A New Route on The Wickersham Wall

Publication Year: 1964.

A New Route on The Wickersham Wall


Henry L. Abrons

We sought a challenge on ice and rock. The Alaska Range is rich in possibilities, but after considering the time and cost of such a venture we inevitably faced the question: why not try Big Mac? I had been there before, but the prospect did not seem at all repetitious; McKinley is gigantic, and every face presents an entirely individual aspect.

The Wickersham Wall is among the largest mountain faces in the world, rising from the Peters Glacier at 5400 feet to the North Peak at 19,470 feet. The route* which we chose with the help of Bradford Washburn does not coincide with that of previous attempts on the wall, nor is it that by which the first ascent of this face was made 33 days before our climb. It is not the easiest route; however, it is the most direct, and we chose it because of its challenges, its virgin character, and its aesthetic appeal. It begins directly beneath the North Peak on a rock spur that rises 2500 feet between two prominent icefalls which empty into the Peters Glacier opposite Jeffery Dome. From the top of the spur, the route follows a distinct snow arête leading straight up to the snowfield beneath the North Peak. There is an altitude difference of 2.66 vertical miles; the lower 8000 feet average 44° in steepness. The rock spur is friable schist which we judged difficult to descend after the snow and ice binding it melts in July. Therefore, we decided to descend via the West Buttress, which necessitated climbing over the North Peak with 50-pound packs. Our high altitude gear had to be the lightest possible. Food was largely freeze-dried and weighed 18 ounces per man per day. Several items of equipment were designed and built by our members, such as tubular aluminum snowshoes weighing 2½ pounds per pair and three-man tents with double walls weighing 11 pounds with poles.

The expedition was composed of members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club: Pete Carman, Chris Goetze, John Graham, Don Jensen, Rick Millikan, Dave Roberts, and myself. We bought a disreputable-looking Volkswagen bus, stuffed it to the roof with gear and ourselves, and drove non-stop to Alaska. At midnight, June 18, we began the 30-mile hike from the Denali Highway to Base Camp where we expected an airdrop by Don Sheldon.

Wading the McKinley River and Clearwater Creek was uneventful, although Jensen did it like a Buddhist pilgrim — in bare feet. We reached the trough of the Peters Glacier in one and a half days; its immense black cavity, more than a mile across and six hundred feet deep, looked like the aftermath of The Bomb. In the evening of June 21 we set up our orange tents a half-mile from the rock spur where our route begins. These tents, designed and built by Goetze on the basis of experience and testing in gales on Mount Washington, have ripstop nylon walls supported so strongly by pull-outs and a ridge-pole that one can do pushups against the side. We wanted to camp anywhere, in any storm. Fortunately, the tents were not put to the ultimate test, since we did not encounter winds much above 50 m.p.h.

The airdrop did not come at once, because Sheldon was busy rescuing frostbite cases on the Kahiltna Glacier. During the next four days we reconnoitered the icefall leading to the spur and studied the avalanches. They originated in hanging ice at 14,000 feet, but were diverted to the right and left of our arête by well-worn chutes. The most impressive avalanches announced themselves with a dull distant boom. The spectators look with growing awe as the small white plume tumbles carelessly among the colossal features of the face. After a half-minute the onlookers, bored, turn back to their books. Ten seconds later they glance up again. It is still coming. Quite a bit closer now. You can hear boulders strike the rock at 7000 feet. They’ve fallen a mile and a half. Coming straight toward Base Camp, isn’t it? Madly, clothes and sleeping bags are snatched off the tents where they are stretched to dry. But the rushing figures feel a blast of cool air in their faces. Too late. Everything is knocked to the ground, covered with wind-blown snow. The mist clears, the sun reappears, and we see that the body of the avalanche has come to a halt a few hundred yards from the foot of the Wall. Yet after several of these monsters, the arête we planned to climb remained untouched. The only exposed ground was the icefall to the right of the spur, which we had to climb at night.

Just before we ran out of food, Sheldon made his appearance. Like a kid in a window dropping spitballs on pedestrians, he seemed to aim each bundle at one of us, or at the tents. After the fun was over, all the gear lay undamaged within ten steps from camp. On June 26 we were ready to attack. We packed loads up the icefall at night and cached them beside the spur at 6650 feet. For two nights, Jensen, Millikan, Roberts, and I reconnoitered the spur to a shelf at 7100 feet. The route consisted of eight pitches of mixed rock and snow with crux pitches of 5.5 in the conditions under which we climbed them. Ten rock pitons were used for protection and to anchor fixed ropes. On June 29, Graham and I attempted to climb this part with loads of 50 pounds. With great exertion and unashamed use of the fixed ropes, we managed to climb the first six pitches, but turned back after three and a half hours of repeated falls on a verglas-covered slab. It was plainly too difficult to pack all our gear up this section.

As an alternative, Goetze and Jensen climbed without packs and rigged a pulley 100 feet below the shelf at 7100 feet. After several tries we devised an effective system of hauling loads 350 feet with ¼" hemp. The gear was placed in a burlap grain sack; three men heaved on the rope, one belayed the slack, and one pulled the sack off the face with a guy line. In this manner 800 pounds of gear were raised in six hours.

