American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

McKinley, Northwest Buttress

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1955

McKinley, Northwest Buttress


It was rather unusual that both routes first attempted by Dr. Frederick Cook over 50 years ago were successfully climbed this year. At meetings of the Alpine Club at the University of Alaska, Elton Thayer, Charles Wilson, and I discussed the possibilities of a spring trip via these two routes. We agreed that if one could choose a “best month” for climbing McKinley, it would be late April or early May. Elton was sold on the southern approach and could plan an earlier departure than either Wilson or I were able to manage. As -we two favored the Northwest Buttress, the two expeditions were born.

A major drawback of the northwest route was the late arrival of the sun on the northern slopes of the mountain, particularly early in the year. All but the peak would lie in shadow until 11 A.M. The mountain, lying only three degrees south of the Arctic Circle, would have a considerably lower mean temperature for the month of May than for July when most expeditions tackle it. There was no telling when or where the winds would be worst. Perhaps the greatest attraction and greatest obstacle lay in the series of three rock outcrops along the ridge at 11,000, 13,000, and 15,000 feet.

We planned to land a ski plane on a frozen lake at the foot of the Straightaway Glacier only 20 miles from Peters Basin, where the real climbing would begin. There, at 8,000 feet, we would establish base camp and receive an air drop of supplies.

After various misfortunes we were able to organize a group of five men anxious to make the top: Bill Hackett, Fred Beckey, Henry Meybohm, Charles Wilson, and myself.

We left Fairbanks on May 2nd by chartered plane, headed for Lake Minchumina, 200 miles distant. Most of our supplies had previously been sent to Minchumina by air freight. Dick and Jean Collins, who operated the C.A.A. Station there, had offered to fly us over the swamps to the small frozen lake we had selected. Lake Minchumina lies 100 air miles from McKinley. The Indians there are still living in a hunting culture. To them this white mountain rising abruptly out of the colorful tundra has always been Denali “the great one,” and Denali’s wife stands beside him, the one less romantically renamed “Mt. Foraker” by early Americans.

We were fortunate that Lake Minchumina was still covered by hard, windblown ice. Dick made the first flight with Bucky Wilson and the emergency gear in his 125 h.p. ski-equipped Piper Pacer. They landed 45 minutes later on frozen “Lake Collins,” elevation 2,400 feet. The snow was knee deep and the wind about 6 m.p.h. In two more trips we were all together, with the mountain towering over us. We carried with us 9 days’ supplies plus 5 days’ extra, which we intended to cache near the terminus of the Straightaway Glacier to cover our 75-mile hike out to Wonder Lake.

We set off across the deep snow-covered tundra on long, trail- type snowshoes. Skis could have been used as well, but they are heavier and too expensive to discard later on. After traveling five miles, we reached a snow-free bench along the northern edge of the glacier. There, we set up our first camp at 3,400 feet.

On May 3rd we set off for Crossen Corner, 10 miles distant, traveling alternately on the frozen trough between the bench and the lateral moraine and on the moraine itself. We placed our 5-day cache on the moraine, high up on an 8-foot boulder. We hoped the bears wouldn’t find it, and here it would probably be safe from the teams of little “snaffle hounds” which abound in this mossy paradise.

The following day, still wearing the lightest of clothing, we traveled up Crossen Glacier to Peter’s Pass, 8,200 feet. Here we were shocked to find the sun shimmering on the glare ice of the glacial basin, where we had anticipated deep snow to cushion our air drop! Only one mile ahead lay Cook’s Shoulder, a gigantic white mass, studded with patches of pressure ice in innumerable pastel shades of green and blue. It was broken by fields of séracs and icefalls, by a headwall and great yawning crevasses, couloirs streaked with avalanche debris and topped off by a huge pyramid of rock.

We established Base Camp at the foot of the largest couloir, well out of reach of the avalanches. We pitched the tents on a small patch of flat sastruggi which had survived the winds. Surrounding us were the dirty, consolidated patches of last year’s snow. Two days later in the early hours of the morning we heard two planes, one very high, which was apparently flying cover. The other buzzed camp and then flew up the glacier into the wind which had been gusty for the past hour or so although the skies were clear above. An hour later Jean and Dick Collins strolled into camp, upsetting everything including a pot of tea! They had not landed intentionally but were forced down by heavy down drafts less than a mile from camp, obscured from us by the undulations in the ice. The plane had overturned, but they were unharmed. They had been able to speak to Minchumina immediately after the crash, but a short while later the battery had gone dead. There was nothing for them to do but double up with us and wait out the storm which was building up. Warm winds eventually came well in excess of 100 m.p.h., sweeping the glacier cleaner than ever. The storm lasted three days, after which Wilson and I were able to escort the Collinses back down the glacier to their frozen lake. The next day they were rescued by a U.S.A.F. helicopter, HT-9, from the 74th Air Rescue Service, which had spotted the sign we had printed in the snow at the terminus of the glacier. We had cut the tallest tree trunks and spelled “Lake” in six-foot letters with a large arrow beneath it.

