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Denali's Wife

Denali’s Wife

Charles S. Houston

ON the plains south of the Yukon River and only a hundred miles inland from the Pacific Ocean the Kuskoquim Indians have lived since time immemorial in the shadow of a great range of mountains, the greatest in North America. The highest of these they called Denali, the “Big Mountain” or the “Home of the Sun,” and its lesser neighbor they knew as Denali’s Wife. In 1899 the mountains were partially surveyed; Denali, whose altitude was fixed at 20,100 ft., was renamed Mt. McKinley; Denali’s Wife, 17,100 ft., became Mt. Foraker. The beautiful and appropriate old Indian names have been disregarded despite the efforts of the men most entitled to christen them, namely Hudson Stuck, who made the first complete ascent of McKinley in 1912; and Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker, who before him had been turned back by storm with the summit almost within their grasp.

My father and I first became interested in Mt. Foraker in the winter of 1932, attracted by Belmore Browne’s great book on McKinley. We were unable to arrange our trip that summer, but in the fall of 1933 we began to plan again. Major Capps and Mr, Sargent of the U. S. G. S. gave us much helpful advice and such pictures of the mountain as had been taken. Dr. W. S. Ladd and Mr. W. N. Beach very kindly gave us the benefit of their Alaskan experiences, and Mr. Lyman Peck of the Pan-American base of the mountain. We finally decided, however, to go in from Airways made every effort to find a suitable landing place near the McKinley Park Station with horses, and our plans moved rapidly to fruition with only a few setbacks.

The entire party assembled for the first time in Montreal on June 17th: Dr. T. Graham Brown from Cardiff, Wales, Charles Storey of Boston, Chychele Waterston of North Andover. Massachusetts, my father and myself from New York. In McKinley Park we were to meet Carl Anderson who was to take our supplies in to the end of the auto road with the horses and await us there. We were delayed all along the way on account of the longshoremen’s strike on the coast, but finally after many varied adventures we reached the park and met Carl at Copper Mountain, now Mt. Eilson, on the evening of July 3d, 1934.

The next four days were ones that none of us will forget for a long time though in retrospect most of the unpleasantnesses have disappeared. We were all sadly out of condition from our long trip, our equipment was dispersed in a score of cases that must each one be opened every night as we made camp, and few of us had ever travelled with a packtrain before, so that we were not used to the vagaries of the packhorse. Add to that an almost steady drizzle for which I believe the Alaska mountains are famous, and an unrepressed desire in each of the horses to run away at night, and you have a brief sketch of the elements that comprised our trip to the mountain. We seemed invariably to pitch camp around midnight in the heaviest rain of the day, and to spend the entire morning (when it was not raining) in looking for the horses. But finally a little after midnight on July 7th we pitched camp on the Foraker River at the foot of the mountain we had not yet seen. We planned to wait here at least one day for weather clear enough to let us see the possibilities of climbing from here instead of going on to the Herron glacier, ten miles further.

We woke next morning to an incredibly clear day. The storm had evidently broken, and all the clouds had left the peaks. We looked up two valleys, one filled with the East Foraker glacier and headed by McKinley, the other containing the West Foraker glacier with the twin peaks of Foraker at its source. New snow had fallen on all the higher peaks, and in the crystal air following the storm both stood out unbelievably clean and sharp, in that cold remote blue so characteristic of high mountains. Both were about twenty-five miles away, and yet they towered high above us, and we could well appreciate the Indian names Denali and Denali’s Wife, for McKinley is truly the Big Mountain and Foraker a fitting bride. We were too excited by the first glimpse of our objective to get an early start, and it was not until noon that four of us set out to climb a small hill nearby to get some idea of the topography of the territory.

