Editor’s Note: If one mountain has received chatter recently, it’s mighty Mount Saint Elias. The mountain sits on the border of the U.S. and Canada, rising 18,008 feet a mere 10 miles from the ocean – it is the second-highest peak in both Canada and the U.S. The mountain is culturally significant to regional indigenous people as its prominence looms over the salmon-rich coast.
Saint Elias’ recent newsworthiness comes on the heels of Summit Fever – The FIFTY | Mt. St. Elias – Climbing & Skiing a Mythical Mountain, the latest release from The Fifty Project. Cody Townsend, Dan Corn, Nick Russell, and Bjarne Salen document their humbling challenges on this isolated, rarely attempted peak.
As a climbing objective, Saint Elias was first summited in 1897. Luigi Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta (the Duke of Abruzzi) was a summitter and expedition leader. The same Abruzzi of the famed ridge on K2.
Here we are, 124 years later. The mountain, in many ways, remains relatively untrammeled; and for several reasons that become clear watching The Fifty Project’s short doc. It’s pounded by the full-lunged North Pacific’s exhale. Weather windows are brief, and they slam shut lickety-split.
This latest video also makes us think of what came before on the mountain. Power guide Jed Porter presents a “living document” of the limited publicly known ski expeditions to Saint Elias.
Porter also links a handy CalTopo map including St. Elias route information.
The first ski descent of the hill was in 2000 by a party including Doug Byerly, James Bracken, Lorne Glick, and Andy Ward. Byerly chose not to ski from the top and turned back before the summit due to frostbite concerns.
“From the summit, bulletproof sastrugi on the ridge required pumpy, gorilla-stance survival turns,” Bracken wrote in the 2001 American Alpine Journal. “Drained from the altitude, I had doubts about skiing the Mira Face with its icy, 55- degree entrance, huge exposure and tight choke through a cliff band halfway down. But after a few hundred feet of intense turns, the snow sweetened to a soft suncrust, the angle relaxed, and we carved turns, grinning in the evening sun, all the way home.”
In 2016, Porter, Mark, and Janelle Smiley ascended from the ocean, topped out, descended by foot to roughly 16,000 feet, clicked into skis, and made turns within 1600 feet of sea level, save for some downclimbing and a rappel. They then groveled out. This self-contained human powered trio, produced a video of their herculean effort.
Along with The Fifty Project’s attempt, 2021 also saw Brett Carroll and Gregg Hewitt nearly solve the ocean-to-summit-to-ocean conundrum. According to Porter, their style was: “Landed at ocean, climbed to summit. Downclimbed top 1800 feet, skied with intermittent rappels and down climbing to 2300 feet above sea level. Walked from there down to sea level. South Ridge.”
(I encourage anyone interested in Saint Elias’s documented ski expeditions to follow Porter’s project.)
As limited as news coming from Saint Elias remains, Lou Dawson was on the Saint Elias beat in 2007. Back then, a much-hyped and ultimately controversial Red Bull feature-length documentary featuring Axel Naglich, Peter Ressmann, and Jon Johnston was in production. The film was released in 2009.
In this WildSnow archive’s repost, Dawson provides some insight into the ski history of Saint Elias and a critical look at the Red Bull doc “Mount Saint Elias,” which runs nearly two hours. Beyond Dawson’s words here, you also now have links to almost two hours and thirty minutes of video revealing three unique experiences and styles on the mountain.
When we emailed about this repost, Lou reminded me that he’d made an “embarrassing” mistake in his first attempt at this post but soon got the record straight. In doing so, he and our WildSnow readers received an interesting account of St. Elias’s skiing history.
Original post of September 2, 2007, “slightly edited for hype control (grin)”:
It took a few days for this news to filter into WildSnow HQ, but here it is for those who have not heard it already:
On August 11, Axel Naglich of Kitzbuhel Austria made what is claimed (wrongly, it turns out, see updates) to be the first ski descent of monstrous Mount St. Elias in Alaska.
This plum descent (first or not) is also claimed as being the record for vertical feet skied in one route, as in, get this, 5 Kilometers of vertical from the summit to the mountain’s base!
That’s over 16,000 vertical feet!!
In a nutshell: Naglich and his companions tried the peak in May but were turned back, then made a second (and ultimately successful) attempt in August. It sounds like Naglich’s companions downclimbed from the summit, while Naglich made a bold move and dropped a ski route that was NOT their climbing route, thus nailing a solid descent from the summit.
Mount Saint Elias is known for horrendous weather that can snuff out life like a gigantic fly swatter of the gods. Storms lasting for months can roll in and drop hundreds of feet of snow. Ice forms readily because of the maritime climate — in 2002, Americans Reid Sanders and Aaron Martin slide to their deaths off the icy summit while trying to make a ski descent.
