It’s still unclear whether or not Martin Lefebvre and Ali Hogg were the first people to successfully ski without rappelling from the ridgetop of Alaska’s University Peak. But the whole process of verification, such as it is, lends the question: does it really even matter?
(Ed’s note: This story was first published 2013/07/22)
“Sadly it’s still a bit of a mystery whether people have skied/climbed our ascent gully before or not,” says Lefebvre. “Either way, we’re stoked to have skied such a unique and amazing line in some of the most rugged mountains in the world!”
The duo ascended and descended the sustained south face in an 18 hour push, leaving camp at 6pm and climbing through the night. From the ridgetop, they clicked into their gear and started scratching sketchy turns back down their bootpack, picking their way carefully through a thin chute between two seracs.
“The whole thing was pretty tense,” says Lefebvre. “But the most was at the start of the ski when Ali slipped out just below the seracs on some ice but managed to self arrest with skis and ice axe.”
We know for sure that another party attempted to ski the face in 2001. The trip is well documented in The 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America and in an old interview with Lorne Glick that we’ll link to at the end of this post. But that team was forced to rappel for about 200 feet down an ice flute from the ridge.
So it’s pretty fucking rad that Lefebvre and Hogg, two ski patrollers from Sunshine Village, kept their skis on from ridgetop to finish.
Biglines got on the horn with Martin and posted a news piece about the trip right after they returned. He sounded humbled by the whole experience, but his words also resonated with a tone of well-deserved pride.
Nobody on the site has contested whether or not they were the first, but praise has poured in from big mountain heavyweights about the accomplishment. So it’s fair to say that no matter what’s been done on that peak before, Lefebvre and Hogg pushed through adversity, skied a beautiful line and made the Canadian Steep Skiing Community proud.
We caught up with Lefebvre a few weeks after he had decompressed to establish the larger context of the trip.
How long were you guys in the St.Elias Range before you tackled University?
We spent two weeks in the range, and it took us three days to get to our base camp spot.
From where you got dropped off by the plane?
Yeah, it was a 15-20km push from where we got dropped off and during those three days it was kind of stormy; there was probably a new 15-20cms on the lower glacier…
So we were basically at the spot where we set up our toboggans and shuttled our gear through the broken glacier at the lower elevation, and that took us a bit of time.
Could they not have flown you closer to the foot of the peak, or is it in the park? Why the long approach?
No, they fly in the parks, but the day we flew in the weather was pretty stormy on the way up and they flew us into Paul Klaus’s lodge. Then we had to wait one day for weather.
Paul’s lodge is a half hour flight from the Chitina airport, and then from his lodge he was able to bump us up a day later, but there wasn’t great vis so we had to land a bit further away.
That’s the Ultima Thule Lodge, right?
Yeah. Just getting to the lodge was all we could do at first because of the weather.
And did you guys ski anything else when you were in there or was it just University Peak?
We skied a bunch of laps in the same drainage. There was a bunch of east-facing glaciated terrain. We did a few lines on that part and there was more stuff on the West facing aspects, but yeah there was enough skiing in there for a couple of days, that’s for sure.
Nice. And do you have any more objectives in that zone?
Everything else looks so small compared to (University Peak), but there’s still lots of 1000 metre descents to be had in there, depending on where you’re camped.
And there were just two of you, right? You and Ali? How was the dynamic for that as far as having just two people for the glacier travel, etc.
Well, we did the Great Divide Traverse together last spring which is a 28 day ski traverse from Jasper to Lake Louise, so we’re used to being together for a long time in the field. So we knew what to expect from one another in that sense…but then the big push doing the climb, just having two people breaking trail was definitely the crux for us. It got really, really tough for us later in the night or, I guess, earlier in the morning.
At first we were doing 100 metre leads, then we had to break it down to 50. Leading became really hard above 4000 metres, not necessarily for snow conditions but for critical exhaustion.
Were you guys getting pretty decent purchase on the face or were you sinking in?
Snow conditions were varied…sometimes we could get half a boot sole in there and sometimes we were fully front-pointing.
You couldn’t really use the shaft of your ice axe, it was basically just points the whole way.
There was nowhere to take a break, it’s just so sustained. Like if we wanted to take a quick break to have some water or put the pack down, we had to dig a ledge with our ice axes so we could get our whole boot on the snow and not be on our toes the whole time.
For 18 hours.
Well just the climbing…the meat of it anyways…about 15 hours.
