Bold Alaska: First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

Quick note about Mount Everest before kicking off the review of the boldest ascents in Alaska

You might recall that before Ueli Steck was involved in an ugly scuffle on Mount Everest he was gunning for a new route up to its summit. Up to that point, the only glimmer of originality around climbing Everest was base jumping from the mountain and sending a Tweet from the summit. And, alas, Steck’s new route wasn’t to be. However, in case you hadn’t heard, Brendan Leonard reports that Canadian alpinist Raphael Slawinski is planning a new route up Everest’s northeast face. I’ll be checking in on that later.

Boldest Ascent of Alaska

So now we’re going to tour the nominees for the boldest ascent in Alaska by era. We’ll cover them in the 1800s, early 1900s, then go decade by decade from the 1960s to the present.

I believe Alaskan mountaineering is special. The venue is a vast wilderness that has been mapped but explored little by mankind. And even where mankind has stepped, like on it’s biggest attraction, Denali, the possibilities seem only as big as the imagination and there may be more white canvas left. Alaskan mountaineering, compared to other regions’ climbing, has the common characteristic for it’s most notable ascents being described as bold.

I am on a quest to name the boldest ascent in Alaskan mountaineering history. What is the boldest ascent doesn’t ultimately matter, however. But taking a journey in search of the boldest ascent in Alaska will tell us more about this place and what draws us to climb in such brash style than the answer.

Let’s go back to the first candidate:

1897 First Ascent of Mount St. Elias

In 1897, the elevations of certain peaks were not certain and word that Denali was the highest peak in North America only started making its way around certain circles early that year. By the spring, Luigi Amedeo, a.k.a. the Duke of Abruzzi, was en route with a large entourage under his leadership to reach the summit of Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) It was believed that it could be the “roof” of North America.

He and his people traveled across the Atlantic to America, went cross country to Seattle where they chartered a boat, before securing smaller boats to take them to the shore off of Mount St. Elias and hiking the remaining distance.

The Duke and his large team was tempted to storm the peak almost at once after reaching shore and the sky cleared. The mountain lies only 10 miles from the shores of Icy Bay. However, a group of experienced climbers in the Duke’s party convinced the Duke that the mountain’s near-appearance was actually an optical illusion made possible by its size and the gleaming sunlight. The approach should be patient and careful.

The expedition started climbing in late June. They experienced conditions that they had encountered only in winter in the Alps. Simple tasks of route finding, making and breaking camps, and preparing food became tedious activities. Then on July 30th, at 11:00 a.m., after 12 hours of climbing, the whole climbing party reached the summit.

On the descent, the winter-like conditions worsened. It forced an extra night on the mountain. The glacial lake that they skirted to make their route, was now essentially gone and easily passable. After 50 days on the mountain, the expedition reached the woods on August 11.

The Duke’s party’s ascent was done without beta and mostly grit and determination. The Duke was set on climbing the mountain at any reasonable cost. He even set aside his pride in a navigation dispute and made Vittorio Sella, the now famous Italian photographer, in charge of route decisions. That these climbers reached Alaska with minimal knowledge of what to expect, and that they accomplished so much, makes this a truly pioneering and memorable ascent.

Early 1900s

Next week I’ll cover three early expeditions. Let me know which one you think might be the boldest ascent among these:

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

[…After writing this post, I had a change in heart and direction that makes the series more exciting. Check it out by clicking here.]

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Steve Gruhn says:

    I suppose another bold climb from the 19th century was the 1852 first ascent of Iliamna Volcano by a party sent from the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Saint Petersburg, Russia. Not much is known about this ascent, but climbing a 10,000-foot coastal peak in Alaska in that era (13 years before the first ascent of the Matterhorn and 2 years before the first ascent of the Wetterhorn) certainly must have been a bold undertaking.

  2. Hmm. I had heard about that one a long time ago and completely forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding us, Steve.

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