American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Logan Traverse

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  • Publication Year: 1968

A Logan Traverse

William D. Harrison, unaffiliated

Mount Logan has been climbed about a dozen times since its discovery in 1890. When planning our 1967 ascent, Vin Hoeman, Alex Bittenbinder, Dave Shaw, Ed Ward and I found ourselves beset by an interesting collection of problems. Eventually the important ones such as illness, matrimony and the draft were resolved, and we got around to deciding upon a route. A scheme emerged that called for a 20-mile traverse from east to west along the length of the tremendous Logan Massif via as many of its high points as possible, preferably by a new route. The obvious new route was the east-southeast ridge, which separates the Hubbard and Seward glaciers and was therefore christened "Hubsew” by Vin. Hubsew Ridge lies about one mile south of the well-known east ridge and roughly parallel to it. Except for the weather, as exceptionally bad in 1967 as it had been good in 1966, things went roughly as planned, except that King Peak was scratched because of a dwindling pool of food, strength and ambition.

On July 5 Alex, Dave and Ed were flown from Kluane Lake to 6500 feet on the Hubbard Glacier north of Hubsew Ridge. Their pilot was Lloyd Ryder of Whitehorse, who provided excellent service even though it was his first summer in the area. In the meantime Vin and I were at Jack Wilson’s Crystal Creek homestead in the Chitina valley. As we waited several days for flying weather, we stared hungrily at a 50-pound sack of supplies, later landed at Sella Cache near the end of our proposed traverse (and never seen again). On July 8, in unsettled weather, Jack flew us to Lloyd’s landing point. From there we followed wands left by our companions to their Base Camp at about 800 feet between the east and Hubsew ridges. We found them descending a fixed rope on the south side of the east ridge, where they had carried supplies for 25 days. Every few minutes avalanches rumbled from the two ridges and from the tremendous east face of Logan.

During our flight in we had observed that the Hubsew Ridge looked possible despite heavy cornices. Further reconnaissance in the eveningindicated a possible direct route to its crest at about 10,500 feet. Here, after dipping to form a col slightly west of a shapely 12,000-foot peak, it begins a steady rise of about 3500 feet toward the east face of Logan about two-and-a-half miles away. The shapely peak, a landmark for several days, we imaginatively called "Nice Peak.”

It came as no great surprise early the next day when Vin announced that while our companions relayed most of the food up the east ridge, we two would ascend Hubsew Ridge in one carry with "light” packs (about 70 pounds). We were able to crampon more or less directly up the north side of the ridge despite occasional route-finding problems among big ice blocks. Vin led one or two nearly vertical pitches. On the steepest of these we hauled up our "light” packs with the rope. In the early evening we gained the crest at a point slightly west of the col, where we made camp as the first storm began.

Wet snow fell and continued until late the next day, July 10. Then, during a three-hour break, we were able to proceed up the ridge to an elevation of roughly 12,000 feet. We encountered what were to be the typical conditions. On the south side steep snow slopes swept up to the crest where they ended abruptly in heavy cornices and spectacular exposure. In some places the ridge was knife-edged; in others, it rose in a series of steep steps formed by cornices growing on the backs of other cornices. The main difficulty was the snow, everywhere soft and unconsolidated. Several times it cracked near the crest and went hissing down the south slopes. Consequently, we were often forced to walk on the cornices, making the route less safe than we might have wished.

Heavy snow continued the next day, July 11. After considering our isolation and the delays due to bad weather, we inaugurated a tight-belt policy on storm days. This simple stratagem effectively doubled our food supply. Dawn on July 12 brought clear weather and grandiose views of the Saint Elias Mountains. We proceeded to balance up a doubly exposed but straightforward length of ridge until we were stopped by a sharp knife-edge of powdery snow. Leaving the haven of our doubly exposed crest, Vin chose the 70° loose snow on the north side under overhanging cornices to the less steep but more dangerous snow on the other side. Slowly he progressed, setting off only minor avalanches, until he was able to cut through the crest between a pair of cornices as the rope ran out. As I balanced on the knife edge with no place to belay, I ruefully contemplated my dive to the south, should Vin fall to the north. Nowhere was fixed rope used; I brought the packs along here with the luxury of Vin’s upper belay. Progress continued until early afternoon, when a steepsection of snow cracked in front of Vin and hissed away down the south slopes. A halt was called until late in the day, when we continued without difficulty to what appeared to be the beginning of the last steep section (at about 13,000 feet) and the end of the good weather. Camp was by necessity pitched on a cornice.

Here we perched for the next two days in white-out and steady snow until the weather cleared on July 15. Above us we saw the ridge rise in a series of giant steps. Once again progress along the crest was stopped by steep, powdery snow. This time, however, a belay was possible as Vin gingerly poked his way up and around to the south side of the crest. All went well until about half the rope was out, but then, with the cry, "Avalanche,” he was airborne in a cloud of roaring snow. Seconds later, after a very marginal belay with a kinky, frozen rope, he was entombed in part of his avalanche while the rest of it plunged rapidly to the Seward Glacier a mile below. All he could move was one leg, but this was enough, and in a few minutes he had dug out and escaped suffocation.

With the loose snow avalanched away we had no trouble at all in surmounting the first step. Two more leads brought us up the last steps, and it was all over. A few hundred yards to the west our ridge merged with Logan’s east face at about 13,500 or 14,000 feet. Soon we were with our companions, who had arrived an hour earlier with over 100 pounds of supplies.