Wilson and I returned to base camp where spirits were again high. Cloudless and windless weather had permitted two air drops, one by Ginny Wood, whose husband, Morton Wood, was climbing with Thayer on the south side of the mountain, and another by the SAI-6 albatross of the 74th Air Rescue Service, which because of the emergency parachuted the more fragile supplies to us. Henry, Bill, and Fred had cracked the real problem of a route to the top of Cook’s Shoulder. It was a glassy staircase of precarious steps chopped 80% of the way, 2000 feet up. Beginning in a snow couloir on the left or northern slope of the shoulder, it then went to the right across a small triangular plateau about midway and eventually zig-zagged straight up the western crest of the shoulder. Two fixed ropes were established, both of which were taken up higher with us a few days later after we had finished the relays. The ice steps deteriorated badly in the sun, but we did not anticipate interval melting above 11,000 feet. Beyond the 10,500-foot cache lay a cockscomb, the cornice of which fell straight off on the north, directly over the little plateau at 9,000 feet. Sitting astraddle this knife ridge during delays was like riding a horse! Camp I was established beyond this tricky crest, at the “windless oasis,” perhaps 300 feet below and to the left of the ridge at 10,500 feet for reason of protection from possible high winds. Beside the Logan and French tents Fred dug a snow cave which we fortunately were never obliged to use for anything except storage. We had carried well over 100 M.D.* of food to this point. This camp lay just below the highest point reached by the Cook party on August 30, 1903, at the foot of the first rock ridge. It was here that a member of that party wrote ‘It’s not that we couldn’t have done it if there was a way; there just ain’t no way.’ There had been much more snow and almost no glare ice on the shoulder 50 years before.

On May 13th Fred and I selected the right side of the rock ridge leading up 1,000 feet to the right-hand side of a great rock pyramid. This ridge, which Bill referred to as the “Abruzzi Ridge,” we found to be of reddish brown schist cracked in all directions but with a favorable dip for climbing. The slope began at about 20° but steepened as we reached the pyramid where there was actually an overhang in places. We climbed unroped because of the severe exposure and treacherous nature of this loose rock, sometimes frozen, sometimes not. By placing fixed ropes on a few of the rock towers leading to the pyramid, we were able to make it reasonably safe for travel with packs weighing about 40 pounds. On the following day we all reached the top of the pyramid, utilizing more fixed rope but not as much as we would have liked. Here at 12,500 feet we placed another cache and, on the following day, Wilson and I set up the French tent at this elevation. We reconnoitered above this, leaving camp in the late afternoon because earlier the scud had prohibited higher travel. It felt good to be once again not only on crampons, but roped as well. At 13,100 feet we were blocked by another escarpment of rock, Pyramid II. Not knowing what lay above or beyond this rock cliff, we traversed around it to the left, across a great sloping cirque. We could see above us the long serrated ridge which we had just skirted, while the steepest portion of the Wickersham Wall, looking very very bad, lay in profile to our left. A broad snow-filled couloir led from the cirque back up to the northwest ridge, well beyond Pyramid II and the cathedral spires that surmounted it. After six hours of continuous step chopping up this couloir, we reached the northwest ridge again at approximately 14,200 feet. The ice chips here would skip and slide down to the Tuluna Icefall, 6,000 feet below us. The rock on the ridge had changed to black schist, especially dark in contrast to the overall whiteness of the snow. Here, well above the clouds which obscured everything below 13,000 feet, stood only Denali and Denali’s wife, McKinley and Foraker, alone and serene. The clouds, like a greater Niagara, poured down from central Alaska eastward between these two peaks, reaching as far as the Kenai Peninsula, where they simply evaporated upon reaching the sea. From here it would be an easy go on crampons to the base of the last real obstacle, the rock pitches at 14,800 feet and an ideal site for Camp III.

The two roped groups met and set up Camp II together on the night of May 20th in the cirque at 13,000 feet. Temperature at midnight was -20° F., rising to +20° F. at noon. Next day the new reconnaissance party, Fred, Bill, and Henry, carried loads beyond the 14,200-foot cache. We could see them with their packs two domes above us on the ridge, trudging through new snow 16 inches deep. They had been able to reach 15,600 feet, had placed a series of ropes on the rock for the last 600 feet and had found a well sheltered campsite at 15,600 feet. This was the last real rock problem we had to deal with. In attaching the rope, Fred had hammered the first rock pitons ever used on McKinley into the great blocks of speckled orange granite which were heaped one upon another on the lower portions of the climb. The upper reaches were irregular cliffs, stepped every 30 or 40 feet.

