Mt Logan – 19,551ft. Highest point in Canada via King Trench
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
May 4-18, 2015 – 15 days plane to plane.
First to reach summit in 2015. 18 people total reached summit this year.
We gave ourselves a month to climb Mt Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, and were lucky enough to finish the climb with almost 2 extra weeks to spare. We made good use of this time, packrafting the Jarvis, Kaskawulsh, and Alsek rivers in Kluane National Park for 9 days, getting a helicopter ride out, then renting a car and driving the remote Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle and into Northwest Territories.
Day 0: Sat May 2: Fly to Whitehorse, Yukon, buy and repackage a bunch of food, stay in cheap hotel.
Day 1: Wait for late luggage to arrive at Whitehorse, shuttle to Kluane Lake Icefields Discovery landing strip, wait for other group ahead to be flown in (only one 2-seater plane). Sleep in hangar overnight.
Day 2: Flight onto glacier, camp at 9,300’.
Day 3: Move camp to 10,900’, drop cache at 12,100’.
Day 4: Move camp to King Col (13,500’), retrieving cache on way.
Day 5: Storm, rest at camp.
Day 6: Storm, rest at camp.
Day 7: Storm, rest at camp.
Day 8: Short breakup of storm, drop cache at 14,500’.
Day 9: Storm resumes, rest at camp.
Day 10: Move camp to Football Field, 16,000’.
Day 11: Pick up cache from 14,500’.
Day 12: Move camp with 4-days of food/fuel to Windy Camp 17,200’.
Day 13: Move to Plateau Camp 16,600’.
Day 14: Saturday May 16: Summit day, return to Plateau Camp.
Day 15: Hike/sled all the way back to base camp.
Day 16: 8am flight back to Kluane Lake, repack and redeploy on 9-day packrafting trip down Jarvis/Kaskawulsh/Alsek rivers with extra time.
“Can we stop for another breather?” I yelled up to Matthew. I was exhausted after wading through deep snow for the last three hours while making seemingly no progress up the steep slope. We were each hauling about 60 pounds of gear to cache higher up on the mountain, and it was tough work. We split the gear up between backpacks and sleds, but had to strike a balance – too much gear on our backs made us sink deeper into the snow, but too much in the sleds pulled us back down the slope. In the end we endured both sinking in and getting pulled down the slope by our sleds.
“Yeah, but now it’s your turn to break trail,” Matthew shouted back. It was Day 8 of our expedition on Mt Logan, and we had just ridden out a three-day storm at King Col at 13,500 ft. We were taking advantage of a brief clearing to try to haul some gear up and over the headwall, the steepest part of the King Trench route. But the storm had dumped a lot of fresh snow, and progress was painfully slow.
“At this rate it’ll be another two weeks before we reach the top!” I said.
Matthew and I converged on Whitehorse, Yukon at 2pm Saturday May 2, after the culmination of over a year of planning. We were trying to climb the highest mountain in all 23 countries in North America, and had saved Canada for our second to last country. This trip had been on the verge of fruition in the spring of 2014 – we were days away from buying our plane tickets – but alas, my PhD thesis committee decided I needed a little bit more work before I could graduate, and the post-graduation mountaineering would have to wait.
We postponed the trip until 2015, and some major logistical changes occurred in the meantime. Prior to Spring 2015, parties launched Mt Logan expeditions from one of four places – Ultima Thule Lodge, AK, Yakutat, AK, Haines, AK, and Kluane Lake, Yukon. All expeditions launching from Alaska needed, and customarily received, permission from US and Canadian customs officials to cross the border at an un-patrolled location (the middle of a glacier). Generally mountaineers were dropped off by ski plane just on the US side of the border on the Quintino-Sella glacier and walked across into Canada. Launching from the US side had the advantage that the weather was generally more stable than from the Kluane Lake side, meaning you could fly onto the glacier on day 1 instead of waiting a week for clear skies.
That all changed sometime in the winter of 2015. In February I got an email from another party planning to attempt Logan (not sure how they found out about me) that they’d heard rumors that border crossing permits might no longer be issued. We contacted parks Canada, who said that CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) “no longer has the authority to permit anyone to enter Canada anywhere other than an official port of entry.”
Matthew made many phone calls and emails to CBSA, even filing an official Remote Service Request form. He eventually got an official letter from Ottawa stating, in part, that “as you are aware, the King’s Trench route on Mt Logan from Alaska to Kluane National Park in the Yukon is in a remote location that is not listed in the CBSA directory of offices,” and that we couldn’t cross there. Really?! Obviously there was no border crossing office in the middle of a glacier 100 miles from the nearest road, but that hadn’t stopped Canada from granting permission for mountaineers to cross for the past 90 years. Something had changed, and we had no power to stop it, so we would just have to enter from the Yukon.
I had been in contact with Ultima Thule to fly in, and they were pretty disappointed to learn they would be losing a lot of business starting this year. Our grand plan of flying in from Ultima Thule, climbing Logan, and packrafting out the Chitina back to Alaska was not going to work. This year every single mountaineer attempting Mt Logan would be funneled through Icefields Discovery flights at Kluane Lake, which operated just one 2-passenger ski plane. We hoped that plane would be in good working condition when we got there.
We had originally planned on a group of five for our expedition, but with the other three people dropping out for various reasons, we decided to climb Mt Logan as a team of two.
Soon after getting off the plane in Whitehorse Saturday we had our first setback – my checked luggage had not arrived, and would not arrive for another 24 hours on the next flight. A full day delay right off the bat! Luckily we’d budgeted 4 weeks for the mountain so could absorb some delays.
We took a taxi the 5-minute drive to our hotel, dropped off the subset of gear that had made it, and then walked across the street to the Real Canadian Superstore to buy supplies. We’d brought some freeze-dried meals, but would have to buy most of our food in Whitehorse for the following month on the mountain. At two pounds per person per day, for 28 days on the mountain, we needed to buy over 100 pounds of food! Luckily we were used to purchasing expedition food, and quickly ended up with two overflowing carts full of pasta, cheese, cous cous, salty trail mix components, sweet trail mix components, and other goodies.
It actually started snowing outside as we were checking out, and the first-nation woman in the check-out lane told us, “the elders always say to watch out for May. It could be sunny and warm one day, then a blizzard the next.” She said she was from Carmacks, a small town north of Whitehorse, and that it was always a little colder in Carmacks.
Back at the Days Inn we spent the next few hours unpacking and repacking food into efficient ziplock bag modules of breakfast, dinner, and snacks. It’s amazing how much less space 100 pounds of food takes up when it’s removed from all the cardboard packaging.
We celebrated our successful repacking operation by picking up and polishing off a few Dominoes pizzas, and went to bed around 11pm as twilight was setting in.
On Sunday morning we finished up packing, spent our last few hours on email for the next month, and counted down the minutes until my luggage would arrive. Shortly before 2pm Tina from Who’s Who shuttle arrived and drove us to the airport where we picked up the remaining pieces of luggage and started the drive to Kluane Lake.
Tina had probably transported every independent Mt Logan team in the past few years between Whitehorse and Kluane Lake, and was an expert about everything in the Yukon.
“I’ve seen guys come off that mountain and eat five hamburgers at once in Haines Junction,” she said. “That’ll be you guys in a few more weeks.”
“Hopefully,” we replied. “What’s it like here in the winter?”
“Well, I do drive this stretch of road sometimes in the winter, and there isn’t a single other person out here. You really don’t want to have your car break down in such a remote spot when it’s 50 below zero outside, so most people just stay home.”
We learned so much about the Yukon on that 3-hour ride, from the gold-rush-like dash to harvest wild mushrooms every summer to the fear of every Yukoner that a dog musher might someday move in next door and disrupt the peace. By 6pm we rolled in to the Icefield Discovery landing strip at Kluane Lake and bid Tina farewell.
