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North America, United States and Canada, Alaska and the Yukon, Mt. McKinley: A Proposed New Route

Alaska and the Yukon

Mt. McKinley: A Proposed New Route. In a somewhat unusual article published in the 1947 A.A.J., I discussed two possible new routes up Mt. McKinley.1 Since then, I have flown around the mountain on numerous occasions; and in 1951 I had the good fortune to participate in the first ascent of McKinley by one of the routes I had described. My purpose in this note is to comment on the present condition of the still unclimbed route up the N. face of the N. Peak and to suggest serious consideration of still another route via the western ridge of the N. Peak.

During the last five years, the condition of Peters Glacier2 has greatly deteriorated. Not only is the surface no longer the beautiful, smooth promenade that it was in 1903,3 but it is markedly different even from what it was six or seven years ago. The ice around and below the Tluna Icefall has roughened and shrunk away from the valley walls; and, although not at all impossible, it presents much more disagreeable walking than it did a few years ago. Since 1945, when the pictures illustrating the article in the 1947 A.A.J. were taken, even the surface of Jeffery Glacier has broken up surprisingly.

On 2 June 1951 Terris Moore and I landed in his Super Cub (equipped with ski-wheels) on the level surface of the upper Peters Basin, exactly where a landing had been proposed.4 The landing was about as late in the year as would be safe, except after a heavy winter, as crevasses were already beginning to open. It can now be said definitely, however, that safe landings can be made here and that the altitude is about 7700 ft.

Also, using a pack train from Wonder Lake to a point just below the main bend of Straightaway Glacier, the four-man Denver contingent of our 1951 expedition crossed Peters Pass (8200 ft.) on foot, in order to attain Kahiltna Pass, where our main base camp was located (10,000 ft.).5 It took three days by pack train to reach the limit of horse travel (5300 ft.) just below the Crosson corner. From here it was a four-mile climb to Peters Pass over a dying glacier, gutted with crevasses and two minor icefalls, and covered with treacherous June slush.

Peters Basin has now been reached three times in three different ways: on foot, by climbing the whole length of Peters Glacier (Cook, 1903); on foot, with the aid of a pack train, via Peters Pass (Ambler, Bishop, Griffiths and More, 1951); and by airplane (Moore and Washburn, 1951). The last two methods proved so much more practical than the first that it is important to record them.

Peters Basin is a wonderful spot from which to start a splendid new route up the N. Peak of McKinley—a route fully as interesting and difficult as the Wickersham Wall route described in my A.A.J. article in 1947. Space is not available for a detailed description of this route. It is basically Dr. Cook’s route of 1903,6 except that it does not lead to the S. Peak as Cook erroneously thought. The proposed route is as follows:

Above an excellent base campsite in Peters Basin, attain the 11,000-ft. shoulder where Cook had his last camp. This can probably be done best via the snow slopes on the left (N.) side of the bottom of this buttress, except under conditions of deep fresh snow or slush.

From this 11,000-ft. camp to the next proposed campsite at 13,500 ft. is one of the two most difficult parts of the climb. At first a gentle snow slope, the ridge rapidly gets steeper; and around 12,000 ft. the first rock ledges (black schist) are passed. A steep cliff of rock (about 12,700 ft.) rises dead ahead, and the snow should probably be followed all the way to its base. At or near its base, traverse to the right (S.), attaining the rock ridge that dominates the tremendous gulf at the head of the S. fork of Peters Glacier. This rock should provide reasonably good going to the base of another and much larger pyramidal peak (13,500 ft.).

Steep ledges of rock and snow gullies will be encountered in a direct climb of this peak. If they prove impracticable, a steep traverse to the left (E.) leads to a very steep snow slope by which the crest of the ridge can again be reached just behind the tip of Point 13,500. Here a bit of level snow ridge, with prodigious views in all directions, will provide a safe but exposed campsite. Liberal use of ¼-in. fixed ropes in this part of the climb can render all going safe and secure after a reconnaissance.

Above here the grade is at first much less precipitous. The ridge now consists of ledges of alternating schist and granite, with large drifts and patches of snow that should facilitate climbing except after recent blizzards. At about 14,000 ft. there is a short steep pitch, and near 15,000 ft. the crest peters out in a beetling rock crag. A traverse to the right here would probably lead into much better going up a snow gully that leads to the ridge ahead—provided that the first steep traverse under the cliffs could be effected safely. If not, the steep going appears to be relatively brief (about 600 vertical ft.). Most of the bad spots should be solved by short traverses to either left or right if a direct attack did not work.

This spot and the approach to Point 13,500 will certainly prove the most difficult parts of the whole climb. Again, the judicious use of fixed rope on the reconnaissance will make future relays much safer and speedier. Above these ledges, several massive granite crags rise right ahead at the bend of the ridge. By cutting to the right of them (if they do not yield easily), the crest of the ridge overlooking the magnificent upper basin of Peters Glacier is attained at about 15,600 ft.

Here is a perfect campsite, above which no more major difficulties at all remain. The going is downright easy along the top of the ridge, which now swings in a gentle arc to the top of Point 16,600. The grade is gentle; and the crest is broad and rounded, consisting of granite boulders and ledges interspersed with hard-packed drifts.

At the top of Point 16,600 (more of a dome than a point), there is virtually level going for several hundred yards, leading to the foot of the last steep pitch guarding the approaches to the Great Plateau of the N. Peak. Although the entire ascent to the top of the N. Peak can probably be effected in a single day from the 15,600-ft. camp, an advance camp at the foot of this slope would be highly advisable. Trail markers are of vital importance over every inch of the route from here on.

The snow dome now visible ahead, underlain by ledges of ink- black schist, is almost exactly 18,000 ft. high. Bear to the left at first, avoiding the steep rocks; then swing back to the right as the slope becomes steeper. At about 17,300 ft., as the schist ledges are turned to the left (N.), there is some steep snow; but the surface at this altitude is usually well-packed on pitches like this, exposed to the prevailing W. winds. This slope should be reconnoitered in the afternoon, as it will be very cold climbing in the early morning shadows.

At 18,000 ft. the grade rapidly lessens, and the summit of Point 18,700 appears ahead. It can be climbed relatively easily by following the left (N.W.) skyline, composed of ledges of black schist and patches of steep snow. Thence the final ridge can be followed (1 mi.) to the summit of the N. Peak (19,440 ft.) with no difficulty. If one did not wish to climb over Point 18,700, it would be simple to detour it to the right (S.) via the Great Plateau, which averages about 18,- 500 ft. in elevation. The N. Peak’s summit cone can then be climbed either directly from the W. (as above) or via its S. side by a relatively easy scramble up ledges of black schist and patches of hard-packed snow.

The distance from the 15,600-ft. campsite to the top is slightly more than three miles—all over extremely exposed terrain, as McKinley’s bad weather most frequently comes from the W. and S.W. This new route offers a splendid challenge to any group of experienced climbers eager to pioneer an attack on a side of McKinley long believed to be impossible.

Bradford Washburn

1 Bradford Washburn, “Mt. McKinley from the North and West,” A.A.J., VI (1947), 283-93.

2 Originally named thus by Brooks in 1902; changed to “Hanna Glacier” by Wickersham in 1903. Recendy the original name was officially confirmed.

3 See Robert Dunn, The Shameless Diary of an Explorer (New York, 1907).

4 Washburn, op. cit., p. 291. Note that official permission for all airplane landings in McKinley Park is required by the National Park Service.

5 This practical approach to Peters Basin was discovered during our helicopter flights of 1949.

6 For an excellent account, see Dunn, op. ch., especially pp. 181-233.