American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cassing Variant—Mount McKinley

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1972

Cassin Route Variant—Mount McKinley

BENOIT RENARD, Club Alpin Français

OUR expedition landed on June 27 in Anchorage, where we spent the next day buying a little food and equipment, though most of it had been brought from France. On June 29, at Talkeetna, we met Don Sheldon, the bush pilot who was to fly us to the McKinley National Park border, but rain kept us there for two days before we were flown with our 1600 pounds of equipment to the Kahiltna Glacier.

We had chosen to ascend the east fork of the Kahiltna because of the dangers involved on the northeast fork. Bradford Washburn had advised us, and we later saw, that though a bit longer, this approach is definitely the safest one to the Cassin Ridge. We installed two intermediate camps between the landing site and Base Camp: one at the junction ot the Kahiltna and its east fork at 7300 feet and one at Hank’s Place at 8800 feet. It took nine days to ferry loads to Base Camp; the weather was magnificent, but so hot in the day that we worked at night. Base Camp was at 11,200 feet, 300 yards south of the foot of the Cassin Couloir. Heavy snowfall kept us there on the first three days, buried in tents and a snow cave.

Up to 18,500 feet we followed a combination of routes taken by our predecessors: Cassin Couloir, Hidden Couloir; from the top of the Hidden Couloir we continued up to 18,500 feet basically on the route described by the Americans*. We chose a new route from 18,500 feet to the summit, which we thought, and still think, the most logical termination to this magnificent ascent. Instead of bearing left to escape to the summit plateau — everybody did this before — we kept on the very ridge and followed it to its intersection with the summit plateau.

We started the climb on July 13. The Cassin Couloir was quite safe but fairly difficult because ot a thick ice cover. We descended 300 feet to the bergschrund and traversed 600 feet to the foot of the Hidden Couloir. Because of unusual snow conditions, this was difficult and had not a single pure rock pitch. All was mixed ice and rock climbing; but not a single stone fell during our climbing there! At the top of the couloir, Cassin’s Camp I, we made no camp, only a food and equipment cache. We then followed up very steep rock and a magnificent snow ridge to the hanging glacier where Cassin had his Camp II at 14,000 feet. Despite incredible winds, a fine platform and a snug snow cave made it a good place to rest. Camp I was installed there on July 17 and 18. We had to face regular snowfalls and horrendous blasts of wind; one of our tents was shredded.

Above, after the hanging glacier, we climbed the steep rock section, which was rather difficult but no special problem (UIAA IV+, V). We traversed to a very steep rock couloir leading to a poor campsite at 16,600 feet, probably between American Camps IV and V. This was our Camp II, reached on July 21. The next day, we were scheduled to attempt the summit. Leaving our camp at six A.M., we traversed 400 feet right and climbed a very difficult rock pitch (V+), battered by the storm and heavy snowfall. Where we stopped, there was a better platform onto which we moved our Camp II (16,800 feet). The next twenty-four hours were far from comfortable because of the altitude, wind and snow fall. Six of us crowded into two small high-altitude tents.

When on July 23 I awoke at five o’clock to brew some chocolate, we decided the weather was too bad for a summit attempt and went back to bed. A glimpse out at seven showed superb weather. All the clouds had disappeared and it was windless.

The climb started at 9:30. Traversing right for 1000 feet, we reached the foot of a couloir which led back onto the ridge. Very deep snow and windslab made it strenuous and dangerous. We continued up without any special problems to a point where the original route leaves to traverse left to the summit plateau at about 18,500 feet. Avoiding the steepest part of the last buttress, we found a couloir which took us back to the very ridge and followed it to the summit plateau. There we were struck by wind which soon turned out to be the beginning of a new violent storm. Yves Morin, Vincent Renard and I reached the top of McKinley at 4:30 P.M. An hour later came Danièle and Bernard Germain and Michel Berquet. Our expedition was now a complete success and Danièle Germain had made the first feminine ascent of the South Face of Mount McKinley.

The descent to Camp II was rendered hazardous by the storm, but we managed eventually to reach camp at eight P.M., ice-bearded and exhausted. Thanks to our excellent equipment, in spite of very bad conditions, none of us suffered from frostbite. The following day, in bad weather, we descended to a magnificent meal and a very long sleep at Camp I before continuing on down to Base Camp on July 25.

From then on, we hardly saw the sun before Sheldon flew us back to Talkeetna. With snow falling, we ascended to Camp I to carry down equipment, shoot pictures and clear the route of pitons and fixed ropes … left by our predecessors. This is likely to become a bad problem on difficult routes such as the South Face of McKinley.

Five days more were spent on the Kahiltna, skiing and snowshoeing on ever-fresh, soft snow. We descended three times with gear to the landing site. On the last snowy descent, on August 2, we arrived soaking wet. Luckily the sun came out and Sheldon was able to pick us up and fly us back to Talkeetna that same day.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: South Face of Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, Alaska Range.

ASCENT: Fourth ascent of Cassin Ridge and the first ascent of the upper portion of the ridge from 18,500 feet on; summit reached on July 23, 1971 (Michel Berquet, Bernard Germain, Mme Danièle Germain, Yves Morin, Benoit Renard, Vincent Renard).

*The Italian expedition was led by Riccardo Cassin in 1961; see A.A.J.. 1962, 13:1. pp. 27-38. The Japanese climb was described in A.A.J., 1966. 15:1, p. 119. Boyd Everett led the American climb; see A.A.J.. 1968. 16:1. pp. 10-20.

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