It was July 2009 when Christian Beckwith showed me a picture of Mt. Logan. Captioned “The 3,000-meter unclimbed south face,” it immediately captured my imagination. The attractive phrase was part of it, but so was the mysteriousness of the mountain itself: I had absolutely no idea where Logan was.
My climbing partners and I have climbed in the Alaska Range over the last several years. These experiences have been significant for us, and there are still many objectives that I am itching to try. Still, the mountains around Denali have been losing their appeal. Here it’s easy to find information, route descriptions, and reasonably accurate weather forecasts, all of which lessen the adventure. Also, the commitment is relatively low because escapes are easy. Even though it is a joy to climb in such an accessible environment, I was starting to think that for me real climbing would be in a truly wild arena with more unreliability, uncertainty, and anxiety. Christian’s photo of Logan stirred these feelings.
The south face of Mt. Logan has a notorious history, having turned down several attempts by strong North American climbers. Its technical difficulty was not the only reason this wall remained one of the greatest unclimbed projects throughout the years. It has a fearsome reputation for unpredictable weather, serac fall, remoteness, and the sheer magnitude of its landscape. These are difficulties that cannot be described by a number or grade. I see mountains as yardsticks for measuring the hardships a person can endure, the physical and mental toughness a person may—or may not—possess. On Mt. Logan, pure luck would also be required. To climb Logans south face, I would have to look deep for strength. But I told myself, “OK, I will face and accept everything this mountain has to offer.”
That was the first word our little group blurted out as we exited the plane onto the glacier under Mt. Logan. The hugeness was well beyond our expectations and even our comprehension. When Yasushi Okada, Genki Narumi, and I had left Japan we already felt ecstatic, like it was our first overseas expedition. Being here under the face created an indescribable energy.
The first order of business was acclimatization. However, from the Seward Glacier, even after a thorough search, we couldn’t find routes safe enough to acclimate on. As we reexamined our options, we decided that the east ridge of Logan, accessed from Hubbard Glacier, would be the safest and quickest way to get high. We left basecamp three days after landing. Two hours of walking took us to a col where we could look back toward camp. The sight sent shivers down my spine. Our camp was just a tiny dot in the vast icefield, and then clouds rolled in and the tent disappeared. I wondered how we would be able to find it again if it snowed while we were climbing the east ridge. We would be lost in a vast sea of white.
We saw how stupidly optimistic we had been, and promptly headed back to base camp. Our priority was to “secure the port.” But without a camp keeper or GPS, we were limited to primitive methods of marking our camp. We placed a tent pole upright and hoped that we could locate camp with a map and compass. The first storm came and went, and on day six we turned again toward the east ridge.
As expected, acclimatizing turned into an adventure. First, there was the 30-kilometer walk just to reach the route. And while the east ridge is a beautiful line stretching nicely to the summit plateau, it proved a bit too technical for an easy acclimatization outing. To make matters worse, stormy weather forced us to spend three hours each night digging snow shelters. If we didn’t pitch our tent inside a cave it would be buried under the falling snow.
After eight tiring days, we had finished acclimatizing and were headed back to base camp. Just before reaching camp, fog rolled in and we lost all visibility. We had to go inch by inch while closely checking our compass. By 9p.m., a slight opening in the dense fog allowed us to finally catch a glimpse of our tents. We shouted for joy.
I found myself strangely excited. The east ridge and the foul weather might have been tough tor acclimatizing, yet on Mt. Logan we were finding the adventurous mountaineering I had been longing for. Yasushi felt the same, and we agreed on how great it was to be here. Genki lacked our excitement. It was not discord in the team, but a difference in how we perceived the mountain. As we scouted the south face, Genki’s reservations became clear. He was overwhelmed by the situation. Yasushi and I understood; his negative feelings made complete sense to all of us. The question was, do you embrace those negativities and focus them into upward progress, or do you let them hold you back? Genki chose not to accept them. He opted to remain at base camp, lessening the climbing team to just Yasushi and me. With only two, we needed to change our tactics and equipment—but our objective remained the same.
On May 4, we crossed the glacier under a bright moon. As day broke, we managed to navigate through seracs and reach the base of the wall. As we gazed up, Yasushi half joked, “We can climb it in a day, can’t we?” We are always like this, half serious and too optimistic.
We simul-climbed the initial gentle snow slope. Our progress was so quick that I almost believed we could finish this wall in just one day. When we reached the rock, route finding became less obvious, and we traversed left with difficulty.
After the traverse we looked up to a distinctive chimney. It was our planned high point for the day, but it was still far above us. We had been slowed by snow falling on and off throughout the day. As night drew near and the stars began to twinkle, we carved an unexpectedly comfortable bivouac site and settled down to sleep, satisfied with our progress.
