Augusta and Logan Twin Pack
Don Serl, Alpine Club of Canada
WHERE I COME FROM, you’ve climbed a mountain when you can spit off the far side. Also, where I come from, Mount Logan is the biggest mountain there is, with a south face that is absolutely Himalayan in size and seriousness. It was thus that, while never having had personal acquaintance with the great peaks of the Saint Elias Mountains, I reacted with considerable pique to a report in the 1986 Canadian Alpine Journal in which four Yanks claimed to have “established a new route on the south face of Mount Logan.” The report went on to reveal that they had, in fact, been soundly trounced by the mountain, turning back, frostbitten, “a few hundred yards” short of even gaining the existing Hummingbird Ridge route. At least 4000 feet of mountain still stood above them. These guys, I decided from the comfort of my living room, were plainly wankers. Somebody ought to do something about it!
And so it came to be that four of us found ourselves on the Seward Glacier early last May, intent on climbing the Early Bird Buttress. Because the putative plan called for an alpine-style ascent as that would entail 11,000 feet of difficult climbing leading to a 19,500-foot summit followed by stumbling six to eight kilometers across the summit plateau at 17,000 feet to find a descent route none of us had ever seen, it seemed prudent to climb something a little lower and less serious first. The north rib of Mount Augusta, the most aesthetic route on the prettiest peak on the Seward, beckoned.
After 15 kilometers and seven hours of sledding from Base Camp, we tucked into our bags in the basin below the rib. A typical “Saint Elias alpine start” at eleven A.M. the next morning saw us over the schrund at noon and the adventure began. Easy snow slopes led right to a short sérac wall at the base of the arête that forms most of the route. The arête, once gained, proved steep and exhilaratingly exposed, although belays were necessary only a handful of times. Four thousand feet and eight hours up, in high winds and spindrift, we dug in where the ridge begins to fade into the face. A miserable night, buffeted in our little “frost-boxes,” followed. There seems to be no alternative to these little Gore-Tex wedge tents for hard routes where weight counts, but to pretend that they are anything more than cramped and icy is a cruel joke. Luckily, the storm let up by mid-morning and by one P.M. we made another “alpine start” and moved into the mists that supplanted the sun. By early evening we had climbed the upper 2000 feet of the face and topped out onto the crest of the west ridge. Cold, wet Pacific breezes surged up the south face from the Malaspina Glacier. Fortress-height snow walls to protect the tents seemed advisable. We were a long way out on a limb if the weather worsened.
Morning dawned crisp, calm and reasonably clear. It was tremendously exciting to gaze out across the vast swirls of the Malaspina and stare into the sea. The ridge crest, while heavily corniced on the north side, offered reasonably straightforward travel along the top of the south-facing slopes. Once again, only a few belays were necessary and by 6:30 we had plugged up the final soft slopes, dumped our packs and plowed the final couple of hundred meters to the top. A third of a century after this fine peak was first climbed, the second ascent was ours!
The descent of the original route*, the north ridge, went smoothly enough, although the lee-side mists obscured the initial 1000 or 1500 feet down steep, icy slopes and confused us greatly. The long gentle section at mid-height was a delight, with fabulous golden views from the Bering Glacier to Kennedy and Hubbard, but the slopes below had us very much on edge. Fortunately the snow conditions were good and we regained the basin without incident. Just after one A.M., tired but elated, we slogged back to our campsite and plunged into a midnight snack of Dagwood proportions. An amazingly quick return ski trip, just 2½ hours, on a fast, frozen track got us back to Base Camp the evening of the following day. The “acclimatization” part of the trip was over. It was time to turn our thoughts to Logan!
