Frontrange Imaging

Kluane National Park, Yukon, Aug 2014

Haines Junction

After kayaking around Juneau, my brother and I take the ferry north to Haines, Alaska, and then drive north into the Yukon. The goal: get to Haines Junction and see Kluane National Park by air. The St. Elias mountains are the biggest in North America, but sitting right on the coast of Alaska means that they are subject to some of the worst weather in the world. After enduring two weeks of mostly rainy weather in Juneau, we were expecting to wait for days for the opportunity to fly.

Upon arriving in Haines Junction after a stunning drive from the coast, we checked in at the airport about the possibility of a flight tour of Kluane Park. By incredible good luck, the forecast for Thursday was excellent and Alex at Kluane Glacier Air Tours is available to fly!

Haines Junction airport morning

Haines Junction airport. What a stunning morning!

We get to the airport just after 8:00 and our pilot Alex is getting the plane ready as we chat excitedly about the flight and the perfect weather this morning. The plane, a Cessna 207, has five seats out of the normal eight, three having been removed to make room for gear, and the back seat windows have had small photography portals installed. I sit there and my brother Kevin gets the front seat in the dual-control cockpit next to Alex. We warm up the plane, de-fog the windows that are wet with morning dew, taxi to the end of the gravel runway, and take off at a speed of 60 knots. Destination: Kluane National Park.

Klaune National Park

At just over 22,000 square kilometres, Kluane National Park and Preserve is one of Canada’s largest wild areas and forms the very south-west corner of the Yukon. It is a mountainous wonderland, with just over 80% of its area being mountains and glaciers, the cornerstone of which is Canada’s highest peak, Mt. Logan, at 5959m.

Kluane borders with the Alaskan National parks of Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay, plus Tatshenshini-Alsek provincial park in British Columbia, and the entire 130,000 km2 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The region is the largest non-polar icefield in the world and, by virtue of it’s wide range of climatic zones and enormous elevation range, includes a great variety of ecosystems including coastal coniferous, northern coniferous and alpine tundra. In this diverse set of ecosystems live a great variety of fauna including carnivores wolves, foxes, lynx, large ungulates moose and caribou in the lower elevations and mountain goats and Dall sheep at higher elevations.

From the UNESCO Statement of Significance: This is one of the few places remaining in the world where ecological processes are governed by natural stresses and the evolutionary changes in a glacial and ecological continuum.

Rivers and Forest and Tundra

Dezadeash river, Kluane National Park

Dezadeash river

Drainage north of Snowshoe Peak, Kluane National Park

Drainage north of Snowshoe Peak

Drainage NE of Mt. Maxwell, Kluane National Park

Drainage NE of Mt. Maxwell

We are barely off the ground and the flight is already stunning, as we turn south up the Dezadeash River, covered in morning fog and then east up the Kaskawulsh River. The forest below us has suffered a severe outbreak of spruce beetles, and is mostly dead. Alex informs us that Kluane Park has not had a forest fire in over 500 years, and as an unmanaged preserve, all natural processes are left alone, meaning that nothing will be done about the beetles or the trees, and the forest will be left to recover on it’s own.

Along the way, Alex points out some tiny white dots on a ridge, which are Dall sheep.

Kaskawulsh Glacier

Kaskawulsh Glacier, Kluane National Park

Kaskawulsh Glacier, junction of North and South arms

Junction of north and south arms of Kaskawulsh Glacier, Kluane National Park

Junction of north and south arms of Kaskawulsh Glacier

Our first introduction to the huge icefields is when we turn right past Observation Peak and are suddenly presented with the terminus of the immense river of ice that is the Kaskawulsh Glacier.

On the surface of the glacier are a series of curved, parallel streams of rocky debris. Each of these medial moraines are formed when two tributary glaciers merge into one. The lateral moraines, formed at the edge of each glacier from rocks falling from adjacent peaks, merge to become a medial moraine. The Kaskawulsh glacier is immense, over 300km long, and formed from the merger of numerous smaller glaciers, each one contributing two stripes of lateral moraine debris to the main glacier and then flowing down valley.

Junction of north and central arms of Kaskawulsh glacier, Kluane National Park

Junction of north and central arms of Kaskawulsh. On the right horizon is Mt. Vancouver, 55km away.

