The Ascent of Mount Hayes

Publication Year: 1942.

The Ascent of Mount Hayes

Photographs by the author

Bradford Washburn

THE Hayes Range consists of a narrow wedge of rugged peaks some 60 miles in length stretching eastward from the head of the Yanert River to the famous Black Rapids in the upper valley of the Big Delta. Geologically it is an extension of roughly the same series of formations that make up the great peaks of the McKinley Group. Its foothills and many of its minor summits are composed of folded and faulted slates, schists and shales, while the underlying core of the big peaks is a beautiful coarse-grained granite.

Mt. Hayes (13,740 ft.), the highest peak in the range, lies 90 miles S. E. of Fairbanks and 45 miles due S. of the broad valley of the Tanana River. Fifteen miles to the W. of Hayes rise Mt. Hess (12,030 ft.) and Mt. Deborah (12,540 ft.), locally known as the Cathedral Peaks. Some 12 miles to the E., halfway between Hayes and the head of the Big Delta River, an unnamed peak1 practically 13,000 ft. in height completes this solid 60-mile wall between the lowlands of the Susitna and the broad interior plains. Although the Hayes Range is theoretically considered one of the “interior” ranges of Alaska, it is still definitely under the influence of coastal weather. While the weather of the coast is mainly governed by the eastward movement of the great barometric “lows” from the southern part of Bering Sea, the Hayes Range is sandwiched between the northern edge of this evil coastal weather and the southern limits of the intense interior storms which originate in the Russian Arctic just N. W. of Bering Strait. These storms do not bring by any means as much precipitation as those which sweep the Prince William Sound area 150 miles to the S., but the cloudiness of the Hayes region is easily equivalent to that in most parts of the Coast Range.

Prior to 1941, the ascent of Mt. Hayes is known to have been attempted by two different parties. In 1935 two students from the University of Alaska succeeded in reaching an altitude of a little over 9000 ft. on the great easterly ridge which swings in a long arc from the summit toward the head of the Dry Delta River. In 1936 I made a thorough aerial photographic reconnaissance of the Hayes Range during the course of one of the National Geographic Society- Pan American Airways flights over Mt. McKinley. In August, 1937, Oscar Houston of New York led the first properly organized and serious expedition to try to reach the summit.2 This party was unfortunately handicapped by lack of time, and despite a gallant effort which carried it to an altitude of over 11,000 ft., impossible weather conditions and a shortage of supplies forced its ultimate retreat.

In June, 1941, Henry S. Hall, Jr., of Cambridge and I organized an impromptu expedition to tackle this superb peak. Only two weeks elapsed between the evening that our plan was first seriously discussed until the afternoon that the vanguard of our party set out for Alaska! Our partners in this enterprise consisted of my wife, Sterling Hendricks of Washington, Benjamin Ferris of New York, William Shand of Lancaster, Pa., and Lt. Robin Montgomery of Fort Richardson, Alaska, who accompanied the party for two weeks as U. S. Army observer.

Gathering in consignments of baggage as we worked our way northwestward along the cheapest and slowest conceivable route, my wife and I finally reached Fairbanks late on the evening of July 7th, after a 22-hour ride from Valdez along the Richardson Highway in a truck, laden with 1700 lbs. of our supplies jammed atop a load of seven tons (9800 bottles) of beer! Needless to say, the beer was not part of our equipment.

The ascent of Mt. Hayes leaves the climber little more in choice of routes than would be enjoyed by the average tight-rope walker. The logical plan of attack which developed from a study of the 1936 aerial photographs was independently followed by the Houston party the following year and retraced almost in its entirety by us this summer. The 1937 expedition had succeeded in covering the 90 terrible miles of muskeg, lakes and rivers lying between the mountain and Fairbanks by airplane. Local sportsmen make frequent trips into the Hayes region in the fall to hunt Dall sheep, moose, and caribou. The broad V-shaped outwash plain of a small glacier about 11 miles N. E. of Hayes had served these hunters as an excellent little landing field for their small expeditions, and it proved equally convenient for the use of the Houston party.

