Mount McKinley’s South Face-1967
Del Langbauer and Roman Laba Langbauer introduces the expedition:
The story of McKinley’s South Face goes back several years. Its ridges and faces have been the scene of attempts by Americans, Italians, and Japanese. It has even lured the French to Alaska. As we began contemplating our expedition, it was the Italians (R. Cassin, 1961) and the Japanese (1965) who had been successful: the former on the Cassin Ridge and the latter on the South Buttress from the Kahiltna.*
Our goal in June of 1967 was to make the second ascents of the Cassin Ridge and the South Buttress, and to put a new route directly up the center of the South Face. It had been estimated that sixteen men would be the optimum number for our purposes. Nevertheless the number of fourteen which we finally decided on was enough to send chills down the spine of anyone who has ever known the tensions which develop between close friends on "two-week” expeditions.
The patience of each of us, and the embryonic solidarity of the group, were immediately tested when we arrived in Fairbanks to undergo physiological testing by the Institute of Arctic Biology. We had just come off twelve hundred miles of dusty Alaskan highway. We had four days to complete an infinite number of E.E.G.’s, E.K.G.’s, urine and blood samples, acclimatization tests, and a cross-country run. We also had to pack and ship several tons of food and equipment to Talkeetna, and get ourselves plus gear on to the mountain. All of this served to hasten considerably the getting acquainted processes, and our success at this point was primarily a function of Boyd Everett’s fantastic logistical knowledge and amazing organizational abilities. Then tension of anticipation continued to build in Talkeetna during the usual period of waiting for good weather. We packed and unpacked. And, repacked again. Each time we were convinced that this was the break in the weather during which we would get in.
On June 22 most of us landed at Base Camp (7400 feet) on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier in unusually sharp and clear weather. The feeling of relief that accompanied the knowledge that we were on the mountain was exhilarating. Our problems would be limited to climbing from here on out.
When Roman Laba and I landed, a group had already been sent up the main Kahiltna and its east fork to set up our route for ferrying supplies to Advance Base Camp at 11,200 feet. We would follow by the light of the Alaskan night, taking advantage of the lower temperatures and improved snow conditions. From Base Camp we descended and ascended into the alpine world to set up an intermediate camp.
In addition to camps at 7800 feet and 8100 feet, we eventually set up a camp at 9300 feet and later moved it to 9500 feet (Hank’s Place) where the "Institute” did more testing. Sudden snow storms, a false short-cut, and supply-drop confusion slowed us down by about eight days. We had, however, the consolation of living amongst some of the most awesome scenery on earth, as well as the opportunity of burning out our frustrations carrying sixty-pound loads up the various sections of the seventeen-mile pull to Advance Base Camp.
Carrying at night, we were soon challenged by the somber beauty of our high world. The summits of nearby peaks were ablaze with alpine glow. Simultaneously, the lower portions, untouched by the setting or rising sun, appeared dark and ominous. While we hauled those hideous loads up under the South Face, we were often stopped short as the rising sun on the opposite side of the South Buttress sent floods of yellow-golden light across the South Face before us. This iridescent glow highlighted the silver-white snow plumes screaming off the summits and ridges above. The brown rock appeared green. It was only these experiences that made our two weeks of carrying loads bearable.
At Advance Base Camp the serious climbing which we all looked forward to, and somewhat secretly feared, stretched above us. Cassin’s description of his first ascent here had been another alpine terror story. Even worse, the completely unknown awaited those committed to the rock and avalanche slopes constituting the Direct South Face. The final decisions were now made concerning leaders and personnel for the various routes. The party on the new route consisted of Dennis Eberl, Roman Laba, Dave Seidman, and Gray Thompson. For the Cassin Ridge: Boyd Everett, Del Langbauer, Bill Phillips, Clarence Serfoss, and Jim Underwood. The support party on the South Buttress was composed of Tony Horan, Mike Hyjek, Jim Janney, Paul Kruger, and Michel Zaleweski.
The routes above were begun, and those who would be on the South Buttress aided in hauling loads up the initial portions of the other two routes. The expedition, which had begun as a very loose collection of individuals and which had just begun to become unified, was disunited and became three. Thus there are really three stories of the 1967 South Face of McKinley Expedition. We will be able to tell only two of those stories here, that of the Cassin Ridge and the Direct South Face.
