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McKinley's South Face—Alpine Style

McKinley’s South Face- Alpine Style

Alex Bertulis

THE drawback of climbing most major high-altitude mountains is that they require siege tactics. Ropes are fixed and camp gear is hauled along. More food is required because more time is spent ferrying loads between camps and less time is spent climbing. The prospect of climbing a major mountain “alpine style” seemed attractive to Jim Wickwire, Tom Stewart, Rob Schaller, Charlie Raymond, Leif Patterson and me. The South Face of Mount McKinley—the perfect testing ground.*

To assure that our packs would be light enough to allow moderately difficult climbing, stringent weight-saving tactics were adopted. It was agreed to forgo tents on the mountain and to rely on snow caves. Instead of sleeping bags, it was proposed that half bags with down parkas would suffice. Three of our team took exception to this and opted for full length bags in lieu of heavy down parkas. We allowed full food rations for climbing days only. Storm days, as rest days, were allotted one-third rations (the “hibernation principle” had been previously tested).

The Cassin Ridge became our chosen route. It was decided that a fixed line for the Japanese Couloir (the crux of the climb) would be prudent, not for expediting the climbing, but to ensure a safe retreat in case of an emergency.

Tom Stewart, Jim Wickwire and Rob Schaller arrived in Talkeetna June 5. The usual wait for flying weather began. On June 6 attention was focused on the train from Anchorage, which was rumored to be bringing a team of Japanese women intent on climbing the South Face of McKinley also! At noon the train arrived. First off were the Japanese girls—five of them and very small. Jim introduced himself to Miss Sekita, the leader, and asked what route they had in mind. She said, “West rib.” Jim then told her we were going to the central rib. With this exchange of information, all were greatly relieved as now there would be no crowding, no put-down and no international dispute. In fact, during the week- long approach march to the South Face we really enjoyed each others’ presence.

June 7 dawned clear and bush pilots in Talkeetna were busy. Cliff Hudson flew our team in to the “McKinley International Airport” on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Flanked by the awesome north face of Mount Hunter on one side and the 10,000-foot east face of Mount Foraker on the other, it was an impressive transition to a unique mountain world. The plan was that this advance party would haul most of the expedition equipment to the intersection of the main Kahiltna Glacier and its northeast fork, establish a camp there, then carry two days’ food, some equipment and skis to a cache at 10,000 feet on the West Buttress route, for our descent.

That night about four hundred pounds of gear was loaded onto an aluminum sled, built by Tom, and the struggle up the Kahiltna was under way. Seven hours and six miles later, the camp was established. A good day’s sleep followed before the carry to the West Buttress that evening. At seven A.M. that same day, Leif Patterson, Charlie Raymond and I left Seattle, by air. At noon we were deposited on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier! Recovering from a rather sudden case of mountain shock, we waited until evening to proceed up the main glacier. Not so, our Japanese friends; one by one the little ladies on short skis and unpro- portionately large loads on their backs passed by our camp, returning a few hours later for another load.

Later on, the sun was replaced by fog, and the evening became very cold. Two French climbers arrived on skis and asked about flight service to Talkeetna tonight. I looked at the clouds around us and recalled a similar occasion when I waited for seven days, near here, for the pilot to pick us up. I advised the Frenchmen not to expect a flight tonight and asked how far they had come today. The one with the French Alpine Guide medallion on his chest pointed to the summit of McKinley and said, “From the top.” I was impressed. About one o’clock that night Hudson’s small silvery plane appeared through the fog and picked the Frenchmen up.

Due to all the previous expeditions the vast Kahiltna Glacier was well marked. Approaching the southwest base of Mount McKinley we recognized the blue “McKinley” tent that belonged to our advance party, which was, on this day, reconnoitering the route ahead. Before long, we were all happily reunited. On June 11, we carried one load halfway up the northeast fork of the Kahiltna and another the next day. We located our first cave at the edge of an expansive icefall, wedged between precipitous walls of ice and rock.

