Surviving Mount Logan's Icy Ridge
by Paul Richins, Jr.
(added 7/12/98)

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The following article appeared in the Mountain Democratic newspaper and details the climb of the East Ridge of Mount Logan. The climb took place May 12-June 2, 1987. Mount Logan (19,850 feet) is the highest peak in Canada and the second highest in North America. Mount Logan is located about fifty miles inland from the Gulf of Alaska in the St. Elias Mountain Range in the Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada. Kluane National Park straddles the Alaskan-Canadian border and is about halfway between Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska, or about 200 miles north of Glacier Bay, Alaska. Logan rises from a vast ocean of snow, ice and glaciers stretching for many miles. The frequent and fierce storms originating in the nearby Gulf of Alaska have deposited immense amounts of snow over the Kluane National Park region, forming the largest icefields in the world outside the polar caps of the Arctic and Antarctic. (Jump to Background below for more information on the expedition.)

My climbing partner, Dick Ratliff, and I stood alone at the base of Mount Logan's East Ridge--two solitary figures dwarfed by the desolate splendor and magnitude of the mountains surrounding us. We felt so insignificant standing in the shadow of these wonders.

Our intended goal was the summit of Mount Logan rising nearly three vertical miles above us. The vertical gain of our climb would be greater than the climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.

At just under 20,000 feet, Mount Logan is the highest peak in Canada and second highest peak in North America [Alaska's Mount McKinley is slightly higher]. Logan rises from a vast ocean of snow, ice and glaciers stretching for many miles. The frequent and fierce storms originating in the nearby Gulf of Alaska have deposited immense amounts of snow over the Kluane National Park region, forming the largest icefields in the world outside the polar caps of the Arctic and Antarctic.

The small airplane that flew us into the mountain had just left and we were all alone with our thoughts, fears and self-doubts. Although we had researched the climb thoroughly, we were apprehensive over the difficulty of the route now that we were viewing the knife-like ridge for the first time. Maybe these fears would fade once the other climbers arrived and our party was at full strength. Jim Thompson, Jerry Buckley, David Loeks and Paul Christiansen would be flown in the following day, provided the weather held.

Our immediate task, now that the plane had departed, was to sort through our gear to determine if everything had reached the mountain safely. Luckily we had not forgotten anything. With our mind set at ease, we began to dig a bunker-like shelter for the tent. This would partially protect us from the high winds sweeping off the east face of Logan.

The next project was to transport 30 days of food, about seventy pounds of climbing hardware per climber, plus personal gear across six miles of glacier to Camp 2. We hoped to establish Camp 2 in two trips up the glacier. On each trip we carried about 50 pounds in our packs while pulling a snow sled loaded with an additional 40 pounds of food and gear.

On these trips across the Hubbard glacier our biggest concern was the crevasses. The many visible ones were not a threat. It was the hidden ones that were our concern.

In the winter the glacier's many crevasses become filled with fresh snow forming temporary snow bridges. As the glacier shifts and the air temperature warms, these temporary bridges settle and collapse unexpectedly. The weight of a climber can also trigger a snow bridge to break suddenly, dropping the climber a hundred feet or more to the bottom of a crevasse.

To protect against such an unexpected fall, Dick and I tied into opposite ends of our climbing rope for each trip across the glacier. If either one of us were to accidently fall into a crevasse, the rope and other climber would arrest the fall. Even with these precautions, we certainly did not want to fall into a crevasse with skis, ski poles and a heavy pack, only to be hit on the head by the sled, while dangling from the climbing rope. After two accident-free days of ferrying loads we established Camp 2 at the base of the East Ridge.

The highlight of these first several days was to set up the radio and listen to Andy Williams, our pilot, make radio contact with the climbers in the area. Radio time was scheduled for 8:00 each morning and 7:00 every night. Mobile One and Mobile Two were ahead of us on the East Ridge. We were Mobile Three. Mobile Four was a combination of two parties on the South side of the peak attempting the Hummingbird Ridge. This route had been climbed only one other time. Mobile 5 was a scientific research group on Logan's West side which planned to be on the mountain for two months.

From these daily broadcasts we learned that there was a group of four from Vermont just ahead of us and a party of six Canadians above them. We also learned of the incredible and varying weather conditions on the mountain. At a lower camp the sun might be out with excellent visibility. Higher up, the report might include blowing and drifting snow. It was evident from these reports that the mountain created its own weather which was very unpredictable.

