6/5/13 - A dramatic helicopter rescue saved two climbers in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park last month after more than 20 feet of snow trapped them high on a previously unclimbed mountain. Derek Buckle (U.K.) and Paul Knott (New Zealand) had completed the first ascent of Mt. Eaton (ca. 10,945 feet), a peak east of Mt. Augusta in the St. Elias Range. Knott is a veteran of this remote range, having made numerous expeditions and new routes over the past two decades. With many peaks rising above 14,000 feet within 10 to 20 miles of the ocean, the St. Elias Mountains have some of the heaviest snowfalls on the continent.
Buckle and Knott had started their descent when a series of storms began. Below, Knott tells his story:
“Conditions were clear but windy as we started our descent, and cloud descended with us. Doggedly, we reversed the five-hour-plus climb from our high camp over false summits, huge mushroom-domes, and undulating corniced ridge.
“Three days earlier, Paul Swanstrom had dropped us on the lower Seward Glacier for what was my eighth visit to these mountains. We had waited a week in Haines while storms broke precipitation records for much of southeast Alaska. Mindful of a limited weather window, we had left immediately for the east ridge of Mt. Eaton. Initially, we intended to continue along the unclimbed ridge to Mt. Augusta, but we subsequently settled for a lighter weight ascent of Eaton.
“We had had a full day by the time we descended to our high camp on an 8,700-foot foresummit. We elected to stay there based on forecast expectation of one more day before the storm really hit. During the night, wind-blown snow half-buried the tent. Despite limited visibility, we packed to descend. We felt our way almost blindly down from the foresummit, desperately looking for cues in the whiteout. The terrain was crevassed and corniced, and we could see too little to stay safe or navigate. We climbed back up to the top and threw up the tent. We had a day’s spare food, but in the ensuing nightmare scenario of the kind the St. Elias is known for, this place was to become home for the next eight days. During that time, we had easily 20 feet of snow. The storm threw us incessant, drowning face fulls of blizzard. Time after time, it threatened to bury us. Shoveling the tent was futile. Instead, we had to dig it out and repitch on top of the snowpack. We tried a snow cave, but found the speed of burial even more alarming. Next morning, all signs of the cave were gone. In the conditions, we could not safely use the stove, so relied on melting water in our sleeping bags.
“According to weather reports, we were due a brief clearance after four days. On May 15, we packed up our ice-caked tent and attempted to descend. Again, we found ourselves in whiteout, only this time wading the steep slope in thigh-deep powder. We also felt alarmingly weakened. We concluded our only prudent option was to raise an emergency with Kluane National Park. If the clearance came, a helicopter should be able to land on the snow dome not far from us.
“An impressive effort was launched on our behalf, but to no avail. The following afternoon I listened intently as Craig McKinnon in the park office set out the grim forecast. We mentally prepared ourselves for a hungrier and more wearing round of blizzards and burials. A definitive clearance was potentially another five days away, which would severely challenge our ability to stay energized, hydrated, and warm.
“After our eighth stormy night, the morning of May 19 dawned clear and calm. At around 6:45, our fortunes transformed as rescuers Dion Parker and Scott Stewart landed next to us. Some edgy navigation around rapidly building cloud took us to Haines Junction and the greeting, “Are you the ‘back from the dead’ climbers?”
Date of incident: May 2013
Sources: Paul Knott, American Alpine Journal