Words and photos by Mark Smiley.
Ever since Janelle and I started our project to climb North America’s Fifty Classic Climbs four and a half years ago, we have heard this question countless times from climbers that know the book: “What about Hummingbird Ridge?” To which we reply, “I guess we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
That bridge crossing finally came last month. In October, we began planning for this expedition. We recruited two great climbers and friends to join: Jed Porter, who is a fellow IFMGA certified mountain guide, and Reiner Thoni, a ski mountaineering national champion and my Atomic Waymaker partner. Jed had joined us for our climb of Mt. Fairweather, and Reiner joined us for both Mt. Robson and Mt. Alberta. We were thrilled to have such a strong team to tackle the hardest, most daunting climb on this crazy list that we have devoted so much time and energy to.
In any expedition of this scale, the amount of pre-trip work is almost greater than the climb itself, so we divided the workload. Janelle handled transportation logistics, Jed took on route planning, I worked on trip financing and sponsorship, and Reiner researched the route’s grim history.
In 1965 the Hummingbird Ridge saw its first, and only, successful ascent. The late American hard-man Mugs Stump and his crew took 10 days to climb the lower section of the route (which the 1st ascent party bypassed) before bailing. In May 1987, two Canadian elite alpinists, Dave Cheesmond and Cathy Freer, were killed while traversing a section of the route called the Shovel Traverse. No one knows how they died, but cornice failure was the likely culprit. Their bodies still hang in place on the ridge. Later, an entire Canadian group of three were swept off the route by an avalanche, killing one of them.
Allen Steck, was one of the six men on the only successful expedition. He is also one of the authors of our Project’s inspiration, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Now 87 years old, he still climbs. We got to talk about the first ascent with him at his home in Berkley. Here is the run down: 4,000’ of fix rope, sixteen 40 lb. (17.5Kg) loads, 15 gallons of fuel, cotton and nylon tents, expedition style, several 1.5” thick 4’ tall aluminum stakes, a steel shovel from the hardware store, and a month of hard work completed by six super hard-men.
Having drunk the new school alpinism kool-aid, we decided to tackle the route in alpine style, which meant attempting the route in one push, with all our supplies on our backs from bottom to top. This decision was dictated by a number of reasons:
1. Alpine style is what we are good at.
2. Our equipment and food is significantly lighter than theirs was 49 years ago.
3. Hauling loads up and down would expose us to more objective danger of rock/ice fall and cornices, whereas alpine style would lessen this exposure.
4. Expedition style climbing requires weeks of legit blue-collar work, and I think we are too soft for that.
To make a stressful situation more stressful, Janelle’s hip pain was getting worse. For the last two years she has been dealing with pain that comes and goes when she is active (which is always). The pain stopped her from competing in all but three ski mountaineering races this past winter. She also won three races this year, batting 1000 [husband bragging]. Being American, she avoided going to a doctor for a proper diagnosis at all costs until about three months ago. The MRI revealed labral tears in both hips—an injury that is not a total show stopper, but if it goes untreated can lead to arthritis. A cortisone shot gave her about three weeks of relief for her ski races. We were hoping that another cortisone shot right before the expedition would provide that same relief. A prudent course of action? Not at all. But since when have we claimed to be prudent?
We all flew into Whitehorse, Yukon on June 22. Reiner’s friends, Whitehorse locals James and Samantha, opened up their home to us as an expedition staging area. Friends like this are critical in any expedition. They graciously loaned us their car, garage, bedrooms, food, local knowledge, and countless favors. We were able to return about 2% of the favors with some light duty babysitting and dish washing.
Weather delays kept us in Whitehorse for three days. On the fourth day we drove to Silver City, home of the two-plane gravel-runway airport known as Icefields Discovery. We would have to fly in two trips. Jed and Reiner won the coin flip and flew in first. When the pilot returned for us, he said the snow was too soft to land again until the next morning. Janelle and I spent the night in the hanger, and the following morning flew in.
