The Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, 1932
Edward P. Beckwith
IN looking backward to the spring of 1932 it is hard to imagine a more interesting proposal than that of Allen Carpe to join his expedition for measuring cosmic rays, which included a flight to Mt. McKinley from the nearest base in Alaska. Entirely aside from climbing activities, which were naturally a part of the program, there were many aspects of this trip which would appeal to any lover of unsolved problems.
First of all came the cosmic rays themselves, an emanation apparently from space which has recently held the attention of the scientific world. Next came our plan of landing on the white slopes of Mt. McKinley in a plane fitted with skis and loaded with complete equipment and supplies. It was the first time such a landing had been attempted and it was by no means certain of accomplishment. If successful the plane would return to Fairbanks, leaving us isolated on McKinley for perhaps a month, which would allow two weeks for observations and two for climbing. Then a hike of thirty-five miles to a ranger’s tent where the plane, this time equipped with pontoons, could be summoned by telephone to land on a nearby lake and take the party back to Fairbanks, 150 miles distant.
Alaska had been designated by Professor Arthur H. Compton of Chicago University as an important location in his world-wide plan for cosmic ray observations on account of that country’s proximity to the north magnetic pole, the influence of which was expected to throw some light on their nature. The eleven thousand feet or more of height attainable on Mt. McKinley was also important on account of the increased strength of the rays with altitude.
The party consisted of five members, of which Allen Carpe, Theodore Koven and I constituted the first unit. We planned to fly to McKinley from the nearest base from which a plane could take off on skis, and would be joined later, on a second flight to the mountain, by Nicholas Spadavecchia and Percy T. Olton, Jr., who were coming by the next steamer.
In many ways Carpe was an ideal leader of such an expedition. His splendid mountaineering achievements in Alaska gave him a knowledge of climbing conditions which was invaluable, while his experience in electrical research especially fitted him for the scientific work. Koven was much younger, of rather limited mountaineering experience, but filled with enthusiasm at the prospect of climbing McKinley, a mountain which he had always had in mind since he was ten years of age. His knowledge of it, through the literature, was more complete, I think, than that of any other member of the party.
We were assisted in transporting our 800 pounds of scientific equipment by the Liek-Lindley party, who were already well advanced in their attempt to climb the mountain. Earlier in the year they had agreed to transport this considerable load with their own supplies by dog-team to the head of the Muldrow glacier, the prospective site for our observations, and they had done this in March, while there was still plenty of snow on the level. The instruments were now cached on the glacier awaiting our arrival.
We were aware that a plane equipped with wheels could not land on any of the glacial slopes of McKinley and that skis must replace them. It was necessary therefore to select a starting base on a frozen river, lake, or stretch of snow.
Carpe was naturally anxious to land at as high an altitude as possible on McKinley. The Alaskan pilots informed us that a landing at 11,000 feet was out of the question on account of the excessive ground speed required at that altitude. This was estimated at about one hundred miles per hour, and would make taking off especially hazardous even under the best conditions. After obtaining their views, we felt that we would be well satisfied with an altitude of 6,000 feet or less. However, they were not very encouraging about the possibility of landing on any part of the mountain.
It was arranged that Joe Crosson, an Alaskan airman of long experience, should pilot the plane, and he agreed to meet us with the plane at any point selected where the ice or snow was suitable for a take off. Nenana, within one hundred miles of the mountain, seemed the most promising base, since ice on the Tanana River still held, although it was fast melting and might go out at any time. In fact, we were met at the outset by difficult seasonal conditions since the ice on lakes and rivers was breaking up earlier than usual.
FIRST FLIGHT TO MT. MC KINLEY
My diary describes this as follows :
April 24th—Nenana. We put up at the “Southern Hotel,” a frame building similar to those in small western towns, and transferred our considerable amount of equipment from the station. We then began selecting necessities for our first flight to the mountain, scheduled for early next day.
Johnson, manager of Alaskan Airways, promised us, over one of the two telephones in Nenana, that he would have the plane on the river by nine next morning. He still gave little encouragement to our plan of landing on the Muldrow glacier but agreed to leave it entirely to the discretion of the pilot after a careful examination from the air.
April 25th—Nenana to Mt. McKinley. We were up at six and the early light at this latitude made it seem much later. After breakfast, during which Koven was continually going to the window thinking he heard the plane coming, we transferred everything to the grocery to be weighed so as not to exceed the plane’s capacity. Total weight was sixty pounds too great. Carpe wanted to know why my extra sleeping bag weighed twenty pounds instead of twelve, and I had to admit there was an extra quilt in it. He eliminated both the bag and quilt. Discarding other things brought the weight to the required 1,200 pounds, which included our own weights.
Nine o’clock and no plane. Carpe was getting distinctly disturbed and began to call it a day lost. Telephoning Fairbanks again, Johnson asked that we be patient as the plane had injured a ski in trying to take off on soft snow (the weather was quite warm and temperature well above freezing).
The plane finally landed on the river, and I secured good movies of Crosson greeting Carpe and Koven. He was a strong- looking Alaskan, weighing over 200 pounds, and seemed unconcerned at the prospect of attempting to land on the untried slopes of McKinley.
The plane was an enclosed, single-motored, Fairchild monoplane of four hundred and fifty horse power. With all baggage on board we were at such close quarters that there was hardly room to use my movie camera.
