American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, American Mount McKinley Expedition

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1959

American Mount McKinley Expedition. Since the study of recent aerial photos before leaving home had raised serious doubts as to whether the condition of the Muldrow Glacier would allow us to reach the base of Pioneer Ridge, we had chosen the southeast spur of the South Buttress as an alternate route. Further air reconnaissance confirmed our fears but made us optimistic about the southeast spur. On July 10 and 11 Don Sheldon relayed Smoke Blanchard, Jake Breitenbach, David Dornan, Bill Hackett, Ross Kennedy, and David Dingman (leader) onto the east bay of the Ruth Glacier. Our remaining equipment was dropped to us on June 11 by an Army L20. Our hope was to reach the 16,000-foot bench between the South Buttress and the upper reaches of the mountain via the southeast spur. We hoped to be able then to follow a relatively direct line to the south summit. From the air were not revealed the formidable obstacles we encountered on the lower part of this route.

The first two camps were placed without difficulty, the second at about 10,500 feet. On June 15, while on reconnaissance, Breitenbach and I were stopped by an overhanging ice wall at 11,000 feet and called for reinforcements and ice pitons. Dornan, Breitenbach, and I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to climb this obstacle with double-rope tension, but failed because of rotten ice. From camp at the base of the wall, we renewed our efforts. Although three days and two leader-falls later Dornan and Breit- enbach broke through the cornice at the top of the wall and stepped onto the narrow ridge, they were immediately confronted by a host of new difficulties: a continuous and unpredictable cornice on the right, and a nearly vertical drop of 3000 feet on the left, added to bad snow conditions which resulted in small avalanches if they kept left to avoid the cornice. About 100 yards from where they emerged onto the ridge their path was blocked by a huge sérac. A two day heavy snowstorm confirmed our decision to abandon the route. The descent was begun on the morning of June 20. A snow bridge above Camp II collapsed under Dornan; he fell forty feet down a crevasse before I could stop him with an ankle belay.

Note: All dates refer to 1958 unless stated otherwise.

During the next five days at base camp we decided to switch our efforts to the Kahiltna Glacier to try the West Buttress route. On the morning of June 25 Don Sheldon began relaying us to the Kahiltna Glacier. We started off with maximum loads soon after landing. In the next two days we placed camps at Kahiltna Pass and Windy Corner. Though visibility was often poor, we were able to follow the wands left by Ed Cooper’s International Expedition, which was about a week ahead of us. After a two-day storm at Windy Corner we resumed our ascent. Three days later we arrived at 17,200 feet and found Cooper’s party at their last camp, having just returned from a summit attempt minutes before our arrival. Because of poor visibility they were not sure whether they had reached the actual top, but from Hackett’s description it became apparent that they had missed their objective. We gladly staked them to enough supplies for another attempt the next day as they were low on food and gasoline.

At 9 a.m. on July 2 we left for Denali Pass, followed shortly by four members of Cooper’s group. The going to the pass was so easy, because of the track made on the previous day’s attempt, that we arrived at 11 a.m. Because of fine weather and the ease with which we had reached Denali Pass Dornan and I decided to make an attempt to climb both the main summit (20,320 feet) and the North Peak (19,470 feet). The snow conditions from the pass to the top of the South Peak were almost perfect, and we arrived at the summit at 3:30 p.m. Dornan and I left immediately for our North Peak attempt, returning to Denali Pass at 5 for an hour’s halt with a light lunch and several thermoses of water. The climb over the 19,000-foot rock and ice ridge which separates Denali Pass from the North Peak was interesting and enjoyable. On its top we left our bivouac equipment. After a descent of several hundred feet down the north side of the ridge, we crossed the plateau to the base of the last pitch to the North Peak. We arrived at this summit at 8 p.m. in clear, breathless weather. Despite the temperature of —15° F., we sat comfortably on the summit for half an hour in shirt-sleeves. The views down Wickersham Wall and Pioneer Ridge were magnificent. We arrived back at the 17,200-foot camp at 11:30 that night and were met by the members of both parties.

We all returned to a common landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier and spent the next five days sleeping and sun-bathing. By July 10 Sheldon had relayed us all to Talkeetna.

David Dingman

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