Yakutat to McCarthy via Mt. Logan (19,551 ft), 370-miles, 30 days, unsupported! Joshua Foreman, Graham Kraft, Luc Mehl, Josh Mumm, and John Sykes.
This version of the video is 12 minutes long. Click here for the 5 minute edit (without narration).
Logan Traverse Notes
There is a lot of detail here because I’m hoping my brother will help me tell the story with the video. Thanks to Hilleberg Tents, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Alpacka Rafts, and the Hans Saari Fund for help with gear!
An Anchorage friend asked how I find trip partners. She assumed the skill set was the most important part. I countered that I mostly try to think of who can take a month of work. There are a ton of very competent partners up here, these guys are awesome.
Graham Kraft: 27, Canadian. Wildcard. I’d skied a day or two with him, liked his style, his avy precaution, but didn’t know his endurance other than by reputation for being mountain savvy. I invited him early in planning, but he didn’t sign on until a few weeks before departure. He built his skis for the trip because his narrowest skis (also homemade) were 120 mm underfoot. Former ski racer, best skier of the group.
Josh Mumm: 30, grew up in Homer. The strongest of the group from the Denali trip, he impressed me even more on this one. On Denali he was the unknown. The only gear breakdowns on the bike section were all his, so I was nervous. But as soon as we hit snow he took off and broke most of the trail. He did the same on this trip. Gentle giant, quiet, stoic. Always makes the right decision with route finding. Collected mussels on the paddle in, harvested a few dead ducks on the glacier. Nordic skier in high school.
Joshua Foreman, ‘Ua’ to distinguish him from Josh Mumm: 35, grew up in Anchorage. Most experienced climber. His longest trip before this one was 26 miles. Not sure how well he would do with endurance, he bought a bunch of new light-weight gear. Great skier, very strong build. He is our bad boy, smokes, cusses, etc. His parents don’t know he smokes. Skis in a motorcycle helmet. His girlfriend, Renee, is our communications contact. Super competent, Harvard Law. Joshua explains that it can be hard when you know your girlfriend is much smarter than you, but even worse with Renee because even when he is right, she is right- trained to win arguments. Soft side: has photos of Renee and dog on water bottles. Sings a song about protein drink powder that he took from Renee.
John Sykes: 22, grew up in Mass. First backpacking trip was NOLS, 18 years old. He has packed a ton of experience into last 5 years, currently working as a guide, avy instructor. Strong as an ox, his shoulders are too broad for his sleeping pad. Eager for experience. When I first considered the trip I had trouble finding takers. John said he had to work, then he looked at my map sketches and told me the next day that he would plan his summer around the trip. He battled a mono-like illness all winter and was nervous about how his body will hold up. This is the hardest he will have to push, longest time from home, missing his awesome relationship with awesome Kate.
Luc Mehl: 33, grew up in McGrath. Trip planner. Dad’s toenails ruined in Vietnam, mine by trips like this. Dad’s style of camping was luxury- wood shelves on trees, lazy boy chair. My style evolved to cutting corners, finding multiple uses for same gear- converted ski poles into paddle, one pole is also my monopod for the camera, converted one tent pole into avalanche probe, packrafts as sleds, use tent tie-downs as tow lines for packraft, etc.
We fly with frequent flyer miles to Yakutat (5$ for each of us). The lady next to me says the weather changes more often than women change their minds. I didn’t understand that she meant changes between different kinds of rain.
The plane lands on dry tarmac. It is hailing by the time we get to the baggage cart. We are met by Fred, an amazing guy that Graham met passing through town last year. He dabbles in a bit of everything, maintenance, EMT, etc., a classic bush do-all. His van is unavailable because it got converted into a kennel. This explanation is not quite satisfactory because his Blazer is also converted into a kennel- filled with cat food, food trays, hair, shit? The cat had an amazing name– Lindsay might remember? We cram in and get a ride to the end of the plowed road. There is still a lot of snow so the road is only plowed to within 10 miles of the fjord. Our half of the group camps out one night waiting for the rest of the group that will arrive the next day. Fred makes the drive 4 times for us! Unbelievable.
