American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Alaska and the Yukon, West Buttress of Mount McKinley, 1952

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 1953

Alaska and the Yukon

West Buttress of Mount McKinley, 1952. In the 1952 Journal it was suggested that air support is necessary for success on the western side of McKinley. Our group tried unsuccessfully to get permission from the National Park Service to drop supplies in this wilderness area; we were therefore forced to walk in to our base and take pack animals as far as possible.

California members, Dick Irvin, Fritz Lippmann, Dick and Mary Houston, flew north to the Park to meet Chet and Evelyn Errett, Phil Bettler, Paul Livingstone, and Bucky Wilson. Our pack animals were brought in from Lignite, Alaska, by Carl Anderson, and in late June we treked the 70 miles across the tundra in two groups from Wonder Lake to base camp on the Straightaway Glacier (5500 ft.). The first group moved with the pack animals and reached a point 6 miles from base camp in 3 days. Birch creek proved formidable, however, and one sturdy horse and 200 pounds of equipment were lost to the Bering Sea. This necessitated Phil’s returning to Fairbanks and bringing in more supplies and equipment, delaying the group about 5 days. The California contingent backpacked across the wastes three days later and met Phil with the outgoing horses at the Muddy River which comes out of the Peters Glacier. On July 2nd we were all finally consolidated at base camp and ready to move upward. Rain had plagued us so far, but we hoped for the sun, a wish not granted for very long. Relaying, we moved our supplies to Peters Pass (8000 ft.) and on to Peters Basin below the West Buttress. After two fine days the Kahiltna pass began to pour down its almost continuous snow to the accompaniment of a steady wind, and for five days our movements were confined to the three tents. Two of them ripped, forcing us to depend more and more on our sturdy Logan tent. The wind increased in velocity with each day, reaching gusts of 75 mph. Finally we had a brief respite and moved camp to 10,300 feet, just under the Kahiltna pass and Peak, 10,750 feet. Again progress was stopped because of storms, and, after a noon break, we moved out at night and the following morning finally reached the Kahiltna Glacier at 10,000 feet. This point, which had taken us 24 days to reach with our supplies and equipment, had been the landing site for all but four of the successful 1951 group. We were of course following the route of four of the 1951 climbers from Wonder Lake. Camp was established below the Buttress at 12,000 feet with the prospects dimming with each new day of bad weather. After a short reconnaissance and a look at our dwindling food, we decided to move downward and return over Kahiltna and Peters passes to the tundra. The outward trip was indeed hard going with 80- to 90-pound packs the rule and streams running very high. The Muddy proved to be so difficult that Bucky had to swim the roaring stream to establish a line. Each member in turn was then hauled across the high stream. The McKinley River also proved difficult and necessitated a 30-hour wait for favorable water conditions. The return trip of 80 miles from 12,000 feet took some seven days of constant backpacking, mosquito slapping, and stream crossing.

At Wonder Lake, Grant Pearson met us and we were offered our first hot-cake breakfast in some time. In retrospect it seems as if packing by horse in Alaska is difficult, very costly, and somewhat uncertain. Where air support can be obtained—and there is no reason for a ban in the wild wilderness areas—it is recommended as almost a necessity. Alaskan mountaineering is much different from that in many other areas of the world, and to be safe, men must depend on the airplane, a feature fast becoming a fixture in the rest of Alaska. Why it should be kept out of this remote, trackless wilderness, except for scientific parties, in the name of the National Park, is hard to understand, since probably only a few people will now be able to visit this magnificent side of McKinley. The airplane would allow many more mountaineering parties to visit the entire mountain. Perhaps the future will see this unfortunate ban on air support in McKinley Park lifted and replaced with regulations of a 'more reasonable kind.

R. C. Houston

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