Mount McKinley — Proposed East Buttress Routes

Publication Year: 1963.

Mount McKinley— Proposed East Buttress Routes

Bradford Washburn

Author’s Note: All of the climbs described in this article involve technical and logistic problems of such difficulty that a party attempting any one of them should be manned with uniformly experienced and rugged personnel. May I reiterate: above the crest of the East Buttress very great care must be exercised, as the upper part of McKinley is a relentless customer at any time of year. Even a minor accident above 14,000 feet on any of these routes could lead into a major disaster, unless a radio-planned helicopter (or skiplane) airlift from Thayer Basin or the top of the Buttress itself could remove the injured climber.

ONLY three "major routes” still remain unclimbed on Mount McKinley—Wickersham Wall (the north face), the East Face and the East Buttress. When they have been conquered, the exploration of McKinley will have come to an end and the process of dissection will begin. One by one, the subsidiary ridges will then be attacked and climbed—and finally the faces and gullies will become the objectives of those who still wish to blaze pioneer trails on North America’s highest peak.

I venture to say that the ultimate dissection of any great Alaskan mountain will be a rather risky proceeding, for, unlike the Alps, Alaskan couloirs and faces tend to be extremely dangerous. This is partly the result of heavy year-round snowfall on the heights, producing far more than average avalanche activity pretty much around the year and around the clock; and partly because of dramatic temperature variations in the lower altitudes (below 15,000 feet) which intensify the deterioration of exposed rock, resulting in frequent and unpredictable rockfalls in the summer months. Alaskan faces abound in Eigerwands!

Although the Wickersham route1 still remains unclimbed, it is not technically difficult. In fact, it is the last relatively easy new route on McKinley. The East Face is exceedingly steep, complex and difficult, and will, I hope, be the subject of one of these analytical articles another year. Unlike the other major routes on McKinley, the danger factor on this one is so high and unavoidable that it is certainly not by any means the next and most tempting goal in the area.

The East Buttress is something very different. The ascent to its southeast tip (Peak 14,630) from the northwest fork of the Ruth Glacier might prove to be surprisingly straightforward under ideal snow conditions. Although all of its other basic approaches are long, steep and, in places, really difficult, the unavoidable dangers are very low on all of them.

As can be seen on the map published with this article,2 the East Buttress thrusts itself four miles due eastward from the summit of McKinley’s South Peak and terminates in two snowy domes 14,550 and 14,630 feet high. Two great ridges descend from its eastern tip—one to the east, dropping 4500 feet in four miles to Traleika Col, the lowest point between the Traleika and Ruth Glaciers. The other descends northeastward for about five miles, dropping 7500 feet to the main fork of Traleika Glacier. A steep subsidiary rib drops 6500 feet south-southeast in just over one mile from Peak 14,630 to the northwest fork of the Ruth Glacier.

Only one serious attempt has ever been made on the East Buttress. In July 1956 a four-man party led by Walter Gonnason reached an altitude of about 11,000 feet on the crest of the corniced knife-edge just beyond the col between Peaks 11,390 and 11,920 on the East Ridge, while endeavoring to prove that this was the route used by Dr. Cook in 1906.3 On July 4, 1956, however, a four-man British party led by Captain E. J. E. Mills made the first and only ascent of Peak 12,060 (at the north tip of the northeast fork of the Buttress) in the course of a six-weeks’ exploration of the upper Traleika Basin.4

On the map and illustrations I have marked what I believe to be the four basic approaches to the East Buttress. Routes 1 and 2 are not only the shortest, but they start from a small but adequate landing area (for experienced pilots only!) at 7500 feet on the northwest fork of Ruth Glacier. Routes 3 and 4 are not only long and, in spots, extremely difficult climbs, but they both involve a very lengthy (26-mile) approach on foot from Wonder Lake to the main fork of the Traleika Glacier even to get onto the map shown here.

Although excellent landing-spots abound in both upper forks of the Traleika, they all lie within the limits of the National Park, in which landings are not permitted—though a major air drop here would be permissible under present regulations.

