The First Traverse of Mt. McKinley
A First Ascent of the South Buttress
MORTON S. WOOD
During the summer of 1953 Elton
Thayer, then a ranger at Mt. McKinley National Park, began plans for a new attempt on Mt. McKinley by the South Buttress1 route. There had been considerable speculation as to the feasibility of this approach, but since Belmore Browne had been turned back at the head of the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier in 1910, no one had attempted it again for over 40 years. Elton’s spare time during the winter of 1953-54 was devoted to planning this trip, which resulted in an extremely well-organized expedition. By early April our group of four was organized and equipped. The party consisted of Elton Thayer; George Argus, a climbing instructor at the Big Delta Arctic Indoctrination School; Leslie Viereck, then serving in the Army at Fort Richardson in Anchorage; and myself. All of us had made our homes in Alaska and had attended the University of Alaska at some time. Elton had done considerable climbing in Alaska and the Yukon, including the first ascents of King Peak and Mt. Hess. George Argus had spent a season with the American Geographical Society’s Juneau Ice Cap Expedition. Les Viereck had been with Elton two years before on a reconnaissance trip on Mt. Drum in the Wrangell
Range and had done a great deal of hiking in McKinley Park during his two years as a temporary ranger there. I had been on McKinley in 1947 but had not reached the top because of altitude sickness. I had also done some climbing in France and Switzerland and in the Alaska Range.
On April 17th, the four of us began the long hike from Curry on the Alaska Railroad to the Ruth Glacier. This was the last we were to see of civilization for almost six weeks. Our packs weighed between 70 and 80 pounds, and contained rations and gas for ten days and all the equipment we would need for hiking the 40 miles to the Great Basin of the Ruth Glacier. Here we planned to have my wife, Ginny, make us an air drop from our Cessna 170 airplane four days after our departure. She was to drop us 30 days’ rations and all our high-altitude climbing equipment.
Elton’s wife, Bernice, had made us two very strong and lightweight tents, a two-man size and a three-man size. These worked out excellently through the entire trip and showed no sign of wear, despite hard usage and strong winds.
As soon as we had hiked the first mile, we realized how optimistic had been our estimate of four days to the Great Basin. Dense alders, willows, cottonwoods, and devil’s club combined with deep wet snow to make progress exasperatingly difficult and slow. We were lucky to find an ice bridge on the Susitna River, over which we belayed each other. Had we been a few days later, we would not have been able to cross at all, since the cable bridge was completely rotten and useless. After a day and a half of miserably difficult snowshoeing we arrived at the confluence of Troublesome Creek and the Chulitna River at about 6:00 P.M. on the evening of the 18th. We had been obliged to use our snowshoes during the entire trip, and in the heat of the day one could never take more than two steps without knocking off the heavy mass of wet snow that adhered to them. This condition continued for the 50 miles to our base camp.
We woke each morning at 4:00 or 4:30 A.M. to take advantage of the coolest hours of the morning when the snow was hard. April is the ideal month for climbing on the south side of McKinley, but the first of April would have been better than the 18th. The weather was already uncomfortably hot during the day. We saw bear tracks on Troublesome Creek and evidence of over-browsing of the willows by moose.
Despite hiking long hours we were still five miles below the air-drop site in the Great Basin when Ginny flew over on April 22nd. She signaled that she had observed the large “SAT” signal which we stamped in the snow, indicating that we would reach the basin by Saturday—two more days.
The warm sunny weather continued as we made our way around to the east of the lowest icefalls, past Glacier Point, and through the Great Gorge. This section would be very difficult if not impossible to negotiate much later in the year because of the tremendous size of the crevasses.
Evening of the 22nd saw us camped about halfway up the Great Gorge on smooth glacier covered with hard-packed snow. The temperatures that day had been 18° at 5:00 A.M., 44° at 2:30 P.M., and 14° at 6:00 P.M. We got up at 4:15 on the 23rd while the sun was just painting the tops of the tremendous granite cliffs that rise vertically from the flat icy floor of the Great Gorge. A brisk wind and temperature of 16° encouraged us to hike as fast as possible the remaining distance to the Great Basin, where the hot sun could reach and warm us. We were amazed to see old wolverine tracks at this elevation, about 20 miles from the end of the glacier, and speculated why these animals so frequently wander high up on the ice fields of Alaska.
