KATSUTAKA YOKOYAMA AND YASUSHI OKADA
First Ascent of the Southeast Face of Mount Logan
It was the biggest unclimbed wall in North America: the southeast face of Mount Logan, an 8,500-foot headwall of rock, snow, and ice that had eluded alpinists for more than a decade. On May 7, 2010, Japanese climbers Katsutaka "Jumbo" Yokoyama, a 31-year-old famed for big ascents in Alaska, and Yasushi Okada, 37, completed the first ascent of the giant face in only four days.
To understand just how audacious their accomplishment was, you have to consider Mount Logan itself. At 19,550 feet in the Yukon's St. Elias Mountains, Logan is the highest point in Canada, with a summit plateau that stretches 25 square miles. It's the kind of topography climbers vanish into. During the 1925 first ascent of the mountain, a team of North America's strongest alpinists nearly died in a whiteout. Altitude, isolation, cold, avalanches, cornices, and weeklong storms—all merge to create the Logan Effect, making the mountain seem to grow as you climb it. "Logan is more Himalayan than the Himalaya," says Canadian mountaineer Jim Elzinga, who participated in the first ascent of the mountain's technical south-southwest buttress in 1979.
Of the several elite mountaineers who've attempted the face, not even Jack Tackle, a 57-year-old Idaho climber known for his bold routes, had made it more than 3,000 feet. In 2009, a friend showed Yokoyama a picture of the wall. The Hokutu-based Jumbo— five-feet-nine is tall in Japan—had made significant ascents in the Alaska Range, but he longed to experience "the hugeness of nature" in an even less explored wilderness. He reached out to Tackle, and although the American still hoped to make another attempt at the first ascent of the face, he shared his photos from his 1999 and 2007 attempts.
On May 4, Okada and Yokoyama hurried up the lower slopes, moving in alpine style with minimal equipment and seven days' worth of food and fuel. Although the two had never been on a big expedition together, Yokoyama knew Okada was a strong climber, with experience on India's 20,702-foot Meru Central. The first rock band, however, proved harder than expected. On May 5, they struggled until nightfall up a long, steep chimney of thin ice and loose stone. By then they realized this route would be too dangerous to descend. Their best hope for survival, let alone success, was to keep going to the top of the wall, across the immense plateau, and down the easier East Ridge, 18 linear miles from their base camp. If a storm trapped them anywhere on this odyssey, 80 miles from the nearest permanent habitation, they'd be done. "We're fantastic," Okada joked. His words became their mantra for the rest of the climb.
The next day, they scratched their way up thousands more feet and crested the summit plateau, where, exhausted, they camped. They were approaching their limits. According to mountaineering tradition, you must reach one of Logan's major subsummits to claim a true ascent.
The next morning, the two men forged through snowdrifts toward one of these, 19,357-foot East Peak. The blue sky appeared surreal. Yokoyama wondered when the famous storms might cut off their escape. Two thousand feet below the top, they foundered and agreed to turn back. But then Yokoyama sighed, and Okada responded, "It's not right to retreat like this. We have to summit."
Three hours later, at 1:40 p.m., they stood on top. "Our joy was beyond words," Yokoyama later wrote. "A single thread seemed to connect all those who confronted Logan before—and all those who helped us. To honor them, we named the route I-To, which means 'line-thread relationship.'" After the long descent, Yokoyama e-mailed Tackle to thank him for his help. "It is hard to give up a dream," Tackle replied, "but I am happy it was you."