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Yukon Territory, Mt. St. Elias

Yukon Territory, Mt. St. Elias. The accident happened on the 37th day of the expedition, when the party consisted of Stan Adamson (28), Lucille Adamson (28), Susan Deery (24), John Hall (27), and Toby Wheeler (22). On 5 July the expedition was landed at about 12,000 feet in the King Trench. Four days later, 9 July, one member of the party contracted pulmonary edema and had to be moved to a lower elevation. He was subsequently evacuated by a helicopter to the AINA (Arctic Institute of North America Camp at Kluane Lake. The five remaining members of the expedition continued up, reaching the AINA Logan high camp on 13 July. At this point the party merged with California Logan Expedition (B. Lilley, R. Gnagg and others). Two members of the Hall party, John Hall and Toby Wheeler reached the summit of Mt. Logan on 17 July. The remaining three members of the Hall party followed the footsteps up two days later.Three of the other summits of Logan were also climbed. The descent was down the “Schoening” Ridge (climbed 1952) (S. from King Col.) to the Seward Glacier. Crossing the Seward, they reached their cache (made during the flight in on 5 July) on 1 August. The cache was located at the base of Mt. Newton. The decision was then made to proceed up and over Jeanette Col, down to the Newton Glacier and follow the Duke of Abruzzi’s route up to Russel Col and the Summit, rather than to go up over Mt. Nelson to Russel Col (Japanese route of 1969, Reichart of 1968). The decision was made democratically by vote. The major reasons for the choice being that it was technically easier and would be faster.

On 11 August at approximately 1600 the two ropes were about 300 vertical feet above the Newton Glacier on the 2,500 foot slope that goes up to Russel Col. The elevation was about 10,000 feet. The weather was warm (30-35°F) and the sun was out, although the NE face of St. Elias was in the shade. There had been quite a bit of avalanche activity all day off the S. sides of Newton and Jeannette, but they had seen none coming off St. Elias or Russel Col itself. There was evidence of older avalanches (tracks, debris cones). A loud crack told them what was coming—something had broken off the NE face of St. Elias about 2,000 feet above and it swept out across the slope leading up to Russel Col. After digging in, five or six seconds elapsed before the entire party was engulfed and swept away. When everything had stabilized, Wheeler and about 30 feet of rope and one stuff bag were all there was on top (approximately 80 feet had separated Stan Adamson and Wheeler on the lead rope. Initially in some kind of shock, Wheeler pulled on the rope, dug with his hands, and searched the area, but was unable to accomplsh anything. Fifteen minutes later he headed back down the route, packless and without ice axe or snowshoes. He collected food and what little equipment he could find in the various caches on the Newton Glacier (theirs and those left over from the B.C. and Italian parties). He spent one night on the Newton Glacier before reaching their Seward cache late in the evening of August 12, when he notified Kluane Lake by means of a radio loaned by AINA.

Source: Toby Wheeler.

Analysis: (Wheeler). The avalanche danger at this particular spot should have been recognized. It was a warm day and there was old avalanche debris at the base of the Russel Col slope. This, combined with the fact that there were numerous avalanches coming off Mt. Newton, should have been enough to warn us of the danger and take alternative action, which in this case probably would have been to sit still, wait for better conditions and watch. But we had seen nothing going on all day in the vicinity of our ascent route. This combined with the fact that “this was the route” (we were following old B.C. tracks and, after all, the Duke had done it with his iron bed-posts in 1897) led us to do what we did.