American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Harvard 1952 Brooks—Mather Expedition

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  • Publication Year: 1953

Harvard 1952 Brooks—Mather Expedition

Thayer Scudder

THE afternoon of 25 June 1952 four members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club sat at McKinley Park Station waiting for the freight from Fairbanks. It was a pleasant wait, our first real rest since a chaotic drive up the Alaskan Highway in our reconverted hearse. The hearse had been bought in the spring by nine of us and handed over to David Bernays, M. I. T. ’53, to strip down to its “rollers.” If Dave could so fix up our purchase that it would convey our four-man expedition and the Harvard McKinley Expedition safely to McKinley Park, it was to become his own. The gamble paid off, yet not without, on occasion, raising our fears. Even a 2½ -ton hearse is well loaded with 3400 extra pounds of mountaineers, with their food and equipment!

The four-man Harvard Brooks-Mather Expedition was scientifically inclined. Bradford Washburn had authorized us to carry out a surveying program to enhance his uncontrolled map of the McKinley area. To help this program, Harvard University loaned the expedition an excellent Travistock theodolite, while the Boston Museum of Science had given us the use of Brad’s whirling mirrors. We were to set up equipment, if possible, on the summit of Mount Brooks and also on McGonagall Mountain, to obtain horizontal and vertical angles between designated points around the compass. In addition to this survey program was the objective of making a complete botanical collection from the McGonagall Pass area for the Grey Herbarium at Harvard. These scientific interests, however, were not to result in our ignoring the mountains enclosing us, the lure that had originally drawn us to this area. We hoped to make first ascents not only of 11,990-foot Mount Brooks but also of 12,040-foot Mount Mather, and Peak “5,” the latter a spectacular 12,400-foot spur of Mount Silverthrone.

As for expedition personnel, all were embryonic scientists. Winslow Briggs, just through his first year as graduate student in biology, was our botanist. John S. Humphreys, Harvard ’54, was to assist with the surveying, while Dave Bernays, our hearse and expedition mechanic, was to get us to Alaska.

When, on the evening of June 25th, the hearse finally did arrive by flatcar from Fairbanks, we drove most of the equipment west that night the 87 miles to Wonder Lake (2100 ft.). Nearby, where the 18-mile “trail” to McGonagall Pass begins, we were to meet Carl Anderson, our packer, on the 27th. The weather was unsettled, clouds alternately breaking and reforming over the lesser summits, while a dense shroud enveloped McKinley and its satellites. I remember how on the evening of the 26th, when all gear had been properly duffled and inventoried for the horses, we had from time to time gazed off into the clouds of the Alaska Range—waiting for them to rise and vanish. How amazed we were when the top of McKinley finally emerged fully 5000 feet higher than we had expected!

The hike in, across the McKinley forks and then through some 14 miles of mosquito-infested tundra, went off without mishap. Carl Anderson unloaded our gear in the Cache Creek basin at about 4200 feet, roughly a mile below McGonagall Pass. He had done a fine job. By June 27th, Wonder Lake lay well behind us. It seemed many days before, that Humphreys and I had spent an extra day setting up the whirling mirrors on Geodetic Survey bench marks at Camp Eielson and Wonder Lake. These mirrors, a unique device powered by an anemometer, consist of a series of round mirrors adjusted at various angles off an horizontal plane. As the mirrors revolved, we hoped the flashes would be visible to us when we reached the summit of Mount Brooks. In case they were not, we had taken the added precaution of painting white - stealthily of course - the south side of a prominent boulder that borders the Park “highway.”

We were now faced with the chore of moving most of our supplies from Carl Anderson’s dump (our Camp I) over to the base of Mount Brooks. We knew of two alternate routes. Both, whether following Cache or Oastler Creeks, would enable us to penetrate those rocky mountains of a Scottish character that border the Muldrow Glacier on the north to an altitude of some 6000 feet and form a final barrier to this region of the Alaskan Range.

