Dodging ‘bombs’ on a Logan trek
What’s the scariest thing next to climbing Mount Logan blind? How about climbing the southwest Yukon mountain alone, without a compass, an altitude metre or a GPS (Global Positioning System)?
Local cross-country skiing coach Rudy Sudrich knows just how scary it can be.
“I was ill-equipped for the trip,” he said in an interview Wednesday, recalling what he didn’t have, including experience, for this month’s expedition.
He had never been on a mountain expedition before.
On top of this, imagine how you would feel as the ground moved under you as you sleep.
As Sudrich slept near crevasses, when he couldn’t quite make it to the designated camps, he could feel the ice shifting over the rocks underneath, making frightening, scraping sounds.
He said it felt like a small earthquake, the way the ice shield moved beneath him.
“It was a little hairy experience,” he said.
But those were just a few of the things Sudrich had to get over in his unintentional solo climb from base camp to Mt. Logan in seven days, in time to be the first climber of the year to reach Canada’s tallest mountain.
Sudrich found himself going solo 10 days into the climb, when Judy Hartling, his “safeguard” and a more experienced mountaineer, began suffering from altitude sickness that didn’t alleviate when the pair dropped to a lower elevation.
As a senior ice and mountain climber, Hartling’s sport is far less competitive and more cooperative than Sudrich’s, which saw the cross-country skier coaching the Canadian national team in Lillehammer in 1994.
Sudrich said Hartling offset his competitive spirit by being more cautious, an important trait in a sport where hazards include wide crevasses and seracs, massive blocks of ice that can fall off the side of the mountain without warning.
Hartling was medivaced the day after the pair returned to base camp.
The pilot brought a plane large enough for both Hartling and Sudrich to fly out in, but Sudrich was determined to climb. He hadn’t gone all the way out there for nothing.
“I said, ‘I am not coming. I came to climb, ’” Sudrich said, laughing.
“Some of the people figure I’m crazy and some figure I’m gutsy. Maybe it’s a combination of both.”
Though Hartling told Sudrich it was unwise to do the climb solo, he was determined to see how far he could get on his own.
The cost alone may have been enough to make him continue with the climb. It had cost the two more money than it costs most expeditions because they drove about 1,000 km from Whitehorse to Chitina, AK, so they could fly in from the west because the weather comes from that side. It’s usually easier to side-step the bad weather that stopped Whitehorse resident Bill Parry’s “climb for the cure” team from flying in to climb Logan this month.
“It was a gamble,” said Sudrich. “It was about twice as expensive as flying from Kluane (National Park). But we were the only ones there who landed on the first day, on the first of May.”
“That was our very good gamble or educated guess,” he said.
So the team had an advantage over other climbers on being the first team this year to reach Logan.
Parry’s team, which was planning to start its climb at the same time, had to wait seven days in Kluane before being forced to give up on Logan and choose an alternate excursion.
Sudrich attributes his ability to do the climb alone to his competitive nature, which is a better quality in a cross-country skier than a mountaineer.
One of the biggest accomplishments of Sudrich’s climb was that he was fairly new to mountaineering.
While Sudrich had the equipment, he didn’t know how to use it all and relied on Hartling to get him over the more difficult parts of the odyssey, such as the ice falls.
“What do you do with the rope by yourself? Hang yourself,” he joked about his lack of mountaineering experience.
Without a compass, Sudrich used the sun and the King Trench, which runs east-west, to navigate.
Luckily, Sudrich successfully made it to Logan with minor difficulties.
He lost his bearings only once, while looking for camp five. The North Peak, his point of orientation, was hidden in clouds. He wandered around for several hours trying to find his way until the sky cleared and he could see where he was supposed to be heading.
But not all of Sudrich’s trials were physical. Half an hour after Hartling left, protesting Sudrich’s decision to stay, he set out on the long climb ahead of him, hoping to avoid park rangers who would have stopped him from tackling the climb alone.
On the way down with Hartling, Sudrich had run into the Visionquest 2000 team, whom he promised Hartling he would check with on his way back up. The problem was they weren’t planning to summit until last Saturday, and Sudrich had to be back at base camp to fly out last Sunday.
The day Hartling left, Sudrich spent 13 hours climbing the 1,350 metres (4,500 ft.) back to his camp, halfway to camp three.
It doesn’t come highly recommended to climb more than 360 metres (1,200 ft.) on any given day because of the extreme change in altitude.
“It goes against all the logistics,” he conceded. But because of his “competitive edge,” Sudrich didn’t want to lose five days taking his time to acclimatize again.
“I looked at it as a personal challenge. My goal wasn’t to reach the summit. My goal was to see how far I could come on my own, with my own wisdom, my own experience.”
His lack of mountaineering experience may have stopped him from using some of his equipment, but Sudrich’s other experiences kept him going through many difficulties.
“I had to find snow bridges that are big and heavy enough to cross the crevasses. That was the difficult part,” he said of his trouble of not being able to secure himself for crossing the crevasses. “Some of the crossings took me six hours to find a safe crossing.”
Instead of ropes, Sudrich used two six-metre aluminium poles as a ladder in case he broke through the crevasses.
He also had to beware of seracs falling from the peak as he climbed, which could come down without warning.
“It’s like a time bomb. You never know. Some, they stay for years. Some, they don’t.”
Probably the biggest trial Sudrich went through, though, was at 1,693 metres (5,644 ft.), on Prospector Pass.
When a storm moved in with temperatures of -35 degrees and winds up to 70 km/h, Sudrich was forced to make a camp at the top of the pass, an undesirable position for any climber.
The snow that had melted during warm days froze over, leaving 10 cm. of ice that forced Sudrich to rely on his crampons to keep him upright.
“The whole Prospector Pass was covered with ice so I couldn’t stand up on my feet without the crampons. That’s when I become very religious,” he joked.
The ice also made it difficult to pitch a tent.
“That’s a reality – you may get swept with the whole tent if one of the pegs from the tent becomes loose and that’s it. The game, it’s over,” he said.
Because he couldn’t get separated from any of his gear in case he got caught in a storm like the one on Prospector Pass, where he might run out of supplies before getting back to the rest of his gear, Sudrich had to carry all of his gear at once, without anyone to share the weight of the food, tent, cooking supplies, etc.
Having to pack enough to last about three weeks, teams often only move part of their gear from camp to camp and then return later to get the rest.
Upon finally reaching Logan, Sudrich climbed a third of the way up the south ridge of the mountain, then decided he’d done what he’d gone to do.
“I made it a third up and that’s enough for my mountaineering experience,” said Sudrich. “At that point, it wasn’t important. That’s when I said, ‘I don’t have the skills to reach the summit.’ ”
In fact, Sudrich was close to the top of Logan, having already climbed the West Peak, which is just 45 metres shy of Logan’s height.
Although he wasn’t able to scale the mountain, Sudrich never doubted he could get to Logan. He was physically and mentally ready, he said.
“I was confident I could do it, but again, you have to find out.”
During the climb, Sudrich was careful about how hard he pushed himself.
“I used about 50 per cent of my strength, my inner resources,” he said, noting that people who use 75 per cent of their energy have nothing left if there’s an emergency.
The trek was more mentally than physically demanding, he said. His ability to focus on his goal was key, especially since he was on his own.
“I told the Vision people...I felt like Forrest Gump,” he said, laughing. “He kept running and that was the mental state I set myself for.”
Whatever his mental state, Sudrich went as far as he could and is happy with his accomplishments.
Now, he can look forward to climbing Logan again someday and getting to the top.
By Carmel Ecker