Naglich and his companions did an excellent and inspiring job skiing a new route. It turns out it wasn’t the first ski descent of the peak, but their trip is still exciting to read about and good stoke for our coming winter!
Update: When writing the original blog post, I got caught up in the Red Bull hype when I read this was “The first downhill ski run on St. Elias, also the longest in history.” I like to trust other mountaineer’s claims, so I posted with that slant.
Still, while dashing off the blog post, I was indeed wondering if this was THE first ski descent of Elias, as my memory was giving me vague hints about another feat on the mountain a few years ago. I’ve been remiss about updating my online chronology of ski mountaineering history and keeping my files updated — perhaps this is an example of that.
A good shot in the arm for me — time to get back to work on the history side of things! So, I’ll be looking into this over the next day, and if anyone has more info, please leave a comment or contact me in private.
Update: Well, apologies to all for getting caught up in the spray of rosy B.S. coming from the Red Bull website. Lorne Glick got in touch with me and jogged my memory. Sure enough, he, along with James Bracken and Andy Ward, did the first ski descent of Mount St. Elias back in 2000, along with a second ascent of the Mira Face route (somewhat the source for the name Andrew and Polly McLean picked for their new child.) Doug Byerly was along on the trip but turned back before the ski descent because of concerns about potential frostbite.
I’m more than a little disappointed in Red Bull for spraying in the face of history. Oh well, I’ll know better next time.
For the record, the INCORRECT statement on the Red Bull website is this (emphasis mine): “Axel Naglich embarked upon the first downhill ski run on St. Elias, also the longest in history.”
To clarify the facts, the following is a little something from Lorne Glick, a member if the first ski descent expedition, that just came in this evening:
Here ya go Lou,
Andy Ward, James Bracken and I skied off the summit via the “easy route” Mira Face in mid May 2000. Read the AAJ article if you want for dates etc. I don’t have one here in AK.
Paul in his Super Cub bounced across the ocean swell sized sastrugi to drop us a six pack of Strohs and a jug of fuel at our 13,400? high camp. This was our only assistance.
The only ropework was skiing roped together thru the maze of huge cracks and serac fall gauntlet below the north face; of dubious value since speed really is of the essence through there. The roped crashes with 50lb packs weren’t so good for the frostbitten toes either.
11,000 feet of skiing done over parts of two days; from the summit to the base of the mountain on the NE side of the peak; the Columbia Glacier/Bagley Icefield.
OK rating…I lean toward giving it the old Canadian Rockies style 5.8/A2…wink-wink-nudge-nudge. However; after familiarizing myself with yer new D-ratings how ’bout: VII D-17 R4 or VII D-19 R5.
How steep is the Mira Face? Hard to say exactly. Off the top at 17,000 feet to fall would be the end no doubt. There is a tricky rock band 1/3 of the way down that was even steeper, icy, and 250cm wide. Most of the face was blessed with a few inches of dragonskin rippled powder over ice. Exactly what you want for this type of thing as you know. The exposure and position were staggering. And this dumbass didn’t have a camera. James got some good ones.
Update, September 10, 2007:
Red Bull St. Elias skier Axel Naglich just sent me a nice email. He’s saying what I suspected, that the Red Bull hypesters combined with poor translation ended up in it looking like they were claiming the first descent of the peak. As for the first descent from the summit to the ocean, if it’s true they did it in two stages that were months apart, with vertical gained by flying, then one has to question the validity of that claim as for it being a “first.” However, it sounds like an excellent and fun experience that’s worth sharing. Following is what Naglich wrote, slightly edited to convert from private email:
Sorry for creating a mess in Mt. St. Elias climbing and skiing history. We didn’t plan to claim the first ski descent of Mt. St. Elias. We knew that this group did it in the year 2000 and we knew about Mira Face which has been skied by Mr. Glick too (couldn’t believe he waited for 3 weeks on the face for conditions, that’s hardcore!!!). As we also operated with Paul Claus and also were in contact with him for a couple of years we had heard about all the stories of ski attempts on the mountain!! Sorry that the footage on several webpages is a little confusing as we just planned to claim the first descent from summit to ocean and not the first descent of the mountain in general!!! As we know the mountain a little better now I just can say congratulations to the guys who did the first ski descent of the summit. I would never want to take this accomplishment away from them.
Update, September 10, 2007 PM:
I just got off the phone with Jon Johnston, who worked this trip in May (helping with the climbing and filmmaking).
In a word, while making an attempt at climbing and skiing the peak, they had the typical St. Elias epic in dealing with the huge terrain that’s hard even to imagine, including descending from their high point by doing more than 4,000 vertical feet of rappelling! During the May trip, they skied from the Hayden shoulder down to about 800 vertical feet above sea level, a considerable descent in its own right and, in a sense, “down to the sea,” but not exactly to the tide line.
