Looking at the above photo of James Coleridge, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the jagged mound of snow upon which he stands as the summit of the highest mountain in Canada. A wedge of scenery in the lower right-hand corner provides little hint that the peak — the highest of 12 that make up the enormous Mount Logan massif in the Saint Elias mountains of the southwestern Yukon — towers 5,959 metres above the Earth.
Yet there he stood, on June 3, 2008, after a grueling climb that saw Coleridge and his climbing partner, Len Vanderstar, stranded for five days by one of the fierce storms that frequently engulf the mountain.
This week, Natalia Martinez, an Argentinian mountaineer attempting a solo traverse of Logan with support from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was forced to halt her push for the summit after an earthquake triggered avalanches on her climb route, and is now stranded by weather, awaiting rescue. Reached for comment, Coleridge, who also climbed under the banner of the RCGS, empathized with Martinez and shared his own harrowing story of coming face to face with Logan’s fury.
Logan is a beautiful mountain. It will tease you with its grace, but punish you with its storms. The mountain has a life of its own; you can take all the precautions you want, but when the mountain speaks, you listen.
We were moving up toward high camp, our last push before the summit, when the storm hit. My climbing partner started yelling, “We have to stop!” but we kept on until high camp. By then we were on an icefield, with no way to set up camp. In that moment, the most important thing is to protect yourself, so we just started digging into the snow and ice. There’s something that takes over your body, because you know you have to survive, you have to make it through the night.
It took us three hours to dig down into the glacier, and we spent five days down there, in a hole that you couldn’t sit up or stretch out in. Once you’ve built yourself a piece of protection, and you get out of the deadly cold and hurricane-force winds, you start to find a sense of peace that comes from knowing you’re going to make it, at least until tomorrow. Your mind shifts from “How do I stay alive?” to “How long can I stay alive for?”
You count every gram, every ounce of food, because you don’t know how long you’re going to be stuck there. The wind feels like a freight train going by every second, but you just hold on for dear life. You have to find a sense of humour in the whole thing because it’s so easy to beat yourself up — “Why me? What did I do wrong? Is it my time?”
Even stuck at 4,700 metres, getting punished for days on end, I still couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Finally, on June 3, I popped up out of the hole and looked up at the summit, and there was a cloud, and it wasn’t moving. The wind had broken. Nine hours later, we stood on the top of Canada.
I’d go back to Logan tomorrow if I could. It teaches you the difference between being alive, and living. My life became better for it. I know now, looking back, that if I can survive that, I can survive almost anything. Logan teaches you about life, that it’s so precious.
Of all the mountains I’ve climbed, Logan will forever be best in my soul, because I survived it.