Mount St.Elias

Axel Naglich

What attracts you to mountains like St. Elias?
“You do something and then you want to go for the next step. It doesn’t interest me to do the same thing again. When I build a house, it’s going to be unique. The next house is going to be different and none of my projects look the same.
Skiing somewhere where nobody has ever skied, that’s something, OK, that’s new, for sure, nobody skied it and then it totally rings a bell in my head when people like Paul Claus tell me, ‘in five years nobody has been on this summit.’ I want it even more. I mean, it’s a sad story, but these guys tried it and they all died. I’m not going to die. I showed them. If it works or not, that’s pushing me for sure.”

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve accomplished?
“To survive till today! Do you know the downhill in Kitzbühel? At the finish is a jump and the down-hillers try to not jump off. As forerunners, a friend and me, we always had a bet, who would do the longer jump. So we always jumped off and one year I did a 360 over 250 feet or something; a big, big jump. We were 22 years old; all we were interested in was skiing. We were in good shape. We trained all year, and this was nothing where I said, ‘wow, this is so amazing.’ It was pretty normal to us. I mean, this is what we did — ski, ski, ski, the faster the better, and try and try more and more and more and then you jump things and do things where other people think, this is absolutely crazy. However, for us this is not crazy. It’s only fun.”

How much longer will you do expeditions like Mount St. Elias?
“All my life. On a different level, of course, but I would always like to climb and ski. Especially ski. It’s not that you sort of expire at the age of 30, and then you have to quit and never ski again! If this is what I love all my life long and many, many other disciplines — I love to play soccer, I love to play squash. I really liked it much but because of my knees and my ankles I just can’t do it anymore. I had so many injuries with these sports and it hurts. It doesn’t matter, there’s so much other stuff to do. I think I would have a problem if I can’t ski anymore. That’s the only sport I would really miss.”

How did it feel to be on St. Elias’ summit?
“Good, after all. It was perfect, it was a little windy and really cold, but we had to wait. Below the summit there were snow mushrooms; compared to these snow piles blown in by the wind in springtime, when they are maybe ten meters high but this time they were 40 or 50 meters high. So all the way up we were not really sure if we’d find a good way through. The way we tried was really good. It looked OK, but we couldn’t really tell. Below these mushrooms, we had to wait for the helicopter to be refueled and it was in the shade of the wind, so it was pretty nice to sit there and we could get everything ready for the summit to take pictures, prepare the flag, all this stuff. We only had the last 40 or 50 meters left to the summit and we tried to be there as soon as possible because it was really cold. That worked out well.”
Were you apprehensive on the summit, with the ski ahead of you?
“No, it was OK. I feel more comfortable with the skiing. The middle section we climbed straight up and it was the original plan to ski that part straight down as well. We were a little spread out. The distance between each other was about 20 or 30 meters and when you were standing there you could feel the others walking, so it was hollow underneath. We were afraid that the whole thing would break down.
The crucial thing in my mind about that mountain was from Hayden Col all the way up. Wherever you make a mistake or fall or slide, if there’s an avalanche or a climbing mistake, if you start sliding, you’re dead. Because from any side it goes really steep so you can’t stop and any face ends in vertical sections. I think that’s the hard thing about that mountain, it doesn’t forgive any mistakes. All the way up the avalanches and the crevasses were getting bigger every day. New crevasses we’d never seen were opening up every day.”

Was the climb more difficult than the ski?
“In a way. Once you have climbed it, you know if it’s skiable or not. So if you’re on the summit you know you have to concentrate. The thing is that we picked another line for the top face. When you look up, way further to the right, which is maybe one or two degrees flatter than the straight line. We didn’t want to ski down there because everything was hollow underneath. We were afraid of avalanches so we decided to go the other way and we didn’t know what the conditions would be because we didn’t climb up this way.”

What’s next for you after St. Elias?
“I don’t know what’s next. No idea at the moment. I have a couple of mountains in mind that interest me and maybe we can set up one or the other … right after the expedition everybody is fed up with sitting around in tents and waiting for weather. What happened at Elias is basically what happens with any expedition. Some are more successful and some are less, but this is what happens.”