On June 23rd 1925, six men stood on top of Canada gazing down on the rest of the Saint Elias Mountains below them. Anywhere else in Canada these mountains that the climbers were looking down upon would have towered over the landscape. However, these men were standing on top of Canada’s highest mountain: Mount Logan.
The story of the climb begins not months, but years before the exhausted, oxygen deprived climbers stood on Mount Logan’s summit. In 1922, Professor A.P. Coleman of the University of Toronto addressed the Alpine Club of Canada with the idea of climbing Mount Logan. With the bug planted in their heads, the Alpine Club of Canada began preparing for the climb. In order to make this climb a truly international endeavor, they requested climbers from Britain and the United States. Then came the selection of a leader. A.H. MacCarthy from British Columbia was selected and enjoyed great confidence from his fellow party members. As W.W. Foster, one of the men selected to tackle Mount Logan noted:
“The selection of a leader was recognized as the first essential to success and much anxious thought was given to it; but from the moment Captain A.H. MacCarthy agreed to accept this position the greatest confidence prevailed, his outstanding qualifications as a mountaineer and leader preeminently fitting him for the position.” (W.W. Foster, “The Story of the Expedition,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15, 1925, p.48)
The remainder of the party consisted of H.F. Lambart (deputy leader, a Dominion Land Surveyor on loan from the Department of the Interior), W.W. Foster, A. Carpe, H.S. Hall Jr., N.H. Read, R.M. Morgan, and A. Taylor.
Next came the challenging task of finding a route in to Mount Logan. Today, mountaineers can fly into glaciers that are relatively close to the foot of the Logan massif. However, the climbers of the 1925 expedition did not enjoy that luxury. As a result, MacCarthy undertook three journeys in the area in order to locate the best possibly route. The first route that he scouted out began in Whitehorse, Yukon where one could travel to the Kluane region along a wagon road. However, this was followed by a 96 kilometer (58 mile) trek across glaciers in an area that had been left unexplored. The second potential route began at Yakutat, Alaska with the climbers travelling over the Malaspina and Seward glaciers, then going around the southwest side of the massif. This route would involve 100 kilometers (62 miles) across glaciers. The final route involved taking a train to a small mining town named McCarthy, Alaska. Then a pack train would be taken up Chitina Valley to the foot of the Chitina Glacier. From here the mountaineers would travel over the Chitina, Walsh, and Logan Glaciers. In the end, this route was chosen because there was more information about it. The climbers could look at maps and photographs that had been produced by the International Boundary Commission in 1912 and 1913.
Although the route from MacCarthy was best known, no one had ever travelled within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Mount Logan itself. This meant that there were still a number of uncertainties about the route. As a result, MacCarthy once again undertook a reconnaissance mission. He wished to establish a route, determine what conditions they might face, determine what equipment would be necessary, and, finally, find a route up the Logan massif. MacCarthy realized that the need for supplies in such an epic expedition would be great. In response to this dilemma, MacCarthy returned to the region yet again in February 1925 and travelled by dog team to cache 8,600 kilograms (19,111 pounds) of supplies en route to Mount Logan (Monty Alford, The Raven and the Mountaineer, (Surrey, B.C.: Hancock House Publishers Ltd.), 2005, p. 38).
The expedition began on May 2nd 1925 as the team set sail from Seattle on board a ship bound for Cordova, Alaska. From Cordova they travelled to McCarthy. On May 12th, the party set off down the Chitina Valley with their pack train of horses and mules on a 140 kilometers (88 miles) journey. On May 17th, the party arrived at the foot of the Chitina Glacier. From this point the party faced a 70-80 kilometers (45-50 miles) of glacier travel that stood between them and the Logan massif.
As the party set foot on the Chitina Glacier, the horses and mules were left behind and the climbers became the beasts of burden. They were also beginning travel across inhospitable land where life could not flourish. As one of the expedition members commented afterwards, the trip “resulted in forty-four days being spent on ice and snow without any sign of plant or animal life.” (W.W. Foster, “The Story of the Expedition,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15, 1925, p. 54)
On May 22nd, the party reached the Boundary Cache where two sleds awaited them. From this point on they alternated between pulling their gear on sleds or lugging the heavy loads on their backs depending upon the terrain.
