“KIMBALL is a tough nut to crack. One may aim the blow by studying photos and maps, reading of previous attempts, careful selection of food and equipment and by flying in close in good weather, but there is no guarantee the strike will not miss or the shell prove too hard on a difficult unclimbed mountain.” Thus Vin Hoeman described his afterthoughts about our first encounter with Kimball in 1968. The next expedition, in March of 1969, when we used an overland snowmobile approach for the first time, was again frustrated by poor weather and lack of time. But we were not the only ones rejected by the crescent-shaped, ice-capped peak. No fewer than eight previous attempts via various routes had been made since 1959. Dan Osborne and I, two-time veterans of Kimball’s southwest and north ridges, set out with four others on Memorial Day, 1969, determined to succeed: Dan, because three times on the Chistochina Glacier is enough and I, because of Vin. This time, led by experience and study of aerial photographs, we planned to attack the west ridge.
Our pilot, claiming inability to fly us closer to our target, deposited us and our heaps of gear and provisions on a sandbar landing strip near the west fork of the Chistochina River, a good fourteen miles away from our summit. We relayed food and equipment to Lewis Elmer’s dilapidated Slate Creek mining camp, cursing pilot and weather, trudging through dwarf willow and alpine birch, frequently crossing river braids, which were still partly covered by anchor ice. With fearless curiosity caribou and willow ptarmigan watched our procession: Dan Osborne, expedition leader; Mike Sallee, Tom Kensler, Dee Crouch, our doctor, all from Fairbanks and I, lone Anchoragite, who brought visiting Lou Reichardt along.
Lou suffered a recurrence of previous intestinal trouble – no less than a calamity. Dee and I practiced our best bush medicine on him, but nothing worked. Next morning it became clear that Lou would need sophisticated care. He exited over the tundra, still able bodied, which left five of us to proceed. Kimball started to spit snow at us and later that day we gave up in a total whiteout, pitching tents on a table-sized spot of glacier not riddled with crevasses. Dan and I knew we were camped under an ice cliff, but the rock buttress below the cliff should protect us, we reasoned. Nevertheless, after an undisturbed night we got out when a few breaks in the clouds occurred. Our igloo cache, constructed in the middle of the glacier in 1968 and filled against better knowledge by Dan, Vin and me in March 1969 with food, fuel, fixed ropes, wands and pickets, was the worry of the day, since we relied on finding the supplies. However, we located the tall picket marker without much difficulty. Such luck on a Kimball expedition is almost undeserved. We placed Base Camp at the head of the Chistochina Glacier, out of reach of avalanches, which hissed down at intervals from the col above us. By evening all our food and equipment were up; the igloo cache perishables were remarkably well preserved and we feasted on fudge and moosemeat. For the first time Kimball’s contours stood out clearly against the evening sky and Dan reminisced about past deeds and misdeeds on the mountain.
Early next day we cautiously moved up to the col, then edged above Pitfall Glacier towards Kimball’s west ridge. Ignorance led us up a wrong couloir into some impossible ice climbing, but we got out of the jam with loss of time and temper only. Eventually we were on the lower west ridge and found a suitable high-camp location at 9000 feet, where we left our loads. Seated on our packs we had our “summit” conference. Each wanted his little variation of route followed, which made the debate more than lively. Finally agreement was reached: we should try a steep ice gully, leading to the upper west ridge, then attack the almost overhanging ice wall and get to the upper northwest face. Satisfied, we returned to Base Camp.