Fred meets the 2nd group of arrivals at the airport. “I’m looking for a big Josh and a little Josh.” He instantly tells Josh Mumm that he has a boyish face. When they pull up to our camp spot, we are soaking wet, Josh says he would have stayed in the car to go back to the airport except that he wanted to get out of all the cat hair.
We convinced 6 friends to join us for the first week of paddling. Casey Saenger, a friend of mine from grad school, Seth Weingarten, Josh Spice, Josh’s girlfriend Jen Styer, Graham’s girlfriend Lindsay Johnson, and college friend Jodie Banks. The 6 helpers don’t have skis and have a fairly miserable slog, post-holing through the snow, in the rain. It rains the duration of their stay. It is really nice for us to have them there- makes it more of a fun social time rather than miserable start.
After skiing or post-holing toward the fjord we have a steep section of rain forest to punch through to access the water. We do this section 3 or 4 times to haul all the gear.
The only dry wood on the beach is under an aluminum boat. Casey and John start a fire under the aluminum boat.
We paddle for 3 days in the rain. We build big fires in the evenings to warm up. Rain, sleet, snow, repeat.
Packing the boats is like Tetris: get legs in, stuff food bags under/over legs. Big packs on front and back, ~130 lbs total. Water is calm, wind isn’t bad.
After 3 days in the water we split off from the friends as they head back for the return flight. I felt bad for them, but kind of jealous that they were returning to town instead of climbing on a glacier to turn into popsicles. John and Joshua are not sure they want to continue- wet, and going to be colder on the glacier. I claim we can climb above the clouds. Graham can wring water out of his sleeping bag.
We continue to the moraine, get a break in the rain and collect enough wood from avalanche debris to build a big fire to dry our stuff, which is a crucial moral boost. The next day we haul gear to the ice and make some progress on the glacier. It rains all day and we are soaked again.
The next day we break trail in deep snow and navigate by GPS in the whiteout but only make 5 miles progress. It takes too much energy to repeat that effort so send a sat phone message to Erica Madison asking her to get a weather report from Ed Plumb or Thomas Bailly. Thomas talks to forecaster friends in Juneau and texts us the report- the rain should break in 3 days. We spend the next 3 days in the tents needing the rain/snow to stop. Rain during the day, snow at night. 4 feet of snow accumulate in 3 days. It breaks as forecast and we all rush out of the tents to marvel at the incredible mountains we are surrounded by but haven’t yet seen. We finish the little bit of bad whisky that is in the gatorade bottle that will become a pee bottle and then a fuel bottle.
We make good progress, ~15 miles per day, pulling our load in the inflated boats. Sunny days! Everything dries out, except maybe our food. Each day the snow firms up and gets easier to travel.
Josh Mumm eats two dead ducks we find on the glacier. He plucks them while wearing his ‘feathered friends’ puff jacket. We suggest that Graham collect the down and add it to his limp sleeping bag. John eats all of his day food with a spoon because it got soaked.
We arrive at the East Ridge of Mt. Logan too far behind schedule to run a cache along the south side. We will try to climb the route double-carrying all our gear up and over. We are all really excited about the climb, a change of scene from the flat slog on the glaciers.
There is one group of climbers ahead of us. Joshua speeds up to catch them because I’d been telling him it was a Swedish all-women’s climbing team. We have Swedish Fish and Swedish tents (Hilleberg) so we are a shoe-in. Everyone else knew it was a joke; I had made the same claim on Denali last year, but it turned out to be 4 guys with altitude sickness. One was an Argentinian wearing a hat that was made out of carpet. This time the group in front of us is two guys from Vancouver. When I see that they are on snowshoes I assume they are clueless. This turns out to be true- they move very slowly (4 days to our 1) despite their ‘alpine starts.’ Later they apparently told the Canadian NP that we stole their cache, but then realized that it was further down the glacier from where they were looking for it. It must be hard to judge distances when crawling along on snowshoes.
