Mt. Logan Climb Trip Report
by Sven Spengemann
This is the story of an expedition into the Yukon's Kluane National Park and Reserve, launched by seven individuals united by the goal of climbing Mount Logan. For me, it all began long ago, with a set of childhood memories of ski and hiking trips in the Austrian and Swiss Alps. The beauty of the mountains, etched into the soul of a young boy, tucked away but definitely not forgotten. Much later, after I had begun to serve with the United Nations in Iraq, these memories became part of what led me to take up mountaineering, a sport that offered a path to maintaining a strong mental and physical balance in the face of a stressful and, at times, dangerous job.
It's only my third season of climbing mountains. During the two previous seasons, I had summited Gran Paradiso (Italy) and Mount Bona (Alaska). I moved Mount Logan onto the agenda as a way of testing whether I was ready to take things to the next level: How would I cope with an alpine environment between 16,000 and 19,000 feet and the added food and fuel loads that needed to be carried during such an expedition? And there's another reason: Logan is Canada's highest peak. It's on home turf. Not to say that there is a lot of common geography between the southwestern Yukon and Mississauga, the city to which my family and I had emigrated when I was 14. But the red Maple Leaf flies over both places and connects them, with unity of purpose. The true North, strong and free.
Once it was firmly on the calendar, I decided to use the Mount Logan climb as a way of raising awareness and funds for UNICEF Canada. To me, the quest of climbing Logan, emblematic of so many opportunities that Canada has given me over the past three decades, has a strong symbolic connection to UNICEF's aim: To give children in war-torn and impoverished countries the support they need to find and climb the "mountain" of their dreams. Over the past 6 years, I had witnessed the devastating impact of sectarian violence on the lives of Iraqi children and became familiar with UNICEF's ongoing work here. Nothing, it seemed, would make this climb more worthwhile than to turn it into a broader quest to rally friends and supporters around a chance to help kids who had been thrown into despair by war and poverty.
The trip began well on the US side of the Alaska/Yukon border. The team met up in Anchorage for the initial briefings and gear checks and then moved by road to Chitina, population 54, about five hours west of Anchorage. Like many alpine adventures in the Wrangell-St. Elias range, the real journey began, bright and early on 16 May, with Paul Claus, bushpilot extraordinaire and operator of Ultima Thule Lodge on the Chitina River. Paul's sturdy, ski-equipped Turbo Otter scooped us up at the Chitina airstrip and dropped us safely onto the Quintino Sella Glacier, less than half a kilometer away from the Canadian border and about 35 linear kilometers from the Mount Logan summit. We would cross into Canada on foot. The flight onto the doorstep of the Kluane National Park and Reserve had offered stunning views of the Wrangell Mountains and, once Paul had left, the glacier greeted us with blue skies, glistening snow and absolute silence. Heart and soul began to sing.
Our team, supported by International Mountain Guides (IMG), consisted of five climbers, two Americans, one Swiss and two Canadians (Dr. Andries Botha and myself), led by IFMGA guides Mark Allen and Chris Simmons. All of us had climbed high mountains before, but none of us had been on Mount Logan. It was new turf, an experience to be relished together. Excitement and anticipation about the pending ascent were building as we organized ourselves into two roped teams for glacier travel: One team of snowshoe users, which I joined, and one team of skiers. Seven individual lives, two women and five men, joined in the common cause of an intensive, 17-day climb up and down Logan's King Trench route, only to be plucked apart again just as swiftly afterwards, to return to our respective worlds. New friendships and profound memories that we will treasure for years to come.
Our planned route up Mount Logan included a set of five camps, beginning at an altitude of about 8,900 feet. High camp was to be established on the Logan Plateau, near 17,500 feet, leaving the summit one long day's climb away. On its face, our task seemed rather simple: To carry food, fuel, equipment and tents up the glacier to each of these camps, initially by backpack and sled, with individual loads of about 100 pounds distributed roughly on a 60-40 ratio: 60% of the weight on the sled, and 40% in the backpack. We would bring the sleds up as far as Camp 3 and then, as the terrain steepened, shift the entire load to backpacks, double carrying as necessary.
A climb onto Mount Logan puts daily life onto a tight, progressive schedule, and most actions are undertaken with a very specific, directed purpose. "Pee bottles" in the tent, seemingly trivial if not amusing, secured valuable extra sleep and warmth, as we could avoid having to leave the tent to find the glacial latrine in blowing snow and -20C temperatures on a really cold night, the human body doesn't just shiver in the sleeping bag to get warm. It shakes. Other routines included setting up and taking down tents; packing sleds and backpacks; and ensuring sufficient food and water intake during breaks. Fair weather days were used to maximize progress (read: 8 hours+ of climbing; ridiculous amounts of calories burned), with careful attention paid to the acclimatization of each team member. Bad weather led to a few forced rest days that slowed us down but, at least during the ascent, also helped us to acclimatize and boost the overall health of the team.
