The crevasse on Mount Vancouver was giant—wide and cavernous, exuding a silent chill from its blue depths. But the remains of a collapsed snow bridge overhung both sides at a narrower constriction.
Trying not to look directly down the smooth walls, I attempted to judge the distance between them and gauge how reliable the overhanging snow was. It looked as though the two feet jutting from each side might hold body weight. This reduced the net distance to around eight feet.
I was in pure objective mode now. After seven grueling days on the mountain, out of food and running on reserves, my partner Simon Yates and I couldn’t afford the luxury of fearful speculation. Eyes take in data and brain puts out an evaluation.
“Yeah, OK, I’ll jump the thing.”
I took one more look and stamped a take-off mark in the overhanging snow. Simon plunged both tools in for a belay, heels dug in. He measured out another 12 feet of rope and locked his belay device.
I backed up 20 feet from the edge, stopped and took a moment to get psyched. Then I looked down at my harness and realized that I wasn’t adequately prepared to get myself out of the crevasse if I botched the jump.
It was cold and I could feel my hands and brain starting to go numb. We’d been on the go for nearly 14 hours, with only two granola bars and some tea for breakfast. I’d already packed away the slings. If I fell 15 feet down the icy maw that’s probably where I’d remain. But such reflections served no purpose if I wasn’t going to grab my etriers, so I ignored the nagging internal voice—and jumped.
I let out a little victory whoop. Then we hauled the sacks across, and I got ready to belay Simon, who was measuring the ground. I noticed that he was limping slightly on his right leg. He’d twisted it plunging through a snow bridge earlier on the descent. Not ideal for jumping an ugly crevasse at the end of a very long day. Then it occurred to me that if Simon didn’t make the jump he’d be stuck in the crevasse just like I would have been. I’d be holding the rope with a crappy snow belay in the fading light, getting colder and colder with no real hope of getting him out. Our situation was a weird mirror of his and Joe Simpson’s, 14 years before on Peru’s Siula Grande, when Simon was forced to cut the rope between them to save his life. That choice resulted in one of the most harrowing mountain epics ever written, Simpson’s Touching the Void.
I’d always thought that Simon had made the right choice. The entire epic and its aftermath showed his amazing strength of character. But I’d sure as hell never want to be faced with that decision nor have to go through what he did. And besides, I had no idea where my knife was stashed.
After 36 hours in transit from the U.K., we arrived in Whitehorse, capitol of the Yukon, well past midnight local time. We spent the next day in a disoriented state in supermarkets and gear shops, buying all our expedition food and other remaining supplies. The following day we trundled by shuttle van along the Klondike Highway, up and over the mountains before dropping down to sea level and the airstrip in Skagway, Alaska, where we met our pilot, Paul Swanstrom. An amiable and highly skilled operator, he’d been recommended to us by the Alaskan veteran Jack Tackle.
Swanstrom flew us and all of our hastily assembled ballast across the fjord to Haines, where we spent the rest of the afternoon in his hangar, sorting and repacking. Then a night out in Haines to sample the local bars and brews.
Flying in from sea level and getting dumped on a glacier at 8,000 feet in the blazing midday sun isn’t the best way to cope with the effects of too much drink and not enough sleep, especially when you’re still jet-lagged. But Simon and I could hardly complain—the weather was perfect, the route looked superb, and our pilot had landed us exactly where we wanted: at the foot of Mount Vancouver’s stunning southwest spur. On top of that, the snow was unexpectedly consolidated and firm. Didn’t even need skis. With no wallowing at all we unloaded the plane, and after watching it disappear into the glaring distance we set up basecamp on the very spot.
Simon and I had been to the Saint Elias Range before, in the spring of 2005, when we did a big new route on the West Face of Mount Alverstone. While casting about for a suitable unclimbed objective in the region, I’d chanced upon a Bradford Washburn photo of the South Face of Mount Vancouver, published in the 1994 American Alpine Journal. The photo highlights two long and totally classic spurs—one was the South Spur, climbed by Pilling and Diedrich in 1993. But the South West spur to its left, overall steeper and more knife-edged, had apparently never been done. The line portrayed in the black-and-white image had drawn us all the way from Britain.
Sometimes reality can disappoint, but standing in the blazing sunshine and gazing up at the spur itself, we could see that it was even better than we’d hoped: 8,000 vertical feet of sharp and soaring ridgeline, capped by an imposing wall of ice gargoyles guarding the summit. The gargoyles had to be enormous, because they were clearly visible to the naked eye even from here, forming a jagged and majestic crown.
This was going to be a big and committing climb, and I was glad I was with Simon—an alpinist hardened by more than three decades of intense experience in mountains the world over. Simon cut his teeth on a host of hardcore routes in Scotland and the Alps, including the Eiger North Face, the Walker Spur and Colton/McIntyre routes on the Grandes Jorasses, and solos of Point Five Gully and Minus One on Ben Nevis. And of course he did the first ascent of the difficult West Face of Siula Grande (20,853 feet) in the Cordillera Huayhuash range with Joe Simpson back in 1985, with the ensuing ordeal of trying to rescue Joe after he broke his leg on the descent.
