American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Up and Around Mount McKinley

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1979

Up and Around Mount McKinley

Galen A. Rowell

Before Mount McKinley was first climbed in 1913, two expeditions made false claims for the honor. In 1906 Dr. Frederick Cook reported that his fast, light expedition had taken eight days to reach “the top of the continent.” Shortly after Cook’s climb was discredited, a sourdough named Tom Lloyd claimed to have visited both McKinley’s summits in a single day from a high camp at only 10,000 feet.

Both hoaxers paid dearly for their untruthfulness. When Lloyd’s first story wasn’t believed he went to the papers with a claim of a second climb made in the same year, promising summit photographs that never materialized. He died a few years later, an overweight, broken man. Cook’s life unfolded as if the hoax had been branded on his forehead. His claim to reach the North Pole was denied mainly on the basis of McKinley, while Admiral Peary’s polar jaunt, reported to the world at the same time with even less documentation, was accepted as fact.

The point of mentioning these hoaxers and their tales of woe is to emphasize how thoroughly their genuine achievements became clouded in history. Both Cook and Lloyd were participants in real McKinley adventures that have rarely been reported with accuracy and have gone unrepeated for two-thirds of a century. While over a thousand climbers topped McKinley by duplicating the siege techniques of the 1913 first ascent, no one repeated either Cook’s 1903 circumnavigation of the peak or the one-day climb above 11,000 feet made on the lower North Peak by Lloyd’s companions in an amazing 8500-foot push. Our Great Circle Expedition sought to make modern variations on these feats. Rather than take Cook’s five-month, 540-mile orbit along rivers, forests, and rocky passes, we planned to stick close to the mountain within the limits of its glacial systems. If we completed that objective, two of our four members planned to attempt a one-day ascent of the main summit from the base of the West Buttress at 10,000-foot Kahiltna Pass.

When I first circled McKinley in a small plane in 1972, I was amazed by the interconnecting pattern of the five major glaciers—each longer than any in the Nepal Himalaya. They flow down the peak’s flanks and abruptly turn to form a 90-mile orbit of ice shaped like the outline of a cottonwood leaf. This great circle of moving ice, entirely above timber- line, seems unique among the 20,000-foot peaks of the world. It would have become a popular ski-mountaineering route years ago, were it not for one problem: the mountain’s three major buttresses trisect the route at elevations of ten to twelve thousand feet. My eagerness to ski such a great natural line was tempered by the realization that packs would weigh about 100 pounds, a ski failure could be devastating, and certain icefalls might prove impassable.

My climbing friends listened to my hare-brained scheme with the same politeness they would have afforded someone who knew where the spaceships were going to land next week. I had an elaborate idea to acclimatize at 14,000 feet in California for two weeks, then fly to McKinley when the weather began to clear on the mountain. These dreams were shelved after a chance meeting with Ned Gillette. I knew Ned only slightly from his years in Yosemite as director of the ski-touring school. An ex-Olympic cross-country skier, he was legendary for his fitness. A veteran of many long-distance ski tours in the far north, Ned had also climbed El Capitan and Half Dome as well as some high-altitude scrambles in the Andes. I could hardly believe it when he told me that he had full financing from Norwegian ski manufacturers to ski the great circle around McKinley. He planned to use nordic light touring skis with narrow 50mm 3-pin bindings. Boots and crampons would be carried for the buttresses. Before the evening was over, I was not only the fourth man on his ski expedition, but also his partner for a one-day push up the mountain. The other two skiers were Alan Bard and Doug Weins, Yosemite climbers who had skied across Ellesmere Island with Ned in 1977. Later in the winter, Bradford Washburn gave us immeasurable help by plotting a circle on the map through icefalls and over ridges, based on his unparalleled knowledge of the mountain and its environs.

On April 7 bush pilot Cliff Hudson landed us on the Kahiltna Glacier. Each of us was in shape for cross-country skiing and for carrying big loads, but not for both together. With 90-pounds on our backs, we left the landing site with all the grace of newborn calves. Instead of linked figure-eights, our tracks down the first easy slope resembled a child’s by-the-numbers sketch, each circled number corresponding to a crater in the snow.