Poor acclimatization can lead to acute mountain sickness (AMS); high altitude cerebral edema (HACE); and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which rank among the biggest dangers of mountaineering. Our ascent therefore needed to be gradual, particularly early on in the climb, to give our bodies a chance to adapt to the altitude. The fairly benign slopes on the lower mountain facilitated this process. "Climb high and sleep low" lower than the highest point reached during the day became the team's mantra for the first week. My breathing pattern during sleep changed to Chain Stokes breathing once we had reached about 12,000 feet, and there were early days when it seemed that that my lungs and stomach were wrestling with each other across the solar plexus. After 5 or 6 days at altitude, the human body begins to produce extra red blood cells, to aid oxygenation. Sweet. As expected, Mount Logan served up a mix of challenging weather and terrain. Calm, warm days with intense solar radiation it would heat up a dark backpack even through a layer of cloud were followed by periods of whiteout conditions; strong winds, particularly on the upper mountain; and wind chills in the negative 20s and 30s. Temperatures can change quickly, often minute to minute, and temperature management became a critical part of well-being and survival. Climbing through stretches of the King Trench at lower altitudes, we worked up a sweat in only a thin base layer. When the team had turned a corner and faced an emerging head wind, I had to throw on my down parka and heavy gloves at the very next break.
The glacial terrain along the King Trench route, at least during the initial portions of the climb, consists of fairly gradual slopes, with several "steps" that contain large crevasses. While the overall avalanche risk was fairly low, crevasses did pose a risk, particularly during whiteout conditions. During the ascent to Camp 3, as I crossed a marked crevasse, my right foot broke through the snow bridge and left a gaping hole leading into the crevasse. Luckily, I had already firmly placed my left (front) foot and shifted most of my weight onto it by the time the bridge gave way. Unnerving, but I had just avoided a crevasse fall that would have been much more unsettling. We did not stop to check its depth 50, 100, 200 feet? but the two-square-foot hole behind us left an urgent reminder to keep this crevasse clearly marked for the descent.
Our entire food supply had to be carried by backpack and sled. Food selection came down to weight, caloric value and the right mix between carbohydrates and proteins. Mark and Chris took turns generating cooking and drinking water by melting snow. We ate hot or cold cereals for breakfast, Denali sandwiches (grilled or steamed bagels with cheese and bacon or sausage); quesadillas; and various stews and pastas at night, including a "Thanksgiving" dinner that Mark prepared for us after our challenging descent from high camp: Tuna, cheese, stuffing, gravy mix and ham. Food and water are the true driving forces behind the climb. Appetites tended to dwindle with higher altitudes and low temperatures, but the upper mountain was exactly the phase of the climb where nutrition mattered the most. Eat or suffer! Personal snacks, consumed during breaks throughout the day (cheese, meat, cereal bars, electrolyte/carbohydrate gels etc.) were as significant as breakfast and dinner.
Physical as most challenges of Mount Logan are, some of the biggest obstacles are mental in nature. Once the team had decided to embark on a particular route, safety and survival depended entirely on the willingness and ability of each team member to commit to the route and to do her or his part to reach the destination. When the weather prevented a return to the previous location and terrain the setting up of tents until lower altitudes could be reached, the route became a one-way track. These scenarios tested mind and body, sometimes to the limit. Pain, whether from blisters, sore muscles or overloaded backpacks, had to be ignored. Exhaustion, cold temps, dehydration and hunger, when not addressed during the en-route breaks, invariably compromised concentration and footing on the slopes. Slips, slides and falls were the result, and each one further eroded confidence and mental strength. Simply put, food and water keep the mind strong: Mount Logan was dishing out important lessons to its students.
Whiteout conditions will play tricks on the mind. During the descent from Camp 4, on the heavily crevassed McCarthy's Gap, a snowstorm shrouded everything but the rope team member immediately in front of me. With no visual orientation in relation to the horizon, I began to imagine fences, street curbs and apartment buildings to my left and right; my mind was compensating for the conditions by creating structures that weren't there. Strange and interesting. Then there is the "Alaska" or "Yukon" factor: This is truly vast terrain. Individual segments of the climb were long, typically several kilometers or more. A lip or col that seemed within an arm's reach in the morning would begin to creep away from us over the course of the day, to be reached only hours later, in the afternoon or evening. Fear, despair and, ultimately, apathy are the mental dangers that face the climber who is unprepared for these latitudes. During a storm, it can be a disastrous choice to stop moving, particularly on terrain that does not allow for the pitching of tents. Death can be that close.