The Great Basin of the Ruth Glacier is an almost flat desert like expanse of ice, fed by dozens of glaciers which rise near the crest of the Alaska Range. All this ice funnels down the Great Gorge as one solid ribbon, the Ruth Glacier. We picked out a suitable air-drop site, then spent the entire afternoon drying out equipment, melting snow in the sun to increase our water supply, and resting after our forced march. We measured the temperature on the surface of a dark-colored air mattress and found it 106° in the sun while the air temperature in the shade was only 31°!
The next day dawned clear and beautiful, a break we hadn’t dared hope for. Such a long uninterrupted spell of clear weather would be unimaginable a month later, after the air had warmed up for the summer. Ginny flew over at 7:30 A.M. and dropped the first load of bags from about 50 to 100 feet above the glacier. She returned with the remainder of our supplies at 9:30 A.M. The drop was very successful, and no damage to our equipment or supplies resulted. We disliked being dependent on air support, which is in turn dependent on good weather and calm air, but this particular climb would have been too difficult without it. To relay loads the 50 miles from Curry to our base camp at the head of the West Fork of Ruth Glacier would have been impractical.
Leaving behind a cache of ten days’ food and gas, we took one load of supplies about three miles up the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier and returned to our air-drop camp. The next day we broke camp and moved it on past the previous day’s cache a few miles beyond Mt. Huntington (12,240 ft.). We continued this leap-frog system all the rest of the way up the South Buttress, and thus our camp was never more than a half-day’s climb away from our relay load of food and gas. The next day we returned for the relay loads and brought them up to a spot just below a crevasse which at first looked impassable to us. We left our packs below it and went back to bring up camp.
The next morning we set out to find a way to cross the crevasse which extended completely across the glacier from the north wall of sheer rock to the south wall of jagged ice blocks. We never felt safe going very near the south edge of the glacier. Hundreds of tons of ice hang above it on the precipitous sides of Mt. Huntington. We heard and saw many avalanches along this canyon wall. We began to realize that this route would be too dangerous in any adverse snow conditions, as the height of the steep walls on each side of the glacier exceeded its width. To find safe campsites would then be impossible.
Elton and George, tied into one rope, explored to the south as far as they dared and found nothing but impassable séracs. Les and I went to the right along the rim of the crevasse to the edge of the glacier and found one possibility which would involve climbing down to the wide bottom of the crevasse, then cutting steps up the other side. If this could be done, I could see that we would be able to reach the other side by digging a short tunnel up through the ice and snow of the overhanging lip. This we did and, upon emerging into the daylight again, called for Elton and George to climb down and tie their packs onto the rope which Les and I lowered to them.
Getting ourselves and all our gear up through the tunnel consumed considerable time, but by 10:00 we had arrived at what appeared to us the least dangerous spot for our base camp. Before us rose the sheer walls of the head of the canyon. Blue ice slopes of 50° to 70° pitch, icefalls, and rock cliffs led us to dismiss the possibility of this originally proposed route. Our previous study of the aerial photos had given us no idea at all of the fantastic height of this canyon’s sides. We had seriously underestimated not only heights but also the steepness of the route. Immediately to the right, the slope was covered by two icefalls several hundred feet thick which were obviously the source of the many ice blocks covering the glacier. Farther around to the right and directly above our base camp we could see our only possibility. The slope, which rose at about 45° and was broken by several icefalls, also had smooth areas which looked safe for as high up as we could see. We went back for our relay load and had returned to base camp by 2:00 P.M., giving Elton and me time enough for a short reconnaissance up the slope.
The temperature next morning was 0° and the sky still clear. Starting up with our relay loads, we found the ice crusty and not strong enough to hold a piton but too strong for kicking steps. At 1:30 we cached our loads and returned to camp, arriving at 5:00. That night snow began to fall and continued lightly throughout the 29th, forcing us to remain in camp all day. Had the snowfall been heavy, we would have had to abandon the climb because of avalanche danger on the slope above us.
By morning of the 30th, the weather had improved and we moved our camp load up to the spot where we had cached the relay loads. Beyond this the slope became steeper and ice conditions improved enough to enable us to anchor a fixed rope with pitons. After cutting a few steps and belaying each other carefully, we emerged on top of the ridge and soon found a good location for Camp I in a sheltered basin behind a snowdrift. Here we had our first close view of the spectacular south face of Denali and the South Buttress which loomed high above us and which we would have to climb. The temperature at this higher elevation was —8° at 7:00 in the evening. The next day we brought our relay loads up to the camp by 2:00 and had enough time left to scout out a route over the narrow ridge which lay between us and the so-called “Peak 13,050'.”
