The Catenary Ridge of Logan
Donald Schmechel and James Given, Yale Mountaineering Club
OF THE big Alaskan and Yukon peaks, Mount Logan offers the largest number of unclimbed routes. Only four of the many route possibilities on Logan had been done before the summer of 1967. Accordingly, the ambition of our group was to try something new on this mountain. Considering the north side, our attention was drawn to the long ridge between the east and Independence ridges. Named Catenary Ridge by Tom Stewart, in honor of its unfortunate resemblance to a catenary curve in one section, it is one of the longest on Mount Logan. Stretching from the summit of McArthur Peak (14,500 feet) to the east summit of Logan, it contains two other subpeaks. From the top of McArthur, the ridge dips 3000 feet to a col and rises to the first, a 12,500-foot peak. From here, a descent of 500 feet leads to a col and a 1500-foot ascent to the second, 13,500-foot high sub-peak. Finally, the ridge makes one last swoop 1500 feet down to the largest col before the remaining 7000 feet to the east peak of Logan. It was this roller-coaster that we elected to climb.
Our party eventually consisted of Dave Ingalls, leader, Steve Connary, Warren Bleser, Carlos Plummer, Jim Given, and Don Schmechel. After the proper amount of confusion, disorganization, and incipient fiasco, about the middle of June we discovered ourselves on the airstrip at Chitina, Alaska, ready to fly in to Logan. From there, Joe Davidson flew us to Jack Wilson’s homestead in the Copper River Valley where we waited for a cold night to freeze the Logan Glacier hard enough for Wilson’s plane. This idyll was profitably spent sweltering on an old railroad bridge contracting sunstroke and giving blood donations to the Copper River mosquito population. Finally, a cold night came and on June 23 Wilson flew our party in to a 7500-foot Base Camp on the Logan Glacier.
At this time, our plans and our Base Camp pointed us up the 6000-foot spur ridge that led directly to the top of the 13,500-foot sub-peak, henceforth named Catenary Peak, leaving us with a descent into Catenary Col and the final ridge to the summit. Challenging in appearance, the
Catenary Spur was knife-edged except for the final thousand feet or so; for added interest, there were several large rock towers around 12,000 feet. We attacked with great enthusiasm. However, the spring of 1967 was one of the hottest and driest in recent times in the Yukon. (We could see a waterfall coming off the summit plateau.). Conditions were bad; wet snow avalanches, falling cornices, and rotten snow and ice made the going unpleasant at best. After four days of climbing, Bleser, Schmechel, Ingalls, and Given reached a 35-foot overhanging landmark called the "Block” perched about 1000 feet up the ridge. Frontal attack by direct aid was foiled by the rottenness of the ice. A 400-foot traverse to end-run the Block on the face was rejected because of the danger of icefall while on an exposed and totally unconsolidated slope. Those still for this route changed their minds during the descent and salvage of fixed rope; avalanches, disappearance of steps, and rotten ice and snow showed that conditions were not right for the spur.
We therefore moved a mile and a half across the glacier to the base of the 5000-foot spur leading to the 12,500-foot sub-peak. We prepared about 1700 feet of this spur in two nights. Starting up the first pitches of a 1000-foot, 45° ice slope, we hit more loose snow and rotten ice. Prudence and cowardice counseled a second retreat. At this point, we would have paid 25¢ to see the egress.
Including McArthur Peak in our itinerary or working our way up an icefall leading to the first col on Catenary Ridge were our only remaining alternatives. Bleser assured us that the icefall looked better than the Wickersham Wall on McKinley. A Cassandra in the group did point out that Warren had once been avalanched off that wall. Nevertheless, the next night, we set off to explore the icefall. The route-finding proved to be easy until we reached a 20-foot-wide crevasse extending across the top of the icefall. After other false starts, the next night, Schmechel and Bleser climbed into the crevasse, and Bleser led a direct-aid pitch out the other side.
Having passed the icefall, we moved into Camp I (10,250 feet) on the night of July 3. After Schmechel and Bleser found a way through an ice wall above this camp, we found ourselves on the roller-coaster at 11,300 feet. We established Camp II on top of Dak Tower, the first sub-peak, at 12,500 feet. (This peak derived its name from one of our food staples, a luncheon meat. Manufactured "by appointment to the Danish royal family,” it prompted much discussion of the Shakespearean comment on the state of Denmark. Inevitably, however, by the end of the trip, we loved the stuff, Dak Stroganoff being our favorite dish.) Except for abrief 300-foot section of knife-edge, the ridge to Catenary Peak was a stroll. Camp III was placed about 300 feet below its summit at 13,200 feet on the side towards Logan. From this camp, the chief difficulties appeared to lie ahead in Catenary Col which looked mostly like a corniced, knife- edged ridge.
Getting to the col turned out to be quite easy. We fixed rope along a line of cornices for several hundred feet, cut through one of the smaller ones, and rappelled to a platform from where it was possible to walk down to the col. Once there, we discovered that the cornices and knife-edge were not continuous; the col would provide amusement, but not horror.
