You can’t hike around Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak, quite yet.
The valleys are still filled by glaciers hundreds of metres thick and the summits by ice and snow with only the steepest of slopes exposing rock faces and crags.
After completing a strenuous ski and photo trip where Mt. Logan and 12 major peaks were not just landmarks, but deeply felt in each breath, the effects of global warming were not immediately apparent to Peter and me.
Our perceptions were wrong, however. Even this stunning, isolated landscape is in flux. At this point on the planet’s clock, it appears that there is warming and the effects are immense.
Our planned route was entirely on the great rivers of ice. We would easily be able to ski forward and back to photograph several peaks from their most striking profiles, taking into account distance for the right perspective and optimal lighting.
Although photos from ridges and summits are breathtaking, quite literally, I am not a climber, so the plan suited me.
The 90-kilometre half circle on the south side of Logan that we had chosen to follow over 10 to 14 days would allow ample time for meditative composition.
Andy Williams, our pilot, was confident that he could get us to some location close to Mt. Logan to start our trip. He wasn’t exactly sure where he would drop us off, but we were more eager to get going than worry about such details.
As we approached the massive bulk of snow and ice that is north side of Logan looming three kilometres above us, small, low clouds were moving in from the coast.
He was clearly nervous about the weather.
When we landed at the Quintino Sella Glacier base camp at the west side of Logan, Williams kept the engine running.
We helped him throw our stuff out of the plane as quickly as the pilot in the film Never Cry Wolf and he waved off two hopefuls all packed and waiting to fly out.
Our pilot scooted back to the Kluane Lake airstrip quickly and safely.
He was right about the weather.
A light cloud layer moved up the glacier and enveloped the camp shortly afterwards. A major windstorm hit within 24 hours.
Base camp, elevation 2,743 metres above sea level and 3,216 metres below the peak of Logan, had a population of four when we arrived.
It was a friendly place with no big expeditions or egos, no oxygen bottles, garbage and scenes of chaos like Everest.
Prayer flags might have been a nice touch, but there were just two tents and a few snow-block caches of those still on the mountain.
The four climbers in residence were all from Quebec City and all keen to leave.
We could see why.
Their team had already been up Denali earlier in the season and two had reached the summit of Logan.
Although their bearded and bronzed faces were beaming from their success, they had been away from home for 52 days. It looked as though they would be waiting a few more.
The “chat” tent where they melted snow, told stories and played cards was given to them from climbers on Denali.
It was a pyramid design with a stove shelf beside the centre pole. Completing the arrangement were benches carved in the snow for themselves and about four guests.
The tent came alive about 11 a.m. for brunch, went quiet in the afternoon and was busy again from 7 to 10 p.m.
Other than cards, chatting and melting snow, sleep was the most popular activity.
No one spent much time cooking.
Camp food after nearly two months is well … just camp food. But then there were a couple of returning mountaineers who dove into their refrigerated cache within minutes of their arrival and produced bacon and eggs.
They disappeared in their tent. Soon the familiar smell came out in the rarified air.
The conversation in the chat tent immediately turned to questioning us where the best places were to eat in Whitehorse.
There was no particular schedule for the returning climbers other than phoning Williams in the morning at the Kluane Lake airstrip.
When he said he couldn’t fly, there was no reason to be active. Most people were physically exhausted from three to five weeks on the mountain and needed rest. By the time we headed down to the Seward Glacier there were eight people waiting for good weather and the plane.
Another 15 or more were still on the mountain.
Three of these would be plucked off in two days.
One, tragically, would be swept off a ridge by a small snow slide.
Our turn to wait would be later.
We took a half-day to ski to the first staging camp in the King Trench.
The route up the glacier through a crevasse field was marked with bamboo wands.
On the south side was an extremely steep snow and ice wall. From the stories the climbers told, some of the ice-fall zones further up the trench are collapsing more frequently and may be so hazardous that the route will not be safe in the near future.
While I was enjoying the immensity of the place, in the relative safety of being roped to Peter and a safe distance from the ice wall, I wasn’t sure if I would do well at significant elevations.
In addition to the fatigue of a 500-metre vertical climb over seven kilometres, I was getting mild headaches and yet we were at the same elevation as Quito, Ecuador, where millions do not take headache medication.
It was comforting to know that we were going down in the next few days, not up, so we wouldn’t need to acclimatize.
Peter and I both noticed our laboured breathing in the moderate work of cutting and placing another few layers of snow blocks around the tent.
All that exertion called for extra sleep, which Peter relished as his schedule in the last couple of weeks had been tight. I really didn’t mind it either.
The storm slammed the mountain during the night. We could hear the gusts coming down off the ridges and across the glacier before violently shaking the tent.
The next day we stumbled out during lulls wearing our parkas and wind pants to shovel out drifts enveloping the tent and to make tea.
We noted that the chat tent wasn’t up much due to the strong winds.
Quickly spooning down a hot meal, crouched behind a snow wall in this blur of white and wind, I was thinking Peter’s earlier descriptions of this being a warm, spring ski trip were somewhat misleading.
The storm was gradually diminishing the next afternoon. It seemed like a good opportunity to pack up and get out of town.
(Part one of a series)