American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

First Ascent of Mount Kennedy and Second Ascent of Mount Hubbard

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  • Publication Year: 1966

First Ascent of Mount Kennedy and Second Ascent of Mount Hubbard

An Extended Note by Bradford Washburn

In January 1965 the Canadian Government named a major Yukon peak in honor of the late President Kennedy. Discovered in the winter of 1935 on the National Geographic Yukon Expedition, this magnificent Matterhorn-like mountain was assigned an altitude of 13,860 feet on the reconnaissance survey of that year. The nearest that this expedition came to it was an 8000-foot camp at the base of its aweinspiring 6000-foot northeast face. But a small reconnaissance party of Adams Carter, John Haydon and Bradford Washburn climbed to a height of 12,300 feet on an ice shelf two miles west-northwest of Mount Kennedy and a half mile north of Mount Alverstone on May 1, 1935.

In 1951, during the first ascent of Mounts Hubbard and Alverstone, Walter Wood’s expedition passed only about a mile and a half west of Mount Kennedy’s summit on its way up Cathedral Glacier, which finds its source on all three of these peaks.

In the early spring of 1965, the National Geographic Society and Boston’s Museum of Science organized an expedition to make a precise large-scale map of the region around Mounts Kennedy, Hubbard and Alverstone. At the same time, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Geodetic Survey of Canada set up a joint expedition to determine the precise altitude and position of Mount Kennedy. This latter party also, in accomplishing its objective, planned to tie the Yukon survey network near Haines Junction to the Alaska coastal network by means of a 120- mile first-order tellurometer traverse, one of whose stations was to be on a lofty granite outcrop slightly over a half mile south of Mount Kennedy’s summit.

The National Geographic expedition was under the leadership of Bradford Washburn with Maynard M. Miller as deputy leader. It was carried out in two sorties: one during the last half of March; the second from mid-April until late May.

The first group, under the field leadership of Barry Prather, had as its objective the placing of survey targets precisely on top of Hubbard and Kennedy. The former, in particular, has a spacious domed summit, and an accurate determination of its position and altitude without a target would be impossible. Barry Prather, Dee Molenaar, George Senner, William Prater and William Allard (a photographer for the National Geographic Society) were landed at 8750 feet on Cathedral Glacier by ski-equipped aircraft of the Yukon Flying Service on March 15 and 16. They then packed an advanced camp to an altitude of approximately 11,000 feet in the hollow between Mount Hubbard and Mount Kennedy. The second ascent of Hubbard was made on March 21 and a target left there under poor but mild weather conditions. On March 22 Prather and Allard descended to the 8750-foot camp and the three other members of the party reconnoitered a route up the east fork of Cathedral Glacier to the base of the summit pyramid of Mount Kennedy at 13,200 feet. That same afternoon the second half of the advance party was flown from Whitehorse to the 8750-foot camp by a large Boeing-Vertol RCAF helicopter. This group consisted of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, James Whittaker and James Craig of Vancouver, B.C. — with Bradford Washburn as navigator and Martin Arnold of the New York Times as a passenger. In charge of the aircraft and its crew were Flight Lieutenants Don Campbell and Bob Hughes of the RCAF Comox, B. C. station. After leaving Senator Kennedy, Whittaker and Craig at Base Camp, the helicopter made reconnaissance landings at 13,200 feet on the upper plateau of Mount Kennedy and squarely on top of Mount Hubbard to ascertain whether later landings on these high points with personnel and surveying equipment would prove feasible.

The following day, under excellent weather and snow conditions, Senator Kennedy, Prather, Whittaker, Craig and Allard ascended the steep slopes of Cathedral Glacier to the upper camp, arriving there late in the afternoon. A sudden but violent snowstorm swept the camp during the night, but the next day dawned cloudless. The combined eight-man party got an eight o’clock start and near noon reached the 13,000-foot cache of two days before. They negotiated a short steep traverse on the exposed north face of the summit pyramid to avoid the only technical obstacle, a 30-foot vertical wall of ice which blocked the ridge a third of the way from the plateau to the summit. A fixed rope was left here for the descent and the summit reached without incident at one p.m. Temperature +5°F., 15-25 mph gusty breeze from the northwest: well-nigh incredible weather for this time of year. A memento of the late President was buried in the snows of the summit and the survey target was planted in the summit drift. The party started the descent after about an hour on top, and continued on all the way down to the landing camp after a brief stop at the 11,000-foot camp. Thence they were taken to Whitehorse early the following morning by the same RCAF helicopter that had brought them in.

Although this ascent via Cathedral Glacier does not involve any technical problems of consequence, Mount Kennedy is a superb peak and the view from its summit is one of the finest in the Yukon. The first ascent of its 6,000-foot northeast ridge from Lowell Glacier will rank as a first-class granite-and-ice climb—one of Canada’s top remaining mountaineering challenges. The most extraordinary aspect of the climb of March 1965 was the fact that Senator Kennedy made the round trip to the summit of Mount Kennedy from Washington, D. C. in barely 5 days —an incredible tour de force and a remarkable accomplishment for someone who had never climbed before.

