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Is Minus 50 Really That Cold? Two Women Aimed To Find Out.

Mount Lucania in the Yukon was seldom climbed. There were reasons why.


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Seven days in, we had a routine. One of us would scrape frost from the inside walls of the tent, and then light the stove to melt snow, while the other dragged our sleeping bags outside to dry. But this morning on Mount Steele, deep in the Saint Elias Mountains of the Yukon—and an obstacle on the approach to our objective, Mount Lucania, Canada’s third highest peak—the wind had pounded our tent so hard it blasted frost onto our faces. When I stood outside, the gusts nearly bowled me off my feet. Spindrift hit my face like a thousand needles. I braced and looked east to the first hints of light. Around us, the wind had sculpted sastrugi snow into sharp anvil shapes. I crawled back inside.

Pascale and I were quiet. We were stalling, reluctant to gear up for the 1,000 feet of blue ice and rotten snow above, terrain that would require calculated steps and considered decision-making. A false assessment would have consequences.

The climb over Steele to Mount Lucania had been significantly steeper than we’d expected. Instead of moving quickly and simul-climbing, we would need to pitch out the steep ice above us. In -50° F temps with wind chill, could we manage it?

“A warrior says she’ll do it. Her intention is to give her best effort, but she doesn’t put a limit on that effort. She knows she is not perfect, and she may not make it … For her, doing the climb essentially means engaging the process; the outcome is less important.”

I had jotted this quote from Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way in my notebook before Pascale and I flew out of Silver City, 45 minutes north of Haines Junction in southwest Yukon. I read it aloud as I tightened my boots. Pascale listened and shared that she wasn’t sure she could lead here. If I wasn’t up for it, we might have to turn around. I was willing to lead, but I feared my hands would get so cold I’d lose dexterity, fall, rip the belay, and send us both tumbling thousands of feet.

We talked through it, feeling a renewed sense of commitment to the effort.

As we cinched our hip belts and tied in, the winds calmed. It was as if the mountain had noticed our determination. My friend Tim Patterson, of Zúc’min Guides and a member of the Salish Peoples of British Columbia, once told me that when we move through land, we become a part of each other’s stories. In that moment, it felt like Lucania was inviting us to be a part of hers.

Pascale Marceau and Sherpal Singh, pilot for Icefield Discovery, unload gear on the Upper Donjek Glacier. Marceau and the author buried a cache of food and fuel here in case inclement weather delayed their pick-up flight. Photo: Eva Capozzola

“It is a majestic mountain in a really remote area. It will not be easy, and we should expect full winter -40° F, high-wind conditions, even in April,” read an email from Pascale Marceau in October 2020.

Sitting just 30 miles north of Canada’s highest peak—Mount Logan (19,551 feet)—Lucania, at 17,257 feet, is subject to the same fearsome weather as its taller sibling. Average recorded temps plummet to -50° F, and winds kick up to 90 mph.

Lucania’s first ascent was made in 1937 by Bradford Washburn and Robert Hicks Bates, who flew in on a bush plane with the pilot Bob Reeve on June 18 of that year, landing on the Walsh Glacier east of the peak. However, warm temperatures and epic rains stranded Reeve with the climbers for five days, as well as exposed myriad crevasses that now bisected their landing strip. Once the storm passed, only by digging the plane out of four hidden fissures in the ice and changing the angle of the propellor to facilitate a shorter takeoff were they able to get Reeve back in the air. He would not be able to land on the Walsh again, effectively marooning Washburn and Bates. Two other members of the team, Russel Dow and Norman Bright, had been scheduled to come in on a second flight, but that proved impossible due to conditions on the glacial landing strip.

Undeterred, the pair pressed on, taking two weeks to climb Lucania, a mountain deemed “impregnable” by an earlier, failed expedition. Their ascent tackled the peak from the east, climbing across Mount Steele, and then following a connecting ridge to Lucania. But, up on the summit, their ordeal had just begun: Washburn and Bates had to traverse 100 miles of uncharted Yukon terrain back to civilization, supplementing their dwindling rations by eating wild mushrooms and red squirrels and a rabbit killed with six shooters. So harrowing was their experience that David Roberts wrote the book Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survival about it.

Seven years ago, Pascale left her job in the corporate world and became a risk-management consultant, providing her the freedom to focus on mountaineering and cold, exploratory firsts. In 2019, she made the first female winter ascent of Mount Wood, a major peak in the Yukon. Her partner on that climb, and in life, Lonnie Dupre, was the first to circumnavigate Greenland by kayak and dog team, and the first to solo Denali in January. Invited by a mutual friend who had a feeling we’d get along, I met Pascale and Lonnie for coffee in Canmore, Canada, in January 2020.

