An attempt by Prairie Vertical, a group of Saskatchewan mountain climbers led by former Thompsonite Steve Whittington, to be the first to the top of their province’s namesake mountain in the Yukon’s Centennial Range, may not have gained them a first ascent, but their leader says success can be measured in many ways.
“I’m not disappointed,” he told the Thompson Citizen. “In fact, I’m proud of the team because we made the right decisions all the time that continued to compound themselves.”
As a result, says Whittington, they all came back in condition to climb another day.
The attempt to summit the 11,483-foot peak, the only one of 12 named for Canada’s provinces and territories in 1967 that has yet to be successfully climbed, started off well for the team.
“We got up to 10,500 feet, which is a little under 1,000 feet from the summit,” Whittington says.
Then the weather worsened and the team moved back down to their high camp, about 2,000 vertical feet below. After resting for a day, a second attempt at the summit was made, starting at 3 a.m. but the group had difficulty finding a usable route to the top, sending their best technical climber to scout out possible lines as they directed him from below.
Frustrated in their attempt once again, the team decided that they should end their climb for the day and return to their high camp, which meant navigating their way down an avalanche slope.
“We tried the slope, the avalanche slope and the slope went like, “Whoomp,” so it cracked, dropped about four inches and the guys pulled me back and we had to actually make a bivy because we knew we were going to be stuck on this ridgeline for about six to eight hours for the snow to consolidate. So we dug a bivy, which is a trench in the snow and put an emergency shelter tarp over top to give us warmth because it was quite windy and exposed on this ridgeline.”
That’s when Mother Nature threw another wrench in the works.
“Within an hour we were in a whiteout blizzard because the weather can turn immediately, like in minutes, up in that altitude in that area of the world,” said Whittington. “The situation became rather grim because we had an avalanche slope we couldn’t go down, that we’re starting to get potentially from exposure frostbite and I think I got a little bit of frostbite on my toes from that, from being in that bivy.”
After waiting seven hours, they decided to try the avalanche slope once more at about 8:30 p.m.
“We roared down the slope as fast as we could,” Whittington said. “The avalanches didn’t go off. We barely had any visibility and we ended up being able to keep to our tracks, get across a number of crevasses, dangers we had found on the way up, and anyway, mitigated all that and got back to our high camp.”
At this point, Whittington says, spirits were still high.
“We thought hopefully this storm will just pass in the evening and we’ll be good but the storm stayed for another three days and we were stuck in our tents,” Whittington said. “By the second day of the storm I realized this bad weather system might stay for quite some time and we began rationing food. By the time we eventually did get out six days later, we would have been out of food for two-and-a-half days if we hadn’t been rationing food.”
From that point forward, the members of the expedition had a different objective.
“We weren’t going to climb the mountain any longer because the avalanche danger was way too high,” Whittington said. “Now it became instead of trying to summit the mountain to try to get off the mountain.”
Gradually, the team worked its way down to where a helicopter could pick them up. Luckily, the weather improved enough for long enough to make that possible.
“We had about a two-hour window and if they hadn’t been able to get us at that time we would have been stuck there for another week,” Whittington said.
As for failing to make the top of Mount Saskatchewan, Whittington takes the long-term view of things.
“There’s been five mountains now that I haven’t summited the first crack,” he said. “I’ve gone back to the other four and summited them. The mountain’s always going to be there. I figure the chance of us being hit by an avalanche was probably at least 80 per cent so it wasn’t good. There was no safe way to climb it with the snow conditions and rock conditions at that time.”
That doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
“I don’t think the mountain’s unclimbable,” Whittington said. “Some mountains don’t come into climbing shape. They only come into climbing shape once every decade where you get, consolidate enough snow that you can climb the steep slopes.”
Another attempt may be made in 2014, but Whittington has other mountains to climb before then, including an expedition to Everest next year where Whittington will serve as a lead climber. That these future attempts are possible is testament to the correct decisions made by Prairie Vertical.
“There’s just continual examples of that where we made all the right decisions which allowed us to come back safely to our loved ones and that’s what’s important,” Whittington said. “I mean we all, everybody that goes mountain climbing, at least on the teams I’m on as their leader, we all like to seek adventure sure but we also want to come back.”