Stairway N4 peak on the Kaskawulsh glacier, Kluane National Park

Stairway N4 peak on the Kaskawulsh glacier

As we fly up the glacier we pass several major junctions where smaller glaciers join the main Kaskawulsh. The scale of the glacial landscape we are flying over is breathtaking, with valleys filled with long tributary glaciers, each a complicated and beautiful river of ice flowing down between jagged, rocky peaks.

Stairway glacier joining the Kaskawulsh glacier, Kluane National Park

Stairway glacier joining the Kaskawulsh

Ridges of Mt. Sannikov, looking SSE towards Kaslowhub, Pinnacle and Alverstone. Kluane National Park

Ridges of Mt. Sannikov, looking SSE towards Kaslowhub, Pinnacle and Alverstone on the horizon.

Less than 10km past the junction of the north and south arms of the Kaskawulsh we fly over the firn line on the glacier, and from now on the bare ice is covered in snow and we enter a region of fantastic natural sculptures. Mountain faces are covered in fluted snow, vast sheets of ice are broken by sharp points and ribs of rock; nunataks, the summits of buried peaks poking through the ice surface, and fields of curved and criss-crossing crevasses.

We are entering the land of the giants: massive peaks that overwhelm the normal sense of scale, and smaller peaks by the dozens, like islands in an ocean of ice.

Mt. Vancouver (right horizon) Hubbard Glacier (center), Kluane National Park

Mt. Vancouver (right horizon) Hubbard Glacier (center) and Alverstone/Kennedy (left horizon)

The huge Hubbard Glacier appears to the south, starting below Queen Mary (off the image to the right) and flowing 120km to the Pacific Ocean. Mt. Vancouver dominates the horizon on the right.

Mt. Vancouver and Queen Mary

Nub on ridge from Discovery Peak, looking towards Mt. Vancouver, Kluane National Park

Nub on ridge from Discovery Peak, looking towards Mt. Vancouver

Looking forward in the plane, the first of the massive icefield peaks we come to is Queen Mary, topping out at 3928m, around 2000m above the rolling surface of the icefield. Sitting in the back, I don’t get that view, so my first big peak view is of Mt. Vancouver, much farther to our south but at 4812m almost 1km taller than Mary. Wow. Struggling to keep my jaw off the floor.

Glacier camp and airplane north of Queen Mary, Kluane National Park

Glacier camp and airplane north of Queen Mary

The first and only sign of anything human in this vast landscape is a straight line packed into the snow on a flat, smooth part of the glacier with a tiny airplane parked next to what appears to be a dismantled campsite. We later learn that this is the Icefield Discovery Camp, a remote camp designed to provide a comfortable base for people wanting to explore the Kluane icefields area. That plane has come to pick up the gear and people, as today (Aug 21), the camp is finished for the season.

Crevasse field below Mt. Queen Mary, Kluane National Park

Crevasse field north Queen Mary

As we continue up the glacier the peaks around us have gotten taller, more rugged and more glaciated, and we are heading for the north side of Queen Mary, with the massive bulk of Mt Logan straight ahead. The glacier north and below Queen Mary is tremendously crevassed, and the scale of any of these massive fractures is very hard to judge from the plane, but I’m estimating the big ones are over 1000m long and 10s of metres wide.

Queen Mary, at far right, looking south toward Alverstone and Kennedy, Kluane National Park

Queen Mary, at far right, looking south toward Alverstone and Kennedy on the left horizon

Mt. Lucania and Mt. Steele

As we turn left around the northern slopes of Queen Mary, another vast mass of peaks swings into view to the north-west. In the foreground the icefield has been broken into a scattered maze of crevasses as if flows over a mound of rock hidden under the ice. Surrounding this crevasse maze are countless peaks, with much bare rock showing on their sun-exposed south faces, smaller at first but rising up to a series of giant peaks that sit on the horizon, about 50km away.

Mts. Lucania, Steele and Harrison

Mts. Lucania, Steele and Harrison

On the left is Mt. Lucania, the third-highest mountain in Canada. It is the 3rd tallest peak in Canada, and most sources put its elevation at 5226m, but others quote 5240m or even 5260m. It was first climbed in 1937 in an epic adventure by Bradford Washburn and Robert Bates, a trip that turned in a 240km struggle for survival and was the subject of the book Escape from Lucania. Washburn was a renowned mountaineer, photographer and scientist and Bates went on to lead two expeditions to K2 in the early 1950s. Here’s a great writeup of the 1937 trip plus a video with excellent photos. The peak was not climbed again for 30 years.

