American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East of Mount McKinley

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1959

East of Mount McKinley

H. Adams Carter

A year before, as we had stood on the mountains above Anderson Pass, sharp, white peaks just to the south of us enticed our eyes away from the huge but graceful bulk of Mount McKinley and the black and white ribbon candy view of the moraine- striped Muldrow Glacier to the west. Here, close at hand, lay a yet untrodden climber’s paradise. The map, made from aerial photographs, showed us that the north fork of the Eldridge Glacier descended from the slopes of Mount Mather and ran parallel to the Muldrow before swinging southwest to join the glacier’s main trunk. All this we had to imagine; what we could see were the upper slopes of ice spires rising precipitously above dazzling, fluted slopes and hanging glaciers. All was snowy and white, though the peaks were lower, but no less steep, than mountains in other parts of the McKinley Range.

Here I was, a year later, on June 21, 1958, getting my first close-at- hand view of the region as we sped in Don Sheldon’s Super-Cub through wispy clouds and caught glimpses of the north fork of the Eldridge Glacier. My interest in the terrain was not, as a matter of fact, very great just then. "It’s too gusty to land down there, Ad," shouted Don. "If we did get down, golly, the wind would turn the plane right upside down." That idea did not bother me. All I wanted at that moment was to land and get out of the plane, but all that did get out and land a thousand feet below—was my breakfast. Such was our introduction to the stormy weather, which last summer was altogether too typical.

Don Sheldon flew us all in during the next day, piloting for more than twenty hours into what, farther south, would have been the night; here it was merely an unbroken succession of sunset and sunrise. One by one, buried under a pile of food and gear, Don landed us on the glacier near the boundary of McKinley National Park. First Doug Bingham joined me, then Barry Morgan, Bill Loomis, Freddie Churchill, Dave Helprin, and George Erlanger, and finally Harold Janeway, my second- in-command, Yale senior and A.A.C. member. Sandy Weld, delayed by the Bermuda Race, was flown in to us the next day. Though my com- panions were young, about half of them not yet in college, the experience of several of these boys would qualify them for the American Alpine Club though their age would not. We had ambitious plans for glaciology, geology, and climbing everything in sight. We carried out our scientific program; the weather curbed our climbing plans.

Immediately we set about placing a line of stakes across the glacier near base camp and surveyed them so that after a second survey a month later we could determine how fast and in what fashion the ice of this thirty-mile long glacier was moving. Then followed the inevitable backpacking towards the head of the glacier to establish a high camp. By the end of the first week we were comfortably established at 6300 feet within climbing distance of Mount Mather (12,125 feet) and its neighbors which closed in the upper end of the valley. As we looked around, we could see that it was not only a question of picking what mountains we wanted to climb; we were limited by what was climbable. Down-glacier were ice- and rock-peaks. Up-glacier our view was restricted by the shoulder of a huge, white 11,000-foot unnamed peak and by what we took to be Mount Mather. The frost-fractured rock was generally so rotten that is was utterly impossible. Blue ice, covered with a six inch mantle of unconsolidated ice crystals often a half inch across, was typical at all altitudes up to 11,000 feet.

At 1:45 a.m. on July 1 we set out on a reconnaissance in full force. As we threaded our way around the icefall that separated us from the upper basin, we discovered the real Mount Mather to the left of what we had mistaken for Mather. We now recognized that the latter was the peak which Roddie Dane and I had nearly climbed from the Muldrow side in 1957. (A.A.J., 1958, p. 91.) Farther to the left and completing the huge circle of the basin rose two graceful white spires, both 11,000 feet high. We entered a second badly crevassed area and crossed the cracks on what I noted in my diary were "seemingly solid snowbridges." It was lucky that they proved to be, too, for they frequently measured thirty feet across. We continued on upward and finally reached the col between the foot of Mather’s northeast ridge and the other unnamed peak. Turning our backs on the former, we followed a long sickle-shaped ice knife-edge for over a mile above sheer drops on both sides but without much altitude. The ridge steepened as we reached the main peak. For the last 250 feet we found ourselves on blue ice covered by a thick, unconsolidated layer of large ice crystals, steep enough for handholds and ice pitons. An ice shelf above a toboggan chute that plunged nearly 4000 feet downward to a Muldrow tributary allowed us to traverse away from the cornice just under the summit. After a six-foot perpendicular scramble we emerged on the top at 10:30 a.m.