On May 22nd we established Camp III beneath this rock at 14,800 feet. The following day we set out as usual about noon on two ropes and went leapfrogging up the lower rock as a solitary eagle circled overhead. We lunched at 6 P.M.; then with all tied into one long 220-foot rope, we tackled the steepest part of the mountain. Where it could hold, the new snow was six inches deep, even on this face where there were only narrow cracks and ledges an inch or so wide. With Fred leading, we reached Camp IV at 15,600 feet, three and a half hours later. Fortunately, this cliff had been draped with fixed rope during the reconnaissance two days before, when there was a minimum of snow. Otherwise, with the new snow it might well have proved impassable. Unfortunately we had gone up with tents, food, and stoves but without the pots. Two of us went down to 15,300 feet and back in an hour and a quarter. What a difference it makes once the route is “in.” We climbed into our sleeping bags at 2:00 P.M. when the temperature was - 8°. The following day Fred and I free hauled supplies up the cliff while the others explored the ridge which angled less steeply in a northerly direction from Camp IV. This was the last relay.

The first view of the south peak was from the summit of the 16,600-foot peak along this ridge. We all reached the new cache at 17,000 feet the next day, deciding to place Camp V there early in the evening because the weather had closed in. We purposely had carried only the Logan tent above Camp IV. To set up camp here at 17,400 feet on a moderate slope, we were obliged to cut a six-foot platform, the inner wall of which was four feet high. In a way, it was unfortunate that we had had such excellent weather because we had climbed so fast that we had not become acclimatized. Three of us suffered headache, nausea, and vomiting. I administered to each an intramuscular injection of Acth-Ar-Gel, a pituitary hormone which stimulates secretion of the adrenal cortex and is known to be of exceptional value in stress conditions.

On the morning of May 26th we rose at 7:00 A.M. and packed up the northern slope between an icefall and a rock cliff to the snowy top of the 18,000-foot peak. From here on it was a tedious trip for a quarter of a mile along a gently sloping corniced ridge until we reached the base of Peak 18. Passing this on the eastern slope, we gained another 500 feet in altitude which placed us on the Great Plateau of the North Peak, to our knowledge the highest camp ever established on the mountain. On the day following, Thursday, May 27th, two of us had recovered from altitude sickness. We were then ready to set out for the North Peak by 8:00 A.M., but the weather was deteriorating. We actually left at 4:30 that afternoon, ascending via the southwestern snow ridge of the peak. To our left the mountain fell off sharply 12,000 feet down the absolutely unclimbable northern facade. The actual summit was reached individually by the two ropes between 7:30 and 8:00 P.M. Grant Pearson had asked us to travel down the northwestern ridge for approximately a quarter of a mile to look for evidence of the sourdough’s pole or its guy-lines, which once stood on the last rock outcrop of the north ridge. But with foul weather brewing we gave up this highly desirable quest.

We waited four more days for better weather, but the wind continued to blow and the south peak was almost constantly shrouded in clouds. It had been extremely uncomfortable living for five men in a small, frost-coated tent for almost a week at so high an elevation. When the fuel ran out and we were forced to descend, we left without regret.

The actual descent took four days to Peter’s Basin. We went down the rock pitches using long rappels with a double length of rope. We needed a series of 10 continuous rappels to descend the Abruzzi Ridge, which proved rather bad because of recent snow. The great cirque over which we had strolled in our ascent was now covered with six feet of new snow. Fortunately, we had a small aluminum shovel which could be attached to an ice-axe, so we were able to dig a path until we finally came to the ridge where the winds had blown much of the snow away.

By pushing hard, we were able to tramp out the 75 miles from Crossen Corner to Bar Cabin in three days, finding in the registry there a confusing entry signed by Wood and Les Viereck. Not until next morning at Wonder Lake did we learn that it signified the death of Elton Thayer and the rescue of George Argus. It was grim news to receive after our own thoroughly enjoyable trip.

Summary of Statistics

Ascent: Northwest Ridge, Mt. McKinley, Alaska; first ascent, May 27, 1954.

Personnel: Fred Beckey, Capt. William D. Hackett, Donald McLean, Henry Meybohm, and Charles R. Wilson.

*Man Day: One man day is a unit of dehydrated food enough for one man for one day.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.