American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Mounts Jeannette, Newton and St. Elias

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1969

Mounts Jeannette, Newton and, St. Elias. Our goal was to have been the long southeast ridge of Mount St. Elias, a sinuous, silver edifice that bursts from the Newton Glacier for 11,000 feet to meet the gentle summit cone. The plan was simple—to land at its foot with fifty days’ food and lay siege until the job was done. Simplicity soon vanished. Our pilot, Jack Wilson, flew over the Newton with Paul Gerhard, Ed Lane and Steve Altman, but found no spot to land. We found ourselves at Boyd Everett’s old Base Camp on the Columbus Glacier, ten miles and a 14,000-foot-high traverse away from the southeast ridge. The map revealed a more promising route to the Newton Glacier over a pass several miles farther east, Jeannette Col. Before all our gear had been lowered over the cliffs on the far side of Jeannette Col, our new rigid crampons were clearly failing. We decided instead to traverse the ridge from Mount Jeannette to Mount Newton, climbing St. Elias from the north by way of Russell Col, a modification of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s pioneering climb in 1897. (They joined the Italian route at Russell Col and the Japanese route of 1964 on Mount Newton—Editor.) On the morning of June 21, Bob Rice, Mike Coffeen and Ed Lane left to find a route up Mount Jeannette—a mound of steep ice and snow, towering west of camp. The rest of us climbed to the col and began the uninspiring job of hauling up 500 feet of rope, the food and fuel which had been prematurely lowered across the col. The climber’s progress on Jeannette was tortured and they reached little more than half-way up the 3000 feet. The morning after, Gerhard and I left early. Arnon, Shank and Altman followed. By late afternoon, a route was fixed to within a few hundred feet of the summit. Coffeen and Lane caught us and alternated several fine leads over steep ice to the top (11,750 feet). We rappelled down the ropes in the chill of sunset and celebrated our first ascent with a feast. Three days later, after another storm, our camp was perched 400 feet under Jeannette’s summit. Eight days of beautiful weather then let us move over peaks of 12,000 feet (1st ascent) and 12,500 feet (3rd ascent) to Mount Newton (13,810 feet; 3rd ascent). On each day the pattern was similar—an early pair breaking trail and fixing ropes, the others carrying loads and returning to break camp—generally a new peak to reach and pass. On June 2 we descended from Mount Newton into an eerie fog blowing through Russell Col and established our eighth and final camp at 12,000 feet on a small platform. Our crampons, by now amalgams of wire, tape and steel, still held. Then bad weather returned. Our ten days of food suddenly seemed small. For four days storms pinned us in camp. Two-man teams ventured onto the steep, corniced ridge during calmer periods, stringing ropes and hacking steps, but the next storm generally eliminated progress. This final difficult quarter-mile was finished only on the return of clear weather on July 6, when Shank and Gerhard fixed the crux. While the others converted the toe-holds into a highway, Arnon and I literally swam across Russell Col to 13,000 feet on the Abruzzi route through waist-deep snow. July 7 dawned clear. The perennial fog had vanished from the Pacific Ocean to the south. A few hours sufficed to reach the 13,000-foot previous high point. From there, trail had to be broken and our progress through unsettled snow was erratic. Five hours later we were only 2000 feet higher and mares’ tails were floating across the sky. A steady 50 mile-per-hour gale followed shortly. Near the top of the Abruzzi ridge at 15,500 feet, Gerhard began a traverse around the mountain to the west to try to escape the wind. He disappeared onto the lee side of the ridge. Shank and I heard him yell, “Avalanche!” The snow soon passed but Gerhard had vanished. Luckily he could jümar back up the ice cliff to us. It seemed as if the summit would never be reached. As pitch blended into pitch and false summit merged into false summit, we continued, finding a route free from avalanche and breaking trail the whole way. The summit (fifth ascent) was miraculously free from wind. Then 14 hours after leaving camp, we started back down into the wind. On the descent the storm got worse and we had to bivouac. Finally we returned to camp 31 hours after leaving it. After two days of storm in Camp VIII, we climbed back to the top of Mount Newton and another cache of food—this one buried under a 15-foot snowdrift and located only by an arrow of wands left on the lee slope. A day and a half were needed to descend the many small bergschrunds and icefalls on Mount Newton’s north ridge. The Columbus Glacier was hard underfoot and on June 12 we completed our circuit and arrived in Base Camp under Jeannette Col.

Louis F. Reichardt, Sierra Club

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