Part of the same massif, and connected to Mt. Lucania by a long ridge, is Mount Steele, the 5th highest peak in Canada at 5073m. It was first climbed in 1935 and saw its 2nd ascent only two years later by Washburn and Bates during their Lucania ascent. In 2007, Mt. Steele suffered a massive rock and ice avalanche in which debris fell over 2000m down the mountain and impacted on the Steele glacier with the force equivalent to a magnitude 5.2 earthquake.

To the south (left side of photo) is a region of smaller peaks (3500-3820m) all named after the provinces of Canada. Surprisingly, these peaks are not in any list of “highest peaks in Canada” that I could find, but are clearly labeled in Google Maps.

Mt. Vancouver and King George

Mt. King George, Mt. Vancouver and Mt. Cook, Kluane National Park

Mt. King George (left front), Mt. Vancouver (center) and Mt. Cook at far right

Mt. Vancouver is a huge peak, 4812m, sitting on the Yukon / Alaska border and rising over 3000m above the icefield. First climbed in 1949, it went from 1977 to 2003 without another ascent, and has only had five or six total, including this probable first ski ascent and descent. Over 3000 vertical metres… that’s a lot of turns!

A ridge of Wood Peak with and Mt. Vancouver left and Mt. Cook center-right, Kluane National Park

A ridge of Wood Peak (foreground) with Mt. Vancouver (left) and Mt. Cook center-right

Coming around the north side of Queen Mary we fly over one of the ridges sprawling out from Wood Peak, a sub-peak on the east side of the Logan Massif. Anywhere else in the world all these subsidiary peaks, rising well over 1000m above the glacier, would have names, but here in Kluane the only name I can find for this skeleton-like ridge is the highest point, Wood Peak, about 3600m and 1600m above the icefield. Past the ridge and across the icefield Mt. Vancouver (4812m) and Mt. Cook (4274m) dominate the horizon.

Mt. Vancouver (left) and Mt. Cook, right. Kluane National Park

Mt. Vancouver (left) and Mt. Cook, right. Hubsew peak east ridge in foreground.

A long, jagged finger of mountains forms a 30km chain of rock, running from the eastern flanks of Mt. Logan SSE to Mt. Vancouver, and separates the Seward Glacier, to the south (right), from the Hubbard Glacier to the north (left). The beautiful, snow and ice sculpted ridge in the foreground is the East Ridge of Hubsew peak, a subsidiary peak on the eastern flank of Mt. Logan.

Mt. Logan

Mt. Logan is beyond big. It is the largest non-volcanic mountain in the world by mass, and the largest massif in the world by circumference. To steal a quote from Mark Smiley, saying that Logan is big is like saying there are many stars in the sky – it just does not do justice to the reality.

Mt. Logan massif

Mt. Logan massif

Logan East Ridge, base detail, Kluane National Park

Logan East Ridge, base detail

Just ENE of the overwhelming bulk of Mt. Logan sits Wood Peak, part of a long, sinuous ridge coming down from the Logan East Summit, a ridge that includes Catenary Peak and McArthur Peak. We fly to the west of Wood Peak and cross over the 20km long east ridge of McArthur, and suddenly, filling the entire window, is the classic East Ridge of Logan. First climbed in 1950, the East Ridge first ascent team included a 60-year old Norman Read, who was also part of Albert MacCarthy’s 1925 expedition of Logan.

I am sitting on the left side of the plane, and the view forward is blocked by our pilot Alex, my brother Kevin and the engine, and I can really only see clearly to the left and right of the plane. As a result, I can’t really see where we are heading, and I’ve been so engrossed taking pictures of everything else that I’m surprised to be here at Logan already! How could the biggest mountain on Earth sneak up on me like this?

However, the windows by the back seat are equipped with small photography portals that open to allow clear views for the camera, without having to shoot through the plexiglass windows, and being further behind the wings allows for better views of massive things that tower above us. Like Mt. Logan!

