Mount St. Elias is the second tallest mountain in the St. Elias Range at 5489m, second only to Mount Logan at 5959m. The Duke of the Abruzzi, along with a number of experienced mountain guides, opened up the St. Elias range to further exploration. He also ascended many other peaks around the world.
The Duke of the Abruzzi (1873-1933) was born Luigi Amedeo Giuseppe Maria Ferdinando Francesco. He was the son of King Amedeus of Spain, who was also the Duke d'Aosta in Italy. However, King Amedeus abdicated the Spanish throne two weeks after the Duke of Abruzzi’s birth. By the age of six, he had become a sailor in the Italian navy, and commanded his own vessel by 20. At the age of 20, in 1893, he took part in an expedition to Somalia to fight Somali clans who rebelled against Italian rule. At this time a number of European counties were attempting to retain power over their established colonies.
Between his tours of duty, the Duke took up mountain climbing. Even as a teenager, he was considered to be an excellent climber. Before the age of 20 the Duke had already climbed Mont Blanc, Mont Rosa, and the Matterhorn. At age 21 he again climbed the Matterhorn along the Zmutt ridge, only climbed twice before. Before the age of 40 the Duke had become one of the world's greatest modern mountaineers.
The Duke of the Abruzzi is perhaps best known for being the first to ascent Mount St. Elias. A number of attempts had been made on the mountain but none of them successful. The first attempt took place in 1886, led by the well known explorer Frederick Schwatka. However, he clearly underestimated the task of climbing Mount Saint Elias as he landed on the shores of Icy Bay with only ten days worth of supplies. Consequently, his party only reached an elevation of 2,225 meters (7,300 feet). 1888 saw another attempt at the summit by a group of more experienced climbers, led by the Englishman, Harold Topham. This party faired better than Schwatka’s as they reached an elevation of 3,493 meters (11,460 feet). However, they too ran out of supplies. In 1890 and 1891, two more attempts were made by geologist Professor Israel C. Russell. In 1891, Russell and his party were able to reach an elevation of 4,420 meters (14,500 feet). However, the summit eluded him.
In the spring of 1897 the Duke set of for Alaska with four Italian mountain guides; Umberto Cagni, naval ordnance officer, Vittorio Sella, mountaineer and photographer, Filippo de Filippi, chronicler of later expeditions, and Francesco Gonella, the Duke's partner on several climbs in the Alps. Five other experienced climbers were a part of the expedition. In addition to this were ten American parties and a number of First Nations porters. The plan was to follow the route taken by Israel C. Russell, who had climbed to what is now Russell Col, just bellow the summit.
On July 20, the steamer named City of Topeka arrived at Sitka, Alaska carrying the Duke. The supplies from the steamer were then transported onto the yacht, Aggie, which the American porters had brought north. They then set off for Yakutat Bay, landing at Point Manby on June 24. The camp established there consisted of 25 people, and ten tents.
On June 24, the party set to work packing supplies five kilometers (three miles) inland to the moraine that lines the edge of the Malaspina Glacier. While the packers found this to be a challenging task, when compared to the rest of the journey it was easy going. As one American packer recalled: “Lieutenant Cagni, through whom, we learned, we would receive our orders from the Prince when not delivered in person, informed us that the rule for the trip would be that in packing over rough country we would take forty pounds. Over reasonable smooth country we would take sixty. This first stretch of three miles seemed to us about as rough a road as could be found anywhere, and the forty pound packs seemed more than mortal man could carry for any considerable length of time. We learned later to consider that particular stretch the easiest on the whole trip.” (C.W. Thornton, “The Ascent of Mount St. Elias,” Overland Monthly, Vol 31, No. 184 (April 1898), p. 292) According to this same packer, C.W. Thornton, after the climbers became more conditioned they began carrying sixty pound packs more often than not.
On July 1, the expedition began their attempt by crossing the Malaspina Glacier. They brought with them four loaded sledges, approx 1400kg in total weight. It took four men to pull each sled which were made of wood and iron. The sleds were incredibly difficult to pull as they had a tendency to sink into the soft snow. 90kgs of photography equipment added to the weight of supplies. A number of men, including the Duke carried a 50lbs pack in addition. Food consisted of dried rations, chocolate, navy biscuits, canned meat, soup, vegetables and condensed milk. By July 3, they had reached the head of the Malaspina Glacier.
On July 5, they set out over a pass towards the Seward Glacier. This pass became known as Sella pass, for the expeditions photographer. They then climbed Seward Glacier until they reached Pinnacle Pass. They then traversed Pinnacle Pass and Dome Pass arriving at the foot of Agassiz Glacier. From here they travelled northwest across Agassiz Glacier.
On July 19 the Newton Glacier was reached and the sleds were left behind. From here to the summit all gear had to be carried in backpacks. This was a challenging section of the climb for the party and it took them thirteen days to trudge thirteen kilometers (eight miles).
On July 29, the summit was in reach. Time was taken to plan the final assault on the mountain and a route was decided on. Three guides went ahead to cut footholds up the terraces and returned to camp for rest.
On July 30, at 4:00am the party left most of their gear for the final summit attempt. They took food for 2.5 days and two cameras for Vittorio Sella's use. They encountered a number of dangers including crevasses that had to be jumped, avalanches fell around them, and snow falls had to be climbed. At midnight, after several hours of rest, the climbers drank coffee and headed out.
On July 31, at 11:00am the Duke stood atop the summit of Mount St. Elias at 5489m. The Italian flag was planted with an ice axe. After a month long trip to the summit, everyone in the party was standing higher than they had ever stood. From the summit they could see Mount Logan, clearly taller, and peaks estimated at 320kms away.
The descent was uneventful as weather was good and there was little difficulty. They finished the 200km trip on August 11. No one had died; there had been no serious accidents. The San Francisco Examiner stated "it was the most successful expedition ever undertaken".