June 13 we spent exploring a route through the icefall and carried some equipment across. The final push was made the next day with full packs. I belayed Tom over a questionable snowbridge. The weather began to worsen; an icy wind picked up with force. I followed, convinced that the bridge would collapse. Somehow it did not. Next, Leif belayed Jim across while Tom and I watched with anticipation. The instant Jim placed his second foot on the bridge, it crumpled. Leif struggled desperately, trying to hold the rope—his short ice axe flipped out of its anchorage in the snow! The arresting effect on the rope was almost nil but kept Jim facing up so that he landed on his back about sixty feet down the crevasse. We were very fortunate. Jim suffered only from mild shock and whiplash. Much of the gear in his pack was damaged from absorbing the impact. Leif, certainly the safest belayer I ever climbed with, suffered some burned fingers and consternation; the latter having a more lasting effect. The rest of the crevasses we belayed without packs.

Our next snow-cave camp was established at the base of the Cassin Ridge at 11,800 feet. After a week of rather efficient glacier travel, we were very eager to start climbing. The notorious Japanese Couloir was immediately above us. From observations made en route, it became apparent that much ice climbing would be involved. We drew straws the next morning. Tom, Jim and I were the (dubious) winners allowed to make the first push up the couloir.

Jim took the lead on the 45° slope above the bergschrund. He avoided the green ice, though the thin layer of snow over the ice gave little more security. A hundred and fifty feet out, Tom and Jim continued climbing simultaneously while I belayed. At the end of two leads Jim reached some rocks and belayed Tom up, while I started from below. Tom chose to continue over verglas-covered rock rather than the steepening ice. I took the next lead over the rock steps and, at long last, reached the first reasonable belay ledge—four leads from the bergschrund. A dense mist enveloped us. Tired and cold, we rappelled back down after tying off the ? -inch fixed polypropolene line.

The following day was marginal at best. Rob, Leif and Charlie left for the couloir while the rest of us recuperated. It started snowing in earnest. Leif took the fifth lead—over ice and snow. Rob had the thankless task of adjusting the fixed ropes. The sixth pitch in the couloir involved some tricky verglassed rock climbing, which Charlie led. The seventh pitch forced Leif through a narrowing ice gully. All were getting inundated with small snow avalanches. It was uncomfortable and becoming dangerous. Wet and exhausted, they began a treacherous descent. Voice communication was poor; the fixed rope iced up.

June 17 and 18 were our first enforced rest days. High winds whipped the snow against the South Face outside while countless powder avalanches flowed constantly down the vertical rock walls like silent waterfalls.

Early June 19, the weather appeared on the verge of a major storm. Remarkably, it dissipated by midday and we were all off on the final push up the couloir. Tom and Jim chose to lead the last 3½ gruelling pitches of 60° ice to the crest of the ridge. The danger from ice and rock fall was high. Leif sustained a cut eyebrow and Charlie, a painful hit on the arm. We were all spread out. It started snowing and avalanching again. Front-pointing up steep ice with sixty-pound packs at around 13,000 feet was slow and demanding. Near the top, Rob slipped and hurt his knee, the severity of the injury (a broken tibia) was not assessed until after the trip.

By early next morning the last of us crested the ridge and settled onto the precipitous “Cassin Ledge.” What a ledge! Two to four feet wide and down-sloping. Where and how the previous parties were able to pitch a tent here was baffling. Not that it mattered; we did not have a tent. Leif started scouting for snow-cave sites while Tom belayed. After shaving through the translucent cornices along the 70° ridge crest and probing the shallow snow over the rock and ice, Leif abandoned his search. Charlie continued one more lead up the crest and reported more ice. Rob was cooking up hot bouillon. Jim and I crouched at one end of the ledge, feeling somewhat ill.

The sun finally reached our perch and warmed our morale. A debate on strategy ensued. Under the present conditions no cave sites were within reach. With only three ice pitons left we were seriously undertooled for more ice climbing. We had certainly underestimated the severity of the climb because of the unexpected amount of ice. All kinds of options were proposed. What finally settled all arguments was the obvious storm clouds forming around us. Without protection from the weather, we would be inviting disaster.

Dejected, we began the arduous descent. With snow falling in the twilight we arrived, one by one, at our former cave—about 36 hours after having left it. Abandoning one of the world’s finest mountain routes, after having climbed its major crux, was a bitter disappointment to all of us. Rob’s knee was swollen as large as a melon. As the expedition doctor, he also attended, with dedication, to everyone’s cuts, bruises, pains and aches (real and imaginary). Despite our miserable lot, we enjoyed a strong esprit de corps.