Mt. Logan East Ridge and Catenary Peak, Kluane National Park

Mt. Logan East Ridge (centre) and Catenary Peak (right). Hubsew ridge at bottom left.

South east face of Mt. Logan, Kluane National Park

South east face of Mt. Logan

Chain of peaks running east from Hubsew, Mt Logan massif, Kluane National Park

Chain of peaks running east from Hubsew, Mt Logan massif.

The Logan East Ridge is jammed in the middle of a huge gorge formed by Catenary Peak and McArthur to the north and Hubsew Peak to the south and rises, like a jagged blade, spectacularly up out of the broken ice.

We are so close to Logan that it completely fills the view out the window, and I ask Alex if he could lift the right wing so I can get a clear view of the whole line to the east summit. Quickly switch from a 50mm lens to the 28mm to capture this stunning ridge as we cruise past at about 200km/h, and then it’s gone, hidden from view behind the Hubsew east ridge.

Meanwhile, to the west snakes the stunning chain of peaks dividing the Hubbard (left) and Seward (right) glaciers, with the break in the chain that allows access between the two icefields clearly visible.

The south-east face of Logan is over 2500m high and meets the East Ridge route at the summit plateau, and until it was climbed in 2010 it was the tallest unclimbed wall in North America. The route was put up, alpine-style, by Yasushi Okada and Katsutaka Yokoyama, two visionary Japanese climbers who then continued on to summit the East Peak and finally descended the East Ridge, an incredibly impressive ascent!

We fly around to the south face of Logan, but are so close that the massive peak completely fills the view out the window. We are flying at about 3700m above sea level, which means that the summit is still more than 2km above us and the glacier nearly 2km below us.

Mt. Logan Warbler Ridge, Kluane National Park

Logan Warbler Ridge

… and I feel very, very small, hanging in space in a tiny aluminum box in front of this immense wall of rock and ice, surrounded by one of the largest icefields in the world.

Mt. Logan is the highest peak in Canada, and surprisingly, its height, 5959m, was not precisely measured until 1992, when a Royal Canadian Geographic Society expedition took GPS equipment to the summit. The peak was named after Sir William Edmond Logan, who in 1842 established the Geological Survey of Canada.

I’m running out of superlatives trying to describe the magnitude and beauty of this mountain. On the western edge of the south-east face is the Warbler Ridge, first climbed in 1977 by David P. Jones, Fred Thiessen, Frank Baumann, Rene Bucher and Jay Page, and was the first direct route to the main summit of Logan. It has also never been climbed again, according to any source that I could find, and was the sight of a tragedy in 1978 on an attempted 2nd ascent due to a cornice collapsing with their camp and three members of the party on it.

East side of south face of Mt. Logan, with Hummingbird Ridge in center-left, Kluane National Park

East side of south face of Mt. Logan, with Hummingbird Ridge in center-left.

Turning to the south, across the Seward glacier and toward Mt. St. Elias, puts some distance between us and Mt. Logan and enables big-picture views of the massif. First to come are great views of the incredible and notorious Hummingbird Ridge, snaking roughly 15km south from the main summit as it drops 4000m to the glacier.

The Hummingbird Ridge has a legendary status in the alpine climbing world, first being climbed in 1965, and making the list of 50 Classic Climbs in North America, co-written by Allen Steck, who was on first ascent team. The original route has never been repeated, and several world-class alpinists have died in the attempt, including Dave Cheesemond and Catherine Freer in 1987. That does not stop people from trying, and here’s a fantastic article on an attempt in June of 2014. The Thunderbird Variation, which bypasses the extremely dangerous cornices of the “shovel traverse” section on Hummingbird, was established in 1991.

South face Mt. Logan and Seward Glacier. King Peak on the far left, the main summit of Logan center, and Wood Peak at far right, Kluane National Park.

South face Mt. Logan and Seward Glacier. King Peak on the far left, the main summit of Logan center, and Wood Peak at far right.

As we fly further south across the Seward Glacier, most of the Logan Massif becomes visible, 15km from King Peak on the west (left in picture) to the main summit (centre in picture). The 5000m high summit plateau is 20km wide and the base of the massif is 40km wide. Measured by base circumference it is the largest mountain in the world. My jaw is on the floor, I am babbling incoherently and taking pictures as fast as possible… and feeling incredibly fortunate to be able to see one of the great mountains of the world in absolutely perfect weather!