Unfortunately, however, on the morning of July 10th when our pilot Johnny Lynn,3 Barbara and I attempted to make a landing with the first light reconnaisance load of our radio, tent poles, gasoline, and iceaxes, we found that the gravel flat had been badly gullied by recent freshets and would prove dangerous landing. After considerable circling and searching for a reasonably smooth bar further downstream, we finally decided our safest course would be to establish our base at a tiny “field” which had been constructed by two prospectors4 across an alder-covered bar of the Dry Delta some eight miles below the Houston’s landing spot.

Each time we descended into this little oasis amid the rocks and bushes, I was glad that our pilot was an expert at this sort of work. The field was 1200 ft. long, gently inclined down-hill, and about 30 ft. wide. The river swung around it in a broad bend, and a high bluff of slate and lignite rising sharply to the east of it assured an unreliable cross wind for every landing. As we taxied to a stop, our wingtips overhung the dense alder bushes on either side. Nevertheless we were lucky to find a spot as good as this, for the next landable bar on the Dry Delta was at least 15 miles further downstream almost halfway to the Tanana.

Hall arrived in Fairbanks by plane from Seattle on the morning of July 10th, shortly after my wife and I had returned from this reconnaissance. On the 15th we spent a roasting day packing supplies in the hangar and then threw out 200 lbs. of unbreakable equipment in a little valley at the very foot of Hayes where we had decided to locate our base camp. Each bundle was wrapped in masses of excelsior and burlap and clearly marked with a long yellow streamer to facilitate in locating it when we arrived on the ground a week or so later, following the 13-mile hike from the landing field.

Unsettled, cloudy weather kept us in Fairbanks busily engaged with our packing until the morning of July 15th. Montgomery had arrived from Anchorage three days before, and our expedition was now set officially in motion by Lynn flying him, Barbara and me to the landing field. Ferris and Shand joined us on another plane trip at supper time, leaving Hall and Hendricks to hold the fort in Fairbanks until this five-man advanced guard had reached the base camp.

Our strategy was simple. We five were to advance as rapidly as we could from the landing field (2350 ft.) to a broad dome in the muskeg upland about 10 miles further S. W. We were to be at this spot (4600 ft.) no later than 10 A.M. on July 17th, when all of our perishable supplies were to be parachuted to us, weather permitting. We were then to cross the Hayes Glacier to the base campsite (4900 ft.) located 3 miles away in a typical little grassy valley between the steep mountainside and the high lateral moraine on the S. bank of Hayes Glacier. Late in the afternoon or early in the evening Hendricks and Hall were to fly past on their way to the landing field and drop a small shower of additional unbreakable equipment. On the 18th, Montgomery was to return to the landing field alone with the parachutes which were to be stored there in our emergency food cache until he flew out to Fairbanks on August 1st. In the meantime Hall and Hendricks were to advance to our parachute camp where we all planned to rally on July 19th for the purpose of relaying over the last of the parachuted material to the base camp.

This sounds like a rather complicated cats-cradle of men, planes and parachutes, but everything went off in perfect form. Clouds of ravenous mosquitoes drove the vanguard out of the landing-field camp immediately after supper on the evening of our arrival. We climbed through beautiful forest, a few hundred yards of bogs, and thence across steep meadows to a campsite beside a little stream. Here we pitched our tents at 2 in the morning and dozed lazily till 9 o’clock. As we went to bed Hayes had towered above us, its lofty pyramid pink with the light of approaching dawn. But by breakfast time, sinister clouds had rolled in from the S., and our advance across the tussocky muskeg upland that day was cut to only 5 miles by a furious wind and driving rain that hit us shortly after lunch. A good sleep and an early start the next morning, however, brought us to our parachute tryst with ample time to spare.