On May 2nd, we broke camp at 6:00 A.M. and carried our relay loads across the narrow ridge, along the terrace behind Peak 13,050', and located a site for Camp II in the saddle between this peak and the impressive slope of the South Buttress. The ridge proved no problem at all and we returned for the camp load at 9:30 A.M. On the second trip from camp a strong wind arose and made establishment of Camp II a very slow and difficult proposition amid the blowing and drifting snow. We all felt an extreme sense of relief to be at last out of avalanche danger and high enough to see something besides the steep canyon walls that had surrounded us on the glaciers below.
The next day dawned clear again and Elton, George, and I started up the South Buttress slope. We found again the same conditions of soft and layered ice too weak to hold a piton. The only thing to do was to cut steps and be extremely careful. On some parts of the slope one could get a good belay with the ice- axe shaft, but these spots were relatively infrequent. We chopped steps until cold and fatigue forced us to return to camp where Les had everything dry and well organized. He had also built a snow-block wall around the camp for protection from the wind.
Step-chopping at this elevation (above 12,600 ft.) tired us more rapidly than it had below. We estimated that we had progressed about one-third of the distance up the slope. On May 4th we moved our relay loads up as high as the trail was cut and deposited them among some large granite boulders. We decided to continue climbing among the rocks since they at least provided occasional belay positions, and one could rest without cutting a bucket seat in the ice. As we climbed, the ice became harder, but it would have required at least 50 pitons to make the slope entirely safe, and we had only 12! We used the rocks and ice to our best advantage, however, and by installing three fixed ropes were able to climb in reasonable safety. One of our greatest difficulties was in trying to keep out of the way of falling ice chips dislodged by the lead man cutting steps. We measured the slope with the Brunton Compass and found it averaged about 46°, although some parts were closer to 50°. That day we chopped only about 100 yards of steps in five hours of steady work. On the morning of the 5th, in spite of clouds and snow, we started up again what we called our “Commuter’s Trail.” By this time we had developed a system for exchanging lead men without untying the rope. Intense cold with strong wind and snow forced us to retreat to camp at 1:00 P.M. when, with only a few more hours of chopping, we could have gained the top of the slope.
That night a storm settled in for good and continued for three days. The violent wind made it scarcely possible to move outside. Our home-made tents withstood the battering of the blizzard with no sign of damage, when it seemed that no fabric could possibly resist such stress as the storm inflicted. The temperature held at about 0°. On May 9th we dug ourselves out to find beautiful weather again. This storm fortunately proved the last bad weather of the trip.
By this time Elton had nicknamed our South Buttress slope the “Lotsa Face,” for obvious reasons. Instead of the estimated 1000 feet it seemed closer to 2000!2 We began to wonder if our supplies would permit us to spend much more time on this slope. If we didn’t reach the top soon, we would have to turn back or not allow an adequate safety margin in case of storm near the summit. This time George stayed behind to move camp since it was completely buried by snowdrifts. We found that three on the rope were better than four for step cutting, but we were in very poor condition for working after three days of idleness, and it required several hours for us to regain our normal drive. All our steps were drifted in and had to be dug out again. We finally topped the slope at about 3:00 P.M. (14,000 feet approximately). It was reassuring to get another look at old Denali which we hadn’t seen for a solid week! We saw a number of different species of birds on the way back to camp that night, including a flock of snow buntings and what appeared to be an owl flapping its wings vigorously and circling in an attempt to gain more altitude to get over the pass to the Kahiltna Glacier. He seemed to be flying at his absolute ceiling of about 13,000 feet. On this descent I counted the steps we had chopped—there were 1038 of them.
May 10th was clear and warm again and we had hauled both our loads to the top and established Camp III by 4:30 P.M. From this point we could see no safe route to the top of the First Buttress Peak (15,000 ft.) above us, but we started up with a load for a closer look. To the right the slope was very steep, solid ice. To the left we couldn’t see what the slope was like. Straight ahead there appeared a great cornice reaching out over the slope we had to climb. It would be impossible to avoid the cornice. It looked too big to tunnel through—even assuming it would be safe to walk up under it. As we approached the summit, the most fantastic formation I have ever seen in the mountains stood in our path—a cornice, not an ordinary one of snow, but one of ice! An overhanging glacier if such a thing exists!