We took off at about eleven and flew toward the distant mountains. The country below was completely snow covered and flat for a long distance. There was no sign of game or life of any kind on the white stretches of snow which were broken by irregular lines of evergreens. There was little to photograph until we had flown for three-quarters of an hour and began to approach the mountains ; then there was a great deal.
The summit of McKinley was in clouds and flying at 7,000 feet we seemed far below it. On one side were seas of peaks, unnamed and even the valleys unexplored, while on the other, the white plains reached to the horizon.
Crosson turned the plane sharply toward the mountain and flew over a ridge, bringing the Muldrow glacier just below us, that is, the upper part, as it is some forty miles long. We flew back and forth about eight hundred feet above it, examining the surface carefully. It looked smooth for several miles. After considerable conversation with Carpe, which I could not hear above the noise of the motor, Crosson made his decision, apparently quickly, and dropped the plane toward the surface, landing with no difficulty whatever on about the middle of the glacier. The altitude measured slightly over six thousand feet, which was about the best we had hoped for. Carpe was delighted and shook hands with Crosson, who took it much as a matter of course and lit a cigar before leaving the plane.
The mountain above was partly covered with clouds but the air was clear at the time we landed. The glacier was perhaps a mile wide with a high ridge on one side and a low one on the other.
We immediately began to unload the plane. The time required was short, but it was enough to effect a complete change in weather conditions. Clouds descended from the mountain and a wind came up across the glacier which sent some of our lighter equipment on a journey. With it came blinding, drifting snow, not dry and powdery, but just at the point of freezing. It clung to every part of our baggage and melted on it as the baggage was warm from the plane. It seemed to get into every part of the equipment, cameras, duffle bags slightly open, and where there was no opening the wind made one.
Crosson was seated in the empty plane and at his direction we wound up the starter. With no good-byes he disappeared in the whirling snow up the glacier. It seemed a long time before he left the ice, which was not remarkable since the required speed at this altitude was seventy miles an hour, but we saw that he did get into the air. We waited to hear him overhead as he would naturally circle and fly back. There was no sound but the blowing wind and we concluded he had probably crashed.
By this time we were all on skis and it was a pleasant feeling to be on them on a good snow surface after so much physical inactivity. I know that I enjoyed chasing some of our equipment over the glacier. Carpe suggested that on account of my greater experience with skis, I go with Koven to look for the plane, but I thought it better to stay and get some of the snow out of the cameras. Carpe and Koven started up the glacier while I collected our equipment and piled it up so that everything would be protected as much as possible. I then started in the same direction and after some time saw them returning. Since Crosson was not with them, I thought he might be dead since if he were wounded, only one would have returned.
As they approached, Carpe shouted that everything was all right. They could see no sign of the plane and had concluded that Crosson had flown over a low part of the ridge ahead and was well on his way. So we put the plane out of our minds and turned to making camp. Our efforts to erect the tent were finally successful under protection of an ice wall at the edge of the glacier. We used one of Carpe’s skis for a tent pole since the metal pole broke from the force of the wind on our first attempt.
We then began transferring our equipment to the tent. It was only necessary to take a duffle bag and let the wind blow you along on skis. Coming back without a load was much more difficult.
Approaching the tent on one of these journeys, I saw three figures instead of two and thought the extra man must be one of the Liek-Lindley party, which was then on the mountain. It turned out to be Crosson. He was on snowshoes and had come several miles after leaving the plane, which he said was undamaged. He had been unable to rise above the ridge and had made an emergency landing, later folding the wings of the plane alone, a difficult job for one man even under calm conditions.
Crosson was the same as usual—calm and matter-of-course. He had brought no sleeping bag so as to leave all the room in the plane for our equipment.
We all sat in the big tent and discussed the situation while we cooked supper over Koven’s small gasoline stove, heating up canned beans, which were excellent. I suggested that I fly back with Crosson, if we succeeded in getting the plane free, and return in a week with Spadavecchia and Olton. This would make it possible for me to get a new tent pole and look after the second load of supplies and equipment. Carpe approved and thought of many things I could do at Nenana. He agreed to leave a note for me at the tent if he and Koven had moved higher up the mountain.
Crosson wanted to take advantage of the first drop in the wind and I agreed to be ready by five next morning.
The wind was still high about my small tent which was in a more exposed position than the large one. The temperature was not low, perhaps 20° F., and I do not think went below 10° F. during the night.
April 26th—Muldrow Glacier to Nenana. The wind died down during the night and light began at 3.00 a.m. At 4.30 a.m. I decided the weather had cleared and wind subsided sufficiently to take off, so skied over to the other tent.
Clouds surrounded McKinley but there was sunlight on the high ridges and no wind. The aspect of the high snow ridges, any one of which would equal a major Alpine peak, was most beautiful. The atmosphere was perfectly still and a bird was singing intermittently from where I could not make out. We were of course far above the tree line.
No life at the large tent and I looked in to find them just waking up with the three in a combination of the two sleeping bags, the whole arrangement apparently satisfactory and comfortable.
Crosson was on snowshoes in a few moments and ready to start for the plane, which was just visible as a small red spot far up the glacier. Without thought of breakfast we all followed on skis.