The first route required packing up to McGonagall Pass (5600 ft.) via the Cache Creek Canyon. From McGonagall it would be necessary to wallow out onto the Muldrow Glacier, descending and crossing it a total of five miles to the confluence of the Brooks Glacier with the Muldrow. Here, at 5350 feet, we were to establish our main base camp (Camp II) under the shadow of the long northeast ridge of Mount Brooks. Later in the summer, when the firn line had retreated above McGonagall Pass, we found this route excellent, enabling us in three hours to pack heavy loads back and forth between McGonagall Pass and Camp II.

The alternate route required us to back-track about half a mile down Cache Creek to its confluence with Oastler Creek which drains from the southeast a wide and beautiful U-shaped valley. On ascending this, one comes to Oastler Pass which breaks through to the Muldrow some four miles down the glacier from McGonagall Pass and directly across from Mount Brooks. Perhaps this route is a trifle longer, yet the pack through the springy tundra is delightful, marred only slightly by two steep pitches at the valley’s head. When these can be ascended at night in snow-filled gullies, the glissade down is well worth while, yet once the snow melts, one would be wiser to stay away.

Between June 29th and July 4th we packed 14 loads over to Camp II and established two caches—one at McGonagall Pass and one in the Cache Creek Basin. These consisted of botanizing equipment to be used at a later date. Although on two of these packing days it rained, when finally it did clear after supper on July 2nd, the jagged front that swept in from the north brought three days of beautiful weather. I remember these well, for out of 34 days in this area, we enjoyed only three others like them. Late that night we were off for Oastler Pass. The air was cool, a thin film of ice forming over backwaters that seeped into depressions away from the current of the tundra streams. Overhead the clouds were breaking up, glints of blue creasing the blue-grey overcast that hung together like fleece. Ahead and behind, gentle sloping tundra, covered with flowers, stretched for miles, concealing the many ptarmigan whose startled cries we often heard. Dryas and white heather were almost phosphorescent in the subdued light.

When we reached the pass it was sunrise. Across the Muldrow from east to west loomed the grey white shapes of Mather, Deception, Brooks, and McKinley. And as we watched, these snow- clad peaks turned pink until their ridges seemed afire. Nibbling some pemmican, we stood and watched until the first rays of the sun burst over the hills behind us to dispel the alpine glow.

On July 4th the final loads were relayed to Brooks Base Camp. Two mountain tents and a large Abercrombie Camp Tent were pitched. The site was ideal, the only flat stretch of moraine for miles. A small stream draining snow-filled gullies supplied fresh water, while a nearby snow patch served as an icebox. We were finally in a position to concentrate on our first objective; for if the weather held, the next day we could attempt Brooks.

July 5th the weather held good, although a strong wind kept us in camp until 8:00 A.M. The ascent, unlike that of Mount Mather later in the season, offered few problems. It remains a constant source of amazement to me that this beautiful peak, so prominent to all who reach McGonagall Pass, had remained unclimbed for so long. The one practical route, the long northeast ridge, could even be climbed in a day from McGonagall.

This northeast ridge ends in a huge shoulder some 2000 feet above Camp II. Early in July, we could kick steps up this initial portion with a minimum of scree scrambling and step cutting; later we found the winter snow mostly melted away below 7000 feet, leaving exposed ice and scree. On reaching the ridge, we climbed gently upward some 2000 feet until our route merged at right angles into the main axis of Mount Brooks that runs north and south. Actually we found ourselves some 500 feet below this main axis with what seemed a potential windslab avalanche slope in between. Yet we found the snow granular and stable, and ascended without difficulty. The view was inspiring, for now we could see McKinley to the west, while our route ahead looked like some vast highway of the gods. The Brooks Ridge was beautifully corniced its entire length. As we climbed, the smaller northeast ridge dropped away below and behind, the huge broken glaciers on Brooks’ east face taking its place. The snow was now deep and powdery, occasionally supporting a hard crust sculptured by the prevailing winds. We found crampons more valuable than snow- shoes. Once our highway narrowed and steepened into an interesting pitch where we placed a fixed rope as an aid to our return.

