What makes a real adventure these days? It’s an open question but Squamish local Trevor Hunt took a stab at answering it in the last issue of Mountain Life Coast Mountains. Trevor flies under the radar quite a bit but over the past decade and a half he’s ticked off a number of incredible first descents and big-mountain accomplishments. He’s been a contributor and friend of Mountain Life for a number of years now and it was great to have Trev pen this tale of unexpected adventure for the February 2015 “Tribe” issue. Check out Trev’s blog, Coast Steep Skier, for more of his trips and travels but for now, enjoy this piece about that time he summited Mount Logan almost by accident.
– Feet Banks,
Climb High with A Little Help from Your Friends
On an unplanned ascent of Mount Logan it’s important to keep your friends close, even if they’re half a world away.
By Trevor Hunt
With over fifteen years of backcountry experience, it pains me to describe my current scenario. Except for my climbing harness and a few dangling ice screws, everything about my appearance wouldn’t seem out of place on the local ski hill — small pack with lunch, fancy matching ski pants and shell, light puffy jacket, gloves, toque, boots and skis — but I couldn’t be farther from the inbounds safety of the ‘hill’.
Instead, I’m near the highest point in Canada at about 5,700 metres, on the summit plateau of Mount Logan, with my climbing partner Tobin at the other end of the rope. The ferocious wind dares me to walk instead of crawl, and the minus 50 degree Celsius temperatures make a mockery of my down jacket. A thick cloud materializing on the top of the mountain threatens to blind us. And we need to see. Without a map or GPS, visibility is integral to safe navigation. All I have is a crude drawing in my diary, which looks like a pirate’s treasure map imagined by a six-year-old, where X marks the summit. I must explain, we are ill prepared but we are not insane . . . we never intended to be here. We were supposed to be 3,5000m closer to sea level and 40 kilometres away…
* * *
Most epics these days seem to begin with a bunch of friends scouring the Internet and communicating via an ever-lengthening email thread. This was how Chris Christie, Tobin Seagel, Jon Johnston and I had committed to our next adventure. The equation was simple: find an un-skied zone, hire a ski plane, hope the plane doesn’t get swallowed up by a crevasse upon landing, heave the beer and skis onto the glacier, set up basecamp, and voila! Three weeks of first ski descents in the Yukon.
Sometimes it is just that easy, and we made it onto the Mussel glacier, right near the Yukon/Alasaka border without incident. But seconds before flying away, our pilot informed us he would not be coming back for the pickup in three weeks because the snow on the glacier would be too mushy and unstable to land. Furthermore, a quick glance at our remote surroundings revealed that there was no snow on the mountains for us to ski, only glaring ice. The harmony within our little community of four was immediately tested with the complete collapse of our plan. After much brainstorming and discussion, a new plan was hatched, involving a brutal slog to higher altitude.
Three days later and around 40 kilometres of trudging along endless highways of ice, we reached Mount Logan’s King Trench basecamp in the hopes that somewhere above, on Canada’s highest mountain, there would be snow. We’d walked off the edge of our maps however, and had no knowledge of the ascent route or how long it might take. Time to call a friend.
Tobin connected with his girlfriend Sophie on the satellite phone and she searched Google for guided trips to Logan. I used my inReach device to text my friend Nevada who had grown up in Whitehorse and had ties to the climbing community. After a few hours, information started to come in about the number of camps and approximate elevations. Although we had no information on the actual route, the first part of the climb seemed obvious. So we packed enough supplies for eight days and headed up with the confidence that we’d “figure it out.”
That evening, we saw two tents perched at the traditional Camp Three. As luck would have it, this was the very spot where the route deviated and our lack of knowledge could’ve got us into trouble. The odds continued to defy explanation as we discovered the tents belonged to a group guided by Pemberton climber Rich Prohaska. None of us had ever met him, but our Sea-to-Sky mountain community is small, and we were soon laughing that on a very international mountain such as Logan, the only two groups on the mountain were from the Whistler area. I spent the evening looking at Rich’s topographical maps, as he attempted to describe the route by calling out major landmarks. Soon, a single line wound its way across several pages of my diary with Logan’s many false summits, ridges, plateaus, and major crevasses frantically sketched along the path. I felt as joyful as a child in search of long-lost treasure, yet the feeling was intensified by the reality that injury or death was a possible outcome. It felt like a real adventure.
The next day, we set out as a party of three because Chris had fallen sick. Two days later, we were at our highest camp and retreat was still a possibility in bad weather, but from here onward the commitment level was cranked to 9. We would have to lose elevation and traverse the vast summit plateau, characterized by large ‘football fields’ of flatness and several false summits. Traditionally, parties push supplies as far as possible along the plateau for a shorter summit day. But we didn’t have the food, fuel or gear to risk being trapped on the plateau in bad weather and to make matters worse, Jon’s health was also deteriorating quickly. Tobin and I would have to move light and fast if we were to make the summit and return to accompany Jon off the mountain.
Rich had mentioned a couple of climbers who had ‘cheated’ Logan at speed. Both were legends in the small community of high altitude speedsters and rule breakers, men who saw climbing and skiing fast as a means to freedom. One of them was Christian Stangl, a climber known for brutal training regimes, who had acquired speed records on many of the world’s highest mountains. I was lucky enough to have met him at a dinner party the year prior, in the Republic of Georgia. He had just biked to Georgia from his home in Austria to climb a single mountain, but had found conditions dangerous and was about to ride home. Obviously his fitness was well beyond mere mortals such as ourselves, but we needed to know the strategy he used on his ultra-fast Logan ascent.
I sent out a message on my inReach to my Austrian friend Peter, in the hopes that he had Stangl’s contact details.
It’s Trevor. i’m on mt.logan. Can u contact Christian Stangl? He climbed from near prospector col to summit and back. how long? start time?
Only a day later, I got a reply from Stangl:
10hours (return) from last camp below the Prospector’s col. It is very, very, very long. I used skis! W/o skis you could barely make it in a single push.
It concerned me that, in a text message with a 140-character limit, Stangl still managed three “very(s)”, but I also revelled in the irony that our climb was being guided by information delivered to us by satellites soaring hundreds of kilometres above us while we simultaneously followed a rough pencil sketch dictated to me in the oldest form of communication: speech.
Throughout every stage of our climb, friends and acquaintances helped create our destiny on this mountain. Obviously, our own willingness to embrace adventure and the unknown was key, but for me, relying on the support of others was something new. Even though modern technology facilitated much of this interaction, relying on the support of my community seemed more of a traditional process. The modern climber focuses on the individual effort, whereas climbers of previous generations employed vast support teams and often experienced the rallying cry of entire nations. A stunning example of the latter was when Olympic gold medals were given out to brothers Franz and Toni Schmidt for their first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in 1932.
With each new generation however, society’s interest in climbing as a positive pursuit has diminished to the point where the media only takes notice when a disaster occurs on Everest or K2. Generally, climbing teams have become smaller and support networks have diminished as climbers look inwards for adventure. My own pursuit for pure adventure has lead to long solo missions, with quick notes scribbled on paper as to my approximate whereabouts, but this ascent on Mount Logan brought change to my process of adventure. And change is good.
* * *
Which leads us back to my present predicament. Tobin and I watching this sinister cloud inch closer, threatening total whiteout. At the height of fear and doubt, do we trust in our abilities or retreat? With nothing personally to tip the scale, I start to feel the pull of my tribe – the partners left sick at lower elevations and our international posse of friends still linked in by technology. With these serendipitous connections, I begin to feel the need to honour this collective effort. I lean into the wind and climb . . .