South Face of St. Elias
Walter R. Gove and Andrew Politz
GOVE BEGINS: There are mountains in the world, a few, which have a quality that sets them apart from all others. St. Elias is such a mountain. At 18,008 feet it stands isolated, facing the Gulf of Alaska. The never-ending storms, which sweep off the ocean, drop an enormous amount of snow; it is one of the few major mountains in the world where glaciers flow directly into the sea. Behind it, posing a formidable barrier, lies the largest glaciation system in the world outside the polar regions. I first saw St. Elias in 1968 from our high camp on the west ridge of Mount Fair weather. Over 200 miles away, like a sharp pyramid, it rose from a sea of clouds.
In 1979 I and three others approached St. Elias from the sea. Using a dory we made our way up the coast. We proposed to climb the untouched south face and arrived at the base in good stead. One would think the south face of St. Elias would be legendary. It is 15,000 feet high. From 3000 to 6000 feet the slope is moderate, but there is an almost impenetrable maze of crevasses. Then the slope abruptly steepens. For the last 12,000 feet the slope is too steep to collect glacial ice. The face is crisscrossed with numerous pocket glaciers which are very active, and just below the summit crest there is an overhanging ice cliff. At times the avalanches are incessant. In North America only the Wickersham Wall has a comparable height, but the latter is not nearly as steep or unrelenting and the difference in precipitation is an issue of magnitude, not degree. No one had ever set foot on the south face. Upon confronting the face, we abandoned our proposed route and attempted to make our way to Haydon Col. But it was mid-June and we were too late. The snow bordered on slush, and we were unable to negotiate the crevassed lower sections. But, by the time we backed off, I had picked out a line that I thought was reasonably safe and free from serious technical difficulty.
In the fall of 1983 I phoned Andy Politz and found he was already thinking about St. Elias. We had never met, but from earlier conversations it was clear that we experienced the mountains in a similar fashion. Andy, at 24, was a guide on Rainier. He had attempted a new route on St. Elias, was headed for the west ridge of Everest in 1985 and had plans for a new route on K2. At 45, I was married, had teenage children, and was strongly committed to a professional career. Andy’s climbing career was ready to take off while the time was approaching for mine to wind down.
The weeks before I left for Alaska were extremely hectic and, although I was in good physical shape, I felt fatigued. Andy met me at the airport in Yakutat. We had planned to fly into the airstrip at the base of the Chaix hills which would give us a chance to get to know each other during the walk in. However, we changed plans as a rare period of good weather was moving in, and Mike Ivers would land us at a frozen lake only twelve miles from the south face. Late that evening we were packed and ready to go. We were up at four A.M. and by seven o’clock we had been deposited at the lake. That day we sledded our loads up the Libbey Glacier to within a mile of the south face.
The next day we headed for the snow dome which lies on the right side of the face and which provides virtually the only line through a maze of crevasses below 6000 feet. Unlike 1979, we found the base of the face to be extremely broken. It took six or seven attempts before we were able to find a way through on bridges and snow blocks. That day we carried loads only part of the way to the snow dome, but by the next day we were on the dome.
Having sorted our gear for an alpine ascent, we set off on May 18 in marginal weather. The lower quarter of the route ascends the crest of a shallow buttress. To cross the bergschrund at the base of the buttress it was necessary to traverse across the debris of a recent and substantial fall of ice. Above the schrund the route mainly involved slogging up moderately steep snow that had the consistency of mashed potatoes. Two-thirds of the way up the buttress, we cut a tent platform in a steep corniced ridge leading to a rock pinnacle.
In the morning we continued up moderately steep mixed terrain for 1000 feet. At this point we planned to traverse left into the large chute which is the only break in the 3000-foot rock band which cuts across the face. (Below there the chute ends in a major ice cliff.) Above this point there was a wall-to-wall schrund with only one bridge. Just as we were to traverse into the chute a sizeable avalanche poured across the bridge. We swung right, bypassed a couple of towers and entered the chute via a narrow notch. Climbing up to the notch, we experienced some rockfall. The chute, except for a few runnels where one floundered through highly unstable powder snow, was long but straightforward. Camp was a snow cave cut into the 55° slope near the top of the chute at 11,500 feet. The weather was very marginal the next day and we stayed put.
The weather improved in the morning and we were off. Above us was an overhanging ice cliff which appeared quite stable. We quickly reached a 1000-foot rock band which was glazed with ice. Fortunately there were ribbons of thin snow which enabled us to thread our way through with relatively little difficulty. A steep icy traverse to the right put us in a major chute which led to some potential ramps up the ice cliff. Near the top of the chute the slope was 65° and the ice was hard. Andy put an ice screw in and belayed me up a ramp. Almost immediately, the weather started to deteriorate. We stopped at the only break in the slope. Our tent platform, a crevasse we had partially filled in, was just wide enough for the tent. On the uphill side the tent was against an ice cliff, on the other side there was only space. Soon the situation became desperate. There was no question of cooking. The tent strained against the poles as spindrift was driven into it through the vents. Eventually the drift inside the tent closed the openings. As the tent was waterproof, condensation quickly built up.