Extending about 60 to 80 feet out over the Kahiltna Glacier, it formed a weird ice cave through which we walked and crawled a very long distance. In some places we had to remove our packs and push them ahead of us while wriggling on our stomachs to squeeze among the cold blue ice blocks and through the tiny passages. At each turn one almost expected to see stalactites and stalagmites as in a limestone cavern!
When we emerged again in the welcome sunlight, we had gone past the 15,000-foot summit of the First Buttress Peak and were actually on the Buttress itself. This would be Camp IV. When we had our second loads up to this point, we felt our goal was really in sight. Only about two more miles of climbing along the ridge and over the highest point of the Buttress, about 15,850 feet in elevation, remained before we would be on the side of McKinley itself. From this camp we decided not to relay any more. We would somehow carry both our loads together even though they would weigh about 90 lbs. The most troublesome items were our snowshoes which we had to carry throughout the whole trip for use in the descent down the Muldrow Glacier if we could make it over the shoulder of McKinley to the north side.
We left Camp IV at 7:30 A.M., May 12th, with our heavy loads and headed down the ridge. Soon we were confronted by a very sharp 60° section of ridge on the Kahiltna or west side and thigh-deep soft snow. The east side was quite sheer and icy. It dropped almost straight down 5,000 feet to the floor of the West Fork of Ruth Glacier. In the Great Basin, we could see our little cache far below, a mere pinpoint. We had made a long circuitous loop, climbing all the while, and were now not far from our Air Drop Site. Fortunately, I was not in the lead at this point and so will never know whether I could have broken trail over that 50 feet of ridge! George was leading and went right ahead while Elton, Les, and I belayed him.
Never before have I seen a view to compare with that from the top of the Buttress. To the north and west the sheer south face of Denali (a 10,000-foot wall) loomed across the great chasm of the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Farther to the west, Mts. Crosson and Foraker shone in the sun like diamonds. Mt. Hunter and Mt. Huntington, though now well below us, were none the less spectacular. To the east the wild jungle peaks surrounding the Great Basin seemed to continue endlessly.
That night we camped at the edge of the Great Traleika Cirque. This was Camp V and our last one on the Buttress. In the morning we had to descend about 1500 feet into the cirque where we established Camp VI (ca. 14,000 ft.). It was immediately evident that the 3000-foot slope leading directly to the crest of the ridge separating us from the valley of Harper Glacier (the proposed route) was a good deal steeper climbing than a pitch which lay further to the right (northeast). This slope (45° to 50°) led to the crest of a subsidiary buttress about a mile long, which juts out at right angles to the main northeast ridge of McKinley, thus forming the right-hand (east) side of the basin which now lay above us. The South Peak of McKinley dominated the other side of this magnificent cirque. That night the temperature at Camp VI was —14°. The next day I happened to be the only one who felt strong, so I cut steps all day. The day following, the situation was reversed and I felt tired and worn out and the others were in fine shape.
It would be impossible to describe my feelings as I surmounted the shoulder (15,700 ft.) and had my first look at the North Side! There below me lay the familiar broad expanse of the lower Traleika Glacier and a little corner of the Muldrow, together with the summits of Mt. Koven, Mt. Carpé, and Mt. Tatum and the rocky side of Mt. Brooks. I could even see McGonagall Pass thousands of feet below me. These peaks were like old familiar friends after the strange, rugged country we had been through. If we could just climb another thousand feet higher, we would be on the pass from which we knew we could get down to the Harper Glacier, whence it would be a short four-day trip down the mountain and out to Wonder Lake through the familiar and well-loved country of McKinley Park. The summit of Denali at this point did not seem important. What mattered was the attainment of that pass which meant we wouldn’t have to retrace the thousands of weary steps back the way we had come. We could forget the Chulitna, the Tokositna, and the Susitna, which had been frozen in April but which would now be swollen torrents. Above all, we could forget the “Lotsa Face.”
