St. Elias from the Sea: An Attempt on the South Face

Publication Year: 1980.

St. Elias from The Sea: An Attempt on the South Face

Walter R. Gove

SINCE THE MASTERY OF techniques for sustained climbing on big walls and for climbing of vertical ice, we have entered an era where virtually anything can be climbed. To read the climbing journals and magazines, the emphasis appears to have shifted to extending oneself to the limits of human capability. Simultaneously, many of the elite climbers forcefully argue that one should impose restrictions on the character of one’s protection, and many of these climbers manifest a willingness to confront serious objective hazards. Pushing the limits of the possible is one approach to climbing, but it is an approach possible only to those whose primary devotion in life is to climbing. But most persons who climb lead other lives, and those other lives are incompatible with striving to meet such standards. Part-time climbers must approach climbing with a different perspective. Many will be content to follow in the footsteps of other climbers, guidebook in hand; part-time climbers who want something more, however, have another option.

For me, being in the mountains has always been a time for renewal, a time to leave civilization behind and to become a wanderer in the wilderness, a time to confront and adapt to the elements. Trodden paths, trodden routes distract. People distract. I’ve always preferred big isolated glaciated mountains, in part because the sign of man passes quickly, in part because they are constantly changing yet eternal, but primarily because they touch a personal aesthetic chord. Technical climbing, while enjoyable, has always been a way of getting around in the mountains, but when pushed to its limits it becomes a barrier between me and the mountains. Furthermore, I find taking substantial risks unacceptable in an experience which is one of life affirmation.

For some time the Saint Elias Range and its southern offshoot, the Fairweather Range, has been an ideal place for me to climb. Containing the largest glaciated system outside the polar regions, its bad weather and problems of access mean that it is one of the major mountain ranges of the world that remain relatively untouched. However, over the years I’ve become keenly aware of the degree to which the tie to the airplane restricts one’s activities and intrudes upon one’s involvement in the mountains. Loren Adkins shares a similar view. Ever since our attempt on the east ridge of St. Elias in 1970 we have wanted to go back to St. Elias and attempt it from the sea. In the early spring of 1979 Loren bought a fiberglass dory that, with care, would allow us to go up the open coast to Icy Bay and to approach St. Elias by sea from the south.

A call to Don Liska, and we had a third. Don has, as he calls it, a flaw—just being in the mountains is sufficiently rewarding that the summit isn’t too important. He liked the idea of a boat approach, and when he commented, “chocks are for rock climbing, pitons are for mountains,” I knew we had a kindred soul. Don had attempted St. Elias in 1975, essentially following the route attempted by the 1913 International Boundary Survey and finally climbed in 1978. Don had gotten along well with a member of that party, Walt Vennum, who wanted another crack at St. Elias, and we soon had a fourth and final member.

On May 27 Loren and I left Juneau in his boat, loaded down with the expedition gear. It would be a 360-mile trip to the mountain. The plan was to pick up Don and Walt at Yakutat and proceed by boat to Icy Bay. We soon found that our speed was slow (8½ miles per hour), and our gas consumption was so high that on the long runs we would have to use the kicker which, although slower, got better mileage. Once through Icy Straits and in the open ocean we had to be very cautious. The 110-mile run from Lituya Bay to Ocean Cape, which marks the mouth of Yakutat Bay, was dramatic. Having been storm-bound in Lituya Bay for three days, we inched up the coast in our 21-foot boat in a sea with a 30-foot swell. Much of the way we were in the fog and navigated by staying just outside the surf, which curled back, breaking towards the open ocean. We picked up Don Liska and Walt Vennum in Yakutat and after being driven back twice by rough seas, we finally reached Icy Bay on June 5. On the trip up, besides the ever-present water birds, we encountered many whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, brown bears and eagles. Icy Bay was full of icebergs, the consequence of a major earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) in March, whose center had been just a few miles away. At the mouth of Caeptani River we anchored the boat and went ashore. That night at high tide we rowed the boat through the small breakers and grounded her in a creek bed just as the tide turned. The next day we unloaded the boat and, using wet logs, were able to push her onto high ground.

We spent four days ferrying loads the four miles to the Malaspina glacier and another 1½ miles across the scree-strewn glacier to bare ice. On the first day up on the glacier we encountered a brown bear and her two cubs. On the fourth day we camped on the ice. Another day-and-a-half of ferrying and we were able to use the sleds to push through the slush zone and on the sixth night we were on snow. Two days and 20 miles later we were at the head of the Libby glacier camped with our 700 pounds of gear. We had each sledded 175 pounds, a relatively easy task.

