American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, St. Elias Mountains, Mt. St. Elias, Mira Face, Second Ascent, and First Ski Descent of Mountain

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

Mt. St. Elias, Mira Face, Second Ascent, and First Ski Descent of Mountain. In late April, the Colorado team of Doug Byerly, Lome Glick, Andy Ward, and I were flown to 7,000 feet on the Columbus Icefield at the base of Mt. St. Elias. Despite much chiding from our legendary bush pilot, Paul Claus, about our freeheel gear (don’t expect to visit Alaska with tele skis and get respect from anyone), it was our intention to climb the peak and make the first ski descent. Our plan was to ascend via a much-neglected, north-facing 1916 surveyers’ route on the west end of St. Elias and establish camp at their high point of 13,500 feet. We would then finish the climb via a steep, 1000-meter headwall on the south face that had seen only one previous ascent (we dubbed the impressive headwall “The Mira Face” after Czechoslovakian first ascensionist Miroslav Smid, killed climbing in Yosemite just a few months after summiting St. Elias in 1995), and follow a two-mile long ridge to the summit.

Between bad weather days, hazardous glacier terrain, and an earthquake that triggered massive avalanches and serac fall, we finally found ourselves drinking, playing cards, and slandering each other for many days in our moldy tent at high camp. We threw an offering of herbs and chocolate to the winds and asked Mother Mountain to please let us pass.

After a necessary descent for more food and fuel, we were back at high camp the morning of May 8, which dawned clear and calm. We cramponed for six hours up 45-to 50-degree snow and ice to the long, broad west ridge, which leads to the 18,008-foot summit. We summited, exhausted and with wooden toes. Concerned about our feet, our stay was brief and we anxiously clipped on the boards.

From the summit, bulletproof sastrugi on the ridge required pumpy, gorilla-stance survival turns. Drained from the altitude, I had doubts about skiing the Mira Face with its icy, 55- degree entrance, huge exposure and tight choke through a cliff band halfway down. But after a few hundred feet of intense turns, the snow sweetened to a soft suncrust, the angle relaxed, and we carved turns, grinning in the evening sun, all the way home.

James Bracken

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