January 12, 2016 20 min read

Skiing Super Sized Giants in the Glaciated Wrangell/ St. Elias Range

By: Art Burrows

Wrangell St. Elias from the airThe Wrangell-St.Elias mountains look like little bumps on the glaciated landscape, however when viewed from the ground they are enormous rising over 18,000 vertical feet out of the Gulf of Alaska. Here is an aerial view of the two highest peaks in the range, Mount St. Elias, elevation 18,008 feet, in the background, and Mount Logan, elevation 19,551 in the foreground. Mount Logan massif encompasses the largest base circumference of any non-volcanic mountain on Earth, with the massif containing eleven peaks over 16,400 ft.

St. Elias mountainMount Saint Elias rises 18,000’ out of the ocean.

Really big mountains have a very powerful magnetic attraction. Especially big ones. That attraction is seductive, very seductive. The rare experience of exploring mega geography truly opened my eyes wide in 1978. I had never seen anything like the Wrangell-St Elias Mountains in the lower 48 states at that point in my young life.  At the same time it filled me with a deep poetic respect for the raw power of nature.  It was moving. That is what happens when one ventures into the unknown and discovers geography on a such a enormous scale for the first time.

The mountains that had that effect are located adjacent to the Gulf of Alaska and stradles two countries. The geographic area of this range so large it is shared between the U.S. and Canada. Our mission in this case was Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest at 19,545 feet / 5957 meters.

Logan is big... really big. It is larger in scale than any other mountain in the western hemisphere.  If you were to climb from it’s furthest east point to the north west until it disappears back into deep glacial ice you would have to travel nearly forty miles and ascend over 25,000’vertical over complex rock, ice and glacier.   On a 26 day partial circumnavigation, ascent and ski descent from the summit in 1978 it fully took us 4 or 5 days even to begin to comprehend the enormous size of this behemoth. I consciously tried not to dwell on its size while we were trudging towards, up and around it.  I was aware that if the notorious weather in the Gulf of Alaska decided to rear it’s ugly head that we would not have a chance in hell to complete our mission. Optimism was our mantra and we kept the reservoir as full as we could in order to succeed. With no opportunity for a flight to pluck us out during a sustained storm cycle we took seriously the possibility of being stranded for several weeks before we could get either food, gear or medical support.  For that reason we proceeded carefully and deliberately, always gauging our fuel and food stores and trying not to drop into a crevasse while pulling a 200lb sled.  We did not assume that we were the dominant species on this trip. We brought plenty of humility with us because we knew we were taking on a big, uncertain project.

In the U.S. Alaska part of the range the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the nations largest encompassing 13,175,799 acres. To understand how big that is think of an area of heavily glaciated mountains with ice moving from elevations above 18,000’ all the way to the ocean that is about one-third larger than the total land area of Switzerland.   Big and impossible to grasp without days of exploring from the air in a fixed wing airplane.

The National Park’s extreme high point is Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet (5,489 m), the second tallest mountain in both the United States and Canada. The park has been shaped by the competing forces of volcanism and glaciation. Mount Wrangell, to the north,  is an active volcano, one of several volcanoes in the western Wrangell Mountains. In the St. Elias Range Mount Churchill has erupted explosively within the past 2,000 years. The park’s glacial features include Malaspina Glacier. Malaspina Glacier is the largest piedmont glacier in the world. Spilling out of the Seward Ice Field, Malaspina Glacier covers more than 3,900 square kilometers (about 1,500 square miles) as it spreads across the coastal plain. Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, and Nabesna Glacier, the world’s longest valley glacier. The Bagley Icefield covers much of the park’s interior, which includes 60% of the permanently ice-covered terrain in Alaska.

The Canadian component to this vast range is as extensive and complex and located in Kluane National Park of Canada, an area over 8,000 square miles. This park includes the highest giant in Canada, Mount Logan.

