There is a break in the rain and we collect enough wood from avalanche debris to build a big fire to dry our stuff, a major morale boost. The next day we haul gear to the ice and make some progress on the glacier. It rains all day and we are soaked again. Graham can wring water out of his sleeping bag.
There is a strong temptation in Alaska to fly into remote areas to experience raw wilderness. But it is more rewarding to access that same wilderness without the flight- finding the nearest road or commercial airport and connecting the dots. Part of my motivation is to save money, but mostly I want to see more of the landscape- especially the transition to and from massive peaks. This traverse was planned as 390 km, turned into 600 km, and took 30 days, self-supported. The team was Joshua Foreman, Graham Kraft, Josh Mumm, Luc Mehl, and John Sykes, all of Anchorage, Alaska.
We fly with frequent flyer miles to Yakutat (5$ each). The plane lands on dry tarmac, but it is hailing by the time we get to the baggage cart. This turns out to be typical weather for the first week. We are met by Fred, an amazing guy that Graham met passing through town last year. Fred’s cargo van is unavailable because it got converted into a kennel. This explanation is not quite satisfactory because his blazer is also converted into a kennel- filled with cat food, trays, and hair. We’d convinced 6 friends to join us for the first week of paddling but they don’t have skis and have a fairly miserable slog, post-holing through the snow, in the pouring rain.
After three days in the water our friends turn back toward Yakutat and we continue to the moraine. There is a break in the rain and we collect enough wood from avalanche debris to build a big fire to dry our stuff, a major morale boost. The next day we haul gear to the ice and make some progress on the glacier. It rains all day and we are soaked again. Graham can wring water out of his sleeping bag. We spend three days in the tents needing the rain/snow to stop. Rain during the day, snow at night. 1.5m of snow accumulates. It breaks, as forecast, and we all rush out of the tents to marvel at the incredible mountains that are now visible. We make good progress, ~24 km per day, pulling our load in the inflated boats. The days are sunny and everything dries out, except maybe our food. Each day the snow firms up and gets easier to travel. We arrive at the East Ridge of Mt. Logan too far behind schedule to run a cache along the south side. We will try to climb the route double-carrying all our gear up and over. There is another group of climbers there. When I see that they are on snowshoes I assume they are clueless, which turns out to be true; they told the Canadian NP that we stole their cache, but then realized that it was further down the glacier.
I see the fracture and crown opening at my feet. I try to jump off the sliding snow but my pack is too heavy and my feet sweep out. I think of Andy Newton in this past winter’s avalanche, when he said, ‘I fought like a mother fucker.’ OK. I am going to do that too.
We have to climb a steep 200m snow apron to access the East Ridge. At the top of the apron the slope fails, Joshua and I are caught in an avalanche. I see the fracture and crown opening at my feet. I try to jump off the sliding snow but my pack is too heavy and my feet sweep out. I think of Andy Newton in this past winter’s avalanche, when he said, ‘I fought like a mother fucker.’ OK. I am going to do that too. Everything slows down in my mind, I am hyper-rational during the slide. I can’t see anything. I realize I am still holding onto my ski poles. I don’t want to lose them, but in the end I let go. I try to push them to what I think is up so that they might end up near me wherever I am buried and the guys will see them and hone in on me. My heavy pack is pushing my head under the debris, which annoys me. My mouth is packed with snow and I need to blast it out to keep breathing. I am able to roll onto my back to try to get out of my pack. I find the waist buckle and unclip, but I can’t get my arms through the shoulder straps.
I keep thinking of the bergshrund (big crack, like a crevasse) mid-slope. I expect to fall into it and get buried. It would probably be too deep for the guys to get to me before suffocating. Suddenly I’m airborne, this is the shrund, I wait, a 3m drop. I’m still moving, a big relief. I’m very pleased to have cleared the crack. I can’t remember if there are crevasses at the base. I still can’t see anything, I keep clearing snow from my throat. The snow starts to slow down, I recognize that this is my last chance. I get my right hand near my mouth to create an air pocket. I congratulate myself for being able to do this. My left hand is stuck behind my back. In the last moments of motion I see lighter snow, recognize where the surface must be, and am able to punch my right hand through to create an open air channel along my arm. I am very happy to have an air channel! I am hyperventilating a little from the exertion and limited lung space. I relax, get my breathing under control, then use my free hand to open my air channel a bit more.
Joshua gets to me in a few minutes. I reach out to just grab his hand for a second. He is a little panicked and very glad to see that I am ok. I tell him I’m ok, relax, check on the others. He takes me a little too seriously and stops shoveling me out to tell me something about this slide or whatever. I casually mention that I am getting cold so he starts shovelling again. He gets my chest free and sees my camera. He gets my camera and takes a photo, then starts shoveling. Graham arrives after skiing from the ridge and helps dig me out. My throat is really sore from the ice abrasion and I spit blood for a while.
I slid 200m. Joshua was above the debris and mostly fell, rag-dolled, to half that distance and came to a stop after falling over the shrund. He is more battered than me, including a crampon puncture in his calf and a tweaked lower leg that isn’t overly painful, but isn’t quite right. We are all pretty shaken up.
Our first night at our high camp the sky is clear and gives us the best views of the trip. We talk with a Canadian guy, tell him our plan to try for the summit the next day. He says it can’t be done, which of course makes me want to try.