On May 25th, the party reached their main cache on the Ogilvie Glacier. This cache was located 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the foot of the Cascades, as steep ice fall, at an elevation of 2,377 meters (7,800 feet), where the Advance Base Camp would be located. The supplies were shuttled from the cache to the Cascades by sled. While hauling the sleds to the Cascades, Foster noted the ease of transporting supplies with the sleds, as well as the beauty and dangers that lay before the climbers as they progressed towards Mount Logan:
“The Yukon sleds proved very useful, and by starting as soon as possible after 1 a.m. each morning a good crust was obtainable on the snow lying upon the glacier. The hard work received its compensation in the unique beauty of this vast area of ice and snow, and upon the occasion of the first trip to Cascade the party was saluted by a tremendous avalanche falling thousands of feet from the towering heights above, its volume so great that for fully ten minutes after fleecy clouds of pulverized ice were blowing up from the Ogilvie Glacier on which the avalanche descended.” (W.W. Foster, “The Story of the Expedition,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15, 1925, pp.54-55)
On May 31st, the party finally completed the transfer of supplies to the Cascades. This was no small feat: “To accomplish this, 4000 lb. of equipment, provisions and supplies had been relayed 308 miles by the party itself, each member making an average carry of 70 lb. forty miles and relaying two tons eight miles” (W.W. Foster, “The Story of the Expedition,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15, 1925, p.55). Then they faced the daunting task of ascending the Cascades. At the top of the Cascades, the climbers entered into King Trench. In two days, 1,500 pounds (find kilograms) of supplies were hauled over the 300 meters (980 feet) of the Cascades to Quartz Ridge at the base of King Trench. This involved hauling the sleds up a route that at one point is a forty-five degree slope. The trail was marked using willow wands placed 31 meters (100 feet) apart. This was done almost to the summit, and proved to be indispensable during the descent.
On June 3rd, the party departed from the Advance Base Camp, ascending the Cascades for a final time. They pressed onwards past Quartz Ridge, arriving at Observation Peak on June 6th. From here they could see King Col at the end of King Trench. At Observation Camp (10,200 feet or 3,110 meters) they were hit with a violent storm. As the team leader, MacCarthy, recalled:
“The storm continued throughout the night, sometimes with extreme violence, threatening to blow away our three alpine tents. The morning broke with no wind and a dense fog. By 9 o’clock there were signs of clearing, so all hands took packs of about 35 pounds and we set out on two ropes with snow shoes and a supply of willow markers, hoping to blaze a good trail and cache our packs at a good site near the Col.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p. 61)
Four miles beyond Observation Camp, the party arrived at an icefall. While this was relatively easy to traverse, above the icefall the party became enveloped in dense fog and sleet so intense that the party thought it wise to turn back for fear of falling into a crevasse. On the return journey to Observation Camp the willow markers came in handy: “During the return journey, with many stretches of our trail entirely wiped out by the driving snow storm, it was very evident how essential the willow markers were to us in fog or storm in order to preserve a safe line of travel” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.61). Upon their return to Observation Camp it was clear and sunny. With this incident they learned a valuable lesson about the unpredictability of the weather on the mountain: “This fact gave rise to two suggestions with but one import: ‘Do not delay a start or alter your plans simply because conditions are bad, equip for it and go ahead’: and again: ‘Just because it is fine weather, do not bank upon its remaining so all day; prepare for the worst and be ready for it when it comes’” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, pp. 61-62). On their second attempt to reach King Col, they succeeded in ascending the icefall and located a camping spot one mile below the Col, at 4,020 meters (13,200feet).
On June 8th with a camping spot in mind at King Col, the party departed from Observation Camp with 300 kilograms (650 pounds) to be transported to Col Camp (14,500 feet or 4,420 meters). Great measures were undertaken in order to protect the camp from the high winds in the mountains. The camp was located as close to the steep slopes of the Col as possible and platforms were dug out of the snow bank for the tents.
On June 10th, the party set out and established a reasonably safe route up King Col to a height of 5,090 meters (16,700 feet). A passage named MacCarthy’s Gap “led us through a sinister ridge to the stretches above” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.64). Over the next few days, the climbers shuttled supplies further up the mountain. The effort was plagued with numerous delays due to uncooperative weather.