Route 1: There is no doubt that the best route to the crest of the East Buttress, except under bad ice conditions, lies directly up a series of steep snowslopes from the northwest fork of Ruth Glacier (see map and plates). An easy walk of 3 miles or less up the moderately-crevassed glacier from the landing-spot will bring one to the 9000-foot basin at its head. Here is probably the best place for an advanced base in a spot carefully chosen to be totally free of avalanche danger. The tip of the East Buttress rises 5500 feet above this cirque. Under ideal conditions there is no doubt that this whole climb can be made in a single day by a small, strong party— and it might be a wise move to reconnoitre at least two-thirds of the route right off from base camp to appraise difficulties and dangers before becoming too deeply committed in steep packing to establish depots on this route.

There appear to be only three basic sources of danger, aside from miscellaneous snow or icefalls. One of these is an ice cliff at about 9500 feet which can be easily detoured to the right and which promises little or no danger. The second is another ice cliff at 12,000 feet just to the left of the route, which may result in some potential danger between and 11,000 feet. The last is a major ice wall at 13,000 feet which dominates a large part of the slope below it and which must be detoured to the right (east). The general impression given by these cliffs is that they are not dead, but they certainly do not give the impression of being highly active.

Advanced camps on this route will have to be positioned with care to avoid these dangers. One good site appears to be at 11,000 feet on a snow promontory of the ridge to the right of the route (see map). The second should be placed at the tip of the snow crest (12,600 feet) of the big granite crag to the left (west) of the route—unless the 13,000-foot ice wall appears to dominate this spot seriously. If this is the case, a place will have to be found in the slope itself, either just to the right (east) or even just above the 13,000-foot wall. The latter would, of course, be best if the climb from the 11,000-foot camp did not prove too arduous. Under good conditions it would not. Under bad conditions it certainly would—but there is grave doubt whether anyone should climb on this route under bad conditions anyway.

Although, at first glance, this climb appears to be extremely steep, I very much doubt the existence of any major problems for an experienced party, excepting the crossing of several large cracks or schrunds, the exact condition of which is bound to change from year to year and, therefore, cannot be predicted precisely. Suffice it to say that the route up Mount Deception (11,825 feet, 16 miles east of Mount McKinley) appeared very similar to this and turned out to be thoroughly practical, even in November.

In theory, the ridge to the right of this route could be climbed from the 11,000-foot camp to the base of the rock cliffs at 13,000 feet in order to avoid the middle of the climb under bad conditions. However, this ridge is very steep, narrow and rocky between 12,000 feet and 13,000 feet and the very conditions which made the main route unattractive would probably make the ridge even worse.

A fairly substantial camp will have to be set up and provisioned on the edge of the great plateau atop the East Buttress (14,350 feet), as nearly 6000 feet of climbing still lie above. Prolonged bad weather might also force a prolonged delay here, on the way down, in order to wait until snow conditions on the lower route improved enough for a safe descent. Needless to say, plenty of fixed rope or long rappel ropes and an ample supply of pickets would be in order for this.

Two more camps will doubtless be needed above this 14,350-foot depot; one in Thayer Basin at about 14,200 feet (after a walk of 2½ miles and an unavoidable descent of 500 feet to detour Peak 14,730). If the easier Thayer route (1954)5 is used, the logical final camp is at 17,330 feet just to the west of Peak 17,425. If the ascent of the summit pyramid is attacked directly from here either by Everett’s 1962 route6 or by a new direct route (see plates), the position of the advanced camp will be less commodious and the climb much steeper. There is an excellent campsite at 17,350 feet on the Everett route (350 feet above Everett’s highest camp). If the direct route was used, an adequate spot can surely be leveled on the crest of the ridge at around 17,000 feet. Be sure to bring an ample supply of trail markers for the upper part of the route (above the 14,350-foot camp) as this is a savage, though beautiful, area and the storms on the upper part of McKinley can be unmerciful and very lengthy.

Route 2: This route attacks the East Buttress directly via the east ridge. Below Peak 11,920 there are two alternatives. These are both clearly shown on the map and in the illustrations (2a and 2b). There seems to be little choice between the two.

Route 2b, the longer and probably the more difficult, was the one followed by Gonnason’s party in 1956. Plate 18b in AAJ 1958 shows where this party halted at 11,200 feet on a dramatically corniced and frost- feather-encrusted knife-edge.

