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The First Ascent of Mount McArthur

The First Ascent of Mount McArthur

Donald Monk and George Wallerstein

Mount McArthur, 14,000 feet, is an impressive, double-summit peak just north of the Logan massif in the St. Elias range. Prior to our ascent, it was probably North America’s second highest unclimbed peak, but more inviting than that, it is precipitous with interesting aspects and climbing problems from all sides. It was attempted in 1953 and also in 1961, one month before we arrived on the scene. Both of these attempts were beaten back by bad weather combined with technical difficulties.

After normally hectic organization, our group gathered in Whitehorse on July 17: Barbara (Bobbie) Lilley, Alex (Mac) McDermott, Don Monk, Seymour (Sy) Ossofsky and George Wallerstein. We soon discovered that this was no ordinary season for the St. Elias range; the atmosphere was more that of a European holiday than that of climbers entering a region of solitude. The Seattle Mountaineers, some 20 strong, had just left the area after the successful first ascent of Mount Queen Mary (13,000 feet) and attempts on vertical Mount King George and another peak. A Harvard party had just made the third ascent of the east ridge and east peak of Logan. McArthur had driven off a Seattle party led by Dick Wahlstrom. Finally, we learned that Dr. Walter Wood had a glaciological research station on the upper Kaskawulsh glacier, only 25 miles from McArthur. The St. Elias range seems at last to be coming into its own as the big- peak climbing area for North America.

Our plans called for a four-phase trip: first, airdrops of food and equipment; second, a 90-mile walk in to the peak from the Alaska Highway; third, the climb itself; and last, the walk out. Among the five of us we had an aggregate of eight summers’ experience in the St. Elias, so we could make such an ambitious plan with confidence.

On July 20 the weather cleared, and Ray Simcoe of Pacific Western Airlines landed his DeHaviland Beaver on Kluane Lake to load our airdrop barrels. George and Sy then flew with Simcoe, George to act as navigator and make an aerial reconnaissance of the route in, and Sy to throw the barrels out. The first drop was made at the snow line, 25 miles up the Kaskawulsh Glacier and a total of 45 miles from the road. Airdrop Two was made close to Wood’s camp, 20 miles beyond the first drop. The final drop was at the base of the north ridge of McArthur. All food and equipment were free dropped while kerosene was parachuted. Everything was recovered successfully.

As soon as the plane returned, we started up Slim’s River. Our route was roughly the same as Gmoser’s party in 1959 (A.A.J., 1960, 12:1, pp. 130-131). A full day was needed to reach the Kaskawulsh Glacier but there was only a short stretch of moraine before reaching the lowest ice. We soon found the easiest going towards the middle of the glacier. Shortly before reaching the junction with the south arm, the going became easiest on the true left (north) side. The sharp corner near the south arm is best negotiated by going over the grassy bench above the glacier. From this corner we headed directly for the prow of land dividing the middle and north arms of the glacier. Gradually the grandeur of the whole area became apparent. After rounding previously climbed Mount Maxwell, we began to have views of 11,000 and 12,000-foot unclimbed peaks of various degrees of difficulty, from a snow dome far up the south arm to a Jannu- like peak directly above the Kaskawulsh. Truly a climber’s paradise! We reached our Airdrop One early on July 23. Now on snow, using snowshoes, our pace slowed down. The next corner beyond our airdrop is best traveled out in the center of the glacier. Further up, we climbed up to the main névé feeding the Kaskawulsh, arriving at Wood’s camp on the afternoon of the 24th. The hospitality of Dr. Wood and his crew, both on the trip in and the trip out, would be hard to overstate. It may be enough to mention the cocktail party and sumptuous feast which he gave us on our way out. From his camp we went to a divide, descended onto the Hubbard and continued down glacier about 10 miles. Then we followed a branch of the Hubbard west to the Logan Glacier, and, after rounding a corner, were face to face with the peak—McArthur. We arrived at our Base Camp, Airdrop Three, at noon on the 27th. Throughout our walk-in the weather had been excellent, with some cloudless and actually hot days. However, as things sometimes go in the mountains, we now saw signs of storms moving in from the northwest. Indeed, our eight days on the mountain itself were generally stormy.

