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North America, Canada, Kluane National Park Reserve, Mt. Wood to Mt. Macauley to Mt. Steele, High Traverse

Mt. Wood to Mt. Macauley to Mt. Steele, High Traverse. On July 28, John Millar, David Persson and I flew in to the Trapridge Glacier, where we met Alun Hubbard and Dave Hildes, who were finishing up glaciology fieldwork. In the next five days, we made three camps on the east face of Mt. Wood (4840m) at 3000, 3900, and 4200 meters, and summited in fine weather on August 3. Highlights of the climb included spectacular icefalls at the 3200- and 3700-meter levels that required complicated route finding. From camp in the Wood/Macauley col, we climbed the straight-forward northeast ridge of Mt. Macauley (4690m) to the summit and continued to the col between it and “Southeast Macauley.” On August 5, we made the first ascent of what was perhaps the highest unclimbed peak in Canada, “Southeast Macauley” (4420m; GR 268818), via its mellow northwest ridge, and then made a gliding descent of its equally casual southeast ridge. Up until this point in the traverse, most of the terrain was broad ridge or face and well suited for skiing.

After a storm day, we continued along the ridge, which was becoming narrower and heavily corniced. On August 7, we summited the previously unclimbed “Northwest Steele” (4220m; GR 323787). Over the next two days, we made slow but important progress over heavily corniced, exposed ridge, which included a somewhat rotten 20-meter knife-edge ridge section. Next, we descended from “Northwest Steele” into the notch separating it from Mt. Steele. This descent was a cautious wade through 40° waist-deep snow at the top of a 1200-meter avalanchey slope in order to avoid ice cliffs.

The notch was undoubtedly the crux of the traverse, as it was riddled with heavily corniced knife-edge ridges separated by platforms. One cornice was too precarious to cross, so we were forced to drop down onto the southwest side of the ridge via a 100-meter 55° snowslope, traverse a very unstable, 50° bowl, and then re-ascend to the ridge crest via a 100-meter 75° ice slope covered in 30 centimeters of rotten snow and ice. Following the ice pitch, we reluctantly set up camp in the exposed notch. The next day, we tackled the last major technical difficulty in the notch, a set of three massive cornices (dubbed “the cobras”), the first of which was a severe knife-edge ridge capped with two rotten cornices, one on top of the other. While leading across it, David broke through many times.

Finally, we arrived at our main objective, the unclimbed north ridge of Mt. Steele (5073m). Except for one dangerous cornice at 3840 meters, the north ridge was just a snow slog. An extremely windy day forced us to stop early and camp in the shelter of a crevasse at 4220 meters. On August 13, we summited Mt. Steele in superb weather, having completed the first traverse from Mt. Wood to Mt. Steele. We called the traverse Millar’s High Life (Alaskan Grade 6, WI3). After descending the southeast ridge of Steele, we flew out of the St. Elias to Kluane Lake on August 15.

According to Wallis (1992 CAJ, pp. 4-19), “Southeast Macauley” would have become the highest unclimbed peak in Canada once Atlantic Peak was climbed in 1995. However, according to Wallis (1998 AAJ, pp. 230-231), “South Slaggard” (4370m; GR 220786) was the highest unclimbed peak in Canada when he climbed it in July 1997. Various reliable sources have confirmed that our ascent of “Southeast Macauley” was the first. I invite Mr. Wallis to clarify this apparent discrepancy.

Jeremy Frimer, Varsity Outdoor Club (UBC)