The surface of the glacier was much roughened since yesterday by snow drifting into ridges and freezing. Skiing was more difficult and it required more than an hour to reach the plane. The latter was not in a good position and the skis were ice covered and frozen in the snow. I was trying to take a photograph and at the same time respond to Crosson’s yell to pull the tail around as he wanted to get off as quickly as possible. I left the camera open on the ice and as Koven and I swung the tail around a blast from the propeller caught the camera and I saw it disappearing down the glacier. I recovered it with some difficulty, fortunately undamaged.
The same kind of clouds we had noticed yesterday were descending from the mountain. Finally with three of us rocking the plane by the wings and Crosson driving the propeller at full speed, the plane slowly pulled out and stopped to let me in. I did not even turn to say good-bye to Carpe and Koven.1
We had a rough, long ride before leaving the ice, the skis jumping from one frozen ridge to the next, and I thought surely one would break. If this should happen, we might still get off, but would have a pleasant hour or so to contemplate the probable wreckage of the plane on landing at Nenana. Finally we were safely in the air and all was clear for the flight back which was accomplished without incident.
While we took breakfast in Nenana, Crosson remarked, “I have not often had a job like that to handle,” which was his way of describing twenty-four hours of constant uncertainty.
Our experience on this trip showed the serious element of risk in landing and taking off from the glacier and the necessity of taking full advantage of the short periods of calm and clear conditions. Very sudden changes of weather and snow surface must be expected, and while these were characteristic of all Alpine districts, they seemed to be especially accentuated on McKinley, possibly through its extreme northerly position.
The approaching break-up of the ice on the river at Nenana made it dangerous to keep the plane there more than a short time, and another base had to be adopted in preparation for the second flight to the mountain planned for a week later. Loaded with 450 pounds of additional supplies and equipment, the plane was flown from Nenana to Birch Lake, a fair-sized body of water about sixty miles from Fairbanks, where the ice was still firm. By folding the wings the plane remained there safely until we were ready to start.
THE ALASKA ICE POOL
Our concern over the condition of the ice on the Tanana River was shared by the people in Nenana, but for an entirely different reason. Nenana was the site of the great Alaska Ice Pool, which was a yearly event and was fully explained to me by one of the leading citizens. Chances in the pool, which were confined to residents of Alaskan and Yukon territory, were priced at one dollar each to cover a guess as to the exact hour and minute that the ice would start to move out of the river at Nenana. The winner received the entire pool or about $60,000.00.
The apparatus for determining the critical moment consisted of a platform in the ice surmounted by a flag to which a wire was fastened that would break under the strain when the ice moved. This stopped a chronometer at the exact time. Tickets were not sent through the mail, but were handled individually in each town.
On May 1st the ice had risen several feet and appeared about to move, although old timers at the dock thought that it might last for several days. Looking toward the river at about eleven o’clock I saw the ice moving and hurried to the water front. There was much excitement, not only about who had won the pool, but about the damage that the ice was doing to the docks. It was indeed a remarkable sight to see the ice tearing the docks to pieces like so much cardboard.
There were four winners who had guesses on the same minute, so that the pool was divided among them. The winners were all on the coast and there was an evident air of disappointment at Nenana.
SECOND FLIGHT TO MT. MC KINLEY
On the same day that the ice broke up, Spadavecchia and Olton arrived on the weekly train from Seward. I joined them on the train so that we could continue to Fairbanks and prepare at once for the second flight to Mt. McKinley. For this flight, we decided in favor of two planes, partly to avoid further concern about the weight to be carried, but more on account of the increased safety in flying with ski-equipped planes over country that was by now free of snow. In case of a forced landing on dry ground a ski-equipped plane could land without damage, but could not take off again. With two planes, one could always mark the position of the other.
We discussed at some length the advisability of including a short-wave radio, but were prevented from taking the only one available through the necessity of guaranteeing its return. We therefore stood as at the beginning—the only possible communication with Fairbanks to be had by telephone from a ranger’s tent, possibly not easy to find, and thirty-five miles from the mountain. This flight and some of our subsequent experiences were described in my diary as follows :
May 3rd—Fairbanks to Mt. McKinley. At 5:30 a.m. I had not received the expected call from Johnson and was beginning to think the prospect for the flight might be bad, when Crosson announced that everything was all right, weather good, and we could start as soon as possible. He was very anxious to get going before any wind came up. Our baggage was rushed to the field and loaded on the planes. The two small planes, this time equipped with wheels, waited on the snow-free field ready to take off. It was Olton’s first air trip. Our destination was the still ice-covered Birch Lake where the wheel or ski landing gear could be used interchangeably. The big cabin Fairchild was already there, ski-equipped, and loaded with everything I had placed on board at Nenana.
It required about half an hour at Birch Lake to unfold the wings of the Fairchild and replace the wheels of the small plane with skis. I kept to the small plane for photographic reasons and instructed Jones to give me a chance to photograph the other plane against the mountain.
The same country which we flew over the other day was now almost without snow, and the pilots were watching the ground carefully for a possible place to land on in case of a stalled motor. It was extremely cold flying in the small open plane, especially as we approached the mountains. The weather was favorable but as we neared the Alaska Range it was evident that much new snow had fallen.
There was no sign of the tents or of Carpe and Koven as we dropped toward the glacier, both planes landing without difficulty on the new snow. There was a stick in the center of the glacier with a note on it from Carpe saying he had left a letter for me at my small tent on the edge of the glacier. I found the letter buried in the snow, and it stated that they (Carpe and Koven) had gone to the head of the glacier.