On July 14, we set out to move down to a snow island in the middle of the col. When on a sunny day we had put the route in, we had economized on wands. Now as we sat in the snow for an hour, in a storm, we decided that the ridge was not as clearly defined as we had thought. In the white-out, precipitous avalanche slopes on either side of the "Catenary Col Boardwalk” inspired caution. Finally, a lull in the storm allowed us to continue to the col and attach ourselves to the umbilical cord of one of the fixed ropes. The short-lived Camp IV was superseded the next day by Camp V; the terrain alternated between walking, step- chopping, and cornice dodging, everything still being colored rotten ice. While the others ferried loads across the Catenary Col to Camp V, Bleser and Plummer installed the route up to 14,000 feet, climbing a 65° snow wall in the process. Camp V was conveniently located in a gap left by a fallen cornice. Both Camps IV and V were lower in elevation than Camp II.
Carrying heavy loads, we moved the next day to Camp VI at 14,000 feet. While the remainder of the party lolled in the sun, Plummer and Connary continued on to 15,000 feet, using the last of our fixed rope. The weather was looking good and the route ahead did not appear to be very difficult. Just below the summit plateau at 16,500 feet there was an ice wall of sorts, but several ramps seemed to cut through it. Accordingly we planned to set out the next day with five days of food for the summit plateau and then to attempt the summit on the following day. July 17 was less than auspicious. By the time we had reached 15,000 feet, we were in a storm and white-out. The 1000-foot slope leading to the ice walls was dangerously unconsolidated; instead of snow, the hip-deep slope seemed to be composed of millions of hailstones piled one on top of the other. Reaching the altitude of the ice walls, we decided that finding a ramp was a hopeless enterprise in the white-out and traversed to the left.
We eventually managed to cross a bergschrund and started up the fairly steep slope behind it leading to the summit plateau. The continued storm and the lateness of the hour made us watchful for a campsite. At 16,350 feet, we decided to make our own and dug out the underside of a rock- studded, plum-pudding sérac. The efforts at levelling the lip of the crevasse below the sérac resulted in an alcove with room for two tents, back-door privy into the crevasse, and front-door drop into the storm. The next day brought no change in the weather. Setting off to explore, Ingalls and Plummer to their surprise emerged 350 feet above Camp VII into sunlight on the summit plateau. With these tidings, people in the underworld heaved to and that afternoon, we set up Camp VIII at 17,500 feet among rocks north of the east peak. The next day, July 19, was one of the best of the expedition, clear, crisp and cold. At the fashionably late hour of 10:30, we set off for the summit. The climbing on the north face of the east peak proved to be easy and each rope team followed its own route and pace. At one P.M. Plummer and Given reached the top. Bleser and Schmechel appeared unroped shortly thereafter, and by 1:45 Ingalls and Connary appeared. We found a little red flag on top which we presumed was from Hoeman’s party. From the east peak, we could see what we took to be Hoeman’s party on the main peak of Logan. Disappointed that the population explosion had reached even the St. Elias Mountains, most of us decided not to join the hordes and headed back to Camp VIII. Ingalls and Plummer set off for the main peak in a strong wind, but were finally forced back by ground drift.
The descent took three and a half unpleasant days. Storm, fog, rotten ice and sloppy snow made the going slow. At one point, Don sank in up to his hips in the fast-setting concrete and had to be dug out with a shovel. Also, we had the chore of climbing back over Catenary Peak and Dak Tower. By July 23, we found ourselves once again in Base Camp.
On the 24th, Wilson flew over and dropped us a note saying that he had just gotten stuck on Lucania and would take us off the next day from our old Base Camp. With this new incentive, the eating marathon increased. Food was gobbled up; champagne, beer, and scotch were put away. A can of tuna on the inside meant one less can of tuna on the outside for the mile-and-a-half pack to the landing site. The eat-drink- and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-Wilson-will-come philosophy had the inevitable outcome. For the next six days, bad weather moved in, making landing impossible. We no longer had the means to eat orgy-style and by the 30th we ran out of all solid food. Resolved to lose 20 pounds ofugly, dangerous fat, we were nevertheless relieved to see Wilson the next day.
In summary, the Catenary Ridge is a moderately difficult route considering its length, the amount of altitude lost and regained, and the technical difficulties. (We used about 3500 feet of fixed rope and could have used a little more.) Enjoying extremely.good weather, we were immobile for only four days. However, the extraordinary heat wave made climbing sloppy at the best, and dangerous at the worst. The Catenary Spur that we unsuccessfully tried would make a magnificent climb, perhaps comparable to the French ridge on Mount Huntington. However, good conditions are obviously necessary. Therefore, it might be attempted with best chances of success in the spring when one is assured of cool weather.
Summary of Statistics.
Area: St. Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada.
New Route: Mount Logan, east peak, 19,750 feet, via Catenary Ridge, which connects the east peak with McArthur Peak, July 19, 1967 (whole party).
Personnel: David Ingalls, leader; Warren Bleser, Steven Connary, James Given, Carlos Plummer, Donald Schmechel.