Adjacent to Mt. Logan in the Yukon’s remote St. Elias Range, Mt. McArthur is to Logan as Mt. Hunter is to Denali: a beauty of a mountain dwarfed by the heaping mass of a neighbor and often overlooked as a result. McArthur sees what might, at best, be called “random attempts.”
In 1991, three of Canada’s top alpinists, Don Serl, Michael Down, and Jim Haberl, flew in to climb a sweep of ice rising directly to McArthur’s main summit. The trio decided to start with the seemingly easy, and also unclimbed, west ridge to prepare for the north face. Reading Seri’s concise yet dramatic report of the epic they suffered in the 1992 Canadian Alpine Journal was when I recognized the First Golden Rule of the St. Elias Range: there is no such thing as a warm-up.
I first “discovered” McArthur’s north face while flying by in 1998. Steve House and I were on our way to try the 7,500-foot southwest face of King Peak in single-push style. We made the sixth overall ascent of the continent’s ninth-highest peak, encountering serious WI6 ice at 15,000 feet and tackling the entire route with only 30 pounds of collective gear in a 36-hour push. Our route, Call of the Wild, may be my personal high-water mark in the world of alpinism. We also learned the Second Golden Rule of the St. Elias Range: everything is bigger and farther away than you imagine.
In 2002, Rich Searle, Jesse Thompson, and I took the single-push strategy to McArthur. Our goal was the north face, but we decided to warm up on the sunnier south face. Ignoring the First Golden Rule was my first mistake. Despite a malfunctioning stove, I didn’t worry when clouds seemed to be developing into something more because I thought we could always bail down the east ridge. And then we learned the Third Golden Rule of the St. Elias Range: there is no such thing as an easy ridge. Having never been to the range so early in May, I didn’t realize how dark it gets, particularly in a whiteout. Hours of stressful route finding, down climbing seracs, and dodging gaping yawns and inexplicable cornices forced me to throw down my tools and declare “no more!” at the first flat spot. The open bivi in -25°C cold, with a fading stove, left an indelible impression on all three of us. We stumbled back to camp 35 hours after leaving.
Such were the lessons I brought with me in 2005, when David Dornian and I arrived at Kluane Lake. By now I had been burned enough to create my Fourth Golden Rule of the St. Elias Range: always, and I do mean always, carry a photo of your planned descent along for the climb. I also had a brand new stove.
We landed on the upper Logan Glacier with two main objectives, the 6,000-foot north face of McArthur and the 4,500-foot northeast face of Catenary Peak (Dak Tower). Some two weeks later, when we flew out, we had seen no more than 20 hours in a row of good weather, but it was perhaps the best climbing trip of my life, and certainly the most successful.
At 6 feet, 5 inches, thin as a rail, and deeply involved in sport climbing, David would not appear to be the archetypal single-push alpinist. But 35 years of mountaineering in western Canada is résumé enough for me, not to mention our friendship, earned during my tenure in Calgary. Holding a graduate degree in philosophy, David remembers everything he reads, and I seriously doubt it’s possible for any form of normal communication to keep up with his creative brain. His sometimes annoying tendency to stutter along, waving his hands frantically, while trying to make a literary connection or articulate some pithy anecdote, appeals to my own version of intensity.
Unlike our solitary line on McArthur’s north side, Dak Tower coughs up numerous options across its broad flank. There is no shortage of moderate new routes to do, and we focused on what we thought to be the best, a fine chute of steep water ice leading to ice slopes, with more mixed gullies connecting directly to the upper ice slope at the highest point of the face. It’s a beautiful thing.
Fighting bad weather on two quick attempts, and sitting out a healthy storm, we headed up for a third time on the afternoon of May 29, after the sun had left the face. Classic climbing with a spooky bergschrund, water ice, firm snow, and a little rock on fractured but good granite kept us going until close to midnight. Heeding my earlier lessons, I told David, “We could go around this big rock buttress to maybe a better spot, but we need to brew up now.” I was bonking and it could be hours before we got around the buttress.