With our sights still on the summit, we decided to try the South Face’s west rib. The Japanese girls would also be on the rib. Ironically, we were so worried, initially, about their being on the “Cassin.” As it turned out, however, we never met them again. Our route followed a new course that touched the old route at only two points on the 10,000-foot face.

After having spent two weeks approaching and climbing to 13,000 feet on the Cassin Ridge, a fresh start was made up the west rib, a few hundred feet away, on June 22. During the night of the 25th we reached the summit. This three-and-a-half day “alpine” ascent included a 36-hour interruption by another storm.

From our snow cave we traversed across to the glacier hanging down the east flank of the west rib. Maneuvering through the séracs and ice cliffs was relatively easy and we gained altitude quickly. Looking back across the face, the Cassin Ridge was silhouetted sharply against the sky. The Japanese Couloir, directly opposite us, looked vertical and uninviting. Unfortunately, the great route we were admiring had one important drawback: a plethora of fixed ropes still remain from the four previous expeditions, plus the bright yellow line we left behind.

Six hours after our start, we reached a broad shoulder at 14,200 feet. With the weather deteriorating rapidly, a search for cave sites ensued. In probing the snow, Leif discovered a major, hidden crevasse. This was interesting since no crevasses were visible in this area. Through a small hole, which he made, Leif vanished from the surface to investigate the icy chamber below. With the weather outside as it was, we did not hesitate on his invitation to follow.

The crevasse was about three to six feet wide, meandering laterally farther than our sight line could follow. The sides of the crevasse disappeared into abysmal darkness. Fifteen feet below the surface, we leveled the top of a wedged snow block, just large enough to contain our six prone bodies. There was an occasional crunch and creep. It was a while before I felt secure enough to unrope. Since the crevasse was not exposed to the atmosphere, it was profusely coated with hoarfrost of spectacular proportions. Perfect crystals, as large as half dollars, grew like feathery stalactites all around us and disintegrated at the slightest touch. We spent two nights ensconced in this fairy-tale ice palace. We were later told, the most intense storm of the trip was raging outside.

Early on June 24 we departed in uncertain weather. It soon turned into brilliant sunshine and we made good progress over deep, soft snow at first, … a traverse across an unnerving avalanche slope, a short ice pitch, then rock scrambles to a comfortable ledge at 16,800 feet. There was a snow slope off to one side, though a bit too steep for good snow caving. Some began digging. Hot brew was started on a couple of stoves. The view was spectacular as the sun approached the horizon.

Somebody recognized the faint sound of a plane engine! We spotted it flying far below us. I grabbed our radio and called for Cliff Hudson to come in. “Roger! Roger! Roger!,” came the garbled but elated answer. Due to mountainous barriers between us and Talkeetna, this was our first radio contact. Cliff had been worried. In the quick conversation that followed, our main message was: “Get us a weather report.” Later that evening, with our first clear shot into Talkeetna, Cliff came on the air again at the preassigned time. The report was for “24 hours of good weather, then a storm moving in with winds in excess of 50 mph!”

We were 3500 feet below the summit. A heated discussion over whether to push to the summit before or after the storm followed. Our course of action was probably never completely settled that night. Jim and I moved to the rock ledge and crouched intimately close together inside a nylon bivouac sack to wait out the night. Our down parkas were nice but the elephant-foot half sacks seemed a bit thin. The others were not much more comfortable in two separate snow holes. Each pair cooked its own dinner.

The next morning, due to our position, rather than our enthusiasm,

Jim and I started off first. The climb up the prominent couloir or “Hourglass” involved 700 feet of enjoyable 40° to 45° ice and hard snow. On a bouldered shoulder at 17,800 feet, Jim suggested we wait for the rest of our team. An uncomplicated 1600-foot steepening snow slope stood between us and the summit plateau.

Reunited, we reanalyzed our situation. It was estimated that the trip to the summit and back would take less than nine hours without packs— a gross miscalculation. In view of the weather forcast, we all decided to strike for the summit—with almost no equipment, food or water! Altitude and fatigue must have had its effect on our minds.

