American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mt. McKinley, South and North Peaks, 1932

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  • Publication Year: 1933

Mt. McKinley, South and North Peaks, 1932

A. D. Lindley

A LTHOUGH a first ascent is quite properly regarded as a supreme prize for the climber, a mountain often possesses such a historical background and such an imposing stature as to make it a worthy objective for an expedition, even though it has been climbed previously.1 We knew that the south peak of McKinley had most certainly been climbed, once very nearly and once completely, and that the north peak had probably been ascended. But still it seemed to be so perfectly adapted to a party without great experience in the technique of high mountaineering, so easy to approach, and so commanding in height, that we became very eager to attempt it. Besides, ought not the two thermometers, left by the two previous parties, to be recovered and read in the interests of seeing just how cold it could get on the top of McKinley in winter? Also, we were very fond of skiing and our experience had taught us that when skis could be used on a mountain, climbing was easier and safer with their help. We were certain that we could use skis on the Muldrow glacier to its head. We thought that we might use them on the upper or Harper glacier, fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand feet in elevation. All in all, the set-up seemed perfectly adapted for our party.

Trouble was anticipated with that part of the central northeastern ridge, or Karstens Ridge, which is a necessary link between the Muldrow and the Harper glaciers. It had taken Stuck’s party three weeks to cut a trail up it after it had been shattered by the great earthquake of 1912 at the time of the Mount Katmai eruption. It seemed important to ascertain whether or not this ridge had smoothed out sufficiently in the nineteen ensuing years since Stuck’s climb to make it again the “steep but practical snow slope” that Messrs. Browne, Parker, and LaVoy found. In August of 1931 an airplane was utilized to fly close to and at an equal height with this part of the ridge, and a look through the binoculars convinced us that it had indeed smoothed out considerably since 1913. So when it was found that Superintendent Harry Liek of McKinley National Park and Ranger Grant Pearson wished to join the party, our plans were made definite.

We tried to determine fairly accurately just which was the best month of the year to start the expedition. Pearson, having lived at the base of the mountain for some years, advocated a start early in March, saying that one could not be sure of clear weather after the first of May. The Browne party experienced good weather in April on the Muldrow glacier and in May at base camp, but in their final attempt in June had very bad weather. The Stuck party had good weather in the early part of May but much snow and wind in the latter part. We aimed to hit the mean between winter cold and summer storms and determined on a start about the first of April. So on April 4, the party set out from headquarters at McKinley Park on the Alaska railroad for the mountain one hundred miles distant. As winter traveling conditions still continued, three dog teams were utilized to transport supplies and outfit. Three more rangers at the Park volunteered to drive the teams and bring them back when they had done their work. It was an arrangement that worked out perfectly.

Our base camp on Cache Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater, was placed within a few yards of the old camp site of the Browne party, and we made our trail on up the valley to the same pass that the other parties had used to reach the Muldrow glacier. This fortunate break in the northerly wall of the glacier gives an access to it only ten miles from its head and thus obviates the necessity of a long trek up the lower twenty-five miles of ice.

Our experience on the glacier was much the same as that of the preceding parties. We took about the same length of time, camped in nearly the same places as the Browne party had, and our trail followed in general the route they had discovered. The first ice-fall was passed to the left close under the main wall of Karstens Ridge ; then the trail crossed over to wind through some large crevasses, and then back again to the ridge side to get up the big ice-fall by a steep gully. Above the big ice-fall, the trail wound around through crevasses up to the head of the glacier, and though the surface appeared quite innocent, it was on this part that we found the concealed crevasses probably the most dangerous of all. We were assisted by perfect weather, a firm crust on the snow, and no fresh snowfalls while we were on the glacier. Thus in one week, having made two intermediate camps, we were consolidated at the head of the glacier with our own outfit of 1,200 pounds and 800 pounds of cosmic ray apparatus which we had brought up at the request of the late Allen Carpe.

As anticipated, and as has been the experience of all who have used skis while traveling on glaciers, our skis proved of very great assistance because they lessened considerably the danger in crossing snow bridges over crevasses, and because they greatly increased the range of reconnaissance trips by enabling us to run home quite rapidly once we had sounded out a safe trail.

