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Alaska and the War

Alaska and the War

Bradford Washburn

IT is hard to believe that it was only two years ago today that we

bade farewell to the other members of the Mt. Hayes party in Fairbanks and started the first leg of our homeward trip by air to Edmonton. In past years I had flown hundreds of hours along the Alaskan Coast and into the interior, but we had never before been able to take a regularly scheduled flight all the way from Fairbanks to Edmonton.

For years there had been an increasing clamor for an Alaskan Highway and more modern and frequent air service between Alaska and the United States. Pan-American had established a very successful service between Fairbanks and Juneau in 1935, and later experimented with various different routes to tie this system to the airline network of the United States. Canada set up a weekly air mail schedule from Edmonton to Whitehorse in July, 1937. But United States Airmail contracts were slow in coming for the run from Juneau to Seattle, and practical air expansion does not simply appear by spontaneous generation. At the outset of the present war the discussions about an Alaskan Highway and more frequent Alaskan air services were still generally considered visionary and unimportant in Washington with the notable exception of high officials in the Interior Department, the delegate from Alaska (Anthony J. Dimond), Ex-Governor Thomas Riggs, and Donald MacDonald.

In 1941, with the exception of a very informal sort of country road between Kluane Lake and Whitehorse and a scrap of tractor trail here and there, there was not a vestige of road cutting the 1000 miles of wilderness between Big Delta (90 miles S.E. of Fairbanks) and Fort St. John, British Columbia, on the banks of the Peace River. Unless your airplane was equipped with pontoons, there was not a single intermediate landing field at any point in the 600 miles of mountains between Whitehorse and Fort St. John.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Canada had already established large air fields at Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, and Whitehorse, and was busily completing others at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. Behind closed doors it was decided that a military highway to Alaska was a fundamental necessity to prosecuting the war against

Japan. A route was ultimately chosen by the Army which turned out, for certain reasons, to be at considerable variance with that recommended by the International Highway Commission. The ground was broken in March, 1942, and the fact is now known that the first truck rolled into Fairbanks from Dawson Greek, just nine months after the first tree fell on this extraordinary 1685-mile project. Along the route of the new road, which generally parallels the airway from Edmonton to Fairbanks, the airfields already constructed were considerably enlarged and three big new fields, already started by the United States Army were also opened near Ketchikan, Yakutat, and Cordova, Alaska.

Since the start of the war I have made seven flights between Edmonton and Alaska and one between Alaska and Seattle, down the coastal route. I have travelled about half the length of the highway on two trips during November and January, and have also made one flight to the Aleutians. To someone who has been deeply interested in Alaska, and closely associated with it for 14 years, it is impossible to describe the things that have happened without mingled feelings of happiness and disappointment.

Those pessimists who are now crying “Alaska is ruined forever !” are at once both wrong and right. It is hard to picture Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Sitka again picking up life exactly where it was left off two years ago when the Army, the Engineers, and the civilian contractors began to move in in force. The pleasant semi-isolation, camaraderie, and simplicity of even the large Alaskan towns probably will never return to exactly what it was in pre-war days. From a purely tourist standpoint this may seem a pity, but to the Alaskan business man the new highway, and especially the new airway system, marks one of the most important milestones in the history of the territory.

At the conclusion of the war the obvious air route to eastern Russia and the Orient will be directly through Western Canada and Alaska—at least 1000 miles shorter than the present trans-Pacific route by way of Hawaii and the Philippines. The existence of larger and more modern communities here and there along this route is much more likely to prove a boon to the traveler or sportsman than a reason for his never going to Alaska again. The thriving cities of Seattle and Tacoma have not had any effect whatever on the beauty of the mountains of the Olympic peninsula or the Cascades. Neither will the airports at Yakutat and Cordova or the narrow thread of the Alaskan Highway destroy the beauty of the Fairweather or St. Elias Ranges.

