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  1. #1
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    TR: St. Elias mountains, Kluane National Park, Yukon

    St. Elias icefields - Kluane National Park - May 12-20

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    It makes for a difficult conversation at work. I need about a week off in May, but it could easily turn into three or more. When you’re obsessively watching the weather in the days leading up to a trip to the St. Elias mountains, a massive chain of stacked atmospheric rivers is not typically what you’re looking for. But that's the hand we were being dealt. A week before the four of us were going to fly into Kluane National Park, the first of several giant rivers came firing out of the Gulf of Alaska, and in one 24-hour period set the all-time rainfall record in Yakutat. The St. Elias mountains of Yukon and Alaska are well known for late season mega storms that last for weeks, but what was happening this spring season was ridiculous. Climbing and skiing parties were getting absolutely clobbered. The storm pattern was staying active and more winter-like, and reports were coming out of the field of teams that saw two or three days of sun over a 20-30 day period starting in mid April.

    The first record-setting atmospheric river that landed at Yakutat was followed by another river, albeit weaker and more dispersed. For one of the stormiest coastal areas on the planet, extreme weather is the norm. But this series of storms was something else, putting down almost 10 inches of rain in just a few days. We heard about another group, several European women, who were cautioned against using the sucker hole to fly in between two of the rivers. They went in anyway and within four days were calling for a rescue after they couldn’t keep their tents from collapsing in the heavy snow loads.

    It was clear that new snow was going to be deep at even the lower elevations, no telling how bad things would be higher up. Why this matters is that the Helio Courier ski plane that we would be flying in with, as capable as it is, cannot handle overly soft conditions for landing and taking off. The previous week, a group trying to exit from the Mount Seattle area of the Seward Glacier had lured the pilot in with reports of a packed runway and workable conditions. When the pilot landed to retrieve the group the plane sunk in over its wings and the four of them spent several days digging out the plane and waiting for a drop in temperatures to attempt a take off in firmer conditions. Adding the small aircraft element into the trip never makes things easy, but it’s one of the only ways to access these mountains, some of the most remote on the planet.

    In terms of weather, there are no localized products for the St. Elias mountains, but the NWS office in Juneau provides the best available forecast discussion for the region. It can be hard to read between the lines of super technical meteorological speak, but we were becoming slightly more optimistic by the day that the end of the wave chain was coming and who knows, maybe we would get lucky and hit the first high pressure window in weeks. Or maybe we would spend two weeks digging out the tents like everyone else, until we had had enough then call it good on what’s been a difficult year in the Yukon overall.

    With a snowpack plagued by numerous ice layers, bad avalanche conditions have been with us in the Yukon since December. There were a few swings this year that saw us go from -40 C to +5 in just 72 hours. There were some good days mixed in there, but the reality is, an unstable climate = unstable snowpack, and this was an unstable year. We were all hoping the high glaciers of Kluane would be the remedy and deliver an end of season trip with low avalanche stress. But of course, judging by these storms rolling in through Yakutat, all bets were off.

    There are amazing objectives in the area such as Mount St. Elias, which rises more than 18,000’ from sea level and offers the single largest ski descent in the world. The prominence of so many of the big mountains in the park is incredible. Apparently if you took Mount Logan and all its mass and volume and relocated it the high Tibetan plateau, it would easily stack up against even the likes of a Mount Everest. Kluane is lesser visited than Denali or Wrangell-St.Elias National Parks and there is still a ton of first ascent/descent potential. There is also a lot of blue ice in the park, especially as you move more inland, but a lot of good snowy faces too. For our first taste of the icefield ranges, no one in our group was interested in doing much else besides skiing and having a good time. Ice climbing at high altitude was not on tap.

    From previous trip reports we were seeing that even after big storms, it is an open question as to whether parties, far more experienced than us, carry skis all the way to the top on some of the major summits. There have been numerous accounts of groups leaving skis thousands of feet below the top of Mount St. Elias, Mount Steele and others, because the risks were unacceptable. I love ascending steep snow as much as the next guy, but again, ice climbing is not why we were here.

    Our fly in day, Saturday May 12, was calm and clear. It’s amazing that with so much unsettled weather, this date, one we arbitrarily chose six months ago, would hold and give us the window we needed to run two flights of two and get the whole team in. We knew that the window would be short, and that we were probably going to ride out several storm days after that before a stronger ridge would build and give us that allusive high pressure for the rest of the week.

    Mount Logan on the horizon
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    Mount Vancouver
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    We landed at about 3000m in the shadow of Mount Walsh and got to work setting up a camp as cloud cover began building.

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    The rest of our team coming in on the second flight. Typically each flight takes two people + gear.
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    By 9pm we were dug in and although we were all feeling the altitude, went for a little acclimatization ski that first night.

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    Goal for the outing: stretch the legs and don’t fall in a giant hole. I suppose 1 out of 2 isn’t bad - room for improvement. After collapsing a thin snow bridge and going in waist deep, we then stayed away from wind scoured west faces; that was the beginning and the end of the crevasse excitement in a place littered with monsters.

    The storm came in that night and lasted for the following two days. It was actually kind of ideal, as those two down days were great for continuing to acclimatize and kept us from going too high too soon.

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    Small breaks in the weather during those two days did not last long.

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    On day four we woke up to this. The high pressure would last for the next five days.