Sian, Andy, and Lance have been flying climbers into the Mt Logan area for years based out of Kluane Lake, and were just starting the Spring season, having flown in a French ski-touring group a few days earlier. Their operation, Icefields Discovery, is based out of the old mining town of Silver City on the edge of Kluane Lake. It’s no longer any more than a hangar and a few residential buildings now, though, with the mining town having long-since disappeared.
Sian and Lance came out to greet us, and let us know that we might have to wait another day for our flight. A big guided group of 11 from Canada West Mountain School had arrived before us and were just starting to be flown in. Each flight could only take two climbers with gear, and was a two-hour round trip to Logan Base Camp and back. They weren’t technically allowed to fly past twilight, which was around 10pm, so only a couple more flights would happen that evening.
We dropped our gear off in the hangar and walked down to the shore of Kluane Lake to take in the view.
“I’m glad we’re not in a guided group,” Matthew said. “They’d charge us all kinds of money and not even let us make our own decisions on the mountain.”
“Yeah, I read clients pay around $7,000 for those trips!” I replied. We had enough experience from MITOC Winter Schools over the years and climbing other big snowy mountains like Denali and Mt Cook that we could save the money and have more fun on this trip by going independently.
Kluane Lake was still frozen, with fresh snowmobile tracks along the edge, though spring was fast approaching. Huge snowy mountains loomed to the west – the foothills of the Icefield Ranges and the edge of Kluane National Park. Back in 2008 we had bicycled past this edge of the park on a summer-long 3500-mile tour from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Great Falls Montana. I remember doing a short hike in the park up to the base of Vulcan Peak and wondering if we’d ever come back some day to climb Mt Logan. At that point we hadn’t climbed any mountain harder than Mt Rainier, and Mt Logan sounded pretty intimidating.
We built a small fire on the beach – the air was pretty chilly – and gradually a few of the clients from the guided group wandered down to join us. We exchanged some stories, and the two clients sounded like pretty experienced mountaineers. One guy had climbed Denali, and another had been the team doctor on an attempted expedition up the Northwest Ridge of K2. He said they rode in on camels from China, climbed up to 26,000ft, but then an avalanche wiped out their camp and they had to abort the trip.
“Do you want to hear a funny story though?” the doctor asked. “I work at a hospital in British Columbia, and one day this old fellow came in with a bloody head like he’d taken a fall. The whole time in the hospital he was trying to flirt with all the young nurses. He said he was American, and didn’t have health insurance. We treated him anyways. You know who he was?”
“No, who?” we asked.
We all had a good laugh. Fred Beckey is one of the most famous mountaineers in the world, widely regarded as having the most first ascents of any climber. He’s an infamous cheapskate climber, known for standing on the side of roads in the mountains holding a sign reading “Will Belay for Food.”
As the fire died down we walked back to the landing strip to watch the ski plane land for the last time that evening. Then we rolled out our sleeping bags and pads in the hangar to sleep.
A rustling of bags and a whirring plane engine woke us up at 6am, and we watched as the next load of clients was flown out to the glacier. We spent the morning talking to the remaining members of the guided team, two guides with several years of experience climbing Logan. One guide, Clint, had some impressive stories to share.
One year he said they were pinned down in their tents for days in -40F temperatures, even peeing through socks, it was so cold. At one point the winds in a storm picked up so much he swung his ice ax through the floor of the tent, while he was in it, to prevent the tent from blowing away.
In 2013 the team barely even made it on the mountain. They were waiting a full two weeks in Whitehorse for good enough weather to just fly from Kluane Lake to base camp! Apparently a lot of hockey was watched. Once they finally got on the glacier, more weather delays made them abort the trip after just a week.
We had read that the conditions can be extreme on Mt Logan – an automated weather station has recorded an air temperature of -107F in May 1991, and many teams give themselves a month to climb and still get turned back by weather – but hearing stories from someone who had experienced the weather on Mt Logan made it much more real. We hoped we would be more fortunate with the weather than Clint had been.
Luckily the weather was still holding out sunny at Kluane Lake. Gradually a small black speck in the western sky grew larger and we recognized the Helios ski plane returning for another trip. Clint and Rob loaded in, and soon they took off for Logan. We were now the next ones in line.
Two hours later the plane returned, but the pilot, Tom, had a concerned look on his face when he stepped out. There was a mechanical issue with the engine, and no more flights would go until it got fixed.
Some people may have gotten frustrated at all these extra delays, but Matthew and I actually still felt pretty fortunate. We had only waited an extra day up until now, a far cry from the two-week delay Clint had endured, so we were content hanging out at Kluane Lake a few more days if need be.
Lance and a mechanic came over with some tools and popped open the engine while Matthew and I watched curiously. I’m not completely sure what the fixed, but a few hours later they gave the thumbs up that the plane was back in action. Now it was our turn!
We loaded a big duffle bag and big backpack each into the plane, along with two sleds we’d found in the hangar. It was a lot of stuff – 4 weeks of food and fuel, roughly 130lbs each – but it just barely fit. Matthew took the front with the pilot, Tom, I took the back, and soon we were off!
We crossed the Al-Can highway, past the front-range mountains, and continued west, roughly following the Slims River drainage. Soon we were over the Kaskawulsh glacier, and a sea of ice spread out around us in all directions. This area is actually the largest non-polar ice field in the world, and I believe it.
Tom was an excellent tour guide pointing out all the mountains we were seeing, like Queen Mary, King George, Steele, and Luciana. It turns out Tom had recently moved to the Yukon from New Zealand, and had just started flying for Icefields Discovery. Interestingly, a lot of pilots in the Yukon come from New Zealand. That way they can work the summer season in the Yukon and when it’s winter in the Yukon they go work a summer season in New Zealand.
Tom said he’d recently flown one of the nephews of John F Kennedy to attempt to climb Mt Kennedy, a peak in the park named for JFK. It was “only” about 14,000ft tall, so not really one of the big ones, he said.
Soon we rounded a corner and got our first glimpse of the biggest one – Mt Logan – at over 19,000ft tall. It was an enormous massif, like a huge ridge 20 miles wide, with a high point on the left edge.
“That side is the east ridge, about the only other route that gets climbed on Logan than the King Trench,” Tom said. (We were climbing the King Trench route) “Though, last year I did fly in a team trying to climb the Hummingbird Ridge.”
“Wow, I thought that was about the hardest way up!” I said. The Hummingbird ridge had been climbed once back in the 1960s, and never repeated. It was supposedly very difficult and subject to dangerous double cornice formations, but had somehow made it onto a mountaineers list of the “50 Classic Climbs in North America.”
“The Smileys were their names,” Tom said. “They didn’t end up making it, but I had quite a time getting them out of there afterwards. The weather kept being good at Kluane Lake, and they’d call us on the satellite phone saying the weather was good there, but when I flew in it was socked in with clouds and I had to turn back. ‘We were just hoping it might clear up as you were coming in’ they would say.”
“At one point the weather looked to be bad for the next week, and we suggested they just hike out, but they were perfectly content to wait and rest in camp for that week. Eventually I did fly them all out.”
Tom turned the plane to hook around the west side of Mt Logan, and then we gradually started descending toward the Quintino-Sella. Below I could make out a group of five or so skiers slowly marching up the glacier – it was the guided group dropping a cache off at Camp 1.
The glacier was extremely wide and flat, with no crevasses visible. Tom picked a smooth place to land and we gracefully slid onto the snow.
“Is this spot Ok?” Tom asked (half joking I think).
“It’s perfect!” we replied.
Tom left the plane running as we hopped out and pulled all of our gear out. He didn’t want to risk the plane not starting again out here if he were to turn off the engine. Tom took a quick picture of us in front of the plane and then got back in and took off. I bet he was looking forward to a little break after shuttling climbers in for a solid two days. As far as we knew we were the last climbers schedule to come in that week.
It was 4pm now, but there was plenty of daylight left to start making some progress on the mountain. At our latitude, at this time of May, there were really only a few hours of solid darkness at night, so the time of day didn’t make much difference to us. We did need to worry a little about acclimation though.
