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North America, Canada, Yukon Territory, Saint Elias Mountains, Attempt and Ascents

Saint Elias Mountains, Attempt and Ascents. From a base camp on a “virgin” glacier between Mount King George (3741 m) and Mount Queen Mary (3928 m), we took advantage of generally good weather to attempt the northeast ridge of Mount King George, make the first British ascent of Mount Queen Mary by a new route via the south ridge and of unclimbed Peak 3118m, and make the first ascent of Peak 3089m. Photos obtained prior to departure suggested that the main problem in our Mount King George attempt would be glacial breakup on the approach to the route. In the event, our glacier pilot, Kurt Gloyer, solved this problem by confidently landing in a small flat area (1990 m) on the virgin upper glacier bowl north of the mountain. From the plane we saw alarm-ing-looking seracs barring the way on the upper part of our route.

We easily reached the start of the route (1960 m), which at first was a mixed rock and ice ridge. We then weaved around small seracs on steep windslab, using snow stakes to gain purchase. A traverse left under a larger serac at 2500 meters turned out to be on concrete-hard ice. We abandoned the traverse and camped under a stable section of serac, only to be blasted all night by wind and spindrift.

The next day we traversed lower down, and climbed between the seracs via more steep windslab to a shoulder. From here we climbed around another set of seracs—also to the left, on the ubiquitous “vertical windslab”—to a second shoulder from which we could view the rest of the route. Ahead a section of steeply corniced ridge led to a large serac climbable only by an abutting snow pinnacle. Above this an “impregnable” serac wall could be bypassed only by traversing well to the left onto the east face, under the seracs on icy-looking and avalanche-scoured slopes.

As we ascended to the corniced ridge the snow changed to a thin layer of sugar over concrete-hard ice. We retreated and camped back on the shoulder at ca. 3080 meters. In the morning we traversed well below the ridge and up a short rock step onto a slope leading back to the crest. The slope led on more steep windslab to a small lip marking the transition to another sugar-coat-ed ice slope, this time topped with yet more windslab (ca. 3120 m). Having exhausted all reasonable alternatives, we reluctantly retreated. Our disappointment was tempered by a sense of relief once we had safely descended.

On May 14, we reached a col on the east ridge of the unclimbed Peak 3089 in two hours from Base Camp. After traversing an intricate but straightforward corniced ridge and ascending a slope between seracs, we reached the north summit in a further three hours. Another summit, possibly a few meters higher, lay one kilometer to the south, but the intervening corniced ridge was uninviting in the high winds and rapidly approaching storm.

On the descent we camped at ca. 2500 meters as the blizzard and poor visibility made further progress risky. After 16 hours of torrential snowfall we trenched our way down the slopes to Base Camp when the weather cleared early next morning.

On May 18, attracted by its appearance from Base Camp and the solid-looking rock at the base of the south ridge, we attempted Peak ca. 2600 meters. We climbed the slabby buttress in two 50-meter pitches at around Severe via a crack line. The main difficulty (apart from dubious protection) was the volume of rock falling toward the second. We continued up the pleasant mixed alpine ridge above to the foresummit, then along a corniced ridge toward the true summit on horrific avalanche-prone snow and vertical sugar. We were turned back 150 meters from the top by a large cornice running directly down the side of the ridge.

Mount Queen Mary had previously been climbed only from the north and via the west ridge. From our Base Camp to the south there was no direct route, but we decided to attempt the mountain via the northwest ridge of Peak 3118 and the winding ridge leading from 3118 to the summit of Mount Queen Mary, a total of 11 kilometers to the route. Anticipating poor snow conditions we set off on May 21 with seven days’ food and fuel.

On the first day we reached the col north of Peak 3118m, having enjoyed mainly superb snow conditions. The following day we made the steep ascent to a foresummit at 3440 meters, along some level ridge and up a further rise to a superbly open campsite on a serac at ca. 3560 meters. On the third day we reached the rounded summit in one and a half hours.

The morning inversion turned into a storm as we descended to the col by Peak 3118. After moderate overnight snowfall and in poor visibility we continued over 3118 and reversed our route of ascent. Several times we were forced to sit out whiteout conditions, and on two occasions we lost the route. Our rapid ascent had been fortuitous since the weather took a further two days to clear. On May 30, in the absence of an effective radio link, we signaled our wish to leave by stamping a message in the snow.

Paul Knott, Alpine Climbing Group