After several hours of scrambling over loose scree we reached the top of a 5800-ft. hill and saw one of the great mountain views in all the world. We stood at one corner of a huge equilateral triangle of which McKinley and Foraker were the other two. and before us was an unbroken view of the whole range. To the left we looked down on the East Foraker glacier and along it to the tangled mass of ice at the foot of the 16,000-ft. cliffs falling from the summit of McKinley. Following along to the right the eye travelled over a series of low uneven snow peaks to rise again to the twin summits of Foraker, and below these at the foot of another great cliff was the beginning of the West Foraker glacier which flowed down the valley to our right. This was beautifully smooth and uncrevassed and would be an ideal pack route, leading as it did directly to the foot of the mountain. From the end of the valley there seemed to be a possible route to the north summit up along the steep northeast ridge, but the lower part of this was hidden for us by intervening peaks. We thought it would be possible to gain the ridge but decided to investigate further before the horses left us at the Foraker River.

The weather broke again the next day, and it snowed hard enough to turn us back about six miles up the glacier. Two days later, on the eleventh, we started off on a perfect day with extra food and a small bivouac tent in case the weather should break again. It took us over eight hours of steady going to reach the head of the glacier, a trip of close to twenty-five miles, and once there we saw at a glance that our proposed route was no route at all, for the foot of the ridge ended in a great cirque up which it would be very hard to find a way. But as our hearts sank under this blow we turned to the south and saw for the first time the West or Northwest ridge that runs down from the south summit to form the divide between the valleys of the Herron and the West Foraker glaciers. It was not over three miles long and though rising very steeply at both ends it was almost horizontal in the middle. At its upper end it merged into the cliff below the plateau between the two summits. If we were once able to gain this ridge our route was clear before us.

We spent a cold night huddled in the little tent and the next morning at two started up a little feeder glacier that flows down from the foot of the ridge. From the col we climbed a 7300-ft. scree peak opposite our ridge and were able to examine it carefully. About three-quarters of its length from the cliff the ridge split into two forks at right angles to each other which formed the walls of a very crevassed basin. Both forks ended in steep ice cliffs but if we were able to find a route up through the cracks on one of these forks, the rest of the route would be clear sailing. Our great danger would be from the snow, for on slopes as steep as these lower ones we could only trust it at certain times of the day and not at all after new snowfalls. From this scree peak we could look down for the first time on the Herron glacier, and this was so terribly broken up with huge cracks that we at once gave up all thought of going up it.

We returned to the base late that afternoon completely exhausted and after a long and well-deserved night’s sleep packed all our supplies, except the base reserve, on the horses, hoping to be able to get them some distance up along the lateral moraine of the glacier. The footing was terrible for them and we were forced to stop about a mile up the glacier where we set up Camp I ; here Bill, our horse-wrangler, left us to take the horses back to the park station. By the 17th we had established Camp II and had moved about half of our supplies to a cache eight miles up the glacier. The 18th was the first day of sun we had had for some weeks, and we took a day off to dry out clothes and equipment. The 21st saw us settled in Camp III at 5800 ft. and fifteen miles above Camp I. This was one of the finest camps we had, and it was so peaceful and comfortable that we called it Tranquillity. It stood on a wide smooth gravel outwash plain at the foot of the feeder glacier running down from the foot of the West ridge, beside a little lake of clear green water. Directly before us here and only two or three miles away was the whole great face of the mountain, falling in one cliff from the summit, at 17,300 ft., to the glacier which was a little under 5000 ft. Every hour of the day cast different shadows on this wall of ice and rock, and the colors at dawn and sunset were unforgettable.