On the second day we struggled upward into the early afternoon and the looming crux chimney. The unrelenting steepness, thin ice, and loose rock all conspired to slow our progress. The follower suffered with a heavy pack, especially during delicate traverses without adequate protection. I suffered a big whipper after too many vain attempts to tiptoe toward the chimney, and it was dark by the time we topped out from the chimney. There was not enough space to pitch our tent, so we rigged our rope into a makeshift hammock to set the tent on. Even in such miserable conditions, Yasushi was cheerful. I believe that if we can accept all that nature has to offer and enjoy our own presence in mountains, there is no pathos, only laughter.
Day three opened with a perfect blue sky, but we were skeptical of the continuing fine weather. We kept mulling over all the stories of ferocious sudden storms, “dumping snow to neck height in just one night,” and the fearsome reputation Logan had of being the “worst weather mountain.” In addition to those doubts and fears, our planned descent of the climbing route was out of the question. The traverses, rotten rock, thin ice, and avalanche danger made it too slow and dangerous. Even if we loathed repeating the lengthy east ridge and 30-kilometer hike, it was the most reliable way back to base camp.
The wall would not give up an easy path. We had already passed through the most technically demanding sections of the route, but high altitude and heavy packs reminded us that we were not yet finished. Finally, after navigating through the last serac barrier, we topped out the face at 11 p.m. Luckily, we found a well-protected crevasse to settle into for our third bivouac. Taking off our sturdy double boots, we found our socks were frozen. Throughout the night, penetrating cold kept me awake. To make matters worse, we dropped a fresh gas cartridge into the bottom of the crevasse. This loss reduced our supplies by one-and-a-half days.
It seemed impossible, but the fourth day dawned with another beautiful blue sky. Despite our euphoria over the ascent, we were anxious about weather pinning us down on the summit plateau. A big storm had to come soon.
If we were thinking rationally we should have begun our descent immediately. But Yasushi and I agreed that the true goal should be the summit, not just the monstrous wall wed just climbed. So, we proceeded to traverse four kilometers westward with 800 meters of elevation gain just to stand on the summit. It took three hours to get to the final col. Trail breaking and our accumulated fatigue was beyond our expectation. Physically and mentally we were approaching our limit, but 600 meters of vertical gain remained. Looking up at the beautiful blue sky, we obsessed over our fear of a storm. To be honest, we used our tear as the excuse to give up on the summit.
We deliberated for about 30 minutes before deciding to turn around. I instantly regretted our retreat, but tried to keep my mouth shut. It was our decision. The very moment we began our descent, I could not stop sighing. When Yasushi caught my sigh, words poured from his lips: “No Jumbo. Let’s go to the summit. This is not good. We should go.”
Three hours later, we stood on top of the east summit. People may say there was no meaning in our slog, or they may question why we did not go to the main summit. Between the east and the main summits there was one more big dip, and we had to admit it was beyond our limit. But being on the east summit, I felt there was neither more nor less. The summit on which we were standing was our final, proper destination. That feeling has not changed, even now. It is hard to say that the last stretch to the summit added value to our climb of the south face, but we had promised to accept everything Mt. Logan had to offer. The last half day of slogging and the accompanying mental conflict was an indispensable spice to our journey.
Now we just had to get back to base camp where Genki awaited our safe return. Descending the east ridge was not easy, and 30 kilometers of trail breaking without skis or snowshoes was a cruel punishment. But, it was simply walking.
Area: St. Elias Range, Yukon Territory, Canada
Ascent: The first ascent of the south face of Mt. Logan (5,957m), continuing to the east summit (May 4-8, 2010, including the descent). Yasushi Okada and Katsutaka “Jumbo” Yokoyama called their route I-TO (2,500m, ED+ M6 WI5), meaning “thread, line, relationship,” partly in honor of Jack Tackle and Jay Smith, who had attempted the route two times and shared the details with Yokoyama. The Japanese climbers descended the east ridge, aided by the unexpected fresh tracks of another team of climbers.
About the Author:
Katsutaka Yokoyama is nicknamed Jumbo because, well, he’s big. He hails from Japan, where he is a member of the Giri-Giri Boys, an informal group of alpinists who have been systematically ticking off impressive unclimbed routes all over the globe. Yokoyama is well known to North Americans for his new routes in the Alaska Range, including a massive link-up of the Isis and Slovak Direct routes on Denali in 2008, about which he wrote a feature article in the 2009 American Alpine Journal,“Pachinko on Denali.”
Translated by Jiro Kurihara. This article is shared with the 2011 Canadian Alpine Journal.