At Play in the Phantom Range

The St. Elias Mountains are the continent's highest peaks, are situated within the largest tract of internationally protected land and hold Canada's tallest mountain. It's Mecca for the mountaineer - so why do so few ever visit?

Above the ice fields of the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada.

Above the Saint Elias Range © John Zada

“There’s way too much cloud up ahead,” said our Cessna pilot, betraying an iota of fluster that marred his showy demeanour of unflinching calm. We were on a two-hour glacier flight over Canada’s highest peaks, yet the promised view of our regal surroundings had so far proved elusive. Several glances from the pilot towards a huge map unfurled messily over the cockpit instruments suggested an imminent change of plan.

“Let me try another route,” he added, determinedly.

The pilot banked left, breaking our path above a glacier and taking us over hefty mountains covered in scree and snow. We ascended and took aim at a saddle between two towering, ice-encrusted peaks. Like some Arctic Pillar of Heracles, the snowcapped monstrosities heralded a new realm beyond. As we flew over the col, and as the wispy clouds dissipated on cue, we entered upon an incalculably wide thoroughfare of intersecting glaciers running past several ridges of rock and ice. The scene extended into infinity.

To see the ice ranges of Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains for the first time is to be filled with an indescribable sense of elation — but also confusion. The experience of hovering over the continent’s highest peaks, in a region whose dimensions frustrate all attempts by language to convey it, is an exercise in novelty and euphoria. But the trance-inducing scenery also inspires a powerful dissonance that comes with the discovery that there’s been a behemoth living in your backyard and you didn’t know it.

Many questions raced through my head all at once. How is it that Canada could contain such a landscape? Why was it that so few had heard of this place? And most importantly: how could a nation of schoolteachers, geographers, historians, writers and filmmakers, whose job it is to inform the public about places like this, be hoodwinked into such a unanimous silence? I never dug deep enough to find the answers. The questions lingered, and faded.

But then, as if the fates were nudging me to make good on my journalistic duty, an opportunity arose to return to the area a year later and thus to revisit this enduring riddle which I’d lazily abandoned. I was to join five members from the Alpine Club of Canada on a five-day expedition into the heart of the St. Elias Mountains; that Phantom Range arching from the tip of northwest British Columbia, into Yukon and Alaska. Our destination was a seasonal base camp in Yukon, dubbed Icefield Discovery, which is situated at the confluence of three of glaciers in Kluane National Park and located 40 km from Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan. The plan was to explore the nearby terrain on skis and snowshoes, and get a feel for a group of mountains known by its admirers as “Canada’s Himalayas.”

Though I’ve been known to suffer — at times badly — from pretensions of adventure, I’ve never once considered myself a mountaineer. Which is why during my second flight into the St. Elias Mountains (commandeered by the swashbuckling pilot, Carl “Donjek” Upton), it became clear that I was entering a whole new level of playing field. The fact that my more experienced cohorts felt the same way guaranteed that we were in for an experience far beyond the pale in a frozen world that glistened with both promise and peril.

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No matter how close you get to them, it’s hard to appreciate the uniqueness and true physical scale of the St. Elias Range. To grasp their stature, one must turn to pronouncements of academics who have showered the mountains with accolades. Those who know the area have committed these factoids to memory. And they will repeat them — ad infinitum — until the unsuspecting visitor has taken them on as their own, as I have. And here they are:

The St. Elias Mountains are the highest, youngest and fastest growing mountains in Canada. They are also one of the highest coastal ranges in the world. Their perpetually snow-covered peaks and glaciers (the latter are also some of the longest in the world) are part of the largest internationally protected region on the Earth. That conservancy, encompassing adjacent parks in Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia is known as (take a long breath) the “Kluane/ Wrangell-St.Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshni- Alsek UNESCO World Heritage Complex.”

Flying above the ice fields of the St. Elias Mountains, Kluane National Park, Yukon

© John Zada

Its icefields, fed by huge storms barrelling off the Gulf of Alaska, are part of the largest glaciated region outside of the poles and Greenland. And if you really want to unload the superlatives and impress your obscure-trivia-minded friends, you could also mention that the range is part of the most seismically active area in mainland Canada and forms a dividing line between the Pacific and Arctic regions of continental flora and fauna.

“The relief is spectacular and very similar to the Himalayas,” says Brent Liddle, a former Parks Canada guide who lives on the edge of St. Elias Range. “The mountains rise from sea level to almost 6,000 metres within just 30 km. And they’re some of the roughest mountains in the world to access.”

