FINALLY, we made it to the top of something in the winter :)
Whaaaat?!? First known woman to summit a major subarctic peak in the winter = yeah!
In the previous year, we attempted to do the first winter ascent of Mt. Lucania, Canada’s third-highest peak at 5226 meters. After two very cold weeks of climbing in January, we were forced to abandon our efforts due to a sleep system failure.
The 2019 expedition was set to return to Mt. Lucania but due to Parks Canada’s limited winter staffing, we were only permitted to fly-in on March 4th, 2019, offering us only 16 days of climbing before the official end of the winter climbing season - that was not sufficient to climb Mt. Lucania. So, it was back to the drawing board, we had to do more research and devise a new plan. Our goal was to find a shorter route up Mt. Lucania or try neighbouring Mt. Wood (15,912 feet / 4,860 meters), Canada’s 6th tallest major peak which had also never seen a winter ascent.
It sure felt odd to head out on an expedition without yet really knowing exactly which route or mountain we were going to climb! We decided to do a recon flight the day before our permitted landing day, to concretize our plan. Well aware of our environmental footprint on such projects, we always purchase carbon offsets in an effort to maintain balance. In conjunction with our pilot, we devised an efficient flight plan for the recon and off we went. The flight revealed no feasible options for a shorter climb up Lucania, but we did find a solid landing spot and potential route up Mt. Wood, our objective was set, yahoo!
The morning of March 4th saw a last-minute rush to revise our mountaineering and landing permits… while Lonnie was loading the Super Cub, I was submitting drawn-in routes on images from the previous day’s flyover. As I wait my turn to fly in, I long for the moment when I can finally let go of email, phone calls, logistics, social media and finally just enjoy the simplicity of climbing while being in each other’s company in beautiful surroundings.
With the weather on our side, we flew in as scheduled and the landing, on the Hodgson glacier at an incredible 9,880 feet went smoothly. At a balmy -20C, already things were easier than last year’s biting -40C; it was a welcome change. We were excited to start climbing the next morning… if our altitude headaches would allow.
We woke to a beautiful, calm sunny alpine day. Perfect. We did not need to use our ultra-cold weather gear the first night, so we packed it up on the first carry. Bursting with energy, off we went. Excited, this is what we seek – true pioneering. From what we saw on the flyover, we expected this first part to be the most technically challenging, and it was. We encountered several large crevasses that had to be carefully crossed and a segment of steep slopes, which we simul-climbed together on our rope. We loved the route decisions, every step of the way – this is why we do this!
We ultimately found a flat plateau and stashed our first carry of supplies. Now to repeat twice more; sigh. On our way down, we realized just how exposed it was, so we opted to place some protection and belay down. On subsequent carries, we ended up increasing our pro, first using running belays and eventually pitching it out.
After three long days, we were solidly established and well-stocked at camp 1, which I named “happy” camp. Once again, we are filled with excitement for the next day’s exploration to Camp 2. We encountered still more large crevasse crossings, some which ended up as dead ends, forcing us to try alternate ways up. Ultimately, we gained another high plateau where we could establish our high camp at 12,500ft, from which we would tackle the summit.
Based on the forecast, we expected the next morning to be a rest day due to high winds… we looked forward to a rest. Low and behold, we wake up to calm winds with some faraway clouds… so we decided to go for the summit. As we made our way up the smooth start, our spirits were high… I let my mind start to day-dream about what we’ll do should we be successful in this project. Step by step, the route becomes clearer and the summit closer.
We’ve got this! As we wand our way up… the winds pick up and the clouds really start to move. Lonnie points out lenticulars forming over nearby peaks. We trudge on until the terrain starts to steepen, at which point we transition for a summit push – ditching our backpacks. The transition allowed just enough time for the weather to really worsen, now it was obvious that we were being shut down, only a couple hours from the summit Disappointed, we retreat back to camp. Oh well, fingers crossed for tomorrow, but we don’t hold much hope because the forecast was for a carbon copy of today.