After a few hours of scrambling over and among giant granite boulders on the ridge and a climb up a steep snow slope, we were at last on the pass. We had made it! There below lay the Harper Glacier looking like a highway. We went to bed that night with a tremendous feeling of well-being. We were at 17,200 -foot Camp VII and we wouldn’t have to carry our packs any higher! We realized that, not the summit, but this pass had been our objective.
The next day, May 15th, we left camp at about 7:00 A.M., carrying only cameras, some clothes, and a lunch, and hiked up to the summit, arriving at 2:00 P.M., and were back at Camp by 4:30 P.M. This day seemed a complete anti-climax after the previous day’s elation over reaching the pass. The tedious ascent of the South Buttress had so thoroughly acclimatized us that we were hardly affected by the high altitude. The temperature at High Camp was —16° in the sun. We considered climbing the North Peak, too, but decided against it as we were behind schedule.
On May 16th, we broke camp and made the easy descent down the Harper Glacier in warm sunny weather. We picked our way cautiously down the Cockscomb on Karstens Ridge, kicking steps ahead of us all the way. The snow conditions were not good. There was not enough loose snow to present an avalanche danger on the ridge, yet too much to permit firm footing. As the ridge steepened, conditions became worse, with ice too soft for pitons but too hard for an ice-axe shaft belay. George’s ice-axe, as well as mine, had been broken earlier and repaired with tape. We descended Karstens Ridge one at a time with three belaying while one moved. At the steep pitch at 12,800 feet there was a fixed rope fastened to wooden pickets, left from a previous climb. This we used for added security as it was in excellent condition. George was leading, I was second, then Les, and finally Elton came last on the rope. To avoid a particularly bad part of the ridge, we skirted below the crest along the north side where the slope was less steep. Suddenly Elton slipped and began to slide. Since we were all in belay positions, we should have been able to stop his fall if he had been in any position but last on the rope. The best belays we could get were with the pick of the axe dug into the snow-covered ice. When I saw Elton slide past, I braced myself to be able to hold the point and pay out rope gradually in case Les should be dislodged from his position. In seconds he was pulled loose and my belay was not strong enough to hold two men. This all happened in a flash. After that, I only remember tumbling end over end in the loose snow, now and then being pulled by the rope and always unable, because of the heavy pack, to roll over on my stomach and dig in my axe to check the fall. It was like a bad spill while skiing in powder snow except that it seemed to last for an eternity. I remember once falling free in the air for at least a second or two and then landing on my pack in deep snow. It was not at all an abrupt jolt but rather a soft and glancing blow. More sliding, rolling, and another long free fall—then suddenly silence except for the gentle hiss of the snow that was still in motion all around me.
I didn’t see how I could possibly still be alive because I had seen this slope from below on a previous climb and knew approximately where we had fallen. My eyes and mouth had been filled with snow from the start, so I could see nothing at first. I was only conscious of a constriction of my chest.
The rope—I must cut it so I can breathe again! I brushed the snow out of my eyes and reached in my pocket for my jackknife. It was gone. I still had my pack on although the magnesium frame was smashed into about ten pieces. I was standing waist- deep in loose snow and something was pulling on the rope around my chest. I looked below me. There was George, sitting quietly in the snow. Where were the others?
I looked up for the first time and saw that Elton had fallen over a vertical outcropping of ice about 15 feet high and was hanging from the rope. I knew I had to get him down from that ice wall, although I felt weak and could hardly breathe. Finally, by pulling with all my strength, I gained enough slack in the rope to loosen the bowline-on-a-bight and get free. Just than I saw Les standing—dazed but on his feet, thank God—about 40 feet above me. Shouting to him that we must get Elton down, I began to clamber up the steep slope toward him. We put an ice- axe in the snow, took a belay around it, while I cut the rope with Les’s knife and lowered Elton. I then half slid and half scrambled down again to where he was lying. I felt for his heart. He was dead! A feeling of nausea and weakness swept over me. I felt like giving up. I remembered how I had seen him on the rope. It must have broken his back instantly when it had caught him up.
Since there was unfortunately nothing more I could do for Elton, I turned my attention to George who was still sitting in the snow below me. He complained of pain in his legs, one of which was doubled under him. I thought he had a broken leg and therefore shouldn’t be moved until I was sure of his condition. But I had to get him a few feet down the slope to a less steep spot where I could erect a tent. The tent! I wondered if we still had it. Equipment was strewn all around us up and down the slope, half buried in the snow. I was more worried about freezing than anything else. We were all in a state of shock and the sun had set behind the North Peak, leaving the air very cold and clear.