We quickly found that we shared a mountain ethos, one that involves immersive experiences in wild, remote places. We swapped stories of adventures in the Arctic and Alaska; I told of a multi-week ski traverse I’d done in the Brooks Range with my friends Teresa and Emily, and three dogs. We’d skijored, pulling sleds and tracking a herd of caribou. We hunted one successfully and skied out with meat for the year.

Pascale and I had instant chemistry, and as we hugged goodbye, we said we should do something together. We hadn’t spoken since that first meeting when her email landed in my inbox nine months later. Would I join her on Lucania in the coming spring, 2021?

We would fly to the Upper Donjek Glacier, landing at 9,000 feet on the southeast side of Mount Steele, which we would need to cross to reach Lucania. We’d then ski, pulling sleds, burying our skis when the terrain got too steep for them, and then pulling the sleds until it was too steep for them, to finally climb with packs. The route would follow 22 miles of heavily crevassed terrain with over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. Lucania’s combination of extreme cold and a challenging approach is a powerful deterrent—the mountain has seen fewer than 10 ascents in 85 years.

Amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic, Pascale and I still prepared. We met on video chat to go through gear lists, food prep, logistics, and route planning. We trained on our own. I followed programs from Uphill Athlete, and with the gyms closed I did squats and ran hills with a backpack full of heavy trad gear. Pascale and I climbed together once, meeting for a day in December 2020 to run laps on an ice route in Kananaskis, Alberta.

Marceau ties mountaineer coils before leaving advanced basecamp at 12,238 feet on the Upper Donjek Glacier, the jumping-off point for Mount Lucania, Yukon, Canada. Photo: Eva Capozzola

Lucania would be a big objective for a team of two, especially so for relative strangers, and ours would be the first attempt by an all-female team.

Information on Lucania was scant. Our most reliable beta was from Pascale herself: She and Lonnie had made a winter bid in 2019. They’d landed one glacier west of the Upper Donjek, on the Walsh Glacier, northeast of the launching point used by Washburn and Bates. Pascale and Lonnie got to what would later be our advanced basecamp at about 12,000 feet before an equipment malfunction turned them around.

Two weeks before we were scheduled to fly into the Yukon, the green light we had been hoping for blinked on—our required permits had arrived. On March 28, I flew into Whitehorse, Yukon, from my home in Golden, British Columbia. Pascale arrived from Alaska, where she and Lonnie had just made a winter attempt on Mount Hunter. We met at baggage claim in Whitehorse, where, because Pascal had crossed an international border, we would have to quarantine for 14 days. With only three ventilators in the entire territory, the local population couldn’t afford a COVID outbreak.

Quarantine was an unexpected gift, giving us time to get to know each other and prepare. Each day we went through one of our systems. Every item of gear was scrutinized for weight, function, and necessity. We practiced crevasse rescue and rope systems, dialing in commands in case of strong winds or whiteouts. We pored over every image, using gradient overlays on Fat Maps to refine our route plan. We identified key decision points and vacillated between being confident
and concerned.

To climb Lucania, we’d need to be above 12,000 feet for three weeks, and we’d need to be prepared to be pinned down for days at a time. We didn’t expect the climbing to be extremely technical, with little steep ice or rock, but we would rope up for crevasses and exposed sections. Moisture management would be crucial. A sweaty foot or hand could mean a frozen boot or glove, and then frostbite. We looked to the wisdom of those who knew how to live in similar conditions, and blended practices and tools used by Arctic explorers, dog mushers, and alpinists. Lonnie offered guidance from his experience with winter mountaineering and arctic travel. We integrated that with knowledge from our own experience and research.

For our hands, we would wear a layering system of thin, handknit wool with its natural lanolin to help shed moisture, a fleece layer over them, and finally a windshell. The wool and fleece layers could be swapped out if they got damp.

We’d wear wolf-fur ruffs to protect our faces from the wind and pre-warm the air we breathed. During the time I’d lived in interior Alaska, where it was common to have -40° F temps, my friend Emily and I had been given a wolfskin from friends, subsistence trappers in the Arctic. During quarantine, I used the pelt to sew two ruffs, one for me and one for Pascale. 