As we get into camp, the winds are really roaring now and we are in whiteout conditions from ground blizzards and clouds. A check-in on forecast reports the same… carbon copy of today and deteriorating after that. We are bummed. I have a breakdown and allow myself a solid crying session, if only we’d started two hours sooner, we would have made the summit; now it is all over.
We wake at 6:00 a.m. to howling winds and white-out. That’s it, no summit attempt today. So we roll back to sleep, call into our support team at 8:00 am to hear the same thing… carbon copy of yesterday and better get down today because winds are really going to pick up and a 5-day storm front is moving in. So we begin to tear down our camp in view of making it to basecamp. With backpacks loaded and ready to start climbing down, we realize that the winds have stopped, dead calm. Clouds lifting. Hum…. It sure is a carbon copy of yesterday now… but it’s already 10:00 am. We look at each other and both said it: “We can’t head down when it’s like this, we have to try again”. We promise each other, that at any hint of high winds or incoming clouds, we would turn around and head for the safety of a lower camp. What a roller coaster of emotions!
So off we go, no packs, fast and light – 2nd summit attempt. We make great time thanks to yesterday’s wands and acclimatization. Soon we are at our previous day’s turnaround and the weather is still holding. I don’t allow myself to think of success this time, too cautious that the weather will once again turn on us…
Soon the summit was clearly within sight. Calves burning, excitement rising… Lonnie still shoulder checking for clouds every 10min, we make for the final push to the summit. The winds are strong at the summit – there’s not much time to celebrate. I’m getting cold fast, we can’t hear each other well over the winds. We activate our SPOT locator beacon to record the summit, do the mandatory 360° video, take a few snapshots and that’s it, time to head to safety! Every minute we spend away from our camp is on borrowed time now.
We struggle on the way down in flat light with our tracks blown away by the winds. Progress is slow and cautious, but we make it back to our high camp, in good spirits. Now… to set up camp or push on down to Happy camp, in case the weather worsens overnight. We are tired and dusk is looming, but the risk of being stranded at this high camp with limited supplies urges us to make the push.
The crevasse crossings seemed more difficult, our previous tracks all gone, the gaps just marked by wands. The descent is steep and we pitch it out with our heavy loads. As we approach where Happy camp should be visible, we can’t locate our wands, light is fading and fast. Finally, we see a small disturbance in the snow patterns, must be our old camp, we head for that and it is.
I had failed to mentally prepare for the reality that our previous camp would be snowed in… sigh. In fading light, we began to re-dig a whole new tent platform and put up our camp. Too tired to cook, we just hydrate (long overdue), nibble on snacks and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be a race against time to get down and perhaps even fly out before the storm pins us down for a long while. Still no rest in sight.
In the morning, we pack up quickly and start the steep descent with our loaded packs. We pitch it all out – it’s slow, but at least the weather isn’t too bad, so we can tolerate this cautious approach. By late afternoon… we see base camp. We’ve done it… just a few more moments of concentration and we’ll be home free.
At 3 pm, we are at basecamp. Happy. Relieved. We immediately call John to see if he can pick us up tonight before the big storm. He immediately replies that he’s going to prep the Piper and go – wow! What great news! Our pilot, willing to pick us up in uncharted territory, for a 9,880ft take off in low light with a fully loaded plane, incredible.
Only one last hurdle now, a safe take-off. Together with the pilot, we had a plan; off we go. I hold my breath… bump, bump… and we are flying. YAHOO! Deep breath. We are safe. We were successful, what a ride.
The flight out is always a very introspective time. Thoughts wander. Is this my last time in the Yukon? Flying over Icefields in a Super Cub? On a winter climb? Was all this worth it? Wow, how beautiful it is, how amazing this feels.
Mt. Wood has been climbed in the spring and summer but remains a seldom climbed peak. We tackled it via a spur ridge on its east face, grading our route Alaska Grade III mainly due to its numerous crevasses and its initial 60°degree icy slopes. The summit was reached on March 11th, 2019 at 3:10 p.m. and the duo spent a total of 9 days on the climb. It is the first winter ascent of the mountain and makes Pascale the first women to climb any subarctic peak in the world, in the winter.
Check out this fun video about the climb :)
And a parliamentary mention too!