The Catacomb and East Ridges of Mount McKinley

Publication Year: 1970.

The Catacomb and East Ridges of Mount McKinley

Joseph K. Davidson

AS I made new steps beside it, I noticed that the cornice fracture line was much wider than on the ascent twelve days before. Suddenly light appeared through the fracture line and a huge cornice plunged downward. Then I was yanked off the ridge. When Ken Jones peered down, I could only give a muffled answer; my mouth was full of mittens, while my hands were busy with step chopping. Then he looked past me to the Traleika Glacier, 2500 feet below, where the huge cornice had just crashed. The descent of Mount McKinley’s east ridge was proving as eventful as the ascent.

It all began at Christmas, 1968, when Ken Jones and I spent a full day reviewing possible routes. In the evening we called Gus Benner in California and it was settled: our objective would be the unclimbed east ridge of Mount McKinley.* We spent the winter and spring adding to the team and gathering information about the region from climbers who had been nearby. Soon our expedition was seven: Niels Andersen and Ken Jones from Seattle, Pete Reagan from Portland, Gus Benner and Jim Given from the San Francisco area, Bob Fries from Los Angeles and myself from Columbus, Ohio.

All seven flew to Anchorage, the first arriving on June 10. We spent two days buying and repacking food into 3-man-day and 4-man-day bundles. We had supplies for 40 days above Base Camp and for an additional seven at Base Camp. On June 13 we moved by rail and bus to pilot Cliff Hudson’s shed at Talkeetna. In superb weather, McKinley, Hunter and Foraker were clearly visible. On the 14th Hudson flew us to our base camp site at 5600 feet, a mile west of Mount Barrille in the Ruth Amphitheater.

By the 20th Camp II had been established at 7400 feet on the Ruth Glacier directly south of Peak 11,390 on the east ridge. The seven-mile trip to Camp II was the usual slog under too heavy packs in variable weather. About a mile below camp often thinly covered crevasses went in two directions. Hot days and non-freezing nights made the route especially treacherous. Twice we had to extricate climbers and their packs.

The route above Camp II, as suggested by Washburn, should go northeast through an icefall to a basin at 9400 feet located just below the east ridge. Although the Gonnason party (See A.A.J., 1957, 10:2, p. 156) attained the east ridge by this route in 1956, its condition in 1969 was bad. Large séracs were poised at the icefall’s top and the icefall was rather active. As the nights grew warmer, the ice tended to fall into the twilight.

We began investigating alternate routes to the east ridge. The first ascended an icefall three-eighths of a mile south of Washburn’s proposed route and directly west of Peak 9650 on Mount Dan Beard. If it went, we could still gain the east ridge from the 9400-foot basin. Bob Fries, Ken Jones and I found a safe route through this icefall, but above, a huge crevasse cut across the whole glacier. We abandoned the route. (It later became apparent that the basin southeast of Peak 11,920 was subject to avalanches.) By midnight of the 20th, access to route 2b seemed denied to us. The next day, Gus Benner, Jim Given and Niels Andersen scouted possible ways to use Washburn’s route 2a – a spur ridge running south from Peak 11,920 on the east ridge. The suggested glacier access west of the lower end of the spur was heavily crevassed. The only route forced them under an enormous active hanging glacier low on the East Buttress. They gave up hope of getting onto the spur in this way. But on their return to Camp II they closely examined a steep snow slope just east of the southernmost rock on the lower end of the ridge. The route joined an ice gully above and then was hidden from view by rock. Since the objective danger from ice and rockfall was low, we decided to try it, though this was a more technical route than we had planned. The spur ridge when viewed from the southeast has four rock outcrops on its crest: First, Second, Third and Fourth Rock.

So it was that Pete Reagan and I set out on June 22 for the crest of the spur ridge. The snow slope turned out to be 45° black ice overlain with three feet of heavy snow and so some ice screws were necessary for anchors. Six rope lengths of fixed rope brought us to the ice gully that went between First and Second Rocks. A small creek of meltwater gurgled its way to the Ruth Glacier below. Ahead there was no obstacle. A short waterfall pitch followed by alternating ice and snow brought us to 9000 feet on the spur ridge. Easy ground lay above, and a site for Camp III. We had placed 1500 feet of fixed rope. Meanwhile the others had moved camp on the glacier to a new site, Camp IIa, directly below the spur ridge. Late on the 23rd Camp III was established at 9200 feet just below Third Rock.

Camp II was left as an advanced base with an extra tent, food and fuel. Snowshoes were cached at Camp IIa.

We traversed Third Rock on the west and followed the lightly corniced horizontal ridge at 9500 feet. Beyond was a steep snow slope with a large crevasse that cut completely across the ridge. One rickety bridge provided us access to the base of Fourth Rock, which we climbed directly over mixed ice and rock to 10,000 feet. Beyond came a gradually inclined section with several large ice gendarmes and a traverse on the east side of the ridge to a large rock outcrop. From there the route lay straight up over an 80° black-ice cliff to regain the ridge at 10,600 feet, the site of Camp IV. The traverse below Camp IV was 50° to 55° hard ice overlain with snow and cut by crevasses. It creaked, groaned and popped so alarmingly that we called it the Haunted Traverse.

Preparing the route between Camps III and IV took five days because of poor snow and ice. Alternately there were delicate meringue-like structures of low strength and half to one-inch ice marbles loosely frozen together. At night these friable places were usually reasonably frozen, but during the day the meringue grew weak and the bonds between the marbles melted so that only steps cut in underlying black ice would hold. The load-carriers were right on the heels of those fixing ropes and so we used level spots at 9600 and 10,150 feet for caches. Indeed we spent an eternity in this “cache and carry”. We even occupied a Camp IIIa for three days at 9600 feet.