This route first descends slightly a mile to the east of the landing-spot, then climbs through a small icefall southeast of Peak 9370. Another mile and a half of gentle climbing over open glacier and through large crevasses leads to a logical campsite (9400 feet) in the beautiful basin just southeast of Peak 11,390. The easiest route from here to Peak 11,390 is via the headwall of this basin and its east ridge, though a detour to the east over Peaks 11,000 and 10,980 might be in order under deep snow conditions. (Gonnason’s party did this on their ascent, descending via the shorter, steeper route.)

There is an excellent campsite on the ridge crest just west of Peak 11,390 and right at the beginning of the knife-edge where Gonnason’s party stopped. The route from here up to the top of Peak 11,920 is at first extremely narrow, corniced and level. Then there is a very steep snow or ice pitch leading to a little shoulder 350 feet below the top of the peak. Under ideal conditions, this ridge might be climbed, but it would prove quite impossible in deep loose snow, forcing a detour to the right and thence up the north face of Peak 11,920 (which could also be very nasty in deep snow). This detour is doubtless preferable anyway. Another camp will be needed in the col just west of Peak 11,920, whence the struggle with huge cornices and the very narrow ridge will continue for another three-fourths mile to the base of the steep final slope at 13,000 feet. This mile and a half of ridge above Peak 11,390 is going to prove extremely difficult and precarious under almost all conditions and will require a great deal of step-cutting, shoveling and bona fide excavation to make it a feasible pack route.

From the final ridge camp (on a little snow shoulder just below the schrund at 13,000 feet) to the crest of the East Buttress there is a relentless 50°-60° slope which usually appears to be solid blue ice. At the top of this 13,000 foot pitch lies the great East Buttress plateau where the other routes are joined. A certain amount of fixed rope will be needed badly here and there on this ridge above 11,000 feet, but the slope above 13,000feet will probably require an unbroken stretch of fixed rope, as it is very exposed and has not a single resting spot of any sort.

Route 2a was also first attempted by the Gonnason party, which abandoned the climb at 9300 feet where the first rock step occurs. They then tried route 2b. This route is much more direct than 2b (2 miles shorter) and, of course, also avoids all of the nasty going just east of Peak 11,920. However, it will doubtless require two camps on the ridge and several bad bits of steep broken rock and ice. Rock steps block the way at 9300 feet and 9800 feet and a good campsite appears to lie on a level snow ridge between these two crags. The ridge above 10,000 feet continues narrow and steep to the base of the summit cone of Peak 11,920, which is reached at 10,800 feet. The second camp will probably be set up here where the narrow ridge ends. The cone above this point is steep and badly broken by schrunds and cracks. Under ideal conditions it might prove an easy ascent, but in deep snow it could be well-nigh hopeless.

To recapitulate, all three of these routes involve steep, difficult climbing which could be downright dangerous in bad snow conditions—and they lie on a side of the mountain where the Weather is notoriously snowy. In order to get best snow conditions, they should probably be attempted in May or July—not in June because of its miserably unpredictable stormy weather—not in August because of its warm rains which often drench McKinley right up to the 14,000-foot level.

Routes 3 and 4 differ basically from 1 and 2 because they require an extremely long (26-mile) approach on foot from Wonder Lake, and an air drop on Traleika Glacier is the only possible relief from a tremendous back-packing ordeal. Furthermore, because of this remotness, an accident could result in very serious and complex circumstances. A two-way radio should be an important part of the equipment for any of these four routes—but of particular value on these last two. Emergency skiplane landings could be effected at any time of year in the extreme upper Traleika and helicopter landings would be safe and easy at all times at any point in the Traleika Valley—in a pinch, even atop the East Buttress.

Route 3 and 3a is a lengthy ridge climb, but a magnificent one for a courageous and powerful party—although 3a does not involve a bona fide ascent of the East Buttress. Curiously enough, it does not appear to have a single difficult pitch over 300-400 feet long the whole way to the top of McKinley, if the Thayer route is followed above 14,000 feet!

