Even when nothing really goes wrong, scaling the world’s “biggest” mountain is no small feat.
“If anyone’s up on the ridge, they’re dead.”
“What?!” mimes my tent-mate Chad Sayers.
A deafening roar overtakes our so-called conversation. This time I yell.
“I said, if anyone’s up on the ridge—they’re dead!”
Sayers doesn’t respond, digging frantically around the outside of our four-season tent—a descriptor that leaves me wondering if there might be a fifth season I’m not aware of. It’s May 2nd on Canada’s highest peak and the birds aren’t singing. There isn’t a tulip in sight. In fact, I can barely see Sayers for the blowing snow.
We’re bungling around at Camp 1 on Mount Logan’s standard King’s Trench route. High above on the mountain’s flanks, gale-force winds whip over rock features, roaring in locomotive-like chaos. The death zone I referred to is higher still, on Logan’s notorious East Ridge, where the brunt of the storm is focused.
Sayers grimaces through a Gandalfesque ice beard that has fused together his hair, goggles and jacket zipper. He’s desperately trying to tie a granny knot to our tent with a 2-millimetre cord, with what effectively amount to oven mitts.
With the promise of a warm sleeping bag, Sayers bolts ahead, and the only trace of him I encounter before camp is a climbing skin randomly frozen to the skin track—he didn’t even notice it was missing.
Despite being relatively low on the mountain’s easiest route (“cake-walk,” I was told), we’re acutely aware of previous expeditions who’ve had tents—even people—vanish into the abyss in hurricane winds. So this cord could literally be the fine line separating us from a mere fitful night’s sleep, or a terrifying fate. While we hope for the less nightmarish option, elsewhere on the mountain Natalia Martinez has crossed that line.
Nearly a vertical kilometre above us, at 3,700 metres on the East Ridge, the 37-year-old Whistler-based Argentine climber is defying my prediction. Outside of our five-man team, she’s the only other climber on Logan, attempting to become the first woman to solo it. Fighting alone against a Pacific low-pressure system, in desperation Martinez has set her alarm to a two-hour schedule, repeatedly digging out her tent in a sort of nightmarish version of Groundhog Day until, after a day and a half, the wind intensifies to the point that she can no longer emerge from the hole.
Like a de facto human guy-wire, she’ll forego food, drink and sleep for an additional 14 hours, pushing with her arms against the tent’s nylon walls and delicate poles, bracing against the battering of a 130-kilometre-per-hour wind. When her arms lose strength, she’ll use her head, then her back. Her mental strength will not flag.
“The storm was long… I was tired… and the wind was really strong,” recounts Martinez. After hearing of the incoming storm via her phone, she too had been trepidatious about her fragile shelter, and initially planned to dig a snow cave just like she’d learned on expeditions to Patagonia. Then the unpredictable happened. “Everything changed after the earthquake.”
In the early hours of May 1st, two huge tremors—6.2 and 6.3 in magnitude respectively—rocked the Yukon close to Mount Logan, knocking boxes off store shelves in Whitehorse and launching seracs dangerously close to Martinez’ tent. Critical snow bridges on the East Ridge collapsed, forcing her to retreat to a compromising spot that was more exposed to wind. She’d already requested a rescue, but the larger-than-expected storm had other ideas.
In a strange twist, while Martinez battled, the international news had picked up on the story of a female climber stranded near the top of Mount Logan, awaiting rescue after the mountain shook her route apart. The world and Martinez alike hoped she wouldn’t be whisked away by hurricane-force winds, but rather an incoming Parks Canada helicopter.
Down in the Trench, Sayers and I, along with teammates Kari Medig, Chris Rowat and Alex Frankel, fend off what we later learn was just a typically punchy springtime storm. Still, it destroyed our cooking shelter and tore seams on Rowat’s three-man luxury tent. Although we’d all dozed through the earthquakes, we suspect that a large serac fall in front of camp a few hours later was shaken loose by the tremor. What we do know—via satellite call with our alarmed wives—is that Martinez is eventually rescued, and that we’re advised to stay out of the headlines.
“When the jet stream drops down right onto you it’s pretty tough to weather it out,” relates Scott Stewart, visitor safety coordinator for the Yukon’s sprawling Kluane National Park.
As the staffer responsible for getting the preparedness message out to expeditions, he warns that snowfalls in excess of three metres in a matter of hours isn’t out of the ordinary. “Then it’s about managing how you get through those hours or days,” says the 17-year veteran based in Haines Junction. “It can really feel like you and your camp are drowning.”
Canada’s highest peak at 5,959 metres, Logan stands second in North America only to Denali (6,190 m), but gains stature in being considered by some the world’s largest mountain in overall size. This is evident in the number of routes available to scale it, though only two are climbed with any regularity—the East Ridge and King’s Trench. Medig has scaled the former and descended the latter but didn’t reach the summit due to poor weather. The rest of our team hopes to summit Logan during Canada’s 150th anniversary, and we aren’t the only ones.
According to Stewart, 54 permits were issued during the 2017 climbing season—twice the annual average (though still paling in comparison to the 1,189 people at Denali basecamp that year). The permitting system allows Parks Canada to vet and track prospective climbers in order to minimize the number of costly and dangerous rescues. Extractions, including seven high-altitude rescues in the past six years, tend to be from remote areas requiring specialized helicopters and rescuers that must fly in from Banff. This was the case in June 2018, when Quebec-based Monique Richard, a successful Seven Summits climber, finally ticked the first female solo box for Logan’s summit. On her descent, however, she became lost in a storm and nearly succumbed to exhaustion before being found by two other climbers and escorted low enough to be rescued by a Parks team.