I asked Crosson if he would fly over Carpe’s 11,000-foot camp and let me drop some provisions and my big duffle bag. He agreed, so we loaded the plane with five boxes of supplies and I went with Crosson in the Fairchild to drop them out. We climbed to 12,000 feet and then made for the head of the glacier. I soon saw Carpe’s tent with skis standing in the snow and a figure by them. Carpe or Koven waved to us. The view of the upper part of the mountain at such close range was most inspiring. All the well-known features were clearly visible. Karstens Ridge and beyond it the east fork of the Muldrow glacier, Browne Tower and the Harper glacier with the upper basin beyond. Crosson said he could see the Lieke-Lindley party above Karstens Ridge, but I was unsuccessful in making them out. We then dove for the camp and Crosson told me to wait for his word before throwing out the boxes. The door was very hard to open against the wind but I pushed a box out as Crosson said “Now!” I followed this by four others until he said “Stop!” We circled again and I threw out the duffle bag containing my sleeping equipment for use when I should reach the camp. We could see the bag as a small speck on the glacier but the boxes were light colored and not visible. With the plane flying at 150 miles per hour the landing points of the boxes were necessarily at some distance apart, but I could only hope that they would be found with the contents undamaged. We then flew back and landed on the glacier near the other plane, having been gone about half an hour and having covered about twenty-five miles of glacier. The same trip if made on foot would occupy about four days.
The planes took off with ease on the surface of new snow, which had not yet drifted, and left us to begin our life on the mountain. We found that the snow-covered tents must be moved at once, since water was coming up underneath and was eight inches deep at my tent. I emptied about a gallon of water out of it, but the sleeping bag was dry as it was above the inflated air mattress.
We established the new camp high on the moraine near the summit of McGonogill Pass, and by 10 p.m. had everything packed from the glacier to the tents, ending the day in excellent spirits at getting well established and with the prospect of joining Carpe and Koven in a few days.
Next day, May 4th, Spadavecchia and Olton began packing supplies up the glacier as far as the foot of the first ice-fall, a distance of about four miles.
The following day, May 5th, they did the same thing, advancing to the top of the first ice-fall. It was on this trip that the dangerous nature of the upper part of the glacier was demonstrated, and the necessity of using the rope at all times. They were skirting the first ice-fall wearing crampons when a storm came up in which they lost the trail. Olton fell through into a crevasse and hung on the rope above a deep ice cavern. Spad could only just hold him and the crevasse was too wide for Olton to reach the other side with his crampons. He finally worked upward and came out on his back.
The storm was similar to the one on our first landing, and they had much difficulty in reaching camp. It was hard to see the way in the drifting snow which obliterated all tracks, and they fell continually as they were driven by the storm across the wind-blown ridges. It was ten o’clock before they reached camp. I had already spent several hours in my sleeping bag trying to hold the tent down as there was danger of its being carried away at any time.
We spent May 6th in recuperating. The weather was not good, so little was lost, and we planned to start together early next morning for the foot of the first ice-fall, taking with us the large tent and all sleeping equipment.
During the night I felt ill, although not seriously so. It was enough, however, to make me decide to remain and let the others go on ahead. I had the small tent to rest in and expected to pack up and join them in one or two days at most. I planned to reach the camp at the foot of the first ice-fall, four miles up the glacier, this lower portion being entirely safe to traverse alone since it was solid ice and contained no crevasses.
Before Spad and Olton started, we arranged that if I became worse, I was to stand up two skis in the snow, and if they saw this signal through a glass, they were to return. Spad was concerned over my condition, but I encouraged him to go ahead and watch for the skis. We had all eaten canned chicken the night before and the others were slightly ill also. I assigned my trouble to this.
That evening, May 7th, I became much worse, with pain and fever, and reluctantly put out the skis. The climbing weather was perfect and I hated to interfere with my companions’ progress. McKinley stood out clear in every detail and there was no wind. In spite of my illness I could not help but be impressed with the wonderful aspect of the mountain in the soft slanting light of a few hours after midnight.
I expected that Spad and Olton would be back by noon in response to my signal, and I frequently looked up the glacier through binoculars. Noon passed and then the afternoon. Something was wrong and I was afraid there was some quality in the blinding light which made it impossible for them to distinguish the skis. I began to consider the prospect of a failure of my signal. If they did not see the skis they would continue up the glacier and might not be back for many days. A change in the weather, which was sure to come presently, would make existence in the small tent almost impossible for one seriously ill. Drinking water had to be prepared by melting snow over a gasoline stove ; the preparation of food was not a factor as I could eat none. I considered making an effort to join the others by skiing up the glacier at night, but it was too risky, as I would have to take down my signal, and might not get there.
At 8 a.m. on May 9th I was lying in the tent with my head out of the opening when I saw Olton coming over the moraine on skis. I was so glad to see him that I asked him to wait a few minutes before telling him of my illness. He said they could not see the skis through an eight-power glass, although the latter were backed by a white snow bank. He had come over for more supplies as they had concluded there was an insufficient cache at the ice-fall. Olton immediately stood his own skis up beside mine, making a wider line, and also attempted a smoke signal. These measures, combined with Olton’s delay in starting back, made Spad soon follow and in a few hours we were all holding a consultation.