Three days and one storm later, we reached our first obstacle, Kahiltna Pass on the West Buttress. On a -12°F morning we started up what appeared to be a 40° snow slope. A thin frost layer disguised blue ice underneath. I led on front points without finding belays. Eventually I rigged one. If the screw and axe pulled out, I planned to become a human anchor by jumping into a two-foot crevasse. I waited the two hours for the others to come up to me, a total of 900 feet of jümaring with heavy packs. I wondered why I had come, but my questioning ceased when we gained the crest of the Alaska Range and looked beyond the nearby peaks, coated in their winter armor of blue ice, toward endless white plains to the north. Below us the Peters Glacier lay like a smooth highway.

To gain the head of the glacier, we descended several thousand feet of steep snow. The glacier was a veritable frozen ocean of icy waves and swells. A ground blizzard driven by high winds added a mystical glow to the landscape, but we spent little time contemplating the great beauty. Without metal ski edges, each of us fell repeatedly. Allen took an especially bad header and dislocated his shoulder. He stood up in pain, popped the joint back in with his own tug, and held his arm helplessly against his chest. We set up camp immediately and wondered if two of us would have to ski out at least a week’s journey for a rescue.

In the morning Allen was able to continue, but on foot instead of on skis. Luckily we were traveling on hard windslab rather than over the powder snow of earlier days. When the slope became gentle, Allen donned his skis again. The surface of the lower glacier was underlain with depth hoar—bottomless sugar snow formed in cold, dry conditions. For the next two days we moved at a pace of two miles in ten hours. Typically, we alternated from knee-deep snow to sudden holes of thigh-deep crystals that rolled underfoot like ball bearings.

From the wretched Peters Glacier, we headed up Gunsight Pass to gain the Muldrow Glacier. Across the pass we came upon a camp with a dog team. We were invited into the luxurious quarters of a Silverton, Colorado expedition that included the town police chief, attorney, and a half-ton of equipment. They were trying a Muldrow-West Buttress traverse, and the dog team was just turning around to return to park headquarters. Our timing had been perfect, for we had hired the same dog team to cache fifty pounds of food at McGonagall Pass. It had been placed in a snow cave for us only hours before. That evening we feasted on pineapple and ham, ending with a mixture of Hiram Walker and Swiss Miss. We were through the easy half of our circle.

Two days of good traveling up the Traleika Glacier placed us underneath the East Buttress. Only later did we realize that no one had ever crossed the buttress from either direction. Besides parties climbing the mountain, only one British party had crested the buttress, and they had retreated after looking down the other side.* We spent six hours climbing 2500 feet of steep ice and snow. One pitch was nearly vertical, protected with our only two ice screws and belayed by means of ski anchors in the soft snow above. The other side appeared ominously steep, so we decided to bivouac on top rather than risk getting caught on the headwall, which averaged 70° for 1000 feet down to the Ruth Glacier.

Just before sunset the cloud cover lifted off the Ruth Glacier to expose one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. At an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet we looked eye-to-eye at the granite and ice of the Mooses Tooth, Dickey and Huntington. The moon rose into a clear sky that turned pink, then lilac, and finally into the indigo blue of an Alaskan spring night.

The next morning we made the first committing rappel down the headwall. It was underlain with water-ice, and anchors were a major problem. After leaving our only two ice screws on the rappels, we relied entirely on bollards shoveled out of the snow cover or chopped laboriously into the ice. When the afternoon sun hit the slope, we became concerned about avalanche danger. Where the angle lessened near the base, Ned unroped and rushed out of reach of a slide. Alan and I followed suit. Walking in our tracks, Doug dropped into a bergschrund and disappeared from sight except for the tips of his skis. That the schrund was nearly full of snow was blind luck. Doug was able to climb out under his own power. When the four of us finally stood clear of the headwall, we jumped up and down in joyful relief.

Wonderful downhill gliding through powder brought us to a camp above an icefall. Brad Washburn had advised us to descend the icefall, but it appeared impassable, especially without the ice screws.

Early the next morning Ned and I scouted beyond P 9650 without packs. We discovered another icefall well packed with snow. The day began to unfold like a budding flower. Every foot of the terrain proved skiable. When we reached the main Ruth Glacier we were outside the McKinley Park boundary for the first time since the start of the trip. Cliff Hudson suddenly buzzed us in his Supercub at fifteen feet. Airdrops were legal outside the park, and missiles attached to yellow ribbons landed next to our feet. As the others relished cans of beer, I opened a letter from my lady in California, and a wildflower fell out into my hand. The image of a storm breaking at sunset couldn’t have been more powerful than that of a tiny flower in the midst of the sterile landscape. I felt a swell of love for life, her, and even the cold ice around me.

