National Geographic : 1948 Feb
First American Ascent of Mount St. Elias to pass. For seven precious, irretrievable days a howling storm marooned the three of us in the tiny mountain tent. Several times we heard the aircraft circling above, trying to break through the shroud of driving mist and snow. But the storm kept us well hidden. We played cards and guessing games. We ran "Twenty Questions" into the ground. We slept, we watched the weather, we fumbled in our packs for the harmonica that wasn't there. Building a Snowhouse With time to kill, Colossal Enterprises, Inc., built a snowhouse (Plate III). My bedmate was a set of batteries. We had a "handie-talkie" which had fizzled as voice contact with the plane at Camp Seven. I hoped warming the batteries would make the radio work. It didn't. The skies were swept blue on the morning of July 8 (Plate III). It was still early when we heard the distant monotone of the DC-3. An hour later we had picked up 27 bundles from squarely within our newly tramped drop space-a magnificent job of precision "bomb ing" (Plate VI and page 248). July 11 found us all reunited at Camp Nine. Before pushing on across the saddle linking Mount Haydon to the upper pyramid of St. Elias, we detoured to the summit of Haydon (Plate VII). It was an unclimbed peak and we could not pass up a first ascent! From the slopes of Haydon, as from Camp Nine, we looked across three miles of space to the appalling west face of the Saint. A brutal wall of almost perpendicular black cliffs and icefalls glittering white and blue-green, it was raked almost constantly by terrific avalanches. During daylight and evening hours our ears seldom were free of their thunder. From miles away we watched blocks of ice, some big as houses, shatter into splinters as they bounced down the cliff. Snow avalanches increased to a wild cre scendo late in the afternoon on melting, sunny days. Ice slides from hanging glaciers, on the other hand, reached a climax of frequency twice a day, once each morning just after the sun hit the slopes and again in the eve ning when chilling shadows crept across the cliffs. Since our route strictly avoided areas of bergschrund, serac, and icefall, snow ava lanches were our constant dread. We quickly learned that daytime travel was close to suicidal. On the high slopes, therefore, we would leave camp at about 9 or 10 o'clock and climb until sunrise. Then the snow surface was frozen and the firmer footing made for much easier walking. In early July, at this latitude, there was sunshine much of the night and always light enough to move by as long as it was clear. Climbing Mount Haydon we had a fright. About halfway up a great smooth slope we felt the whole mass of snow beneath our feet suddenly settle with a crunch that set our spines tingling. A few feet above the lead man a thin line of cleavage appeared, running horizontally across the steeper section ahead. We stopped, feeling infinitely small and helpless. The snow mass we stood on seemed poised for flight and might easily carry all of us off the mountain to destruction on the glacier 6,000 feet down. Gingerly but hurriedly we descended to a solid ledge and found another route to the top. We had spotted from afar the logical site for our Camp Ten, on a prominent ice ledge at 13,300 feet on the great southwest ridge of Mount St. Elias proper. To reach this station we climbed at night over difficult rock and ice. One 1,500-foot slope of naked blue ice demanded the utmost caution and required 400 feet of fixed safety rope (Plates IV and V). Crampons (sets of steel frames studded with two-inch spikes that fasten on over climbing boots) were an absolute necessity. Thus shod, with ice ax in hand and properly roped, one can ascend ice slopes as steep as 80° (90° is vertical). In climbing with crampons we were mighty careful to make sure that all the steel points were well imbedded in the ice surface. If you once slip on glare ice, it is virtually impossible to stop yourself. Even if roped, you may get well bruised and scratched. For a Quick Stop, the "Self-arrest" We followed standard practice of putting three men on the 120-foot nylon ropes. After waist loops and knots were made, this left 55 feet between climbers. The only purpose of the rope, of course, is to ensure that, if one man slips and falls, his firmly belayed companions can stop and hold him. Had we slipped on steep icy slopes, we were prepared to throw ourselves immediately into the position of "self-arrest." You turn flat on your stomach, dig in the toes, and brace the ice ax along the side of your body with the pick point close to the shoulder dragging in snow or ice. Crossing the blue ice mentioned above, Put nam and Ferris were chopping out steps slant wise upward and across the slippery rise.