The first thing was to get the big tent back, an eight-hour job. When this had been accomplished, the next step was to try to reach a telephone in order to summon a plane. I was too ill to be left alone and Spad and Olton each wanted to strike out for Stony Creek, thirty-five miles away, where we understood there was a telephone in a ranger’s tent.
Spad started on the afternoon of May 10th, taking with him the small tent and food for six days, making a seventy-pound pack. Maps of the region had proved very inaccurate and Spad had to depend on his general knowledge of the country, which of course was very fragmentary.2
On May 12th, while Olton and I were waiting the results of Spadavecchia’s efforts to reach a telephone, we heard voices outside our tent at two o’clock in the morning. It was the Liek- Lindley party returning after their successful ascent. A voice asked, “Anybody in the tent?” a not unnatural inquiry after the vacant tent they had just encountered at the head of the Muldrow glacier.
They first told us of their ascent of both peaks, and added that they were all very much exhausted, having been without sleep for thirty-five hours. They then tried to break the news of the accident gently by saying that they did not think that our companions would climb the mountain. Finally all the details came out and it took us some time to really grasp the facts. It was especially hard to believe that anything could have happened to Carpe, for while he was an independent climber, he was extremely careful in his own way, and there were no serious technical difficulties on the mountain.
They told of finding Koven’s body a mile and a half down the trail and of their decision not to approach the crevasse and look- in on account of the risk involved and because Carpe, if in the crevasse, would be beyond help.3 They also recounted their efforts to bring Koven’s body down on a sledge, and how after progressing one hundred yards the plan was interrupted by Pearson breaking through and falling forty feet into a crevasse.4 They then left the body wrapped in a small tent and marked the spot with the sledge standing upright.
Liek and his companions soon departed from our camp for their base seven miles below the pass. We asked them to look for Spad and telephone for a plane for me on the way out. They had the advantage over us of knowing the country.
The circumstances attending this puzzling tragedy can never be definitely known—there were no witnesses. But something of its background can be gathered from entries in the diaries of the two men which have come back to us and picture their life on the glacier up to the time of the accident.
On May 6th, the cosmic ray apparatus had been set up and Carpe conducted observations without interruption from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The weather was not good according to his entry and my own record at the McGonogill Pass camp. May 7th was a fine day and the Carpe diary shows that advantage was taken of it to pack supplies up Karsten’s Ridge for use in future climbing. As this is the only entry since May 4th which is more than a simple record of cosmic ray readings, I will quote it in full :
May 7. Min. 7°. Fine. Bar. 11,400 (Paulin). Took loads up ridge to 12,640 feet where we found a camp of Liek-Lindley party. They had shovelled huge steps all along but were now snowed up. A nice narrow ridge and fine views. Home in 1 hr. and soup made of fried bacon cut up in urbswurst and dried soup vegetables—excellent. Note also soup made of chicken and thickened with oatmeal and bullion cubes.
Koven’s diary gave a daily account of his progress with Carpe up the Muldrow glacier from the time I left them on April 26th until May 7th, when the last entry was made.
They established a camp at the base of the first ice-fall, about four miles up the glacier from McGonogill Pass, on the evening of April 28th, having spent the two days in relaying supplies from the base camp at the pass. As the glacier slopes gently upward over these four miles from an altitude of 6,000 feet to one of 7,000 feet, this part of the journey was comparatively easy.
Although Koven notes that Carpe was suffering from a blistered heel, they were ready to start up the ice-fall on the morning of April 29th. Equipment and supplies were transported on what Koven designates as “improved ski sleds,” the plan of which is clearly shown in Carpe’s photographs. Camp was made that evening in a crevassed area at the base of the steep second ice-fall. No temperature below 20° F. had been recorded up to this point, and the weather was generally fair. The steep second ice-fall was negotiated on the 30th, by splitting up the loads and making two trips, crampons being used to good advantage on the second one. It was hard work under a hot sun.
Little was accomplished on May 1st as snow fell all day. The temperature inside the tent at noon was 82° F., and perhaps this led Koven to remark that he was “spending May Day in the frozen North at 11,000 feet on Mt. McKinley.”
From this camp to the head of the glacier was only one day’s trip, and it was successfully accomplished on May 2nd. The entries in Koven’s diary (hitherto unpublished) for this and subsequent days, up to and including May 7th, are quoted in full as follows :
Mon., May 2. A fine cold clear day. Had a bite to eat and then picked up our loads and went up to the head of the glacier. A pair of snowshoes are stuck in the snow just below the saddle in Karstens Ridge and the tracks seem to be a few days old. Found the cache and dumped our stuff. Had the finest ski run of my life back to camp, a continuous 25 min. slide through fine powder snow, interrupted by 2 setzmarks in the least excusable places. Had a little lunch, the last of our grub and gas. Then went up to the basin again, arriving at 5 :30. Made camp and had some supper. Quite cold. Lots of grub now and we sure pitched in. To bed at 9:30.