After at least two sucker punches in the range, I had given up on any chance of lying down on one of these rigs. I was learning. Or so I thought.
Hunkered on a rock the size of a volleyball but not at all as smooth, I managed to balance the stove between us in a little alcove. Despite a melting-out perch that dumped the first full pot of water onto David’s leg, my new stove was functioning wonderfully. I even mentioned to David how nice it was, for once, to not be having a stove epic. Less than 15 minutes later, just as we were about to drain the next pot, David stood up to pee. To avoid jabbing my friend with my front points, I straightened my cramped leg. At the sound of this motion, David lunged back toward the sit-down. We both watched in horror as I kicked two liters of lukewarm water over our rope and rack. The pot strode down the mountain.
The next two hours were spent melting eight liters, two tablespoons at a time, on the only part of the pot we still had: the lid. After this diligent and none-too-restful stop, we unraveled from our stance and were moving once again near sunrise. As we topped out on the rock buttress, I could finally see to the north, only to discover the ubiquitous stormy weather was moving in again. Needing to make a fast decision, I changed course and abandoned the wick- ed-looking mixed gully above us for the easier and shorter snow gully to the right. Wandering down the northeast ridge in swirling snow and making 11 long rappels, we returned to the tent 27 hours after leaving.
We called the route Flowers for Blaise, in tribute to the flowers growing from a crack just above the bergschrund and for David’s wonderful dog, who had died earlier in the spring.
It took a few days after we arrived in base camp to realize that the constant background noise we heard was the spindrift pouring down our intended line on the north face of McArthur. It was obvious we would have to wait for clear weather to even get close. I stated unequivocally to David, “We were not stopping on that face until we are on the summit.” Although this sounds definitive, experienced, and filled with exactly the gusto required for stripped-down alpinism, it is the sort of statement that has gotten me into trouble.
Recovering from Dak Peak and waiting for the skies to clear, I soon remembered another Golden Rule of the St. Elias Range: the nearby Gulf of Alaska is a perpetual source of low pressure, and therefore the barometer may or may not go up in good weather. Relying on the prevailing patterns instead, we began swimming over the bergschrund at 8:30 in the morning of June 2 with clearing skies. Armed with 17 ice screws and a few stoppers and pins, we began simul-climbing the glass-hard, spindrift-tempered ice, placing screws every 60 to 100 feet. We’d carry on until the leader ran out of screws or otherwise just couldn’t take it any more.
While scoping the line, we had clearly seen that the lower section was bereft of snow, as indicated by the black, pitted appearance. It appeared that we would encounter a number of snow runnels and easier ground beginning a third of the way up the face. Yet in my desire to climb the route, I had forgotten the Second Golden Rule (everything is bigger and farther away). By the time each of us had done a full block of pitches, we had turned the corner onto the main face but were still in the middle of a relentless sweep of clean ice with no easy runnels in sight. The rolling, spindrift-formed bubbly at the start had given way to a prehistoric shield of 60- to 70-degree iron plate. After six hours of steady climbing, about half the time I thought we’d be on the face, we were not even a third of the way up.
I was finally playing my trump card. All my mistakes, everything I’d learned on six other trips to the Yukon, even the dropped pot on Dak Peak—all those lessons were rolled up into the singular event of this climb. The ice remained unrelenting and even required a few places where we had to lever our modern screws in with our axes as in the old days of ice climbing. But this time, unlike all my other single-push climbs, we stopped to rehydrate at just the right time and stood in front of the stove, guarding it; we put on all our extra clothes just as the sun started to dip; we stayed organized and consistent.
Around midnight, we finally reached the attractive summit cone. David had been openly wondering about the way through the complex- looking terrain. I was distracted and blew off thinking about it until we arrived at the base of a mixed gully. Thankfully, it was David’s turn to lead. I needed a rest.