These flights are always a trip highlight. We had about an hour in the air. It was amazing. Lightly overcast, but still good views all around. To say that Mt. Logan is “big” is similar to saying that there are “many” stars in the sky. This mountain is the biggest mountain in the world if measuring by sheer mass. I have climbed Denali three times, and that mountain makes you feel small. Logan made me feel small, with the additional sinking feeling that it was going to try really hard to kill me. The glacier was broken to the point where the pilot landed us far out on the Seward Glacier. It was a 6.5 mile slog to the base of the route.
In the cool of that same night, with eight fat days of food and fuel, we started walking to the base of the route. The glacier at 6,500’ was warm and we plunged through breakable crust for 5 hours to the base of the entrance couloir. The fun level was low. Snow had started blowing and visibility was reduced significantly. As we pulled up to a possible camping site, Janelle threw down her pack, sat down, buried her face in her gloves and started crying. The cortisone shot had not worked. Carrying a pack made her hip pain spike to unbearable levels. Fully Gore-Tex-ed up, we discussed our options in the driving wet snow. We would camp here, wait for cold temps, and check out the access couloir the next morning. Janelle was not ready to throw in the towel. Maybe if she was “just climbing” it would not hurt as much as glacier slogging had. The following morning was still too warm to climb, and the forecast was going to crap. We decided to return to our basecamp.
Arriving at the basecamp, Janelle declared, “Well boys, I’m out,” as another wave of emotion hit her. So much time, build up, preparation, training, all being stripped from her by a nagging overuse injury and a failed hail-Mary-cortisone-shot-solution. Now she would have to fly out and wait in Whitehorse for weeks while her husband tried to climb this infamous death route. Not ideal. She flew out with all our basecamp luxury items, omitting the need to do an extra $800 flight. Jed, Reiner, and I returned to advanced basecamp with an additional 12 days of food and fuel. We now had 20 days of provisions and no need to return to basecamp. Ideally, we would reach the summit in 7-8 days of intense climbing, descend the East Ridge route in a day, and fly out from that completely different location.
Three days went by with warm temps. During the heat of the day the entire valley erupted with avalanches and rock fall off of every aspect. We tried to sleep, but it didn’t come easy hearing how active everything can get when the temps rise above freezing. Angry birds on the iPhone, and coming up with my next business idea passed the time slowly. The unknown route conditions weighed heavily on all of us. Would we be able to pass? Did we have enough food? Was this acclimatization schedule too aggressive? Double cornices. Oh the double cornices, what to do with them.
After a 10 minute walk up further up the glacier from our advanced basecamp, Reiner and I discovered a more inviting access couloir than the original party had used to the gain the ridge. It would reduce rock fall and cornice fall potential. There was a big serac near the top of the face, yet this alternative route still seemed like a better bet.
Finally, it was cold enough and we launched with 9 fat days of food and fuel. Pack weight hovered around 55 lbs. Fast and light style was metamorphosing into slowish and exposed style. We climbed from 8,000’ to about 12,200’ up icy runnels in the face, free soloing the lower 2/3rds, and pitching out the upper part in 12 pitches. The ice runnels protected well. With only one ice screw to place during the 60 meter pitch, we were thankful for easy ice climbing. The pack weight was crushing, and our calf muscles got a good punishing. There were a couple pitches that got up to 75 degrees, with a little business time climbing.
Finally gaining the legendary ridge itself, we took our first real break. I had drunk four ounces of water in the last 12 hours—stupid. Moving along the ridge was slow going. The snow was deep and loose. The ice was airy and unstable. The rock was broken and hard to protect. Every foot was hard earned. As we climbed a mixed pitch of loose rock and thin ice, natural rock fall dislodged from the buttress just above Reiner and I, showering us with brick-sized rocks. One hit me directly on the helmet, leaving a sizable dent.