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Camp 3, our first camp on the narrow East Ridge, was perched on an airy point over-looking the Hubbard glacier far below. In the distance we could see the landing strip and our first campsite. Mount King George, Mount Vancouver, Mount Hubbard and Mount Kennedy [named in honor of President John Kennedy] appeared as massive snow cones silhouetted against the horizon.

Each camp provided spectacular views. However, we paid dearly for these views as each campsite required wholesale amounts of energy to prepare. Since the ridge was so narrow and steep, we had to dig or chip out tent platforms from the snow and ice to pitch our small two-man tents.

During the first week we made excellent climbing progress. Up to this point, the climbing had been hard work but not technically difficult. After seven consecutive days of climbing we established Camp 4 at 11,500 feet. Between 11,000 and 14,000 feet the East Ridge steepened and narrowed, forming a knife-like ridge of fluted snow and ice. This middle portion of the mountain contained the technical climbing we were so worried about earlier.

In places the ridge became so narrow that I literally straddled the knife-like East Ridge with my right foot on the soft snow of the north side while planting my left crampon on the icy slope of the south side. Here both sides of the ridge were nearly vertical, dropping for almost a mile. In other sections, the driving wind had formed an over-hanging cornice of ice and snow making climbing even more delicate.

On the difficult ice pitches we fixed [anchored] over 2,000 feet of rope to the ridge with ice screws and snow pickets. The fixed climbing rope acted as a stationary hand rail into which we clipped our Jumars for protection. Jumars are special ascending devices which easily slide up the rope yet grip the rope securely with a downward pull, preventing a "climber fall".

That's the theory anyway. On one occasion while climbing on the fixed rope, I slipped and fell on a particularly icy traverse. My jumar had "iced up" and instead of gripping the rope and stopping my fall, I slipped about seventy feet. I was very relieved when the rope finally stopped my fall as I hate to think of what could have happened.

One evening after a particularly satisfying day of climbing, we decided to call home. For Jim and Jerry, home was Juneau, Alaska; for David and Paul Christiansen, home was Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and for Dick and me, home was Sacramento, California. Those back home were astounded to receive a radio transmitted telephone call from Camp 5, high on the slopes of Mount Logan.

We soon established Camp 6, the most spectacular camp on the climb. It was also the most miserable and dangerous. Perched directly below an over-hanging cornice at 15,500 feet, Camp 6 was aptly christened--Cornice Camp. Loose snow was constantly being blown on us from the cornice directly over-head. To make matters worse, the wind below the lip of the cornice was constantly swirling about, driving the snow into our face from all directions. To compound the discomfort, we were in constant fear that the cornice would collapse at anytime.

On the thirteenth consecutive day of climbing, we finally established our highest camp--Camp 7. We spent four hours digging a bunker-like shelter with six-foot-high snow walls to protect us from the blasts of wind that threatened to shred our tents. A summit try for the next day did not look promising due to the high winds and the sick climber in our group.

David had been suffering from the altitude. He had all the symptoms of high altitude sickness--nausea, severe headaches, a loss of appetite and an acute lack of energy. For the past four days he had not been able to keep a meal down causing him to become very weak. He was so weak that he barely made it from "cornice camp" to our high camp, a relatively easy climb. After reaching Camp 7, I went back down the mountain to assist David by carrying his pack the last half-mile to camp. When he finally reached high camp, he collapsed from exhaustion and had to be helped into his tent and sleeping bag.

Surprisingly, by morning the winds had died down. Everyone was ready for a summit bid--that is, everyone except David. He was still in no condition for a summit bid and would have benefitted from several days of rest, but was determined to give it a try anyway.

Dick and I set out an hour ahead of the others. We made good time across the broad up-sloping plateau which led to the summit ridge. Once we reached the ridge, we unroped and headed for the summit.

Our goal was in sight; however, a storm was fast approaching with winds exceeding fifty miles per hour. It was all we could do to keep our balance against the gusts of wind. Numerous times we were literally pushed back down the summit ridge by the force of the wind. On other occasions the wind would suddenly let up leaving us scrambling to retain our balance.