The range has a deep earth history.  Although most of the range is non-volcanic, portions at the western end near the Wrangell Mountains are volcanic. This region includes two major strato volcanoes, Mount Churchill and Mount Bona at 16,421 ft (5,005 m), the latter being the highest volcano in the United States. The St. Elias range is a result of 10 million years of the North American tectonic plate pushing material up as it overrides the Pacific plate, then the material being worn down by glaciers. It includes 13 summits over 15,000’ and is the worlds most non polar glaciated area.

Embarking Into The Big Unknown
Plane over Wrangell St. EliasThe Pilatus is one of the few airplanes in the world with the capability to land uphill on a 25 degree slope and then take off in 100' section of glacier.

On our initial air transport to the glacier from Lake Kluane Andy had his head craned out of side of the Pilatus STOL wing aircraft as we slowly, carefully descended in the flat, amorphous light. The nose and prop of the Pilatus obscured his vision making it impossible to see our landing surface, it barely mattered as the light was so flat we could not have seen the snow without the visual obstruction. We had waited for several days to take off from Lake Kluane and could not have waited much longer as the glaciers would open up exposing massive crevasse making travel difficult if not suicidal in a month or so. Andy could not decipher where the surface of the glacier was as he descended in the amorphous flat white light. He was squinting hard, attempting to gauge the surface of the glacier while nursing the plane down carefully. The Pilatus PC-6 has a sticker price of about one million dollars today and Andy was in no hurry to crash it. He was meticulous about the descent after two tries. We eventually descended, touching milky white brail for several minutes on the delicate blind approach. After a small eternity of uncertainty the skis finally skimmed the glacier. Andy quickly shut the engine down and we unloaded the plane of two 250lb sleds and our small mountain of gear which we would be dragging over the glacier for the next 100 miles. We organized the gear, did a final check and began our ordeal as we waved back to Andy flying past on his return to Lake Kluane 85 miles away.

Ain't Nobody In The Neighborhood
Skiers on a glacier3 Skiers on the rope in case of a collapse into a crevasse which would likely be fatal.

The population density of our neighborhood during the next month would be about 1 person per two to three million acres. There was no one else here in this vast iceland but us and a party attempting to climb Mount Saint Elias 70 miles away. We felt utterly alone and isolated. We knew we would survive with only our skills, our will, abundant enthusiasm and our close friendships to rely on in the coming weeks. We were like fleas on a massive vast landscape of ice and nobody would likely be there to help or be available when the shit began to hit the fan. We were truly on our own, tiny insignificant specs on an immense landscape. We had a big plan but the end was not really a thought as the journey was so large and so foreign at that moment.

With Andy disappearing into the distance I remember the wind was biting hard cold for May and I was really feeling it right into my core due to sorting the gear with bare hands and standing - not pulling a sled which would keep me warmer in the sharp cold of the north. At that moment a huge wave of vulnerability came over me. I had every piece of clothing on me. Thick fleece over underwear, a cheap windshell and two hats. Some Strafe Neo Shell and a warm layer of Polar Tech would have been really nice but it had not been developed at that time, in fact there were little options for us and we could not afford down at the time. I was freezing and I thought to myself, this is real and this will be our reality for the next month. We are only at 7,000’ elevation and we will be living above 18,000’ in several weeks so get used to the cold Art.

The Icy Expanse Unfolds Before Mt. Logan
Mt. Logan north faceThe 10,000’ North Face of Mt Logan.

Mt. Logan south faceThe 15,000’ South Face of Logan.

The glaciers in the St. Elias are vast, incomprehensibly large and in May the sun simply spins around you at about the same distance from the horizon for 310 degrees before it disappears into bright twilight for a few hours each day making navigation tricky. In poor weather without a map, a compass and a watch we wouldn’t have much chance correctly navigating the 100+ miles on skis (no GPS with digital mapping in 1978). The good news is we had the opportunity to travel 8 hours each day and review and identify terrain along the way using our maps to get our bearing.