In my scramblings up and down from Elton to George I had been collecting bits of equipment here and there. I still had my wolf mittens tied around my neck, but George and Les had lost theirs. I dug Elton’s mittens out of the snow and gave them to Les, then put mine on George since I had another lighter pair. Very gingerly I began to straighten out George’s legs. Although this hurt him, it did not pain him as much as it would have if his legs had been broken. This at least meant that I could safely pull him 50 feet down the slope. My pack most fortunately still contained my sleeping bags, air mattress, and the three-man tent, although almost everything else had been thrown from it in the fall. Placing George on an air mattress, I covered him with my sleeping bags for the time being. He was only half conscious and his front teeth had been crushed in, making his speech very blurred. I then turned to Les who, though still very weak, had been helping me. He complained of pain in his chest, but he could walk slowly so we began gathering equipment and piling it near George. After climbing the hill once again, I found Elton’s pack and dug it out. We never did find Les’s sleeping bags and air mattress. In our weakened condition it took a long time to hack out a level platform big enough for the tent, but we finally accomplished this and somehow got George into the tent and erected it over him. I cooked us some supper with our battered cooking kit and primus stove. With George’s felt boots and canvas mukluks off and all of us in sleeping bags at least my worry about freezing was over. None of us suffered frostbite.
The next day we were able to have a good look at our position. We had slid probably 800 to 1,000 feet down a slope to a spot just above where it became much less steep and thus almost formed a sloping bench. Apparently our fall had been stopped by Les who had landed in a crevasse.
George’s appetite was good, but it was necessary to feed him. On examination I could find no leg fracture but concluded that he had a dislocated or broken hip. His knees were also damaged. Moving around caused him considerable pain, but as long as he lay still he was reasonably comfortable.
We remained in this camp for six days, waiting for George’s condition to improve, hoping someone would read our stamped- out messages in the snow. We were now overdue and knew Ginny would be looking for us in the plane. Finally it became apparent that increasing avalanche danger from fresh snow made it imperative that we get off this slope. On May 22nd, Les and I began to make a trail down to the head of Muldrow Glacier a thousand feet below us. If we could make a safe enough path, we might be able to drag George down it.
The slope disappeared below, so we couldn’t see whether we would be able to find a route all the way down. We knew that directly below us was a vertical rock face four or five hundred feet high. We traversed in a long diagonal descent, plowing a deep furrow in the snow. This would be a slide or chute down which we would belay George. It looked feasible except for one spot which was so steep that all the snow had avalanched off.
Beyond this lay a crevasse which was tilted enough to enable us to crawl along its lower side. After this came two steps about five feet high in solid ice, then a gradual slope in soft snow down to the level glacier. We climbed back up to camp wondering whether we should risk an attempt to get George down that slope. He had improved a great deal in the week since the accident, but still could not move his legs. We had two good air mattresses, both our tents, one climbing rope, and considerable quarter-inch rope in addition to the fixed rope which was still tied onto Les’s ice-axe after the fall. Elton’s ice-axe had been broken in two places and George’s had been lost. We realized that if we couldn’t get George down, no one else could. Anyone looking at this slope from below would rightly conclude that it was too hazardous. More lives would only be endangered, and after all we had gotten ourselves into this mess and it was up to us to find a way out of it.
We wrapped George inside the tent on top of two air mattresses and under all the padding we could gather, then tied six loops of small ropes around him so that any pull we exerted would be distributed evenly over his body. The main objective was to keep from bending his legs at all. Our climbing rope we then looped around and tied to each of these six ropes. Before we started, I marked the spot where we had buried Elton by nailing the remains of my pack board about eight feet high on the ice face over which he had fallen. Our hearts were indeed heavy when we left him that day. We then tied into our rope and began pulling George down the slide. All went much better than we had dared hope for, until we came to the steep icy section of the slope. Progress then consisted of one of us moving, inch by inch, while the other belayed George. At one point the slope was so steep that it was not possible for Les, who was behind, to slacken his rope without causing George’s head to point downhill. We finally solved this by chopping a trough in the ice. To this day I don’t see how we got George over that slope safely. It is amazing what one can do if the necessity is dire enough!