Tues., May 3. Didn’t wake up until 9:30 this morning. During the night heard the roar of a number of avalanches from the Harper glacier. It is nice and warm this morning, about 60° in the tent. Max and Minnie showed 15° inside last night. A few minutes after ten I thought I heard the sound of a plane. At 11:30 as we were finishing a late breakfast we again heard the sound and saw a ship approaching from down the glacier. It was Crosson’s Fairchild and he circled to the east to gain altitude and suddenly appeared from alongside “Browne Tower.” He cut the gun and dove right for our tent, dropped several packages from the window which landed beyond our camp. He circled around again, dove down once more and pushed a large bag and another package out of the doorway, which landed a good ways down the glacier. I set off on skis to locate the bundles and soon saw 3. Spent most of the day packing the stuff back to camp. Opening them was a good deal like Christmas Eve. There was a lot of grub, a spare tent and lots of spare clothes, also the shovel. Went to bed quite early.
Wed., May 4. Got up at 6:30. Weather was partly cloudy. Helped Allen unpack cosmic ray apparatus and then brought in rest of grub dropped by plane. After lunch packed a load of grub up into the saddle and walked up the ridge a ways. The view to the southeast was wonderful. Came down to camp and learned how to make cosmic ray measurements. Had a big supper and went to bed at 6.
Thurs., May 5. Awoke very early as it began to blow badly. About 4:30 Allen had to get up and prop up the C. R. tent as it was sagging. From then on it kept getting worse by the minute. Soon we had to take both poles down. It seemed as though every moment everything would go roaring down the glacier. Then there would be brief intervals of calm and we could hear the wind pounding over the ridges like a locomotive blowing steam. We lay in our sleeping bags and held down the tent. During calmer spells we got the stove going and made some lunch. Then we read the almanac. About 5 it calmed down a bit and Allen set up the C. R. tent again. I went out for a while. The wind had cut the snow away from everything hard. Ski tracks were elevated several inches in the air. I wonder where the others are? Percy and Spad. It stayed calm and we turned in about 8.
Fri., May 6. Had a fine night’s sleep. Woke at 6. Calm bright sunny morning. Had a fine breakfast, boiled figs and raisins, bacon and eggs. Assembled a load of food for up above. Allen continued his cosmic ray measurements. Skied down a ways to look for the boys but they were not yet past the ice-fall. Hurried back to camp as a cloud bank was coming up the glacier. It was very foggy with light snows most of the aft. Read “World Almanac” and watched cosmic ray measurements. In the early evening it suddenly dropped from 30° to 14° in about 1½ hours and then cleared. After a big supper we went to bed at 7.
Sat., May 7. Slept well as usual and awoke at 6:30. Min. temp. last night 7°. Packed a load of grub up the ridge to an elevation of 12,640' with Allen. Here a big hollow had been dug in the ridge. We left our stuff here and descended after taking a few pictures. Arrived back in camp at 3 :30. No sign of Percy and Spad yet. They ought to put in an appearance soon.
According to the entries, Carpe and Koven reached the head of the Muldrow glacier and established their final camp on the evening of May 2nd. It was therefore their first day in camp, May 3rd, when Spadavecchia, Olton and I arrived on the lower glacier, and I flew over Carpe’s camp to drop provisions. Incidentally, it is interesting to learn from the diary that the boxes dropped from the plane were recovered apparently undamaged.
Koven speaks much of skiing, and he twice skied down the glacier presumably near or over the spot where the accident occurred later. On May 5th he began to wonder why we had not appeared, and on May 6th skied down the glacier some distance to find if we had reached the first ice-fall. He was alone on this trip as Carpe, according to the latter’s diary, was occupied with the instruments. On May 7th the diary stops with a final remark on our non-arrival.
The entry on May 8th in Carpe’s diary shows that he resumed cosmic ray observations at 8 a.m. and continued till 10 p.m., spending a full day at the instruments.
Then came the morning of May 9th. Readings were started at 6:30 a.m., probably with the intention of putting in another full day in observations. The day was fine and warm according to my own record at the base camp. Carpe recorded a temperature of 36° F. at 6:30 a.m., an unusually high temperature for that hour. It was just the day when snow bridges over concealed crevasses might be softened. Carpe recorded that the temperature inside the tent at 6:30 a.m. was 10° F., showing a cold night followed by a rapid rise in temperature outside.
As the two sets of cosmic ray readings taken that morning required about an hour and a half, Carpe must have discontinued observations at 8 a.m. Six days had elapsed since they had notice of our arrival through my flight above their camp on May 3rd. It seems most natural, therefore, that the two should decide to descend the upper glacier to see if we had at least moved our camp to the base of the first ice-fall. The cosmic ray measurements could be readily interrupted for a day, as they had been on May 7th for packing supplies up the ridge.
Carpe arrived on the glacier with one pair of skis. These did not prove very satisfactory, and he sometimes to my knowledge made better progress on foot. On his way up the mountain, Lindley left another pair at Carpe’s future camp site at the head of the Muldrow glacier. Both pairs were found by the Liek-Lindley party at the 11,000-foot camp, as well as a pair of skipoles and Koven’s ice-axe. All other skis have been accounted for except Koven’s. From this it seems clear that when the accident happened, Koven was on skis, carrying ski poles and that Carpe was on foot carrying ice-axe and crampons. They were without a rope, as the only one they had was found on Karsten’s Ridge. Both wore ski boots.
We come now to the actual circumstances of the tragedy. As indicated above, we can never know exactly how it happened, but it may not be amiss to suggest a plausible interpretation of the known facts.
