British climbers stranded after first ascent in Alaska

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 20/06/2013
Looking east from high on the north ridge of Augusta. The high camp on the ascent of Eaton was on the ringed foresummit, just protruding from the cloud inversion. Paul Knott
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In May experienced British mountaineers Derek Buckle and Paul Knott, supported by a grant from the Mount Everest Foundation, reached the summit of previously unclimbed Mt Eaton (3,336m GPS) in Alaska's St Elias Range. Subsequently, their escape, and eventual return to civilization, would be a close call.

East of the area's highest point, Mt St Elias (5,489m), and straddling the Alaska-Canadian Yukon border lies Mt Augusta (4,289m). In 1993, on his first of now eight visits to the Alaska-Yukon Ranges, Knott, a New Zealand resident, made the fourth ascent of this peak via the second ascent of the north ridge.

The primary objective on that occasion had been the unclimbed east ridge, but approaching the crest via a spur to the north, his party was stopped by a badly corniced section.

Twenty years later Knott's plan was to get onto the ridge from the south via relatively straightforward snow slopes. The 10km continuation crest to Augusta passes over Eaton.

However, on arrival in Haines the pair had been forced to wait a week  before they could fly into the range, a succession of storms breaking precipitation records for much of southeast Alaska.

Dropped onto the Seward Glacier by ski plane, and with only a short weather window in which to complete an ascent, Buckle and Knott abandoned plans for Augusta and concentrated on summiting Eaton.

They left immediately for the east ridge of Eaton and by the evening of the 9th were at a high camp on an 2,652m foresummit.

Next day, after a five-hour climb over false summits, huge mushroom domes and undulating corniced ridge, they reached the top of Eaton. As they reversed their route the cloud descended.

By the time they had regained the tent they'd had a full day, and based on a forecast that the main storm would not strike for another 24 hours, elected to spend the night there.

Unfortunately, the forecast proved incorrect and by next morning the tent was half buried. Despite limited visibility they set off down, but the terrain was crevassed and corniced, and they could see too little to be able to navigate safely.

With one day's food remaining, they returned to the relative safety of the foresummit and threw up the tent.

They were then hit by full blizzard conditions, and in a nightmare scenario, for which the St Elias is renowned, this spot became their home for the next eight days.

In that time they estimate around six metres of snow fell. Shovelling snow off the tent was futile; they had to successively dig it out and re-pitch on top of the snowpack.

In these conditions, a snow cave proved even worse, and as they could not safely use the stove, they were forced to rely on melting water inside sleeping bags.

On the 15th they were due for a brief clearance, but attempting to descend, through thigh deep snow, they again found themselves in a white out. Now alarmingly weak, they realized the prudent option was to call for a rescue.

On the morning of the 19th, after their eighth stormy night, the day dawned clear and calm.  Rescuers Dion Parker and Scott Stewart were quickly on the scene and able to land right next to the stricken pair in a helicopter.

Edgy navigation around rapidly building cloud took the helicopter back to Haines Junction, where Buckle and Knott were greeted with the immortal words, "are you the back-from-the-dead climbers?".

Buckle now has minor, though painful, frostbite in the feet but should fully recover shortly: Knott came out of it relatively unscathed and is as keen as ever to return to the St Elias.
 



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