Chasing the 50 Classics - Mount St. "Deny Us"

 

Editor's note: This is an ongoing series of articles about Nancy Hansen's journey and experiences in chasing down the climbs listed in the iconic guide/history book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The book was first published in 1979 and it is still considered a definitive piece of climbing literature.


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It is a strange feeling to have spent five and a half weeks in ski boots on a remote glacier in the Yukon and then be whisked to life in Canmore, sporting shorts and rock shoes within a matter of 48 hours. And it might not be strange for reasons you would expect. The objective of our trip was to try to climb two of my remaining four of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and we achieved neither. The strange part now is the difficulty I'm having convincing my friends that I had a good time. Everyone is approaching me with caution and pity in their eyes. Yes, we were there for a really long time. No, we did not summit Mount St. Elias, and we didn’t even ski over to Mount Logan. But it was truly an awesome trip that I enjoyed immensely. I obviously hoped that we would summit, but I knew that the chances were small on St. Elias and minuscule on Logan. The route we were using to access the Abruzzi Ridge on St. Elias has only been done twice in history – once in 1965 and once in 1969. The Hummingbird Ridge on Logan has only been climbed once in 1965. Neither were going to be a gimme.

 On Mount Newton.

On Mount Newton.

Why was it such a good trip? We had more blue sky than we had cloud. The views were spectacular. The skiing was horrendous, good, great and incredible. The route finding was fun. The fitness we built up during the trip was rewarding. The storms were epic and we will never forget them. We laughed a lot and got along really well. We came home better friends than before we left. We got to hang out between Canada’s two highest peaks for over five weeks. It was warm. It was not a sufferfest in any way. Well – I speak for myself – my partners might feel differently.

 Campsite with a view of Mount Logan (5959m).

Campsite with a view of Mount Logan (5959m).

The plans were grand, and almost two years in the making. Ascend the Abruzzi Ridge on Mount St. Elias (5489m) via Mount Newton (4,200m), try to ski down it, then travel 25km across the Seward Glacier to the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan (5,959m). It didn’t go exactly like that. When we realized how tricky it was to get the right combination of weather and conditions to safely ascend the massive avalanche slopes leading to Mount St. Elias, we decided to focus our efforts there since we figured we had a greater chance of success than on Logan. In just over five weeks, we had one real shot at the summit of St. Elias, but a broken ski binding combined with a poor weather forecast conspired against us. So it goes with Mount St. "Deny us."

 The storm that swallowed our gear cache.

The storm that swallowed our gear cache.

On the heartbreaking day of the broken binding, Monte Johnston and I were still able to summit Mount Newton under blue skies. The champagne powder face shots on the ski down brought the smiles back to our faces. Wade Suvan managed to ski from 3,650m to base camp on one ski!

 Excellent skiing in June.

Excellent skiing in June.

Monte was out of time and had to head home. Wade and I stubbornly stayed, hoping we’d get another shot. It never came. A seven and a half day storm dumped metres of snow on us, and it swallowed our $2,000 climbing gear cache. We probed the area for two full days but had no luck. It was an expensive lesson – the GPS is not accurate at northern latitudes on the north side of Canada's second highest mountain. We probably could have probed for another week and I am certain we would not have found our gear.

 Land of the midnight sun.

Land of the midnight sun.

It’s true that I’m no closer to ticking off the 50 Classics than I was two months ago. But it's okay - if you see me on the street, feel free to say “I heard you had an awesome trip”.

I’m looking forward to returning to the Yukon next year. But for now it’s summertime – and time for rock climbing!

This trip was sponsored in part by Mountain Equipment Co-op's Expedition Support and Westview Agencies