American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, St. Elias Range, Kluane National Park Reserve, Mt. Teddy, First Ascent, and Mt. Logan, Hummingbird Ridge, Thunderbird Variation

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

Mt. Teddy, First Ascent, and Mt. Logan, Hummingbird Ridge, Thunderbird Variation. Paul Claus flew Christian Zinsli and I to base camp on the Seward Glacier at 1800 meters on May 28. Two days later, we had established Camp I at 2400 meters directly at the foot of Logan’s south face. The weather was good, and conditions appeared acceptable. In preparation for Mt. Logan, we climbed the unclimbed Mt. Teddy (3960m) via a couloir that draws a beautiful line through the 1300-meter east face directly to the summit. On June 1 at about 4:45 p.m. we left camp in order to arrive at the summit at midnight. Unusual sounds in the snow caused us to walk on the huge summit cornice single-file on a long rope. A marvelous view of Logan’s massive south face and the giant Seward Glacier underscored our joy and a successful first ascent.

No simpler descent showed itself than the ascent we had just made, so we had no other choice than to descend the route we had just conquered on frontpoints.

We began to climb the Thunderbird Variation of the Hummingbird Ridge on the evening of June 3. Our tactic was to climb with superlight backpacks, no sleeping bags, no tent, food for five days, and a minimum of technical gear to enable us to make a nonstop ascent. If possible, we wanted to descend our ascent route, so we deposited a cache in the bergschrund under Shovel Ridge.

Rockfall endangered us after only 200 vertical meters. We were able to take cover in eroded snow gullies. Nonetheless, Christian was hit on the back of his hand and his thigh.

Slope after slope allowed us to overcome the hanging glaciers, occasionally with snow and ice flanks up to 60 degrees. After six hours we reached the bergschrund, ate, and made the planned cache for the descent. It was meant to give us two days of food and fuel if the Thunderbird Couloir was too dangerous due to new snow or objective danger for a descent. After the bergschrund, the ice became steeper, and a large, overhanging cornice blocked the exit. Dry, deep powder covered the hard ice under the cornice, which was crossed via a delicate traverse to the left until I found an exit through to the ridge. A few minutes later Christian followed. It was the first ropelength we belayed.

Christian began to lead the exposed ridge ahead. To our surprise, the snow was knee-deep and soft. Tiring trail breaking began that tore at our strength in the ensuing hours. Rise after rise in the ridge followed. Often the only way forward was to shovel the snow away. Twice the cornice was interrupted with rock climbing in the fifth to sixth difficulty level. At 9 a.m. we reached a flatter piece of ridge that transitioned into a scoured ice field at about 4200 meters. We knew this was the point of no return!

Slowly but evenly, we climbed up the cold, glittering ice flank, which transitioned into a broken and difficult rock ridge. The rock, however, soon gave way to sharp cornices. The only belay possibility was to lay the rope alternately left and right over the ridge and to cross the traps carefully. At 10 a.m. we arrived at the first flat place on the ridge where one could have pitched a tent with little work. We cooked soup and tea and rested.

Slogging through the snow exhausted us more and more. A crust that broke through with each step covered the snow. We passed an aluminum pole, which was the only sign on the ridge that climbers had been this way before.

At 5 p.m. we took a break in a rock niche that was warmed with the evening sun. Our energy reserves were empty and my throat was raw from the increased breathing of the last hours. We decided to detour around the mostly rock ridge to the west. With the summit finally in sight, we started onto the ca. 55-degree summit icefield at 7 p.m. We had a good 800 vertical meters to conquer. We established a tactic: 20 steps ahead, then let your comrade pass, 20 steps and again a switch. We reached the summit plateau at ca. 5800 meters at around 11 p.m. with the last rays of the sun.

After 26 hours on the go, at 11:30, we crossed the highest point. No handshake, no photo! The cold wind guided our thoughts. We descended quickly to the col in the direction of the east summit. A large boulder provided some protection from the wind, and we slipped into our bivy sacks, forced down some food, and finished the last of our tea. The sky had become overcast, and the mountain was slowly swathed in clouds. At 4 a.m. it began to snow.

We left our bivy site at 6 a.m. We could scarcely see 100 meters, and the descent was totally unknown. We traversed the north slope of the east summit based on the recollection of our mental map of the day before and with the help of a simple map and compass. Suddenly, and in our judgment far too early, cliffs and ice walls arose below us out of the fog and snow. We assumed they were the ice walls and cliffs of Warbler Ridge. We agreed that this was not the correct descent and we climbed back up a half hour to 5200 meters. We searched for more than three hours for the descent to the East Ridge.

After another half an hour, we were happy to find a flag marker and old ascent tracks that led us to the East Ridge, which we followed down with a cheerful and lively pace.

On the third day at 8 p.m. we reached the base of the East Ridge at about 3000 meters. The distance to our base camp was 40 kilometers over a mostly flat, snow-covered glacier, and we had neither skis nor snowshoes.

At midnight we started. The evening cooling had not been enough to freeze the snow. Twelve hours later, we moved as slowly as snails on the Seward Glacier. Our goal, the end of the Hummingbird Ridge, was still 20 kilometers away. The warmth and the soft snow sucked all the residual energy and moisture from our bodies. We both began having hallucinations. Suddenly Christian said, “Do you hear that? An airplane is flying.”

Finally, we saw it flying at the cloud base at about 4500 meters along Mt. Logan’s south face. It could only be Paul Claus from Ultima Thule! Quickly I unpacked the emergency radio, put in the batteries I had been keeping warm in my pants pocket and called “Hi Paul! Are you flying there?”

“Yes, I’m looking for you!” he answered. “Where are you crazy boys?” A few minutes later, Paul landed not far from us in his legendary Beaver, then flew us to base camp, where we spent three more days.

This was partially the second, partially the third ascent of the Thunderbird Variation of the Hummingbird Ridge. We chose the direct exit onto the ridge north of Shovel Ridge. The Thunderbird Variation leads out of the couloir to the left through a ca. 700-meter ice flank to the ridge. The route in total was ca. 3600 vertical meters from Camp I to the summit. The time of ascent in pure alpine style was 26 hours.

Werner Stucki, Switzerland

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