The plane arrived on the dot in the midst of a gusty wind and clammy squalls of hail and sleet. Flying at about 250 ft., it dropped two large clusters of boxes securely nailed together, each weighing about 200 lbs. The chutes opened instantly and the boxes landed on the muskeg without the slightest damage, only a few hundred feet from where we stood. A large yellow “panel” laid out on the ground announced to the pilot that all was O.K., and in less than two hours they were back with the second and last load. This consisted of a note dropped with a yellow streamer telling us the sad news that an unexpected bump had discharged one of our chutes with 15 gallons of reserve gasoline as they were circling over some timbered moraine 4 miles E. of our position. As we read this message in consternation, two more neat clusters of boxes and a 15- gallon iron beer barrel filled with the rest of the gasoline floated neatly down to the muskeg. With a friendly wag of its wings, the plane bade us farewell and sped off toward Fairbanks at 150 miles an hour.

The weather had cleared during the morning, and Ferris, Shand and I took three 70-lb. packs across the rock-strewn Hayes Glacier after lunch. The site which we had chosen for Base Camp was ideal. It was situated a little over 2 miles below the Houston Base Camp and at an altitude of 4900 ft., directly at the bottom of an excellent series of scree gullies leading upward to the 8300-ft. shoulder of Hayes.

The 13 packages which Hall and I had tossed out a week before on the mossy inner slope of the moraine had all come down in fine shape, and we had them collected and piled up at camp only 20 minutes after we had thrown off our loads. I returned to the parachute camp alone after helping Ferris and Shand set up one of the tents, and later on that evening Hall and Hendricks roared past on their way to the landing field.

On July 20th the last load was packed out of the parachute camp, leaving a single empty beer barrel, from which we had poured all our gasoline into light tin cans for packing. We are afraid that some lonely prospector or sheep hunter will question the serious purpose of our expedition when he comes upon this unmistakable evidence of prodigal debauchery!

The last small consignment of bundles was dropped at Base Camp on the afternoon of the 20th, and that evening our party was safely ensconced at the foot of Hayes with food and equipment organized for a full 30-day siege if it should prove necessary. The cost of this seemingly elaborate flying program was only a fraction of what we should have had to pay to approach Hayes by packtrain from either Rapids or Big Delta. As we chatted in front of the tents that night, it was hard to believe that we had finished moving practically a ton of food, camping equipment and gasoline across 90 miles of muskeg and up to an altitude of 4900 ft. on only five days.

The parachuted supplies came down without a scratch. The other material which had been bombarded onto the slope near Base Camp had suffered the usual battering and disintegration, but prunes, apricots, and dried apples generally taste about the same whether or not they have been dropped from an airplane! The only outright casualty was a case of delicious lunch biscuits which was thrown out by mistake instead of being parachuted. A total of only five unshattered crackers were carefully sorted out of the pulverized remains of nearly 600 toothsome cookies, which later served as an inexhaustible supply of croutons.

Directly behind our camp rose the 8300-ft. snow-clad shoulder which buttresses the end of the northerly ridge of Hayes. A series of subsidiary ridges and gullies radiate from this little peak, and our next objective was to establish a well-stocked camp as nearly as possible on its summit. From this point the main ridge rises first gently and then quite steeply to a sharp snow peak 9800 ft. in height and situated exactly 2 miles N. of Hayes. Beyond this peak lies a 300-ft. snow notch above which soars the magnificent 4000-ft. final ridge for which Hayes is so well known. It was in this cleft that the Houston party had had its final camp, and it was our hope that we might be able to reach it from our base with only one intermediate depot at 8300 ft.

On the 21st we pushed the first load through to a fine but exposed cache on a slaty ledge just over the top of the 8300-ft. shoulder. The climb was a long grind, first up a 1400-ft. treadmill of scree and thence along a broad ridge of steep slush-covered ice. After a second tussle with the gullies on the 22nd, a wild gale with squally showers kept us all in camp for a much-needed day of complete rest, and on the 24th a lull in the evil weather let us all work another heavy load to the cache. We brought two Logan tents and sufficient camping equipment to install Barbara, Sterling, Henry and me up there permanently. The others planned to bring through the last three loads in the morning while we reconnoitered and broke trail ahead in the deep fresh snow. It snowed and blew all that night, and the next morning it cleared sufficiently so Hendricks and I were able to descend 1400 ft. for two loads which had been cached part way up the ridge in bad weather three days before. It was black as ink in the valley below, and our three partners at base camp wisely decided to conserve the high camp food and put in another day of rest in the valley before joining us.

