Mount Bona
Wrangel - Saint Elias National Park Alaska
May 12 - 24, 2001

Our expedition notice and postcard:

Chitina Airstrip.  This is as far into
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as we got by car. 
From here all travel was by air.

Loading the Cesna 185.  No seats, no beverage service,
but the inflight movie was great.  We took this plane
on our first leg travels into the National Park. 
It was a forty minute journey along a glacial river to
a remote luxury lodge (accessible only by plane) "Ultima Thule". 

Here is a view out the window of the plane 
as we followed braided river bed up into the park. 
Altitude around 3000 feet. I was in the copilot seat.

On some medieval maps the remote and inaccessible  north was call "Ultima Thule".  This wilderness lodge, by the same name, is on an inholding within the National Park. Accessible by airplane, it is generally a luxury type facility catering to only a few travellers at a time--  but they do also host climbers.  We flew in here before heading on to the mountain.  Bad weather higher up kept us here two nights.  There are plenty worse  places to get stuck!  We played with fifty sled dogs, used the sauna, checked our gear and feasted.

We had to wait two nights at the lodge.  Dave Staeheli, 
our guide used some of this time to instruct us on the finer points of Alaskan climbing.  He is a very accomplished
guide, having been on Everest and working in the
mountains of New Zealand.  What impressed us particularly was his winter climb of Mount McKinley-- solo.  Here Dave
is explaining where to stick a picket.  A picket is the big aluminum stake he is holding-- it can be used as an anchor
in deep snow.  Where to stick it is on the side of your backpack, where you can get it, but it won't fall off. 
(What did you think I was going to say?)

While waiting at Ultima Thule, we practiced our skills. 
The biggest danger on Bona is falling in a crevasse.  There 
are many ways to get out of a crevasse while hanging on a rope.
One is a self rescue using sliding knots (prussiks).  It is pretty strenious, with much of the effort being getting the backpack off
and assembling the system. Here we practice in a barn while
hanging from a overhead beam.  See the ladder... well first you
climb the ladder, then Dave kicks it out from under you...

The secret of Ultima Thule.  Fifty sled dogs,
five puppies, don't mind the noise,
go pet them-- no waiting.

We were two days at Ultima Thule waiting for the weather
to clear at higher elevations.  Six a.m. day two there was a
banging on our bunkroom door--the pilot screaming,
"Weather is clearing, LETS GO!"   Fifteen minutes later we were
lifting off the dirt runway, the Beaver rising rapidly.
The flight was one of the most spectacular parts of the trip...

Up past snow covered peaks with glaciers below.  At this 
point we were pretty worried about that cloud ceiling-- 
the pilot need to be able to see up to 11,000+ feet
in order to get us up onto the glacier on Mount Bona...

We break out of the clouds...  hey, what is that in front
of us? The Beaver rises in the cold clear air passing by the
14,000 foot high pyramid of University Peak
and on towards our  goal.

We begin to descend to an open glacier. 
Or rather, we flew level up the valley 
as the ice river rose towards our skids... 
In a minute or five we will be on the snow. 

Our plane touches down on the glacier as smoothly on skis as the best airport landing.  Smoother in fact, because we are landing uphill and the plane comes to a rapid stop.  As we halt the pilot turns a sharp 180, so as to be facing downhill for takeoff.  Then comes a mad scramble to unload.  I hand the pilot some postcards to take out and within a minute or two he roars off.  Leaving us standing alone, likely the only people within fifty miles in any direction. 

Here we are then at 10,600 feet on a glacier, sun blazing at 8 am.  Dave says, "best thing about flying in is that you can tell that there are no crevasses where we land."  (Does he mean that we know there aren't because... what? if there were, the plane would have fallen in?)  Dave marks a boundary with wands and instructs us that for the duration of trip we are never to go beyond that boundary without roping up. We almost start to feel the cold - zero or minus ten-  when we begin our first task,  building camp.
This job will keep us warm for several hours to come...

First thing on the ice, we needed to build was a safe camp. 
This involved about two and a half hours of sawing snow blocks to build walls to protect our tents and cooking area.  Hot and demanding work at altitude.

We got the tents up, but our work was not done.  Base 
camp was built, but next we would need to carry a load up
to Camp One.  This was particularly urgent since we had 
lost two days due to bad weather...


No rest for us!  After building our base camp, we charted our
route up to camp one.   Dave went first, probing for crevasses
and marking our safe path with bamboo poles with bright tape (wands).  Dave had a superb instinct for avoiding crevasses--
on this very crevassed mountain. We crossed only two or three,
each less than a foot wide.  You can see an ice fall behind us. 
This day we we carried a load of food and fuel up to around
12,200 feet and cached it.  The following day we carried a second load and moved the camp up.  The first day was my hardest-- rapid change in altitude and alot of work, plus it was too sunny!  Back down to base camp for a Cajun shrimp and rice  dinner, then twelve hours sleep in our -20 degree bags.