This region was the very last in North America to be explored and mapped. Vitus Bering, a Danish sailor in the employ of the Russians, was the first European to lay eyes on what is now called Mount St. Elias in 1741 (which he named, and from where the range derives its name). But it wasn’t until almost a century-and-a-half later that North American and European climbers first started surveying the slopes of these gargantuan mountains. As with any great range, amazing tales of daring and death began to follow in their wake.

A second wave of climbers dove headlong into the range, starting in 1912, when Canada and the United States decided to demarcate the boundary between what is now Yukon and Alaska. The combined adventures and exploits of these teams, and of those that came after them during the Post-War periods, are considered to be on par with some of the great polar and Himalayan expeditions celebrated today.

Bearing this in mind, let’s go back to the original question: with so much going for them, why have the St. Elias Mountains been relegated to some far-flung backwater of collective memory? The answer lies in one of the fundamental qualities of the range itself — invisibility. The range is so remote that it is obscured from everyday view and, as a result, from public awareness. Like a secret that protects itself, the mountains sit at one of the furthest, most sparsely populated edges of the continent and are concealed behind concentric barriers of lower frontal ranges.

From the road, they can scarcely be reached on foot, and only then by the most daring and superhuman of adventurers (only a handful have ever done it). Those who more wisely decide to see, or access, them by plane (still an adventure in itself), can only do so during a roughly two-month window of relatively stable weather in the spring and summer; weather which may still turn viciously inclement at any moment. Yet, despite the range’s cloak of invisibility, a trickle of new visitors come to Kluane every year, looking to view the icefields. Many of them are from abroad.

“The area appears better known among foreigners, perhaps because they take the time to research their holidays,” says Andy Williams, a Kluane Glacier Tours pilot and former manager of the Kluane Lake Research station — a facility that hosts scientists conducting research in the area. “Perhaps after a long winter, Canadians’ thoughts turn more to sand and margaritas, rather than snow and ice.”

In 2000, Williams. along with his daughter Sian and her husband Lance (who together now run the station), came up with the idea to establish a seasonal base camp in Kluane’s icefields, operating from late May to the end of July. The camp, made up of a large communal shelter and smaller tents, was intended for use not just by climbers and scientists, but also curious travellers.

“We wanted to make the St. Elias accessible to a wider range of people who could venture there in relative comfort and safety,” Sian Williams says. “But it’s been a lot of work. Because of the snowfall up there, the camp has to be taken down every year. If it wasn’t, it would be completely buried by the end of the winter.”

In the 2000 issue of Canadian Alpine Journal, which I would stumble upon while pouring over some old magazines at the base camp, Sian Williams wrote a short piece in which she described the moment she, and the others, whimsically conceived the idea to build their perch at the edge of the world. It read like a decision to put up a shed in a backyard.

“Andy, Lance, Nick and I launched a new project in the St. Elias this year. We thought, ‘Hell, let’s set up a comfortable place to go drink Scotch in the hills over there.’ So we built a refugio right in the middle of the St. Elias and called it ‘Icefield Discovery’.”

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Arriving at the camp, instantly I saw the logic underpinning the establishment of that “refugio” (a Spanish word meaning “refuge” “or safe place”). The outpost was situated on the most profound, expansive and complex landscape I’d ever seen. A 40-minute flight away from an airfield on the edge of the range, we were ensconced as far into ice as can safely be done.

Glacier Camping with Mt. Logan in the distance, Yukon, Canada

© John Zada

Our large Weatherhaven shelter and three, two-person tents clustered together atop a glacier half-a-kilometre thick, surrounded by peaks, near and far, in every direction. Gazing down stoically upon us was the massif of Mount Logan (5,959 metres), one of the largest mountains by mass on the planet. It loomed huge and imposing, like a continent of ice and rock with its long tentacled ridges extending out and around it like an octopus. Seldom did an hour pass without each of us stopping for a moment to stare at that alpine monstrosity, paying homage to it while trying to fathom its inconceivable mass.

To the left of that view, much closer and concealed behind a hill, was Mount Queen Mary, just shy of 4,000 metres. Others in this pantheon of giants: Lucania, Steele, Wood, Augusta, and a flurry of other unnamed titans stood sentry around us. It took us a fair bit of time and calculation to determine which peak was which, even with our compasses and detailed maps.