That evening the clouds melted away after supper, and the four of us broke trail along the ridge to 9000 ft. where we established a small cache of food and gasoline on the last accessible rock outcrop. On our return to camp we placed fixed ropes on two short steep pitches where the fresh snow on top of slush and black ice would have otherwise slowed up packing operations a good deal. When we went to bed the view was truly magnificent—not a cloud broke the blue sky above us. Over the plains to the N. only a few little wisps of fleecy fog were all that was left of the morning’s storm. The temperature stood at 26° and the great northern face of Hayes towered above us into the twilight with an air of truly Himalayan grandeur.

At dawn the fog swept in again from the S., and although Hendricks, Hall and I succeeded in making another trip to 9000 ft. to add to our growing cache there, the weather was far too thick to push ahead toward the notch. Ferris, Shand and Montgomery arrived from Base Camp at lunch time, staggering under the usual “last loads up.” The weather deteriorated throughout the afternoon, and by evening it was snowing hard with a light, warm southerly breeze.

Snow fell throughout the night of the 26th, and by breakfast time we had over two feet of fresh powder piled about camp. The temperature was too mild for good weather, but despite the fog which drifted to and fro throughout the day, we managed to pack a relay of 90-lb. loads past our cache, over the 9800-ft. peak and down into the Notch. It was a long, nasty fight with a buried trail and fresh powder that in several places was drifted well over waist deep. However the ridge was neither too steep nor too narrow to prove a real impasse, even under such poor conditions, and it was a real thrill to establish the first cache of our final camp. Once more the snow fell all night long with the thermometer at 21°, and by morning our trail was again drifted into oblivion. As the clouds were breaking just before noon, we caught occasional glimpses of deep fresh snow all the way down to 3500 ft. across the carpet of green muskeg below.

The weather looked truly on the mend, so we started to break camp, and Montgomery bade us farewell, as he had but three days to make his rendezvous with Johnny Lynn at the landing field on August 1st. As the day progressed, the skies cleared beautifully. We had lunch at the 9000-ft. cache, and early in the afternoon just above 9300 ft., McKinley loomed into sight in the pass between two 11,000-ft. peaks at the head of Hayes Glacier. Hayes itself towered ahead, a thin wisp of wind-driven snow twisting into the blue sky above its summit, and deep fresh powder blanketing even its steepest pitches.

At 4.30 we floundered into the notch, once more beneath terrific loads, and as the sun dropped behind a thick bank of clouds to the N. W., our two tents were pitched and the last camp on Hayes was established. At this Notch Camp we had ample food for three days. At the 9000-ft. cache down the ridge we had three good loads which would swell our supplies to last an easy six days more. Three gallons of gasoline and four more days of food were within five hours’ climbing at the abandoned 8300-ft. camp. If worst came to worst, we could even descend to the base camp and bring up light loads in one day.

A camp in this notch gives the climber an ideal spot from which to tackle Hayes. The first of the ridge’s three steep pitches lies within a stone’s throw of the tent door. The visibility both to the E. and to the W. is completely unbroken, and even the summit is just visible, peeking from behind a wall of ice just to the left of the impressive 12,650-ft. shoulder.

The morning of the 29th dawned clear and cold, but a steel-gray ceiling of stratus clouds covered the whole sky. A sudden change during the night had caused the temperature to rise from 18° to 24° at dawn, and long streamers of fresh snow floating to the N. of the summit ridge presaged a southerly storm. Despite the rather unsettled conditions, it was still decided that the day was at least good enough for a serious reconnaissance as far along the ridge as the weather might permit us to advance.

Starting off at 8.30 A.M. we progressed slowly but steadily up the beautiful snow arête that rises precipitously out of the S. side of the notch. Climbing that would have been exceedingly difficult under icy conditions was made easy but laborious in the deep fresh snow. The crest of the ridge was so sharp at first that we paralleled it a few yards to the left, slowly working our way back onto the skyline some 300 ft. above camp.