How long did it take you to descend?
Honestly, once we were through the upper 150 metres, the thinner part through the upper glacier, I felt pretty good. It was one of those things where you feel better on your skis than you do climbing up, you know what I mean?
Definitely. The skiing’s the easy part. And once you got through that tricky section you got into some pretty good snow didn’t you?
Yeah. It was good dry snow…fun skiing up there, then it got a bit stiffer, then it got into perfect corn for the rest of the way down and we kinda charged down that thing (laughs).
Nice…well that email you forwarded me from Paul Klaus was interesting…he definitely seemed to think that a few other parties had tried the face, but the only thing we found online was an old article from Off-Piste magazine that talks about the first attempt in 2001.
Yeah that’s the one that we found as well, but we couldn’t find any beta from the other ones. And reading Lorne Glick’s interview and reading from 50 Classics, it’s hard to say what other people have done on that ridge and known from where they would have rappelled and we don’t know if the two other parties rapped as well or, yeah…it’s really hard to say.
Yeah, well we can post this Trip Report on a few forums and see what comes trickling back….nothing’s come back yet from that initial post a couple months ago.
Anyways…do you have any other big objectives that you’re angling to get after in the next few years?
Right now it’s kind of a toss up between going back up there next spring in the St.Elias. That whole area has so much potential, not necessarily high peaks but really good mountaineering objectives that haven’t seen any ski descents yet.
And I wouldn’t mind a trip down to South America at some point in time.
And how about The Rockies? Did you see anything while you were on the Great Divide Traverse?
There’s a lot of potential out there as well if you can get the logistics going your way. Even in the front range, there’s a lot of possibilities. I don’t know if I wanna give any names though…last time I did that I got scooped on something (laughs).
No no. Never give the names. It’s part of the fun to keep people guessing online.
(Laughs) yeah, but I could definitely say that there’s a lot of potential in the Rockies still…you just have to use your imagination.
Is there anything else you wanna say about the line, or anything that you wanna get out information-wise about it?
Well, there’s definitely something to say about the climb itself…I can honestly say that it’s the toughest climb I’ve ever done.
It was a real test of technical skill, and physical as well. But there was also that inner mental battle that goes on.
Were there any times on the face that you didn’t think you’d be able to make it?
Well I guess that’s the funny thing is that whenever we’d look down and looked at where we were…bailing on that thing would have been pretty hard…really, there was only one way to go and that was up in order to actually get a rest.
It was just a question pushing through and knowing that all you had to do was put one foot in front of the other.
During the leads you’d kinda think you’d done 25 metres but then you’d look at your watch and see that you’d only done ten. So you’d punch your ice axes in and put your head down, catch your breath, punch another ten metres in and catch your breath again.
It was just a really hard, hard climb.
And after that the skiing felt like the easy part?
Yeah, as soon as I clicked in. We rested on the summit for more than half an hour trying to eat and drink, but we were beyond hunger, we were just trying to get a little bit of fuel.
And then we got up, and we clicked in and it was like “here we go this is the fun part”.
Then we got like our tenth wind (laughs).
And just a tense bit up top and once you were through that it was all good?
Yeah like I said, the crux was the first 150 metres and once we were through that we were just trying to soak it all in and enjoy it. It didn’t hurt anymore…it was just fun.
Nice, we’re pumped for you guys. Congrats again.
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This is the email that their pilot, Paul Klaus, sent Martin in regards to University Peak’s history with ski mountaineering:
Lorne Glick and crew skied the south face 1st and from the highest, they actually got on the summit ridge but also didn’t have the time/energy to get to the top, they rapped off the face mushrooms and probably skied from about the same height as you did…
A couple of weeks later (same year) a guy from Canada, I think Whistler (can’t remember his name) also skied it and then the next year it was skied again (same place) Dave Hanning?? think he was from Colorado, so you were the 4 party to ski the face…
Hombi and I skied from about 11,000′ on the same day that Lorne skied it, we got to watch him!!
Last bit of trivia, the mountain was 1st climbed in 1957 by a team from the University of Alaska hence the name University peak, prior to that it had been tried numerous times even by the likes of Fred Becky…
I started trying to climb it in the middle 70s and then finally got up it in 1997 (second ascent)
* * *
Here’s a link to the initial article we posted:
And here’s on to the interview with Lorne Glick, who was part of the first party that attempted the line in 2001: