American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

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

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981

Mount St. Elias Traverse. On June 8 George Bolling, Kelly Creamer, Dick Dietz, Rob Leitz and I flew to Yakutat, Alaska with the intention of climbing Mount St. Elias by the south ridge. We wanted to leave open the possibility of sending two of our party up over the top to descend the “standard” Russell Col route thus completing the first traverse of this mountain. The south ridge was pioneered by the Harvard Mountaineering Club in 1948 but not repeated until 1978. We were ferried to our Base Camp just above the Tyndall Glacier on June 9 by a combination of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. Our helicopter pilot was bold enough to take some gear to our proposed Camp I at 7500 feet, turning a possible quintuple carry up a steep crumbling shale ridge into a mere double carry. When a three-day storm eased, we set off on the first of three carries up a glacier and another loose shale ridge to Camp II at 10,200 feet. The next step involved a ridge walk and a traverse around Haydon Peak with a net loss in altitude to Camp III at 10,000 feet. The section from Camp III to Camp IV at 13,300 feet provided the most interesting climbing of the south-ridge route, requiring fixed rope through a series of ice faces and then a 500-foot rock band. This band ended at the base of a broad, exposed, 35° to 45° ice slope which sustained itself for 2000 feet to the top of a dome where Camp IV was placed. Aftersitting out another storm and retrieving more loads from below, we pressed on up the ridge to Camp V just below the summit ridge at 15,000 feet. The weather cleared, our camps were well stocked, and we were ahead of schedule, so the decision was made to proceed with the plan to send two of us over the top and down the other side. On June 24 Bolling, Creamer and Dietz set off with light packs at six A.M. for a summit attempt. Leitz and I followed soon thereafter with full packs including food and fuel for five days. When we reached the base of the broken-rock-and-ice summit ridge and saw the other three scrambling up it, we decided the snow-and-ice south face looked more attractive and began a series of belayed switch-backs on it. This proved to be a mistake as we were subject to two seemingly well aimed rockfalls loosened by the rock-ridge party above. We escaped with only a broken tent pole in my pack. When we rejoined the ridge group a few hundred feet below the summit at seven P.M., we were behind schedule and facing a challenging route-finding problem around the large cornices to the summit. We solved it by again traversing right onto the south face and step-cutting up to a gap between the two cornices on the adjacent southwest ridge. Another five minutes put us on top on a clear, windless, and relatively warm evening just before sunset at ten P.M. We managed to accommodate five people with sleeping bags in a three- man tent with no major ill-effects due to our fortunate weather. We were experiencing one of only three clear, calm days in 23 on the mountain. Early the next morning Leitz and I packed up and headed for Russell Col 6000 feet below while the others started back for Camp V. What we thought would be a straightforward route to the col was rather difficult because of route-finding problems with poor visibility and no dependable anchors. These problems were compounded, however, during the next stage from the col down the icefall to the Newton Glacier. The icefall was moderately steep, riddled with transverse cravasses, and had avalanche danger. It was with a great sigh of relief that we ran past the last avalanche run-out and headed on down the Newton. Four anxious days later we heard the sweet sound of the helicopter picking up the three others on the other side of the mountain. On July 1 at 1:30 P.M. we sighted the helicopter coming up the Newton and ignited our flare. Twelve hours later we found ourselves in summertime Seattle.

Christopher Pizzo

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