On Wednesday, April 20th, our dog teams left us to return to headquarters while traveling conditions were still practicable ; the remainder of our trip was to be made without their assistance. The part of the central northeast ridge, or Karstens Ridge, up which we now had to climb for four thousand feet to reach the upper glacier, did not at first sight seem very formidable. An easy snow slope up to the col, five hundred feet above our camp, was climbed continually on skis, and the run down to camp made excellent sport. But above the col, all the way to the Grand Basin, the ridge was either so sharp or the snow slopes which we traversed so steep that skis were out of the question ; it was a matter for crampons and step-cutting. We did not, however, use the rope on the ridge at all, except in one place a little over halfway up where we found it advisable to fix a rope as a handrail to be used in packing up.

The ridge was an unbroken snow crest for a thousand feet or more. We dug our trail either on the crest or just below it to avoid cornices, without difficulty. But a short distance above our halfway camp on the ridge, which we pitched on about the same site that was used by the other parties, we came to a spot where a small hanging glacier had slipped down in the old earthquake of 1912. Here we found it necessary to leave the crest of the ridge and traverse the steep snow slope left by the avalanche to some rocks quite near the big ice-fall coming down from the upper glacier. The last part of this traverse was around an ice corner and then up a steep patch of ice just above an almost sheer drop down to the Muldrow, and it was here that we anchored the rope. This short stretch of ice work was really the only technical difficulty that we encountered in our entire climb. For above that, all the way to the Grand Basin, snow was met with again, and while it was of considerable steepness, it could not be called difficult climbing.

After our trail was dug all the way up the last steep snow slope to where it levels off into the Grand Basin, we put in a strenuous day and in two trips packed our camp outfit and remaining supplies to the entrance to the Grand Basin which Doctor Stuck named “Parker Pass.” Doctor Stuck also named the Grand Basin glacier the “Harper Glacier” after the father of one of his men. There, in a hollow between the largest rocks, we found an old piece of cloth which had miraculously survived the storms of nineteen years, and in a crack on the west side of the largest rock we located immediately Doctor Stuck’s thermometer. We were interested to note that the recording needle of this government alcohol thermometer was way down in the bulb and that thus a temperature lower than the minimum range of the thermometer. 95 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, might have been recorded, but we were inclined to be skeptical of the accuracy of the thermometer. However, we were glad to find the record of at least one of our predecessors on the mountain.

The next few days things moved rather rapidly. While digging steps on the ridge one day we thought that we heard an airplane motor at some distance to the north and believed that it must be the Carpe party landing on the level part of the glacier by McGonogill Pass where we had come on to it. And the day after we were camped in the upper glacier we were certain that we saw way below a fresh trail in the new snow, following our old route up the Muldrow. Two of us went to the top of the ridge to look down, and there we saw the two tents pitched at our old camp site, showing that Carpe and Koven had arrived and found their cache. That same day we were startled to see a red airplane come up the glacier, circle around over the camp site, and drop bundle after bundle to them.2 We had amused ourselves by sending a tentative signal arrangement to Alaska Airways, in case they should be flying over the mountain, to let them know the precise day on which we thought we would be on the South Peak. Accordingly we rushed around to pull out sleeping bags to make the signal, but the plane stuck strictly to its business of dropping supplies and, once through, it went back down the glacier without coming up to our altitude.

We experienced some bad weather at this stretch and even found it necessary to move our camp out of Parker Pass because of the wind howling down through the gap. And then, after we had moved down to the lower shelf of the upper glacier, we had to waste two days waiting for the weather to clear. But after that we had luck again, and one day we packed up light loads and explored the glacier to our next camp site. It was easy going up the upper glacier. Skis were of no use, as we found after one trial, but the hard-crusted snow gave perfect footing for crampons, and it was largely just walking uphill. So, after climbing two ice-falls above our camp site at fifteen thousand feet, we thought we were high enough for our last camp and dumped our loads, and the following day we moved everything else up in one heavy load. We believed that we were at the same level of about seventeen thousand feet where the Browne party had made their last camp, and one ice-fall below that of the Stuck party. But we were fed up with packing and wished to have a shot at the summit without moving camp again.