At 10.15 the ridge widened considerably and the drifts of deep, fresh powder forced us to change the lead frequently. A stiff gusty S. W. wind swept across the great wall to our right, laden with biting particles of snow. The grade steepened again in 20 minutes and we were forced to cut a score or more of steps before we worked our way up onto a small shoulder. The ridge above was still quite free of clouds, so we plowed ahead over another narrow spot and came out onto a broad, almost level shoulder at shortly after 11 o’clock. The altitude was 10,950 ft., and nothing but a steady slope of snow, broken by occasional séracs, lay between us and the huge crack which always guards the final approaches to the main shoulder.

For the next hour as we alternately kicked and floundered our way up almost 1000 ft. of this snowy face, the wind eddied and twisted past us in an ever-increasing tempo, and great clouds of fresh powder curled up into the sky from the summit of the shoulder directly above us.

We chose to turn the great crevasse to the left as its upper lip overhung badly and turned out to be hard ice, encrusted with a thin veneer of snow and frost. Sterling took over the lead for 20 minutes of step and handhold chopping until we again headed upward over another long pitch of deep, drifted flour. At 12.30 we stopped to munch a bite of frozen lunch and tighten up our crampons.

Ever since crossing the big crevasse we had been climbing in comparative comfort in the lee of the shoulder. Wisps of fog drifted about us, occasionally opening enough to show the steep, windswept ridge above—sometimes to reveal a solid sea of clouds drifting in over the plains far below.

At 1.45 in a blustering gale we worked our way over the last hard-packed gable and out onto the top of the sharp N. shoulder, 12,650 ft. above the sea. The sight that met our eyes was at once a thrill and an abysmal disappointment. Everything about us seemed to be in motion. Snow eddied and scurried past our feet. A ceiling of solid fog 1000 ft. below us stretched unbroken to the southern horizon, rolling steadily northward toward us in a magnificent, ominous cascade. The sombre stratus ceiling of dawn had descended to a scant 14,000 ft. and seemed to hover just above the cold gray peak of Hayes which towered directly before us. The half-mile of “level” shoulder lying between us and the base of the summit cone was by no means as gentle an approach as we had hoped it would be. Two huge gendarmes of solid frost-encrusted ice protruded from the narrow ridge ahead on the other side of a steep 150-ft. notch of snow. Beyond these wicked-looking obstacles a tenuous arete of snow and ice, thin as paper, wound into another cleft 300 yards away. Between this notch and the solid base of the steep, final climb stretched a narrow confusion of ice blocks, drifts and tremendous cornices, mysterious and gray beneath the curtain of dropping clouds.

We held a hasty council of war, buffeted by the breeze on the very tip of the shoulder. The temperature stood at 18°. A storm was clearly approaching, yet the summit beckoned only half a mile ahead. Only a small part of our descending trail was marked with willow wands and we did not wish to tempt the fates too much. It was decided that we should have one last fierce fling at the ridge, watching the weather intently at every step.

My wife, Shand and I led. Hendricks, Hall and Ferris followed close behind. The descent to the notch was over in a jiffy. A half-dozen steep ice steps and two handholds put us atop the exposed summit of the first gendarme. Thence, knee-deep in powder snow, we followed the knife-like crest onward over the second pinnacle until the ridge was completely blocked by a huge chunk of frosty ice. A 6-foot rappel to the left into a deep snow-drift revealed solid ice below, and the others jumped down to join me. Then we plowed another 100 yards almost waist deep in drifted powder before we realized, just beyond the halfway notch, that wisdom was still the better part of valor. As we descended into camp, black clouds at last swept down in a torrent over the summit ridge, and all night long a snow-laden southerly gale roared across the mountain above our sheltered camp.

A lull the next morning permitted Sterling, Bill and me to descend to the 9000-ft. cache after the last three loads, and those in camp built a spacious grotto between the tents in which to store all of our supplies. Black clouds and a hurricane of wind swept the peak all day above 11,000 ft., and even the 31st brought little respite to the storm-swept upper slopes.