Jed led the last pitch of the day, which took him to the ridge crest. As he plowed through the loose snow up to the ridge crest, a 5-foot long cornice broke at his feet. The ridge was now clear in this one spot and he climbed to the other side and belayed us up. Having now been on the move for 18 hours, we were tired. The ridge was extremely steep on both sides. We set to work to make a tent platform. Two hours of shoveling, hacking, and ice chipping later we had our platform, so we pitched the tent and crashed out in our sleeping bags. Our tent platform scene resembled a photo I saw during a slide show from Steve House and Vince Anderson’s Nanga Parbat ascent, with the tent perched right on the ridge, and an area hacked out just big enough to fit the tent…and that made me feel hardcore.
The following day we rested. It was a nervous rest, knowing that we lay on the doorstep of the lethal Shovel Traverse, and that the glacier lay thousands of feet below. Rappelling that distance with only one 60-meter rope would take forever if we had to bail.
Day three, we got up around 3a.m. The travel was painfully slow, as we had to dig for every tool and foot placement. Thankfully, the digging exposed solid ice. Thinking back, the climbing on the ridge was quite good when it comes to adventure alpine climbing. I’m no pro mixed climber, but I’d guess the mixed climbing was in the M4-5 range, similar to the crux pitches on Mt Huntington’s Harvard Route. Up and down, over little snow bumps we progressed. Jed broke a second cornice as he descended a snow roll. Thankfully, I was in position to arrest this mini fall with no consequence.
I was on the sharp end for the final rock pitches that ascended back onto the snow. I was tied into the middle of the rope, leaving the two ends to be tied one to Jed and one to Reiner. There was a definitive high point I traversed towards. I placed a really crappy picket to keep some remote sense of security as we simul-climbed higher through the thigh deep powder. Roughly 15 feet before reaching the high point, about 10 feet below the ridge crest, I was post-holing sideways. With no warning the ground all around me, including what I was standing on, dropped out. I was riding a 15-foot cornice into the abyss. I landed on a shoulder-width ledge, unharmed, after what seemed like a forever fall. From the other side Reiner felt no pull on the rope, and thought I was gone forever. I got up quickly, peaked over the ridge, and gave them proof of life. I was rattled.
Standing there, snow blowing around me, looking out along the double corniced ridge in front of me, I felt very very empty. Four and a half years of climbing classics, trying to climb them all, and this is where it had brought me. To succeed on this route, to succeed on our Project, I would have to play cornice Russian Roulette. Only in this game I’d have to pull the trigger five times with the cornice gun held to my head.
I hate quitting. I hate thinking of myself as a sissy. I hate thinking other people will think I am a sissy. I wanted to get back on the horse that had knocked me off. After about 10 minutes of standing there on the ridge, I looked down at the patiently waiting Reiner and Jed and said, “ok, I’m going to keep going, keep the rope pretty tight,” and then moved out of view on the other side of the ridge.
The next cornice started where the broken cornice ended, only this one was hanging over the other side of the ridge. I kicked my feet over and over to get good purchase in the loose snow before committing weight to it. Then the other foot. Swinging my ice tools into the cornice 20 times I was able to hack a little trough for my body to wedge through. I paused to assess the situation. I had shaped this cornice into a big taco shell and I was the meat. If the cornice broke either way I was looking at a 40 foot fall onto rocks and ice. There, squeezed in this Mark-made snow slot, on an overhung cornice that could break at any moment, I froze. The thought that went through my mind from that still small voice said, “That first one was on the house, the next one is gonna cost ya.” I backed off. Shouted to the guys that I’m going to rap off the ridge, to a ramp 300’ below. They said nothing.
Into a building snowstorm we rapped four times down the West side of the ridge to gain an easier snow bench that formed the lower flanks of the ridge, near the feature known as the Snow Dome. Snow was sloughing off the all slopes steeper than 40 degrees as we made our way down. This sideways rappelling over loose snow spines is really taxing. Once on the snow ramp, Reiner took us up to the base of a stable looking serac wall where we dug another tent platform. 15 hours on the go gained us about ¼ mile of linear progress. Ouch.