We climb a steep 200 m snow apron to access the East Ridge. At the top of the ridge the slope fails, Joshua and I are caught in an avalanche. The guys up front yell out; I see the fracture and crown opening at my feet. I try to jump off the sliding snow but my pack is too heavy and my feet sweep out. I think of Andy Newton in this past winter’s avalanche. When we got to him in the debris he said, ‘I fought like a mother fucker.’ OK. I am going to do that too. Everything slows down in my mind, I am hyper-rational during the slide. I can’t see anything. I realize I am still holding onto my ski poles. I don’t want to let go of them because I hate losing gear, but I need to let go of them. I try to push them to what I think is up so that they might end up near me wherever I am buried and the guys will see them and hone in on me. My heavy pack is pushing my head under the debris, which annoys me. I keep recognizing that my mouth is packed with snow and that I need to blast it out to keep breathing. I am able to roll onto my back to try to get out of my pack. I find the waist buckle and unclip, but I can’t get my arms through the shoulder straps. I keep thinking of the bergshrund (big crack, like a crevasse) mid-slope. I expect to fall into it and get buried. It would probably be too deep for the guys to get to me before suffocating. I’m airborn, this is the shrund, I wait, a 10 foot drop. I’m still moving, a big relief. I’m very pleased to have cleared the crack. I can’t remember if there are crevasses at the base. I still can’t see anything, I keep clearing snow from my throat. The snow starts to slow down, I recognize that this is my last chance. I get my right hand near my mouth to create an air pocket. I congratulate myself for being able to do this. My left hand is stuck behind my back. In the last moments of motion I see lighter snow, recognize where the surface must be, and am able to punch my right hand through, which creates an open air channel along my arm. I am very happy to have an air channel! I recognize that I could wait for hours and be ok. I am hyperventilating a little from the exertion and limited lung space. I relax, get my breathing under control, then use my free hand to open my air channel a bit more.
Joshua gets to me in a few minutes. I reach out to just grab his hand for a second. He is a little panicked and very glad to see that I am ok. I tell him ‘Damn it Joshua, you weren’t wearing your transceiver!’ The rest of us had ours on. I tell him I’m ok, relax, check on the others. He takes me a little too seriously and stops shoveling me out to tell me something about this slide or whatever. I casually mention that I am getting cold, he starts shovelling again. He gets my chest free and sees my camera. He gets my camera and takes a photo, then starts shoveling. Several more distractions… I remind him that I am getting cold. Graham arrives after skiing from the ridge and helps dig me out. Once free I get out of my wet shirt and put on all my warm clothes, eat some food, and start to heat up. My throat is really sore from the ice abrasion, I spit blood for awhile.
I slid ~660 ft. Joshua was above the debris and mostly fell, rag-dolled, to half that distance and came to a stop after falling over the shrund. He is more battered than me, including a crampon puncture in his calf and a tweaked lower leg that isn’t overly painful, but isn’t quite right. He smokes a cigarette. Graham needs one too. I’m not supposed to say that because he doesn’t want his mom to know. We are all pretty shaken up. Josh and John slowly work down the face to rejoin us. We lounge, relax, consider options. Josh lost his axes, a ski, camera. I lost a ski pole, my glasses. We go back that night to probe for gear and find the ski and camera.
The next morning I tear up to see Joshua boiling water. We were always the first guys out of the tents, boiled water, ate breakfast together.
We repack and start the long ski around the southern side of Logan. Travel is very good, though flat. The peaks on both sides of our route are massive and spectacular and help the miles go by.
Several times each day we discuss our options: exit directly as a group, try to ski some peaks, try to reach Logan by King’s Trench, the non-technical route to the west. As we approach the western edge of Logan our plan has firmed up. Joshua will fly out with a group of climbers waiting to be picked up, the rest of us will try to get up Logan in our 7-day food window. The weather is pretty good, changing everyday during the day. We cache as much gear as possible at the landing zone so that we can climb light. We only bring the 3-man tent; the rest of our nights are cozy. The weather isn’t always good enough to move up King’s Trench, but we take advantage of short weather windows and make very good time reaching our high camp at 15,900 ft in 3 days (the landing zone is at 7000 ft). The terrain is really nice, but the wind is non-stop. We are in vulture mode, meaning that if we see other climbers we make small talk until we can ask if they have any food they want to ditch. We want to have more than 7 days of food with us in case we get stuck in a storm. We also exploit old camp sites and snow walls to choose our camp spots.
Our first night at our high camp the sky is clear and gives us the best views of the trip. We talk with a Canadian guy, tell him our plan to try for the summit the next day. He says it can’t be done, which of course makes me want to try. The standard route is to go for the summit from 17,600 camp, but we don’t have time and don’t want to sleep that high. He asks what level we have acclimated to and I tell him we haven’t really acclimated yet, ha ha. We are on preventative altitude sickness medication.