The cold was quite severe at this highest camp and fully bore out the accounts of the other parties. As soon as the sun swung behind the North Peak, which it did at about four o’clock in the afternoon, the thermometer visibly dropped down to twenty-five below zero and stayed there until the sun came up again about ten the next morning.

The first morning in the camp the weather cleared at about nine o’clock, so we started off for the South Peak. We gained the crest of the main south wall of the upper glacier, which is in fact a continuation of the central northeast ridge up which we had come, and went along this through easy rocks to a fairly level plateau at the base of the summit dome. This dome being hollow on its easterly facing side gives the summit ridge the form of a crescent or horseshoe. It looked an easy route up the inside of this horseshoe, and we were tempted to take it immediately, but as we were fairly certain that the Stuck party had climbed from the westerly side of the dome, we thought that we had better have a look at that route. However, the traverse around to this west side proved too difficult, entailing as it did considerable step cutting in ice, so we retraced our steps to the route which Strom had spotted up the inside. It proved even simpler than it had looked, and we ascended in long traverses to ease the grade, without cutting a step. It was a long pull, but finally about five o’clock we gained the summit ridge only a short distance below the central highest rise, and it became apparent to us that nothing could now prevent us from gaining the top.

It was an easy walk up the summit ridge to the little pair of mounds at the top, and our objective was won. The visibility was quite good, except at the extreme horizon, and we stayed almost half an hour, but the cold was very intense and it was impossible to keep mittens off for more than a few seconds. The result was that with our three cameras—two still and one motion —we bungled everything and have nothing to show for that peak. The view had been particularly good to the south, and we were interested to look over the glaciers and peaks that lay below us, almost entirely unexplored, except for the Browne-Parker trip of 1910 on which they reached the south base of the mountain.

Coming down, we did go by the west side, for we thought that in the group of rocks which we spotted there Professor Parker must have left his thermometer. We were unable to find it, but in a little hollow on the top of the largest exposed rock in this group, less than a thousand feet below the summit, we left a bronze tube containing a pamphlet with our names and the date. We had also left a camera tripod on the summit, which I hope somebody will find some day. Below these rocks we got strung out a little, and as we were not on the rope, we were unable to check Pearson when he lost his footing. He slid almost five hundred feet over rough ice-crusted snow before he stopped. It was very nearly a serious accident, but fortunately he was not hurt. We went directly down to the Grand Basin by this west slope and did not traverse back to gain our old route. We had to detour around large crevasses, but it was all downhill and eventually, in the fading light, we gained the glacier and went on down to our camp, arriving about ten o'clock.

There we rested for two nights and a day, and then on our fourth consecutive clear day started for the North Peak. We had spotted our route while going up the South Peak and had seen a level plateau at the base of the westerly snow face of the peak. Once on that plateau it was apparent that the rest was easy. It would have been possible to reach the plateau by one of several steep snow chimneys leading up from the glacier at about our level, but we decided to play safe and go way up the glacier to its head and back up a short rocky ridge to gain the plateau.

It was very warm in the morning when we started, no wind and a brilliant sun, and for once we experienced what I believe they call in the Himalaya “glacier lassitude.” Our motion pictures will show that we were not exactly “burning up” the glacier by our speed. But once started up the rock ridge to gain the plateau, we struck the southwesterly wind and our lassitude quickly went and all our windproof clothes came on. At the top of this ridge we were disappointed that we had to lose about two hundred feet of altitude to get into the plateau, but it was easy going and the top was only a question of time. The west face was another series of traverses on perfect crampon snow.

On the top we had a grand view of the South Peak looming above us across the Basin, and we scouted around trying to find the old flagpole. We observed that the easterly ridge of the peak, up which the sourdoughs must have come in 1910, was, in its upper five hundred feet, sheer ice of considerable steepness, and that the last rock ledge on the east ridge was at the base of this upper five-hundred-foot stretch. It was there that we assumed the flagpole had been placed, but we were not inclined to cut steps down this ridge to try to find it, as it was already six o’clock. So we returned by our same route and reached camp without mishap.

So far everything had gone smoothly. We had gained our objectives, and as Pearson, the hardy sourdough, had remarked, we had seen no hardship on our trip yet, as we had always had enough to eat and had been in our sleeping bags at night. But on our descent we were to have experiences which none of us particularly like to recall.