After a half-day’s rest, we started up with eight days’ food. Base Camp was about half a mile east of the north ridge of McArthur. We walked over to a ridge of talus and boulders leading up to the north ridge proper and left our snowshoes. There we also found an equipment cache left by the 1953 party. At the top of the boulders we donned crampons, which we wore almost continually from this point to the summit. Staying on the snow, but dose to the rocks on the left, we proceeded through both deep snow and hard ice upwards until the increasing snowstorm made us decide to turn back. We made a secure cache among the rocks at about 8600 feet and returned to Base, where it was raining.

The next two days were busy ones. On the 29th we left Base Camp with the remaining food and equipment. This time when we reached the top of the boulder slope we went in diagonals directly up the snow and ice and at noon reached the first prominent snow bump on the ridge (9400 feet). This was the site of Camp I. It was a short trip to bring up the cache to the bump. Then, while Bobbie and Mac set up camp, Don, George and Sy scouted the route upwards to about 10,000 feet, returning at seven p.m.

In Camp I we had about eight days’ food. The unsettled weather caused a certain logistic problem at this point; we might carry a majority of this food up one day and then be cut off from it the next day by storm. The obvious solution was a double carry, moving the whole camp up in one day. Thus, understandably, July 30 was a full day. In the morning, Sy and Don went ahead with light packs to prepare the route. Upon leaving the snow bump we climbed up to a 100-foot fixed rope left the previous day. At the top of the rope we found ourselves on a splendid knife-edge snow ridge, some 30 feet to the right of the rock. Up knife-edge after knife-edge we went, usually a little to the left of the top, and, where there were cornices on the right, well to the left. Passing the previous day’s high point, the track-making became tedious. We often sank in a foot or two through a breakable crust. Finally the angle to the left of the ridge eased off a little, and simultaneously the snow conditions became better. It was an easy walk to a small flat area where we dumped our loads. We were back at Camp I by noon and in worsening weather reached our dump again at four p.m. We worked our way up through some crevasses, making use of wands left by Wahlstrom’s party. Finally we made camp where the slope of the ridge is at a minimum (about 10°) before the final sweep of the ridge up to McArthur plateau. George and Mac returned to get the loads at the dump while the rest of us set up camp.

As we ate dinner that night, we could be happy in the progress we had made; Camp II was at 11,000 feet and we had almost seven days’ food with us. It was clear that problems still existed. For one thing, there was the weather. That night we experienced the unusual occurrence of rain at 11,000 feet, whipped by the wind with such force that some water was driven through the tough dacron sailcloth material of our tent. The route above looked difficult; somehow one must get to an impressive, long knife-edge snow ridge, then go up it to a vertical rock step. Above the rock step is the McArthur plateau, which slopes gently up to the lesser east peak on the left while the main peak rises, cone shaped, 800 feet out of it on the right. But the problem that bothered us most that night and succeeding nights was the location of our camp. Shortly above the camp the snow steepened. Up to the ridge proper the average angle was perhaps 45°; in some places it was more like 75°. This was fine with the reasonably consolidated snow now on it but what if heavy snow came? Clearly we would have to watch our avalanche danger.

On July 31 George and Don rested while Sy, Mac, and Bobbie pushed the route higher. Traversing back and forth to avoid crevasses and séracs, they reached the snow ridge fairly low down. Both sides of the ridge were precipitous and the climbing was slow. By four p.m. they had reached the base of the rock step and since as usual, the weather had gradually deteriorated, they returned. Coming 600 feet down along the ridge, they set up a 500-foot fixed rope which greatly facilitated our later travel. The rope reached from 20 feet below the ridge down to fairly gentle slopes half an hour above Camp II. On August 1, the rôles were reversed, George and Don going up while the others rested. Aided by the fixed ropes, we reached the base of the rock step in two and a half hours. The rock step, only 100 feet high, was technically the hardest part of the entire climb. Don began cutting steps up an ice couloir, then went out on a rock ledge to the left and up a vertical crack—with crampons and mittens on. The one lead up the rock step required two pitons for safety and took 45 minutes. Exhilarated as we were to have reached the McArthur plateau and now higher than the 1953 party, it was necessary to go down. Fixing a rappel rope for later use as a fixed rope, we quickly got off the rock, carefully balanced along the snow ridge in the driving storm and got back to the tent at three p.m.