We reached the summit cone slightly after 4:00 P.M. By then the weather had broken to obscure the view. Remaining only long enough to photograph the H.M.C. banner and secure a few specimens of the black shale so characteristic of Mount Brooks, we began our return climb, pleased at our success and happy in the knowledge that a survey camp could be established on the summit.

Our descent was rapid even though all were tired, for ominous clouds were rolling in from the southeast. Our potential avalanche slope was in the shade now, requiring considerable care. Near its bottom, Briggs and I tried some practice belaying only to find ourselves soon sliding rapidly downhill until my determined effort to stop myself ended our journey. As Briggs was on his first mountaineering expedition, the rest of us were determined to initiate him the hard way.

When we reached camp at 8:30 P.M., we knew our climbing weather was over. One of those strangely weird sunsets, when the entire western horizon takes on a greenish hue, was drawing to a close. And in camp the wind had increased, as indicated by our two collapsed mountain tents. That night we dug a garbage pit and settled down.

Rain fell during the next three days, not constantly, yet frequently enough to keep us from reascending Brooks. No sooner would the rocks dry outside our tent than the rain and mist would again beat down. The third day, Briggs and I hiked up the Muldrow to McGonagall Pass for a check on our equipment tent. We found it collapsed as expected, while, nearby, a neat pile of unprotected yellow cylinders, labeled “Cruz Roja” told us that the long delayed Mexican McKinley party had finally arrived. Fortifying their cylinder lids with stones, we hoped that the McGonagall Pass bears did not like tortillas.

Briggs did some botanizing while I climbed McGonagall Mountain (6400 feet) to establish a survey cairn on the summit. It snowed a bit, unsettled weather soon ending our activities. McGonagall Pass left me in no doubt that it boasted some of the worst weather in the Alaska Range. Only the short-billed gulls, which apparently breed here, relished the location. We called them “Andrews,” after one bird that had endeared itself to us at our Cache Creek Campsite.

On the 9th, Humphreys and I left Camp II, early, to pack the survey gear as far up Brooks as possible. By now the weather was following a pattern—the evening, night, and early morning were beautiful, while during the day the mountains were hidden in mist. On reaching the first false summit above 11,000 feet—and there is a series of them, we cached the theodolite and retreated, to meet the other climbers, coming with huge packs, just below 10,000 feet. That night we established Camp III (9800 ft.), pitching both mountain tents on a narrow shelf protected from above by the icy wall of a massive earthquake crack. It was a spectacular site perched on the very edge of the main Brooks Ridge with the Muldrow lying some 4000 feet directly below.

The next morning Humphreys and I reached the summit. The weather was discouraging. For several hours we stood around hoping in vain for some reference point to emerge from the cold mist. Caching the theodolite, we descended to Camp III, where we found that Dave and Win had manufactured a beautiful snow camp. They had constructed a huge arching “kitchen” of snow blocks against the sixty-foot revetment of the earthquake crack and built up much-needed walls around the mountain tents.

On July 11th we went to the summit to stay. While Humphreys and I surveyed, Bernays and Briggs dug a cave into the summit cone, arching its entrance with snow blocks. Afterward they returned to Camp III. We found it very windy. Sudden gusts would jam the surveyor’s eye into the eye-piece, yet we had so frozen the tripod legs into the snow that they wouldn’t budge. That night we surveyed until 10:00 P.M. The evening was beautiful, a half moon lying just over Mather, while the alpine glow hung above the horizon and clung to the north slope of McKinley. Forced into our cave by a rising wind, we barricaded the entrance with packboards. Still the night was cold, windblown snow sifting in over us. It was a night when one prayed for a method of suspending himself within his sleeping bag without touching the sides.