We skied across the Ruth Glacier toward Don Sheldon’s “Mountain House”, a tiny cabin the late bush pilot built on a rock promentory to accommodate his clients. After a blissful night in the comfort of the cabin, we began a rest day. We picked up our second and final cache in two buried cartons. Alan handed me one box and after I tore into it rapaciously he suggested waiting until we opened the second box. I didn’t realize how calculated his suggestion was. He and Doug had packed that second box in Ned’s Vermont basement. Again on Alan’s suggestion, Nedand I went off together on an afternoon ski tour to the mouth of the Gorge. When we returned, the cabin was completely decorated for Ned’s surprise 33rd birthday party. Balloons, crepe streamers, and party favors hung from the ceiling. To the strains of “Happy Birthday”, Ned was passed an endless array of things-you-always-wanted-on-a-glacier: party hats, whistles, a toy telephone, a plastic gun that spun into the air, popcorn, a cake with candles, and a tall bottle of whiskey.

At this point a group of younger climbers on their first remote expedition happened on the scene. They couldn’t have looked more surprised had they been invited into a spaceship. The party continued well into the night.

A day of waiting out a storm plus two easy days up the west fork of the Ruth Glacier brought us to a cul-de-sac. The lowest point between the Ruth and Kahiltna glaciers had wisely not been called a pass. To the best of our knowledge, Ruth Gap had never been crossed, and it still hasn’t. We opted for a longer route without overhanging ice cliffs that crested the South Buttress of McKinley at 12,000 feet.* Luckily we had borrowed two more ice screws from a Mount Huntington expedition; these aided our passage up a section of 60° blue ice. That day ended in the middle of a broken icefall on the Kahiltna side. Two long overhanging rappels were necessary to wend through the giant séracs. One ended hanging over space where it was necessary to swing back and forth in order to sink an axe in the far wall of a deep crevasse.

On our nineteenth day we found an easy path through the steep lower icefall onto the east fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. When we joined the main Kahiltna we spotted some nearly imperceptible ski tracks as the light hit the snow at just the right angle. It took us a while to realize that these tracks were our own and that we had closed the “Great Circle”.

The very next day we left behind our light nordic gear and headed for Kahiltna Pass with ski-mountaineering and summit equipment. Traveling light, it took only five hours to gain the spot that had taken three days with heavy loads. Alan and Doug planned to wait at the base in support while Ned and I made a summit bid. If we didn’t get a perfect day after a week of waiting, we planned to give up.

One night the wind and clouds disappeared completely. The temperature dropped sharply. We guessed that our time had come, and at 2:30 A.M. on April 29 we were off. Two hours later and 3500 feet higher, our attempt came to a sudden end. As we stopped on the windblown blue ice of Windy Corner to change from skis to crampons, Ned lost his edges and fell toward an ice cliff only sixty feet below. About forty feet of rope was between us. My ice axe was still on my pack, so I made a hasty self-arrest with the base of a ski pole. An instant later I was jerked from my stance and shot across the ice toward Ned as surely as a bullet moving down the barrel of a rifle. I could see that we were both headed for a last, long ride in space.

As suddenly as I had started, I stopped with a sickening crunch of teeth and flesh against metal. My face had hit Ned’s ski edges. He had stopped three feet short of the lip of the cliff by quick thinking and the strength of desperation. An old fixed rope from another expedition dangled down the slope. Although my self-arrest had seemed futile, it stopped Ned for just the fraction of a second necessary for him to grab the rope. It was a miracle, perhaps explained by surging adrenalin, that Ned stopped his fall after fifty feet in -20°F conditions with a gloved hand grasping for a single strand of ¼-inch polypropylene that had no loops or knots. The second miracle was that Ned ended up headfirst, backwards, with his skis in the air. If he hadn’t provided a target for me, I would have surely shot over the cliff and pulled us both to our deaths.

Missing teeth and with my lip severed from gums to chin, I felt the onset of shock but forced myself to begin a descent under my own power. Without Ned’s calm confidence and support, it might not have been possible. At one point I was leading down our ski tracks when Ned plunged into a large crevasse behind me. I was on windslab with crampons moving downhill, and all I could think to do was to force on down with everything I had. Ned popped out of the crevasse like toast from a toaster. He had to yell for me to stop as I pulled him face- first for a few feet. When the initial dizziness of shock passed, we put on skis and made haste for the landing area, twelve miles from the accident site. Alan and Doug broke camp and followed behind us. Only twelve hours after the accident, a regular flight got me to Anchorage, where a plastic surgeon put me together again.