Dick and I finally reached the summit. It would have been rewarding to stop and soak in the splendor and dwell on our accomplishment, but the impending storm prevented such a luxury. In retrospect, reaching the summit was anti-climactic as I realized that the expedition would soon be over and we would be returning to the mundane chores of an everyday world.

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However, at the time, the summit was no place to be. The cold temperature coupled with the high winds lowered the wind-chill factor to nearly 50 below zero. We took a picture of each other and headed down. With the storm nipping at our heels, we raced down to the others, oblivious to the drama that was unfolding below.

As we joined the others we quickly learned that Jerry Buckley had taken a bad fall and nearly slipped to his death while on the summit ridge. The following is Jerry's account of his fall as printed in the Juneau Empire newspaper.

"At 19,000 feet on Mt Logan's summit bloc snowfall is not abundant and the wind is constant, which makes for very hard surfaces--so hard that crampons would leave barely discernible marks in the snow.

"The long snow slope just below the summit was not particularly steep, and, with crampons, little more than an arduous trudge, given the altitude. That is if you keep your crampons on.

When one of mine came off I began to hobble toward some rocks, so that I could safely sit down and refit it. Suddenly, I was falling, spread eagle, face down, rotating slowly on the hard snow, headed for a quick descent of Logan's south face.

As my head came around with each rotation I could see steepening snow and some small rock islands below me. I remember thinking: the rocks would hurt but probably stop me; the face would be more exciting at first, but I wouldn't be conscious to enjoy the ride.

I hit the rocks. I noticed some pain, particularly in my right leg, but this did not deter me from refitting my crampons, adjusting my glasses and ski mask, and starting up the slope. It took an hour to get back to the point where I had started the fall."

By now we were in a white out. Jerry's fall, the deteriorating weather, and the altitude all conspired to foil the summit bid for Jerry, Jim and David. There was no other choice. The five of us descended.

As we continued our descent, another challenge confronted us. We had not placed wands on our way up to mark our route back down in the case of a storm. With the visibility less than thirty feet, fifty-mile-an-hour winds and sub-zero temperatures, the task of locating camp was serious.

Jim led the way. The tracks left that morning were barely visible as fresh snow and gale-force winds had all but erased them. When Jim could no longer find the way, Jerry would stand at the last visible track, while Jim, tethered on the end of the climbing rope, would sweep back and forth until visible tracks were located. After two hours we reached camp, a very relieved group of climbers just happy to be alive.

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The next morning dawned clear and cold yet the winds persisted. It was the coldest morning by far. As we dismantled camp, I carelessly allowed my fingers to be exposed to the sub-zero air and developed frostbite on six fingers. The tips swelled into large, ugly blisters.

On the way down I was leading. Lyle Bogart, a member of the Vermont group, and Dick were following on the same rope. The visibility was near zero. It was difficult to discern up from down as we were in another white out. All I could do was pick out the next wand and head for it.

Suddenly I took a step and dropped six feet over a small cornice into fresh snow up to my waist. I didn't think too much of it and continued. However, when Dick reached the drop he unknowingly stepped into a hidden crevasse and promptly disappeared from sight. Fortunately the climbing rope shortened his fall and he was able to "jumar" up and out of the crevasse to safety.

The storm was intensifying rapidly. The weather forced us to stop at the 14,000 foot camp left by the Vermont climbers. Dick and I quickly followed Lyle into his tent. Jim, Jerry and David soon joined the three of us. Six in a two-man tent was a bit crowded, so after a few hours of procrastination, we went out into the blizzard to dig platforms for our tents.

The snow storm was so strong that our four-foot-high, domed tents became completely buried every four to five hours. Dick and I took turns dragging ourselves out of the relative comfort and luxury of our sleeping bags to dig out the tent.

It was now the middle of the night and my turn to clear our buried tent of snow. I could not put off facing the storm any longer as I was concerned that we would suffocate in our tent. I was also worried about the other climbers as I hadn't heard a word from them in several hours. What if they had fallen asleep and become entombed in their tents?

After completely weatherizing myself against the blowing snow, I faced the elements to find Jim and David's tent completely buried. I started calling to them. It was nearly impossible to be heard above the howling wind. Finally, after much coaxing they began to stir. Jerry, David, Jim and I spent a good deal of the night clearing away the snow from the three tents.