The weather is perfect. We have views of St. Elias and the Seward Glacier route we just skied to access the trench. We plan to get up early and go for the summit.
Josh wakes us up in the night: “Well, mmm, my watch froze at 2 AM. Mmm, I don’t know what time it is, so, ah, well, it is clear and still out there, mmmmmaybe we should go.” It takes several hours for us to melt enough water for the day, pack up, and take off. We leave around 5 AM.
The weather gets worse throughout the day. By midday we are largely navigating by GPS, using the track that Joe Stock gave us from his climb a few years before. We end up in a few tricky spots for lack of visibility. John starts to get altitude sickness. We regroup at ~5 PM, very close to the summit, which we can’t see. John needs to go down. We all agree that we are pushing the limits of safety. I argue that we already screwed up and that 30 more minutes isn’t going to make a difference. I tell John I’m ready and willing to turn back from here, but would like 30 more minutes if he can give it. We’ve been in this position before- on Mt. Sanford. I wanted to continue, he knew it was time to turn around. We did. If we had continued we would have ended up bivvying at the summit. This time he gives the OK for 30 minutes. We all make it to the top and back to the regrouping spot in under 30 minutes. The top is anticlimactic. No view, no real sense of accomplishment. Graham, our Canadian, gets a summit photo for his mom. We take the aluminum axe that the Italians left on the summit because I lost my aluminum axe in the avalanche.
Our route on the descent is much better. John is mumbling and stumbling and scaring me. He takes altitude meds and recovers within an hour, which is a huge relief. He starts cracking some jokes again.
I am in lead and navigating by GPS most of the return, feeling strong. One final climb to get to a downhill section that will take us right to camp. I realize that my eyes are screwed up. I haven’t been able to wear glasses without them fogging from my balaclava, and I need clear vision to use the GPS. We make the final climb about midnight, returning to camp at 1 AM, a 20 hour day with no breaks to speak of. We go straight to sleep, no water, no food.
The next day we are pretty worn out. The wind is whipping and the visibility is 10 or 20 feet. I try to find the neighboring camp to ask if they had a weather forecast, but can’t see well enough, snow blind. John joins me, finds the camp, but they had moved on. Tired and with my bad eyes we decide to stay in the tent that day and move the next. My eyes get worse throughout the day. Even in the tent I have to wear goggles blocked out with the cover from John’s Lord of the Rings book.
The weather is just as bad the next day. Opening and closing my eyelids is really painful. A guided group on snowshoes passes our tent heading for the camp at 13,500 ft. This is really good for us, we can follow their trail. We leave camp in ~2 hours and follow what is left of their track until we catch up with them and take the lead. I can see 5-10 feet in front of me. We get two guys on a rope to lead, with me off-rope directly behind #2, and the 4th guy behind me to help me find #2 if he gets too far in front of me (more than 10 feet). I watch the ski tails of #2 all day. The other guys took my group gear weight, which was a big help because I fell or skied into #2 many times. The weather is better at 13,500, still windy, but we feel stronger. We keep pushing downhill all the way to the landing zone at 7000 ft. We sleep really well, my eyes are much better in the morning.
We make really good time from the landing zone to ‘No Name Glacier,’ our exit. The glacier surface is fast and slightly downhill. Even with the headwind we make good time. In the headwind we draft behind Josh Mumm for a long stretch- all skate skiing. He is in lead, not using his poles because his thumb is frostbit. So strong!
The transition to moraine is awesome, we ski right onto the rocks. Everyone picks up pretty rocks… we’ve been on ice for 3 weeks, the rocks were a childish treat. Hiking on the moraine was great, there were many raised terraces that were a joy to walk on. The geology is really cool too.
After a few days on the moraine we reach water that looks raftable. Soon after getting in the river it turns into very calm water filled with icebergs and winding through some ice channels. Really spectacular scenery, though a little spooky wondering if the ice is stable. At one point a huge boulder of ice bubbles up from ??? Spooky! There are a few big (calm) whirlpools too. Someone calls them ‘whirlpools of death’ but I don’t think they are lethal.