The next morning I arose at 2:00 A.M., and Humphreys got up shortly afterward. We surveyed until 10:00 A.M. when the clouds swept in. Yet those eight hours, like the eight the day before, had been very productive. We had surveyed every important point, including Wonder Lake and Camp Eielson as disclosed by occasional flashes of the whirling mirrors. As for the rock we had painted white, it shone like a beacon. At noon Dave and Win arrived with some food and a stove. That afternoon they went down to Camp II, partially evacuating Camp III on the way.

Humphreys and I remained in our summit cave waiting for it to clear that afternoon. When it did not, we tried to light the stove, only to watch the infernal thing nearly explode, forcing us to throw it hastily out the entrance. Fortunately we still had our beards, although the entire inside of the cave was black with soot. Later that afternoon, we built a large cairn of snow blocks on the summit before descending in the mist to Camp III. The next morning, with the weather slowly closing in for good, we went down to base camp, finding the lower slopes of Mount Brooks grown treacherous. The winter snow was melting fast, requiring us to cut steps for long stretches and wear crampons until we reached a final thousand feet of scree that brought us into Camp II.

That night it rained, bad weather continuing until the 19th. Twice Briggs and I climbed the Muldrow to McGonagall Pass to botanize, but on both occasions rain or sleet soon curtailed activities. On the second trip, however, we ran into Captain William Hackett and his party as they were returning from their successful ascent of McKinley. Hospitably entertained at tea, we were relieved to learn that the party had not attempted an ascent of Mount Brooks, as had been rumored to us in Fairbanks. Ours was the first ascent.

Back at Brooks Base camp, the arrival of an “Andrew” livened us up. We were all delighted, especially Bernays, who I suspect was interested in our mascot for other reasons than aesthetic. Several times we caught him muttering over his worn sleeping bag about the possible merits of crushed gull feathers.

On July 18th, tired of sitting, we sorted out five days food and started up the Brooks Glacier. At about 6800 feet we established camp at the base of the Mather Icefall, that spectacular snout of the East Brooks Glacier where it tumbles out of the huge Mather basin. Here the glaciers, no longer littered with morainic debris, looked as they should. That same day, in driving snow, we willow- wanded the Mather Icefall to 8000 feet before being forced back to camp because of poor visibility. Perhaps, we hoped, the violent weather that continued all night was a sign of an impending front. And we proved right. By noon on the 20th, clearing weather had swept over us, just as it had some two weeks before.

The ascent of Mather, on July 20th and 21st, was the climax of the expedition. With beautiful weather we snowshoed up the Mather Icefall through the maze of crevasses that we had willow-wanded the day before. Against a background of Mount Deception, seracs reared upward like grotesque animals twisting in pain. By three o’clock we stood at the top of the icefall, looking up the serpentine East Brooks Glacier. The sun was intensely hot, three sides of the glacier hemmed in by glaring white peaks. Small avalanches continually broke loose from Deception and Mather “A”—both peaks yielding little approach from this direction. In silence we snowshoed up the glacier, the huge Mather basin growing continually closer while at our backs stood Mount Brooks and the twin peaks of McKinley.

The summit ridge of Mather is narrow and long (half a mile in length), with three separate summits along its crest, of which the centermost is the highest. Our approach was to strike at the true summit from the west, quitting the East Brooks Glacier well below the huge cirque of its origin that lies beneath the Mather Headwall. Such a route would enable us to traverse the long summit ridge from the North Peak to the true summit and perhaps on to the south and lowest summit.

Once we left the glacier we ascended a long snow slope toward Mather Col (10,000 ft.) that lies between Mather North and Mount Mutt (ca. 10,200 ft.) to the northwest. Far below we could see our tracks twisting like some huge snake stretched out at rest. The air was growing colder now, hardening the corn snow until our snowshoes began to slip. “Sidehilling” up the last steep pitch below the col, I felt like a cow on a Swiss hillside.