Langbauer describes the Cassin Ridge climb:
We decided to gain the lowest crest of the Cassin Ridge via the Kahiltna Notch rather than the Cassin Couloir because of problems of rockfall. As an alternative to the rockfall of the latter, we learned to dodge the snow slides and the periodic waterfall that came down through the neck of the hourglass-shaped snowfield which led to the ridge crest. The ice in this ten-foot-wide couloir was about 60°. However, having been buried there in a snow slide, I learned to move up the ice with a certain degree of alacrity. Above these narrows, the angle lessened and the terrain turned to snow. At the top of the knife edge above, Jim Underwood did some fine leading to the right and to Camp I (12,400 feet).
The route and the camp were precarious to say the least. Nevertheless the wildly spectacular exposure and the white peaks and ridges which tore the blue sky above were equally hypnotic. Most of us never quite learned to accept the reality of this environment. Jim and I followed Cassin’s route above Camp I. By doing some of the most difficult mixed climbing on the route we repeated his mistake. We discovered that a far superior route was to descend three hundred feet down from Camp I to a point just underneath the bergschrund of the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier below. From there we traversed five hundred feet north to the base of the "Hidden Couloir.” (This is the couloir that the Japanese started directly up in May, 1967.)
The Hidden Couloir was the most dangerous, and one of the most difficult sections of the climb. Here one encounters three full leads of ice climbing (45°), three leads of moderate mixed climbing on snow and rock, a strenuous rock lead (F4), three pitches of ice and snow, and two of fourth-class rock. We all thanked God for our hard hats in this bowling alley, and only narrowly avoided tragedies from falling boulders and ice. The top of the couloir was Cassin’s Camp I and our Camp II (13,400 feet)—a rocky ledge six feet wide and about thirty feet long. One side of our seven-foot-wide tent hung over the edge for eight days while we sat out the storm that took seven lives on Karstens Ridge. The wind blew often at up to sixty m.p.h., and never quite died for the whole period. We read, slept, prayed for the tents, and cursed the uneven stones below our floor. Life was awkward at best. We were even forced by the icy conditions and high wind to clip into the fixed ropes just to leave the front door of the tent. Holes began to appear in the tent floors revealing the cold rocks below.
The route to Camp III is beautiful and classic. After a short traverse across ice to the right (45 °), a pitch and a half of rock climbing in a sound chimney, and a short snow lead, the crest is attained again. This is followed for seven leads of moderate ice and one of deep snow to Camp III (14,000 feet) by far the best camp on the climb. During a night carry along the arête leading to this camp, Bill Phillips, Boyd Everett and I were startled and suddenly arrested by the haunting character of the ice and snow. A full moon had risen over the South Buttress, and it sent a great flood of light sweeping across the entire South Face. The shadows played specter-like in the wind before us. On the glacier above, they lost themselves in the great dark crevasses, only to be recreated in the distorted image of a giant sérac. The face seemed to glow bronze, as we climbed in darkness.
After a light snow, we started up the glacier above toward Camp IV. Cassin’s description had mentioned nothing of particular difficulty above. Since we felt he had overestimated the difficulty up to this point, we were optimistic. At 15,000 feet, however, we encountered a great deal of strenuous mixed climbing. This continued for the next six hundred feet and also included five short pitches of pure rock climbing (F.4-F.6). At about 16,000 feet the most difficult pitches were the "Pendulum Corner Pitch,” an eighty-foot open book facing right, and the "Rib Pitch,” sixty feet of vertical ribs. Climbing these pitches on a warm bright day brought somewhat incongruous memories of Yosemite in the early spring. Here McKinley’s rock was clean and strong. Holds were primarily vertical, and there was the coarse feel of the granite. The texture seemed to have been brought out by the sun’s warmth. We stopped using fixed rope, and followed three hundred feet of easy snow to Camp IV. This was probably the high camp for both the Italians and Japanese (15,700 feet).
Above and to the left of Camp IV, a three-hundred-foot rock couloir brought us to a vertical wall. Here Clarence Serfoss and Jim Underwood found an important variation in the route. We moved to the right side of the ridge for the first time, thus avoiding the difficult rock, and were able to ascend a long easy snow couloir back to the ridge crest at 17,700 feet. This was Camp V. The surrounding terrain looked strange now. To the west we could see above and beyond the 15,800-foot South Buttress. To the south we could see over Mount Foraker. In the west, we watched the sun sink silver below giant thunderheads rolling in from the southwest.