Several times during this past week we had seen them on the east ridge as they scurried up and down with impressive speed, making the most of the weather. They had used a couple of 150-foot lengths of fixed rope in addition to the 700 feet used to gain the crest of their ridge from Base Camp. Traces of some of the previous climbs were found. They had more wind to contend with than we, but apparently as a result the east ridge snow was reasonably well consolidated. There were almost no cornices. Since the east and Hubsew ridges are so close, we were somewhat impressed by the vast difference in snow conditions. Some of the unpleasant conditions on Hubsew Ridge might be absent during a less stormy summer.

Several hours after out meeting, "Venturi Camp” was erected in high wind on tent platforms chopped out at about 14,500 feet. We enjoyed the colorful illumination of the setting sun on Mount Vancouver.

The next day, July 16, was clear. We cramponed rapidly up steep but excellent snow to the Logan Plateau at roughly 16,000 feet. Here we admired our first view of the east peak, which rose beyond a stretch of level snow. The view was rapidly forgotten as the snow turned into ahorrible nightmare of deep powder. With only one professional mathematician in the party, we had somehow miscalculated the number of snowshoes required by a party of five. The odd man crawled, expending great amounts of verbal energy. We soon discovered that plastic snow- shoes were inadequate in every way, but with slightly improving snow conditions we were able to gain the col between the east peak and the 17,900-foot southeast peak. Alex and Vin had cramponed up the latter for a first ascent and erected both tents by the time the rest of us arrived.

Most of July 17 was whited out, but we moved camp up above 18,000 feet and cramponed to the 19,750-foot summit of the east peak, where the wind was light and the temperature a mild 14°F. En route Vin and I stepped on our first few bits of rock.

July 18 brought high wind and snow, but the following day was fine. After traversing deep snow to the col between the east and main peaks, we continued to a point north of the main peak, and cramponed to Canada’s 19,850-foot highpoint. We saw the party that had just made the first ascent of the northeast ridge simultaneously reach the summit of the east peak. On our summit it was a windy 2°F. Only the highest peaks of the Saint Elias Mountains protruded above the cloud. We descended to about 19,200 feet where we pitched camp near the col between the main and west peaks. Dave miraculously produced a bottle of cognac for our summit celebration, and the empty bottle was later reverently returned to civilization.

It was our last cause for celebration for the next five days, during which we were pinned down by a terrific storm. We tried to move once when our two two-man tents became unbearable, but a few hundred yards of slogging into the wind were more than enough. The tents were re-erected with desperate haste. During the height of the storm it was necessary to excavate the tents every two hours. This operation, carried out at 19,000 feet in roaring wind and choking snow, was a rich and rewarding experience, especially at night. There was a lull on July 24, and Dave and Vin managed to reach the 19,800-foot summit of the west peak before weather conditions returned to "normal.” Exposure to such conditions makes the traverse of the Logan Plateau a non-trivial operation. It became clear to us why several parties had dashed up the east peak from the east ridge and rapidly retreated.

Finally, on July 25, we were able to continue to the air-supplied "Logan High Camp” at 17,200 feet, where Barry Bishop and four others were just completing a hut for scientific work. In preparation for what turned out to be a gorge of monumental proportions, Vin climbed the 18,900-footpeak immediately south of the camp, the highest of Logan’s far-western summits.

On July 27, after a storm day, we crossed to the south of these summits and descended into King Trench. Our long slog down to milder weather was enlivened when Alex fell 45 feet into a crevasse, dragging Ed along the soft snow. As Alex dangled by his waist tie-in, he was flipped upside down by his heavy pack. This was just too much, considering that he was suffering from the predictable effects of the gorge at Logan High Camp. Several layers of clothing were jettisoned. A few hours later camp was pitched during a white-out at Sella Cache (c. 10,500 feet). Snow began again and continued heavy all the next day, as we gobbled up most of our remaining food.

By July 29 the weather had improved enough for us to locate the site of our food cache. But the ill-fated sack, carefully hoarded weeks earlier at Crystal Creek, was not locatable under five feet of snow. With appropriate good cheer we descended to 9100 feet on the Quintino Sella Glacier to await our pickup and to nurse stomachs and deteriorated hands and feet. Apparently undaunted, Vin drafted Alex and went specimen hunting on the west ridge, returning with a small flowering (but inedible) plant. The next day he was at it again, this time with Dave on "Ogilvie Nunatak” at the junction of the Ogilvie and Sella Glaciers, when an airplane was heard. A few hours later we were happily sniffing moist earth and spruce trees.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Saint Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Ascents: Mount Logan by new route, Hubsew (east-southeast) Ridge (Hoeman, Harrison) and first east-west traverse (whole party). Southeast Peak, 17,900 feet, 1st ascent, July 16, 1967 (Bittenbinder, Hoeman).

East Peak, 19,750 feet, 6th ascent, July 17 (whole party).

Central Peak, 19,850 feet, 12th ascent, July 19 (whole party)

West Peak, 19,800 feet, 4th ascent, July 24 (Hoeman, Shaw)

Peak south of Logan High Camp, 18,900 feet, 4th ascent, July 25 (Hoeman).

"Ogilvie Nunatak” 10,000 feet, 1st ascent, July 30 (Hoeman).

Personnel: Alexander Bittenbinder, J. Vincent Hoeman, David Shaw, Edward Ward, Americans; William D. Harrison, Canadian.

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