The water merges back into one channel and has some large boulders and requires a bit of attention. Late on that first day in the water I lead Josh into a hole and we both tip over. We hold onto all the gear, but it is hard to swim with the ski boots filled with water. Graham and John are able to avoid the rapid and help us get to shore. I am only in the water for 3 or 4 minutes, but can barely stand when I reach the shore. It takes a few hours to recover. Josh isn’t hypothermic, maybe because he was in the water half as long. He claims that I have less body fat, but I’m not sure. We were lucky to swim in the first place along the river with drift wood, so we get a raging fire and spend 4 or 5 hours drying our gear. My gear was not in dry bags, so everything is wet. Too much luck on this trip.
The next day we walk around a few rapids and the water mellows considerably. We float comfortably for the next days, water is moving fast enough that we don’t need to paddle. Each camp has a ton of firewood and we build huge fires. It feels great to walk barefoot and be warm. The bugs aren’t bad; I use my laundry bag stuff sack as a head net to keep the mosquitos away.
We stop in at Ultima Thule, a famous mountaineering lodge. The first guy we run into is pretty worthless; he offers us a sauna, ramen, and cowboy coffee. We drink the coffee, stand around awkwardly, then get ready to leave. We are all introverted, so nobody is willing to step up and ask for food. As we are walking back to the boats we run into Jay Claus, the owner’s son, Kevin, a guide, and Paul Claus shows up soon too. They are very friendly, ask us to stay for lunch, want stories, tell stories. Somehow they know I am from McGrath and like that. They know Josh ate some ducks on the glacier and like that too. Fish sticks and tater tots, amazing. Collectively we ate more than 50 peanut butter cookies, which I feel bad about.
Much of the paddling is against a strong headwind, but we still make good time. The Tana river comes in and speeds things up, then the Nizina. We pull out at a beach 3 miles from the McCarthy road. There is supposed to be an old tram cut, but we can’t find it so we bushwhack toward the road. John is really frustrated, throwing gear, cussing. With his frustration and carelessness he breaks his kayak paddle (which is a paddle I lent him). I think his 22-year-old metabolism has been struggling with the 2-lb per day diet, and that he is likely tapping too deeply into his reserves. But so much of this is a mental game- you choose to laugh stuff off or let it frustrate you. I don’t remember if I could laugh stuff off at 22. I wasn’t doing 370-mile trips.
We get to the road, rinse off in the Lakina River, and wait for cars. There is no way in hell we will get picked up. Josh is in his underwear, sometimes waving his black-tipped frostbit thumb for a ride. Graham is eating instant oatmeal from the pack by turning it inside out to lick the insides. My shirt is shredded, more hole than wool, and looks huge on my underweight frame. The guys have been calling me a refugee all week.
Within an hour Joshua Foreman drives up with Renee. He made the drive from Anchorage to be at the finish with us. We load up and drive into town where we find Eleanor Jensen, my Anchorage roommate, and hit the bar for burgers. Josh Mumm overhears someone commenting on his ski boots, something like, “Haha, check out that guy in ski boots… he must have thought Alaska always has snow!” The burgers are great. We go to Wrangell Mountain Center, where Eleanor works. She made us a chocolate cake. We eat it. Our stomachs are too small, but we can’t resist the food in front of us. Graham feels sick. In the kitchen Eleanor offers me a slice of bread. My stomach hurts but I can’t say no and I load it with butter and honey. I feel sick for the next 4 or 5 hours.
The next morning we eat great potato breakfast burritos, then check in with Wild Alpine guide friends in town. They mention the National Park doc is in town, so we give her a call and she comes to the shop to look at Josh’s frostbit thumb (he will lose nail and tip of thumb) and Ua’s leg (he likely greenstick-fractured his fibia in the avalanche tumble). We get ice cream, meet Eleanor, and drive back to Anchorage. Graham buys string cheese and kit kats- snacks that John and I had on the trip that he always was jealous of.
We expected the trip to be 240 miles, but it turned into 370. We didn’t move 4 of our 30 days, so when we did move we averaged ~14 miles/day. We likely started with ~130 lbs of gear each. We each had about 1 lb of food left at the end. I lost ~12 lbs and gained 12 lbs in 4 days back in Anchorage.