The Gulf of Alaska can produce big storms that last for days reducing visibility to a disorienting mist which pins you down, sometimes indefinitely. Travel comes to a halt and when you do finally see some ridge or rock feature you still have to deal with the scale of maps in the Yukon. The Canadian maps have 500 foot contour lines vs 80 foot contours on USGS maps in the U.S. Very large features in front of us didn’t even show up on the map. However we could decipher the 10,000 vertical feet of hanging glaciers on the north massif of Mount Logan miles to the west when the weather was clear. That was our seemingly intangible objective looming in the far distance. We would have to ski about 90 miles around the mountain to the other side for a gear resupply and the beginning of our ski ascent. It was daunting and we were days away from seeing the King Trench where we would eventually ski up and back down if we were successful. The scale of the objective at that moment was beyond my comprehension. I felt utterly alone and wondered what the actual chance was that we would successfully climb and ski this behemoth. At the moment I could barely make out details on the massive features called Mount Logan. It seemed more mythical than real as I pulled the 200+lb sled towards it. I tried not to think ahead of my self. Just pull the damn sled and keep eating, drinking and getting stronger I thought to myself. Enjoy the view and hope for good weather the next three weeks.

After a week of dragging and skiing the sleds we were making our way to the third glacier on the approach, the Ogilvy Glacier. As we slowly pulled our way up though the Ogilvy we were closer to the massive rock and ice massif that is at the northwest end of Mt. Logan. To understand the enormity of this mountain imagine a mountain rising more than 15,000’ feet out of the surrounding land with a length of about 40 miles from the east ridge to the western most flanks of it. Some of the worlds longest glaciers descend all around it for over 100 miles in multiple directions. Thousands of feet above us were massive hanging glaciers. If one isolated chunk decided to calf off we would be smeared across the glaciers like mosquitoes under a road grader. I joked to Paul Parker and Rick Hum about the possibility of our bad timing should something decide to cut loose above. They just chuckled as they craned their necks and peered up at the remarkable ice seracs we were aiming to be on top of in several weeks. The scene was amazing, beautiful and a welcome sight after days of monotonous glacier travel with the sled. We felt like we were finally getting somewhere and we were ready to begin the ascent towards a possible summit ski. It was a welcome change.

Stress, 6,000 Calories a Day and Still Losing Weight
Skinny guys at campRic Hum sorts gear as Paul Parker and Art Burrows enjoy the warm sun in the evening.

Dave Woods Achilles tendon was killing him but he wasn’t letting on. We had been pulling heavy sleds and packs for days and it was beginning to take its toll. I noticed he had not smiled much in a few days and I thought either he was focusing hard on getting into the King Trench for a resupply or just tired of carrying and pulling as we all were. “Ah yea, my tendon has really been sore today.” he finally revealed. We were all feeling the stress by now. Friendships were getting strained a bit by now due to some differences in fitness and well being to this point and we took a long lunch to let it out, decompress and regroup. The decision was to slow down as we had made good time over the last two weeks and basically we were on schedule for the resupply and ascent to the summit. We were all very tired but also getting lighter and stronger from the extraordinary effort. In spite of eating 5,000 to 8,000 calories each day we were beginning to lose weight. I was scrawny then and had already lost about five pounds off my normal 140lbs. At the end I would be about 118lbs, gaunt and looking like I was emerging from a forced labor camp. But at the moment I was still strong and enthusiastic as we worked our way towards King Peak towering 6,000’ above to our right and under Queen Peak nearly 7,000’ above to our left.

Glacial Ice Crashing Into The King Trench
ice avalancheWith massive mountain features looming 6,000’ above our trench camp we kept a constant eye on the possibility of being smeared across the glacier by a huge ice collapse far above us.