On the other hand, at least a hundred times during the last year I have heard people say, “When the war is over, I’m going to get a station wagon and spend my vacation in Alaska—that new highway will at last make it possible for us all to go there.” It is not quite so easy as it sounds. Bear in mind while you make these plans that Edmonton is 2884 miles from New York by road, and that Fairbanks is still over 2000 miles beyond that. For those who enjoy a vacation of motoring this plan has great possibilities, but it would involve a round trip of over 10,000 miles from New York ! One must also bear in mind that the exact present location of the highway is not by any means final and permanent. After the war is over another highway link may easily be constructed from Seattle northward through Prince George and Atlin to Whitehorse, which would prove a much more practical route from the standpoint of the Pacific northwest.

As far as the mountaineer is concerned, unless this whole new transportation system vanishes, he will find Alaska and its mountains much more accessible and none the less fascinating after the war is over. In years gone by, the trip to and from Alaska has consumed almost exactly a month for a climber living in New York. At least a two-month vacation was necessary before it was worthwhile to consider even a minor Alaskan climb.

A short time ago I made the trip from Washington to Fairbanks in a little over two days, with a comfortable night spent at Minneapolis en route. A friend of mine, flying to Fort St. John made a trip from there to Whitehorse over the highway in a Greyhound bus in less than three days, passing through the most beautiful of wilderness scenery almost all the way from Fort Nelson to his destination. Alaska is nearer to the United States than it has ever been before, and fares after the war will probably be lower than at any time in history. Even in 1941 it was actually cheaper to fly from Whitehorse to Edmonton than to take the White Pass Railroad, the coastal boat, and then the train, adding to these fares only the barest possible expenses for food and lodging on the way.

The Alaskan Highway, whether or not it ultimately goes to the E. or W. of the Rocky Mountains, will not bring one within easy walking distance of any of Canada’s or Alaska’s great peaks. From the camper’s or fisherman’s standpoint, the country W. of Fort

Nelson, where the road now flanks the Rockies about 60 miles N. of Mt. Lloyd George (ca. 10,000 ft.), is a paradise. In the spring when excessive winter temperatures have abated, the skiing in the 6-7000 ft. mountains 90 miles W. of Watson Lake is certain to prove excellent. The part of the Rockies, N. of Mt. Lloyd George contains no high spectacular peaks, but consists rather of a mass of 5-6000 ft. ridges with an occasional 7-8000 ft. peak, somewhat similar to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but devoid of trees except on their lowest slopes. The whole countryside here is about 2000 ft. high and the highway’s crossing of the Rockies, surprisingly enough is made at only just over 4000 ft. !

West of Whitehorse, however, the road swings around Kluane Lake (2500 ft.), across The Donjek and White Rivers and down the Tanana Valley, bringing one relatively close to the eastern flanks of the St. Elias, Nutzotin and Mentasta Mountains and the eastern limits of the Alaska Range. Such peaks as Steele (16,600 ft.), Wood (15,880 ft.), Natazhat (13,440 ft.), Kimball (9680 ft., unclimbed), Hayes (13,740 ft.), Hess (12,030 ft., unclimbed), and Deborah (12,540 ft., unclimbed) are all within 50 miles of the main highroad to the States. But one must always bear in mind that in the past, the greatest difficulties in the ascents of those of these peaks which have been climbed have been encountered in this last 40 or 50 miles. The approach to at least this point was made by airplane in the case of Mts. Wood, Steele, and Hayes.

By far the greatest boon that the new highway will be to the climber or camper is that, if he is able to fly to some such point as Whitehorse (after shipping his baggage by freight well in advance), he will then be able to proceed to such a jumping-off point as Bur- wash Landing at a fraction of the price that he would have once had to pay had he been forced to shuttle all his equipment by air in half a dozen or more 300-mile round trip flights.

New aerial maps of all this country are now being prepared. Many are already in circulation and they, coupled with the knowledge of this country from earlier explorations, should make second and third ascents of the great peaks of the St. Elias range from the E. much less difficult, complicated, or expensive than the pioneer climbs. The mountains between Scolai Pass and the Alaska Railroad are beautiful and rugged, but present few major single objectives such as Mt. Kimball. They are also far enough from the road (30 miles) so that a packtrain or parachuted supplies would be necessary, unless the party was in a mood to tackle a long backpacking program.