To protect our feet, we’d wear 95-cent plastic bags, the types used to collect maple sap, over our liners, beneath thicker wool socks. The bags made perfect vapor barriers—our boots would never get wet or freeze.

On April 15, 2021, we boarded a small plane and landed on the Upper Donjek Glacier in Kluane National Park and Reserve. Our meticulous preparation at last gave way to presence, and we didn’t need to say a word when our feet touched the snow. We knew exactly how we wanted to pack each sled, how much food and fuel to bury and mark at our basecamp, and all the other details we’d combed over during quarantine. We strained to see Mount Steele on the horizon, 15 miles away. If our route on Lucania was a chessboard, Steele was a knight protecting his queen. Linked by a three-mile ridge to Lucania, it blocked the approach, presenting a formidable obstacle we’d have to either climb over or traverse.

We took our bearings, tied in, and started skiing, towing 140-pound sleds loaded with 22 days’ worth of food and fuel, plus all the gear and supplies required to live on the mountain. Our mindsets were to tune in and respond to the reality of the situation rather than to projections based on expectations.

Glacier travel is at once an exercise in connection and in loneliness. You are close enough to your partner to be able to hear each other, but far enough away to discourage any real conversation. You can’t help but enter a meditative state of patient introspection. Moving steadily, looking around at the ridgelines and seracs that flanked us, I felt grateful to have the opportunity to be among them.

After three days, we stashed our skis and continued, pulling the sleds up ever-steepening terrain. On the fifth day, we left the sleds and began doing double carries, ferrying gear and supplies, climbing certain sections twice. We’d climb with food and fuel, bury it, then descend to sleep low and move our camp up the next day. This strategy let us divide the weight and acclimatize.

On day six, we scouted a section we’d nicknamed the “triangle,” an area that looked to have our first real climbing. Our maps and photos had shown what looked like rolling terrain, but in reality was a massive bergschrund. The only way around was girded with steep blue ice and faceted snow that we’d have to pitch out, rather than simul-climb to stay warm as we’d planned. 

The author on day five, feeling the toll of the cold and altitude. Corniced terrain slowed Capozzola and Marceau, and short on time to return to a lower camp, they had to bivy higher than planned, awakening with swollen faces and pounding headaches. Photo: Eva Capozzola

The closest civilization, Haines Junction, was now more than 100 miles as the crow flies. Although we had a satellite phone, an InReach, and a Spot and received daily weather updates from a friend in Haines Junction, if anything went wrong it could be days before help arrived—Parks Canada in fact instructed us to be “entirely self-sufficient and able to handle any emergency situations on our own.” Our remoteness sunk in deeper while we discussed whether we should continue.

I reflected on The Rock Warrior’s Way quote again as Pascale and I approached the steep terrain, looking up at the wall of ice and snow in front of us, and then down at the thousands of feet of crevasses cascading to the valley bottom.

“A warrior says she’ll do it. Her intention is to give her best effort, but she doesn’t put a limit on that effort … ”

The noise of daily life faded away, and self-limiting thoughts of comparison and insecurity went along with it. We climbed, swinging leads, placing ice screws and pickets, using every piece of pro we’d brought, finding strength in commitment. It took us six hours to reach a flat bench where we could rest in the sub-arctic sun and bury nine days’ of food and fuel.

It was getting late, and we wanted to descend to camp a quicker, more direct way. We downclimbed, searching for suitable ice to drill a V-thread and rappel across the bergschrund, onto a ramp leading to gentler terrain. The ice was all rotten and crumbling. I moved lower and finally felt my front points bite into solid ice. We made a V-thread and threw our ropes feeling hopeful, but it was too steep to visually confirm whether they’d reached the ramp.

Pascale rappelled first. Happily, she found that the ropes reached, but she was unsure if she could swing across the gaping ’schrund. We had to make this work. We were losing light, the temperatures plunging. The frigid air glued our nostrils together. Climbing back up and reversing the steep ice would take too long, likely forcing us into an exposed bivy.

“Swing!” I yelled, “with everything you’ve got!” I held my breath, then felt the tension in the rope release. With some acrobatics, Pascale had gained the ramp. We howled in relief and headed to camp.

Next was crossing Mount Steele, the crux with a steep traverse and massive seracs above us, crevasses below us, and bergschrunds in front of us. The traverse would finish with a steep 700-foot climb over hard glacial ice. We discussed the options. Should we climb up and over Steele, or traverse it as planned? What was the best way to navigate the hazards?