As a partner, Simon is utterly sound and has impeccable mountain sense. He’s a straightforward and down-to-earth bloke who relishes climbing, and we have a very good rapport. There are always huge uncertainties, endless judgment calls and the potential for life-and-death struggles on this sort of endeavor, and it’s vital to climb with someone dependable.
We packed and sorted and on the following morning started the route in the gray dawn. The first obstacle was an awkward bergschrund that Simon negotiated. Then a 1,000-foot headwall at the back of the cirque to reach a col and the ridge proper. The neve was fairly good and we wanted to get over this second obstacle as fast as possible, to avoid the continual slush avalanches and rock fall that we’d observed from basecamp, so we climbed unroped. The sun was blazing by the time we reached the col and I was drenched in sweat. We ascended the broad and gentle ridge up and over a subsidiary rise and down into another col. We knew from basecamp surveillance that this would be the last blatantly flat spot to bivy, but it was only 1 p.m. and we sure weren’t stopping.
The ridge got steeper and narrower above the second col, with sheer drops developing on the right. The vertical brink forced us onto the more open face to the left. We roped up for the surprisingly exposed mixed ground on the west side of the ridge and made steady progress as the day wore on, finally regaining the ridge crest early in the evening where we found a spot to hack out a precarious tent platform. The temperature plunged with the setting sun.
Day two brought more perfect weather and mixed climbing, followed by a long icy traversing section to outflank a steep rock buttress. Again it was baking hot and I was soaked with perspiration after every lead. Serious dehydration was setting in, but there was no way to drink enough to reverse it. We were still making good progress, but as our second day gradually waned, the actual scale of our undertaking dawned on us. We’d more or less blasted up Mount Alverstone’s 6,000-vertical-foot West Face and summited on Day 2, but this was turning into a more protracted and sustained affair. A striking aspect of mountains in the Alaska/Yukon region is that even though the absolute height above sea level isn’t comparable in most cases, the net vertical base-to-summit relief is often Himalayan in scale.
Late in the day we rejoined the narrow crest of the ridge and hacked out another exposed tent site. The views from our aerie were breathtaking—to the south, basecamp was still visible as a small dot on the flat glacier 4,000 feet straight down, and beyond it a huge and open vista of heavily glaciated mountains stretched to the shimmering blue of Disenchantment Bay. Our tent door faced west, toward the twin giants Mount Logan and Mount Saint Elias, with the burning sunset and hazy pacific on the horizon.
It was a good place to be, reclining in my warm down bag with the hanging stove purring away in the bivy tent, perched thousands of feet up on an icy knife edge in the midst of a vast mountain wilderness. It was curious to reflect on how long I’d been climbing and how much I still loved it. I’m 53 now, and started climbing at Tahquitz Rock in Southern California way back in 1973. I’ve been fortunate enough to survive a number of epics and close calls in mountains all over the planet, from Alaska to the Andes, Alps, Himalayas, the Karakorum, Tien Shan and the Scottish Highlands. But the epics seem to get less frequent with time.
Alpine climbing, especially on a big new route, is a perilous journey into the unknown, and this is a large part of its power. The danger and uncertainty, the magnitude of risk, serve to put our freedom into absolute focus. No one was forcing us to be here and no one had the right to stop us—we freely chose to place ourselves in this awesome and unpredictable scenario. And while epics can and do happen all the time, the opposite is also the case. Sometimes everything goes right, and you’re gifted the perfect mountain.
It was almost too good to be true, but day four dawned beautiful and clear. With some trepidation we approached the looming rock tower. Simon traversed left on hard, shaded ice to the base of the chute, but the passage still looked hemmed in by rock walls. I climbed steep tricky mixed ground to enter the chute and kept going on good ice. It was early and the chute was cold and deep in shadow.
As I got higher it was looking less promising all the time—the small couloirs we’d seen from below were all fading into steep rock gullies higher up and I had little hope of finding my way out. But the ice continued up and left into a corner, so I kept going. Another 30 feet and I was nearly at the foot of the rock wall where the ice chute ended. I’d resigned myself to grim future prospects. Almost at the rock wall, a narrow, nearly melted-out ice runnel appeared up on the left, which connected directly to the upper ice ridge. I let out a yelp of joy. Incredible—our asses were saved! It’s moments like this that make climbing such an addictive experience.
I’d done the Cassin Ridge on Denali back in 1987, and although it had a few hard sections, much of the route was just romping up cushy snow, often quite sheltered from exposure. But now we weren’t doing any romping, mostly finding ourselves on our front-points. And the yawning drop straight down to an icefall on the Seward Glacier many thousands of feet below put our committed situation into sharp relief. We had no back up and not very much gear. Retreat at this point would have been extremely problematic, especially since we’d opted to leave the satellite phone in basecamp. But we’d both agreed it was the right thing to do, and would make our departure into the unknown more definitive. Now the only real way down was up.