The next few days, mostly glorious weather with an occasional squall, were devoted to glaciology. We set up a second glacial movement profile and dug a pit through the last three or four years’ snow to measure what the accumulation had been. On July 6 we made our second and what proved to be our last first ascent, that of "Black Glacier Peak." This sharp 9000-footer lies on the divide between the Muldrow and Eldridge glacial systems, halfway between Mount Mather and Anderson Pass, the second mountain southwest of Peak 8620. We named it for a deeply moraine-buried tributary of the Muldrow above which it rises. We headed from camp across the main part of the glacier to the foot of an icefall that entered it not over a mile north of camp. One snow bridge happily led to the next, although we sometimes had a sickening glimpse down hundreds of feet into a hole whose blue disappeared into black. While clouds scudded along the glacier floor, now far below us, the peaks themselves played hide and seek in the higher layers. As we emerged from the icefall and entered the narrow upper valley, the weather seemed to be on the mend. Hundreds of butterflies and moths and a few dragonflies lay on the snow here, as they did below on the north fork of the Eldridge. If they were warmed by the heat of your hand or even by the sun, they revived and fluttered away. We crossed to a notch in the knife- edged southern ridge, which led us to the top. The final pitch here too was very steep and all of it was the familiar blue ice and crystal combination. The summit of ice was so small that only one of us could stand on it at a time to admire the breath-taking view. On one side we saw McKinley, framed between Mather and our unnamed peak. Peaks and endless glaciers surrounded us. Near the bend of the Muldrow we watched white mountain sheep through the field glasses.

The next day we reached 11,000 feet on Mather, still 1000 feet from the top, but turned back since strong, gusty winds threatened to blow us off the steep northeast ridge. Although bitterly cold higher up, we wallowed back down in slush to our "seemingly solid snowbridges" below. The first rope crossed one particularly wide crevasse. Treading their footprints, Freddie Churchill, the lead man of the second rope suddenly dropped out of sight. Since the rope cut back through the ten-foot-deep layer of sloppy last winter’s snow, he was forty feet down before he was snubbed up. Well belayed, I wiggled forward on my stomach to the hole just big enough for a man’s body, paying heed to Barry’s advice "to make like a marshmallow." Muffled shouts from below indicated that Freddie was all right. "Sure I’m fine," he shouted. "It’s nice and cool down here." It took all our efforts and technique and considerable time to extricate him from the thirty-foot wide crevasse, nearly closed at the top with deep, precariously balanced, overhanging mush on the surface. Freddie emerged, smiling and with ice axe still in hand, but soaked from tunneling through the overhanging slush.

The wind on Mount Mather ushered in the bad weather, which was so foul that by July 24 the all-time precipitation record in Anchorage for the month of July was broken. We got all we wanted and more in the way of rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, and wind. From July 8 to July 26 we saw the sun only three times. The first few days of the storm were not too bad. Harold Janeway was not yet worried about whether he would get out in time for his own wedding the first week of August. Between meals we read our well stocked library of paper-bound books, played cards for vital stakes (the day’s chocolate), puzzled over the survey’s trigonometry or settled the world’s pressing problems, but with a group of teenagers the most important parts of the day had to do with food. Preparing a three course meal for nine in an eight-by-eight-foot floor space flat in a sleeping bag is a cinch—if you know how to do it. Get someone else to bring in the necessaries from the food cache and freeze his fingers filling the gasoline stoves. Keep the pots, perched on the tiny stoves, from burning as a couple of vulture-eyed boys breathe down the back of your neck in expectant anticipation. Heaven help the person who disturbs the balance of a pot and sends the "inspiration soup" into your sleeping bag.—Yes, it has happened! In stormy weather there was room service to the other tents. On somewhat better days the vultures sat on packboards outside Harold’s and my tent to eat their meals. The use of one bowl and spoon simplifies housekeeping considerably. You just need to get used to having certain odd combinations now and again: tea with the remnants of the dehydrated hamburger and mashed potatoes from the previous course. No shipwrecked mariners, dividing the last piece of hardtack, ever checked more carefully on the size of helpings than the boys. Have you ever eaten the ninth of a sardine? Each day we decided that no storm could possibly last any longer. The weather would have to improve by the next day.