* * *

Ned and I were both haunted by the question of whether we could have made the day climb. We returned in June and camped once again at 10,000 feet under the West Buttress.

Only two days later we heard a forecast for a 48-hour clear spell. We had just spent a month at sea level and we agonized over what to do. Alaskan weather had been poor in June; we saw that we could easily eat our ten days’ food at the pass without having another break. But did we dare go for 20,000 feet in a day with only two days of acclimatizing at 10,000?

At nine P.M. on June 9 we headed up carrying 20-pound packs. Inside were goods that we had counted to the ounce: one shovel, one pot, one tiny stove, drinks, cold food, and summit clothing. We began on skis and found Windy Corner’s April ice buried in easily traversible snow. Without a word, both of us took off our skis and cached them there, unwilling to tempt fate again.

At 16,000 feet Ned vomited in the snow but continued to climb on at nearly the same pace as before. Both of us feared that our bodies might not be able to stand the continuous effort. We reached 17,200 feet at six A.M. and took our first rest. Ned felt weak, lethargic, and unsure about continuing. I was tired, but without ill effects. The combination of hot drinks, cheese, rest, and the sun’s first rays brought Ned renewed energy. Denali Pass took a very slow two hours, and once again Ned considered quitting at 18,200 feet. We were high above the lowland cloud blanket on a windless, perfect day. I said, “Ned, we’ll never have another chance like this. Two thousand feet and we’re there. It’s still early morning.” We agreed to move on.

At 19,000 feet our bold strides resembled the last steps of wind-up toy soldiers. Our strengths underwent abrupt reversals and Ned required far fewer stops than I needed. At one point, as we lay in fetal position over our packs, two climbers overtook us. They had been camped in an igloo at 17,200 feet when we passed through. Thinking that we appeared out of shape and out of place, one said, “Anyone who needs a rope up here doesn’t belong on this mountain!” After a short discussion I learned that he was an Englishman, Nigel Gifford, who had climbed on Nuptse and Everest, and had been planning to look me up while in the States. Dropping our packs and ropes, Ned and I started out anew, only to be passed by Gifford and comrade in the manner that training runners overtake little old ladies on sidewalks. My head was clear, but my legs were jelly. I checked myself for altitude-sickness symptoms, found none, and decided to gut out the last few hundred feet. On the level plateau below the summit I moved along with the spry gait of an 80-year-old recovering from hip surgery. Ned had more reserves, but was also near the end of his abilities. Just below the summit we met the Gifford party stopped in the snow on their way down. I could hardly believe what I saw. A stove purred on a ledge stomped into the steep slope, and Gifford, with the air of a British gentleman, was offering us a cup of tea. In the still air of a rare, perfect day, we chatted idly about everything and nothing. After half an hour of pleasant respite, we continued on to the top. There below us was the “Great Circle” of glaciers. Nineteen hours before we had left our tent at a point on that circle. It felt incredibly rewarding to have related to the entire mountain in a single day, unencumbered by the heavy loads of survival gear used high on the mountain by all previous parties except the Sourdoughs.

The descent was agonizingly slow. On the steep slope below Denali Pass we fell asleep repeatedly. When either of us rested for a moment, his eyes would close and his body would curl up around hands held tightly onto an ice axe. When this happened to one of us, the other could jerk him awake with the rope. Sometimes we both dozed, and we have no idea how many motionless minutes were spent asleep on that 40° slope.

At 17,200 feet we were welcomed by Gifford and a large “Mountain Trip” expedition. Although our original plan was to rest and continue the descent, we decided to bivouac with our friends. I felt the beginnings of edema, but I decided not to mention anything for fear of initiating a premature rescue. We were equipped for a bivouac, but gladly accepted the offer of an extra tent, rather than digging our own igloo or sharing one with Gifford. I spent a comfortable night, possibly aided by the drug Diamox, which raises oxygen intake during sleep. The next morning we got up in a leisurely fashion and climbed down to our skis. The final 3500-foot ski run through bowls and icefalls was an exhilarating conclusion to our efforts.

*See A.A.J., 1957, pages 153-6. Also in 1956 Walter Gonnason’s party reached the col from the Ruth Glacier but went no further as described in A.A.J., 1957 page 156.

*Crossed by Jeff Duenwald, Jim Richardson and Margaret Young in 1963. See A.A.J., 1964, page 53.

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