We were now faced with our first climbing, and our whole hopes of conquering the mountain rested on our success in finding a practical route up the lower part of the ridge. Three of us got away to an early start on July 22nd and in a long and interesting day were able to reach a height of some 8500 ft. At that point we were turned back by rocks and ice that would have been impossible to pack over. We had chosen what appeared to be the only possible route up the north fork, and as the south fork seemed even more difficult, we returned to camp that night considerably depressed. Next day we again were away at two in the morning before the snow had a chance to soften in the sun, this time heading for the south fork. From Tranquillity Col we followed our track of the day before for some distance, then turned to the right to reach the foot of the south fork. To our surprise we found that where we had expected a steep icefall there was a smooth snow basin and a clear way to the foot of the first snow slope. We followed up an old avalanche track until we were stopped about 800 ft. above the basin by a wide transverse crack that cut across the entire slope. The upper lip of this was fifty or sixty feet high and vertical or overhanging, and as the crack was seventy feet wide we had little hope of being able to cut a way up this ice wall. Fortunately, at the right end the crack narrowed and turned downwards, at right angles to its former line, and there there was a narrow bridge that we thought could be crossed. The slope here was very steep, about as steep as snow can lie, and down the slope directly below the bridge was a second schrund. It took almost an hour for the three of us to cross, for belays were hard to make in the deep snow and the bridge seemed very thin and insecure. Once over this obstacle we reached the ridge proper with no further trouble. After another hour or so we found an ideal site for Camp IV and returned to Tranquillity considerably cheered.

We were forced to take a rest day on the 25th because of new snow, and on the next day we took loads as far as the snow bridge, turning back there because of the dangerous condition of the snow. We reached camp about four in the afternoon and after a big supper broke camp and set out again around eleven that night hoping to get full advantage of the snow while it was still hard. The trip up to the col was a miserable one for all of us, as we were carrying heavy loads and were all tired and sleepy from the day’s work, but finally after several relays we were at the crack around ten in the morning. One rope crossed the bridge which was in poor condition from the recent snow, and by throwing a rope across the crack we were able to derrick all our duffle across in an hour or so. The second rope then crossed the bridge without trouble, and we assembled for lunch on the upper lip. It was a very bedraggled crowd, cold and wet and very tired, as we had been on the march for over thirty hours, but food and a little rest revived us. The snow was very soft now, and we sank over our knees, but at last around five o’clock we staggered up to the little shelf where we planned to put Camp IV. The tent was pitched and supper ready in an hour, and by that time the new snow which had begun just as we reached camp was several inches deep.

The weather next morning was too doubtful for a reconnaissance further along the ridge, so we went down to the crack and brought up the last of our supplies, spending the afternoon inventorying our equipment. At 3 a.m. on the 28th Brown, Waterston, and I left in perfect weather to make a route at least as far as the cliff and to find a good site for Camp V. We reached the junction of the two forks, only a short distance beyond the camp, without any trouble, and then found a good route up the first hump. After a short flat stretch the ridge rose very steeply to a second hump and then was almost horizontal for a long distance ; here the snow formation was most interesting. Great blocks of ice and névé had slipped to both sides of the backbone of the ridge, some falling all the way down to the valleys, as though the whole ridge had been shaken by some terrific force, perhaps the very earthquake that so shattered Karstens Ridge on McKinley in 1912. Between these toppled blocks were deep cracks, some cutting clean across the ridge, and around these we had to find a safe route for the packing. Sometimes this meant a traverse along the steep side slope, sometimes we were able to walk along the flat top of the ridge. After this long horizontal part there were two more steep pitches, each of which ended in a level platform ; on these the snow conditions would have to be exactly right or the avalanche danger would be serious.

As we reached the end of the ridge where it meets the cliff the wind became much stronger and as the weather had changed considerably, we decided to turn back. We reached camp around noon, and it snowed steadily all afternoon and most of the night. Finally at midnight on the next day, the 30th, the snow gave signs of stopping and we broke camp. At five o’clock the snow was falling so hard that we decided to stop there and pitched camp at 9800 ft. Here Carl Anderson, Charles Storey, and my father left us and went back to Camp IV, planning to return to Tranquillity the next day. With their help we were now established in Camp V, some thirty miles from the base camp, with twenty days of food and fuel. Much earlier it had been decided that they were to leave us on the ridge, because it would have been impossible to carry food for so many men higher. Three men alone could not possibly have carried enough food to make the summit climb and to return with any margin of safety ; the mountain demands a support party, so the climb was in every sense of the word a six-man success.

