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Melissa Arnot Escapes Brutal Storm on Mt. Bear in the St. Elias Range
Posted on December 18, 2015

Making slow, cautious progress from basecamp down valley then up and around to the team’s first camp on Mt. Bear.

When Melissa Arnot headed for the remoteness of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, it was to cleanse the tragic events in Nepal and on Everest with a wilderness climbing experience. But Alaska can be an unforgiving place. Instead of a quiet glacier camp and rejuvenating alpine climb on 14,831-foot Mt. Bear, her small self-supported team experienced sketchy crevasse-ridden navigation, multiple life-threatening situations, and a storm that held them captive until they ran out of food. As Melissa recounts, “That’s why they call it climbing, not summiting.” We’ve published the captivating video journal of their experience, but this is her final report on a mission deep into one of North America’s most remote ranges. —LYA Editor

The struggle is real. Post-crevase, post-storm relief on the Klutan Glacier.

Words by Melissa Arnot, Images by Jon Mancuso

For me, few places evoke the excitement of Alaska. It is a place where I learned to climb, and a place that embodies everything that wilderness is to me: remote, wild and full of adventure. After a particularly rough spring in Nepal with the devastating earthquakes that affected so many, Alaska seemed like the perfect place to quiet my mind and find the adventure I was looking for. After returning from Nepal in early May, I pulled my team back together and we headed to an area of Alaska that none of us had been to before: the Wrangell-St. Elias range.

Planning our adventure involved culling the Internet and calling friends for information about a moderate glacier peak that we could spend a few weeks trying to climb. The only requirement was that it be very remote—not a hard bill to fill in the Wrangells.

After a quick supply stop in Anchorage, we jumped into our rental jeep and headed out on an 8-hour drive to the sleepy town of McCarthy. We arrived to learn that you must park your car before you reach the town, then walk across a bridge into the tiny village that hosts the entrance to the national park and the landing strip that serves as a launchpad for adventure. We quickly reorganized our bags and got ready for our flight to the property of our pilot, the legendary Paul Claus. He and his family live an Alaskan dream, running a high-end guest property where they will take their customers flight-seeing, hiking, fishing or skiing and back to a home-cooked, locally sourced (or grown) meal. After a quick stop at their home, we jumped into a Twin Otter and headed for the glaciers surrounding our objective, Mt. Bear.

Stratifications of a large glacially-fed river en route to the St. Elias Range.

 

Alaskan climbing is different from many of the other places I travel in the world. You arrive on a ski plane, which lands at your basecamp, and your options for evacuation (or even communication) are very limited. This was exactly what my team needed after the chaos and heartache of the Nepal earthquakes. We landed on a clear and beautiful day. Our basecamp was at 9,000 feet and would serve as a preparation location for the climb ahead (packing and practicing rescue techniques before setting out to climb).

It is hard to explain how quiet it is on these remote glaciers, with the closest humans more than 60 miles away in the Yukon. But it is a soul-satisfying silence: it is what we came here for.

After a few days of preparation, we headed out, skiing down the glacier towards the entrance to an icefall that would allow us to access our chosen peak. The travel was slow as we picked our way through the crevasses that covered the landscape. Our entire team of three had smiles plastered on our faces. Working hard and moving on these remote glaciers gives me a feeling of being present that I have rarely ever felt. It gives me another feeling too—TUG! I heard a yelp and instinctively went into the self-arrest position, quickly realizing that Adam (who was on the back of the rope) had plunged into what I call the “secret room”— our first crevasse fall. Jon and I quickly got to work setting up anchors as Adam began to get himself out of the crevasse. It was a scary few moments, and one we would repeat a few more times over the rest of the trip.

Mt. Churchill and the Klutlan Glacier at sunset.

 

After the first few days of beautiful weather, a storm descended upon us, locking us in our high camp. We were unable to go up or down and were quickly running out of food and fuel. It was a humbling reminder that the mountains are always in control, and the thing we come for is often learning over summiting. The storm gave us a huge challenge in navigation, as we eventually made our way back to the basecamp where our extra food was stored. Again, our smiles were huge, and I know I personally felt incredibly relieved that we were safely in camp. Then the next storm arrived, pinning us there while we waited (sometimes patiently) for Paul Claus to come pick us up. Life is simpler in that scenario: wake up, call Paul, report the weather, make a tiny breakfast (conserving food and fuel), take a nap, share a story, call Paul, dig out the tent, go to bed. Repeat for five days. On the fifth day we were lucky enough to fly out, and few things have sounded as wonderful as the plane approaching our camp. Jon and I had run out of food (we still had gum!), but we were all very happy with the trip and what we had learned. I always say that there is a reason it is called climbing and not summiting…nothing is guaranteed. And that lack of certainty is something that teaches me humility and will continuously bring me back.

 

Melissa Arnot making water with what little few we had left as we waited for our pickup on the glacier.

 

Alaska remains one of the most beautiful and wild places I have ever been to. The exploration, challenge and learning are endless. I cannot wait to get back and see what the mountains will teach me next time.

Paul Kloss landing the Otter on the glacier like a true Alaskan boss.

Check out the Katabatic Tent that kept the team alive in the St. Elias Range at eddiebauer.com.

Author: - Friday, December 18th, 2015
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