Kimball must have sensed our intentions – we were stormed in for two days in Base Camp. The third day the clouds parted once again and we relayed more loads up to High Camp. After lunch we began to place fixed rope up our selected gully and toiled till midnight. A storm came up and roared around the icecap above us – an additional defense of the mountain, no doubt. The tents flapped, threatened to rip or become magic carpets. We had to hide in a wet bergschrund cave close by, of questionable safety. Rime pellets flew over the ridge, each one seemingly a hit, as if thrown by mountain spirits who took their wrath out on us, the insistent intruders. Books were read and torn into sections for distribution – the “Hobbit” was popular – playing cards got awfully greasy. Days were lost and supplies dwindled. Much to our chagrin Dee, whose military leave was up, had to return to duty. We drew straws to see who was to accompany him downglacier in the whiteout. An elaborate plan to resupply the expedition with Dee’s help was set up, but all of our scheming proved unnecessary. By an act of providence a miner’s plane landed on Elmer’s airstrip the moment Mike and Dee arrived there. Groceries were ordered and delivered in a few hours. The cost of these provisions we shall forever keep a secret!
Fierce winds made it impossible for us, the remaining party, to extend the fixed ropes and we too descended toward Slate Creek. No sooner did we turn our backs on the mountain than the storm died; the skies turned a stable, boreal blue and continued cloudless. With Mike and the supplies we made almost a marathon race back up to High Camp; this opportunity called for quick action.
At sunrise next day we jümared up the gully, repairing lines and resetting ice screws as we went. Dan and Tom alternated leads and after hours of labor – screws and pickets fell and had to be retrieved – the icewall was reached. The thing looked impossible, rising up from the sharp upper west ridge. Talk of retreat issued back and forth. Mike measured his strength with the precipice while I belayed him, and neither wished to capitulate. On Mike went, tunneling through the rime cap like a ground hog, chopping tons of ice and rime. He disappeared over the crest and presently all four of us were up. We plodded on across the northwest face where another obstacle, this time a crevasse wall, delayed us. We reached an ice couloir, clearly leading to the summit – if one had ice screws, which we did not. Now our only chance was to reach the north ridge above the blue-ice pitch, which I remembered from our 1968 expedition could not be climbed without aid. “It won’t go,” a gloomy prediction from the rear angered us and generated a burst of energy. We proceeded, although the late afternoon sun had dangerously warmed the western exposed face. Pitfall Glacier below us was chaos, littered with avalanche debris. The shaky snow and ice slope held as we moved up cautiously; luck was with us once more. Then we were on the north ridge above the blue ice and soon we could not go any higher .…
The descent through the ice wall was difficult, but our real trouble started on the ridge and below: steps were no longer there and ice screws had thawed out, dangling from not very trustworthy ropes. Tiny ice bullets dislodged incessantly and soaked us to the bone. New steps had to be chopped. It all became nightmarish and not till far after midnight were we out of danger.
We slept late and enjoyed a fine day of relaxation. Kimball was on the move: ice cliffs and séracs tumbled, sprouting artistic snow clouds before they came to rest. The bergschrund above us collapsed with a loud thud, the answer to ill feelings we had had about it several days before. Our heap of air-delivered groceries figured prominently in our discussions of how to terminate the trip. Further first ascents as long as provisions last? But, after Kimball, what would do? Besides, climbing conditions had become extremely hazardous.
Next morning we broke camp and skied down with impossible packs on an impossible glacier. Rope tangles were the order of the day and tempers rose. Finally our skis would carry us no farther and we walked out to Slate Creek, utterly exhausted. After days in the white world, Slate Creek looked strangely green and blooming ross avens seemed almost unreal. We were revived by Dan’s “summit celebration” bottle of strong spirits, which he had hidden in Elmer’s shack. After a day of rest the men went out on foot across the tundra, where turbulent glacial streams presented a final challenge. I was left alone in Elmer’s camp with squirrels that shamelessly nibbled our food – figs they seemed to relish – and a robin pair waiting for young ones to hatch. A homemade windsock helped my pilot in at the appointed time. Soon he had delivered me and towers of gear to yet another world, where initially I felt strangely out of place.
Summary of Statistics:
AREA: Eastern Alaska Range, east of Richardson Highway.
FIRST ASCENT: Mount Kimball, 10,350 feet, Friday, June 13, 1969, via west ridge (Hoeman, Kensler, Osborne, Sallee).
PERSONNEL: Dan Osborne, leader; Tom Kensler, Mike Sallee, Louis Reichardt, Dee Couch, Grace Hoeman.