On June 16th, the climbers abandoned Col Camp and trudged up King Col and proceeded to the camp that would be dubbed Windy Camp. This was at an elevation of 5,090 meters (16,700 feet). At this point in the climb MacCarthy grimly observed the effects of the intense work load combined with the effects of altitude upon the climbers: “Party all in fair shape but not strong for the work to be done” (MacCarthy diary in A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.66).
June 17th saw another reconnaissance trip up the mountain in an effort to give the party “relaxation from drudgery” as well as “determine our exact location on the massif” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.66). The party climbed for about five hours but were unable to determine their location as the fog was too thick. That night the climbers endured the lowest temperatures that they would have to on the mountain. The mercury plunged to the -37 degrees Celsius notch on the thermometer.
On June 18th, five of the climbers, led by Lambart, descended down to the Col Camp for the dual purpose of a good night’s sleep as well as to shuttle more provisions up to Windy Camp. The three remaining climbers, led by MacCarthy, again set out up the mountain to the saddle between the double peaks which lay between them and their goal, the summit of Mount Logan. However, once again the weather had different ideas. High winds prevented the three from proceeding beyond the saddle. As MacCarthy stated later:
“Lying prone and peering over the edge of the saddle we were able to get occasional glimpses of another double peak about three miles byond [sic]; this evidently was the real double peak shown on the map to be northwest of the main peak and next in height to it, but nothing was visible beyond it. Opinions therefore divided as to whether or not it would prove to be our final goal or only next to the final goal; we felt, if at all possible, the two highest peaks of the massif should be climbed, in order to be certain of setting foot on the highest point of the mountain.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.66)
Nevertheless, they were able to locate a good spot for a camp below the double peak beyond the one which they had just climbed. But was the top of the double peak the summit, or was there something higher beyond that? This was a question that would remain unanswered until the final summit assault. On June 19th, the three climbers at Windy Camp descended to the rest of the party in order to help them pack supplies up the mountain. The cold air was beginning to have its effects on the climbers. The footwear that they had worn thus far on the expedition was no longer adequate. It was time to trade in their shoe pack for moccasins combined with multiple layers of socks. More critical however, was the frostbite appearing on Morgan’s fingers and feet. This affliction marked the end of the climb for Morgan. Hall, in a show of compassion and unselfishness, offered to assist the ailing Morgan on his descent; however, not before carrying the heaviest pack to the next camp. This likely saved the other climbers from expending a great amount of energy and improved their chances of a successful summit assault.
On June 21st, Hall and Morgan began their descent in the midst of a snowstorm. Throughout most of the morning this storm held the remainder of the party hostage in the camp as they were unable to proceed any further up the mountain. Eventually the storm subsided “and the camp and mountainside were bathed in warm sunshine” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p. 68). With this fortunate turn in the weather the party was able to proceed to Ridge Camp at an elevation of 5,600 meters (18,500 feet). However, as the climbers inched closer to their goal, the combined effects of the altitude and the energy that they had expended to reach Ridge Camp was taking its toll on them: “we seemed to be content to sit and contemplate the work to be done rather than to do it; actions were painfully slow and inefficient and the smallest exertion caused rapid breathing and a desire for rest” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.69).
The following morning, the party broke camp at 11 a.m. After a three and a half hour journey the party covered six kilometers (four miles) to Plateau Camp. At an elevation of 5,460 meters (17,900 feet), this was the final camp before the summit assault. Immediately after setting up camp a storm blew in. While the party had sufficient provisions to wait out the storm, MacCarthy had grave concerns about the state of his climbing team. He expressed these concerns in his diary:
“Had supper at 4 p.m., discussed plans with all hands and decided to take the first good chance for mountain. Have eight days grub and fuel for venture; could hold out for ten or twelve days on grub available, but do not think strength of all members of the party would last that long, for task ahead—probably two peaks to make—will be severe strain; must push and push fast as possible and then some more.” (MacCarthy diary in A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, pp.69-70)
To give some perspective to the effect that the altitude was having upon the climbers, Allen Carpe conducted an experiment to see how the altitude affected his ability to hold his breath. At sea level, he could hold his breath for 75 seconds. However, at the 5,600 meter (18,500 foot) level he could only hold his breath for 20 seconds (Allen Carpe, “Observations,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol 15, 1925, 85).