The following day, while two feet of snow fell below, it was much too cold and windy up high for any advance. Bill Phillips and I descended into the clouds to pick up a cache left at 15,800 feet, while the others fixed a magnificent meal for our return. Two more days of storm prevented us from moving up more than 400 vertical feet, but on August 2 all five of us started for the summit. The temperature had been around —25°F that night, but the morning had dawned clear and still.
We had encountered rock of fifth-class difficulty between every camp up to Camp V, but that was behind us now. Our summit route offered no major difficulties. At about 18,800 feet we crossed what may have been Cassin’s summit couloir as we moved off the ridge toward the west and the summit plateau. We continued to traverse up and to the left, following good snow conditions, but encountering some avalanche danger from windslab until we reached the summit plateau (19,400 feet). As we climbed the easy summit ridge to the top, the sun was falling low enough to give an amber-gold effect to the surrounding country and to McKinley’s many ridges fanning out below. All of us had a tremendous feeling of exhilaration that was not dampened even by the sight of poles, flags and paraphernalia on the summit. We walked the final one hundred feet to success as Don Sheldon’s small plane searched Denali Pass below— for what, we did not know*. Somewhat dazed, we followed the sinking sun back down to 19,000 feet and quickly returned to Camp V.
Our story of McKinley’s South Face ended with Bill Phillips’ fall. At 15,000 feet on the descent, as last man on the rope, he took a terrible fall when the fixed rope broke on the "Rib Pitch.” I heard a muffled noise and suddenly Bill appeared about twenty-five feet behind me in a tangle of fixed rope and equipment. He had fallen free about twenty feet, landing on his back and head. He slid another fifty feet on the 45° slope and finally became entangled in the next fixed rope. His hard hat was crushed. That and his Kelty had cushioned the fall, but his ankle was broken.
We descended very slowly to Camp III (14,000 feet). While Clarence Serfoss, Jim Underwood and I went down to refix the route and bring up more food and equipment, he rested for two days. After three days and a hideous descent through the Hidden Couloir, we met him and Boyd Everett again at Camp I and descended to Advanced Base Camp together. Bill’s descent to Hank’s Place at 9500 feet was the greatest of individual heroics during our long summer.
Laba tells of the climb of the South Face Direct:
After all, it was two weeks since we had landed on the Kahiltna Glacier and more than three weeks since we had arrived in Alaska—enough of the monotonous brutality of load carrying and all the other ponderous movement of a large and long expedition. Of course I was mistaken; the load-carrying was only to grow more intense as we went up the mountain and the ponderous, well organized movement was to prove the deciding factor in our success, but it was time for a change now, for Dave Seidman, Denny Eberl, Gray Thompson and me to begin our new climb.
Here from Advance Base Camp we could see the entire route. It began with three thousand feet of avalanche face, obviously the mental crux of the climb, next a thousand feet of low angle rock and snow, then three pink granite buttresses and finally a great line of cornices across the entire South Face, barring access to the summit plateau. The technical crux would be the great buttresses, which extended from 16,800 to 18,800 feet.
The problem of doing a new route in the mountains can not be communicated by a catalogue of difficulties: ice slope, rock lead or even the objective dangers of route and weather. The real obstacle remains unnamed, almost ineffable, incommunicable. Let me put it thus. Up there on a ledge there’s this Balrog and his attendant ores, all sharpening their teeth and patting their expectant, grinning bellies, just for us, Denny, Gray, Dave and me, Hobbits from Bree.
A bit of aid took us over the bergschrund and onto the face. The climbing was not really that difficult, 50° to 60° ice done in 150-foot run-outs ending at an ice or rock piton. But the nature of it always kept us hurried and hard-pressed. Occasionally there would be a rock outcrop or buttress to sneak under, but ordinarily we would be cutting steps straight up the sides or center of an avalanche chute. And it was continuous. We were to discover that there were only four places on the entire climb where it was safe to untie, all above 16,800 feet. At all camps except Camp VI we had to be tied in while sleeping—and the first two could take only a single tent. The climb never really took us into its grip till the day we moved from Advance Base to set up Camps I and II.