We were immensely relieved to reach the safety of that tilted crevasse with an overhanging roof. This was the first time in six days that we had been safe from a possible avalanche. We cut two more troughs in the ice to get George over the two steps, and then just at sunset we descended the last 100 yards of gentle slope to the glacier. I had never before appreciated level surfaces quite as much as I did that night when we could again camp on flat ice. We dragged George a distance out onto the glacier to be safe from falling snow and ice. It was much colder here than it had been above. Our thermometer had been smashed, but we estimated that the temperature was 0°.
We were so cold and tired that night that we overslept the next morning and were awakened about 6:00 A.M. by the sound of a plane! I dove out of the tent with the remaining piece of my signalling mirror which, although broken, was still usable. The nearest sunlight was 100 yards away and, as I ran headlong for it, I saw our Cessna about 2,000 feet above us coming from the west. I reached the sunlight and got a flash on the plane as it passed overhead and disappeared behind Mt. Carpé. Ginny was concentrating her search on the south side of the mountain as she had no way of knowing that we had made it over the pass. Our trail on Karstens Ridge had long since been covered with snow.
It was now obvious that the only thing for us to do was to leave George, much as we hated to, and hike out as quickly as possible to get help in evacuating him. One man alone could not move on the glacier. He was now able to cook and eat alone and could reach everything in the tent. We even improvised a bed-pan for him from a gallon gas can. If Les and I left now, George would have plenty of food for about ten days, which he could make last for two weeks if necessary. We had, however, only one quart of gas left. We had discarded one gallon at the 17,200- foot camp and carried down four quarts. One can had been smashed in the fall. We therefore left George almost all the food, including much which needed no cooking, and the quart of gas. We figured the gas would last him a week. We took with us only some oatmeal, a few bars of chocolate, and five Logan biscuits. With this small amount of food we would have to make it to Wonder Lake in about two days.
At noon Les and I began walking down the Muldrow. The glacier was more crevassed and broken up than I had ever seen it. By 3:30 the next morning we had reached McGonagall Pass. Here we slept about four hours, ate a Logan biscuit apiece, and at 8:00 left the glacier and began hiking down Cache Creek. We walked all that day and the next night the 20 miles across the tundra, fording the McKinley River at 4:30 on the morning of the 25th. Upon arriving at the McKinley Bar cabin, we slept for two hours and cooked up some food with which fortunately Elton Thayer had personally stocked the cabin.
We had been assured by Road Commission personnel that the Park Highway from the railroad to Wonder Lake would be open by the first of May at the latest, so we never doubted that we would be able to stop a car. Wearily, we trudged up the last hill to the road.
No tracks! The road was still closed! The prospect of walking another 85 miles to the railroad was at this point almost too much for us to bear. If we could only sleep! I thought how Lindbergh must have felt on his Atlantic flight. But, worst of all, this would mean four days’ delay in getting help to George. There was only one other person in the whole Kantishna country be- sides ourselves—little Johnny Busia who lived all alone in his cabin four miles beyond Wonder Lake. We trudged on down to Kantishna. Our feet were very sore and tired. We had hiked about 130 miles since leaving the railroad at Curry.
Suddenly, while resting at Johnny’s cabin, we heard a voice calling from across the river. It was Oscar Dick, the Chief Ranger, who, with Superintendent Grant Pearson, had shovelled through numerous snowdrifts to make the first trip of the season in a Power Wagon. They drove us in to the station, arriving at 10:30 that night.
A party was immediately mobilized, consisting of Dr. John McCall,3 who had climbed McKinley in 1948, and Fred Milan, who had been with George on the Juneau Ice Cap, and five Army men from the Arctic Indoctrination Center at Big Delta. These men were flown by helicopter up the Muldrow Glacier to between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. The party was supported by air drops from Air Force and Army L-20’s. Exactly one week from the day we had left George, the rescue party reached his tent at the head of the Muldrow after an exhausting effort. He still had food for another week and enough gas for four more days. He greeted John and Fred with a cheerful invitation to join him for a cup of tea. The party evacuated George on a sled to a point near McGonagall Pass at about 5600 feet. From here he4 was flown by helicopter from the glacier to the Kantishna Airstrip, then relayed to Minchumina and Fairbanks by plane.
Our success in climbing Mt. McKinley by the South Buttress must in all honesty be attributed in a large part to our unprecedented good luck with weather and snow conditions. I would never encourage anyone to climb the mountain by this route, as it is not, in my opinion, either safe or practical.