Early on June 28 Pete Reagan and Bob Fries finished leading the cliff below Camp IV and selected the campsite. On their return to Camp IIIa, a step broke under Pete on the Haunted Traverse and he fell 90 feet, pulling out an anchor, and was finally stopped by the fixed rope. This traverse was a problem on the descent because anchors and steps melted out.

The next day while probing the Camp IV site, we discovered a large crevasse on the ridge crest, aligned along its axis! It continued well down the ridge where the crest was only a few feet wide. No wonder the traverse groaned and popped – a great crack lay behind it! The crevasse was really the extension of the fracture line of an enormous cornice, about 200 feet thick, at Camp IV.

Once this camp was established, attention was focused ahead. Two obstacles remained before we could reach the east ridge. The first looked from Camp IV to be a large gendarme, which we named the Matterhorn, but in reality it was a substantial step in elevation along the ridge. The second was an ice step separating the ridge below from a slope high on Peak 11,920. On the 30th Gus Benner and Jim Given placed fixed rope on the east side of the Matterhorn in a whiteout and light snow. The Matterhorn was a mixture of half air and half rotten ice. Small cavities and tubes several inches in diameter ran through the ice, defying explanation. That settled it! Our spur had crevasses cutting across it, one on its crest, a lacy network of them at every cache or campsite, and now inexplicable tubes and cavities. Only one name would suffice: Catacomb Ridge. On July 1 Ken Jones and Niels Andersen led the ice step. The lower part was at 60° but the upper was of vertical black ice. Peak 11,920 was ours. Camp occupied its summit on the 3rd.

The route beyond Camp V lay west along the east ridge for a mile to the base of a 2500-foot-long face. The first third was a broad level plain with few crevasses. Then several hundred feet of large cornice, the Cornice Traverse, were followed by a 200-foot step. A long plateau next led to a series of four large alternating cornices. Past them a slope of marbles led us above a hanging glacier poised over the Traleika Glacier. Immediately above was Camp VI at 12,400 feet. It took three days to fix line here. The three difficulties, the Cornice Traverse, ice step and alternating cornices, were of comparable difficulty. On the connections between the alternating cornices we had to shovel to find the true ridge, and this provided the airiest climbing of the whole route. On July 5 Camp VI was established. Nighttime temperature was now 10° F but it was still very hot in the daytime sun.

The next day Gus Benner and Pete Reagan spent twenty hours placing 2100 feet of fixed rope above Camp VI. The slope was 45° snow with patches of black ice. Early on the 7th Ken Jones and I fixed the remaining pitches at the top and by the 8th we were all at Camp VII on the East Buttress at 14,300 feet. We had left a cache of two days’ food, several gallons of fuel and extra personal gear at Camp VI.

As we viewed Thayer Basin and the summit block of McKinley, the last of the climb almost seemed an anticlimax. We had already made the first ascent of Peak 11,920 and climbed the East Buttress by a new route. Yet we had a third goal: the summit of McKinley itself.

By the time we had placed Camp VIII in Thayer Basin at 14,600 feet, Bob Fries was really suffering from the altitude. This gave us all a day of welcome rest. On the 11th Bob felt recovered and we made a big carry for 2800 feet to Camp IX on Karstens Ridge. We climbed out of the murky weather at 16,000 feet. Above, everything was magnificent blue or sparkling white.

Late on the 12th we all set out for the summit with clear weather overhead. Nine hours later, at three A.M., we reached a sheltered spot 50 feet below the summit. There we remained for an hour watching the sun rise above the dense cloud layer still below us. The temperature was - 10° F and the wind was blowing at about 30 mph. The flanks of McKinley became bathed in a pastel orange. Finally at four o’clock we walked the last few feet to the summit. The tops of Hunter, Foraker and best of all, Huntington, floated in grandeur on a fluffy sea of clouds. The shadow of McKinley stretched for miles on the white carpet below. The shadow came slowly closer. Cold and wind penetrated. It was time to go down. We returned to a hot and windless Camp IX at ten A.M.

Although the climb from the East Buttress to the summit had been a welcome respite from the technical problems below, the descent would hardly be easy. It was still cloudy. There was new snow. The warm temperatures certainly had loosened fixed-rope anchors. Reluctantly on July 14 we left pleasant Camp IX. We arrived at Camp VI in a blizzard. Two days later in slightly better weather we continued on. It was at the Cornice Traverse that the large chunk broke off with me after it.

The rest of our descent was indeed eventful. It featured an impromptu bivouac at the Camp IV site, the absence of all wands, trenching to find fixed ropes, redriving fixed-rope anchors, whiteout weather, two more crevasse falls, and alternate food rationing and feasting. I had heard this route might present “relentless difficulties”, and by now I was well convinced of it.

All these problems brought out the best in people. Certainly the most satisfying thing to me was the good companionship and enduring enthusiasm of the expedition members that arose from Mount McKinley’s challenges. Everyone thrived on the abundant adversity for the entire thirty-six days on the mountain. And we all reached the summit together.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Alaska Range.

ASCENTS: Peak 11,920 on east ridge of McKinley, first ascent, July 2, 1969.

Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, new route via Catacomb and East Ridges, July 13, 1969 by Joseph K. Davidson, leader; Gordon A. Benner, assistant leader; Kenneth M. Jones, expedition organizer, Niels-H.L. Andersen, Robert H. Fries, James B. Given, Peter L. Reagan.

TECHNICAL DATA: 10,500 feet of fixed rope, 74 pickets, 3 rock pitons, 6 ice screws, 2 ice pitons.

*Route 2b as described by Bradford Washburn, “Mount McKinley – Proposed East Buttress Routes,” A.A.J., 1963, 13;2 pp. 453-460.