It snowed all the rest of that day and most of the 31st, but on August 1st we were able to go down to Camp IV and bring up a few extra supplies and to see that the other party had left safely. On the 2nd we stayed in camp to give the new snow a chance to consolidate with the old on the steeper slopes above us, and on the 3d we started early and moved our whole camp and supplies up to 11,000 ft. where we pitched Camp VI in the shelter of some rocks at the base of the cliff. The time had now come to reconnoitre a route up the cliff, and on the 4th, another perfect day, we started with light loads for the lowest rocks. Immediately we met trouble ; the rocks were steep and holdless and covered with a thin glaze of ice. In two hours we had advanced only a hundred yards, roping our packs up behind us. Fortunately the rocks were easier above, and we made good time to within a few hundred feet of the top when again the cliff was steep and we had several interesting passages. As a result of all this it was not until after five in the afternoon that we reached the plateau and had time for only a quick glance at the two summits. We saw feasible routes to both peaks and turned back, reaching camp after eight that night.

On the 5th the weather was still good and we were able in several relays to move a small bivouac tent up to within 800 ft. of the top of the cliff. We dug into the side of the slope and built out a platform, but even so there was barely enough room for the six by six floor space. We were very exposed to wind and falling ice and rock here and planned to spend only one or two nights. Cooking and sleeping for the three of us in such cramped quarters was awkward to say the least, but we were too tired to need much comfort. We dug out a small cave for our supplies and built up as much of a wall around the tent as the slope would allow and turned in early to get a good sleep before trying for the summit.

The morning was good again, but because of the cold and the cramped quarters we got a very late start, and it took us over an hour to reach the plateau. Here we found a strong wind that kept both summits hidden in blown snow and cloud, and we were able only to guess which was the higher. We decided that the North Peak was the true summit and started toward it, assuring each other that we would only go over to look at it, to find a way for the actual climb. The plateau was deceptively long and not until one o'clock did we reach the foot of the summit ridge about 2500 ft. below the top. There was no reason for stopping yet ; the clouds had lifted from the summit, and though the wind had risen, the weather seemed to be fairly settled. We left the plateau and scrambled over loose rock for some distance, then our way led up hard steep snow, a welcome relief after the powder we had met below. The ridge was steep but straightforward, hard wind-packed snow with here and there a deeper drift of windblow. The wind was much stronger now in our exposed position ; we were feeling the altitude too, and our pace was very slow. Below us was a billowing sea of clouds ; none of the familiar landmarks were visible except McKinley, still above us. We moved slowly but steadily, and it seemed as though nothing could stop us, until I remembered Belmore Brown’s famous description of the storm that turned them back within a few hundred feet of McKinley. We had a short piece of step-cutting, crossed another false skyline, kicked steps up some big frost feathers. Surely we must be on the final skyline ! The slope was gentler suddenly, the wind rose, we joined arms and walked onto the summit together.

“The actual top was very vague, a flattish hump of these queer frost feathers, but T. G. B. found a little peak onto which we set our feet together. I felt curiously unsteady, drunk almost, but not with exultation. It was rather a feeling of finality, conclusiveness, but not of victory. * * * It was fearfully cold and windy—the little thermometer read minus four, and it was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon. The view was disappointing because of the slight haze that hung over everything. McKinley was incredibly big and again had the color of old silk. The south face was enormous, but I was more interested in a great ridge that ran down to the east ending in a peak that seemed to be Hunter. This was a superb ridge of good rock and snow and should bear investigation. To our side of it was the head of the Tokichitna (I assume) glacier which is the most enormous thing I have ever seen. It twisted on and on into obscurity, and all about it was a tangled mass of peaks. The whole area south and east of Foraker and McKinley is a wilderness of snow and ice and rock, and I've never seen a more inhospitable land. There is obviously much more snow than on the north side of the range because even the small peaks are eternally white, and most of the glaciers seem to be covered deep with snow but very much crevassed. It looks an impossible country to explore, or at least a difficult and dangerous one.”—Excerpt from my diary.