Though my first time in such an environment, I had come across similar conditions while on an expedition in the Sahara some years back. Being in the St. Elias was very much in the same category of experience. The cleanliness, effervescence of air, seeming barrenness and wind-sculpted formations evoked the great African desert — the St. Elias’s foreign cousin in extremity. The almost complete absence of visual scale was also something the icefields and the desert had in common. But here in the St. Elias the inability to ascertain scale was more drastic because of the greater distances involved. Rocky outcrops above the snow that appeared no more than a few minutes away turned out to be a distance of hours aloft. Treks that promised to take hours were destined to last a day. And Logan itself appeared visually closer or further, larger or smaller, with even just a short walk in any direction from camp. The presence or absence of clouds and their shadows also tweaked the illusion. Nothing was what it appeared. And only by striking out into the void could we experience for ourselves what only reached our brains in the form of distorted, ghostly impressions.

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If you can’t climb a mountain, climb a mountain-in-the-making. On our second day, our team leader, Marko, suggested we scale “Pikatak” — a small pinnacle of rock located about three kilometres down the glacier in the direction of Logan. Pikatak was what scientists call a “nunatak” — an Inuit word meaning “land attached.” A nunatak is an exposed element of rock, part of a ridge or mountain, piercing through the surface of the glacier. Many nunataks are the peaks of younger mountains, ever rising and destined to become more fully exposed mountains of their own in geological time.

Roping up for some backcountry skiing, in the ice fields of the St. Elias Mountains, Yukon.

© John Zada

No more than a handful of acres in size, nunataks can be found throughout the St. Elias Range. Part of what makes them fascinating for scientists is that they often harbour life, especially in the summer — a medley of forms ranging from plants and wildflowers, to birds and insects. A small rodent known as the collared pika makes its home in St. Elias nunataks and survives by eating the brains of dead birds, which became lost, or are blown off-course, in the icefields.

Pikatak, the largest of a handful of nunataks surrounding our camp, was relatively close to us and quite visible in the distance. The route to it seemed straightforward. But because nothing could be taken for granted in this dangerous environment, we were given specific instruction for approaching it.

“There are some big crevasses on the way,” Sian Williams instructed. “But they can be skirted around to the west. Rope up before getting to the crevassed area.”

Our two most skilled members, Peter and Olivier, decided to act as the vanguard and make the approach together on skis, reconnoitering the way ahead. Marko, myself and two others chose to do the trek on snowshoes. The four of us roped up and brought along ice picks in the (hopefully) unlikely event of a mishap.

In spite of the burdensome cord linking us together, we moved fairly quickly through the soft snow, which melted in the uncharacteristically warm weather. Following Sian’s instructions, we kept to the right on our approach and easily cleared the crevasses, which we saw pockmarking a long dip in the glacier a few hundred metres away.

We reached the base of Pikatak, which was partly covered in snow, in just over an hour. Following some initial climbing in our snowshoes and rope, we ditched those implements and started punching steps into the steep, snowy hillside with our boots, climbing along the divide where the snow meets the exposed rock. That route kept us more or less safely away from the large, treacherous snow cornices to our right, on the nunatak’s edge.

Looking out onto Mt. Logan from the Kluane Icefields, Yukon, Canada

© John Zada

For an outcrop only a few hundred metres in height, the view from the top was spectacular and worth the monotonous trudge in the slushy snow. All around us, enormous glacial thoroughfares — superhighways of snow and ice — heavily scarred with crevasses, coursed between high walls of rock. Logan, and its long jagged tendril containing McArthur Peak, loomed even more massive and imposing than its appearance from our camp — which was now the most distant, tiny smudge on the white horizon behind us.

Mount Queen Mary, a rotund and somewhat featureless elephantine mound also made an unabashed appearance as we rounded part of the hill that previously obstructed her. And far off on the horizon, intimating through the mist, was part of the great corpulent mass of Mount St. Elias itself — the third highest peak on the continent.

As we settled into this picturesque bliss, a large Pacific seagull appeared from nowhere and circled above us. All conversation stopped as we watched this surreal spectacle. After a squawk and a few playful turns, the bird caught a gust of wind and catapulted away in the direction of our camp, and likely beyond — past the icefields, and into the lowland rivers and lakes where the only hint of this Phantom Range is a distant, transcendent light.

This article ran in the Winter 2013 issue of Explore magazine.

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