We had great views right away.  Here we are about 
1000 feet above our base camp.  You can see wands and 
our footprints.  We are perhaps the only people
for thirty miles in any direction.

Here we are at Camp One, elevation 12,200.   When we went into shade temperatures dropped to minus ten, maybe even minus twenty.  Shadows came to camp around 7 pm and dusk lasted the next four or five hours.  Our route downhill is seen bearing left and up with several wands.  Also visible is the faint line of our camp boundary.   Peaks across the valley are around 13,000 feet high.

Camp One at around 12,200 feet elevation.  We had to  dig more here as the slopes were steeper.  Kitchen is in between the tents.  False summit of Mount Bona behind us.  Got one very sunny day here where temperature reached 90 degrees inside the tent.  (Outside was still pretty cold)   Handy decorator idea-- Tibetan Pray flags brighten up any camp.  Thanks to Matt for that, after last year's soggy Tibetan trip.

We continued moving loads of equipment higher,  climbing in two good weather days from Camp 1 (12,200 ft) to Camp 2 (13,800 ft).  We were getting well adjusted to the altitude and the weather was sunny and clear.  As we got higher we could see more and more of the superb views we had hoped for including Mt Logan (19,550 feet) second highest peak in North America, Mt. Saint Elias (18,008 feet) fourth highest and Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet) the sixth highest!


High camp, elevation 13,800 feet.  Only hours after 
building camp 2, the weather turned sour.  Winds rose, 
the temperature dropped and it started snowing.  For 
the next 36 hours this was pretty much my view.  Our
snow walls, strong tents, minus twenty degree bags and
lots of hot drinks kept us comfortable.  It stayed very bright and I kept hoping for a break in the storm and a dash to the summit, but it was not to be... The real crisis came when despite oxygen deprivation I finally finished the 550 page Doctor Faustus by Mann.  And my only other book was at at camp 1, oh horrors!

After a twenty four hour blow the sun came out shining brightly on our tents.  I had visions of starting for the summit at four pm (which was theoretically possible since it never got dark!).  When I got outside and saw this cloud structure over the summit I knew it was not to be.  These lens shaped, "lenticular" clouds form when wind speeds are over 100 m.p.h.  I asked Dave and he agreed,"No go". What's more, he said that
the storm wasn't over. He was right.

This view inspired a painting I created back in New York. Storm, Mount Bona.


The second morning of the storm, our time had run out to attempt the summit.  We packed up in the blowing snow, assembling packs and drag bags and roped up.  Dave said
we were safe to descend as long as we could see from one wand to the next.  He was a pretty amazing route finder and we were very glad that he had  marked the route so well with wands.

Portrait during storm, I look like I am wearing everything
I own, but I am still carrying the down parka.

We retraced our route down the mountain in around four hours, carry all that remained of our gear in our packs and drag bags.  Mostly we could see only fifty feet, just making out the next wand.  We stayed pretty warm despite the wind and blowing snow until we got down to the plateau where the plane had landed us.  Here the wind was fierce and ice formed on my whiskers.  It seemed rather desperate to me as we fought our way back to camp.  Then Dave suggested we all stop and take each others pictures because it looked really cool...

So I figured things couldn't be too bad!

Looked like no plane was coming to rescue us this day, so we put the  tents back up in the walls
we had left at base camp.  And I settled in with my second book!

Marginal weather in the morning, with blowing snow  and a cross wind of about 20 mph.  At 8 am we heard our plane flying over.  Dave got on our line of sight radio.  Pilot asked if we wanted out today--  He thought we were coming out the next day!  He told us to get ready.  We packed up and waited.  It was the coldest two hours of the trip in the lee of the snow walls.  Dave explained all the the shelters he could build with a shovel and nylon bag...

The last picture. At 10 am our pilot landed using our lined up partly  frozen bodies to guide him on in.  We ran to turn the  plane down-glacier and then to load it.  A spectacular flight out, followed by a sauna, a good meal, another flight, a drive and another good meal. 
During our flight off Bona we flew by many shear faces like the one in this picture.  At the bottom of one, we saw two tiny figures.  They were two world class mountaineers,  one of them being Carlos Buhler, who has climbed a route up Mount Everest that has never been repeated.  We ended up having lunch with them later. They had tried a shear rock face coated with many  feet of ice and frosting at the same time we were on Mount Bona.  They were turned back by continuos avalanches-- said it was like vertical surfing.  We felt a little better about not summiting.