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Expedition to Mount St. Elias, 1888

Dateline: April 2, 2014.

'The Alaskan' newspaper - Sitka, Alaska Territory, 1891

SITKA, ALASKA TERRITORY,     August 25, 1888

The Expedition to Mount St. Elias

    On the third of July a party of four gentlemen left Sitka in the schooner Alpha with the intention of spending a few weeks in the neighborhood of Mt. St. Elias. They were accompanied by six packers, of whom two were white men and four Indians. Seven days and a half were consumed in reaching Yakutat, an Indian settlement 250 miles to the northwestward of Sitka. Light head winds were encountered, and the only pleasant feature of the passage was the fine view obtained of the Fairweather range of mountains, two of the peaks of which rise to a height of nearly sixteen thousand feet directly out of the sea and are surrounded by glaciers and ice-falls of marked beauty. At Yakutat four packers were added to the party which now numbered fourteen. After delay of two days, the expedition started out from Yakutat on the morning of July 13th in two large canoes and one small one for Icy Bay, the distance between the two points being fifty-five miles, along a coast affording no protection against southerly winds. With the aid of a light off-shore breeze the trip was performed in ten hours. No difficulty was experienced in landing through the surf, which frequently, however, is so high as to render it impossible for boats or canoes of any description to reach the shore in safety. About fourteen hundred pounds of provisions had been brought along, this amount being sufficient to enable the party to remain away from Yakutat forty days, if necessary; a large quantity was never taken farther than the beach. Two days after landing the start was made for the mountain, the Indians carrying from sixty to eighty pounds, the white men from fifty to seventy. The route lay along the shore an a westerly direction for about six miles, acres of good strawberries being crossed; then turning sharply to the right, the party followed up some one of the numerous steams which compose the Yachtze River (re-named by Lieut. Schwatka the Jones River); the latter is an immense delta about ten miles long and very broad, formed mainly by the waters issuing from the Guyot Glacier.

    During the greater part of the first day much wading had to be done, the water being frequently waist deep. Leaving the river on the left, the party then climbed through dense brush on to the Agassiz Glacier, which is covered with moraine for a distance of several miles from its border. It was here necessary to elect which one of the two routes leading to the foot of Mt. St. Elias should be taken, for the Chaix Hills, a sandstone range about 3,500 feet high and twelve miles long, lay, roughly speaking, at right angles to the direction of the mountain. Two years ago Lieut. Schwatka went around the west end of these hills; this year's party decided to proceed the other way. Getting over the Agassiz Glacier proved to be very rough work, owing to the great unevenness of the moraine at the point selected for crossing. A suitable place was found for leaving the ice somewhere near the centre of the southern border of the Chaix Hills; this cannot be done everywhere, as the glacier is very apt to be extremely steep along its edge. A stream varying in depth from one to three feet ran the entire length of the hills, separating them from the glacier, the walls of which were about two hundred feet high. The southern slopes of the Chaix Hills were found to be densely wooded to a height of several hundred feet; they appeared as the only green spot in an immense sea of ice.

    At this point the party separated; six of the packers returned to Icy Bay to bring up another supply of food, while two of the Sitka Indians remained behind to aid in moving camp. Three days had now elapsed; the following three were spent in endeavouring to find a way around the eastern end of the Chaix Hills. No difficulty was experienced in eventually turning them, and soon after having done so, the party found themselves on a glacier proceeding directly from the foot of the mountain. From a point about two thousand feet high a beautiful view was obtained of the imposing mass of Mt. St. Elias, probably less than eight miles distant. After a careful study of the whole of the southeastern face it was thought that any attempt to make the ascent from that quarter could only result in failure. It was, therefore, decided to start immediately for the southwestern side of the mountain; this was gained by going completely around the Chaix Hills till the northwestern corner of the same was reached. Nothing could have been finer than St. Elias as it appeared from this point. Two massive shoulders covered with snow led from either side up to the summit which in shape resembled a pyramid. A striking feature of the mountain was a great crater which appeared to be slightly in advance of the final peak and about a third of the way below it. The party decided to push on at once, and in the course of three days a camp had been established at the base of the mountain on what is believed to be the only green spot on Mt. St. Elias.