The next morning we pack up and start the long ski around the southern side of Logan. Travel is very good, though flat. The peaks on both sides of our route are spectacular and help the miles go by. Several times each day we discuss our options: exit directly as a group, try to ski some peaks, try to reach Logan by King’s Trench, the non-technical route to the west. As we approach the western edge of Logan our plan has firmed up. Joshua will fly out with a group of climbers waiting to be picked up, the rest of us will try to get up Logan in our 7-day food window.
The weather is pretty good, though everchanging during the day. We cache as much gear as possible at the landing zone so that we can climb light. We only bring the 3-man tent; the rest of our nights are cozy. The weather isn’t always good enough to move up King’s Trench, but we take advantage of short weather windows and make very good time reaching our high camp at 15,900 ft in 3 days (the landing zone is at 7000 ft). The terrain is really nice, but the wind is non-stop. We are in vulture mode, meaning that if we see other climbers we make small talk until we can ask if they have any food they want to ditch. We want to have more than 7 days of food with us in case we get stuck in a storm.
Our first night at our high camp the sky is clear and gives us the best views of the trip. We talk with a Canadian guy, tell him our plan to try for the summit the next day. He says it can’t be done, which of course makes me want to try. He asks what level we have acclimated to and I tell him we haven’t really acclimated yet, ha ha. We are on preventative altitude sickness medication.
Josh wakes us up in the night: “Well, my watch froze at 2 AM. I don’t know what time it is, but, well, it is clear and calm, maybe we should go.” It takes several hours for us to melt enough water for the day, pack up, and take off. We leave around 5 AM. The weather gets worse throughout the day. By midday we are largely navigating by GPS, using the track that Joe Stock gave us from his climb a few years before. We end up in a few tricky spots for lack of visibility. John starts to get altitude sickness. We regroup at ~5 PM, very close to the summit, which we can’t see. We all agree that we are pushing the limits of safety. I argue that we already screwed up and that 30 more minutes isn’t going to make a difference. I tell John I’m ready and willing to turn back from here, but would like 30 more minutes if he can give it. He gives the OK for 30 minutes. We all make it to the top and back to the regrouping spot in under 30 minutes. The top is anticlimactic. No view, no real sense of accomplishment.
The water merges into one channel and has some large boulders and requires a bit of attention. Late on that first day in the water I lead Josh into a hole and we both tip over. We hold onto all the gear, but it is hard to swim with the ski boots filled with water.
Luc grew up in a village in rural Alaska and loves playing in Alaska’s wilderness. His ex-girlfriend says that he ‘suffers well,’ which is true. Luc and his friends specialize in unsupported multi-sport traverses with convenient logistics, such as road-to-road climbs of Mt. Denali (bike/ski/raft, 200 miles, 25 days) and Mt. Logan (raft/ski, 370 miles, 30 days). In 2011 he became the first racer to win both the summer and winter Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classics, averaging 77 and 71 km per day, respectively. Luc tries to capture his childish appreciation of playing outside with short trip videos.
This article is an extract from the complete story. For more about this trip and additional photos visit Luc's website at thingstolucat.com
Our route on the descent is much better. I am in lead and navigating by GPS most of the return, feeling strong. I realize that my eyes are screwed up. I haven’t been able to wear glasses without them fogging from my balaclava, and I need clear vision to use the GPS. We make the final climb about midnight, returning to camp at 1 AM, a 20 hour day with no breaks to speak of. We go straight to sleep, no water, no food.
Tired and with my bad eyes we decide to stay in the tent the next day. My eyes get worse throughout the day. Even in the tent I have to wear goggles blocked out with the cover from John’s Lord of the Rings book.
The weather stays bad, no visibility. Opening and closing my eyelids is really painful. We leave camp and follow what is left of a guided group’s track until we catch up with them and take the lead. I can see 2-3m in front of me. We get two guys on a rope to lead, with me off-rope directly behind them.
Our exit to ‘No Name’ Glacier is smooth travelling. We feel strong, my eyes are better. The transition to moraine is awesome, we ski right onto the rocks. Everyone picks up pretty rocks… we’ve been on ice for 3 weeks, the rocks were a childish treat. After a few days on the moraine we reach water that looks raftable. Soon after getting in the river it turns into very calm water filled with icebergs and winding through some ice channels. Really spectacular scenery, though a little spooky wondering if the ice is stable. The water merges into one channel and has some large boulders and requires a bit of attention. Late on that first day in the water I lead Josh into a hole and we both tip over. We hold onto all the gear, but it is hard to swim with the ski boots filled with water. Graham and John are able to avoid the rapid and help us get to shore. I am only in the water for 3 or 4 minutes, but can barely stand when I reach the shore. It takes a few hours to recover. Josh isn’t hypothermic, maybe because he was in the water half as long. He claims that I have less body fat, but I’m not sure. We were lucky to swim in the first place along the river with drift wood, so we get a raging fire and spend 4 or 5 hours drying our gear. My gear was not in dry bags, so everything is wet. Great.
The next day we walk around a few rapids and the water mellows considerably. We float comfortably for the next days, the water is moving fast enough that we don’t need to paddle. It feels great to walk barefoot and be warm.
Over the next few days we paddle our way back to civilization, including an amazing peanut butter cookie break at Ultima Thule Lodge, and finally to the McCarthy road. There is no way in hell we will get picked up. Josh is in his underwear, sometimes waving his black-tipped frostbit thumb for a ride. Graham is eating instant oatmeal from the pack by turning it inside out to lick the insides. My shirt is shredded, more hole than wool, and looks huge on my underweight frame. The guys have been calling me a refugee all week.
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