We had carefully planned out at what elevation we would place each camp, based on a few trip reports we’d read about the mountain and our experience climbing Denali. Even though we were feeling strong and the weather was good, it was important to ascend slowly and not risk altitude sickness.
We had landed at around 8,500ft, and quickly attached our duffle bags to our sleds, put on our big backpacks, strapped on our snowshoes, and started moving up the glacier toward the King Trench following the ski tracks of the guided party.
The choice between skis and snowshoes is very important on Mt Logan. If you’re a good backcountry skier it makes a lot of sense to use skis here. Probably 80% of the terrain on the King Trench route is like a green or blue run at a resort, making skis a very fast travel mode. However, there are a few steep tricky parts. The headwall above King Col is quite steep and riddled with crevasses, making a ski descent while pulling a loaded sled particularly difficult. There are also steep sections on either side of Prospector col that can get very icy.
Matthew and I aren’t the greatest skiers, and don’t own our own skis. Snowshoes worked well for us on Denali, and we trusted our La Sportiva Baruntse double boots to keep us warm and be comfortable to hike in for weeks. (We weren’t sure how ski boots would perform). We also reasoned that we could ride our sleds down some of the terrain to speed up the progress, so in the end we decided to use snowshoes for the trip.
After a few hours of plodding up the glacier we started getting hungry for dinner and stopped to make camp. We were at 9,300ft, about the elevation we’d hoped to be at, and wanted to stay on a normal daily climbing schedule instead of pushing on too far into the night.
Unlike Denali, there aren’t really any established camps on Mt Logan. So many people climb Denali that the standard locations for Camp I, Camp II, etc are always occupied by a handful of parties, and you just pitch your tent somewhere in that area. You might even get lucky and be able to take over an abandoned snow wall around someone’s old camp.
On Mt Logan there were only two groups on the whole mountain – our team and the guided group – so we just camped wherever we wanted. I bet if Mt Logan were a few hundred feet taller (making it the highest mountain in North America instead of Denali), then there would be hundreds of people climbing Mt Logan each year. Luckily, though, it’s a little shorter and any mountaineer hardy enough to attempt it is treated to a real wilderness experience.
We probed a 15-ft-radius area for crevasses, then set up our new Trango-2 tent and started cooking some pasta.
“Well I’m relieved we’ve finally reached the stage of the trip where it’s just us versus the mountain,” Matthew said. “We don’t have to worry about airlines losing our stuff or airplane engines not working or waiting in line behind some other people.”
“Exactly,” I said, looking up the valley. “We just have to compete against Mt Logan now.”
After dinner we dug a big hole in the snow and buried five days-worth of food and fuel. This would be for waiting out bad weather when we were trying to fly out, and it didn’t need to come all the way to the highest camp with us. I duct-taped two 3ft bamboo wands together and stuck it in the snow to mark the cache. We were careful to bring plenty of wands for this trip. One friend who’d attempted Logan said he marked a cache with just one 3ft wand and when he returned to dig up the cache weeks later only a few inches of the wand were sticking out of the snow! It had snowed and drifted almost enough to cover the whole thing. I didn’t want to make the same mistake, and I hoped it wouldn’t snow 6ft before we came back to retrieve this cache.
As we finished digging the guided group began skiing back down, passing us on the way back to base camp. They were double carrying, and had just dropped a cache of gear at 10,000ft and were returning to sleep lower. We had by this point gotten to know just about everyone in the group, so said hello as they were passing.
Matthew and I were employing a slightly different strategy on the mountain. As long as the slopes weren’t too steep we planned to do single carries as much as possible. It was tough with over 100lbs of gear each, but as long as a lot of it was in the sled it was manageable. Double carries are definitely easier, which is a big reason why a lot of parties do them, but the take a lot more time, and we wanted to make as much progress as possible while the weather was good.
By 8pm we finally climbed into the tent for our first night on the mountain. Just before turning in I sent an update with my Delorme InReach satellite text messaging device. It automatically updated a map online with a point for our location and my message. That way our family could know how we were doing every day. Matthew gave Amanda a quick call on the satellite phone and then we went to bed.
The next morning we got up around 7am, after a solid 11 hours of sleep, and began moving higher up the mountain. At this time of year – early May – navigating on the glacier was like following a super highway. This was about the highest snow time of year, so almost all the crevasses were filled in and we could walk wherever we wanted. We were still always roped up, of course, but weren’t too concerned about falling into a crevasse.
From talking to the rangers we’d heard that by mid-June the crevasses in this area low on the mountain can open up so wide that mountaineers can be forced to give up trying to find a way around them. So there’s a pretty short optimal climbing season on Mt Logan. If you come too early, like April or March, it’s likely to be brutally cold. Temperatures of -40F or -50F aren’t unheard of. Come too late, like mid-June, and the crevasses on the lower mountain are impassable. The sweet spot appears to be the month of May, so it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the guided group decided to start the same day we did.
We roughly followed the guided group’s tracks to a cache at a large plateau around 10,500ft. I then continued in the lead, walking on very level terrain for another hour to near the base of a big icefall. We dropped our gear at 10,900ft at an area referred to as King Trench camp. As before we probed out a radius to verify we weren’t camping on any crevasses, then marked the radius with glacier wands and set up the tent. Clouds were starting to roll in but it was still the middle of the day and not too cold.
“It seems kind of unfortunate to just hang out here the rest of the afternoon,” Matthew said. “What if we give ourselves a break tomorrow by hauling a load up to the top of this snow ramp this afternoon?”
“Sure, that sounds like a reasonable plan,” I replied. “It fits with the idea of climbing high and sleeping low, so will probably help us acclimate. And we can even sled down that hill back to camp!”
We packed up all the gear we wouldn’t need that night, threw everything else in the tent, and continued up the mountain. This time, since we knew we were returning that day, we put wands along the route every 100ft or so.
The snow ramp was crevasse-free right up the middle, so we went straight up. It was nice not hauling the full 100+lbs of gear on this steep slope. After an hour the slope started leveling out at about 12,100ft, just as the cloud layer dropped and it started to snow. We dug a hole there, buried our gear, and marked it with several wands.
Now it was time for some fun. We took off the rope, got in our sleds, and started scooting toward the steep part. We had already verified our route was safe on the way up, so sledding back on the same route didn’t require the rope.
I went first, ice ax in one hand, with my feet dangling off the front to steer and slow me down. I blasted down the slope, weaving through the wands like a slalom course, all the way back down to the level part. Matthew followed in good form as well, catching a few short videos of the descent. It would have certainly been fun to ski down, but sledding was hard to beat.
Now the visibility was getting pretty bad with the snow and clouds, and we appreciated the wands we had placed. We navigated from wand to wand until we finally got back to camp.
In addition to our main sleeping tent we had also brought a cook tent – a floorless pyramid tent supported by one pole in the middle. It’s perfect for cooking and eating in when it’s snowing, cold, or a little windy outside when you’d prefer a little shelter while you operate the stove. The general strategy is to stake out the tent then dig down into the snow on the inside so you can stand up, sit on a bench, and have a little table to cook on.
We sort of set up this tent this time, but were a little impatient and merely draped half of it over our vestibule and staked out the rest in the snow. We then cooked in an enlarged vestibule, having already dug out a few feet of snow so we could stand up.
The guided group presumably made it up to their cache sometime that afternoon, but the visibility was bad enough that we couldn’t tell. We were tired from our first full day on the mountain so soon crawled into our sleeping bags to go to sleep.
May 6th dawned sunny, and we quickly ate our breakfast of powdered milk and cereal in the tent and packed up. We got a satellite text weather forecast from our meteorologist friend Garrett that predicted a big storm to move in that night, so we wanted to make as much progress as possible while the weather was good.
We loaded up all the gear in our packs and in the sleds, roped up, and retraced our steps back up the snow slope. The guided group had started about the same time as us, and we saw them arrive at the base of the slope as we reached our cache.
