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Opportunities on Mount McKinley

Opportunities on Mount McKinley

Bradford Washburn

There Are few pastimes more interesting to a desk-bound mountaineer than studying maps and pictures in search of new routes—even if it is evident that the chances are very low of trying any of them yourself! During the last few years I have had a lot of fun writing a number of illustrated articles suggesting new Alaskan climbs. And, of course, this fun has turned to real satisfaction when these new routes have been successfully climbed. Recently, a climbing friend pointed out to me that almost all of the new routes which I have suggested on Mount McKinley have been climbed and asked if there were not still some challenging opportunities on America’s highest peak. Of course, there are so many fine new routes still to be tried on McKinley and in its environs that one scarcely knows where to start. I hope that this brief article and its illustrations will whet the enthusiasm of some of its readers for what I believe still to be among North America’s finest mountaineering opportunities.

1. Wickersham Wall

Although I have already described what I believe to be an excellent route up the western edge of this superb north face of Mount McKinley’s North Peak (See Bibliography reference No. 1), I made some new pictures of the details of this route in August 1959 which show it in much better perspective. This route was attempted in the summer of 1961 by a party which reached an altitude of about 12,500 feet—just below the steep icy pitch at 13,000 feet which is its key to success. Unfortunately, they attempted the climb under conditions of deep new snow and a major catastrophe was barely averted when their 12,000-foot camp was hit by a small snow avalanche. The tent with the party in it was carried to the very brink of a huge precipice and the supply-tent actually went all the way down the mountain, forcing a sudden and unexpected retreat to Wonder Lake just when it looked as if success was certain! However, this attempt proves conclusively that this route will work out very nicely—and safely if care is taken to avoid deep fresh snow, particularly in the area from 12,000—14,000 feet. Above this, except after a prolonged siege of southwest storms, McKinley’s slopes are usually reasonably hard-packed most of the time. It is well to remember that during the six-week period from June 1—July 15, there is apt to be more loose snow on McKinley than before or later. At best this is a cold route, and one is naturally tempted to try it at the warmest time of year. But safety may be more important than warmth, and the windier, chillier months of May and August might provide better all-around conditions for its ascent. I am more convinced than ever that there are no major technical difficulties anywhere on this route, except those posed by dangerous windslab or excessive loose snow on a climb where much of the going is unavoidably on a face rather than a ridge. Plates 26, 27, and 28 indicate the route and campsites which appear to be best on this beautiful, but not-too-difficult ascent.

2. The Southeast Spur

My 1956-57 Mountain World article (See Bibliography reference No. 3) emphasized this spur with its two forks as a really splendid new route on McKinley. It is particularly interesting as the lower ends of both of these forks lie at the very edge of McKinley Park and each has an excellent ski-plane landing-site just outside the park and only a few hundred yards from the start of the climb (See Plate 29). The smoother and safer landing (7000 feet) unfortunately lies adjacent to the much-more-difficult southern fork of this spur at the foot of Mount Huntington—however, this would make possible an attempt on unclimbed Mount Huntington (12,240 feet) as well as McKinley out of the same air-supplied base. The higher (7700 feet) and somewhat less attractive* landing-spot, adjacent to the foot of the eastern fork of the Southeast Spur (See Plate 30), also presents an excellent double (or even triple) opportunity to climbers. Unclimbed Mount Dan Beard (10,260 feet) can undoubtedly be ascended directly in a single day from this camp. In addition, it is the logical start for an attempt on both basic routes up this side of the long, steep and difficult East Buttress.

While the south fork of the Southeast Spur presents an almost continual series of major climbing difficulties (mostly on very narrow, steep ice ridges, although there is some rock between 8000 and 9500 feet), the eastern fork appears to have its problems concentrated in only two relatively short pitches around 10,000 and 11,000 feet. Both of these sections of steep, narrow ridge are near excellent campsites and can unquestionably be surmounted by a determined attack even under bad snow conditions— provided that the party is strong and experienced and equipped with an ample supply of pickets, ice pitons and fixed rope. A shortage of this equipment and incredibly bad weather resulted in the failure of the only attempt to climb this ridge, made in June 1958 by a six-man group led by David L. Dingman. No major problems of any sort appear to lie between 12,000 and 16,000 feet on this route, and there is no doubt that the views of McKinley and its satellites from the crest of the Southeast Spur must be among the most magnificent in the world. This side of Mount McKinley is truly Himalayan in its grandeur and there can be no finer Belvédère from which to contemplate it than the crest of this superb ridge (Plate 33).

Above the spot where the Southeast Spur meets the South Buttress (16,000 feet), there are two basic routes to the top of the South Peak— the easier, but by far the longer, is that followed by the Thayer party of 1954. (See A.A.J., 1955, pp. 51-69.) This drops over a thousand feet into the great cirque now known as Thayer Basin, then swings in a wide arc to the summit via the ridge which encloses the basin to the east and north. An additional camp was required at 17,300 feet from which the 1954 ascent to the summit was finally made.

The alternate way to the top of McKinley from the "root" of the South Buttress is to attack this side of the South Peak directly. This is infinitely more difficult than the circuitous Thayer route (which entails no technical problems whatever above Thayer Basin). Although this side of the final pyramid of McKinley can probably be climbed by a number of different routes, all leading to the 18,960-foot shoulder, the three suggested in illustrations appear to me to offer the best chances of success. (See Plates 34, 35, and 36.) All would be much easier and safer under good snow conditions—and none would be conceivably possible under really bad snow conditions. Route 1 probably presents the best overall chances of success, although Route 3 might go surprisingly fast under perfect snow conditions, even despite a thousand-foot loss of altitude at the start. Before trying any of these three, it might be well to reconnoitre and mark the Thayer route to the 17,000-foot level so that it could be used as a route of descent in bad weather or emergency. A large supply of fixed rope, or long rappel ropes and pickets should be carried to meet descent problems on this very steep and exposed climb. Extreme caution should be exercised, particularly above 16,000 feet, as it would prove exceedingly difficult and dangerous to evacuate an injured climber down the delicate steep pitches of the lower Southeast Spur. Route 1 looks as if it might have a reasonable camp-location at just below the 18,000-foot level and this, too, would tend to recommend it over 2 and 3, despite very steep pitches at around 16,000 feet and between 17,000 and 18,500 feet. There are no technical problems of any sort above the 18,960-foot shoulder on this side of the South Peak. The upper part of this climb presents a number of difficulties ranking with those of the upper part of the Italian rib of McKinley’s South Face, but not nearly as bad as the lower steep pitches of the Italian route. It should certainly not be attempted except by a uniformly powerful and experienced party with ample supplies in reserve.

Next year the author hopes to analyze McKinley’s East Buttress and East Face— (Editor).


(1) American Alpine Journal, 1947, pp. 283-293, "Mt. McKinley from the North and West" by Bradford Washburn.

(2) Appalachia, June, 1954, pp. 20-28, "The South Buttress of Mount McKinley: Analysis of a proposed route of ascent," by Bradford Washburn.

(3) The Mountain World, 1956-57, pp. 55-81, "Mount McKinley: History and Evaluation" by Bradford Washburn.

(4) Map of Mt. McKinley, 1:50,000, 1960, The Museum of Science, Boston and the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, Zurich.

*Several landings have already been made by bush-pilot Don Sheldon in both of these spots.