American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Attempt on Wickersham Wall, Mount McKinley

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1962

Attempt on Wickersham Wall, Mount McKinley. On May 17 Dan Davis, Stu Ferguson, Warren Bleser and I flew to Anchorage with food and equipment for an attempt on the huge north face of Mount McKinley, Wickersham Wall. On Saturday the 20th we finally got started from Mile 65 on the Wonder Lake road. It took us a week to cross the fifty miles of rugged country to our airdrop site at 7100 feet on the Jeffery Glacier. Near Clearwater Creek we crossed Carlson Creek and headed over vast stretches of muskeg and brush to the Peters Glacier. We traveled along its left edge on a bench well above the main glacier and six miles later crossed onto the glacier itself to camp near the great bend. On May 26 we traveled five miles to a point close to the icefall of the Jeffery Glacier that cascades from Wickersham Wall into the Peters and the day after continued another 3½ miles to the 7100-foot point. We had matchless views of the gargantuan wall, perhaps the world’s largest continuous wall of snow and ice, more than 14,000 feet high. Tremendous icefalls dropped thousands of feet. Ice toppled off frequently accompanied by tumultuous roars and white clouds. We were expecting veteran bush pilot Don Sheldon’s airdrop on Sunday, but it did not come, though we were enjoying a rare spell of beautiful weather. We found out later that it had been socked in tight at the Talkeetna airstrip. On Monday the 29th the cherished drop finally came, much to our relief. On June 1 we were finally camped at 10,000 feet on a dome above the main icefall of the route. Some of the relaying was rough with soft snow and 60 to 70-pound packs. The weather was hardly ever good. Our route was basically the western edge of the wall, directly above the right end of the Jeffery Glacier. The main problem is the above-mentioned icefall that extends from 8000 to 10,000 feet. Fortunately many crevasses were filled in by new snow and made possible what would have been an otherwise very tricky route. Nevertheless we placed three fixed lines and found short slopes up to 55°. Above this the going was hard with heavy packs on steep, loose, snow slopes. On June 7 we were in a new camp at 12,000 feet on a 40° slope about 300 feet below the crest of the ridge or edge of the wall. At about ten a.m. the next morning we were lying in the 4-man Logan tent waiting out a white-out and snowstorm when suddenly a huge bank of snow descended upon us without warning, ran over us and took us with it! We were sure we were headed for oblivion! Seventy feet lower we came to a miraculous stop and somehow managed to cut or crawl our way out. From right next to the Logan tent to the east, our two-man tent loaded with 16 days of food and two ropes had gone all the way down. By some providential act we had been spared in a close shave with death! We never found the food again and all evidence indicated that it had fallen over a cliff about a thousand feet lower. We headed for the crest and dug desperately with ice axes and snowshoes to improvise a snow cave. After we finished it, I headed back to the slide area and probed for hours, managing to turn up some very important things. I found a pair and a half of snow- shoes, without which two of us would never have gotten out alive, a snow shovel, poles, a Leica camera, wands and an ice piton. We estimated that nearly three feet of snow had fallen within a relatively short time before the avalanche occurred and the items found by probing were under three feet of snow also. Our mistake had been in assuming that since we were so close to the crest of the ridge, there was no danger from avalanche, an entirely erroneous assumption! Fortunately we had enough food for the journey out, but the only rope we had was quarter-inch line. It took us a day to descend to the junction of the Peters and the Jeffery Glaciers and two more days of hard walking to reach Wonder Lake. We feel that at our highest point (Warren and I climbed to 12,500 feet before leaving) we were well over the main difficulties. The so-called "steep pitch” directly above us did not look too bad and from 13,000 feet our chief technical problems seemed to be over. We had reached a point nearly halfway up the face. (The route attempted was first suggested and described in detail by Bradford Washburn in A.A.J., 1947, 6:3, pp. 288-290.—Editor.)

Don Gordon

Note: All dates in this section refer to 1961 unless stated otherwise.

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