We took a short break, then dug up the cache, redistributed our gear, and continued. The temperature was actually pretty pleasant – probably 15F, sunny, and no wind. Not warm enough to walk in shorts and a t-shirt like we had low on Denali, but much better than the -40F it could be. Luckily the terrain leveled out above our cache, but it was still noticeably more difficult than before to haul the now-full sled and backpack.
I led the way, walking beneath the towering face of King Peak to my right and the icefall of Queen Peak to the left. Eventually the slope increased as we neared King Col, and we started to really feel the effects of doing a single carry above 13,000ft now. I had to rest every five minutes, fighting against the sled pulling me down the slope and against the lack of oxygen in the air. Matthew was struggling as well, and we finally decided to split up the remaining distance into two carries.
We dropped off our packs, clipped our sleds to our harnesses, and walked up the slopes this time without needing to take any breaks. Within 20 minutes we reached a flat area at the top of King Col and stopped for a break.
Below us the first three-person rope team of the guided group had also reached a flat area near the col, and were stopping to cache their gear. They had moved fast, having opted for another double carry, though they would have to descend the slope today and re-ascend it again tomorrow, possibly in bad weather. I was satisfied with our decision to move all our supplies to King Col today.
We soon descended back to our packs and brought them back to our campsite. Our schedule had us resting here at King Col for the next few days to acclimate, and Matthew and I were both looking forward to some rest.
We commenced the usual routine of probing for crevasses, marking the boundaries of camp, setting up the tent, and digging out the snow from under the vestibule. This time, since we knew some bad weather was coming, I spent an extra hour making a solid waist-high snow wall on the windward side of the tent to offer us a little protection. Meanwhile, Matthew set up the cook tent next to one of the vestibule openings to give us some extra cooking space.
For dinner we broke into our supply of freeze-dried meals for the first time. Normally we avoid freeze dried meals since they’re kind of expensive and create a lot of trash, but they make a lot of sense on a mountain like Mt Logan. They don’t require as much fuel as pasta, since they only require bringing water to a boil, not maintaining it at a boil for 10 minutes. That can actually make quite a difference over the course of a month. They also are, for some reason, one of the few foods I can stand to eat at higher altitude, when my appetite tends to wane.
I had a delicious bag of chili mac and beef, with a personal addition of powdered mashed potatoes and lots of cheese to increase the calorie count. Soon afterwards we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.
I was awakened the next morning, as usual, by a strong need to go to the bathroom. While still mostly in my sleeping bag I carefully unzipped the top six inches of the vestibule zipper to peek outside, and was immediately met with a blast of wind and snow. Everything outside was white. The storm had begun.
“Arghh, looks like I’ll have to suite up to go the bathroom,” I said.
“Me too,” Matthew replied.
I got out of my sleeping bag, pulled on my snow pants, jacket, balaclava, and gloves, and carefully crawled outside. I didn’t want to walk too far, lest I lost sight of the tent, so went just a few feet from the entrance. King Peak and Queen Peak were no longer visible, nor were any other features more than 20ft away.
“Good thing we planned to rest today anyways,” I said to Matthew as I crawled back in the tent, “because we wouldn’t be getting too far.”
Matthew briefly went outside too, and quickly came back in. We came prepared for such a day being stuck in the tent: we had brought the Count of Monte Cristo (1000 pages), Cardinal of the Kremlin (1000 pages), and a handful of other novels to pass the time. Matthew had tried to download some movies on his phone, but unfortunately couldn’t get it working in time for the trip.
After a few hours of reading we peeked outside again, but the whiteout still persisted.
“I need to get outside and do something,” Matthew said. “I’m tired of just sitting around.”
“Well, it could be kind of nice to have a snow shelter to cook in…” I suggested.
“Yeah, that would be a good boondoggle,” Matthew said. A boondoggle is something you do that isn’t really necessary but could be kind of fun.
Matthew suited up, went outside, and started piling a big mound of snow next to the vestibule in place of the cook tent. As soon as the pile was as high as the tent he started digging in from the outside. We’ve become experts at creating snow shelters over the years. Starting in Kentucky in middle school we would harvest snow from our entire yard and neighbor’s yard after a 2-inch snowfall, pile it in garbage cans and transport it by sled into one location, then make a big pile and dig out the middle.
We later perfected our skills in the MIT Outing Club winter school, building elaborate shelters to spend the night up in New Hampshire, where we had feet of snow to work with instead of just inches. Here on Logan there was basically an unlimited depth of snow to work with, and the main challenge wasn’t piling up snow but just digging it out.
As Matthew finished the snow shelter I piled more snow on the snow wall. Overnight snow had piled up against the wall, but had not accumulated against the tent. I hoped the wall would continue with such good performance.
The completed snow shelter had a small entrance on the outside, descending to a room large enough for both of us to stand, with a small entrance on the other side where we could crawl into the vestibule opening. It would be perfect for our purposes.
We took a break to do some more reading in the tent, then cooked dinner in the snow shelter that night. The outside entrance was high enough above the ground that any exhaust from the stove would funnel outside as we were cooking. When we turned off the stove we simply moved a large snow block over that entrance to shield from the snow and cold.
That evening I sent my usual satellite text update from my Delorme Inreach before going to sleep.
The next morning the weather was as bad as before. The wind had been shaking the tent all night, but miraculously the snow wall had kept any snow from drifting up against the tent. We had carefully piled up snow around the bottom of the tent as well to prevent wind from blowing any snow inside the gap between the rain fly and the tent body. This can actually be a big problem if you don’t remember to seal up the gap. On a practice trip in February up Mt Shuksan in the Washington Cascades we had forgotten to seal the gap around the tent with snow and woke up to 6 inches of snow inside the tent! The wind had funneled it up between the rain fly and tent body, and it had come inside through our half-unzipped tent doors and ceiling ventilation. Luckily on Logan we were more careful, and didn’t have any problems.
All morning and afternoon the wind and snow continued to batter our tent, and we only ventured outside briefly to go to the bathroom, or take a few pictures. We would later learn that this storm was raging even stronger down in the King Trench at 10,000ft where the big guided group and another Austrian team that had just started their trip were hunkered down.
An automated weather station at 9000ft on Mt Logan that day recorded wind up to 100 mph, and we later heard the Austrian team’s tent was literally ripped open and many of their supplies blown away. They ended up digging a snow cave to ride out the storm, and evacuated as soon as the weather cleared. The guided group had built strong snow wall fortifications and managed to ride out the storm relatively unscathed.
We were oblivious to all this at the time, though, and luckily the wind wasn’t quite as ferocious at King Col. It may have been 50mph wind, but not enough to do our tent any damage at least.
We spent the day mostly reading, playing cards, and eating. As a mountaineer, though, we can get by telling people we were busy “acclimating.” Unfortunately for me, though, it was becoming more difficult to acclimate. I started getting a sore throat, runny nose, and slight headache that morning. These seemed like symptoms of the flu, though I hadn’t been sick in years and am usually very healthy. In hindsight what I think was happening was that I’d been exposed to another sick person on the flight over to Whitehorse, but at lower elevation my body was strong enough to fight it and I wasn’t sick. But there must have been something lingering in my system and once I got to the higher altitude, coupled with cold and exertion, my body was no longer strong enough to fight it.
I figured drinking lots of water, resting, and eating would help it out, and with the storm showing no signs of letting up we would be certain to get more of all of those for a while.
The next morning was as stormy as before, with the wind and snow continuing to batter our tent. Our snow fortifications outside were still holding strong, and we spent most of the day in the tent again. By our schedule we had rested sufficiently at this elevation to continue to climb higher, but it would be very unwise with only 20ft of visibility outside.