That night the camp was battered by the storm, with high wind which threatened to carry off their tents. However, as morning rolled around the storm subsided, giving way to a dense fog which lifted around 10 o’clock in the morning. They soon set out tethered together in two ropes of three climbers. However, they were still unsure whether the top of the Double Peak marked the end of their climbing, or if they would have to climb farther. At the bottom of the final climb to the peak, the climbers snacked and swapped their snowshoes for crampons. It was here that MacCarthy faced a dilemma: should he climb to the top of the Double Peak, or find an easier route around to where the true summit may be?
“Again taking the lead at this point, I failed to do that which perhaps would have saved much worry and suffering. Instead of laying a course around and beyond this north shoulder, so that we could have seen the higher peak that lay beyond and straightaway made for it, I set the course on the western side of the shoulder and thus blanked the eastern horizons. As final results clearly proved both going and returning, this course gave our party many hours of needless heavy work and serious strain. But in advance of the complete knowledge of the mountain, would it have been good mountaineering to have ignored the high dome of the Double Peak so near at hand, and directly attacked the high peak two miles beyond, when all our available data showed them to have but a possible difference of fifty feet in altitude? On many days in 1924 and during the winter trip I had studied the high peaks on the massif through my glasses from afar, and on alternate days had assigned the glory of being the topmost pinnacle to each of these two peaks; thus in spite of the map I was yet to be convinced by level observations from the top of one to the other before I conceded the honour to either peak. Therefore I felt we must climb both peaks in order to be certain of our goal.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, pp. 70-71)
As thee climbers ascended the Double Peak, the slope became increasingly steep and treacherous and a fall by one climber could mean a long tumble for the two unfortunate souls he was roped to. Finally, at 4:20 p.m. the party crested the Double Peak. This was the highest that any members of the expedition had ever stood. However, this was not the summit. All the climbers had to do is look to the southeast, and up just slightly, to see the real summit just three kilometers (two miles) distant. However, there was a 300 meter (1,000 foot) drop between them and the summit. In addition to this, one rope had to descend to the base of the shoulder that they had just climbed in order to retrieve some cached supplies.
Once the party reconvened in the saddle of the Double Peak, they set off for the summit. As MacCarthy crested the north ridge which leads to the summit, he witnessed a unique phenomenon:
“Before me, close at hand, was a most startling and wonderful spectacle—the reflection of myself in the centre of a small and completely circular rainbow.
“For several days we had all been visibly affected by the heavy work in the rarefied atmosphere; had been a bit light-headed, as when one feels he is soring [sic] about in the air or hopping about in space and doing impossible physical feats; now I was possibly seeing the unreal, perhaps one of Nature’s brilliant hoops through which I must jump when legs and feet felt like lead after their long, ordeal. As quickly as possible, I cut large secure steps to land me on top of the ridge and there, tending the rope, awaited the verdict of Carpe and Foster as the came up; it was indeed a relief to hear Carpe say: ‘That is the Broken Spectre with a halo,’ and Foster, close to him confirmed this verdict.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.72)
The climbers had little time to enjoy this phenomenon as there was still a great amount of work ahead of them and they were still unsure if the route was passable. Finally, at 8 p.m. on June 23rd, the six climbers stood on top of Canada’s tallest mountain. However, they had little time to enjoy their accomplishment as a storm was headed their way. After having spent almost a month and a half blazing a trail from McCarthy to the summit of Mount Logan, they were only able to enjoy the fruits of their labour for twenty minutes.