Finally I could take it no more. I scrambled out to find we had been in a ground blizzard—not the storm we had fearfully anticipated. The wind was whipping along the surface, but a hundred feet above there was blue sky. We broke camp immediately. I led off on a very steep traverse, looking for a point of weakness in the maze of crevasses above. A crevasse with a false bottom was the key. At 14,400 feet just below the crest of the southeast ridge the slope eased for the first time in 9000 feet and we soon had a bomb-proof snow cave.
We’d been without food and water for over 15 hours. Considering the difficulty of retreat, we took a day to recover and rehydrate. The summit was postponed for a day.
On May 24, we had stable but cloudy weather. Some crevasses required weaving around; however, once on the crest of the southeast ridge we found easy going—for a while. We could look down to the Newton Glacier, a place we both knew from previous attempts on the mountain. All too soon, the southeast ridge reared up in a knife-edged crest. The sides were 40° to 50° and the top was thin enough to form an excellent handhold. Along this section I first noticed Walt beginning to fade. We talked of descending, but if we kept it slow Walt felt he’d be fine. After quite some time at the reduced pace, the sharp ridge blended into the face. All that was left amounted to just over 1000 feet of 30° to 35° of snow and ice to the apex of the south face. Our pace, from 16,500 feet to the summit, was similar to one that a well acclimatized mountaineer could sustain at 21,000 to 24,000 feet. Although it can get extremely frustrating at such reduced speeds, I was impressed with Walt’s will power. This very determination is exactly what got Walt off the south face alive.
We unroped at the summit ridge and I took off for the top. We’d agreed Walt would try to get as close as possible until I returned. Night was soon approaching. After dreaming about the moment for years, the thirty seconds spent on top were overshadowed by a growing sense of our situation getting out of control.
I found Walt by my pack. In the 45 minutes I had been gone, he had snapped. He was hypothermic, dazed and confused. The descent began immediately. Walt was so uncoordinated, he could only walk holding onto my pack waist belt. Eventually, he could balance by himself. Twenty feet above Walt, I descended with my axe in the arrest position and on front points. Every time he’d stumble, I’d almost be ripped out. On the knife-edge we descended holding hands, our axes in the outside hands. After an eternity we were off the narrow ridge onto easy ground. My feet were freezing even though the sun had risen. Walt said he was exhausted but could continue down by himself, so I headed down to warm my feet.
When he arrived, Walt’s first words were “Andy we’ve got problems I have pulmonary edema, frostbite and I can’t see.” The much desired rest would not be. The descent began again. We had many crevasses to cross. I realized that if Walt fell in, he would probably die. If I fell in, we’d both probably die. We crawled across the holes. It was a real effort for Walt to move at all. Fifty to a hundred feet was as far as he could go without rest. He mentioned getting only a twentieth of the air he needed. Gradually, we withdrew into our own worlds. Walt was fighting for his life; I trying to make the right decisions. We veered to the left of our ascent route, hoping for easier terrain. As the slope steepened, we belayed off flukes and ice screws. Walt no longer seemed disoriented, but appeared hesitant to rappel off an ice cliff below. I attributed this indecision to the overhanging nature of the cliff. I rappelled. Two hours later, after many false starts, he started the rappel. As he stepped over the lip he lost control. With a tight rope we were able to control the descent, although he did land upside down ready to pass out from the trauma. We camped about 12,400 feet on a platform so narrow the outside tent poles hung in mid-air. At one A.M. I was able to turn on the stove, 41 hours after starting out for the summit. Walt was coughing up sputum. I collapsed into unconsciousness figuring Walt had a slightly better chance of living than dying.
In the morning, I sensed Walt would make it. We began the descent of the rock band. Instead of thin ice over rock, we had incredibly good snow and moved together. As soon as my front points hit ice I belayed Walt down several pitches. Uneventfully, we had negotiated the most difficult part of the face almost with ease. The major gully was very wet snow, but soon it would be in the shade. We melted snow and ate. The snow firmed and we were able to continue the descent. The last quarter of the face was finished in a whiteout. Once below the bergschrund, we stumbled through a large section of icefall debris in very poor visibility. We were forced to set up the tent just outside the debris. It was two A.M. and we’d been moving for 28 hours. Walt awoke a couple of hours later in sharp pain. A 45-minute slog brought us back into Base Camp.
I turned on the Emergency Locator Beacon and shoved it in my parka. We now placed our attention on Walt’s frostbite. His toes had developed blue and black blisters. He had frostbite on both hands, and on his right hand some of the fingers were beginning to mummify. I spent my time outside, flare in hand, listening and looking for aircraft. Twenty-six hours after turning on the locator beacon, its battery died. After a further 24 hours of waiting, in good weather, action had to be taken. It would be 13 days before anyone would be looking for us. Walt’s blistered toes could not stand the abuse of walking. The only option left was for me to walk out.