Matthew finished his first book, Longitude, and moved on to book number two, The Cardinal of the Kremlin. I was still busy working my way through The Count of Monte Cristo. Frustratingly my sickness had not gotten any better, and I was beginning to lose hope that merely resting would make me improve. Nasty stuff was coming out of my throat and nose, and I was starting to have very annoying headaches. I took some Ibuprofen several times, which made the pain go away for an hour or so, but it didn’t really cure anything.
I did have one last resort – an altitude medication called Diamox. This is a pretty common medication mountaineers take to help with acclimation, and I’d taken it in the past. The unfortunate side effects, though, are that it makes you pee more (making you dehydrated) and can cut off some blood flow to your extremities. I’d held off as long as possible from taking the Diamox because those side effects can be pretty dangerous in a really cold place like Mt Logan. It’s already hard enough to stay hydrated and keep your fingers and toes warm without battling those side effects.
But I was getting desperate, so I reluctantly took a Diamox pill, swallowed some water, and hoped for the best.
Matthew checked the satellite phone that evening and got a text message from our friend Garrett.
“Looks like the storm might let up for a brief window tomorrow,” Matthew said.
“Well we’d better take advantage of that,” I replied. “I’ve spent enough time sitting in this tent, and who knows when we’ll get the chance to move again.”
Garrett’s forecast held true, and the next morning the wind had died down and the skies were nearly cloud free. The temperature was hovering around 0F, which was pretty warm by Mt Logan standards.
We quickly ate our cereal and powdered milk and started packing up. Our plan was to bring a cache of supplies over the headwall and as far up the mountain as possible before dropping back to camp. The headwall was one of the steepest parts of the King Trench route, and given our difficulty with the single carry to King Col, we knew it would be very tough to single carry over the headwall. Plus, it would help our acclimation to climb high up to 15,000ft or so, then sleep back at 13,500ft again.
We threw all but 5 days worth of food and fuel into our duffel bags on our sleds, packed our emergency and day equipment, and headed off. For the first time on the mountain we were now breaking trail through deep snow. Lower on the mountain the snow had been firm from either melt/thaw cycles in the sun or from wind scouring, but now progress was more difficult.
I led the way at first, traversing a flat section to the edge of King Col, before meeting the headwall and traversing left. The headwall was way too steep to go straight up with all our gear, but we had scouted out a potential route through the crevasses by cutting up left and then moving back to the middle.
Every step had to be earned clambering up this steep deep snow. The sled was constantly pulling me back, and each time I planted my snowshoe it would slide backwards in the powder. Luckily there were two of us, and we took turns breaking trail. A slight breeze had picked up midway up the headwall, and it soon covered up the tracks below us with fresh snow.
“Dang, all this work to break a trail and it probably will be wiped out and filled in by the end of the day,” Matthew complained, stopping to stick a wand in the snow to mark our route.
“At least we only have to climb up this face one more time,” I replied. “Maybe the snow will be firmer then.”
We at last passed the inflection point of the slope and reached a more gradual grade by mid-day. Matthew led the way as we now switched back to the right, having passed beneath a large ice cliff. The snow was now scoured almost down to the ice, and we were grateful our snowshoes had aggressive teeth along the perimeter to dig into the icy crust.
We traversed along the ice, then found a relatively level spot on a wide snow step to stop and rest. Way below us in the King Trench we could make out the guided party making their way towards King Col. They were nearly 4,000ft below us but stood out remarkably well, the dark bodies contrasting sharply with the white surroundings.
Now the terrain was getting a little more treacherous for us, with monster gaping crevasses on all sides, and we started using our wands more liberally. I took the lead now, aiming for a small snow ramp cutting directly up through the ice wall above us. The snow turned deep again, and before long we switched out to put Matthew in the lead.
It was slow going up the ramp. It was only about 15ft wide, with cliffs on each side, so we basically had to go straight up, sometimes digging the snow out with our hands to make progress. We finally staggered over this last obstacle, and had surmounted the headwall. Now a gently-rising glacier unfolded in front of us, possibly all the way to the next camp at the football field.
“I’m wiped out after that,” Matthew said. “It took us 7 hours to get up that thing, and we’ve only gained 1000ft!”
“Yeah, I don’t think I can make it to the football field today.” I replied. “Why don’t we just get out of this little crevasse field and drop our load there?”
We agreed to go for another 30 minutes, then dropped our gear, buried it in snow, and marked it with our remaining wands. The descent was much easier. Now the deep powdery snow acted like a cushion on the steep sections, and we had no trouble following our wands back to the top of the headwall and down to camp. Our tracks had blown over, but as long as we followed the wands we realized the snow was still firmer where we had walked before, so we still had a sort of invisible packed trail created.
Back at King Col the guided group had arrived and was starting to set up camp. There were only seven people this time, though, and we learned that three clients had decided to fly back home after their battle with the storm the past three days. One guide had accompanied them out, leaving three guides and four clients up at King Col.
The clear weather was quickly deteriorating, as clouds pushed in from the coast. It looked like we may end up tent bound again.
Back in the tent we cooked dinner in the snow cave and retreated into the warmth of our sleeping bags, tired after a day of hard work.
The incoming weather built up overnight and by morning it had returned to near white-out. Poking my head outside the vestibule in the morning I could just barely make out the tents of the guided group getting buffeted in the wind 50 ft away from us. Otherwise it was white in all directions.
My flu symptoms had luckily started to go away, but I’d paid for it with the side effects of the Diamox yesterday. My toes had been having trouble warming up all day, and this morning one big toe was still cold, and looked a little discolored. I never have problems with my toes being cold, so this was a little worrying. It had been pretty cold yesterday by normal standards – probably just a little below zero – and my feet were basically in the snow all day with all the fresh powder. I had unfortunately not worn my overboots, thinking my double boots would be warm enough for that temperature, and that was probably not a wise decision.
I spent much of the morning holding my toes in my hands warming them up, and resolved to wear my summit socks (my warmest, thickest pair) and overboots for the remainder of the trip.
The storm continued all day as ferocious as ever, and we were again stuck in the tent all day. In fact, in our reluctance to venture out into the storm we officially converted the cooking snow shelter into an outhouse, so we literally didn’t have to go into the storm at all.
That night we cooked in the vestibule, eating a delicious meal of mountain-house freeze-dried chicken and rice, mixed with mashed potatoes and cheese.
The storm had died down overnight, and it was luckily clear and sunny in the morning. We packed up as much gear as possible inside the tent, before moving outside, taking it down, and packing up our backpacks. We carefully covered up the openings to the snow shelter and marked it with a wand in case we needed it on the way back. The undesirable contents of the inside had been carefully buried, so it would still serve as a good emergency shelter.
We managed to remove a few items of gear that didn’t absolutely need to go higher up the mountain with us – trash, books we’d finished, and a few other things – and cached these near the snow shelter, marking it with wands to pick up on the return.
This time was much easier climbing the headwall. All our gear was in our backpacks now, so sleds weren’t pulling us backwards. And as long as we followed our wands we stayed on the firmer snow of our broken track from two days earlier and the going was not that difficult.
We removed our wands as we climbed, so we could use them higher up on the mountain. As we got halfway up we could see the first group of three from the guided group start to leave camp. They started following our tracks, but unfortunately with skis they couldn’t climb as steeply as we could with snowshoes, so they soon had to diverge and break their own more gradual trail.
After about 3 hours we reached our cache, halving our previous time in the better conditions now. The terrain was still too steep ahead of us to reasonably do a single carry, so we left the cache there, planning to retrieve it the next day.
Above the cache we continued straight up the mountain, and surprisingly we saw the skiers approaching from our left. Somehow they had caught up to us. Instead of zig-zagging through the crevasse field straight up the headwall, they had traversed farther left and then followed a nice, crevasse-free route up. We kept this in mind for the descent in the future.
We waved to the guided group and continued straight up as the traversed way to the right now. I figured they were doing large switchbacks because they were on skis, but we later learned that, having been up the mountain many times before, the guides had found the best way up to the football field by traversing right.