For much more information, route descriptions and climbing stories of this amazing peak, Alpinist Magazine #31 has an excellent Mountain Profile on the Logan Massif, well worth the $10 download. They also have a story on Expedition Diaries from Mt. Logan, full of great quotes and photos.

Seward Glacier and Mt. St. Elias

Looking south across the Seward Glacier, with Hummingbird Ridge at left, Kluane National Park

Looking south across the Seward Glacier, with Hummingbird Ridge at lower left

The view south over the Seward Glacier, flying over the ends of the long southern ridges coming off Mt. Logan. The distance straight across to Mt. Malaspina is about 23km.

Mt. St. Elias and Seward Glacier looking west into Alaska, Kluane National Park and Wrangell/St.Elias

Mt. St. Elias and Seward Glacier looking west into Alaska

Seward Glacier

Seward Glacier

The Yukon portion of the Seward glacier is 1200 square kilometers, and fills the huge basin between Mt. Logan to the north, St. Elias to the south and Vancouver and Cook to the east. The icefield continues west past St. Elias into Alaska for a total length of around 200km and a width of up to 30km. It is truly an ocean of ice!

Mt. St. Elias is a massive boundary peak, topping out at 5489m. Here, the north side rises about 3000m above the glacier, but on it’s south side it drops all the way to the ocean in just over 19km. It was the first of the giant Alaskan mountains to be climbed, in 1897, in an epic expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi. Starting from sea level on the Malaspina glacier with 1400kg of supplies, including 90kg of camera gear (!), they climbed all 5489m and walked over 200km from July 1 to August 11.

East end of Mt. Logan south face and chain of peaks at eastern edge of Seward Glacier, Kluane National Park.

East end of Mt. Logan south face and chain of peaks at eastern edge of Seward Glacier.

We are now flying east, and have grand views of the Logan massif, now 30km NW of us, including the chain of minor peaks stretching to the east (right) that form the NE boundary of the Seward glacier.

Mt. Augusta and Malaspina Glacier

Mt. Augusta north ridge

Mt. Augusta north ridge

Mt. Augusta and Mt. Eaton. Malaspina Glacier, flowing out to the Pacific coast, Kluane National Park

Mt. Augusta and Mt. Eaton. Malaspina Glacier, flowing out to the Pacific Ocean

We are flying east, to the south of Mt. Vancouver, and away from Logan and St. Elias. The Pacific Ocean is on the right, about 80km away, and we just see it on the horizon. Mt. Augusta, at 4289m, is one of the large “boundary peaks” that sit along the U.S. / Canada border. Relative to the giants around it, it does not have huge prominence, rising “only” 2500m on north side, above the Seward Glacier, but on the south side it drops all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Just to the east of Mt. Augusta is Mt. Eaton, and there the Seward glacier breaks through a large gap in the St. Elias range, between Mt. Eaton and Mt. Cook, and drops rapidly to the Pacific Ocean, becoming the Malaspina Glacier.

Mt. Eaton (right) and Malaspina glacier, Kluane National Park

Mt. Eaton (right) and Malaspina glacier

Most large glaciers flow along (and have carved) U-shaped valleys that constrain them on left and right, forcing them to become long and narrow rivers of ice, but the Malaspina Glacier has no such constraints, and becomes a piedmont glacier as it flows out of the icefields onto a huge mud flat. There it forms a vast pancake of ice approximately 55km in diameter, up to 600m thick, pushing down 300m below sea level.

The Malaspina Glacier is best viewed from the south, and is so big that a much higher altitude than our 3600m is needed to see it clearly. This fantastic photo shows this vast ice pancake, the largest piedmont glacier in the world, as well as the big peaks of the St. Elias, from just that vantage point. Awesome!

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook and Malaspina Glacier, Kluane National Park

Mt. Cook and Malaspina Glacier

Mt. Cook north face detail, Kluane National Park

Mt. Cook north face detail

To the east of the Malaspina glacier, the Seward glacier wraps around the massive bulk of Mt. Cook as it flows south towards the ocean. At 4196m, Mt. Cook is one of the big boundary peaks along the Canada / US border, and was first climbed in 1953. The fantastic expedition story is available from the American Alpine Club Journal.