While Denny Eberl and Gray Thompson moved 50-pound loads over fixed ropes to Grassy Ledge, at Camp I, Dave Seidman and I hacked out . . . Camp, a camp whose true name, much too vulgar for an alpine journal, referred to the fact that the person sleeping on the outside had to hang his right buttock over a 1500-foot ice slope. Debates over sleeping position somewhat strained our friendship.
We had had three days of clear weather now and in a frenzy of foreknowledge of the storm and desire for this climb, we began extending the route, a skyward ladder of blue-ice steps. Above Camp II, it was steep ice occasionally overlaid with a thin layer of snow. At first we were protected by rock, but soon we had to diagonal leftward into the main avalanche chute to reach the spiral couloir and the meadows above it.
The avalanche hit us as Dave had just finished the 24th pitch. He had chopped steps up the 55° ice edge of the main avalanche chute, bounded here by the pink granite, placed an ice piton and strung a quarter-inch line to it. Our immediate problem was to keep from drowning in the loose powder snow. Had it come minutes earlier, Dave, not yet tied in, would have fallen 200 feet and then probably dragged me down with him.
We went back the next day to place two fixed lines across the narrowest part of the chute and several more up poorly defined rock-studded couloirs. We nervously noted that boulders in the main chute were worn smooth, polished by avalanches.
The following day, we were at the base of the Spiral Couloir past most of the avalanche hazard. A storm, unmistakably forerun by lenticular clouds, was coming in and the temperature was rising indecently fast. Denny and Gray had come up behind us to establish a new Camp III here at the base of the Spiral Couloir.
Within three hours after our return to . . . Camp, our thirteen-day storm started. It was disconcerting enough in itself; minor avalanches immediately began coming down all around us, but worse, we were alarmed and puzzled to hear Denny and Gray yelling climbing directions to each other, 1000 feet above us where they should have been set up in a camp. Just then a huge rock avalanche, with many boulders as large as our tents ricocheted down the main avalanche chutes 100 yards to the west, passing through the area where our friends were.
The rockfall had caromed above Denny and Gray who were just finishing a violent argument as to whether or not there was a safe campsite in the area of the Spiral Couloir. Having decided there was not, they were preparing to come down when the avalanche swept two-thirds of the climb. I shall never forget Gray, whom I was very happy to see, saying, "I question the sanity of this route.”
. . . Camp was on a promontory exposed on three sides and hopefully sheltered from avalanches on the fourth uphill side by a rock buttress. At 3:30 A.M. of the tenth day of the storm Dave and I were brewing up some hot jello. Four minutes later, after the avalanche, as we lay in our collapsed, half buried tent, Dave excitedly asked me what we should do. "Well . . . uh . . . let’s keep stirring.”
Our friends down on Grassy Ledge, though better provided for than we, did have their own very distinctive problems. One had a most remarkable pathos. Gray was outside tied into the safety lines performing one of the five essential biologic functions when a baby avalanche gaily skipped over the projecting rock and filled his pants with powder snow, thus allowing us to come back saying this climb had hit us with avalanches on the run, asleep and with our pants down!
The end of the storm brought us to the upswing of our cycle. Hope . . . Determination; both too much gifts of the weather for us to be completely happy with them. So up through the Spiral Couloir and the Meadows, Camps III and IV established, and abandoned, to 16,800 feet and the first of the three granite buttresses.
To our disappointment, the route did not force us on a direct line through them. There was always a way around, side couloir or snow slope, allowing us to avoid confrontation with the rock. Gray and Denny did do the central cleft in the first buttress, F7 rock climbing at 17,000 feet, but we abandoned this for the western couloirs which were much more convenient for load carrying. It was not a very difficult route by Shawangunk standards.
Long before this the climb and its demands had made us into shrewd, calculating, though still very human beings no longer quite able to live with each other and just barely a functioning team capable of doing this climb. It was done classically and for sure, each condemning the other for what he felt of meanness and fear in himself.
