American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Canadian St. Elias Expedition

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

Canadian St. Elias Expedition. On July 10 Alice Culbert, Jack Bryceland, Jim Craig, Fred Douglas, Steve Heim, Dietmar Setzer, my wife Margriet Wyborn and I flew from Seattle to Yakutat. On the same day we were flown into Oily Lake which is trapped between the Malaspina Glacier and the Samovar Hills at 1500 feet. This may represent the cheapest approach to St. Elias but apparently the lake has been known to drain. Landing on the northeast end of the lake we followed a stream north and climbed a snow slope to cross the Samovar Hills at a col of 3700 feet. To avoid the icefall at the Newton-Agassiz junction, we skied across the Agassiz Glacier and up a small side glacier to camp beneath the 5900-foot col at the end of the southeast ridge of St. Elias. Next morning it took two hours to climb the 1500 feet to the col. Not reaching the ridge at the lowest point we were forced to abseil 60 feet down the other side before skiing down to the Newton Glacier. Roped up and on skis we weaved between the crevasses to camp at 5500 feet beneath the difficult last icefall before Base Camp. One wall and a huge crevasse took six hours to cross. That night (July 13) we set up Base Camp at 6200 feet. Four days we waited in bad weather for our airdrop, living on one day’s rations and tins of food left at the Italian Base Camp. As soon as the food arrived, we set out to find a route to a campsite beneath the headwall leading to Russell Col. To avoid part of the icefall we crossed the lower section of the east ridge. A camp was established at 8500 feet, far enough from the headwall to be free from avalanches. On July 22 everybody carried loads to the col. Large ice avalanches continually rumbled down off the hanging glaciers on St. Elias, endangering the left-hand section of the headwall, but we found a relatively safe route directly up slopes to the col. Ropes were fixed on the steeper pitches. On the following day everybody moved up to the col and a camp was established at 12,300 feet, where the weather trapped us for five days. Winds gusted up to 40 mph and eight feet of snow fell. The four tent dwellers finally gave up repitching the tent and the snow cave was enlarged to fit all eight. On the afternoon of July 29 we started up the ridge in clear windy weather. At 14,500 feet we found a crevasse to sleep in after some leveling of the floor and enlarging. In beautiful weather all but one started for the summit at 6:30 next morning. No technical difficulties were encountered but soft snow made the ascent very slow. On the summit I was overcome with pulmonary oedema and had to descend quickly to lower altitudes, where I quickly recovered. We reached the summit on July 30, the same day that the Duke of the Abruzzi made the first ascent, 74 years earlier. On the descent of the headwall, Steve Heim broke a leg while jumping a crevasse and had to be helicoptered out to Yakutat. Also we found that our skis, left at the base of the headwall, had been buried by a huge avalanche. Fortunately the snow below Base Camp was much firmer than on the approach and we walked back to Oily Lake in two days. The descent from the col on the southeast ridge of St. Elias was made by a steep narrow couloir, the top of which was easily gained from the Newton side. Over 600 feet of fixed rope was used on this descent. We were flown back to Yakutat on August 5.

ROSS WYBORN, British Columbia Mountaineering Club

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