The St. Elias Mountains are the youngest of Canada’s mountain ranges. Between five and ten million years ago, a fragment of the continental plate became wedged under North America in the Gulf of Alaska. The resulting upward pressure formed mountains from rock that was once buried up to ten kilometres below the surface. Since then, glaciers and meltwater streams have exposed bedrock deformed by heat and pressure.
Active faults cut through these mountains and continuing earthquakes, along the faults, allow the mountains to rise and shift.
In July 2007, an avalanche of rock and ice ripped down the face of Mt. Steele and caused an earth tremor recorded by seismologists around the world. The collapse was either a failure of the ice beneath the upper snowfield or perhaps faulting, earthquakes and the freeze-thaw process weakened the bedrock.
Moisture-laden winds from the Pacific Ocean drops heavy snowfalls in these mountains. The snow contracts to ice and forms glaciers. Most glaciers settle and move a few metres during the summer but, in 1966, the Steele Glacier surged 15 km (10 miles) down the valley. Scientists think water lubricated the base of the glacier, causing it to flow more easily.
Is It Your Dream to Reach for the Top?
An elite group of climbers focus on Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, and other peaks in the St. Elias Mountains. The first expedition into the Icefield Ranges was led by well-known mountaineer and cartographer Walter Wood. Wood was in the first group to climb Mt Steele (1935), Mt. Wood (1941) and Mt. Walsh (1941).
You have to be strong! In 1937, Bob Bates and Bradford Washburn made the first ascent of Mt. Lucania. Warm weather cancelled their exit flight so they climbed Mt. Steele and then walked 251 km (156 miles) to Burwash Landing.
Walter Wood worked to bring scientific study to the St. Elias Mountains and was the inspiration for research station near Mount Logan and at Kluane Lake, now operated by the Arctic Institute of North America.
“The St. Elias Mountains can be thought of as a laboratory, as a natural theatre of investigation...” Walter Wood, Icefield Ranges Research Project, 1961.
Suffering for Success
In 1937, Bob Bates and Bradford Washburn made the first ascent of Mt. Lucania. Warm weather cancelled their exit flight so they climbed Mt. Steele and then walked 251 km (156 miles) to Burwash Landing.
The Icefield Ranges include the highest and youngest mountains in Canada. They from the main group of peaks in the St. Elias Mountains and include Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan, at 5959 metres (19,545 feet) plus six other peaks over 5,000 metres (16,000) feet.
The largest non-polar icefield in North America extends over most of Kluane National Park and Reserve, sending long glacial fingers into the valleys between the peaks. The ice is more than 700 metres (2200 ft.) thick in the heart of the icefield ranges.
This icefield is the remnant of previous glaciations. The latest was the Kluane Glaciation between 29,500 and 12,500 years ago. At the glaciers melted and retreated, wind-blown silt (called loess) blanketed the newly exposed rock. The new soil supported grasses that fed bison, moose and caribou. Stone suitable for tool making was exposed for the interior First Nation hunters.
Mountaineering and scientific explorations in the interior mountains began more than a century ago. In 1896, the Duke of Abruzzi, an Italian nobleman, made the first successful ascent of Mount St. Elias – the second highest mountain in Canada at 5489 metres. Between 1911 and 1913, the international boundary was surveyed through the Icefield Ranges. The Arctic Institute established the Icefield Ranges Research Station in 1961 to study the high mountains and associated ranges, and this work continues today.