Their descent was anything but uneventful. They retraced their footsteps until they came to a point where their trail had been obliterated. To make matters worse, earlier on in the day they had run out of the willow markers. Eventually, the storm blew in. Realizing that they could not possibly reach their camp under such conditions, at 1:30 in the morning on June 24th the climbers dug out two caves in order to shelter them as they attempted to wait out the weather. Eventually they abandoned their caves and continued their descent in the hopes of finding a willow marker. MacCarthy chose Andy Taylor to lead the descent. However this took much coaxing: “[H]ere it was easier to order than to secure obedience to one’s command, and especially so when perhaps the command was given in a rather weak, faltering voice. At any rate it was not until 2 p.m. that all were routed out of these miserable snow holes, the ropes securely tied, and we got under way, stumbling and staggering along.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.75)
As they set out, the visibility had become so poor that MacCarthy, who brought up the rear, could barely see the party members ahead of him. In addition to this, they really had no idea where they were going. Due to the poor visibility, Taylor walked straight off of a cliff, plummeting ten meters (thirty feet) into the snow bank below. Taylor was pulled back up to the cliff to rejoin the party. MacCarthy in turn had a similar experience: “Perhaps to punish me for my facetious remark to Andy that it was not considered good form to leave other members of a rope without warning, I soon afterwards took a tumble of fifteen feet over a snow bank with a proper rib-breaking check administered by Carpe and Foster.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p. 76)
Finally, the party got a lucky break as Read spotted a willow marker. Now that they had found the markers it was simply a matter of following them back down to Plateau Camp. Or at least in theory it was. However, the limited visibility rendered this otherwise simple task difficult. While the second rope, led by Lambart, returned to Plateau Camp at 8:30 p.m. without further incident, the members of MacCarthy’s rope were not so lucky. They became disoriented after stopping to fix a pack and ended up hiking towards the summit again. This lasted for an hour before they realized that they were headed in the wrong direction. After they corrected their route, they began having hallucinations of towering ice cliffs, barns, and other shelters. They eventually arrived at Plateau Camp at 5 a.m. on June 25th.
On the morning of June 26th, the party began their descent from Plateau Camp leaving many of their supplies behind “to the fate of Mt. Logan’s merciless vengeance” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.78). They began their descent on snowshoes, but around Ridge Camp had to make the switch to crampons in order to descend a wind swept slope. However, just as they were making the switch from snowshoes to crampons, a very intense wind came up, resulting in frostbite to the exposed hands.
When they had finally descended to King Col, the climbers took a much deserved 36 hour rest and Foster tended to each of their medical needs, mainly frozen limbs. They eventually set out again, retrieving their sled at the icefall below King Col and making good progress until Quartz Ridge where they once again were forced to abandon it.
On June 28th, they arrived at Cascade Camp, descending the treacherous slope in avalanche conditions. From here they still faced a 220 kilometer (137 mile) journey to McCarthy. However, they were now at a point where they no longer to face the perils that are associated with high altitude. MacCarthy wrote this of their arrival at Cascade Camp:
“Thus, at midnight of June 28th, we again were down to the level where men think and breathe and work in a rational way and so may be held accountable for their actions. If sometimes while above that level, I was harsh and disagreeable, I ask that my companions please forgive me.” (A.H. MacCarthy, “The Climb,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15 1925, p.80)
After resting at Cascade Camp the party departed on July 1st. They had to travel at night as during the day the snow was too soft to travel over. Travel was made increasingly difficult be the fact that a number of people had sever frostbite on their feet.
On July 4th, the party arrived at the Baldwin-Frazer Cache expecting a resupply of food, only to realize that a bear had beaten them to it. Later that evening “tremendous pleasure was obtained in stepping off the glacier to the green carpet vegetation at its side, the first seen after forty-four days spent on ice.” (W.W. Foster, “The Story of the Expedition,” Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 15, 1925, p. 56) On the following day, the party reached the Chitina Cache. However, this cache had also been destroyed by a bear. Pressing onward, at 7:30 p.m. the party finally arrived at a cache that had remained intact.
At Hubrick’s Camp, the party decided to make two rafts and float down the river to McCarthy. This decision was due to the fact that some people’s feet were frostbitten so severely that is was difficult to walk. Therefore, on July 11th, the six climbers set off down river on the rafts “Logan” and “Loganette.” However, they were clearly better mountaineers than they were rafters. The “Logan” containing Taylor, Read, and Lambart drifted to within 48 kilometers (30 miles) of McCarthy before it became beached. On the following day they hiked into McCarthy bringing word of their successful ascent. The “Loganette,” meanwhile, did not fair nearly as well as the “Logan.” The raft, containing MacCarthy, Carpe, and Foster, overturned only 30 kilometers (19 miles) into the journey. Consequently, they had to hike the following 100 kilometers or more (62 miles or 70 miles) into McCarthy. They arrived at the mining town on July 15th, bringing to a close a successful expedition in which the goal was achieved and no fatalities occurred.
Mount Logan remained untouched for the following twenty-five years, until 1950 when two parties succeeded in reaching the summit via the King Trench route which had been pioneered by MacCarthy’s team.