Mt. Cook NW4, North ridge

Mt. Cook NW4, North ridge

Like other peaks on the south side of the Seward Glacier, the south side of Mt. Cook (invisible to us) has an enormous vertical drop, falling 3048m to the Marvine Glacier, with Disenchantment Bay (sea level), about 29km from the summit.

The north face of Cook is incredibly impressive, with a thick, relatively low-angled blanket of ice ending at a long, dramatic wall of seracs and ice-tongues that drip down the steeper lower half of the mounain. The face is full of fantastic details, and one of the challenges of photographing everything on this flight is switching between a wide-angle lens (28mm) to capture the big picture, a 50mm lens which usually provides a good perspective, or a 100+mm telephoto zoom, which allows me to get up close and personal with the crazy ice formations.

There are incredible views in all directions, we are moving at over 200km/h, and swapping lenses takes a bit of time. Not a bad problem to have, and big fun in this huge landscape!

Mt. Cook North Face, Kluane National Park

Mt. Cook North Face

Seward Glacier and surrounding peaks, Kluane National Park

Seward Glacier and surrounding peaks

The Mt. Vancouver side of the chain of peaks separating Seward and Hubbard glaciers, Kluane National Park

The Mt. Vancouver side of the chain of peaks separating Seward and Hubbard glaciers

Meanwhile, out the left window (north), Logan is retreating behind us and the south face of Vancouver is coming up quickly, with the fantastic chain of peaks separating the Seward and Hubbard glaciers stretching out between Logan and Vancouver. This chain of peaks is around 25km long and is one of the most stunning geological features I’ve seen.

Hubbard Glacier and Disenchantment Bay

Looking towards Disenchantment Bay from south of Mt. Vancouver, Kluane National Park

Looking towards Mt. Foresta and Disenchantment Bay from south of Mt. Vancouver

Hubbard glacier, turning south-west into Disenchantment Bay, Kluane National Park

Hubbard glacier, flowing south-west into Disenchantment Bay

Hubbard glacier is an immense ice sheet, starting NE of the Logan and Vancouver massifs and terminating in Disenchantment Bay in Alaska, with a total length of around 120km. It is one of several “surging” glaciers in the St. Elias mountains, glaciers which occasionally flow much quicker than their usual pace and push out far beyond their normal limit.

In 2002, the Hubbard Glacier surged, blocking off Russell Fjord from the sea and turning the fjord in to a temporary lake. Melt-water from the surrounding glaciers and streams caused the lake level to rise 18.6m over 2 1/2 months before breaking the dam and draining into the sea. The USGS has a great description and photos of this amazing event, which was the 2nd-largest glacial lake outburst in historical times.

Looking towards Disenchantment Bay from just south of Mt. Vancouver, Kluane National Park

Looking towards Disenchantment Bay from just south of Mt. Vancouver

Crevasse field and glacial lake south of Mt. Vancouver, Kluane National Park

Crevasses and glacial lake south of Mt. Vancouver

Looking back at Logan

As we round the south side of Mt. Vancouver, Mt. Logan appears again, at the far end of the Hubbard Glacier which flows between Mt. Vancouver and Mt. King George. Despite being 60km away, Logan completely dominates the horizon and towers over neighbouring peaks, the summit sitting 4000m above the Hubbard glacier.

Mt. Logan and Hubbard Glacier

Mt. Logan and Hubbard Glacier

Both of these images, taken a few minutes apart, show the east side of Logan. The peak on the far right is Wood Peak, and the colour image, the East Ridge is just visible slicing up out of the Hubbard glacier to the left of Wood Peak.

To give a sense of scale, Wood Peak tops out at roughly 3600m, rising 1800m above the Hubbard glacier, which is roughly as much relief as most peaks of the Canadian Rockies. The summit of Logan towers another 2300m above that…

Mt. Logan and Hubbard Glacier

Mt. Logan and Hubbard Glacier

Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy

Ridge detail on Mt. Alverstone-NW4, Kluane National Park

Ridge detail on Alverstone NW4

Mt. Alverstone NW4, North face detail, Kluane National Park

Mt. Alverstone NW4, North face detail

Mt. Alverstone, 4420m, is another of the big boundary peaks along the Alaska/Yukon border, and is part of the massif that includes Kennedy and Hubbard. It was named for Richard Webster, 1st Viscount of Alverstone, a British politician and judge who cast the deciding vote, against Canada, in the arbitration that decided the border in the 1903 Alaska boundary dispute.