Though the King’s Trench is straightforward in the objective hazard category (so much so, that for once I had no fatalistic premonitions upon leaving my family for a few weeks), the environmental triad of altitude, cold and weather create a heightened threat for the myriad climbers attempting Logan, which remains the most popular objective in a playground full of epic peaks. Canada’s Everest.
As we shuttle loads up past King’s Col and, eventually, the much-feared narrow ridge of Prospector Col at 5,500 metres, we can attest to the seriousness of those environmental factors. Despite my relaxed attitude, I’m quickly humbled. Logan is the toughest mountain I’ve ever attempted, mostly due to the necessity of hauling huge loads at this altitude. At one point above Camp 3, I vow that if I ever thaw out, I’ll never ever return to the St. Elias—and that’s during a sunny, calm moment. Meanwhile, Rowat, who was the most anxious about the trip—but is also the most prepared (he’s taking Diamox)—is out front leading the charge over the col.
In 2005, a team of three experienced Vancouver climbers descending from a successful climb was pinned down by a storm on Prospector Col. When they tried to move to a less exposed area, their tent blew away, taking all their gear; the one climber inside at the time escaped, and the team survived by holing up in a shallow cave chipped into ice, though one eventually lost nine fingers to frostbite.
Their ordeal is on my mind when I awake to –30˚C on the summit plateau—an expanse of ice that must be traversed to gain the mountain’s nipple-like peak. Ice covers the shell of my sleeping bag yet the sun shines brightly. Despite a strong west wind, we agree that this is our only weather window to summit, and quickly pack day-bags to plod across the plateau. With a team of five, you learn quickly about the energetic ebbs and flows of both your own body and mind, and those of your partners. For a few hours I’m feeling strong, but Medig soon pulls out in front. I end up at the back and struggle to keep up. Thankfully there’s no trail-breaking due to the rock-hard snow; it’s only a matter of weaving through crevasses and giant sastrugi formations while fending off wind and frostbite. But Rowat has hit a wall and appears to be struggling. With oxygen at a premium, to inhale properly and even discuss the situation we need to pull down our balaclavas and expose our faces to a –60˚C windchill. We decide to push on.
I do my best to count fifty strides before doubling over my ski poles and wincing. Just beyond some big crevasses we take the rope off and pass an unfortunate small duck; for some reason it had tried to surmount the peak during migration but instead became frozen into the ice. Untying the rope allows for some freedom, but also divides the group. Nobody wants to be that duck, but we can do nothing but waddle onward.
Just shy of the 200-metre-high summit triangle, I frantically dig a hole to get us out of the wind. Here, due to a not-unwarranted-fear-of-death combined with waning energy, Rowat throws in the towel: “Guys, this is my summit,” he proclaims.
After some debate, the rest of his tent team feels they should stick together, but Sayers and I are either less sentimental, hypoxic, or both, and know this is our only chance to summit. With only enough food and energy for a few days on the plateau, we can’t retreat to high camp and risk another bid so it’s all or nothing now.
These are the crossroads you reach in the mountains, especially in an era of fly-in, alpine-style ascents. Climbing doyen Hans Gmoser and crew had less concern when, in 1959, they skipped the hour-long flight and instead skied in 180 kilometres from Kluane Lake in less time than it took us to get up the King’s Trench. “Go or No” decisions are ones you either later celebrate, or regret. After more discussion and a shared frozen power gel, we convince Medig, still feeling strong, to join us. Leaving our gear—including cameras and skis—in the hole with Rowat and Frankel, and clutching only ice axes, we literally crawl up the knife ridge to the summit. Most of the 90-minute round trip is spent in a fog, but we share high fives and some wistfulness that the others didn’t make it. I also feel regret when I realize I’d forgotten to look down Hummingbird Ridge—one of the world’s most exalted climbing routes featured in Roper and Steck’s 1979 Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. First scaled in 1965, despite numerous subsequent attempts it has only since collected bodies. There’s also the completely unexplored north face. Right now, however, the notion of attempting anything but the easiest route on this mountain befuddles me.
Thirteen people have died here since 1980; already this season there has been one rescue of a climber with altitude sickness and we aren’t keen to be next. But arriving back at the hole, the wind has miraculously abated and Rowat revived, so he and Frankel take their turn on the summit. Selfishly, in somewhat shattered disrepair, Sayers and I begin the hours-long trek back to our plateau camp to start melting water. With the promise of a warm sleeping bag, Sayers bolts ahead, and the only trace of him I encounter before camp is a climbing skin randomly frozen to the skin track—he didn’t even notice it was missing.
Foregoing rest the next morning, we hurriedly pack up and race to a rendezvous with the only flight leaving basecamp in the next week. Skiing down is heavenly—probably the only proper enjoyment we’ve had on the entire trip. During an oxygen-rich 3,200-metre, two-day long descent, we encounter a team from B.C.’s south coast comprising the dad/daughter duo of Rich and Naomi Prohaska, Whistler adventurer Holly Walker, and two clients. A few days later, at the age of fifteen, Naomi will become Logan’s youngest summiteer, accompanied by her guide father who has likely climbed the mountain more times than anyone.
“This was all instigated by her,” relates the proud father of his daughter’s undertaking. “She enjoys the suffering—can embrace it and look back afterwards and say that it was really cool.”
But his next statement is sobering, and not something I would have believed was I not experiencing the same thing. “I don’t think she had a good time,” he admits, acknowledging her first serious encounter with, but also an affinity for, type-two fun. “Most adults don’t even like it.”
I can’t argue that. —ML
Steve Ogle lives in Nelson, B.C. but spends an inordinate amount of time in places where being pinned-down by storms is frighteningly normal. He’s happy that on Mt. Logan it was only a few days, and not the three weeks he suffered on a traverse of the Patagonia ice cap. // steveogle.ca