We didn’t know this at the time, so continued our route. We had to weave through a lot of crevasses higher up, briefly passing through an icefall below Queen Peak that was a little scary. Eventually we intersected the guided group’s path, and decided to follow them to the football field rather then get lost in the crevasse maze above us.
By now the views were spectacular. We could see Mount St Elias – the second tallest mountain in the United States at over 18,000ft – just to the west, and beyond was the Pacific Ocean 80 miles away. It was amazing to see so many enormous snowy mountains, many probably never climbed.
We continued following the ski tracks of the guided group through the crevasses, until the terrain in front of us leveled out and was crevasse free. We had finally reached the Football Field.
The guided group was busy digging a cache for their gear and we thanked them for showing us a good way through the crevasses. We found a nice flat spot about 100ft away from their site and began to set up camp. I stomped down a big flat area with my snowshoes as Matthew got the tent out. We then set up the sleeping tent and officially put up the cooking tent nearby. We were planning to spend a few nights here to acclimate, and with the weather supposed to be nice for a few days the cook tent would make a nice place to eat.
I dug out an official toilet next to camp and built up an enviable privacy snow wall around it. The guided group soon left camp, skiing back down to King Col and planning to bring the rest of their gear up the next day. For the first time now we could actually see what we thought was the summit of Mount Logan. A huge ridge started above our camp, extending far off to the east with what appeared to be the highest point right near the end. This would be consistent with the location of the summit.
“I thought Garrett’s forecast called for a slight chance of a snow shower today,” Matthew said. “But it’s been 100% sunny all day.”
“Garrett hasn’t been wrong yet,” I replied. “What about that cloud over there?”
There was one cloud over towards the summit moving our way, but it was sunny everywhere else. Within 10 minutes the cloud had come directly over us and visibility dropped to 50 ft. Light snow started falling, but within five more minutes the cloud moved away and it was again sunny.
“Ha, Garrett was right indeed,” Matthew laughed.
The next morning we loaded our packs up with a little bit of food and emergency gear, roped up, and descended back down to our cache. This time we followed the guided group’s tracks most of the way, diverting only when we could clearly see our wands at the cache. This route was considerably better, avoiding the scary parts we’d walked through beneath the icefall of Queen’s Peak. There were some stretches of deep snow, but it worked out this time that we were breaking trail on the descent without packs, and could hike back up the broken trail on the return journey.
We soon reached the cache and dug it out of the snow. We put most of the gear into our packs, leaving just a little bit in the sleds. The climb back up to the football field was relatively easy with a broken trail and a clear route through the crevasses.
We made it back to camp in the early afternoon, and spent the rest of the day acclimating, reading books, and melting snow. The view was hard to beat, and with the sun, no wind, and wearing down jackets, down pants, and down booties it didn’t actually feel that cold out.
By the evening the guided group made it into camp, obviously a bit more tired out than we were, having come all the way from King Col. We went over to talk to the head guides about the weather, and they confirmed the good reports we’d heard that the next five days would likely be clear.
Our original plan had been to spend one more day acclimating at the football field before bringing ten days of food with us up to the higher camps. The route goes over a pass at 18,000ft before dropping back down to 16,000ft at the Plateau Camp, the last camp before the summit. Traditionally teams bring at least a week of food to Plateau Camp in case they get trapped in bad weather. It’s very difficult to retreat from that camp because retreat involves climbing back up to 18,000ft at Prospector Col before descending back down again.
The guides, though, were planning to go with minimal gear – just four days of supplies – to try to move fast and take advantage of the good weather. Their plan was to leave tomorrow.
Matthew and I talked it over and it seemed like a good idea for us too. We were feeling pretty good acclimation-wise, and Plateau Camp was about the same elevation as the Football Field. We also liked the idea of not hauling 10 days of food and fuel up and over the 18,000ft pass. So our plan was set – a potential summit day May 16, we could stretch our food an extra day if needed, but would have to retreat after that.
As we were eating dinner we noticed two more skiers roll into camp. They definitely weren’t with the guided group, and I hadn’t seen them on the mountain before. They quickly dropped a cache off about 100ft from our camp, buried it, and turned back down the mountain. It appeared they must be camping at King Col and had caught up to our groups. We would see more of them later in the trip.
Our next objective was Windy Camp, a small shoulder at 17,000ft on a snow ramp between the Football Field and Prospector Col. It wasn’t that far away, but it’s where climbers usually make their next camp to help with acclimation.
We packed up our tent and supplies for four days and buried the rest of our gear near our tentsite. Everything fit in our backpacks, but the snow ramp above us looked so sledable that we towed our empty sleds behind us to use on the descent.
In general Matthew and I move pretty fast in the morning, in part because we don’t have to melt any snow. Each evening we melt enough so that we each have three liters. Through the night and during breakfast we usually drink another liter each, leaving us two liters for the next day. For breakfast we just eat cereal and powdered milk, which doesn’t require melting snow to get hot water like oatmeal does. This ends up saving a lot of time and a lot of fuel. I still don’t quite understand why most other mountaineers are willing to invest so much extra time and fuel for breakfast, but I guess people really like oatmeal.
We donned our snowshoes and headed up the mountain, this time breaking trail again. The snow here hadn’t been wind scoured like it had between the Football Field and the top of the Headwall, but at least there weren’t any obvious crevasses to avoid. We basically just had to keep marching straight up the gentle slope.
Eventually the guided group suited up and started following in our broken trail. I was happy to be able to pay them back for showing us the best way through the crevasse maze the previous day.
After a few hours we reached a mostly-level spot around 17,000ft and dropped our packs. This was Windy Camp, but luckily there was almost no wind at all. I broke out some snacks and water and sat on my pack to admire the view. The ocean was still clearly visible in the distance, with uncountably many snowy mountains in between.
It was so sunny that we decided to do a little experiment. I tilted my black sled to face the sun, and sprinkled a thin layer of snow over the inner face. Within about ten minutes I could see a small pool of meltwater collecting in the bottom of the sled. This was actually a very effective way of making drinking water without using fuel! This trick also works with a black trash bag draped over the sled, but not as well as just a big black sled.
Soon the guided group arrived and claimed a nice spot next to us.
“Are you guys low on fuel?” the head guide asked, seeing our snow-melting trick.
“No, no,” I replied, “just having a little fun testing our snow-melting skills.”
He laughed and went back to setting up camp.
We spent most of the afternoon snacking and enjoying the view, with a little time spent making a nice privy. Some of the clients and guides came over to join us for dinner and some conversation. It turned out one of the clients was trying to climb the highest mountain in all the Canadian provinces and territories, and just had Yukon, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia left.
“Wow, when did you do the Northwest Territories?” I asked. I was also trying to climb all these mountains, and the Northwest Territories one is arguably the hardest of them all, having only been climbed a handful of times.
“I went up in the summer of 2013, helicoptering in and out of Watson Lake,” he replied.
Now I realized I had actually heard about his trip. One of my other friends had hiked in to the Northwest Territories highpoint that summer, and had seen a helicopter leaving just as he arrived at the base of the standard East Face route. A week of rain and snow pinned my friend down and made him abort the climb, but that must have been the same trip that we were now talking about.
We talked about the Northwest Territories a bit, and I told him of my plan that summer, actually, to attempt a new route on the southwest face of the highpoint, then hike and raft out the Nahanni River over two months.
He was pretty interested to run into some fellow highpointers on Logan, and we exchanged stories about our adventures as the sun set over the icefields below us.
Matthew and I were the first ones up and out of camp again the next morning, and after burying our sleds at our site we continued up the mountain with all our gear. The snow was firm and icy above Windy Camp, perhaps a testament to the namesake winds that scour the area. Lucky for us the air was again calm and the skies clear.
We ascended steeply up to Prospector Col, stopping often to catch our breath in the decreasing oxygen. As we got to the col we saw a huge plateau open up before us on the other side, with another endless sea of mountains poking out of the icefields beyond. Somewhere down there was the location of Plateau Camp, the normal last camp before summit day.
