The Summit Plateau: Minus 40 Degrees

May 26, Day 12: Weather is no better. French come in, tired and cold. Two of them tried for the W Summit, but failed. One of them, Barbara, has moderate frostbite on a finger: a large blister that she showed us at base camp several days later. I am not sure it would turn black. At this camp we are higher than the highest camp on Denali, so we are, for several nights, the highest people in N. America, with the exception of the three who are camped at Russell Col 150' above us.

May 27, Day 13: Promising start, but we cannot travel as vis. disappears. Visit Larry, Jennifer and Mike. Mike sits in his tent with no shirt on! They are a little down because their project is not going well because of a lack of helicopter support. I enjoy talking to Mike (a guide) about routes in Canada. He has climbed Logan before and he tells us that our plan of traversing around the W peak is a sound way to reach the summit area. Jennifer says she would like to join us tomorrow. She is a certified assistant guide, and we welcome her. We trade a nose guard to Jennifer for some toe warmers. In fact, these work quite well for about 6+ hours and I used them on summit day and on the day following. Katie had overboots in addition to her special liners, while Susie and I just used stock telemark boots and liners and insulated gaiters. We were all cold from time to time, but generally all right. The weather station group has a radio and their forecast is for a reasonably good day tomorrow.

May 28, Day 14: The big day. We try to get off early and are moving by 10, with Jennifer along. Of course, we have spent some time deciding whether our objective should be the main peak or the west peak. While I favored the latter, I also felt that to try and fail on the main peak would be reasonably honorable, so I had no objection to that plan. It was 4 miles away and 2000 feet above us. We started well (except that my skins wouldn't stay on in the cold snow and I had to resort to duct tape; and I needed another stop to remove my parka; amazingly it was almost warm this day!). As we reached the first slopes of the west peak we started traversing. Pretty soon we needed crampons on the hard and moderately steep windpack. We put them on quickly enough, but soon our team's inexperience showed as some were concerned about the exposure. We managed to walk through this steep part with no great difficulty (I had to readjust my crampons at one point) despite the moderately heavy packs (skis attached). But then we got our first surprise when Jennifer was no longer with the group. As it turned out, she had a problem with a strap on her instep crampon and had to retreat a bit to adjust it. What to do? I felt we had to return to look for her, and I went back, sans pack, a long way. I saw no sign of her, nor sign of a fall or ascent, and so I concluded she had returned to camp with some difficulty or other. But this cost us a lot of time and energy.

When I caught back up to the group, we sat a bit to figure out where we were. At first I thought we had completed our traverse and were looking at Logan, but K. felt that it was only the W peak we were looking at, and a GPS reading confirmed her view. Then it seemed to me imperative that we leave our skis behind if we were to go forward, as the weight would slow us down and it seemed unlikely that there would be any skiing ahead. But the various issues of the day had sapped our motivation and we decided to go for the W peak only. That seemed fine to me, so we carried up to a high shoulder of the W peak and dumped our packs. The peak looked to be just above us (confirmed by my altimeter) and an easy crampon.

So up we went. I still felt quite good at this 19000+ altitude, though the cramponing on the moderate ground was surprisingly slow. At one point Susie spotted Jennifer coming up in our tracks, which eased our minds. However, for K and me up front, it was one false summit after another. Leslie lost her motivation to continue, and at what we thought would be our high point K and I were discouraged to see a rather sharp-looking bump ahead. At first I thought it was Logan, and the usual "Where the hell are we?" discussion ensued. But Logan was two miles away, and this bump -- the summit cone -- was a short distance away. It was indeed the Logan_22.gif, but it looked very steep and intimidating to us, as if it would surely require a rope for our team (which, of course, was left in our packs behind us). As we later learned, it would have been fairly simple to walk over there and crampon up. But I guess we have good eyes for ski routes, and not for climbing routes.

Ross's team had indeed climbed this to within 70 feet of the top, and Ruedi Beglinger, two years ago, did indeed snowboard off very near the top of this bump. In short, we were intimidated by it and decided to return.

So that's it: The great summit day in good weather, and we come away with only a day of strolling up to 19300 feet. A lesson learned.

PRESSURE: A chart in Ward's "Mountain Medicine" shows that the barometric pressure we were seeing (lowest was 29.44 dea level equivalent) -- which translates directly into partial pressure of oxygen -- at 20000 feet is 46% of that at sea level.

Probably the biggest reason for our summit failure was our belief (also confirmed by the view of the W and main summits from King Col) that the W Summit was a fairly gentle slope that we could easily walk up. This reminds me of one of the most amazing things about the mountains that continues to affect me even after so many years of experience: a moderate route, when looked at face-on, can seem way steeper than it really is.

Another interesting contributing factor is the use of the word "plateau" to describe this whole area. "Plateau", as in plate or flat. Well, it is not flat. There are crevasses and exposure in this area, and one needs a very exact plan in order to get the main summit. One can do as the first ascenders did and go over the top of the W Summit, but that would add 1600' of climb to the day, which, for us, would have been too much. One could also go very low and take a direct route -- that might have worked. The traverse we tried still seems like the best route, but one needs very good information as to where one should traverse. As Ruedi Beglinger later told me: "For this choice, if you are a little too low or too high, you are in trouble." Our feeling now is that we should have ascended the slope to the W Peak on skis (as opposed to the roundabout cramponing route we took -- we were too low), and then traversed on the shoulder quite close to the W Summit.

So we turned around, skied down the incredibly difficult windpack back to our wands, and cruised around (well, in fact it was quite flat and slow) back to camp at 6 pm. When we switched back from crampons to skis I had a little pain incident, as my hands had gotten too cold in my time spent with the maps and GPS. I guess they slightly froze and thawed quickly, but that causes a lot of pain, and there is not enough oxygen to scream properly!

While it was a little sad that our expedition was denied any moment of self-congratulatory hugs and photos at a summit of any sort, we had given the peaks our best effort. We had gotten this far on our own (admittedly, following the tracks and wands of others), and it did give us an appreciation for what the first ascenders did: they climbed the W Summit, only to get a glimpse of the main summit almost two miles away. They did that of course, and then spent two nights in open bivouacs before returning to their last camp. We managed to come this far and never even see the main summit (except from King Col).

Jon Waterman, in a TV program, called that pioneering first ascent one of the greatest tour-de-forces of mountaineering history. They really suffered on that trip: his video has interesting footage from the event.

And now I would have to tell the editor of a math journal to change the bio. for me that he had composed. Instead of "he skied to the summit of Mt Logan", he will have to say "he skied to near the summit of Mt. Logan." And of course, everyone will ask why we didn't make it (answers above), was it too hard for us (probably yes), and so on. But these questions completely dodge the central questions: Did we have fun? Absolutely. Did our equipment work? Yes. Was the team a good one? Yes. Did you see anything interesting? Oh, yes. Any regrets? Really, none. And, of course, the biggest thrill for me was that we got as far as we did entirely on our own. All the food and planning and research we carried out on our own, with the risk that that entails. And, indeed, I must take the blame here for not doing more thorough research on the route for the final day. However, I now feel that even if the route had been wanded right to the summit, we might not have had the strength or desire to follow it. And another point of satisfaction for us was our speed. Although it seemed like we were moving slowly, the other teams commented on how fast we were. Indeed, our time to the plateau, 11 travel days, was quite good.

SOUND NOTE: As we cramponed over that first section of the day, there was a taste treat for our ears. Each step would reverberate through the snow in a way I had never heard before. And little snowballs falling down the hill would also cause surprisingly loud noises, as if someone were talking into a radio. Unusual.

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