I think the following information is important for anyone trying to use this guide. This is the long version of a book review I wrote that was published in the AAC Newsletter. Good luck. JoJo
A Climber's Guide to the St. Elias Mountains, Volume 1"
by Richard Holmes
Reviewed by Joe Josephson
Any review I write of Richard Holmes' "A Climber's Guide to the St. Elias Mtns. Volume 1" must start with a disclaimer. I am biased. Veteran of seven expeditions since 1989 I am, admittedly, a St. Elias junkie that finds preverse pleasure in the scrappy rock steps, extreme winter camping, unrelenting ice faces, weirdly crevassed ridges, otherworldly cornices and perpetually nasty weather found there.
The important caveat, however, is that "A Climber's Guide" comes out just as I am half way through my own history book focusing on Mount Logan, King Peak and Mount McArthur. As such, I would normally declare a conflict of interest and recuse myself from such a review. However, considering the importance of any book published on the St. Elias Range, I feel it is valid to lend my direct experience to the discussion of this intriguing volume.
Holmes' Volume 1 covers 44 peaks, all but one in Canada's Kluane National Park or otherwise along the international border. This includes Canada's highest peak, Logan (5,959 m), St. Elias, Vancouver, Alverstone, Hubbard, Kennedy, King Peak, Augusta, Walsh as well as many of the lesser known giants in the northeast corner of the Park along the Kaskawalsh, Hubbard and Lowell Glaciers.
As someone previously unwilling to do the tedious research to piece together the sporadic climbing history on peaks like Mt. Cook, Vancouver, Seattle and Hubbard, I was particularly excited to see what is probably the first such compendium of the established climbs on these obscure, yet world-class peaks not to mention my obvious interest in the Logan group.
Picking the book up in Vancouver, BC before a lengthy flight home, I began devouring the book while at the airport. What started as a simple list for my own reference, I began cataloguing any mistakes and confusions on the back of the fold out 9" x 13" map included with the book. Before we even left the tarmak, I had filled up every corner of the page and was scrounging for more paper; exceeding what even the most critical competing author could construe as subjective bias.
Victim of so much bad information, I quickly found myself questioning Holmes credibility and ability to objectively gauge a route's potential. None-the-less, this is an ambitious endeavor, creating a systematic description of every major feature, climbed or unclimbed, along with a companion CD containing dozens of color aerial photos, 94 of which are reprinted in B&W in the book. At least one half of the 240+ routes described have never even been attempted, although Holmes' dearth of historical context, leaves an ambiguous "has this been climbed" question mark for more than a few of his descriptions.
In fact, it is Holmes confident, in-depth descriptions of routes for which he clearly has no experience that is particularly annoying throughout the book. For example, in describing the yet-unclimbed North Ridge of Mount Foresta, Holmes goes so far as giving exact rope lengths for what is clearly complex and challenging terrain. Even Holmes must have experienced the oft-described "Logan effect," where mountains in the St. Elias always look closer and smaller then they really are. Given this vastness, I wonder how any one can so confidently describe a huge, unclimbed ridge in such detail; especially when flying by at 150 mph in a Cessna. Another example lies on his description of the North Face variation to the West Ridge of King Peak. Here he takes extra time to describe the numerous towers and actual rock quality right down to the "ample holds" on the upper section of the route. Having down-climbed the route as a descent in 1998, I can say his assessment is completely inaccurate and misleading.
Further to Holmes' effort to appear authoritative are constant recommendations of when to go and what style to use in your attempt. In recommending Mount Foresta on page 20, he suggests going in "May before the temperature begins to warm up and while the snow is still consolidated." This comes across as nothing more than one of the many rote phrases Holmes pulls out of his literary quiver whenever he needs something that sounds knowledgeable.
With changing attitudes and weather patterns, it's been 20 years since May has been considered early season in the St. Elias and it is easily now the most frequented month. In reality, typical "early" season snow in the St. Elias tends to be scary, unconsolidated powder that requires the extra sun and heat of late spring to set up before it starts to destabilize and sluff off all together - quite the opposite of what Holmes leads one to believe.
As sandbagging as these suggestions are, the most grievous act is his penchant throughout the book for suggesting fixed rope. Not only are few, if any, parties now fixing rope in the range it is widely considered bad style. Period. As shown on page 183 with the North Ridge of Mount McArthur, Holmes' belief in the importance of fixed rope borders on the absurd. Undeniably one of the easiest (and aesthetic) routes in the book, the only technical difficulty is a 30 meter WI 3+ mixed step at half height where Holmes claims, "It is a good idea to leave a fixed rope to facilitate the descent." Ignoring his earlier mistake of calling this step "about 15 m," I can muster no reason why anyone would find carrying and fixing rope to be easier than a straight forward rappel using the single glacier-travel rope you'll already be using. This is especially silly considering said rock step ends in a completely flat promitory and has a bomber fixed anchor in situ. It would be easier to forgive Holmes this obvioius lack of local knowledge if it weren't for the authoritative writing style.
Make no mistake - one or two of Holmes glowing recommendations for the undervalued, future classics are spot on (some things are just too obvious to miss) but overall his authoritative disguise combined with a constant recommendation of using fixed ropes to safely ascend and descend most routes left this reader feeling as I might if caught in a whiteout in the middle of a Seward Glacier crevasse field - a sinking feeling in my stomach and the helpless desire for it all to just go away.