Our troubles began the very first morning, as we had to break camp and pack up in a howling storm. This delayed us and we did not begin our descent of the ridge until four o’clock. A third of the way down, we found that our old steps were completely covered so we had to drop our packs and shovel a new trail the entire rest of the way. This meant only one person shoveling at a time and it took all night, as after each spell we had to go back up to bring down our heavy packs. There was just enough light to find our old landmarks, and we were able to get by the sharp ice corner on our former trail by shoveling out our old steps in the ice.

About five in the morning, an hour after daylight, we reached the glacier floor and made our way to the Carpe camp site. Pearson got there first and from his report we knew that something serious must have happened as there was fresh snow about the tents and nobody in them. We had found a load of grub which Carpe and Koven had packed up to our ridge camp site, and we thought a mishap might have befallen them on the ridge. We called back to Strom, who was still on the col putting on skis, and asked him to look for signs of an avalanche. He reported that he could find nothing, so we assumed the trouble must have been in the other direction. Their diaries verified this, as we found an entry noting their safe return from packing up the ridge, and also noting that the rest of their party was overdue. This last entry was on the 8th of May, and it was now the morning of the 11th.

We had a meal, put on the skis, and started down. I believe that most of my readers must be familiar with what we found: first, Koven’s body, where he had died in a vain effort to get back to camp after being severely injured, and then the crevasse, with the signs around it indicating that it was the scene of the disaster. Many times since we found the crevasse, I have regretted not taking the chance of approaching the lip and looking down to make certain that Carpe was in there ; but at other times I believe we acted correctly when on the scene. We knew that there was no possibility of Carpe’s being alive, from the length of time that had elapsed. We called and there was no answer. It was apparent that the lip of the crevasse had already broken away with one of those who had perished, and although we had a rope, the party was not in condition to risk one of its members falling in when there was no possibility of saving a life. I remember that we discussed the probable chances of a look over the edge and I, being last man on the rope, started back, but that when the others called that it was a great risk and a useless one, I was considerably relieved to give it up.

A short time previously, while two of us were pulling Koven’s body on a sled with our only rope, Pearson, on snowshoes behind and unroped, had broken through and dropped a full forty feet in a crevasse. Fortunately, his big pack wedged him in and he went no deeper. We got him out with some difficulty, but all of us were a little shaken by the accident.

We decided that having only one rope, it was impossible to attempt to bring down the body, so we left it wrapped in a tent and marked with an upright sled, and continued on our way.

We went on through the night, trying to locate our old route, and Strom performed a most remarkable feat of trail finding. At times the glacier looked completely different because of the new snow and dim light, but we got down without serious mishap, although each of us broke through at least once. At three in the morning we found Messrs. Beckwith and Olton in their camp on McGonogill Pass and reported the tragedy. Mr. Beckwith was ill and wished to remain until an airplane could be sent out for him. Mr. Spadavecchia had gone out to try to find a plane, and we were to observe his tracks to see which way he had gone. So we went on down the pass, to reach base camp and the luxury of a bed on dry ground after just a month on the mountain. While we rested the next day in the warmth of early spring on the lowlands, we all had the feeling that we were fortunate indeed to be back down off the mountain alive, when the others had had such a tragic end.

The sequel of the safe return of Mr. Beckwith by airplane and Mr. Spadavecchia and Mr. Olton by foot, and the recovery of Koven’s body by Messrs. LaVoy, Andy Taylor, and Grant Pearson in July of this year is probably known to you. Thus another chapter has been added to the history of Mount McKinley.

1 Since the admirable book written by Mr. Belmore Browne, describing his several attempts on McKinley, was at once the inspiration of and the model for our own efforts, it is hardly necessary to describe the history and topography of Mount McKinley here. We also read with great care Archdeacon Stuck’s book “The Ascent of Denali,” so we felt that we knew the mountain pretty well before we had seen it.

[For an outline of the mountaineering history of Mount McKinley, see page 121.—Ed.]

2 Mr. E. P. Beckwith, whose article appears elsewhere herein, was a passenger in this plane.—Ed.

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