I had spoken with Janelle on the satellite phone the previous evening. We were trying to coordinate a Shovel Traverse fly over. I told her that we would check in by midday to give a progress update. With all the technical climbing and heavy snow, the packs stayed on our backs and we didn’t get out the phone until 10 p.m. Jed hit the button on the phone that sends an auto “we are okay” text with our coordinates to Janelle, his wife, and three other people. The text did not go through to Janelle’s phone. That night she lay in bed thinking that her husband was dead. Not ideal. The next morning I called. She kept her composure for the first two sentences and then started crying. Also, not ideal. I guess that is the shortcoming of modern technology. It’s all good until it isn’t, causing your spouse to think you might be dead because of an undelivered text.
That day we rested again and pondered our situation. Three of the four times that we had touched a cornice they had broken. We had roughly 200 more cornices to cross. The ice was good 20 feet below the ridgeline, but we had to dig for every placement. From there to the ridge crest the snow was loose “snice” (snow ice mixture) and powder. Progress was slow. We had plenty of food and fuel. My head game was rattled from the fall. Reiner was pretty checked out as well. Jed was still charging.
The following morning we packed up and climbed two short pitches back to the ridge. I took the pitch that met up with the ridge. More vertical trench warfare. Once on the ridge I waded through 10 inches of powder and another two feet of loose snow to get off the cornice I was on and belayed the guys up. As they crested the ridge we looked at one another and knew this was the end of the road if we wanted to live to climb another day. There was not much discussion—the decision was clear—it was almost a non-decision. Similar to deciding if you should drink boiling tar, or jump in a dark pit full of angry rattlesnakes buck naked. We took some somber “personal summit” photos and rapped down to our tent platform.
Always the optimist, Reiner, offered some encouraging sentiments. Jed and I didn’t have ears to hear it. We were just pissed at this sucky situation. I thought of the following analogy, which eased my troubled mind a little. Continuing on that route, in those conditions, would be very similar to snowplowing down your 10 favorite steep backcountry ski runs on a day with extreme avalanche hazard. It really does not matter your ability, you’ll probably die.
Now we were looking at a 4000+’ descent on technical terrain, under cornice and rock fall hazard…with one 60 meter Sterling Photon rope. Each rappel would only get us about 95’ down the mountain.
At 11 p.m. we left our camp and started down. The plan was to get in the icy runnel troughs and rappel from V-threads the entire way. We took turns making the threads. Whoever was in the lead moved as fast as possible. We ended up having to rappel 34 times, do a bunch of down climbing, and near the of the descent, do some down run-for-your-life climbing as the rocks started falling around us.
Once back on the glacier, out of the objective danger shooting range, I collapsed on the flat snow, not so much out of physical fatigue but more from stress fatigue. Our attempt was over. We did not die. In fact we were all perfectly fine. A true relief.
We made our way back to the original basecamp, where we waited on flyable weather for 3.5 days. It was brutal waiting that long with nothing for entertainment but playing angry birds, watching 12 episodes of The Big Bang Theory (horribly awful TV show), cooking stovetop stuffing, developing a new business plan, and feeling our failure. Yet, all in all, we were very happy that we were unharmed and content that we had made the right choice to bail.
Mt. Logan will be there another day. Will we return to try again? Definitely. If most of those cornices fall off, if we have funding, if we get time off of work, and if we have a strong team--absolutely. An anti-gravity belt would be nice too. Do I recommend other people try this route? Nope. I’d go for the Thunderbird, Early Bird, the East Ridge, or one of the numerous unclimbed lines on Mt. Logan.
As for what this means for the Smiley’s Project, I don’t know. Does it really matter that we have climbed 44 of the 50 Classics? Is leaving 6 unclimbed any different than leaving one unclimbed? Would it matter if we were able to climb all 50? I don’t know.
What I do know is that it has been an amazing journey to get to this point. I know that I want to keep climbing big mountains and push my physical limits. Yet, I am typing this from Janelle’s hospital recovery room. She just got hip surgery to fix the issue that caused her have to leave this expedition early. Getting Janelle healed and fully functional is our top priority. It’s going to cost over $10,000 in medical bills and 8-12 months of recovery to make her well again. Both of these facts are real rain clouds on this dirtbagger’s parade.