It turns out maybe that the South Tahoe guys, whoever they were, might not be such wankers after all. It turns out that they may just have climbed a lot of hard, hard terrain on their attempt. All right, they certainly overstated the case by claiming to have done the route, but I’ve got to say my hat is off to them. We thought and talked, talked and thought, and we came to the considered opinion that that route was simply too big and too serious for us. To be humbled by a mountain is no shame. In fact, to be able to put aside one’s ego and analyze each situation as one comes upon it is a key to staying alive in the hills. It is surely one of the great lessons that one can bring back to sea-level life from these adventures. If you are not ready, know so and go away. The mountain can’t go away, and you can always come back! And so, without so much as setting foot on it, we turned our backs on it and sought an alternative.
The second half of the trip, while still a challenge, was, it must be admitted, somewhat anticlimactic. We knew there were parties on Logan’s east ridge .and reckoned they’d have tracks in and all the hard sections fixed. We also felt that we’d spent enough time at altitude and were fit enough to have a go at “flashing” the route. We’d pack for six days, take a single screw and a solitary picket per pair plus a 7 mm rope for the bunch and see if we could make it to the top. If anything went wrong, we’d fail, but that was simply the game.
Everything clicked. We got away from the landing site at noon, skied to the base of the route in 2½ hours and set up tents for a siesta till the sun went around the corner and the temperatures plunged. By ten o’clock, we were sipping soup and renewing friendships in the 11,000-foot campsite at the base of the first knife-edged section. Just after midnight, we dropped our packs 1000 feet higher and set about waking everyone in the camp by scrunching out platforms for the tents. Blustery snow the next day ended progress above the second knife-edge, only 1000 feet higher, but clear, calm weather reappeared in the evening. Superb views broadened and lengthened as we continued up slowly easing slopes to the plateau rim at nearly 16,000 feet on our third afternoon. Another hour-and-a-half saw us into the basin below the east peak for the night. Excitement and anticipation contended with headaches and lack of appetite. We were clearly too high too fast. We bedded down just as prepared to dash down for lower elevations at the first sign of edema or of bad weather as to head for the top.
Summit day! Getting under way was hard, but once we were moving, progress was smooth and steady. Firm snow underfoot and a cold but windless day helped. Still, the higher we got, the longer the stops. Finally, high on the traverse of the south face of the east peak, we were forced to the conclusion that the main summit was unattainable. Even after we had dropped the packs on a rock outcrop, the last thousand feet to the east peak seemed a desperate blur of frantic panting and dragging footsteps. Somehow the urge to spit off the far side never came to mind, and not long after we’d reached it, the east summit was once again stark and empty against the sky.
A stormy night had me worried—none of us was feeling very well—but our luck again held. While the morning was misty with intermittent snow, it was fair enough for travel. Our strength came back fast as we dropped and we kept on blasting down the ridge all through the afternoon. Twelve hours after leaving the Plateau Camp at 16,500 feet, we doffed our packs for the final time at the landing site, 10,000 feet lower. The mountain stood serene. Early Bird remained unclimbed, but we had stretched ourselves on a great route and had succeeded. To fail on a greater route may be viewed as nobler, and to succeed on the greatest of routes is obviously the finest of all, but I admitted to no misgivings, no second thoughts as I dropped off to sleep, glowing with contentment. The mountain had been kind to us, we had been true to ourselves and now we were going home.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Saint Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada.
Ascents: Mount Augusta, 4288 meters, 14,070 feet; Second Ascent via a new
route, the North Rib, May 13 to 15, 1987.
Mount Logan, East Peak, 5892 meters, 19,330 feet; via East Ridge.
Personnel: Mike Carlson, Greg Foweraker, Jeff Marshall, Don Serl.
*It should be noted that the account of the first ascent of Augusta in the 1953 Canadian Alpine Journal is terribly confusing as to points of the compass. The climbers refer to a northwest orientation of approach and to a col on the northwest side of the mountain, whereas they were approaching from the northeast to a col directly north of the summit. They climbed a ridge that might best be called the north ridge but which actually lies east of north relative to the summit. Similarly, the “west” face is the north face and their “north” face is the northeast face.