At the end of the first week—we had only three days of food left at the high camp—the almost constant fog lifted long enough for us to see down the valley towards base camp. A couple of minutes later and we were out and on the way. As the fog closed back in we followed our compass-bearing, but it was too dangerous threading our way through the icefall. We returned along the row of trail markers we had placed on the way down; our tracks were already effaced. The next day we fared no better. It was only on the third day that we managed to reach base camp under a ceiling of only a few hundred feet above the glacier. It was well we did, too, for after our return to the high camp with food it stormed another two days without a let-up.

On July 20, with fleeting clouds on all the peaks, the weather was good enough to return to resurvey our lower glacial movement profile and to complete making our geological collection of rock samples. The next day, in weather good enough to survey but still far too stormy for climbing, we resurveyed the upper profile, or rather what we could find of it. All but three of our four-foot poles were completely buried beneath the new snow and were never found. That night at 10:30 it began to rain!

The scientific work was complete and new snow would keep us from climbing for days. Now our problem was to leave. On July 23, our scheduled day of departure, Don Sheldon in Talkeetna was ready to come and get us out as soon as he could get a break in the weather. Doug Bingham continued to man our ½-watt portable radio with skill and determination. The radio hams all over this part of Alaska turned to and helped. They were all doing their best to get Harold out on time for his wedding, especially Mary Olendorff, queen of the Sourdough Amateur Radio Network. Finally Mary left her husband Sandy to man the station in Anchorage and to pile his dirty dishes in the sink until her return; she traveled north to Talkeetna to help Tom Weed keep a 24-hour schedule where they could give Don Sheldon hourly weather reports from the Eldridge Glacier. We had little good to report. My diary reads: "Still bad weather. This afternoon it lifted a little but now at supper time it has dropped again. No visibility. Harold is worried." And well he might be. At 10 p.m. on the 25th we heard over the radio that Sandy Olendorff had run out of clean plates, that his bathtub was now full of dirty ones and that Don Sheldon had taken off. By the time we heard the plane, the few holes in the clouds had closed in again. Harold was really worried now.

Don did manage to get in on July 26. The bridegroom was the first man out; he made his wedding with a day or two to spare. By the time the plane took off with the last load, it had started to snow again, hard. This time we could laugh at it.

Glaciological Note

The party conducted basic reconnaissance glaciological observations in this previously unexplored area. The névé line was at about 5400 feet when it left the glacier on July 26. Climatic data were extrapolated for the area from those at the three closest weather stations: Talkeetna, 345 feet in elevation and 60 miles south; Summit, 2401 feet and 35 miles east; and McKinley Park, 2092 feet and 55 miles northeast. Since these data seem to indicate that there was comparatively little melting after that date, it is reasonable to conclude that the semipermanent névé line in 1958 lay between 5400 feet and 5700 feet where aerial photographs showed it to be in August and September, 1957. A test pit was dug at 6400 feet to measure the snow accumulation during the period from 1955 to 1958. At that altitude there was considerable ablation (27 inches) from June 30 to July 7 and accumulation (9 inches) between July 8 and July 23. The movement of the glacier was measured both below and above the semipermanent névé line. Daily movement in the center of the glacier amounted to an average of 10.7 inches per day. The flow seems to be of the Block-Schollen type, with a relatively even surface velocity in the center section and with a more rapid velocity change at the glacier’s margin. This is in contrast to a more normal arch-formed or streaming flow found in most valley glaciers. The type of movement found is characteristic of a glacier with a healthy nourishment in its accumulation zones. The full report of the reconnaissance work done is on file with the IGY data center in the United States and with the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

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