The snow ridge and storm conditions convinced us that carrying a camp to the plateau would be a difficult undertaking and even hazardous in a high wind. So we decided to try the summit from Camp II. It would be a 3400-foot, one-day climb, but the fixed ropes would make it a quick matter to the plateau. We wanted to leave plenty of time for the unknown problems of the final summit cone. On August 2 we started off at 3:30 a.m. Driving wind increased in intensity before we reached our first fixed rope and by five o’clock we were back in the tent, this obviously being the wrong day for the summit climb. The next day was little better and was occupied with cards and chess.

At 3:00 a.m. on August 4 the wind was gone although there was still a storm. To the north were the familiar dark clouds. Some clouds were gently resting on the north side of Logan and others formed a loose blanket around McArthur. With only about four days’ food left it was clear that to have a safety margin we must make a strong attempt even in doubtful weather. At four we were off. Aided by the fixed ropes we were at the top of the rock step at seven. Views we had obtained from the airplane during the drop flight, along with what Don had seen in 1957 from the east ridge of Logan, had convinced us that the final summit cone should be attacked from as far southeast of the summit as possible. So we made a gentle climb up the plateau and passed the last of Wahlstrom’s wands at about 12,500 feet. We reached the edge of the plateau, and, but for the storm, we could have looked 6000 feet down onto the Hubbard Glacier. At this point the southeast ridge of the summit cone rose. During a lucky break in the clouds we saw the summit and a feasible route up. An ice slope ran up to the ridge to the left of difficult rock. Half way to the ridge, the ice was confined by a small rock buttress to the left. Sy cut up to the buttress, using one ice piton for safety. The buttress gave easy access to the ridge; then a short snow ridge led to a rocky portion. On the rock Sy led to the left of the ridge, and up, again using a piton for safety. A steep snow pitch led back to the ridge which was now a knife-edge. Two rope lengths and we were up. The summit consisted of two snow bumps 100 feet apart, with a gentle hollow between them. The time was eleven a.m. Waiting for occasional breaks in the clouds, we took many pictures. The temperature was a relatively warm +22°F. Climbing and rappelling down, we soon reached the plateau and then followed our wands back to the rock step. We were all back in Camp II at 3:30.

The next day we started out. We got to Base Camp on the Logan Glacier at noon and then headed for a pass between the Logan and Hubbard glaciers. That night it snowed several inches, and we were thankful to have left Camp II before this snowfall loaded the slopes above. On August 7 we arrived in Dr. Wood’s camp and received the already mentioned royal welcome. The following day we were kindly given a four-mile lift on snow tractors. Then we headed for the highway and made the 65 miles from Dr. Wood’s camp in three and a half days. Thus ended another enjoyable trip among North America’s really big mountains.

We would like to mention some of the remaining climbing problems which we saw in this area. On McArthur the east summit remains unclimbed. To repeat our route merely for this summit is not as attractive as trying the east ridge of McArthur, which starts at a pass between the Logan and Hubbard glaciers and leads directly to the east peak. This ridge, all snow and ice, is long and has several difficult looking steps but also appears to have many camp sites. The col between McArthur and Logan appears to be approachable from the Logan Glacier side (but not, because of avalanches, from the Hubbard Glacier side). From the col there would be high-angle routes to McArthur or Logan. On our walk-in and walk-out we saw many fine unclimbed peaks, as already mentioned. Mount King George is outstanding among these. From a distance its southeast and southwest ridges look most promising. When most of the first ascents in the St. Elias Range are gone, climbers may turn to the 5000-foot north face of King George.

Summary of Statistics

Area: St. Elias Range, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Ascent: First ascent of Mount McArthur, 14,400 feet, August 4, 1961. Personnel: Barbara Lilley, Alexander McDermott, Donald Monk, Seymour Ossofsky, George Wallerstein.