I left at 1:40 P.M. on May 29, equipped for a long hike. Descending back down to the Libbey Glacier required much care, as the bridges across any crevasses were obviously sunken and weak. By now I’d forgotten what it was like to simply walk across crevasses. Although the badly broken marginal zone of the Libbey looked impassable, I started up yet another ramp into the confusion. The ramp ended in a series of crevasses and skimpy bridges. I finally had to succumb to descending into the holes and climbing out the other side. Each of a half-dozen bridges required three probes every 8 inches, for I feared they’d collapse while I was in the middle. Every few minutes collapsing séracs set up vibrations. I doubt that I have ever experienced a similar intensity in climbing—which ended after only 300 horizontal feet on the mildly cracked Libbey Glacier.
The final phase involved 20 miles down the Libbey and Malaspina Glaciers, several miles through the terminal moraine to the Cetani River and to Icy Bay. With still no one around, the only option was to hoof it around Icy Bay to the breakers of the Pacific and Point Riou. A crab boat confirmed sighting my flare after the 44-hour walk. As I sat down, tears filled my eyes. It was nearly over.
On June 1, in a Coast Guard directed rescue, Walt was picked up and taken directly to Anchorage Providence Hospital.
With hindsight I am able to identify subtle symptoms of cerebral edema after our push to the snow cave at 11,500 feet. The symptoms became slightly more noticeable after our night in the storm-lashed tent. On two occasions at High Camp I experienced marked ataxia (lack of coordination), a common symptom of cerebral edema. Both times it occurred just after I had gotten up and as the symptoms soon disappeared I dismissed them. A critical factor in this dismissal was the fact that I had not experienced acute mountain sickness, which I had mistakenly believed was a precursor to pulmonary and cerebral edema.1 Numerous things may have contributed to their development including my initial fatigue, lack of oxygen in a waterproof, snowfilled tent and medication for sleep at High Camp. The symptoms did not become acute until after Andy left me just below the summit. I followed him onto the summit ridge and saw him near the summit. What I saw was highly distorted, much like a Picasso painting. Shortly thereafter I was totally blind for an unknown period of time. When Andy found me, I not only was hypothermic, partially blind and ataxic but also delirious and hallucinating.
The degree of my delirium fluctuated during the descent, and my memory is spotty. However, I was able to hold on to the fact that my life depended on getting down and I seemed to descend instinctively, presumably based on thirty years of climbing. In one of my more lucid states, I attempted to set up the rappel. I would mentally go through the procedure step by step. Then I would try and fail. I repeated this process again and again. Desperate I finally jerry- rigged a system that I thought would give me enough friction. As I leaned back over the lip the rope shifted and I lost control. I yelled to Andy to grab the rope and as he lunged for it I blacked out. That night in the tent as Andy melted water I sat listening to the people partying inside me who were getting 95% of my oxygen. I was angry that they were taking my oxygen and while I could hear their bursts of laughter I couldn’t hear their jokes. These hallucinations seemed entirely normal and I never mentioned them to Andy. By the time we were halfway down the chute, I was no longer troubled by edema. Once down, I was shocked by the frostbite as I had no memory of it.
On June 1, in very marginal weather, a Hughes helicopter picked me up. From Yakutat I was flown to Anchorage and subsequently to my home in Nashville, Tennessee. On June 27 I was operated on. I lost five toes, including both big toes, part of one finger on my left hand and part of three fingers on my right hand.
As I lay waiting in the tent and afterward, I gave a lot of thought to what had happened. The route was almost exactly as I envisioned it. When we were on the face, the objective risks were moderate, but it is clear that avalanche hazards will frequently make major sections of the route impassable. Given the typical weather on St. Elias, an alpine ascent is much more likely to succeed than the traditional siege approach. Furthermore, by moving quickly an alpine ascent will minimize the exposure to objective hazards.
In 1978 Leigh Ortenburger2 noted that the evidence on alpine ascents was not in. The accidents on Foraker and Huntington in 1983 emphasize the risks of a major alpine ascent. On our climb Andy was up to handling our route on St. Elias. He is young, strong and has vast reserves. In terms of strength and endurance, I’ve never stood out as especially strong. And now, older, my reserves are even less. Much as I wanted to do the climb, it is now clear to me that without a great deal of luck the physical demands of such a climb surpass my capabilities. One of the lessons to be learned from our climb is that serious alpine ascents are for the physically elite, and even then one is treading a fine line.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: St. Elias Mountains, Alaska.
New Route: Mount St. Elias, 5489 meters, 18,008 feet, South Face, May 14 to
25, 1984 (Gove, Politz). Summit reached on May 25, 1984 (Politz).
Personnel: Walter R. Gove, Andrew Politz.
1 For a recent statement of the evidence see “High Altitude Cerebral Edema: Cerebral Acute Mountain Sickness.” John Dickerson, Respiratory Medicine, 1983, 25:151-153.
2“Pukajirka Central.” Leigh Ortenburger, American Alpine Journal, 1978, 21 (2):492.