the north face. We now passed behind an awkward, slippery chock stone, and after surmounting a strenuous, overhanging crack, we were but a few easy steps from the summit.

We stood at the apex of three razor-thin knife edges, falling away in great arcs, then curving, like outstretched arms, around the deeply gouged cirques below, and finally merging into a lacework of ridges extending ever farther outward. A parade of showers marched silently down the Rabbitkettle valley, and to the east, a rainbow hung momentarily over a nearby peak, whose walls were aflame in the slanting rays of the evening sun. We felt an ecstatic sense of isolation and contentment; also the humility of two frail creatures who had dared to trespass on this vast, remote, inviolate domain.

Threatened with the possibility of a cold, exposed bivouac, we interrupted our reverie and started downward. The diagonal nature of the route meant that we should have to climb down much of the way, but we made many rappels as well. The last of three rappels over the ice wall was made in total darkness. We continued on down the glacier in the steely light of the dawn, and the sun was already high in the sky when we crept into our sleeping bags for a well-deserved rest.

After returning to our main camp, we spent a couple of days lolling in the sun and wandering about the meadows. With time for one more climb, we decided to try "The Ziggurat”, the highest summit of the "Gargoyle Ridge.” Ten enjoyable pitches on its southern slabs brought us to a wide ledge leading around to the east ridge, which we climbed, with some considerable deviations onto the faces on either side. The summit pitch was a difficult, overhanging layback.

On August 5, we broke camp and, descending to the shale gorge, turned left and up a large glacier to the divide overlooking the Flat River. We climbed to a rocky ridge and traversed westward, along the divide, over a number of minor summits. We finally climbed steeply to the crumbling summit of "Mount Wollaga”, from which we descended several thousand feet of treacherous scree into a small valley and then on down into the bush. We camped in tangled forest near the Flat River when it became too dark for further progress. Two long days of bush and mosquitoes along the meandering Flat River brought us on August 7 to the mining camp at Cantung, and after a couple of days’ waiting, we were able to get a ride back to Watson Lake.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Logan Mountains, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Ascents: (All first ascents except as noted.)

"The Citadel”, July 9, 1965.

"Mt. Sagittarius”, July 11, 1965.

"Wolf Fang”, 8650 feet — second ascent, new route — July 13, 1965.

"Mt. Orpheus”, July 22, 1965.

"The Medusa” and "The Chimera”, July 27, 1965.

"Mt. Nirvana”, 9097 feet, July 29, 1965.

"The Ziggurat”, August 2, 1965.

"Mt. Wollaga”, August 5, 1965.

Personnel: William J. Buckingham, Lewis J. Surdam.

1. The name, Glacier Lake, was current in the early years of exploration. During the 50s, the name, Brintnell Lake, was used, but Glacier Lake has received official recognition.

2. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as "Fishkettle River.”

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