Despite his relatively accurate potryal of the higher end mixed routes (easily taken from the literature), Holmes is clearly out of touch with any current trends in Alaskan or Yukon climbing. With suggestions like cotton-blend shirts, wool clothing, a waterproof cagoule, Jumars, minimum 1,000 feet static line, 11 mm climbing ropes, (and what exactly is the difference between "deadmen" and "deadboys?"); his Expedition Equipment list in the Appendix reads like the 1st Edition of "Freedom of the Hills." While describing the easiest lines (if there is such a thing in the St. Elias) up through the attractive moderates and even into the more challenging snow and ice ridges, Holmes seem stuck in 1978. As shown by dated photos of his ascent of Logan's East Ridge (including a faded back cover shot with the classic view looking down on the Hummingbird Ridge) Holmes does have some experience in the range. However his descriptions come across as nothing more than a mountaineer now fallen into arm-chair mode applying a 1970's perspective and style to a current literary review of the journals.
Like someone looking through the keyhole and then writing about what's going on in the other room, Holmes takes advantage of the blatant void of information about the range and appears to be making a stand as the authority. This Brad Washburn imitation of aerial photos along with suggestions of the next great routes is not backed up with the climbing credentials, photo quality, nor with a validity of the recommendations that would be required to pull it off; let alone suggest this volume is worth the $29.95 sticker price.
The aerials overall are average in quality and almost without exception, wide landscapes that do indeed inspire the imagination towards the many striking features. This renders the CD only marginally useful since the portfolio lacks not only clarity and proper exposures but the all important close up, isolated shots that are required to be of practical use to those looking at new routes. No question, the photo CD is a generous contribution and useful enough; just not quite the product it could be.
Perhaps, the misinformation with potential for the most confusion regards the King Trench route. This, the standard route on Mount Logan, is a premier ski-mountaineering objective and is considered the only "popular" route in the entire range. It is here, Holmes' unfamiliarity with the route and negligence as a guidebook author is particularly obvious. Holmes places the King Trench base camp in completely the wrong place and offers a unexplicable reference to starting on the Jefferies Glacier but getting picked up on the Quintino Sella Glacier. When, in fact, one gets picked up at the very same base camp where they get dropped off.
Another unfortunate omission is no mention of Gerald Holdsworth's Mount Logan map, published by the Arctic Institue of North America. This is indespensable for anyone headed there. If nothing else, Holmes would have noticed that the Circumski of Logan uses the Mussel Glacier to avoid the dangerous Ogilvie Icefall that he so careful describes in text and illustration. And having been completed perhaps less than a ten times ever, I would have to argue anyone describing the Logan Circumski as "popular."
Another critical omission is failure to mention the "Icefields Discovery" camp near Mount Queen Mary. This seasonal outpost, managed by Kluane Lake pilots Andy Williams and his daughter Sian, is a important-to-know-about resource for anyone skiing or climbing on the upper Kaskawalsh and Hubbard Glaciers.
Holmes makes numerous comments throughout the book about recommended camp spots that are "well protected from the wind." I've personally been drifted over by seven feet of snow at one of the spots so declared.
Thus, I would suggest to anyone using any part of this book that you talk to as many people as you can and do some serious research on your own before blowing your only vacation and hard-earned bucks going after and trusting one of Holmes' recommendations.
One of few worthwhile contributions is his comprehensive literature review of the AAJ, CAJ and a few of the popular climbing periodicals. Thankfully, these references are unobtrusive as they are right there with the appropriate description, saving the reader the usual near-sighted exercise of matching reference to route in a lengthy appendix. There are, however, noteable omissions including two ascents of Hub Sew Peak (which Holmes' nicknames "Nice Peak") both covered in the CAJ and Jack Tackle's widely-covered attempt on the long sought-after North Face of Augusta.
In addition to the misrepresentations and confusing references on the really big peaks, which in all fairness resist adequate description by any measure, two sections stood out as incongruous. Like opposing bookends, the opening chapter on the Boundary Group seems undeservingly long while the final chapters on the Kaskawalsh and Kluane groups are disrespectfully brief.
The Yukon has a long tradition of very capable local mountaineers who have tramped across the Kluane front ranges year round and in every conceivable condition. Any book posing to be a "climber's guide" to the range should either complete the research with verbal and local records and present these worthy objective with the same sense of completeness given the rest of the book or otherwise leave them to the Grizzly Bears and dedicated skiers and climbers of the region. In contrast, the opening chapter on Mounts Seattle, Foresta and Cook span a whopping 34 pages. Granted, these impressive peaks are some of the least known big peaks on the continent but between them, they have a grand total of five ascents.
Holmes' generous treatment of the Boundary Group strikes this reader as a covert attempt to drum up business for the nearby Gulf Air pilots that so ably provided air support for his photography. Many of the unclimbed features in the Boundary Group are undeniably compelling and deserving of more action, yet Holmes descriptions here are representative of a tendency to casually disregard and overlook what is often the most dangerous and difficult park of climbing many of the features he recommends - getting to them.
A land of big and wild terrain, many routes have long been difficult to access but now with global warming creating visible change throughout the range, many of the features Holmes recommends in the Boundary Group and elsewhere are little more than a crap shoot in terms of finding the right combination of stable conditions, aircraft landing zones, and approaches that avoid objective hazards like seracs, icefalls, and crevasse fields. Herein lies the beta that would be truly useful.
Bottom line, there are so many problems with the text ranging from subjective misrepresentations to outright, "this-could-get-you-into-trouble" errors that one only hopes Holmes' chooses to perform his due dilagence, ask around a little more and dig a whole deeper into the research before embarking upon Volume II. Or might I suggest he save himself a lot of writing time, improve his photography skills and simply publish a stand alone photo CD (with a few more approach shots and close ups) with detailed captions and complimented with a full bibliography. Not only would this leave the vision and any preferred styles for climbing in the St. Elias where they belong, with the aspiring climbers, but it would validate a tremendous and important photographic, research effort that is otherwise painfully obscured and un-necessarily devalued.