The “easy” snow slope ahead of us turned out to be a difficult problem. At first, the step-kicking was knee deep. We changed leads often as the hot sun and soft snow began to wear us down. Eventually, we made our way to the final, hard packed, snow face below the corniced top. Once off the face, we found ourselves in an enormous basin with a considerable distance of nearly level walking to the final summit upthrust. By this time, everyone but Jim had some kind of malady. Our experience on top is best described in Jim’s diary: “The time was 1:35 A.M., perhaps the least amount of light available. Nonetheless, the view in all directions was superb. Foraker, McKinley’s sleeping sister, the magnificent Hunter and, tucked away down below, the fierce Huntington. A sunset and a start of a sunrise. Leif took a photo of me and I of him. Although it was bitterly cold … not a breath of air stirred. Leif and Charlie soon left the summit as they were cold and eager to get to lower ground. I decided to wait alone for Rob, Tom and Alex. It was kind of eerie being there alone for the 15 minutes before Rob came. He had a lot of guts coming up there with his bad knee. I admire his courage in doing it. He said Tom and Alex were coming, but slowly. Tom came first and scared the hell out of us. He walked along the very ridge crest and teetered a couple of times toward the abyss of the South Face. We were all unroped. He passed it off as a joke, but I still wonder whether it was the effect of the altitude. A few minutes later Alex came up. I went down to him and helped him the last few feet to the summit. He was in great pain from his back, but worse, he looked exhausted. His eyes were hollow; I have never seen him look so bad. We took the obligatory photos and headed down at 2:45 A.M. Down off the summit pyramid, Alex seemed to get worse. We considered taking him down to Denali Pass and then the basin at 17,000 feet for a helicopter rescue but Leif and I decided we could belay him safely down the steep 1600-foot slope. This was done safely, although taking hours.”

By the time we arrived back down to where we had left our packs, we had been climbing for 24 continuous hours. We were all dehydrated and, needless to say, exhausted.

Having recuperated in the warm midday sun (the storm was not on schedule), we descended via the West Buttress route. The next day we skied or snowshoed down the Kahiltna. Leif and Charlie detoured four miles to our first cave to retrieve snowshoes which we left behind. After numerous unpleasantries with an unusual number of rotten crevasse bridges, we arrived at the McKinley International Airport where we indulged ourselves in an orgy of (non-dehydrated) food. The next morning Cliff Hudson flew us back to the hazards of civilization.

* * * *

Mount McKinley has earned international respect for its immense size and notoriety for its frequent, fierce and sudden arctic storms. Any expedition, traditional or alpine style, must allow time for acclimatization to avoid pulmonary edema and serious fatigue and be prepared to bivouac under any conditions at any time.

In part, our strategy was successful. To climb the mountain unencumbered with a lot of equipment was extremely gratifying. Our attempt on the Cassin Ridge failed because we came prepared for a rock climb and expected conditions based on reports from previous expeditions who made the climb. The conditions we found were unique to the Cassin Ridge, for almost any other route on the mountain has terrain that always holds larger pockets of snow adequate for cave digging. No party should ever be without at least one lightweight aluminum shovel—at any time.

Despite much extra gear for technical climbing, our packs on the west rib route weighed less than 60 pounds and included enough food to sustain us for at least another two weeks. Our decision to continue to the summit without the mandatory bivouac gear was a classical example of Mount McKinley obliquity. We were fortunate. The team of Japanese girls that followed us, under similar circumstances, ran into the storm that we missed and perished on their summit attempt. Had they had a shovel along, they would have been able to dig in and might have survived. Both their team and ours included veterans of high-altitude climbs in the Himalayas and the Andes; both underestimated the unpredictable Mount McKinley.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

Ascent: Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, via new variation on the western rib of the South Face, alpine style, June 25, 1972 (whole party).

Personnel: Alex Bertulis, Leif-Norman Patterson, Charles Raymond, Robert Schaller, Thomas Stewart, James Wickwire.

*The account of the Japanese ascent of the South Face as described in A.A.J., 1970, pp. 109-110, is inaccurate. Omitted was the fact that standard expedition tactics were employed. Also, the difficult parts of the route were fixed in advance of the final push.