We decided the traverse was still our best option, but we didn’t want to have to cross that dangerous section twice. We opted to do a single carry with heavy packs. If either of us fell, our 60-plus-pound loads would afford little chance to self-arrest. A few ropelengths into the traverse, Pascale stopped. “My pack is too heavy; I feel like I’m walking on broken bones. It isn’t safe to continue like this,” she said. 

Our packs were like sails in the strong winds, and cramponing sideways on the steep ice had been wrenching and bruising Pascale’s ankles. We needed to cut weight, quickly. I took all of our fuel, and we left a third of our food. If a storm pinned us down, we’d be woefully under-provisioned. 

I climbed behind Pascale, keeping the rope taut. I focused on her feet, watching for trouble. A steep wall of glacial ice and snow on our right made me feel like I was wearing blinders. I stared at the open air under the left edges of her crampons.

An engineer by training, Pascale moved methodically, wincing when she weighted her right foot. Stopping wasn’t an option. “One more step, Pascale,” I encouraged. “Just one more step.”

At last, near the end of the traverse, we began the 700-foot climb to the flat bench between Steele and Lucania. But then my hips started to go numb under the crushing weight of my pack.

Strong winds hammer the tent on the morning of day seven at 13,600 feet. This day brought a mental turning point: From here, help would be days away—if it could be had at all—should something go amiss. Photo: Eva Capozzola

Step, step, axe, axe. We continued simul-climbing. Step, step, axe, axe.

As we pulled onto the col, Pascale broke through a crevasse. Our rope went taut. She threw herself across, sinking her axe into the snow on the far side of the maw. I dropped and braced. Pascale extracted herself, and we continued, arriving at a flat, crevasse-free area where we could camp. I fell to my knees and sobbed in relief. We had made it through the section we’d been obsessing over for months. Fear and doubt now became trust and confidence in each other and in ourselves.

Our weather window, however, was closing. If we were going to summit, we had to do so in only two days.

From the col, we would travel three miles over a gently sloping snow bench to set up our high camp, and then a final push, gaining 3,000 feet over another three miles to the summit. As we picked our way carefully toward high camp, my body was wracked by hunger, fatigue, and the pain in my hips. Every step on the seemingly endless sea of white was excruciating, yet I had to accept it.

In the tent, I tried to repair a shoulder strap on my pack that had torn loose, using dental floss as thread. The stiches didn’t hold. I was frustrated. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, knowing that petty impatience could poison our dynamic, and that fixing the strap was mission-critical. 

I felt a deep awareness of the responsibility that Pascale and I held toward each other.

More than 100 miles from civilization and high on this icy giant of a mountain, we were all each other had. We had the power to choose how our experience would be. With refreshed perspective, I successfully attached the pack strap.

Pascale was sick the next morning, unable to hold down anything except bouillon. We thought she was ill from the altitude, but we’d find out back home that she had an ulcer, aggravated by the cooking oil we’d been adding to our dinners to keep us warm. We delayed our summit push, and watched as the sun rose while the moon dropped over the ridge leading to Lucania, a magnificent sight.

The bouillon had helped Pascale feel better, and she said she was ready to go. “This is why we’re here,” she said. We roped up and set out, unsure whether we should climb over or go around the two false summits that lay between us and Lucania’s true summit—we wouldn’t know until we were there and could analyze the hazards.

Mount Lucania’s first false summit was guarded by ice and rock, and we decided that climbing it directly would be a waste of energy. We traversed, frontpointing—easy with our light daypacks—on glacier ice. We felt calm and tuned in to the mountain. 

The second false summit had a substantial snow accumulation, and we were mindful of avalanches, especially at the top, where the face was about 70 degrees and corniced. We carefully threaded through this section, going over the top of it, to a wind-scoured ramp.

Five hours after leaving the tent, we walked side by side onto the summit plateau. Reveling in the warmth of the sun cutting through the cold air, we spent 45 minutes taking in the view. Massive mountains rose in all directions; between them, glaciers churned like frozen waves. We were joyous, but knew we still had a lot ahead of us. We were only halfway.

Our descent was slow and brutal, and Pascale anguished with her bruised ankles. Her shoulders were hunched over—I could tell she was crying in pain. She had given everything she had and was now beyond depleted, having barely eaten in days. The distance created by the rope between us felt cruel. I desperately wanted to put her arm over my shoulders and support her weight, but we both knew that this would be too dangerous. We were at the point where it was literally just about “one more step.”