However, the wind slowly swung around into the W., and at 4 o’clock on the morning of August 1st the skies began to clear with an air of finality. The temperature stood at 19°, and even two hours later in the warm sun it had barely risen to 22°.

At 6.30 Barbara, Sterling, Bill, Ben and I headed upward for another try at the summit. A fixed rope and 200 steps carefully kicked in the crest of the first steep ridge the afternoon before speeded us ahead at the start, and to our joy we found that the wind had packed and ripped away great masses of the deep fresh snow of three days before. By 9 o’clock, with steady, fast plodding and frequent changes of the lead, we reached the big crevasse, leaving behind us two short fixed ropes and a solid line of willow wands to fortify our steep retreat in case of storm. At 10.15 we topped the shoulder amid a gathering sea of stunning cumulus clouds—the sky above as clear as crystal without a wisp of menacing cirrus in any direction.

Caching our rucksacks in a sunny nook between two walls of ice, sheltered from the cold westerly breeze, we had a bite to eat and then tackled the ridge once more. To our left a silvery banner-cloud floated 1000 ft. into the clear blue sky. The summit seemed almost within reach as we carefully re-excavated our trail over each of the drifted blocks and slender ridges.

Two hours later Ferris put the finishing touches to a set of 30 steep ice steps halfway up the final cone, and at 1.45 we rallied with a lusty cheer on the spacious peak of Hayes. Our joy was only tempered by Hall’s being unable to share the victory with us.

Vast cumulus clouds, some even higher than Hayes, drifted lazily past us to the north. The moraines of the broad Susitna Glacier wound southwestward below a shining sea of scattered cumulus. Mt. McKinley was invisible, buried deep beneath a huge mountain of snowy thunderheads, but the summits of the Cathedrals and the big peaks toward Rapids stood out bright and clear, a long slender oasis of clear skies stretching down the entire heart of the range. We unroped amid a tangle of confetti Ben and Bill had pilfered from the Alaska Steamship Company, and drank in the view to our heart’s content for nearly three quarters of a chilly hour. But the gusty wind was sweeping past at only 12°.5 The afternoon showers were beginning on the lowlands, and we felt it best to move slowly downward toward the shoulder before the almost daily storm enveloped the summit. As the afternoon wore on, however, the clouds thinned rather than grew, and 12 hours after we had left camp we descended safely back into the comfort of the notch, a luscious supper and a cozy bed.

The weather broke again on the second, and the whole range disappeared once more beneath an inky blanket of tossing clouds. That afternoon, after a long sleep, we beat a hasty five-hour retreat all the way to the base camp in a gale of snow-laden southerly wind. While my wife, Hall and I descended to the landing field, staggering in an effort to return with all our belongings stacked in one frightful load, Hendricks, Ferris and Shand relayed their first packs cross-country toward Mr. Houston’s landing field in preparation for their next objective.

Our tiny radio worked beautifully despite the curious fact that we were forced to relay all our messages to Fairbanks by way of Anchorage, nearly twice as far away, on account of freak atmospheric conditions. Hendricks, Ferris and Shand joined us in camp the evening of the 4th, after a wretched non-stop descent all the way from the base camp in dense fog and drizzling rain. On the afternoon of the 5th, only three hours after they had headed off up- valley toward their new cache, Johnny Lynn swooped into our little field with a snappy new red cabin plane. Our climb had taken three weeks, almost to the hour—three weeks crowded as full of action as anyone could possibly imagine. Airplane, radio, photographs and parachutes had all contributed to the success of our novel little adventure, and it was with regret that we turned our backs on storm-swept Hayes and headed westward once more to Fairbanks and the land of plenty.

1 See article immediately following.

2 A. A. J. (1938), iii, 127.

3 Of Wien Airlines, Fairbanks.

4 August W. Conradt and John Hajdukovich of Fairbanks.

5 Fairbanks temperature August 1, 2 P.M. 69°.