The weather was too threatening now for us to stay long, so we turned to leave, making sure once more that we were well above the South Peak. On our way down we carefully cached a can, with the names of all six, in the highest rocks along the skyline. It was a very small group of rocks and we estimated it to be about 300 ft. below the top, and for the first time we remembered to read our aneroid which to our eternal disgrace we had forgotten to do on the summit. With the best corrections that we have since been able to make, this showed a height of a little over 17,000 ft. After this we hurried down, for already a heavy cloud was settling on both peaks. By the time we were on the plateau again it was snowing furiously, and with the wind whipping the fallen snow about us it was impossible to see more than a rope-length ahead, and our tracks had been completely covered. But on the way up we had placed willow wands every hundred feet in the snow, and these literally saved our lives. We were able to follow these to the edge of the cliff and somehow managed to get down this and into camp around nine at night. We had had a long day, climbing nearly 4000 ft. and covering a distance of close to nine miles, the last of which was a struggle against the wind and snow every step of the way. We were too tired to eat but heated up a hot drink and crawled into the welcome warmth of our sleeping bags.

We woke late the next morning and found that the weather had definitely changed and the barometer promised a storm. We had over a week of food and fuel left though, so we were not too worried. All that day we lay in bed, talking little, writing in our diaries, eating at sporadic intervals. In the afternoon it began to snow, and the wind rose. Most of the night we spent listening to the flapping of the tent, feeling that at any moment the furious wind would split it or blow us completely off the cliff. Toward morning it blew if possible even harder, and it was impossible to talk across the tent. But gradually the wind fell, though the snow continued all day. Snow had piled up on the roof and walls of the tent so that the eaves were caving in and it became necessary for some one to shovel it away if we were not to be completely buried. We drew lots and one of us burrowed up through the snow around the door and succeeded in clearing away enough of the snow so that we again had a little room to move about in the tent. The day passed slowly. Around noon of the ninth the snow stopped and the barometer began to rise again. About thirty inches of new snow had fallen, so that our little tent was almost completely covered. Once more some one had to burrow out, uncover the tent, and dig out the little cache where we had stored our extra food.

All of the last few days we had been discussing the relative heights of the two summits, and though we were all sure that the North Peak was the higher, we also felt that to do the mountain properly we should try the South Peak. As the snow continued it seemed unlikely that conditions would be good enough for this attempt before we were forced to go down because of food shortage, and we decided that we would start down on the 11th regardless. The 10th then would be the last day on which we could make the climb. Our cramped quarters were beginning to get on our nerves when at last the snow stopped on the afternoon of the ninth. We dug our way out of the tent and made preparations to start next morning. The weather was better on the morning of the 10th, but we were again late in getting away because of the cold. We found the cliff in very bad condition because of the deep new snow, so bad that it took us over two hours to reach the plateau. The weather grew steadily better as we climbed, and we decided to try the South Peak, turning back if the weather changed at all.

The first part of our route lay along our old tracks up the plateau ; almost under the North Peak we turned to the right and swung around under the ice fall from the South Peak. We had already traced a tentative route among the cracks as we examined it from the north summit. First we gained about a thousand feet in altitude on a very steep snow slope which took us a long time as we sank in places to our waists in the new snow. The slope gradually steepened until toward the top we were faced with a vertical wall of white ice. We could traverse to the right cutting up an ice serac for several hundred feet, or we could cut horizontally to the left about a hundred yards underneath the wall to a corner around which lay we knew not what. We decided on the latter because of the excessive steepness of the wall to the right. The traverse to the left was delicate in places as we had to cut through a loose layer into the névé beneath, and it took us over an hour to gain the corner. Here to our relief we found that we could cut straight up an ice chimney between two fallen blocks. This was comparatively easy and in a short time we reached a level platform about a thousand feet below the top.

