I left for Anchorage on the 6am flight from Seattle on 13 May, and met my team at the bed & breakfast. We were an varied group - Edward and Katie were from the suburbs of Seattle and along with Mark and myself the Americans. Andrits and Sven were from Canada, and Ellie was from Switzerland. Mark was the lead guide for the expedition, and splits his time between Mazama, Washington and Ouray, Colorado.
The next day we drove down to Chitina, Alaska, in Ultima Thule's loaner van. Ultima Thule is possibly the biggest bush plan outfit in the Wrangel/St Elias Mountains, and Paul Klaus has been flying in these mountains for 30 years. If you're interested in hunting or fishing, their lodge is four stars, and if you're a climber or a skier, you'll have one of the best pilots in Alaska flying you in.
Unfortunately for us, the weather wasn't co-operating and we ended up staying two nights in Chitina. So when Paul was able to pick us up we were completely ready to go.
We had food and fuel for 21 days, so we utilized sleds to drag half our loads up the lower mountain. First we had to get there - US Custom rules required Paul to drop us off at the US/Canada boarder. A Canadian plane could have landed us 8km closer, but the planes from Kluane Lake have to fly up and over the range, so adverse weather shuts them down more often than from the Alaska side. We were a great example: while we had to wait two days to fly in, teams from the Canada side had waited up to 10 days to arrive on the same day. That 8km didn't seem so bad.
After a day of traveling to the beginning of the Kings Trench, we made steady progress: a day to move supplies, a day to move camp, and then a day of rest. This also gave us plenty of time to acclimitize, so when we reached our fourth camp at the "Football Field", we were feeling good. During all this time, the summit was wrapped in cloud and winds, and descending teams told us about the difficult conditions and frigid temperatures on the summit plateau. Poor weather gave us an extra rest day, but forecasts were calling for a brief break between storms. We did some calculations and realized that this was our chance - we didn't have enough food and fuel to wait out the week of stormy weather that was being called for.
To reach high camp on the plateau we had to clear a 5540m col. Even with only personal gear, tents, and food for three nights everyone was feeling crushed by our packs' weights and the altitude. Still, it was perfectly clear when we went to bed, giving us hope for the next day.
We woke up to the moderate winds that had been forecasted, and increasing clouds that had not. Everyone moved slow and lethargic, having not really recovered from the previous days efforts. We checked in with the team, looked critically at the weather, and made the right decision: we were turning around. It would have been great to make a full attempt - and perhaps reaching the West Summit would be a good second prize - but our strength and the deteriorating weather told us the truth. Getting back over the col was some of the coldest conditions I've faced in a long time, including these past few seasons in Antarctica. We traveled in -40C temps with the windchill, and finally pulled back into our camp on the Football Field at 6pm. We slept in and rested fully the next day.
Leaving the Football Field for Kings Col seemed normal. The clouds rolled in and out, but it wasn't too cold or windy. Less than 30 minutes after our departure that all changed. It started to snow and visibility dropped from half a kilometer to thirty meters, then to ten. Mark and I were navigating with compass and gps through three significantly big crevasse hazards hidden under foot-deep blanket of fresh snow, Kate and I on skis and Mark with the snowshoers. We stuck together and kept it tight to make sure that if one of us had a problem, the other could help. A crevasse fall in this weather would be a disaster. Descending the final slope to our Kings Col camp was a blind grope relying on my gps to avoid the crevasses I knew existed to the left, and missing camp altogether if I went to far to the right.
Initially, in the morning we decided to call for another rest day, but the weather broke mid-morning and we rallied to continue the descent. As we descended, the weather continued to improve until we set up our tents under clear skis near the Canadian airstrip. The next day we finished the trip in the warmth of the sun, and Paul met us with his Turbo Otter that same afternoon. We were sleeping in beds at the Ramada in Anchorage at midnight, though many of us admitted to staying up to 2 or even 3am, too amped by the experience to fall asleep.
Photos | Many photos here are courtesy of Sven Spengemann. For the full album, follow this LINK.