NORTH AMERICA'S PHANTOM RANGE
The Saint Elias Mountains
Straddling the southern end of the Yukon-Alaska border are the St. Elias Mountains. The area is home to North America’s highest peaks and is one of the most dramatic and least known wilderness regions on Earth.
These snow covered giants sit at one of the furthest reaches of the continent and are hidden behind concentric barriers of lower frontal ranges. Their remoteness obscures them from everyday view and, thus, from widespread public awareness.
The St. Elias can scarcely be reached on foot, and only then by the most daring and skilled of adventurers (only a handful have ever done it). Those who decide to access them by plane (still an undertaking), can only do so during a short window of relatively stable weather in the spring and summer. And the weather at that time can viciously inclement without notice.
To appreciate the stature of this range, one must turn to the pronouncements of academics who’ve showered it with accolades. Here are a few:
The St. Elias Mountains are the highest, youngest and fastest growing mountains in Canada. They are also one of the highest coastal ranges in the world. Their perpetually snow-covered peaks and glaciers (some of the longest on the planet) are part of the largest internationally protected region on the Earth, encompassing adjacent parks in the Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia. Its icefields, fed by huge storms barrelling off the Gulf of Alaska, make up the largest glaciated region outside of the Poles and Greenland.
“The relief is spectacular and very similar to the Himalayas,” says Brent Liddle, a former Parks Canada guide who lives on the edge of St. Elias Range. “The mountains rise from sea level to almost 6,000 metres within just 30 kilometres. And they’re some of the roughest mountains in the world to access.”
Squeezed into a far-flung corner of the turbulent North Pacific, this region was the very last in North America to be explored and mapped. Vitus Bering, a Danish sailor in the employ of the Russians, was the first European to lay eyes on what is now called Mount St. Elias in 1741 (a peak which he named, and from where the range derives its name).
But it wasn’t until almost a century and a half later, in the 1880s, that North American and European climbers first started surveying the slopes of these gargantuan mountains. As with any great range, amazing tales of adventure, conquest and death began to follow in their wake.
A second wave of climbers threw themselves headlong into the range, starting in 1912, when the U.S. and Canada began work to demarcate the border between what is now Yukon and Alaska. The combined adventures and exploits of these teams, and those that followed in the post-war periods, are considered to be on par with some of the great polar and Himalayan expeditions celebrated today.
This series of photos documents a week-long expedition to the heart of the Saint Elias Range, near the foot of Mount Logan, made in the Spring of 2013.