Mt. Logan Expedition
By Shawn Stratton
My expedition to Canada's Mt. Logan with fellow NOLS Instructors
Andrea Blaikie and Nicole Blaser in May 2003 started with an incredible
hour-long bush plane flight to a glaciated base camp at 9,000
ft. (10,500 ft. below the summit of Mt. Logan). Over the first
five days we ferried loads of food and gear up the mountain to
King Col, an area half way up at 14,000 feet, where most people
rest for a couple days to acclimatize.
At 19, 850 feet, Mt. Logan reigns as Canada's highest peak and
the second highest peak in North America. Measured by its base
circumference, it is the most massive mountain in the world. It
is 25 miles long and rises more than two miles above its surroundings.
The mountain was named after Sir William Logan, founder of the
Geological Survey of Canada.
Mount Logan is big, remote and beautiful beyond words. It is
everything Denali is, but at the same time it remains a real and
pristine climbing adventure. It is located six miles from the
Alaska border in the southwest corner of the Yukon in the St.
Elias Mountain Range. We climbed the King Trench Route. Last year,
of about 25 teams on the mountain, only one made the summit.
There were four teams ahead of us when we arrived at the mountain.
We passed two quickly and met two at King Col. One of teams at
the Col was heading down (bailing on the climb) when we got there
and the other one was thinking about it. The teams at King Col
had been there over a week trying to find a safe route though
a major icefall that had opened up because of the lack of snow
We were warned about the icefall by the park wardens and knew
getting through this 1,000-ft. icefall would be the technical
crux of the climb. We were kind of hoping that the teams ahead
of us would have already put a route through that we could follow.
But the day after we got to the Col, the last team up there decided
to call it quits.
Now we were all alone at the Col, surprised to be the lead team
on the mountain but excited and eager to take on the icefall.
The next day, after traveling for eight hours and being shut down
by a maze of crevasses, ice walls and weak ice bridges, we found
a small but strong bridge that would connect us to the next slope.
Needless to say we were thrilled to find the route.
When we got back to the Col, we spent a couple of days ferrying
loads through the icefall to our higher camps. We decided to try
and go light and fast for our last three high camps, which meant
leaving behind all our none essentials such as our entertainment
(mini CD and speaker, books, and cards). We also stashed a bunch
of extra food at the camp. Over the next nine days we spent the
best part of six days in our tent, weathered in by storms, without
our entertainment. We got so desperate that Nicole cut up about
five pages of her journal to make a deck of cards. She decided
to have "hot" themes on the cards so instead of the
traditional spades, heart, clubs and diamonds we had surfboards,
suns, bikinis and flowers.
The day we got to high camp at 18,000 ft. was blue bird and
warm (for 18,000 ft.). We were almost sure the next day would
be the same and we would have a great shot at the summit, 1,500
ft. and five kilometers away. But sometime in the middle of the
night a storm moved in and I knew we wouldn't be going anywhere.
The storm ragged for two and half days. At one point we were worried
the tent would disintegrate around us with gale force winds so
we had to get out and build a huge snow wall around the tent to
protect us. You would not believe how out of breath you get after
shoveling for just a couple minutes at these elevations. At this
point in the expedition our tent was like a cocoon to us, a little
safe haven. It's crazy to think how a thin piece of nylon can
protect you from such inhospitable conditions—it's also
crazy how much noise it can make. Picture your bed sheets outside
on the close line on the windiest day of the year. That's the
noise we had for hours and hours!
After our second full day in the tent we knew the next day would
be our last chance at the summit because of time and food constraints.
At this point we had been living off Raman noodles, soup and Cliff
bars for several days. That evening the skies cleared up and the
wind died. I was so excited that the next day we would have great
weather for our summit attempts…I barley slept.
The next morning started off clear, calm and very cold (-30 in
the tent), so the summit bid was a go. We were going to try to
be the first people this year to stand on the summit. The climb
to the top would be an agonizing (everything at this elevation
is agonizing) 10 kilometer round trip, 3,000-ft. (you have to
go up and down several other high peaks to get to the summit)
climb. This was the day we had all been saving our chemical heaters
for to save us from frostbite.
A couple hours after leaving camp clouds started forming and
engulfing us, severely reducing our visibility but not enough
to halt our progress. As the clouds moved in and out the wind
increased rapidly and by 4 p.m. we were recording 40 mile an hour
gusts. It had also been heavily snowing for the last hour. The
visibility was deteriorating rapidly and it got to the point that
we could not see each other as we climbed, roped together 20 meters
apart. We decided to gather up and talk about the conditions,
at this time I recorded a wind chill factor of -50 Ceclsius or
As the first person on the rope team I was doing the route finding
and officially couldn't see a thing. Physically we all felt good
but we knew we would be risking our lives to continue on in these
conditions. So, about 1.5 kilometers and 500 ft. below the summit,
we called it, and turned back. Fortunately we had been placing
wands (markers in the snow) every 60 meters from camp that allowed
us to find our way back in the intense whiteout conditions. We
all made it back to camp safe and sound, exhausted and bummed
we didn't get the summit but thrilled we were healthy and had
not trace of frostbite.
Fortunately the next day was clear for us to head down the mountain.
This was going to be the fun part we had been working for...the
ski decent! I quickly realized how difficult it was going to be
to ski in challenging snow conditions with a 60-pound pack at
17,000 ft. Wanting to carve it up and make some beauty turns quickly
turned into 'get me down in one piece'.
When we got to the top ice fall we were shocked to see about
10 tents and 25 people staring up at us from King Col. These people
had all flown into base camp and moved up to the Col over the
seven days we had been up high. Getting back down the icefall
proved to be much more challenging than expected because, as the
name would suggest, things are constantly changing in glacier
"icefall". Not only were there bridges and cracks in
new places, there was also three feet of fresh snow for us to
wade through. This section was too steep and technical for skis
so we had to carry them on our backpacks.
As we carefully made our way down the icefall, we noticed that
just about all the climbers below had their eyes fixed on us.
It was a strange feeling to be watched—it was like we were
the evening show or something. For three hours we maintained our
focus and tediously down climbed the slope to be greeted by about
15 people. They were all eager to know if we had made the summit.
They were a little disappointed with our news but were full of
congratulations on our nice work getting safely down through the
It was a little overwhelming and flattering to be swamped by
these climbers (I kind of felt like a celebrity). They all seemed
to know who we were and everything about us. Several of them talked
about NOLS and others mentioned how great it was to see two females
It was now about 10 p.m. and we were visibly exhausted. They
immediately fed us soup, took our packs and offered to set up
out tent. They were also full of questions about the route.
The next morning we got up early and headed down to base camp
to meet our pilot to be flown back to the land of the living (nothing
lives at these elevations besides snow, ice and a little bit of
exposed rock). Our pilot treated us to another amazing flight,
taking us up near the summit to see exactly how close we got.