Base Camp was abandoned on June 30, and while Goetze and Jensen established Camp II at 7100 feet, the rest of us spent the day at Camp I at the 6650-foot cache. As the sun warmed the spur above, the clatter of rockfall became frequent and regular, but we appeased our anxiety by reckoning that the tents were not in the fall line. However the rocks, being ignorant of elementary physics, punctured the tents twice and landed among the breakfast dishes. Dangerously large boulders bounced over us or buried themselves in the slope above. There was no chance of moving, so with wry fatalism we put our faith in the name we had given our new tent design, "The Bombshelter”. When we awoke we saw that our ice axes, left standing a few yards away, had been buried by an avalanche, and it took an hour of searching the whole slope to find them.

During the night of July 1 we climbed to Camp II while Goetze and Jensen reconnoitered the spur above. Slightly less steep, nevertheless it posed several problems: rock gendarmes; a slightly corniced, soft, snow crest; and a 70° ice headwall encrusted with rotten snow. They progressed as far as the most difficult gendarme, which overhung on two sides and dropped off sharply on the other. The next night Carman and I climbed this using a stirrup; the pitch also involved a strenuous retable which provoked unspeakable grunts the following night, when, with our fellow "sherpas,” we returned to the job of lugging up equipment to keep pace with the advance rope. Happily, everyone was not only an experienced leader eager to take his turn in the reconnaissance party but also a team member dedicated to carrying loads, digging tent platforms, cooking, etc. Expeditionary mountaineering has moments of exquisite beauty, drama, and glamour, but they must be backed up by a love of hard work and an appreciation of victory slowly and painfully won.

Above the 70° icewall, called "Shady Lane”, the spur merges into the less prominent snow bulge which stands out in shallow relief from the broad north face. Here, at 6650 feet, we placed Camp IV below an enormous fluted bulge of snow. On July 3, while the others carried loads, Graham and Millikan climbed this 500-foot snow formation. The final pitch was virtually vertical ice; the leader balanced on half-driven snow pickets while cutting steps. Like all the pitches above Camp II, this was later climbed with packs by the aid of a fixed rope with knotted handholds.

The next major problem, a 100-foot overhanging ice cliff at 10,300 feet, was solved by Goetze and Roberts the following night. What at first appeared to be a place for artificial ice technique turned out to have a convenient flaw: a narrow cleft forming a winding 60° chimney, which we called "The Icebox”. Above this, broad slopes, broken by cliffs, crevasses, and gullies presented no further technical obstacles, and route-finding was the only problem. We now entered the zone where temperatures never rise above freezing and changed our schedule from nocturnal to diurnal; that is, to climb by day and sleep at night, instead of to sleep during the day and emerge from the tents at sundown like a band of thieves.

The plan we formulated was economical concerning time, but straining on our reserve of energy. We made a short carry on July 5 from Camp V at 9200 feet to a cache at 10,400 feet above the Icebox. Then after a short rest we rose in the evening of July 6 and worked through the night and day until the next evening. In this fashion we packed a total of 5600 feet, establishing Camp VI at 12,600 feet and stocking it with all our gear.

On July 8 we stayed in camp as it snowed and occasionally thundered outside. The next day we moved to Camp VII, 14,500 feet, at the top of the difficult arête and level with the huge snowfield beneath the North Peak. No technical problems stood above us — only 4800 vertical feet. The following day was splendid and warm, and we traversed directly under the North Peak, placing Camp VIII below a crevasse at 16,100 feet. On July 11, the weather slowly deteriorated below as we climbed to 17,400 feet in knee-deep, wind-packed powder. The effect of altitude was apparent — weariness, head and stomach ache, sneezing — and caused mild suffering during the next few days.

We camped in an exposed place above a large outcrop of rock. From July 12 until the 16th the North Peak was swept by north and west winds, and we were enclosed by a succession of ground storms and white-outs. We managed to climb another 1000 feet and deposit a small cache, but a summit attempt seemed unwise. The food and fuel in camp had nearly run out when the storm abated on the morning of July 16. It was the break we needed and we took off quickly for the North Peak.

The crusty snow broke beneath us as we cramponed under ankle-cracking 50-pound loads. Stopping frequently to rewarm our feet, we reached 19,000 feet by noon. The weather suddenly looked dismal, and the lead rope disappeared into the mist like Mallory and Irvine. It was agony to look ahead, for particles of ice blew straight into our eyes. We literally hugged the ridge, straddling it with our knees and gouging it with our heels, for in the wind it seemed to buck under us like a horse. Proudly, we reached the top and stood congratulating each other and thanking Lady Luck. Then, our exultation tinged with amusement at what we had so brazenly done, we signed our names under a quotation from Bradford Washburn:

"… One of the greatest precipices known to man.”

Summary of Statistics

Area: Alaska Range

Ascents: Mount McKinley, North Peak, 19,470 feet — first ascent of the central rib of the Wickersham Wall, July 16, 1963 (whole party). Mount McKinley, South Peak, 20,320 feet, July 19, 1963 (whole party).

Personnel: Henry L. Abrons, Peter T. Carman, Christopher Goetze, John A. Graham, Donald C. Jensen, Richard G. C. Millikan, David S. Roberts.

*A detailed factual and statistical description of the climb is available from the AAC or Mount McKinley National Park Headquarters.

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