Starting down the glacier together5 shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of May 9th, after a run of a mile and half, Koven curved off the trail, where it bent around an avalanche fan towards the center of the glacier. His skis took him over the fatal crevasse safely, probably somewhat in advance of Carpe, as the skis would enable him to make better progress. Carpe stopped for some trivial reason, possibly to tie his shoe lace, drove in his axe and hung the crampons on them. The snow broke close to the axe and precipitated him into the depths of a huge crevasse. (Taylor and La Voy in their later search, examined many nearby whose bottoms could not be seen with an electric torch on the end of a two hundred foot line) Koven looking around and not seeing Carpe, side-stepped back to the hole on his skis, as was indicated by their tracks in the snow, and looked in. His weight broke off another section of the lip and he was precipitated into the crevasse, but landed on some obstruction not very far down. The hole in the snow bridge was about twenty-five yards long. His face was bruised and there was a small hole in his thigh, such as might have been made by the point of a ski pole, but he was not seriously injured. Some time later he managed to get out, probably only after very extreme effort, leaving his skis and poles behind, as they have not since been seen. He was found lying face downward on the glacier, two hundred and fifty yards away, towards the cosmic ray camp. Intervening footprints indicated that he had walked on both feet, staggering, and that he had fallen several times. These events undoubtedly occupied many hours and with the approach of night and low temperatures Koven, much exhausted, froze to death in his thin and torn clothing.6
In whatever way the evidence is worked out, the circumstances of the accident appear equally tragic. They stand in strong contrast to what had gone before—joyous activity among the inspiring surroundings of mountain and glacier. Life was at its best for both in these days of Arctic spring on the North’s highest mountain.
RETURN FROM MT. MC KINLEY
Resuming the narrative again at our base camp at McGonogill Pass on May 14th, I had spent about a week of severe illness, and was now showing a slight improvement, which was certainly partly due to Olton, who had been getting up at all hours in zero temperature and heating up bouillon for me over a gasoline stove that was none too easy to get going. With the weather clear, we agreed that if a plane were coming it would come that day. There was doubt, however, whether the exchange of wheels for skis could be made at Birch Lake as the ice might well have melted with the rapid approach of the Alaskan spring. The day passed uneventfully, and next day the weather was unfavorable. We spent the morning in calculating how long our supplies of food would last. We decided that there was enough for a month, taking into consideration our inactive life and my small requirements. By that time, snow should have melted sufficiently to make it possible to bring in horses. We knew that some form of transportation would arrive if we waited long enough.
While we were settling ourselves for a prolonged stay at our camp on the glacier, the resourceful Alaskan Airways had managed to flood the Fairbanks aviation field by cooperation with the fire department and make it sufficiently muddy and slippery to get a small powerful plane off on skis without the aid of a frozen surface.
On the morning of the 16th I had dozed off to sleep at about eleven o’clock when Olton pushed me and shouted, “The plane!” “The plane’s coming!” Olton ran out and returned immediately to tell me that the pilot had signaled recognition by waving the wings. With the unexpected arrival of the plane, I felt more capable of activity than I had thought possible, and was soon on skis sliding down to the glacier where the plane had already landed.
It was the small, powerful Stearman. Olton hurried on ahead to get the news, the important question being whether anything had been heard from Spad, and whether he or Liek had summoned the plane. Olton returned to meet me as I slowly approached and he looked depressed. Nothing had been heard from Spad; Liek had summoned the plane. That meant that Olton had to stay in case of Spad’s return, and I left him with the assurance that I would send a plane in for him later.
Jones was the pilot and we were soon in the air, flying low over the trail to Mt. Eilson looking for Spad. New snow had obliterated all tracks, and the only life we saw was a fox or wolverine making for cover.
On arriving at Fairbanks, I found that I was sufficiently recovered to go to the hotel and help start the search for Spadavecchia. Liek, Superintendent of McKinley Park, arranged for two rangers to go in on foot, while Alaskan Airways in cooperation with the Fairbanks Fire Department again flooded the aviation field, enabling a plane to take off on skis. The plane left on the morning of May 19th with Robbins as pilot, and was expected back in five hours. In addition to hunting for Spad, he was to bring Olton back, since so much time had elapsed that it seemed unlikely Spad would return to that camp.
News of the loss of Carpe and Koven, Spadavecchia’s disappearance, and my illness, had reached New York, and many telegrams came, some suggesting where to hunt for Spad and offers of funds for the purpose.
Twenty-four hours went by and Robbins had not returned, so Jones took off in a plane equipped with wheels to investigate what had happened to Robbins without landing. He carried with him a can of lamp black which could be dropped so that Robbins, if located, could write on the snow what had occurred. He found Robbins at Olton’s camp with the plane on the glacier. Jones circled back and forth while Robbins wrote on the snow, “S & O Safe Axle Broke.” This obviously meant that Spad had returned and that they were both safe. After reading this message, Jones flew back to Fairbanks and then came back to the glacier again the same day, dropping a new axle for Robbins to use in repairing the plane.
We return now to May 19th at McGonogill Pass. Robbins landed safely on the glacier in the morning. Spad was not there and Olton prepared to take off with Robbins and fly back to Fairbanks. The plane, however, would not move under full power and Robbins found the skis frozen to the glacier. Olton rocked the wings while Robbins ran the propeller at full speed, but without result. Continued effort on the same line only resulted in the axle breaking under the strain. Olton and Robbins therefore were forced to remain at the camp to await developments.
