Mt. Newton, Ski Descent, and Mt. St. Elias, Attempt. The Abruzzi Ridge of 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias, the second-highest peak in the United States, was first ascended in 1897, but by 1997 it has become nearly impossible to approach safely. The Newton Glacier route to Russel Col has been the sight of fatal accidents; it is heavily crevassed and constantly swept by ice- fall avalanches off the 9,000-foot northeast face. Instead, Jim Hopkins, Julie Faure and I attempted to reach the elusive, but perhaps skiable, Abruzzi via 13,811-foot Mt. Newton to the north.
We were landed by expert Yakutat pilot Kurt Gloyer at 6,800 feet on a spur of the mighty Seward Glacier in Canada’s Yukon Territory on May 12. Four days of storms, sled hauling, and route finding got us established at 10,000 feet below the spectacular north arête of Newton. Negotiating a bergschrund there, we slogged up the knife edge, building a ‘schrund camp at 12,000 feet and another on the summit. We skied between camps to ferry 15 days of food and fuel to the apex of Mt. Newton. The snow was wind-affected, but avalanche stable, and we managed linked turns on all portions of the 25 to 50° ridge using telemark and randonnée gear.
Next we attempted the increasingly exposed, undulating coxcomb toward Russel Col (12,000'). Two south-facing steps offered enjoyable ice climbing with decent screw protection. The first crux was a 600-foot rotten ice cliff (70 at the top and 45° at the base). We fixed the upper half. We were turned back, however, as several other parties have been, by the double comiced, wickedly exposed final 1,500 horizontal feet to the col. The snow was like sugar cubes, providing no solid pro whatsoever, and our boot steps washed out on the near-vertical flutations.
Given the excellent weather pattern and preparedness of our team (we had ten days of food and fuel remaining), backing off was a painful decision. The Japanese team that succeeded on this traverse in July, 1964, found blue ice that accepted “ice pitons.” However, by July the upper Abruzzi would likely become uncarveable ice. Hence, we must someday return to ski the world’s highest maritime peak, the loftiest unskied summit in the Americas, from another side.