An analysis of the accident leads one to a consideration of all the factors involved. Try though I have, I can’t think of anything we would have done differently just before the fall, had we known it was going to happen. The hour was late and we were tired, but we had several hundred yards to go before we could reach the first possible campsite. We shouldn’t have been on that slope in such bad snow conditions, yet to have re-climbed the 2,000 feet to Browne’s Tower would have been perhaps more dangerous. I believe it a bad policy ever to descend a mountain by a different route from the one used for the ascent, if this route is at all difficult. However, to have returned all the way to Curry over the way we had come, presented many more hazards than this one ridge.
Not often can four people live together so intimately under such trying conditions as this trip imposed without ever experiencing the slightest frictions or personality conflict. I have never seen or climbed with a more compatible and congenial group than ours.
Of Elton Thayer it could be said that climbing to him was a deep spiritual experience rather than a mere struggle to accumulate as many ascents or impress others with his feats. He climbed because he loved the mountains and not because he wanted publicity, acclaim, or recognition. Few among his many friends ever realized the great depth and strength of his character, but all appreciated his sincerity and complete integrity. He had less a feeling of conquering mountains than of communing with them.
Belmore Browne: The Conquest of Mt. McKinley, New York: Putnam’s, 1913.
Frederick A. Cook: To the Top of the Continent, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.
Gertrude Metcalfe: “Mount McKinley and the Mazama Expedition,” The Pacific Monthly, Portland, Oregon: September, 1910, pp. 255-265.
Gertrude Metcalfe (and Claude E. Rusk): “Mount McKinley and the Mazama Expedition,” Mazama, XXVII, Portland, Oregon: December, 1945, pp. 5-31.
Claude E. Rusk: “On the Trail of Dr. Cook,” The Pacific Monthly, Portland, Oregon: October, 1910, pp. 430-442.
Claude E. Rusk: “On the Trail of Dr. Cook,” The Pacific Monthly, Portland, Oregon: November, 1910, pp. 472-486.
Claude E. Rusk: “On the Trail of Dr. Cook,” The Pacific Monthly, Portland, Oregon: January, 1911, pp. 48-62.
Bradford Washburn: Appalachia, June 15, 1954, pp. 20-28. Also for many other detailed references, see Mr. Washburn’s bibliography: Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range in Literature, Boston, 1951.
Summary of Statistics
Ascent: South Buttress, Mt. McKinley, Alaska; first ascent, May 12, 1954.
Personnel: George Argus, Elton Thayer, Leslie Viereck, and Morton S. Wood.
1 Editor’s Note: In the A.A.J. 1947 (pp. 283-293) Bradford Washburn began an experiment by writing an illustrated analysis of two proposed and supposedly possible new routes on Mt. McKinley, via Wickersham Wall and the West Buttress. This was followed in A.A.J. 1952 (pp. 358-362) by a similar account of a proposed new route up the West Buttress of the North Peak of McKinley. In A.A.J. 1953 (pp. 478-484) he analyzed a route up Mt. Hunter in similar fashion, and in Appalachia (June 1954) (pp. 20-28) he undertook an analysis of the long and complicated ascent of the South Peak of McKinley via Ruth Glacier and the South Buttress—essentially the route attempted unsuccessfully by the Parker-Browne expedition of 1910. Elton Thayer carried with him an advance manuscript and pictures of this article from Appalachia on the dramatic expedition described above.
These analyses were all made on the basis of Washburn’s intimate knowledge of the region and a careful study of oblique and vertical stereoscopic aerial photographs. Altitudes were secured from semi-final computations for his new map of the area, now approaching final form. It is of interest to note that four out of five of these complex and difficult routes have now been climbed successfully. Two are described in this issue of the Journal. There have been few major deviations from the routes as originally analyzed. For references, see bibliography at end of this article.
2 Editor’s Note: Stereo-contouring shows it to be 1200 to 1300 feet from campsite to crest of ridge. The steep part of the slope is almost exactly 1000 feet high from the bergschrund to the crest of the buttress.
3 Dr. John McCall, glaciologist and professor of geology at the University of Alaska, died of polio November 5th at Fairbanks, Alaska.
4 Editor’s Note: After months in the hospital George Argus is out and about, having largely recovered from his injuries.