The apex of the climb came on Monday, 28 May. We had reached Camp 5, our high camp on the Logan Plateau, the night before in a single-carry effort from Camp 4, with relatively light loads; food and fuel for three days. To get there, we had crossed Prospectors' Col at 18,100 feet my highest altitude to date and then descended onto the Plateau to about 17,500 feet. The forecast had called for a one-day break in the weather before a new, three-day frontal system was to move into the range on Tuesday. It was only a slim chance to reach the summit, but we had decided to move up and take it. As it turned out, the window proved to be too small.
During the night, strong winds shook the tents, and wind chills dropped well into the minus 25-Celsius range. Frost had built up on the inner tent walls and fell on us in the form of snowflakes as soon as we touched them. The early morning initially brought clear skies, but these became obscured again within a few hours, as blowing snow began to impede visibility. The team was tired. We had arrived late the previous day and barely managed build a marginal snow wall to protect the camp. This wall would have to be completed before we could head up for the summit. The previous night's temperatures had hardened the snow surface in our "block quarry," making it much harder to cut the required snow blocks. But to leave the camp ill protected against the forecasted winds and weather would be highly irresponsible, even reckless: We may return to find that tents had been blown away or equipment buried in several feet of snow. Survival would have been put at risk.
In the face of these thoughts, the weather continued to deteriorate. Around noon, expedition leader Mark Allen gathered us in a huddle and announced his decision not to pursue the summit. The weather front that had been expected for the following day had come in early. Wind strength and snowdrifts had increased further at Camp 5 and would be stronger still on the summit pyramid. That was it, simple and quick: The team had travelled as high up the mountain as we could, and the summit would elude us this time around. After 12 days of climbing, it was less than two thousand vertical feet and a 12-hour return trip away. So close. We all took some personal time to reflect on this outcome before we would take down the camp and begin the descent. Disappointment began to set in. It would be a long way down.
Oddly, it is exactly this scenario that drives human attraction to the sport of mountaineering: Personal expenditure of significant effort. Determination and judgment. Uncertain outcomes. Physical, mental and spiritual growth. Had this been a "bluebird" trip, with clear skies and a straight march up to the summit, it would have been a much less valuable experience. In this respect, my time on Mount Logan remains closely connected to the cause for which I was climbing: UNICEF is all about providing opportunities for children, removing them from the perils of mere subsistence in war-torn or poverty-stricken countries and providing them with the means of pursuing their aspirations and dreams. Setting goals; embarking on a path; falling short; learning lessons these are fundamental elements of human growth. But, first and foremost, they require the freedom to make choices. UNICEF Canada is emphatic here: "Every child. Every opportunity. No Exceptions." Helping each child to find and embark upon climbing her or his own "Mount Logan." The other connection, perhaps reciprocal, was the focus on the theme of ‘survival' during the time on Logan: How many children today continue to stand face-to-face with this reality, perpetually on the edge of survival not by choice, like we did, but by brute force of circumstance? I felt that, through this climb, I may have gained a few additional slivers of insight into their ongoing predicament. It isn't comforting.
For the 2012 IMG Mount Logan team, the prudence of the decision to forego the summit attempt became apparent during our descent to Camp 4. As we crossed the top of Prospectors' Col for the second time, blistering winds and blowing snow made it difficult to stay on our feet. Wind chills remained near minus 25 Celsius and sent me down the mountain with a new and somewhat unexpected souvenir: Stage 1 frost bite, just below my ski goggles and above the seam of my balaclava. If it's this bad at 18,100 feet, we must have all wondered, how much worse would it be on the more exposed summit pyramid? What if someone had twisted an ankle up there, in this kind of weather? Things could go south quickly. Mark had made the right call.
Just as forecast, the frontal system left its mark on the lower camps for the next three days. Strong winds and fresh snow kept us hunkered down at Camp 3 for an extra day. Then, on departure day, June 1st, we were greeted by brilliant, blue skies. It was as if the mountain smiled at us and said "Yes, team, you are all leaving here with the right lessons, and you have learned them well!" The experience of standing on Canada's rooftop, the summit of Mount Logan, will wait for another day...