To our amazement it was already after six in the afternoon; we had taken more than five hours from the plateau. We delayed here a little because of some incipient frostbite and then left our packs to hurry up the final slopes. Inside of an hour we crossed a small schrund below the summit and in a few minutes more were standing on the South Peak. We were literally standing in the sunset which colored all the snow about us a deep red. Over behind the North Peak McKinley stood out like a ghost in the pale evening light. Below us the country was a climber’s nightmare. a gloomy tumbled waste of ice and rock. We looked again for Hunter but could not make it out. There were a myriad lesser peaks, but all seemed of the same height, about 11,000 ft., and no one peak stood out enough to be over 14,000 ft. Only one ridge rises to the summit of Foraker from this side that is at all practical for climbing, and this is very steep and broken into many gendarmes. In addition it would be extremely difficult to get in to the base of the mountain from the east and south because of the great length of all the glaciers and the number and size of the crevasses on them. I believe that the ridge we followed is the only practicable one.

But evening was coming on and we would have to hurry down. Delaying only long enough to take a few pictures, we turned to leave our mountain with heavy hearts. We found a better route for the descent than the one by which we had come up, and in a short time we were at the plateau. The night was very still and quiet, and both peaks were rose pink in the light of the setting sun. We walked in silence down the plateau and at the edge of the cliff turned for one last look at the two peaks. The mountain had lost, but it had lost gracefully, and none of us will ever forget those last hours in the calm and quiet of the plateau.

We got down the cliff somehow in the dark, reaching camp around eleven. Next morning the weather was overcast and we hurried to break camp. We managed to carry and drag all our kit down to Camp VI where we spent the night, going to Camp IV next day in weather that grew steadily worse. We found the ridge greatly changed ; great cracks had opened up in it, and a few of the large cornices had fallen. Along a few hundred feet of the horizontal stretch was a curious line of fine interweaving cracks, very narrow but deep. We could not decide whether these were cracks where the cornice was about to fall, or whether they were the upper edge of an avalanche slip. We passed safely and reached Camp IV toward eight o’clock. On the next morning we got all our outfit down to the snow bridge, but here it suddenly began to snow very hard and we were forced to camp in the shelter of a big crack. It snowed heavily and without stopping until the evening of the 15th, and we spent the time in bed talking over mountains in general and ours in particular. Our food was running low now, and we began to worry considerably about the condition of the slopes below us. We decided to wait as long as possible for the new snow, about forty inches, to “set” with the old. The 16th was clear and we were planning to wait until the next day before starting down, when we heard faint shouts and looked out to see the others on the snowfield below the crack. Despite our shouts Carl unroped and came up the slope to the lower lip of the crack while we packed up. He threw a rope across, and in a short time our outfit was on the other side and we were crossing on the bridge. This was still surprisingly strong and we crossed without trouble. In another hour all six of us were together and exchanging tales of the past two weeks. They had made a trip down the Herron glacier to the plains, crossing over to the base camp, and coming up the West Foraker glacier. The Herron they reported was impossible to cross, so we had been lucky in our choice of the West Foraker.

That night we had a great banquet in Tranquillity, and the next day started the long trek down to the base which we reached on the evening of the 21st with all our outfit. That night around one o’clock we were awakened by an earthquake which shook the whole country, and we convinced each other that this had shattered our ridge and the snow bridge into bits. On the 24th Bill arrived with the horses bringing fresh food, and. better still, mail from home. Our trip out was better than the trip in, and we reached Savage Camp at the Park Station on the night of the 28th. Here we were treated most hospitably by every one, and we were truly sorry to leave on the 31st.