The 15,000-foot south face of St. Elias inspires awe. In terms of height, in North America only the Wickersham wall on Mount McKinley is of comparable scale. The face at its bottom is almost five miles wide and rises much like a pyramid to a pointed top. The face is crossed by a 3000-foot rock band and in most places above the rock there are ice cliffs. The upper 10,000 feet of the face has an average angle of 45°. In terms of both scale and steepness, the only comparable faces are in the Himalaya, and even there there are only a few. And unlike those faces, the glaciers from St. Elias flow directly into the sea. The continual storms from the North Pacific make the weather there some of the worst in the world.

It was immediately obvious that our route, picked from Brad Washburn’s photos, was problematic. We had planned to climb the left side of the face through an icefall to the rock band. Here one could angle right where, in the photos, the rock alternated with snow; the alternative was to bear slightly left and up—the start was clearly more difficult, but there was no threat of an ice avalanche, a question with the other route. However, this year we were too late. It was June 15, too much snow had melted, and due to rotten rock and crevasses, climbing the lower face on the left was out of the question. Our only choice was to angle right towards a small snow dome and then cut sharply left, crossing a major avalanche chute under a small ‘pocket’ glacier above the rock band. Furthermore, the snow was gone from the rock band, and the more we looked the harder the route seemed. By the time we had reached the first camp we reluctantly agreed to take the ‘easy’ alternative, traversing to Haydon Col where we would join the Harvard route.

On the first carry from Base Camp an earthquake hit. After being bounced around, we watched the avalanches flow down from the ice cliffs above. Reassuringly, they stopped near the bottom of the steep upper face. Another carry and we had most of our gear at the first camp. In the late evening, when the bright sun was off the glacier below, it was obvious that a line of dust-covered snow reached out about 5 miles from the face. We had noticed it, as well as pieces of rock just lying on the snow, on the way in. Obviously when the major earthquake hit in March, there had been a tremendous avalanche which had flowed miles down the flat glacier.

The next night we all set out, with Loren and me breaking trail and putting in the route. It was below freezing, and the snow was in adequate condition. We raced across the avalanche chute, which was a quarter of a mile wide. Past the chute, we were confronted with a maze of crevasses. Time and again Loren or I would be stopped and the other would try to find a new way through. Once we were on the verge of being stuck when I forced my way across a delicate bridge. Two hundred yards further, and we appeared to be truly stuck; the snow was getting soft and the conditions were marginal. With Loren yelling at me to hurry up, I tried our last possibility, crossing a delicate snow bridge and swinging under a slightly overhanging sérac. As the rope ran out I could see we had an easy shot for a few hundred yards to another maze of crevasses. On our return we found, in the now slushy snow, in the crevassed section, where the snow was smooth, that it provided only a thin veneer masking numerous crevasses.

The next night we ferried loads to the drop site above. It did not freeze, and the snow did not set up. It was clear that we would not be able to push our way through the crevassed section under these conditions. Furthermore, slightly beyond the drop site we would be in the path of a potential major wet snow avalanche. On the carry up as we had entered the middle of the avalanche chute, an earthquake hit, and the face of the ice cliff 6000 feet above plunged toward us. We ran. Fortunately, it was a ‘slow’ avalanche and, in the minute it took to reach us, we got out of the chute. As it flowed past us we were showered with tiny fragments of ice which immediately soaked us as the flakes had become heated when the ice had hit the rock above.

Back at camp, we discussed the wisdom of pushing on. Loren thought the risks were too high. Walt Vennum, by far our most competent technical rock climber, thought we should persevere. Eventually we decided to wait and see if it froze. That night it again did not freeze, and we stayed put. That morning the ice cliff above the avalanche chute broke loose in an enormous avalanche. Its front was a mile across and it plunged down 10,000 feet and out four horizontal miles in less than a minute. That avalanche settled the issue for Loren and, after some internal debate, for me. Walt was still for pushing on, but after some debate we all agreed to withdraw. Any lingering doubts I had were dispelled that night for again it did not freeze and the ice cliff above the rock face we had initially considered climbing broke loose, sweeping the entire route.

In two days we were back at the ocean. After resting a day we caught the high tide at eleven P.M. and were off dodging our way through the icebergs. By noon we were in Yakutat, and Walt was soon flying south, having a few extra days before going to Devil’s Thumb. Walt, I think, never really understood why we turned back. He attached a great importance to reaching the summit, and we had not reached a point where we simply could not proceed. Don was content, as he had enjoyed what we had done, and he stayed an extra day in Yakutat to beachcomb. Loren and I headed south by boat, a story by itself. For us, the trip had been a series of highs, and we had no regrets. For the first time since 1935 we had made an attempt on a major Alaskan peak without an airplane or equivalent support. We had a comprehension of St. Elias that cannot come with a typical approach. We had not climbed the mountain because the timing and conditions were wrong, but we had attempted the mountain on our terms, and done what we wanted to do, the way we wanted to. For us this was the most important thing.

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