At seven, in the evening mist, we reached the col and removed our snowshoes. Above us a 45-degree slope angled up to the Mather ridge, steepening near its top to 60 degrees. We started up in single file on 240 feet of rope. The snow still was soft and deep, a crust not yet formed by the evening cold. We were two- thirds of the way up, when, without notice, the entire slope settled with a terrifying snap—like thick ice breaking up in spring. And just ahead a thin line of cleavage appeared, perhaps a quarter of an inch wide. It was a frightening moment! We hastily climbed some 30 feet to where the slope steepened and turned to ice, our route twisting up between rocky outcrops. Clinging to one of these, we eyed the slope below; but it never budged again. With crampons now on, we cut steps up the final pitch, reaching the Mather ridge some 700 feet below the North Summit. The sun, a fiery though heatless ball, cast a pale glow upon us, while far out over the valley to the north the thousands of tiny muskeg lakes reflected like mirrors.

The rest of the ascent was sensational. Although technically not difficult, the knife-edged ridge offered tremendous exposure and occasional steep pitches. We moved continually, quite secure on our four-man rope, picking a route along the Mather crest with deep windslab often on one side, cornice on the other. At 1:00 A.M. we reached the expansive north summit. Then we traversed the knife-edged ridge to the true summit, arriving at 2:30 A.M. It was sunrise, yet the early rays of light that touched the wind- sculptured snow created no inner warmth. Elated but cold, we ignored the difficult traverse to the lower south summit and descended rapidly to Mather Col. During the next few hours we climbed both Mutt and 9950-foot Mount Jeff, and started up Wedge, only to retreat some 600 feet below the summit because of avalanche danger. A broiling descent down the East Brooks Glacier brought us back to camp after 24 hours of almost continual climbing.

The next morning, the weather still beautiful, we left camp for Brooks Gap—a long, gradual snowshoe journey up the Brooks Glacier to its origin at 11,000 feet. First our route was flanked by Deception and Brooks, then higher up by the Alphabet peaks and massive Mount Silverthrone. Reaching the previously unexplored Gap, we gazed with awe over the corniced rim where, several thousand feet below, a tributary to the Eldridge Glacier arose. No one, we felt, could penetrate the Alaska Range by that route. Shortly after we had judged Peak “5” practically impossible from this side, we turned our attention to 11,400-foot Peak “A,” which we climbed without difficulty. Now the weather was showing signs of breaking, clouds beginning to drift in between Silverthrone and Brooks. It was evening. Slowly we climbed down to the col be- between Peaks “A” and “B” and then ascended the latter by a short but interesting corniced knife-edge. Twelve midnight again found us back in camp, after descending the west ridge of Peak “B” to the Brooks Glacier where we struck our morning’s trail. So ended our last climbing day.

During the final eight days the weather was generally poor.

Six of the eight it rained. Rapidly we evacuated our Mather Icefall camp to Camp II, relaying the latter to McGonagall Pass and from there back down into the Cache Creek basin where we set up a botanizing camp at 4000 feet. While Briggs collected specimens in the Cache Creek basin, Humphreys and I climbed McGonagall Mountain to survey and finish the collection for that area. We were overjoyed to see how well our snow cairn on the summit of Brooks stood out.

The pack out to Wonder Lake was long and wet. Because of the bulky botanical collection, it was necessary for each man to relay out two loads. Even then we left 60 pounds of miscellaneous equipment for one of the Geodetic Survey’s helicopters to pick up. On July 30th we made the last wet crossing of the McKinley Forks. The day before had been even more unpleasant. In a continual drizzle we had each crossed the Clearwater three times. Swollen with rain, its rocky bottom in motion, this generally placid stream, to me, was one of the worst hazards of the summer. Yet remarkably enough, our presses remained relatively dry.

The analysis of the collection revealed that 28 plant families are represented. During the expedition, the McGonagall Pass area was collected throughout the flowering season. And a beautiful flowering season it is, the rocky slopes literally covered with thousands of yellow arctic poppies, purple saxifrages, and tiny pinks—to mention only a few. It is our hope that the collection may give the Alaskan mountaineer a more comprehensive knowledge of the flora he so often sees yet seldom knows.

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