    This is the first time that anyone had ever set foot on the latter, for the Schwatka party having proceeded up the Tyndall Glacier to within a certain distance of the mountain, decided to strike off towards one of the ridges on the west. (See Karr's "Shores and Alps of Alaska", page 102.) Mr. Karr then ascended one of the chain of hills which, however, do not form a part of the main range.

    From the camp last mentioned, the crater was reached on two occasions; the night previous to the second attempt was spent in the open air two hours beyond the camp, and a start was made at 4:30 a. m. In less than three hours the party, consisting of Messrs. Harold W., and Edwin H. Topham, and Mr. W. Williams, had gained the crater, the brink of which was then followed through a semi-circle; at about two o'clock the highest point on the same had been reached, and the observations made at the time with a boiling point thermometer show the height to have been either 11,118 or 11,342 feet, 9,000 of which were above the line of perpetual snow. Had an earlier start been made, a somewhat greater altitude could have been reached by ascending a certain spur; as matters stood, it was too late in the day and the snow was too soft to go any farther, so at three o'clock the party turned back, arriving at the sleeping place at 8:30 p. m.

    There were several reasons, which cannot here be given at length, why no subsequent attempt was made to reach the summit of Mt. St. Elias. The only practicable route leading to the final peak from beyond the crater appeared to be over a huge mound about fifteen hundred feet high, the slopes of which were covered with ice. To cut steps up it would in itself be no small task and would have to be performed at the beginning and not in the middle of the day's climb; it follows that it would be necessary to establish a temporary camp at a considerable height, and to do this would require the services of packers experienced in mountaineering, such as the present expedition did not have at its disposal. Even then, success would not be ensured, unless, indeed, another year should find these same slopes covered with firm snow instead of ice. Beyond the mound, the ascent appeared to offer fewer difficulties.

    It is hoped that before long another attempt will be made to climb the mountain. The next expedition will have this advantage over the present one that, the weather permitting, it can count on being at an elevation of eleven thousand feet above the sea within six days after leaving Icy Bay; whereas this year's party consumed eighteen days in reaching the above height, owing to the fact that no definite information existed regarding the ascent of the mountain itself.

    The exact height of Mt. St. Elias is still an unknown quantity. Prof. Libbey has estimated it to be 16,600 feet; according to the coast survey it is 19,500 feet. The members of the present expedition consider 18,000 to be more nearly correct, their opinion being based on the estimated height of the peak above the elevation reached on the crater.

    The return journey was begun the day after the climb, and Icy Bay was reached in the course of three days. The surf being in a favorable condition, the canoes were launched without delay, and fifteen hours later the party landed safely at Yakutat. One of the members of the expedition returned to Sitka on the schooner Active, and the others are expected to arrive shortly on the Alpha.


Mount St. Elias is 18,008 feet (5,489 meters) high - only 8 feet higher than the estimate of the 1888 expedition. Being on the Alaska-Yukon border, it is the second-highest peak in both the United States and Canada - the highest being Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Mount Logan respectively. The first successful ascent of Mt. St. Elias occurred on July 31, 1897, when an expedition led by Prince Luigi Amadeo di Savoia reached the summit. The second ascent was not until 1946, when a group from the Harvard Mountaineering Club climbed the Southwest Ridge route.

This expedition noted the danger of the surf at Icy Bay - less than 3 years later, in June 1891, 6 men were drowned there while attempting to land an exploring party in charge of Prof. I. C. Russell. See a lengthy article about it at Melancholy Disaster at Icy Bay.

Below - Mount St. Elias as seen from the southeast, from the cruise ship Celebrity Infinity as we sailed from Hubbard Glacier. In the middle ground is the low-profile but massive Malaspina Glacier.
Mount St. Elias

Map showing Mount St. Elias