After that, Naglich returned later in the summer, climbed the peak, and did ski a new route from the summit down to Hayden, where they were picked up by a bush plane, as most climbers are.
After speaking with Jon and hearing from Axel, my take is that they put in an excellent effort up there that yielded several interesting accomplishments: Axel’s new ski route and probably the route with the most vertical ever skied on one mountain by the same person. The fact that several months broke the ski descent into two discrete parts, with the first segment not being human-powered diminishes this from a mountaineering standpoint. It is still an interesting and fun to behold “record.” (And a record that is someday sure to fall when someone goes up there and skis from the summit to the sea all in one push. Like much of mountaineering, these things are done in stages of accomplishment, with one feat following another. So be it.)
The unpleasant part of this is the hype and poor writing/translation on the Red Bull website. I mean, for crying out loud, they’ve got the money, why can’t they do a better job! So let’s hope that it is cleaned up soon. As for me, I’ve now got the facts I need for future updates of my history projects, thanks to the web and all of you who helped out here over the last few days.
Lastly, both Jon and Axel mentioned how impressed they were by what Lorne Glick and his crew did up there with their first ski descent of the peak.
Update, December 21, 2009 PM:
Last evening, I had a chance to screen the full-length Red Bull St. Elias flick. My take: Sorry to say that while the film does reflect its multi-million dollar budget and is fun to watch on a gut level, this much-anticipated documentary falls far short of its potential.
What blew it for me is that “Mt. St. Elias” repetitively dwells on the saga of two Americans (Aaron Martin, Reid Sanders) who died while trying to ski the peak in 2002. You get the feeling the film directors and writers are trying to position their second (not first) ski descent of the mountain by emphasizing other people’s failure.
Perhaps this is more than suspicion on my part, as late in the film, the narration suggests the Americans may have died because they attempted to ski a line they had not reconnoitered by climbing first. It explains that Axel Naglich and his crew wouldn’t be making that same mistake. The problem is, a short while later, Naglich and companion are doing the same thing, thus adding a somewhat farcical element to the film if you’re paying attention.
Adding insult, somehow the whole film goes by without mentioning that the peak had already received a nicely styled first ski descent by Lorne Glick, Andy Ward, and James Bracken in May 2000. To ignore the Glick crew’s accomplishment — perhaps one of the greatest ski descents in the last two decades — is nothing less than ridiculous. And to do this while over-emphasizing the deaths in 2002, just plain awful.
I mean, there is a spirit of brotherhood amongst alpinists, is there not?
Mount St. Elias is almost supernatural in difficulty. It goes years without being summited and has only been skied twice. Any film about the mountain and our ant-like presence on it would do well to forgo arrogance and hype, practice some humility, and honor those who came before.
To his credit, the director of “Mount St. Elias” did make an effort to capture the gritty reality of high altitude Alaskan mountaineering. In this, he is successful. While watching this flick, you feel like you’re there, altitude sick, or being buried alive in a snow cave by a snowstorm that nearly anywhere else would be classified as a natural disaster — but is typical weather for St. Elias.
I clicked my electric blanket up to level 15 about halfway through this thing; it was that radical!
In that same vein, with the lens turned on the expedition members, you witness a conversation between Axel and his American companion Jon Johnston that is both humorous and sad. It polarizes Axel as the do-or-die “Euro”-alpinist for whom death is only another outcome, from Johnston, the boyish American, who during the first part of the film, makes the mistake of trying to work as a team. and is rudely awakened by Axel for simply ignoring his 2-way radio pleas to find a safer way around a fall-you-die ice face.
This conflict comes to a head later in the film when Johnston asks Axel outright if he (Johnston) ended up unable to continue during the push to the summit, would Axel abandon him and continue climbing? Axel’s answer is a grimly stated yes.
Abandon your teammate for a second descent and some movie footage? Abandon him for a first?
I enjoyed Axel’s enthusiasm and demeanor in this movie, and he’s been gracious to contribute here. But, should I ski with him? Should you?
I’d still recommend seeing this flick, but go prepared with the facts, so you see through the “Red Bull Hype Machine,” as one of our esteemed commenters called this outfit’s ethos when we began blogging about it. As for Axel, perhaps I’ll have a beer with him in Austria — in a safe place!
To get an idea of the bombastic hype surrounding this thing, check out the “making of” trailer below.
It’s all way too over the top — perhaps to the extent of dishonoring one of the greatest mountains on the planet — and the individuals who have both lived and died experiencing it.
(We’ve opened this up for more comments, please have at it. Lou)