Though the buttresses had gone easily, the great eaves of the summit cornice now curling out over Denny and Gray, who were leading this last day on the face, made it seem for a while that the French and German ice-climbing techniques would be of no avail and we would be forced to use the Flesh-Crawl technique, an extreme form of grand alpinisme known in this generation only to the members of the Vulgarian Mountain Club. Fortunately, Denny and Gray found a much easier way, just 60° through a break in the cornice a hundred feet to the right, which allowed us to be on top by midnight.
Technical Route Descriptions
Cassin Ridge. From Advanced Base (11,200 feet) on the east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier climb the ice couloir to Kahiltna Notch (11,960 feet). Climb the ridge above the notch to the top of the Cassin Couloir. The last 400 feet is a spectacular 400 foot knife-edge traverse. A campsite for a single tent can be found at the top of the Cassin Couloir (Camp I — 12,400 feet). 2500 feet fixed rope, 10 rock pitons, 3 ice pitons, 7 rappel pickets.
Rappel 300 feet to top of northeast fork of the Kahiltna. Traverse left 1000 feet to base of large ice couloir (Japanese Couloir). Climb couloir to top, bypassing rock barrier half way up on the left. This couloir avoids difficult rock climbing shown in plates 17 and 18, A.A.J., 1962 (Camp II at top of couloir—13,400 feet — see plate 20, A.A.J., 1962). 2100 feet fixed rope, 18 rock pitons, 5 ice pitons,
From Camp II bear right over mixed ice and rock for two leads to narrow rock couloir. Climb rock couloir (fifth class) and gain narrow snow ridge. Follow this to prominent glacier and best campsite of route. (Camp III — 14,000 feet). 1600 feet fixed rope, 7 rock pitons, 8 rappel pickets.
Bear right up easy glacier to mixed ice and rock ramp also bearing right. (This is directly above the right hand figure in plate 21, A.A.J., 1962). Climb ramp 300 feet. Turn left up broken ice and steep rock, some of it fifth class, for 300 feet. Climb inside corner facing right (plate 19, A.A.J., 1962 — 15,100 feet not 16,500 as shown). At top of corner bear right on easier ground for two leads to 150-foot rock barrier (The Rib Pitch, hardest on the climb, probably F4 without crampons but never done free). Follow ridge above the Rib Pitch to open ground and campsite (Camp IV, 15,700 feet — probably the same site as Cassin’s Camp III, which was definitely not at 17,061 feet). 1300 feet fixed rope, 18 rock pitons, 2 ice pitons.
Bearing left ascend easy snow and rock field above Camp IV to vertical rock wall. Climb almost hidden 300-foot rock couloir which has steep but excellent holds. At top of couloir traverse right 1000 feet to prominent South Face snowfield above hanging glacier. This traverse will avoid difficult rock climbing near 17,000 feet encountered by previous parties. Climb snowfield to 17,000 feet or higher before regaining ridge. Camp at 17,000 feet or 400 feet higher on ridge (Camp V). 300 feet fixed rope, 3 rock pitons.
The final 2000 feet of the South Face is well broken and almost any line will succeed. A system of snow couloirs bearing left which hits the summit plateau at 19,400 feet may be the easiest.
Total hardware for the Cassin Ridge: 7800 feet fixed rope, 56 rock pitons, 10 ice pitons, 16 rappel pickets. Most of the rock pitons were horizontals with a few small angles. No large angles and very few knife-blades were necessary.
Direct South Face. From Advanced Base Camp near Kahiltna Notch walk one mile up glacier well past the large hanging glacier on the South Face. The first 2500 feet of the Direct South Face is in the ice chutes to the right of a poorly defined rock and ice ridge which lies on the right side of the hanging glacier. The route begins at a bergschrund near 12,700 feet. Cross the bergschrund at the easiest point, possibly requiring aid, and climb 50° ice. Camp I (Grassy Ledge— 13,200 feet) placed under overhanging rock on face. 900 feet fixed rope, 1 rock piton, 4 ice pitons, 3 rappel pickets.
Bypass rock above Camp I by traversing left but not far enough left to be in major avalanche trough. Climb straight up on 50°-60° ice ribs. Camp II (. . . Camp — 14,000 feet) placed on a narrow platform beneath vertical rock wall. 1800 feet fixed rope, 7 rock pitons, 4 ice pitons, 4 rappel pickets.