Spindrift started slithering down the green ice tongue David had entered. I was convinced the spindrift was from David knocking snow off holds as he scratched up some mixed variation. Had we been six hours earlier I’d have thought, “Go for it.” But as the temperature plummeted, I just wanted to arrive at the glorious final pyramid, where we’d follow our long- lost cruiser névé and bask in the rising sun on the top of my favorite mountain. Some time later it occurred to me David was not causing the spindrift—it was the ferocious wind blowing over the summit. After what seemed like hours of expecting to see David rappelling out of the nightmare, the rope came tight. If David ever yelled down, I never heard it. As I moved into the maelstrom, it was evident by the slow crawl of the rope that we were simulclimbing again.
Although my view of the pitch was almost entirely looking down, the climbing was clearly brilliant. Not too hard but interesting, with thin runnels winding around rocks and changing directions. It is one of the best pitches I’ve ever climbed in the mountains. Too bad I couldn’t enjoy it. In a desperate attempt to escape the gully, we made an awkward traverse left and up some broken cliffs to seek shelter next to a large rock tower.
By now the storm was mostly wind; some blue sky was poking through the streamers of snow swirling off the summit like so many prayer flags. After I led up another rope length I insisted that David head left for the skyline, where it looked like we might get some sun. Few people would consider -30°C in a steady 50 mph wind with only intermittent sun as basking, but it might as well have been Hawaii. It was 9 a.m. We had spent more than 25 hours on the face.
The true summit was only a pitch or two away. We were on low-angle ground and we could see snow all the way. Deep beautiful snow. But the clouds were still there and the wind was still howling. Was the storm clearing or was it a sucker hole? Herein lies the moment that defines single-push alpine climbing. We headed down.
When I got home and described the climbing, everyone commented on what a burn it must have been on the calves. Maybe it was because I’ve never been able to wear tube socks, but my calves didn’t even notice it. Instead, it was my feet that suffered. After an estimated 50 pitches of pure ice climbing, no one could escape the pain of the pediatric gripping required between one’s feet and crampons. The magical runnels of névé that every alpinist dreams of just didn’t materialize. Even when snow appeared, it often would be little more than crust over two inches of air over black ice. The real demoralizer was the short stretches of ankle-deep powder that left us scratching into bulletproof ice without the added security of any visual cues. For a month after I got home, the first 30 minutes out of bed were spent wobbling on my heels, followed by extended showers just because my toes liked it.
Most of the ascents I’ve done in the Yukon are not “hard” when measured by the numbers. Not even close. But regardless of any single grade one wants to attach to it, our McArthur route, Some Kind of Monster, is the “hardest” climb I’ve ever done. More importantly, this was the only time in the greater ranges where I’ve put together all my experience in a way it was truly meant to be used. It is my most meaningful climb.
Mark Twight writes about a conversation he had with Scott Backes prior to climbing Deprivation on Mt. Hunter in 1994: “Look, let’s do the thing we’re good at. Let’s carry the light packs. I’d rather climb something easier in three days than struggle day after day with a few hard pitches at a time and sit out the storms and ration our food and all that rule-book bullshit.” As this was Mark writing, all most readers may remember is the rant. What climbers really need to understand is the wisdom and significance of doing something they are good at.
Area: St. Elias Range, Yukon Territory
Routes: First ascent of Flowers for Blaise (4,500', Alaska Grade III) on the northeast face of Catenary Peak (a.k.a. Dak Tower), ca 12,790 feet. First ascent of Some Kind of Monster (6,000', Alaska Grade V) on the north face of Mt. McArthur (14,248 feet). David Dornian and Joe Josephson, May-June, 2005.
A Note About the Author:
Joe Josephson was born in June 1967 and has spent 13 percent of his birthdays on the slopes of Mt. Logan. He is working on a historical guidebook to the Logan massif that will be published by First Ascent Press (www.firstascentpress.com) in early 2007.