It would be unnecessary to follow the British route all the way to the top of Peak 12,060 as this summit could be detoured to the south shortly after leaving the first advanced camp on the 10,000-foot plateau east of 12,060. The first pitch of any consequence would be the approach to Peak 12,200, a half-mile southwest of Peak 12,060. The descent on the southwest side of this summit could also provide a brief icy knife-edge—but nothing comparable to any of the major problems of the other two routes just discussed. Similarly, Peak 12,355 does not look as if it would provide any problem of consequence. The second camp would probably be set up in the col between Peaks 12,200 and 12,355. If this proved too long a pack from the 10,000-foot campsite, it would be easy to relay a supply dump to the 11,000-foot plateau just south of Peak 12,060—and then return from the second camp to relay supplies up from this dump as they were needed.

After traversing Peak 12,355 one faces a major choice of routes. The ridge from here to the top of the East Buttress is extremely steep, sharp and difficult. Furthermore, if it is climbed (1600 vertical feet), a prompt loss of altitude is unavoidable on the other side.

Therefore, at this point one should take a long, careful look at 3a. By dropping 400 feet to the west of the ridge one comes out here on a broad, safe plateau (11,300 feet) on the west fork of the Traleika Glacier, where an ideal campsite exists in stupendous surroundings—and whence Thayer Basin can doubtless be reached by following up the left side of the glacier, winding among the crevasses of a 2000-foot icefall. Through the years, the snow conditions in this icefall have varied a good deal and it would be wise to check (and photograph) it before starting the climb, as it might possibly prove the only serious obstacle in the whole climb. Some avalanche danger exists if the icefall must be climbed on its left (south) side. Both sides of this icefall seem to be always easy climbing up to the 13,000- foot level. Then there are about 500 feet of ice blocks and big cracks to be negotiated in order to come out onto the broad easy slopes of Thayer Basin.

Above this 11,300-foot camp there are two practical routes to the summit of Mt. McKinley which should be mentioned here but which really are not ascents via the East Buttress:

3a: via the main stream of the upper Traleika through its upper icefall to a 14,200-foot camp in Thayer Basin—thence to the top via the Thayer route (1954) around the eastern rim of the basin (easy); to the south via the Everett route (1962) or via a direct central route, as yet unclimbed (see illustrations and map).

3b: via the eastern slope of the eastern rim of Thayer Basin. This route is most obvious on all pictures and should be both short and straightforward, unless bad snow conditions are encountered on the slopes between 13,000 and 16,000 feet due to heavy SW storms. Such conditions might force an extra camp at the crest of the ridge around 16,000 feet. These routes, combined with the lower part of Route 3 are challenging climbs—lengthy, but nowhere involving major technical problems.

Route 4 has all of the length of Route 3, in addition to difficulties equivalent to or worse than Route 2 in its worst places. It involves an almost 30-mile walk from Wonder Lake to the base camp and air drop site (8500 feet) at the head of the Traleika Glacier, right at the foot of the east face of the East Buttress. A steep snow or ice face and ridge leads to a fine snow shelf (11,000 feet) where an excellent advance campsite exists. A nasty ice cliff (the side of a small hanging glacier) appears to always exist to a greater or less degree at about 10,500 feet on this route. This should be thoroughly studied from the air or in recent photographs, as it might easily bar the whole route under certain conditions.

From the 11,000-foot plateau to the crest of the main northeast ridge of the East Buttress is an extremely steep and really difficult 2300 foot climb, involving both ice and rock. There is not the slightest chance of camping on this steep rib and the packing problem here would be very great, if the climb were to be pressed beyond the top of the East Buttress.

Once at the top of this rib, the main ridge climbs much less steeply for another 1000 feet to the top of the buttress, but this ridge always appears to be extremely sharp and heavily corniced.

This climb, although technically feasible, is quite impractical as a route up Mount McKinley. It is still a magnificent challenge for a small and highly competent team of ice climbers who want to attack one of Alaska’s most beautiful subsidiary ridges.

1.AAJ 1962—pp. 49-50 and plates 26, 27, 28.

2. A black and white copy of a portion of Bradford Washburn’s 1960 map of Mount McKinley.

3. See AAJ 1957, p. 156 (note), 1958, Plate 18b.

4. See AAJ 1957, pp. 153-156 (brief account).

5. Appalachia, June 1954, pp. 20-28 and AAJ 1955, pp. 51-69.

6. AAJ 1962, plates 34, 35, 36; and AAJ 1963 (this issue).