The King Trench is an amphitheater on a grand scale. From a sub peak attached to Queen Peak bits of the glacier would break loose and cascade down the massively large feature towards our intended resupply zone. In reality these tiny bits were actually the size of small houses and freight cars. We would hear a low frequency rumble accentuated with faint crashing as the mass would break up as it was torn apart by the massive rock and ice couloir as it descended into the “Trench” 6,000’ feet below. The whole process took several minutes. When it did finally arrive minutes later it had disintegrated into a 35mph wind of fine white spindrift blowing though us and back up the west side of the Trench towards King Peak summit. It was both terrifying and awe inspiring. We did a careful survey of visible debris in the Trench and decided to work our way up slightly onto a bench that we thought would give us the best statistical chance for evasion from the maelstrom of glacial debris that seemed to be coming down like massive freight cars every few hours. I was 25 years old and it was exciting, stimulating and exactly were I wanted to be at that moment in life. We had traveled nearly 100 miles to this point and we were getting close to the final 10,000’ of ascending. We were tired but felt relief that we were getting closer and ready to relax for a short period. We would take a few days of rest before working our way up to the summit. It would be 6-9 days of very hard work in bitter cold and higher altitudes in order to get close to the true summit of Logan and the game was about to get more serious. Exhausted, at higher altitudes and trapped by intense weather was something we were very wary of and did not take lightly. If you are caught on the other side of the col above 18,000’, unable to move and without fuel for hydrating it might be a fatal scenario so we surveyed the weather and our supplies carefully before committing.

Arctic Cowboy Pilots

Andy was the archetypal Yukon/Alaskan bush pilot. A contradiction of chain-smoking mechanic and bad ass arctic bush pilot. On the resupply flight of critical gear into the Trench we watched in astonishment as he tilted and stalled the turbo charged Pilatus STOL wing aircraft onto a 30 degree upward landing on a steep 100’ section of the Trench right in front of us. That was some crazy ass flying! That maneuver would be fatal for most pilots in a lesser plane with fewer skills. He jumped out of the craft with a broad smile of immediate relief and enthusiastically asked us to spin the tail around 180 degrees so he could get enough rapid downhill acceleration to break the suction of the evening snow in May and liberate his aircraft from the glacier after he dropped off our supplies. The Swiss made Pilatus is an exceptional airplane. It holds the record for the highest altitude landing at over 19,000’ on Dhaulagiri glacier in Nepal and is used because of its high altitude cargo abilities and its ability to land within extremely small areas. Andy was not grandstanding with his spectacular landing, he just did not have that much room between crevasses and debris. He was literally our lifeline here and we could not continue without key support ferried from far away. He seemed eager to get back to the comfort of his hangar and a cold beer 150 miles away and seemed wary of the arctic twilight and the latest weather report. If a crash in these vast mountains was not fatal the elements would be. In bad weather there would be no one qualified to retrieve the surviors for days or even weeks in this part of remote North America. Andy had a few survival stories of crash landings and stranded or dead pilots and a lot of skill and experience.... and perhaps a little luck to have made it past the ripe age of 50 as an active bush pilot. He thrived living on the edge. As you might imagine we got along famously with Andy. He was a true bad ass and a character of legend. We thought he was quite mad to fly in these mountains the way he did and he thought we were crazy as loons to load up over 600lbs of gear between 6 of us and ski off into oblivion over these lunatic distances. Our friendship was based on what I would call mutual respect for embracing the absurd.

Yielding To The Pain Cave

Dave’s tendon was not improving and his good friend Dave who he had talked into going on the adventure was loosing his enthusiasm for higher risk/reward management from this point on. After some discussion we agreed that the Daves would return with Andy in the Pilatus during the resupply. Dave Woods would give the tendon needed rest and recovery and the other Dave would be able to dodge the uncertainty of the next 10 days of suffering. We knew the temps at night would be going -20 or -30 and it was about to ger really tough. And suddenly our group was down to four gringos from the lower 48. We watched as Andy and the boys got in the plane, fired up the engine and launched off the glacier. Dave Woods was a great mountain companion; solid, good natured and very strong, but this was not his day. It was no longer going to be an option to take on the final 10 days at higher altitudes with a failing Achilles and he was off and heading back to northern BC for recovery. It would be the four of us the rest of the trip. Tom Pulaski, Rick Hum, Paul Parker and myself would try to finish it if the weather allowed. So far the storms had been brief and few and we were stoked to continue. But that was about to end.

Hoar Crystals, Solitude, and Another Storm
windy snowThe wind picks up at the 16,000' level.

snowy campExposed camp in the trench hoping falling ice 6,,000’ above doesn’t smear us across the glacier.