At the col we saw an ancient bamboo wand stub sticking out of the ice. We had heard stories of parties incorrectly ascending the wrong pass in bad weather trying to retreat from Logan, and ending up lost. With this in mind I placed a few strategic wands at the col and along our route down, so we would have a good chance of finding it. Of course, as a backup we also had a GPS track of the route given to us by a mountaineering friend (Luc Mehl) who’d climbed the mountain before.
After dropping down the opposite side of the pass we started traversing right, thinking that we didn’t want to lose any elevation unnecessarily. In hind sight, it would have been best to descend all the way to the plateau and traverse there. As it was we ended up traversing some steep snowfields, weaving down through some steep ice cliffs, and then meeting up with the plateau anyways.
By now the first team of three of the guided group had passed us, easily coasting down the gradually-sloping plateau on their skis. This was perhaps fortuitous for us, though, because we could see where the normal spot for plateau camp would be.
We reached the area where the guides were setting up camp and put up our tent not too far away. I immediately got to work excavating a privy and constructing another large privacy wall. The snow blocks were incredibly easy to make in these compacted snow conditions. I simply chopped the snow beneath me three times with my shovel and out popped a perfect block! I’ve struggled for hours in the White Mountains of New Hampshire trying to make powdery snow into blocks for an igloo, but this was infinitely easier.
When we finished with camp we tried to scout out our route for our summit bid the next day. We couldn’t actually see the true summit from here, but could make out the East summit and the West summit. I’ve read quite a few accounts of climbers just reaching the West summit and having to retreat. It’s almost as high as the true summit, and one route to the summit goes over the West summit first. But from there one has to descend to a col and then climb steeply up to the true summit, adding several hours at least. If the weather isn’t great, I guess I could see why people call the slightly shorter summit good enough.
But it wouldn’t be good enough for me and Matthew. We had to stand on the highest ground in the country to be completely satisfied. We planned to aim directly for the col between the true summit and west summit, to not add any unnecessary climbing along the way.
That evening as we were cooking dinner two more skiers rolled into camp that we didn’t recognize as part of the guided group. They must have been the ones we saw drop a cache at the Football Field a few days ago, and apparently they had skipped Windy Camp and come all the way here in one push.
Matthew and I went over to talk to them, and they seemed pretty friendly. One guy was from Anchorage and the other from Winnipeg. They said they had given themselves a mere two weeks to climb the Logan, had been delayed one day flying in but had made it onto the glacier in the calm day before our last stormy day. They had ascended through the storm, camping at King Col the day we left and making it here to plateau camp on day 6 on the mountain. Somehow they weren’t experiencing any acclimation problems, and it looked like they might actually finish the entire trip in a little over a week! They were getting incredibly lucky with the weather, given that it’s not uncommon for a group to spend a month on the mountain without even summiting, and there have even been two-week delays just flying onto the glacier!
The weather was still holding clear, and we went to sleep that night with high hopes of standing on the summit the next day.
I woke up in the morning, popped my head out the vestibule, and exclaimed, “Looks like summit day! Perfectly sunny outside!”
“Excellent,” Matthew replied. We had actually set our alarms this morning to get up at 7am, hoping to be moving by 8am. It wasn’t exactly an alpine start, but at this altitude and this far north, it’s so cold all day and the days are so long that there’s really no good reason to be climbing at night when it’s even colder. As it was the temperature was about -5F at camp, and supposed to be about -10F on the summit that afternoon. That’s actually about the warmest it ever gets on the summit, so we considered ourselves pretty lucky.
We weren’t the first ones up, though. Today the guided group had woken up a little earlier than we did, and were already suiting up to go.
“Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to be the first ones to the summit this year?” I said quietly to Matthew.
“Well, we should just go our own pace and I bet we’ll pass everyone else soon enough. I’m feeling pretty strong this morning,” Matthew replied.
We soon suited up, roped up, and got moving. Within about 30 minutes we caught up to the three-person team of the guided group and passed them while they were taking a break. They wished us good luck, and we wished them the same.
Soon we rounded a corner and could finally see the summit. It looked like a big rounded double-humped peak of snow and ice, with a col to the right. A valley extended down from the col to about our elevation, and below us was a huge icefall. We were on the edge of a ridge that dropped steeply down into the valley, and the ridge extended up directly to the west summit.
We wanted to drop into that valley to gain the col, but the dropoff was too steep. I led up the ridge for a ways, eventually finding a potential route traversing and descending a steep slope to gain the valley. Luckily our snowshoes had teeth along the perimeter to dig into the icy slope as we traversed.
Eventually we reached more gradual terrain that led us to the col. Now we just had one final climb to reach the summit. I actually had a friend who rode out a storm for a week here in this col, hunkered down inside a snow cave. It’s hard to believe he was so close to the summit then, but the weather was just so bad that he couldn’t even venture outside. I think it was something like -30F and very windy and snowy with poor visibility. He did finally get enough of a break in the weather to reach the summit and safely return, on day 32 of the expedition, no less.
Luckily for us the weather was much better. It was still sunny, with very little wind, and the temperature a relatively balmy -10F. We soon started up the steep slope to the summit, switchbacking occasionally to make our way up the icy slope. I expected to have trouble with the altitude, but both of us felt fine continuing without breaks, despite being over 19,000ft by now. Clearly our acclimation schedule must have worked.
I reached the small mini-pass below the summit, and turned right to follow the ridge the rest of the way. The ridge started out ascending gradually, but soon got quite steep, with large drop-offs to the right and left. One would have to self-arrest very quickly in the event of a fall here, and I’ve heard some groups actually belay this section. Matthew and I were confident enough in our footing though to not need a belay.
Soon the ridge tapered off, and there was no more mountain left to climb. I was on the roof of Canada!
I waved for Matthew to take a picture, but it was actually pretty precarious on the summit with a huge dropoff on the south side. I leaned on one hiking pole so the light wind wouldn’t knock me over, and waved my other arm in the air.
I then descended to a small shoulder next to the top and let Matthew stand on the summit. It was pretty spectacular up there, seeing an endless sea of icy mountains poking out of the glaciers in every direction. We could make out the Pacific Ocean to the west, but other than that the view was all icy mountains. There’s definitely no place in the lower 48 states that comes anywhere close to the remoteness you feel on Mt Logan.
Back on the shoulder we took some more pictures, and I briefly contemplated a shirts-off summit picture like the one Matthew took of me on the summit of Denali. It felt much colder here though, and we’d been hiking in our down jackets all day. I decided to keep all my layers on and be satisfied with some normal pictures.
Then I remembered it would be neat to send a text message from the top saying we’d made it. I dug out the Delorme, took off my big mittens, and tried to quickly type out the message “on the summit.” I clicked send, waited for a few seconds, and then put the delorme in my pack, eager to rewarm my numb fingers. But the delorme has an auto-complete feature to make typing faster and had auto completed “on the” to “only”, so my message was “only summit.” I bet that was pretty confusing to everyone at home reading that we had told we would be summiting today.
We spent about 20 minutes on the top before we started getting really cold and decided to go down. It was actually cold enough that little icicles were forming on the stubble of a small mustache I was growing. The exhale of my breath must have been freezing soon after it left my mouth. Luckily we were both still feeling ok with the altitude, even now at 19,551ft. We switched into crampons for the dicey decent, and made it off the steep ridge and back down to the col without issue.
At the col we met back up with the guided group and the independent group of two. They all looked like they were feeling strong and would soon be on the summit. We wished them good luck again and continued descending, mindful that the weather could still change quickly and we might as well get back to camp soon.
This time instead of exactly retracing our tracks we followed the guided group’s route. As before, they knew the best route and had found an easier ramp connecting the ridge and our valley. We exited the valley, descended the ridge a little lower, and then traversed back to our camp on the plateau. It was mid-afternoon and we were exhausted and dehydrated, but we had made it. The first to summit in 2015!