At ten o’clock that night, Olton heard a call which was surprisingly similar to one which he and Spad had used to signal each other. Looking out he saw Spad coming over the pass.
Spadavecchia was somewhat exhausted, although not seriously so, and was otherwise in good shape. He had been gone ten days and still had one can of food left. His plan to reach the telephone at Stony Creek by following the winding McKinley River, as the surest way, forms an interesting story. The going was painfully slow and difficult and he constantly broke through to his waist in the deep soft snow. Once he fell through the ice into the running water. He had helped out his food supply by killing porcupines with a ski pole and at one point had an interesting meeting with two wolves. When he found it impossible to reach Stony Creek he returned by the same route.
For once all the luck was with us. If Robbins had not broken an axle, Olton would have returned to Fairbanks and Spad would have found no one at the camp on his arrival. On the theory that he was on the way out, we might have searched for him many days before looking for him at the camp. Later we discussed the situation and do not know yet how it would have turned out. It is certain that we would have had many more days of anxious search, and that Spad would have had a long wait at the camp.
Robbins repaired his plane and flew back alone, leaving Spad and Olton behind, as the undercarriage was not strong enough to take off with passengers.
After Robbins’ experience, Alaskan Airways were unwilling to attempt any more landings on Mt. McKinley, so Spad and Olton, in company with the two rangers sent in by Liek, hiked out the eighty miles to McKinley Park Station.
No one returned at once to the camp at the head of the Muldrow glacier. Late in August, Merl LaVoy, who was on the Parker-Browne party of many years ago, and Andrew Taylor, veteran of many climbs with Carpe, went in to the camp to recover Koven’s body and to try and find the crevasse into which Carpe had fallen. They found Koven’s body where it had been buried in the snow by the Liek-Lindley party, but were unable to discover any trace of Carpe. Although they dug for four days they could not locate the crevasse opening nor were they even able to find the ice axe and crampons. A satisfactory search was impossible because ten feet of snow had fallen since May. Carpe’s and Koven’s cameras, parts of the cosmic ray instruments, and various personal effects were recovered. But most noteworthy was the discovery of four exposed film-packs belonging to Carpe. These were developed and many proved to be superlative examples of mountain photography.
The record of cosmic ray measurements covering two days, which was made by Carpe just before the accident, was forwarded to Professor Compton at Chicago University, and was pronounced of value. The scientific objective of the expedition was therefore partly carried out.7
In addition to this, many of our activities were of a pioneering nature, which in the future would make it an easier matter to establish a base for scientific observations at an altitude of 11,000 feet on Mt. McKinley. The problem was met of transporting heavy equipment by plane and dog team and it was demonstrated that the plan of dropping supplies and equipment from a plane to the glacier at a high altitude was a practical one. It was probably the first expedition to make use of a plane carrying full mountaineering equipment with the object of landing the climbers at as high an altitude as possible preliminary to the final climb on foot.
This was the first landing ever accomplished by a plane on the slopes of Mt. McKinley and it was repeated several times without serious accident in spite of considerable difficulties and uncertainties. Alaskan Airways gained much valuable experience in solving the problems brought up by adverse seasonal conditions.
It is not unusual that knowledge gained in such activities proves of value when similar problems come up in the future, sometimes with an entirely different object in view. To me personally the trip was well worth while and will constitute an enduring memory of comradeship with men who were ready to make an effort and take chances for others when circumstances required it.
1 This was the last time that I or anyone saw them alive except for a brief glimpse from the plane on May 3rd as I dropped provisions over their 11,000-foot camp. The Liek-Lindley party were farther up the mountain and were not in touch with them at any time.
2 We subsequently discovered that the telephone at Stony Creek was not working and that the nearest one was at East Fork, a distance of sixty miles.
3 See page 43, ante.
4 It is interesting to note that Pearson was on snowshoes when he broke through, and that he was on the well-marked trail which had been traversed many times.
5 It seems most reasonable to assume that the two men were together. If Koven had gone down the glacier alone on the 8th and had fallen in, we are compelled to assume that he spent the night in the crevasse and that he got out after Carpe had perished in an attempt to help him on the morning of the 9th. The evidence all points to the fact that both fell into the same crevasse and at about the same point. The footprints and ski tracks concentrated at only one hole.
6 The Liek-Lindley party found many footprints in the snow about the hole in the crevasse as is indicated by dots in Strom’s memory sketch, and these extended as far as Koven’s body. There were also ski tracks leading to the hole and beyond it, with marks of side-stepping on the farther side. All of the tracks were considerably obliterated by fresh snow. It does not seem significant that footprints were not specifically noted starting from the camp, since these may have been made much earlier in the day when the snow was hard. The previous night had been cold as noted.
7 When the results had been tabulated, Professor Compton wrote as follows, “You will be interested to know that the one cosmic ray datum obtained by Carpe and Koven in their measurements on Mt. McKinley seems to be of most unusual interest. It represents the only high altitude value of cosmic rays that is available at latitudes so far north. Contrary to the results obtained at lower levels, the intensity at that latitude seems to increase as we go north of the United States. This would indicate, if correct, that there are in the cosmic rays particles which are prevented by the action of the earth’s magnetic field from striking the earth at lower altitudes, an important point in connection with our theory of the nature and origin of these rays.” He further remarks that the result remains to be verified by a check on barometric pressure. The scientific accomplishment of the expedition was therefore not without interest and importance.