It's cold and raw above 16,000’ in May at this high northern latitude. Even on a good day the morning ritual of moving, cooking and organizing when it is -30F is not an easy or a quick one. Each night the moisture from our breath recrystallizes on every cold surface covering everything with an inch of delicate, beautiful hoar crystals. After two days of ascending we were about to get hammered by mother nature in the arctic again. We had one good storm along the way and realized the futility of trying to move at all in the weather. Not only would it be dagerous, it was brutally painful to go outside as the wind howled. As we finished up the last carry up to 16,000’ the winds began to pick up and the snow was starting to fall, albeit sideways. We quickly set anchor, locked the tent down into the glacier with our skis and prepared for the storm. It turned out to be a very strong event. While pinned down in the storm we sweep the tent surfaces of hoar frost every few hours to keep things from getting too saturated when the stove was on. The wind was howling with gusts of perhaps 50-60mph. The dome would shudder and begin to flatten and then return to a normal shape. I was uncertain. The stove would start up and slowly drive the moisture though the tent, but as soon as the stove shut down, the crystals would grow at a devious imperceptible rate until every surface was covered. It was a constant war of attrition at this altitude and at this temperature nature was ruling us.

At this point in the trip we really felt out there, vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements. There was really nothing between us and the ocean to the west and a few small towns hundreds of miles to the east in the Yukon; and the storms roll through with the type of ferocity that hurricanes and typhoons feature. We weren’t sure exactly what we might be in for but we knew it could be bad in a storm. Companions are important at these times and we were feeling great despite a storm brewing out of the gulf that would pin us down for several days. We felt a thin margin of protection via our 12lb dome shelter. The solitude of looking west over huge glacial expanses is daunting. We could see well over 100 miles towards the gulf prior to the storm taking hold and we knew we were on our own without any possibility of help if things went bad. We were alone other than a desperate party of four on Mt. St. Elias miles away to our south west. We had checked in with them via the short wave radio and the report was a desperate. Three to four foot snow accumulations each night and constant avalanches pouring over their snow cave during the storms. They would establish a vent for their snowcave and wham, they would be inundated with another terrifying avalanche. They were in a precarious position. They did not know if they would be able to move off the mountain before they ran out of food and fuel or even be there when the storm passed. Powder avalanches were covering their snow cave with regularity and it was clear they were ready to abort and had enough of what the Wrangells had to offer. It looked grim for them as they might not even have that option to descend if things got worse. With temperatures below zero and winds above 60mph they were in a desparate situation. We seemed to be slightly out of the storm path only 40 miles away but that all changed within a few hours.

The wind was howling outside. In this part of the world you literally can stand right in the jet stream if the barometer falls and the weather decides to crush you when it comes out of the gulf. The ocean is just 60 miles away and the storms that rush out of the Gulf of Alaska can be devastating and deadly. We were currently on the front end of a big storm and wondering what our fate might be in the next 24 hours. A steady 60 mph with big gusts approaching 70 or 90 mph was pounding us at 16,000’ and we weren’t entirely confident of our options. If the tent were to disintegrate and the storm continue we might not survive for more than a few hours without cover, food and fuel. Our life line was a fairly robust laminate tent material supported by stout fiberglass wands slid though webbing bisecting our dome. The skis were staked into the tent loops outside holding our delicate life line into the snow. Every once in a while Paul would risk going outside and check to see that the ski edges were not cutting the webbing loops attached to the tent. I was very concerned Paul might get blown 60 feet away from the tent, get disoriented and not make it back. The sound of the howling wind was deafening and I would not likely be able to reconnect with Paul if we had too much separation in the storm. As we cowered from the forces of nature I thought of our thin, susceptible shelter cascading 8,000 ft over the south face with us in it. That motivated us to check the security and connection to the mountain every hour or so. The dome was sturdy enough in moderate to high wind with a very low profile, but we were approaching the limits in this storm. We were getting our asses kicked hard. We weren’t revealing much to each other but deep down we were all scared as hell and wondering how our life line would fair through the night. After many sleepless hours the storm energy seemed to subside and the jet stream seemed to relocate south and higher. We were exhausted by the stress of the night and remained in the tent until visibility began to present an option to move again and to consider a summit push over Aina col to the summit.