We took off our showshoes and boots, changed into down booties, and relaxed in the tent reading our books. By the evening everyone else returned to camp, and we exchanged high-fives all around. The clients all looked exhausted and very quickly retreated to their tents, as did we.
That day 13 people summited Logan, which is probably close to the record for ascents in one day. And that was almost the entire season packed into one day! As far as I’ve heard, only two more groups summited the rest of the year – one more group that ascended the King Trench, and one that climbed the East Ridge. And this was an excellent success rate. Some years nobody summits.
[The East Ridge group, incidentally, was caught in a nasty cycle of bad weather just after summiting two weeks after us on June 2, and needed rescued by helicopter from Plateau Camp. They had ridden out a storm for three days in a snow cave on the plateau, having received 2 meters of fresh snow. You can read a cbc news article about them here:
The next morning we packed up all our gear, and were the first ones out of camp. We headed back west along the plateau, and turned left to reach Prospector Col. It was pretty tough climbing back up to 18,000ft on the descent, and we took a long break at the pass to eat and rehydrate. Our plan was to make it back to our cache at the football field and camp there tonight, but we were making pretty good time and decided we might be able to push on farther to King Col.
Below Prospector Col we reached our old camp at 17,000ft and excavated out the sleds. Now came the fun part – sledding back to the Football Field. We knew the route was safe from crevasses on the snow ramp down, so we unroped, hopped in the sleds, and pushed off. We had our feet hanging out the front for steering and speed control, and ice axes ready to stop if needed. It was amazing blasting down that slope, with snow flying into the air from our heels as we controlled our direction. I bet anyone who saw us would be jealous, though there was unfortunately nobody else in sight.
I made it down first, coming within about 200ft of our cache before the level terrain and deep snow stopped my progress. Matthew came next, and I managed to get a short video of his descent.
We soon reached our old camp at the Football Field and dug up the cache, snacking on the best food we could find. We were both still feeling strong, and it was only noon so there was plenty of daylight left. The previous evening we had overheard the group of two saying they planned to ski all the way back to basecamp today to be the first ones out the next day if the plane could make it in.
“It would be a shame if they made it out and then we got stuck in base camp for a week waiting for the next weather window,” Matthew said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Why don’t we just get down there first then? Those guys haven’t even reached Prospector Col yet, and we move pretty fast when we’re sledding, so we could probably get all the way down first this evening and earn the rights to the first flight out.”
“I like the sound of that,” Matthew said. “Let’s do it.”
We quickly put our extra gear in the sleds clipped them to our packs, roped up, and continued down the mountain. This section descending down to King Col would turn out to be the trickiest part of the whole descent. The only real way to descend a steep slope with a loaded sled it to either flip it upside down so it has enough resistance that you drag it down the slope, or let it slide in front of you as you walk down. We employed both of these tactics, but it got even trickier when we needed to do a descending traverse. The sled keeps wanting to flip over and pull you down the mountain, and the descent is extremely frustrating.
I think we tried about every possible orientation of sled, and eventually made it down to the top of the headwall. Here we followed the guided group’s tracks, which involved only crossing one minor crevassed area. But here we saw something a little unnerving. A set of ski tracks went close to the edge of a crevasse, then boot tracks led to a human-sized hole at the edge of the crevasse where the two crevasse edges pinched together. I didn’t get too close, but it looked really really deep. Hopefully nobody was down there. We could see down in King Col there were a couple tents. Maybe it was related to one of those groups?
We would later learn, after coincidentally meeting up with a mountaineer on the flight out of Whitehorse, that one group had dropped a cache at the football field and skied back toward King Col. At the edge of the crevasse they had stopped to take off their skis and rope up, but one of the guys got too close to the edge and fell through. Apparently he fell down 15m head first without a helmet but somehow survived. His buddies dropped a rope to him and pulled him out, but he had a bad concussion. The group aborted their summit bid after that and turned around to get off the mountain.
We didn’t know this at the time, so continued carefully down the steep headwall to King Col. We talked to one mountaineer walking around at camp, who happened to be a guy from Colorado we had been corresponding with by email earlier in the season about logistics for Logan. We gave him advice based on our trip, and wished him luck. [I later heard he did indeed end up summiting.]
Past his tent we found our old campsite, but the wand marking our cache had obviously been moved. It was now sticking out of the snow shelter, but that wasn’t where our cache was. There was a lot of black trash particles on the ground, like someone had been smoking and dumped out the remains. We had seen this type of trash near the camp of the guys from Anchorage and Winnipeg, and it looked like they had camped at our old spot and moved our wand. That’s not only rude but potentially dangerous. Moving another party’s cache marker could prevent them from recovering precious food or fuel they need to survive on the mountain. And it’s not like we had the only place to camp – it was a huge flat snow plateau and one spot is as good as another.
We were really angry, and tried digging around randomly, hoping to find our cache. Eventually Matthew found it, and we resolved that we definitely had to beat those guys to base camp now.
From King Col the route was a moderate slope almost all the way to 10,000ft, so perfect for sledding. This time, after seeing the evidence of the crevasse fall higher up, we decided to stay roped up. It’s a little difficult sledding while roped up, but as long as the first person goes a little slower than maximum speed the second person can adjust his speed to match, keeping the rope taught in between.
We soon mastered this strategy, cruising down the slopes and making excellent time all the way down to 10,00ft. Here we got back off the sleds, put on our snowshoes, and started walking. Lower on the glacier here the past two weeks had made a big difference in the conditions. When we started our trip the glacier was flat and smooth, but now snow bridges were obviously sagging over crevasses we had unknowingly walked over on the way in.
There had indeed been quite a few sunny days over the past two weeks, and this was having a big effect on the snow bridges down here. We could see now why the rangers had recommended against starting in June. Here it was mid-May and it looked like within a few weeks this lower section of the route could get extremely difficult to walk through or maybe even become impassable.
Luckily, though, we still had a clear and safe route back to basecamp. We got in a final small sledding run before arriving back at basecamp by 8pm, 12 hours after we’d started that morning at Plateau Camp. We had beaten the other two-person team and earned the first seats on the next flight out.
Matthew called up Sian on the satellite phone to schedule a pickup, but Sian said another group had already called her and said they were at base camp ready for a pickup the next morning.
“Um, Eric and I are definitely the only ones here…” Matthew said. “They probably called you from higher up on the mountain and lied about where they were.”
“Well you guys definitely will get on the first flight since you’re the first ones there. It’s too late today to come in, so Tom will call you at 6am tomorrow for a weather check, and if it’s good he’ll come pick you up.” Sian said.
“Great, thanks!” Matthew replied.
We would later learn that Matthew had been on speaker phone at the hangar, and everyone there was quite pleased that we had beaten the other two guys to basecamp. Those guys had apparently been pretty rude to the Icefields Discovery team about being delayed a day from bad weather flying in.
There was actually a large snow wall built up at basecamp now, perhaps by one of the later parties to fly in, and we set up our tent right in the middle. We soon saw the other two guys in the distance skiing down toward us.
While we were annoyed at them for moving our cache wand, we were still nice to them when they arrived, offering them the space next to our tent inside the snow-walled area, and some of our leftover dinner.
They weren’t too happy that they weren’t the first ones to fly out, but there was nothing they could do about it at this point. It looked like the weather was supposed to stay sunny all day tomorrow anyways, so there would likely be no major delays for either of us.
The satellite phone rang at 6am, and we gave Tom the good news that the weather was indeed clear over our camp. We packed up our gear, and about an hour later Tom arrived to pick us up. Our flight out was as spectacular as it had been on the way in, and we were back on solid ground at the edge of Kluane Lake by 9am.
We now had an extra two full weeks in the Yukon, with plenty of fuel and camping food already packed. With excellent weather overhead we decided to skip any rest days and immediately embarked on another adventure – a nine-day packrafting trip down the Jarvis and Alsek rivers back into Kluane National Park.