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After we spot some lines in the St. Elias Range on Google Earth, we contact the pilot in the
area and are pleased to hear that no one has landed a plane in the area. So the ingredients for our adventure have been chosen: 3 weeks in an unskied zone in the St. Elias. Soon I’m at the Kluane airport, in the Yukon, with Chris, Jon, and Tobin. After an hour of being crammed into the co-pilots seat of our tiny ski plane, I jump out and immediately drop about a foot into the isothermal snowpack. I soon begin to sweat in all my winter layers. Our pilot then informs us that due to the melting snowpack, he won’t be able to pick us up in 2 weeks. Let the real adventure begin!

The next day we take a short tour from basecamp and realize that things aren’t right. There’s ice everywhere! We soon pull the plug on the zone and decide to head to higher ground. We’re relatively low in elevation, so conditions might improve as we get higher. Furthermore, Mt Logan is just around the corner (35 to 40km away) and as Canada’s highest peak (5,959m – 19,550ft), it might hold some snow somewhere on its flanks. If all else fails, we will at least be able to escape via the King Trench landing zone (near the base of Logan), which is at 9,000ft and frequented by our pilot.

Three days of slogging with our overloaded sleds has us at the base of Canada’s highest mountain with no map, no route description, no idea of how many camps are possibly needed, or how long it might take (we have a malfunctioning GPS with a tiny screen). All I know for sure is that my gloves are too thin, my down jacket isn’t full of enough down, my sleeping bag is over 15 years old, my TLT6 liners unproven, and my 35L pack can barely fit my sleeping bag. All my gear works fine at -15C, but -55C with wind-chill it seems a bit unreasonable. But changing gear isn’t an option, so I focus my attention on strategy. With the Inreach, we get weather forecasts, number of camps, camp elevations, and how long the average tourist takes on Logan. It’s something like 16 days, which doesn’t really help us since we only have 5 days until the next major storm comes in.

Although our proposed route up the King Trench is pretty easy, the absolute massiveness of the mountain cannot be underestimated. Logan is considered the world’s largest mountain, and much of the distance we’d be crossing would be at altitude on the summit plateau. Whereas most mountains involve climbing to the summit and then skiing or climbing back down, Logan has multiple elevation gains and drops on the way to the top. So even if you get to the summit, you still need the strength and good weather to climb the hills on the way back to the bottom. Furthermore, the summit plateau has vast open spaces where many climbers have gotten lost in poor weather, so we had to be sure that we had the good weather and speed so as not to be a statistic for future climbers.

We leave basecamp late morning, passing camp 1 mid-day, and reaching camp 2 (13,500ft) in the early evening. We’re surprised to come across 2 other tents. A group of 3 Swiss guys is being guided by a friend from our hometown. Since he has some Logan experience, I pick his brain for a route description and feverishly scribble in my notebook. We leave late the next morning in lousy weather, but are able to follow the tracks of the other crew, who have already traveled up and down this part of the route. Unfortunately Chris stays behind due to a lingering sickness. That evening we set up camp at 16,000ft. The next day is a short one up to our high camp of about 17,600ft. Feeling good that night, we then drop down onto the summit plateau and set up our final camp.

Summit day – We wake up at 6am. The condensation inside the tent has created 1cm thick surface hoar on our sleeping bags. The weather is perfectly clear, but it is the coldest morning I’ve ever had to operate in. I’m wearing 2 under-layers and my Cho Oyu down jacket under my slim-fitting Patroul GTX shell. My liners are frozen and refuse to conform to my boot shells. Jon has gotten Chris’s sickness and can’t continue, so he graciously warms my liners in his sleeping bag while I finish packing. Soon we’re skate-skiing across the vast expanse of the summit plateau. The route starts to climb and traverse above and below seracs on the flanks of the west summit. Without the route description in my notebook, we’d have no idea whether the east, west, or main summit are highest. They all look so similar.

As we get close to the summit the perfect weather is foiled by a nasty plume of cloud on the top. Add the high winds, and navigating to the true summit could be impossible. But we’ve come so far, so we head upwards in the hope that the cloud will pass. We transition to crampons and pull out our snow axes. On the summit ridge the visibility is manageable, but the wind is absurd. Getting blown over is a real possibility. We reach a cleft near the summit. With the ridge being knife-edge, this might be the only place to put our skis on without them blowing away. We disconnect from the rope and carefully remove our packs. With some grunting noises, we decide to leave the packs and climb the last remaining steps to the summit. After a bit, Tobin shouts that he’s turning around. I don’t blame him, as the exposure is significant, and it’s hard to maintain balance. Not to keep him waiting long, I move quickly along the last bit of ridge. I arrive at the summit and immediately collapse and hyperventilate for 30 seconds. The weather clears, and except for the howling wind and blowing plume of snow, I can see everything. After enjoying the view for a few minutes, I head back down.

Soon Tobin and I are making exposed south facing turns back down the ridge, and then continue back down the easier slopes of the north side. We keep a good pace, and are back in camp about an hour later (about 8 hours after leaving the tent). We all continue on down the mountain, camping at 13,500, and reach basecamp the next day.

On summit day we estimated the temperature to be about -55 Celcius or colder with windchill. My Steep Rider gloves, Cho Oyu down jacket, Patroul GTX jacket, Beast pants and TLT6 boots, allowed me to survive without frostbit and worked amazingly well under the extreme circumstances.

By Trevor Hunt -