Marceau at a picket anchor, swinging leads, to nearly 15,000 feet. Photo: Eva Capozzola

After a 14-hour day, we returned to our high camp, elated, but our adrenaline wore off quickly, leaving us cold and exhausted. We fired up the stove, and ate for the first time all day. 

Our weather window was by now officially closing and we needed to move camp back to the top of the Steele traverse, an excruciating five-hour grind ending with our camp set-up routine—two hours of digging down, building walls to protect our tent from wind. With the tent secure, we began melting snow.

We waited a day in a whiteout as the wind howled outside. We were hungry—during the expedition, both of us would end up losing 13 pounds. We were starting to notice, but neither of us ever complained about the lack of food. Finding humor, we pretended our tent was a sauna even though the cold was so extreme water would freeze before we could drink it.

We woke on day 15 to alpenglow and the clear skies that came with -40°F temperatures. Cirrus clouds were forming, and if we had learned anything it was that the weather here changes quickly.

We made it down the steepest part to the traverse, finishing as yet another whiteout engulfed us. In the low visibility, we had missed our food cache, and with conditions too dangerous to turn around, we pitched camp in fierce winds.

Three hours later the whiteout lifted, and we used our GPS to reverse back to our cache. But there was nothing there. Utterly defeated, we turned back toward camp. As a last desperate act, I sank my probe into the snow its full length and hit the food sack, which must have sunk in the sugary snow. Jerky never tasted so good.

Back in our tent, we tallied up our food, which we figured we’d have to stretch for a few more days while we waited for better visibility. We mentally turned our limited rations into a tapas restaurant: a nibble of chocolate for the first course, and then a nibble of a bar a couple of hours later.

Final steps to the summit of Mount Lucania, completing its first all-female ascent. Photo: Eva Capozzola

as still socked in the next morning, but we packed up and moved a few hundred feet to wait on the edge of the ridge, to be ready to move as soon as the weather cleared. We sat in a complete whiteout, in the most profound silence I had ever experienced. But it wasn’t just the absence of sound; it was the absence of mental noise. We had found a sense of harmony, integration, and powerful capacity in the wind, in the whiteout, and in the effort, experiencing a deep attunement to each other, ourselves, and the landscape in a way that is only earned by time spent immersed.

A thunderous boom broke our revery. A massive serac had cut loose, and by the sound of it had swept the very spot we’d crossed a day earlier. Pascale and I were reminded to move consciously to the very end.

We finished the technical descent, rappelling the bergschrund the next day. We continued, collecting our cached food, fuel, sleds, and skis. At advanced basecamp, we called Icefield Discovery, the air service that had deposited us on the Upper Donjek Glacier, to coordinate our flight out at 9 a.m. the following morning. We had a 10-mile ski to reach our pick-up point. Clouds built and broke around us as we descended the glacier. I studied the details of the landscape, memorizing them for the future when all of this would be a distant memory.

“Three more miles!” I yelled back to Pascale. “We’ve got this!” I was euphoric.

“Eva, I’m not good. I’m going to be hypothermic in five minutes,” she said.

I was stunned.

“We’re camping here,” I yelled back. I dropped my pack, detached my skis, and pulled out a parka and a bottle of hot water. I ran back to Pascale. She was leaning over her sled, pulling the tent out, fumbling with the poles. Even in this state, she had to be a productive member of the team.

“Give me those,” I teased her, handing her the water. She put on more layers and drank while I set up the tent.

Recovering quickly with rest and warm food, we woke early and made it to our pickup point. We heard the plane in the distance coming toward us. It broke through the cloud ceiling, circling once, twice, and then a third time, dipping in and out of the clouds. The plane went behind the clouds again. We stared, waiting to see it break through, but the sound of the engine was becoming faint. Conditions were too poor for landing. The plane was leaving.

After four hours of sat-phone calls and InReach texts relaying weather changes in 15-minute increments, the air service decided to try again. We danced and cheered as the plane broke through the clouds, angling toward us. After 21 days alone on Mount Lucania, we flew out.

The power of climbing lies in experiencing acute presence. Once you’ve returned home, the greatest challenge lies in trying to stay in that peaceful place of clear attention, openness, and connection that the mountains gave you. If we could bring that and full commitment to our daily lives, we could have a positive impact on others, expand beyond ourselves, and find immensity in what might normally be deemed insignificant.

Eva Capozzola (evazolaphoto.com) is a photographer with a background in international human-rights work. She integrates that experience with her work in the mountains to increase access to the outdoors for underrepresented communities.