Three Clear Days, One Summit, and one Kick Ass 9,000' Descent
Skier transporting gearTom Pulaski grinds out a carry up to 17,000’ with King Peak in the background.

Skinning upArt carries a load up to 17,000’.

Andy on the high frequency radio and got the weather. It was good for the next two or three days so we organized our gear, good and fuel and reviewed the map carefully to determine how close to the summit we could get in one day by traversing over Aina Col. It was beautiful, splitter blue skies with light wind as we headed over the col at 18,000. When it was calm it was down right hot as the solar intensity at that altitude is powerfully intense. But when the breeze picks up to 15 mph the temperature would seem to drop but 60 degrees almost immediately.

Approaching the col the sastrugi has the varied consistency, some like dense foam sheets attached to ancient blue ice as hard as steel. It is an impossible combination to ski. If we had to ski a big steep section of this on Teles it would be impossible and we would switch to crampons. Fortunately the surface improved and we made it to within a few miles of the summit on the Styrofoam version of the sastrugi. That was good as the blue and black ice is pretty terrifying to ski at angles beyond 15 degrees.

That night the temperatures got well below -30F and Paul and I kept a hawks eye on the lenticular hovering over two of the high summits of Logan to our south. If the jet decided to descend over us we would be vulnerable, most likely pinned down and in survival mode. If it when up we were going to the summit. There is always uncertainty with weather and conditions. And this was a classic dilemma in these mountains at higher altitudes.

My cheap, dirt bag budget wrist watch was set for 7am. The alarm went off as planned. Just as it did my watch fractured into several pieces with a high pitch “ting”. I had hung it up in the tent so the sound was not muffled by my down bag when the alarm went off. It was so cold, perhaps minus 35º at 3AM that the outer plastic components had contracted at such a different rate than the metal components that it simply self destructed. Paul laughed at me and remarked how my frugality of timekeeping technology was not up to the arctic task on that morning. After a good chuckle, Tom broke out 8 ampules of ginseng honey that he had been carrying the whole trip, Rick Brewed the tea and Paul and I sorted the gear. The temps were up 10 degrees to a balmy -25ºF so we laced up our insulated gaiters over our boots, strapped down the crampons and we were off for the summit after filling water bottles and tucking them into our innermost layers to avoid freezing. The air was fairly calm and the barometer still going up. We decided to go. Moving quickly at 19,000’ at that latitude is impossible and we just simply did not stop, partly in an effort to stay warm and partly because we new we were close to success. We continued climbing until mid afternoon until we were standing on the summit looking 14,000’ down upon the Hubbard Glacier and nearly 20,000’ down to the ocean with a spectacular view of Mount St. Elias across the glacier. The ocean which was only 40 miles away did not even seem real from our perspective. My emotions were running strong and positive and we were happy to get it done after nearly a month of navigating more than 100 miles and climbing over 26,000’ feet on skis. On the summit two quotes came to mind: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” -Ed Abbey, and “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”-Paul Tillich The latter half of that quote perfectly sums up living in the Saint Elias neighborhood for several weeks where the population density is 1 person per 2 million acres.

Upon our return to our high camp on the summit plateau we collapsed into our bags, brewed water for tea and ate what we could. In the morning we gathered our gear, broke down the tent, packed our one sled and reconnected to our skis. By noon we had climbed over the summit col and descended the 9,000’ down to the King Trench from Aina Peak for our final cowboy lift ride out with Andy in the turbo charged Pilatus. It was cold and the snow was still good three days after the storm on the descent. It is a trip that will remain clear in my mind till I am gone and honestly I can’t wait to go back again...

old-school expeditionFrom left to right: David Woods, Art Burrows, Paul Parker, Rick Hum, Tom Pulaski, Penticton Dave.