The peak was first climbed in a 1951 expedition that climbed both Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Hubbard. Like many early adventures up here, it makes great reading.

If you take a look at Google Maps, you will notice that many of the sub-peaks of the St. Elias are either unnamed, or are named relative to the main summit of the massif. Mt. Alverstone is one of them, having what are otherwise fully independent peaks on its massif named simply “Alverstone NW4” and “Alverstone NE5”.

Mt. Kennedy north ridge, Kluane National Park

Mt. Kennedy north ridge

Mt. Kennedy, North glacier detail

Mt. Kennedy, North glacier detail

Mt. Kennedy has some interesting history to it, as it was the highest unclimbed peak in North America when it was named in honour of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and first climbed in 1965. The party was led by Jim Whittaker and included Robert F. Kennedy, who placed memorial items on its 4250m summit in honour of his brother. It was a very big deal at the time, and made the cover of Life magazine.

Kennedy has a beautiful, clean north ridge dropping straight down from the summit that was first climbed in 1968, with a second ascent in 1978. There’s a good chance that it’s still awaiting a third ascent.

Lowell Glacier

Lowell Glacier and area

Lowell and Hubbard glaciers and Hubbard massif

Looking west up the Lowell Glacier, Kluane National Park

Looking west up the Lowell Glacier

The Lowell Glacier starts just north of Mt. Alverstone and is another massive river of ice, flowing east for 65km and ending at Alsek lake. Flying east and following the glacier downhill, we cross the firn-line, where the snow ends and the glacier below us is now naked ice, a impassable maze of criss-crossing crevasses.

Lakes and streams on Lowell Glacier, Kluane National Park

Lakes and streams on Lowell Glacier

Glacier lakes on the Lowell, Kluane National Park

Glacier lakes on the Lowell

We are out of the land of giants, and the mountains surrounding us now appear more “regular” sized, rising 1000-1500m above the glacier-filled valley. The peaks are no longer covered in heavy snow and immense blankets of ice, but do still support a good variety of glaciers on their northern aspects. The crevasses and small, deep-blue glacial lakes are numerous and now clearly visible on the ice below us. In some areas the lakes have drained, leaving behind a field of small craters in the ice.

Crevasses on the Lowell glacier, Kluane National Park

Crevasses on the Lowell glacier

The Lowell Glacier is also a surging glacier, and has advanced rapidly five times in the last 100 years. According to the Yukon Geological Survey, over the last 3000 years the glacier has repeatedly surged far enough that it blocks the valley, damming the Alsek River and creating a lake as far north as the current location of Haines Junction. This formation of Neoglacial Lake Alsek occurred most recently in 1850.

According to this USGS paper, during normal times, the Lowell glacier moves down-valley at between 0.04 – 0.34 metres / day. During the glacier surge of 1983, that speed increased more than 100x, to between 12 and 45 metres / day, and the terminus advanced 2km into the lake. The glacier also surged in 2010. See this report for much more information, including a picture of the glacier during the 2010 surge.

Lowell glacier and Hubbard Peak, Kluane National Park

Lowell glacier and Hubbard Peak

Return to Haines Junction

Mt. Martha Black, Kluane National Park

Mt. Martha Black

Giant peaks in Kluane National Park

One last view of the giants

Once past the Lowell Glacier we fly north along the Alsek River and back to Haines Junction. The tour is almost over, but not before getting a great view of the very colourful Mt. Martha Black and one final view of the giant icefield peaks.

Dezadeash river and old lake shore lines, Kluane National Park

Dezadeash river and old lake shore lines (top center)

As we fly out the braided Dezadeash River, there are signs of old shorelines of Neoglacial Lake Alsek on the sides of the valley.