The Survey

(Sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Boston’s Museum of Science with collaboration of the University of New Brunswick)

During April, a series of flights by the Yukon Flying Service, the RCAF and the Alaska Air National Guard* established a large, well- equipped base camp on the level expanse of the huge south fork of Lowell Glacier about 17 miles east-southeast of Mount Kennedy at an altitude of about 4500 feet. This camp, first set up by Malcolm Taylor and Monty Alford, was occupied continuously from mid-April until the end of May by two or more of the following personnel: Bradford Washburn, leader; Maynard M. Miller, deputy leader; Barry Prather, Terris Moore, pilot; Dr. Wayne Smith, Gottfried Konecny, Peter Wilson, Adam Chrzanowski, Tyler Kittredge, Malcolm Taylor, Monty Alford, Robert Fuller, Joseph Rychetnik, Dr. Hans Lehman and Ronald McLaughlin.

The basic goal of this party was to make a large-scale contour map of the region immediately surrounding Mounts Hubbard and Kennedy. The U.S.-Canadian Geodetic Survey expedition had a dual objective: to establish precisely the altitude and position of Mount Kennedy and, simultaneously, to tie the Yukon survey network along the Alcan Highway directly across the St. Elias Mountains to the U.S. network on the Alaska coast. Members of this geodetic party were: Garald C. Randall, leader, of Washington, Kansas; Grant Frazer, Ottawa; Don Farley, Ottawa; George R. Heid, Washington, D. C.; Paul H. Swift, Kensington, Maryland; Edgard G. Kaspari, Jr., Duluth, Minnesota; Arlo P. Potter, Haddan, Kansas and Albert Sulfridge of 4-Mile, Kentucky.

These two groups were in the field at exactly the same time and worked closely together, especially at one station 2/3 mile south of Mount Kennedy on a granite outcrop 13,425 feet high. Here the Geodetic traverse and Hubbard-Kennedy survey were tied tightly together by observations made by Paul Swift, supported by Prather, Smith, Fuller, Miller and Kittredge. The Geodetic Survey project involved four first-order traverse stations linking Haines Junction and Yakutat; the National Geographic survey involved nine stations, ranging from 3900 feet to 10,000 feet high, completely ringing the Hubbard massif, with a number of strong intersections in the heart of this polygon, which had an 85-mile circumference. Many helicopter landings were made to establish these survey stations (260 HP Bell machines of Klondike Helicopters, Ltd.) in addition to countless flights by Terris Moore and the pilots of the Yukon Flying Service (now known as Great Northern Airways Ltd. of Whitehorse). No less than three landings were made atop Mount Hubbard to check and replace the survey target up there and nearly a dozen landings were made at the 13,200-foot camp on Mount Kennedy whence the high survey station was occupied. Two additional ascents to the top of Mount Kennedy were made—also to adjust and replace its storm-battered survey marker.

Incredibly bad weather transformed this otherwise routine expedition into an extremely complex operation. Even a complete summary of the intricate movements of these two storm-frustrated parties would be too lengthy to record here. Suffice it to say that, despite only two really clear days in April and two in May (the 28th and 29th), the basic goals of both groups were finally attained. Mount Kennedy’s altitude is 13,905 feet. Its position is Lat: 60-20-28.2N; Long: 138-58-02.6W. Mount Hubbard’s altitude was adjusted upward 65 feet by this survey to 15,015 feet, thus "creating” a new 15,000-footer for Western Canada and Alaska!

Few expeditions as powerful and well-equipped have been so miserably frustrated by the weather. The high-camp contingents of both parties had their tents blown down and wound up living for more than two weeks in ice caves, while winds of close to 100 mph and temperatures down to —34°F (simultaneously) pinned them down completely. A staggering 100-inch snowfall buried the lower camps late in April and, all in all, everyone, high and low, was so continuously buffeted by winds and blizzards that little enjoyment was experienced in this gloriously magnificent region. Although the surveying objectives were achieved, only a marginal photographic record was made, as every single moment of clear weather was spent either surveying or freighting fuel, food and equipment to the surveyors to keep them going. Miller and Kittredge were able to accomplish some useful glaciological and meteorological observations at Base Camp despite the weather, and they returned to the area later in the summer to add significantly to this information under much better weather conditions.

The manuscript of the new map was completed during the winter (1966) at the Department of Surveying Engineering of the University of New Brunswick under the direction of Dr. Konecny and Gerhard Gloss and will be published by the National Geographic Society.

The members of the party are loud in their praise of the Canadian Government, both in Ottawa and Whitehorse, which cooperated so splendidly to make this complex double-header both possible and successful— and for all the pilots, whose able, resourceful and, on occasion, intrepid work assured success for what otherwise would most certainly have proved a dismal failure.

This is superb country, studded with a galaxy of lofty and beautiful virgin peaks and still-untrodden glaciers. It is hoped that the miseries of the spring of 1965 will not dampen the interest of others to explore this magnificent massif in further depth. The weather pattern of the last four years tends to suggest that the spring may no longer be the ideal time for exploration and climbing in this region. April and May have been recently producing both wind and cold equal to or worse than March. Under the present trend, July would appear to be the most reliable month—in a part of the world where even the best month is highly unpredictable!

Summary of Statistics.

Area: St. Elias Mountains, Southwest Yukon Territory, Canada. Ascents: Mount Hubbard, 15,015 feet, (Barry W. Prather, Dee Molenaar, George R. Senner, William N. Prater) March 21, 1965—second ascent.

Mount Kennedy, 13,905 feet, (Prather, Molenaar, Senner, Prater, Allard, Robert F. Kennedy, James W. Whittaker, James Craig), March 24, 1965—first ascent.

*The U. S. Air Force made two flights over the area to secure high-altitude photo coverage later used in stereo-contouring the map.

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