A solicitor’s experiences on a climbing expedition to Alaska
On Sunday 2 June 2002 at 2.15am I stepped off the plane in daylight in Anchorage, Alaska, about to take part in my sixth climbing trip of the last 15 years.

The five previous visits have been to the Himalayas but none with as small a group as the four of us. We had grants from the British Mountaineering Council and the Mount Everest Foundation to attempt various first ascents of peaks on the Donjek Glacier in the Yukon (Canada).

Two of our party had departed a week earlier than I to hopefully set up base camp, but as it transpired, by the time we arrived they were on the Eclipse Glacier at about 10,000 feet, some three miles west of the Donjek, bad weather having forced the glacier pilot to land them there.

We were meant to play catch-up with them, but having reached our US glacier pilot’s wilderness lodge, which was 100 miles from the nearest roadhead, on the Tuesday, the first thing on Wednesday morning he told us the weather was too bad over Mount Logan and he would review hourly.

Shortly afterwards he dropped the bombshell and said he couldn’t in fact fly into Canada, having received an e-mail from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Civil Aviation Authorities closing his Canadian operation down. He assured us he had been flying into Canada for 20 years without problem and had the requisite permits and licences.  He stated he would be consulting his lawyers and congressmen as climbers lives were being put at risk and perhaps we could help by contacting the British media as certainly at that stage, apart from our friends, there was a British climber on Mount Logan. I immediately thought about an action for breach of contract and possibly punitive damages as our climbing holiday was being totally disrupted.

Our two friends were thus stuck on the Eclipse Glacier without apparent means of flying out and we were despatched to rescue them.  We were leant a truck and drove the 500 miles to Kluanie Lake in the Yukon and arrived at a small airstrip on the Friday night next to the North American Arctic Institute.  (We were only 90 miles as the crow flies across the ice cap from our wilderness lodge)

Our friends apparently were on the Eclipse with American scientists who were drilling ice cores and, in return for heavy labour, they would be flown out !

We spent four days waiting for the weather to break in the company of the Canadian Glacier pilots who in effect had caused our pilot to be banned. We heard their version of events and saw various documents and were pigs in the middle of a trade dispute which had been precipitated by our pilot taking delivery of a new twin otter plane worth $1.2m in April which gave him a definite competitive edge.

Their position was our pilot had no requisite licence to fly into Canada and had, over the years, misled customs authorities who had let him fly in and out of Canada but there were now ongoing criminal and civil actions against him.

I was asked about the UK law regarding the seizing of planes and trucks as they stated their law was weak and they couldn’t seize our borrowed $35,000 truck resplendent in our glacier pilot’s company logo (Ultima Thule).

On the Sunday, one of my friends was helicoptered out during a window in the weather and thereafter the last member was taken out by plane on the Tuesday and we immediately drove back to the USA.  I was asked about potential court action against our pilot on the grounds of breach of contract as we had, in essence, each paid $1,000 to be delivered and picked up from a specific glacier, namely the Donjek and he had spectacularly failed!  However, I put proceedings on hold and said we had more important things to do - namely climb!

We came up with an alternative plan and we were dropped off on the Goat Creek Glazier in the Granite range, which had never been visited before, 11 days after our arrival.  

We successfully climbed six peaks between 7,000 and 8,500 feet; explored glaciers and enjoyed a spell of good weather on the largest icefield outside Greenland and the Antarctic.

Two peaks are now named Mount Macbeth and Haggis Peak and, apart from the usual dangers such as avalanches, crevasses etc, our hairiest moment was a visit from a grizzly bear who had obviously lost his bearings!

On our return to our wilderness lodge, we decided to take no further action. On talking to an American lawyer/climber who had come off Mt St Elias I learnt that there was no punitive damages for breach of contract.

The stranding of climbers in these mountains, the Wrangle/St Elias Range which straddle the US/Canadian border, raises serious issues.  We met three climbers at the lodge who had come off Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada and were made to ski an extra six miles to the arbitrary border in the middle of the glacier so our US pilot could pick them up.

One of our glacier pilot’s friends was seriously injured in Canada and whilst he could have rescued him immediately, the Canadians could not and there was a delay of 48 hours which, fortunately, did not prove fatal.

During our three-week stay, to my knowledge, three climbers in these ranges were killed due to avalanches, crevasses, the fickle weather and the like.

The weather coming off the gulf of Alaska is some of the worst in the world, but we had enjoyed our climbing and, as per the name of our glacier pilot’s company, “Ultima Thule”, we have visited “land remote beyond reckoning”.

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