Photography Notes

Mt Foresta and Disenchantment Bay, thin strip of a vertical panorama

Mt Foresta and Disenchantment Bay, thin strip of a vertical panorama

For you photo geeks (you know who you are), one feature on my camera that I have to admit I didn’t know about until yesterday was that it includes a built-in GPS. The GPS uses a fair bit of battery power, and uses it continuously, even with the camera turned off, resulting in a dead battery after a few days unless you turn it off, but it was tremendously useful in identifying the names of peaks and glaciers to have exact coordinates of all 650 (!) photos from this spectacular flight.

Map of photo locations in Lightroom

Map of photo locations in Lightroom

This geo-tagging functionality is integrated into Adobe Lightroom, resulting in a map of the location of each photo being only a mouse-click away while organizing, naming and processing the RAW photos. I am generally jaded and burned-out from technology overload these days, but this was very cool!

We were incredibly lucky to get perfect weather on this flight over some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. There’s a reason there are huge icefields here, and it’s not because of the great weather!

In order to capture the vastness of the place, I shot many panoramic images, rotating the camera and taking three or four frames, covering the roughly 60 degree field of view between the airplane wing and the tail. Those frames need to be stitched together to form a continuous image. However, any side-to-side movement of the camera between frames results in parallax error, where the objects closer to the viewer move relative to objects farther away. When shooting from a plane flying at over 200km/h this introduces unavoidable error in the resulting panoramic images, which made the stitching process a lot more work than usual… but I just love the resulting wide-field, high-resolution images!

All photos were shot in RAW format and then processed for colour or black and white. I’ve always been inspired by the pioneering mountain photography of Bradford Washburn, and when the scene warrants it I like to display the image “old school”, in high-contrast black and white.

The more climbing I do, the more I realize that the reason I climb is to capture the intense beauty and feeling of joy (and fear!) that I experience out there in the high and wild places. And of all the days in the mountains I’ve had, this was one of the most spectacular. I filled a 16GB memory card with over 650 images on this two-hour flight, and would have shot more if I could have changed lenses faster…

… and if we had been able to go see that peak over there, and the huge glaciers flowing west, the north side of Logan, and down towards the ocean, and, and, and!

Flight Notes

Flight path over Kluane

Flight path over Kluane

We both carried hand-held Garmin GPS units on this flight, and the above track of the flight was visualized by the excellent GPS Visualizer website.

I have to once more thank Alex at Kluane Glacier Air Tours for his enthusiasm, great guiding, excellent flying, flexible schedule and for giving us the opportunity to see Kluane at its best, one of the most incredible places on our planet.

Darren and Kevin

Darren and Kevin

Having photography ports (small windows that opened) installed in the plexiglas windows of the Cessna 207A enabled clear, sharp photography, and Alex was good enough to lift a wing now and then to get a better view!

History and Climbing Stories

Part of the fun of writing up these blogs is diving deeper into a trip, after the fact, by exploring the history and stories from the area. Here are some that I enjoyed discovering.

Not only was Branford Washburn a pioneering photographer, but also a pioneering explorer, surveyor, and climber. The story of the epic 1937 first ascent of Lucania, a 5260m peak some 50km north of Logan, is astonishing, a 32-day trip with Robert Bates, which also included the second ascent of Mt. Steel (5073m) and a total of 251km of walking, after being forced to walk out. The trip is also the subject of the book Escape from Lucania.

The 1925 MacCarthy expedition up Logan is another epic effort in the pioneering days of climbing, involving an 8600kg cache of of supplies, 140km by horse and mule train and then 70-80km of glacier travel just to get them to the Logan massif. And then pioneer a route up the King Trench. And walk back.

The 1897 first ascent of Mt. St. Elias was an epic expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi. Starting from sea level on the Malaspina glacier with 1400kg of supplies, including 90kg of camera gear (!), they climbed all 5489m and walked over 200km from July 1 to August 11.

And folks have not stopped doing ridiculously long, high-suffering trips! Here’s a self-supported traverse of Logan that started at the ocean, approached Logan for 125 miles, summited the peak, and finished in McCarthy, Alaska. Grand total of 370 miles and 19,551 vertical feet over 30 days. Towing boats across the icefield. And surviving a big avalanche. Epic.

Trying to repeat 50-year old routes: here’s a great article detailing a 2014 attempt on Hummingbird Ridge.

Or of course, pushing the limit and setting up new routes: the first ascent of the south-east face of Logan in 2010.

To high and wild places!

– Darren Foltinek, 2014

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