American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Mount St. Elias

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1972

Mount St. Elias. On May 27 Giorgio Tessari, Giuliano Fabbrica, Elio Scarabelli, Rino Zocchi, my brother Antonio Rusconi and I as leader left our small village of Valmadrera at the foot of the Grigna of Lecco. On June 4 Base Camp was established by helicopter at 6000 feet among the huge crevasses of the Newton Glacier. Great walls of ice and snow nearly 12,000 feet high soared in vast majesty above our very heads. The devilish rumbling of avalanches shook us into the realization of the dreaded peril. It took two days of work amid crevasses, séracs and icefalls in the powder snow of the long southeast ridge to install Camp I. On June 8 at 10,500 feet we set up a tent and left a supply of food, but during the night the weather changed and for six days we remained in the tents while eight feet of snow fell. Finally on June 14 we saw the sun and decided to try to return to Camp I. On the crest the conditions had worsened terribly and we could not advance along it. The new snow had built enormous but delicate cornices. We descended to Base Camp and watched cornices fall. On June 15 we decided to make a second attempt, this time following in part the 1897 route of the Duke of the Abruzzi. Zocchi and I set out to find the way to the upper part of the Newton Glacier and Russell Col. Heading across the glacier which descends from the southeast ridge proper beside the east ridges, (i.e. left of the main Newton Glacier) we crossed crevasses and snow bridges, bypassing séracs and ice pinnacles. The last 15-foot-wide, thinly bridged crevasse was surmounted by a wall of ice which took me two hours of step-cutting. We had finally reached the upper Newton Glacier at the foot of the east ridge. It was easier on this glacier, which we followed to a point three miles from Russell Col, where we camped. We made radio contact to summon the others. On June 16 around five A.M. an enormous avalanche crashed frighteningly from near the top of St. Elias 6000 feet down to the glacier and against the slopes of Mount Newton. Though three miles away, we were covered by a layer of snow and reduced to zero visibility. We had not recovered from the shock when a far more powerful avalanche hurtled from Mount Newton. If we had started earlier for Russell Col, we should now lie beneath one of the two avalanches. It took seven hours of hard work and acrobatics to climb the steep 3500 feet to the col (12,300 feet). After a brief rest, at two o’clock we started the final assault of the north ridge. At 16,000 feet Scarabelli, hit by the altitude, found it impossible to proceed. My brother Toni, Fabbrica and Zocchi were in good shape and so I decided that they should head for the summit while we other three returned to bivouac on Russel Col. Ten hours later, the tired but victorious trio joined us on the col. It took us another five hours to get back to camp where we could rest after 25 hours of fighting against the mountain. We descended in six hours to Base Camp on the 18th. On June 23, after a five-day storm, the weather seemed to clear. We started for the east ridge. The following day from camp at the foot of the ridge Toni and I climbed to 12,500 feet, where we left some equipment. On the 25th we all set out together to set up camp at 13,700 feet. As I led a steep section, a huge cornice fell, sweeping me down 100 feet and burying four of us. Luckily we managed to extricate ourselves only 50 feet from the edge of a 3000-foot cliff. Now at 13,000 feet, we continued to 13,700 feet where three stopped to set up Camp II. My brother Toni, Scarabelli and I climbed another 100 feet to the point where we knew the most difficult part of the ascent began. We made another 900 feet along the heavily corniced and unstable ridge. Never have we found anywhere such treacherous and dangerous terrain. The only way to return was to rappel some 250 feet vertically on the right face to arrive at a slope which brought us to Camp II. Leaving at one A.M. on the 26th in beautiful weather, we climbed back to our high point in three hours. The difficulties became greater as we progressed. By two P.M. we had overcome the greater difficulties, but the weather worsened and bitterly we had to decide to return. We could not return by the same route we had climbed but had to descend the right wall of the ridge. From a snow bollard we rappelled down the 800-foot vertical ice slope. The rope just reached the bottom of the wall. We arrived exhausted at Camp II. With the weather worsening, we descended to Camp I and Base Camp, where a final six-day storm trapped us.

GIOVANNI RUSCONI, Club Alpino Italiano

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.