Three days later we were still waiting for our break in the weather. We were relieved when the storm decreased in intensity just as we ran out of food. With this break in the storm, we descend all the way to the glacier in one very long day. At 11:00 that night we arrived at Camp 2. We were a happy group of hungry climbers when we located the cache of emergency food that we had buried in the snow three weeks earlier.

The climb was a success. Dick and I had made the summit. Jerry, Jim and David had come very close. We were now anxious to fly out. It had been three weeks of constant snow and ice in a land where the temperature never got above freezing.

During the climb we had not seen a living thing, animal or plant, nor set foot on anything but snow, ice and an occasional rock. Ice had ruled our existence. We walked on it. We slept on it. We melted it to cook with and drink. We were now anxious to return to the world of the living and to the warmth of spring.

After waiting four days for the weather to permit safe flying, David, Jerry and Jim boarded the plane for the first load out. Dick and I would fly out in the second load. As they taxied across the Hubbard glacier that served as the run-way, I wondered aloud if we would have to wait another four days for our flight out. Two hours later we had our answer as we spotted the small, red, single engine plane in the distance. We were going home. A hot shower sure would feel good.

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Background Information

At just under 20,000 feet, Mount Logan is the highest peak in Canada and second highest peak in North America [Alaska's Mount McKinley is slightly higher]. Logan rises from a vast ocean of snow, ice and glaciers stretching for many miles. The frequent and fierce storms originating in the nearby Gulf of Alaska have deposited immense amounts of snow over the Kluane National Park region, forming the largest icefields in the world outside the polar caps of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Mount Logan is located about fifty miles inland from the Gulf of Alaska in the Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada. Kluane National Park straddles the Alaskan-Canadian border and is about halfway between Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska, or about 200 miles north of Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Our East Ridge route was first climbed in 1957. It has since been attempted by numerous parties, but few have made it to the summit as the weather, the altitude, the cold and the climbing difficulties all conspire to turn back many well-prepared and determined climbers. Several climbers have lost their lives on this route. Our success and survival depended on our own abilities and the abilities of our climbing companions.

The climbing strategy we employed was no different from that used on other large mountains of the world. Each day our party would carry a load of equipment and supplies to the next campsite, cache the load and return the same day to sleep at the lower existing camp. This process was repeated until all the supplies in the lower camp had been moved up to the cache site, where a new and higher camp was then established.

In all, we established seven camps on the climb. The first was at the landing strip on the Hubbard Glacier. The second, about six miles up the glacier at the base of the East Ridge. Here we traded our skis for plastic-shelled double climbing boots, crampons and ice climbing tools. On the East Ridge we selected camps at 9,500, 11,500, 13,500, 15,500 and 16,500 feet.

During the climb we experienced a wide range of temperatures. The temperature did not exceed 30 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit). As the sun dropped below the horizon, the daytime temperatures would quickly drop to near zero. At the high camp, Camp 7, temperatures were much colder. On summit day, the air temperature of 15 degrees below zero coupled with 50 mph winds drove the wind chill to near 50 below zero.

While we were on Mount Logan [May 12 to June 2, 1987] there were three other parties also attempting the East Ridge. A party of four from Vermont reached 16,000 feet but did not make the summit. Four out of a party of six Canadians reached the summit a few days ahead of us. Another party of four Canadians summitted in just four days.

Our party included six climbers: Jerry Buckley and Jim Thompson of Juneau, Alaska; David Loeks and Paul Christiansen of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and Dick Ratliff and myself of Sacramento, California. All but Paul Christiansen attempted the summit with Dick Ratliff and I gaining the top.

Of the 20 climbers in these four groups, ten made the summit and ten did not. The two primary reasons given for not reaching the summit was either high altitude sickness or the poor weather encountered near the summit.

Tragedy struck a fifth party of climbers while we were on Mount Logan. Catherine Freer and David Cheesmond, two world-class climbers, were attempting the Hummingbird Ridge on the South side of the mountain. This route had been climbed only one other time. Both climbers were reported missing after they failed to make radio contact within the time constraints of their food supply [45 days]. An air reconnaissance turned up very little and they were presumed dead.

This tragedy was very real to Dick and myself since we had spent eight days with them at Klaune Lake, Yukon Territory, while waiting to be flown into Logan. We joked with them, talked of previous climbs, and generally got to know and respect their climbing ability. Dick and I helped load their gear into the plane for what turned out to be their last climb. It was a sad day indeed when we learned of their deaths.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.

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