Traverse left 200 feet on narrow snow ramp beneath overhanging wall. Diagonal upward to the left 600 feet on 50°-60° ice with occasional rock, staying on right side of major avalanche chute. Traverse avalanche gully at narrowest point, hopefully on snow. Bear left for nine leads through poorly defined couloir system of mixed ice and fourth class rock. Top of couloir system ends with a snow shoulder, site of Camp III (Spiral Camp — 15,000 feet). 2500 feet fixed rope, 14 rock pitons, 2 ice pitons, 2 rappel pickets.
Traverse from shoulder into next large couloir to the left (Spiral Couloir). Climb Spiral Couloir five leads to top and scramble 300 feet to Camp IV (15,600 feet), a snow shelf in a rock corner. This is the first campsite on the face large enough for two tents. 1050 feet fixed rope, 7 rock pitons, 1 ice piton.
Climb mixed snow and rock face above Camp IV to base of vertical rock barrier (The First Buttress). Camp V (16,800 feet) placed on snow at the base of the rock. 300 feet fixed rope, 2 rock pitons.
The First Buttress can be bypassed completely to 17,700 feet by an easy snow and rock face on the left or it can be climbed directly. From Camp V the direct route traverses 300 feet right to a 500-foot snow cone at the base of a prominent cleft in the buttress (The Cleft). The first rock pitch of The Cleft is sixth class and is followed by three fifth-class and four fourth-class pitches, all on excellent rock. From the top of the First Buttress at 17,700 feet the Second Buttress is bypassed on the right with several pitches of mixed snow and fourth-class rock. Camp VI (18,400 feet) is a large flat site at the base of the Third Buttress. Minimum hardware needed to Camp VI: 600 feet fixed rope, 4 rock pitons.
Bypass Third Buttress on left. Regain ridge line 300 feet below summit plateau. Climb mixed ice and fourth class rock to huge overhanging cornice on plateau. Tunnel through cornice at weakest point (19,100 feet) and follow the ridge on the plateau to the summit. 600 feet fixed rope, 2 rock pitons, 3 rappel pickets.
Total hardware for the Direct South Face: 6750 feet fixed rope, 37 rock pitons,
ice pitons, 12 rappel pickets. This does not include hardware for the three buttresses, all of which could offer excellent rock climbing if climbed directly.
South Buttress from the Kahiltna Glacier. From Advanced Base bypass on the left the major icefall system blocking access to the South Buttress (10,000 to 12,000 feet). Easiest route lies under dangerous hanging glacier on far left. To avoid this, do about 300 feet of steep ice climbing in icefall and bear right through crevasses. Camp I can be placed on level ground at 12,000 feet but is potentially dangerous site during storm. Climb diagonal snow ramp bearing left for nearly 3000 feet to good campsite behind séracs at 14,800 feet (Camp II). Gain top of South Buttress above Camp II and traverse buttress toward South Face. A windy campsite (Camp
III) can be placed anywhere between peak 15,840 feet and the South Face. Climb prominent snow couloir on eastern rim of the South Face to 16,800 feet. Climb mixed snow and rock to good campsite at 17,800 feet (Camp IV). Bear left from Camp IV into prominent 50° snow couloir. Climb couloir and snowfield above it to summit plateau. Follow plateau to summit. Total hardware needed for the South Buttress: 1000 feet fixed rope, 2 rock pitons, 6 rappel pickets.
Summary of Statistics.
Area: South Face of Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, Alaska Range.
ASCENTS: Second ascent of South Buttress from east fork of Kahiltna Glacier, reached summit July 28, 1967 (Anthony Horan, Michael Hyjek, James Janney, Paul Kruger, Michael Zalewski).
Third ascent of Cassin Ridge, reached summit August 2, 1967 (Boyd N. Everett, Jr., Expedition Leader; Del Langbauer, William Phillips, Clarence Serfoss, James Underwood).
First ascent of South Face Direct, reached summit August 4, 1967 (Dennis Eberl, Roman Laba, David Seidman, Graham Thompson).
* A.A.J., 1962, 13:1, pp. 27-38 and A.A.J., 1966, 15:1, p. 119. Attention is also called to the 1959 climb of the western rib of the South Face by Breitenbach, Buckingham, Corbet and Sinclair. See A.A.J., 1960, 12:1, pp. 1-9.—Editor.
*He was searching for the missing Willcox party. — Editor.