Little publicized, but of great practical interest to the mountaineer, however, are the new Glenn Highway, locally known as the “Chickaloon Road,” and the new route over Mentasta Pass which for the first time connects Fairbanks directly with Anchorage by road in winter. The former extends 144 miles from the town of Palmer in the Mantanuska Valley to a point near Gulkana on the Richardson Highway, following the course of the Matanuska River and the Nelchina-Tazlina watershed on the north side of the Chugach Mountains. The latter is roughly 67 miles in length, connecting the Alaska Highway near Tanana Crossing and the old Nabesna road at Slana (pronounced Salina) just N. of Mt. Sanford (See A.A.J. iii. 265).

Making possible year-round road travel in only a few hours between Fairbanks and Anchorage, these roads open up for the first time the approaches to the whole northern slope of the Chugach and Wrangell Mountains. The Wrangells could previously be easily reached in summer after the opening of the Richardson Highway (mid-June), but the northern side of the Chugachs was never possible to reach except by a long expensive packtrain trip from Palmer or Gulkans. The Glenn Highway now passes within a stone’s throw of the end of the Matanuska Glacier on which we established our air-supplied base camp for the Marcus Baker (13,250 ft.) climb in 1938 (See A.A.J. iii, 255) at considerable cost, danger, and difficulty. Chugach weather can never be accurately described in mixed company, but the mountains and glaciers of this range are among the most beautiful, rugged and entrancing in all North America.

The mountains of the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula, most of which are as yet unclimbed, will remain almost as inaccessible after the war as they were before, excepting that they, like the rest of Alaska, will be brought much nearer to us by accelerated means of transportation. The Fairweather range will change little until the day when an intermediate airfield is almost certain to be constructed on the unfortunately ideally-suited lowlands just N. of Lituya Bay. The splendid airport near Yakutat will do little more than save time for those interested in breaching the western bulwarks of the St. Elias Range. Mt. Logan still remains as inaccessible in 1943 as it was when it was climbed in 1925.

McKinley Park with its maze of glorious peaks, its glaciers, its fishing, its game, and its excellent highway seems to the writer to present the greatest opportunity in Alaska to the mountaineer interested in matching his skill against the greatest peaks that North America has to offer. Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker are only two of a host of superb peaks. Not a single mountain in the park but these two has yet been climbed, and the heart of the Alaska Range is still almost entirely unmapped. The ascent of McKinley itself will never again be the problem that it was in the early days, when it had to be approached by dog team or packtrain from Anchorage or by motor launch up the Kantishna. The Muldrow Glacier is now but 18 miles from a splendid motor road—an easy two-day walk across the beautiful lowlands of the McKinley Fork and Clearwater and through the Cache Creek hills.

The future of McKinley Park is in the lap of the National Park Service. If the present road is continued across the McKinley Fork and over toward the base of Mt. McKinley, it will bring into relatively easy grasp one of North America’s most beautiful and lofty wildernesses. Alaska’s isolation alone will protect McKinley Park from ever being “overrun with tourists.” Some worried individuals still cry aloud whenever they hear of plans for a new road or trail in this vast territory, but the terrain of Alaska itself is amply rough enough to provide an eternal safeguard against its suffering the much-lamented fate of Chamonix and Zermatt. Yet, how few of us still do not pray for the chance to go climbing again on the beautiful slopes of the Verte, the Grépon, or the Dent Blanche, which seem to have suffered but little from the onslaught of tourists in the valleys ?

New airlines, more frequent sea travel, the road system within Alaska itself, and the attitude of the Federal Government toward post-war Alaska are factors which I believe will bring the mountains of Alaska and the Yukon far closer to the American mountaineer than the construction of the much-publicized Alcan Highway. The war and its consequences are sure to result in a tremendous change in the farms and villages of the north, but the Alaskan wilderness is certain to remain as fascinating and beautiful as always.