At first we were relieved to be moving on higher ground above the rock tower, but then our concern became directed toward the final obstacle—the wall of ice gargoyles looming overhead. From this perspective it looked like the Emperor Ridge on Mount Robson, with the actual summit quite distant from where our spur intersected this last defense. There were lines of weakness between the protruding features, but it was impossible to gauge the angle because the gargoyles themselves were overhanging. It looked like we’d be faced with a heinous and sustained traverse of the gargoyles to reach the actual high point and the South Summit. Could take another long day at least. The weather was holding, but huge lenticular cloud caps, like luminous flying saucers, formed over Logan and Saint Elias during the afternoon—never a good omen.
Late in the afternoon we reached a shoulder and hacked out our fourth tent platform as the temperature plummeted. We were far up in the sky now. The air was perfectly still and we were bathed in rosy light as the sun slowly lowered over a vast white wilderness of endless mountains.
I’d climbed the Cassin Ridge with Keith Echelmeyer, a rugged and highly accomplished glaciologist, mountaineer and bush pilot whom I’d known for years. We’d flown in as the last remaining party flew out, so we had the entire mountain to ourselves.
On the approach to the Cassin we were nearly obliterated by a massive serac avalanche in the aptly named Valley of Death. At the end of the third day, at about 16,500 feet, we dug a tent platform near the bottom of a long 55-degree snow slope. During the night we were hit by the worst storm I’ve ever encountered. The slope became a torrent of funneling snow, and despite our best efforts the tent got buried and then finally collapsed from the weight, the poles breaking at 3:30 a.m. We emerged from the crushed tent into a howling white hell—visibility about 10 feet, 80 mph winds, minus 20°F. We tried to excavate a cave in the slope but it was like digging into a sand dune. The tent and all our equipment steadily disappeared under the flowing powder. Then I remembered noticing a slight cornice at the far end of the slope, above a gully that dropped down the edge of a neighboring face. Maybe we could dig a cave there? I sifted through the debris and found my harness. Keith belayed as I groped through the blinding spindrift, dropped down into the gully and found myself in the lee of a frozen cavity suspended over the abyss.
I wanted to survive, and was prepared to beat the living shit out of the ice slope for as long as it took. The arctic storm rampaged all around us, there was nothing to drink, and our food was buried somewhere in the collapsed tent. We spent the entire day just hacking out a hole in the ice, and it was a terrible struggle. The knuckles of my gloves were trashed and my wrists ached from the repeated impact. By the end of the day we finished carving a grotto big enough for the two of us, then made numerous trips back to our ruined camp for food and equipment.
The storm continued unabated for the next three days and nights, but it was strangely peaceful inside our womb and we got lots of sleep.
One day, as we were working to expand our living quarters, Keith’s axe struck an old woolen glove encased in the ice.
“What the fuck!” he shouted. “There’s a body in there!”
He chipped apprehensively and was soon relieved to find that the glove didn’t contain a cadaverous hand. We continued mining into the slope and uncovered a cache of old gear—ancient etriers with wooden rungs, coils of braided rope. Then we excavated a large bag of rice with Japanese writing on the brown paper packaging.
“Maybe this stuff was left by the original Japanese Couloir team,” Keith mused. “Looks like the right vintage.”
The equipment was of no use, but we kept the tattered bag of rice since we were running low on food. The storm eventually subsided and we continued on and reached the summit as a new storm arrived. We were trapped again in a blizzard at 19,500 feet on the way down and finally descended the East Buttress by compass in a whiteout. For the last two days all we had left to eat was the Japanese rice.
Day five again dawned clear and blue. But now there was a feeling of real urgency—we knew the splitter weather couldn’t continue, we’d only brought five days of food, and were faced with an imposing wall of gargoyles.
We broke camp quickly and regained the crest of the spur with sensational exposure following an icy cornice fracture line to steep ice slopes leading up to the rime headwall. I headed for a narrow central gully between two wildly protruding mushrooms. The ice was getting hard and the weight of my rucksack too much, so I had to put in some screws and belay early, directly beneath a threatening wave-like formation erupting from the left gully wall.
Simon tied his sack to the anchor and ventured up steepening ice into the constricted channel. The scene became surreal as he climbed through an almost completely enclosed tube of ice and rime before disappearing from view. Some time later, after most of the rope was out, a lengthy pause ensued and then the ropes pulled tight. I yelled but couldn’t hear anything, so I assumed this meant I was on belay and started climbing. I could barely squeeze through the ice tube with my sack on, and had no idea what would happen above. It suddenly widened into a shallow basin, followed by a steep, narrow exit runnel capped by an awkward pull through an overhang.
I saw Simon, only 30 feet above, contentedly belaying on flat and open ground. I couldn’t believe it. Instead of intersecting the crest of some nightmare ridge far from the highest point, the runnel ended on a flat snowfield, and the remaining lump of a gargoyle forming the main right wall of our gully was actually the summit!
I reached Simon and the summit plateau in a euphoric state. “Man, it’ll be a long time before I do anything that good again.”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” replied a very happy Simon.
The views were phenomenal, the air was completely still and we were immersed in serene afternoon light standing on the South Summit of Mount Vancouver (15,700 feet) after having been in North America for only nine days. We shook hands and agreed it was one of the best routes we’d ever done.