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    Being on the more eastern side of the range, snow totals for the storm were much less than some of the coastal zones; we saw about 15 cm of cold snow fall during those two days. Winds were light and north faces were about as good as it gets. We skied so much terrible snow this season, we were all incredibly grateful for getting lucky like this and going out on a high note.

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    Mount Steele's south face (16,643'). Even from 10km away, the unmistakable sound of snow, rock and ice crashing down the mountain stopped us in our tracks. It was early afternoon and made perfect sense that the slope was starting to shed in the heat of the day. Turns out it was actually a sizable earthquake that produced the release.

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    Mount Jedken offered some beautiful runs, mellow powder skiing in one of the most unreal venues with Mount Lucania and Mount Steele right in your face to the north, and Mount Logan looming large to the southwest.

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    Summit of Mount Jedken, Lucania and Steele to the north.

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    The scale of the icefield ranges is hard to wrap your head around. The largest non-polar icefields in the world, everything looks tiny and close, but then four hours later and that little bump on the horizon is still a little bump.

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    A highlight of the trip was a ski up to Mount Steele’s south summit at 4300m (14,100’), an objective other parties had aptly labeled the “Big Fucking Hill”. The approach from our low camp required a 10km slog up the Donjek glacier to the base of the big fucking hill, then a gentle ascent up the broad west face of the peak.

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    Surface hoar at 12,000'

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    Climbing the Big Fucking Hill, Logan in the distance.

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    The sprawling glacier below Mount Lucania (17,150') is where original 1937 party landed in the airplane and got stuck, a story detailed in the book Escape from Lucania. highly recommended. In 1937, Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America.

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    Like skiing a volcano in the PNW, the ascent lasts all day but the exit is short and sweet. We were back at camp by 6pm having been standing on the summit just an hour before.

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    What skiing 25km above 4000m looks like at the end of the day.
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    10pm on the glacier. May skiing, no headlamps required.
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    Last edited by Solesides; 11-12-2018 at 10:28 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
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    Yukon
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    The following days after the big fucking hill were spent sessioning more of Mount Jedken and its sub-ridges. Again, scale is difficult to judge, but each ramp back to the glacier was about a 400-500m run.

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    In all, this was an incredible zone for a first taste of the St. Elias. Technical objectives are all around you, but there is plenty to stay busy with if all you want to do is ski. Your biggest risk exposure is altitude and weather, and this proved true on the tail end of the trip as well. After five days of high pressure, another mega storm was building, so it made sense to pull the pin and avoid the beat down. We packed up camp and descended a few hundred meters to a flatter location where we would meet the Helio.

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    It was a great day for flying, but our group was at the back of the line of parties trying to get in and out. We spent the day resting, playing a few hands of poker, and by about 4pm the first flight was out. By 8pm we were back in Haines Junction in shorts and tee shirts.

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    David put together a few clips into a short video:

    And here is his full write-up if anyone wanted more info on the area: https://yukongonda.exposure.co/st-elias-ski-touring

    This is another film about the icefields, one I’ve enjoyed watching again and again:
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    Last edited by Solesides; 06-10-2018 at 01:18 PM.

  3. #3
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    Dec 2008
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    Thanks, great TR.

  4. #4
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    Jun 2004
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    Issaquah
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    Looks like a great adventure. Thanks for sharing.
    License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations

  5. #5
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    Apr 2006
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    fkna

  6. #6
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    Ogden
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    Looks awesome, thanks for sharing.

  7. #7
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    Nov 2014
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    SLC
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    sick

  8. #8
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    Sep 2008
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    8,423
    i'm in for the mag summit next year, wow!
    .....I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record

    http://procatinator.com/?cat=80

  9. #9
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    Awesome, looks like a blast!

  10. #10
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    Sep 2014
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    Oh man, those views... Thanks for the share.
    What if the hokey pokey really is what it's all about?

  11. #11
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    Nov 2017
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    Thrity years ago that would have been front cover stuff for National Geographic!

    Inspiring!

  12. #12
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    Jan 2006
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    Vanity Fair
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    Awesome.

    How much was the plane?
    Ich bitte dich nur, weck mich nicht.

  13. #13
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    Sep 2009
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    PNW
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    Nice work getting into the big country up there. Wow. Thanks for sharing.

  14. #14
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    CA
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    Quote Originally Posted by powderdaybeatsworkday View Post
    Thrity years ago that would have been front cover stuff for National Geographic!

    Inspiring!
    I was kinda thinking the same -- badass!
    sproing!

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Location
    Yukon
    Posts
    617
    Thanks everyone, appreciate the kind words!

    Quote Originally Posted by klar View Post

    How much was the plane?
    Cost of the flights vary depending on your destination, but typically you're looking at $800 CAD per person with a team of four to most landing sites. For those of you planning next year's Mag Summit, highly recommend Icefield Discovery. We were four flights total in and out, so each person basically pays for one leg. A team of three will typically get flown in with two flights, but can come out with just one when the food and fuel weight is subtracted (capacity is 750 lbs per flight). The landing permit issued by Parks Canada is super cheap, and aside from that, the only other costs are individual mountaineering permits.

  16. #16
    Join Date
    Oct 2010
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    369
    Nice work! Great timing on the window

  17. #17
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    heart in terrace, ass in cowtown
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    Right on, thanks for posting!

  18. #18
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    tahoe
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    Otherworldly. Your groups karmic bank appears to be full

  19. #19
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    Oct 2003
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    SE Alaska
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    11,716
    Good stuff man. Interesting to see the Donjek up high. Hope to do the Duke to Donjek packraft trip next summer.

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