Mount McKinley, Milan Kriššak Memorial Route

Publication Year: 1981.

Mount McKinley

Milan Kriššak Memorial Route

Philip Johnson

THE CHANCE FOR an Englishman to climb with a Czechoslovak mountaineering expedition must be, in the ordinary course of events, relatively slim. That I had that opportunity was due to a combination of factors: my Slovak wife and home beneath the High Tatra Mountains, my contacts with British climbing-equipment manufacturers and my friendship with the leader of our group, Mišo Orolin. Without Miso’s drive and determination, the expedition would never have got off the ground.

Milan Kriššak died in June of 1979 when a rescue helicopter in which he was flying burst into flames and crashed in the High Tatra. Four days earlier, he had returned from an unsuccessful attempt on Jannu on a new line via the west buttress. His past ascents in Czechoslovakia, the Western Alps, the Pamir and the Himalaya had made him one of the outstanding mountaineers of this generation. His name will now always be linked with a route on the south face of Mount McKinley, for it was as a memorial to Milan that the climb was done.

Difficulties exist in organizing any expedition and in this respect, Czechoslovakia in no way differs from other lands. From an original intention to climb Fitz Roy, plans meandered through pleasant pipe dreams until Milan’s death provided a raison d’être. The climb would be a fitting memorial to an outstanding mountaineer. Alaska was an obvious choice. With helpful assistance of information from Adams Carter and superb photographs from Bradford Washburn, we finally chose the south face of Mount McKinley. Mišo and other members of the team spent weary hours in correspondence and consultation whilst to me fell the task of begging gear from the United Kingdom. Eventually everything was organized and all that remained for the ten of us was to get our gear and ourselves to the mountain.

Sweet Slovak air-hostesses got us to Montreal with a little help from the bar and the serious business of getting to Alaska began. Back homewe had decided on a plan of travel which would enable us both to see the Canadian and Alaskan countrysides and save us precious dollars in flights between Montreal and Anchorage. We hired a twelve-seater van and trailer for our drive west. In the event, it is unlikely that we saved a cent, but we surely saw some country. After two days, stocked with fresh produce, we began the first of the daily runs that were to take us to Alaska.

We reached Talkeetna in bright sunshine on the afternoon of May 19 to find, to our astonishment, that the Czechoslovak Expedition to Alaska was eagerly awaited. So began one of those times that eventually pass into climbing lore, not least for the hard drinking and ferocious football matches that made seven days of waiting bearable. If the bad weather which had grounded the planes had continued, it is doubtful if the team would ever have reached McKinley, such was the dangerous level of soccer and high alcoholic consumption.

As the base for all those flying into Mount McKinley National Park, Talkeetna is ideally situated. As a temporary place of rest or preparation it is wonderful. No list of complimentary adjectives could do justice to the warmth and welcome extended to our party by the people of Talkeetna as we waited for the weather to lift and flying to begin.

We started work on May 26, flying 700 kilos and ten expedition members to the Kahiltna Glacier and we were somewhat apprehensive about what was to follow. We had been told that exceptionally cold weather and high winds had been the pattern during the last two months and the success rate was down to 20%. Ambitious plans conceived in warm living rooms seemed a long way behind as we began loading our mountain of gear onto plastic sledges and into personal rucksacks. The seven days that followed fully realized our trepidation as we struggled to reach the head of the east fork of the Kahiltna. We saw our magnificent surroundings intermittently through shrouds of snow that silently and gently wound round us and it was not until the morning of the sixth that we finally got a view of our intended objective. The first view was one that for a “little Englander” overpowered all my conceptions of what McKinley’s south face really would be like. It would take the pen of a Dylan Thomas to do it justice.

Whilst planning the trip, after studying all the available material on Mount McKinley, we had decided that it was essential to acclimatize before attempting our ascent. We spent the first day digging snow blocks and erecting a “super-kitchen,” a place to let fantasy run riot with what culinary delights could be achieved in such a palace. A word here about our rations, a subject dear to the hearts of all expedition members. Not for us quails in aspic, sturgeon roe in a dainty little wine or any of the other mouth-watering delicacies that seem to have flavoured pre-war Himalayan expeditions. For us the heart-rending haul up the Kahiltna had been for nothing more than the transportation of hundreds of tins of corned beef and luncheon meat. Thus do the poor toil. Our heroic cooks toiled night and day to introduce some Slovak flavour into the fare, but sadly one tin of corned beef tastes much the same as the next. Their efforts, whilst keeping body and soul together, were doomed to failure.

Our view of the area of the south face that we intended to climb, namely the section lying between the American Direct and the South Buttress routes, looked distinctly blue; in other words, ice. Whilst our leader and his merry men were psyching themselves up for a start on the face, four of us took advantage of a beautiful evening to climb to the saddle of the South Buttress. Out of condition and unprepared for the appalling snow conditions, it took us eleven hours to make the relatively untechnical ascent. Lulled into a false sense of security by the sight of the sun, we were soon rudely awakened. The wind hit us at the ridge, gathering in intensity during the early hours of the morning and by breakfast time was howling a full McKinley-strength. Shaken by its ferocity, we abandoned a rapidly disintegrating tent and crawled about on hands and knees looking for somewhere to start digging. Eventually we found the beginnings of a hole and eight hours of digging resulted in a cave that gave us shelter for the next two days. It was a desperate party that hobbled off the ridge and down to Base Camp, having duly completed our part of the plan. In the meantime, down below, the remainder of the party was basking in the bright sunshine, unaware of our experience and blissfully fixing rope and screws up the first 750 feet of the face. The plan for the other four members of the climbing team to acclimatize at the saddle was rapidly abandoned as they listened to our tale of woe.

A team conference on the evening of June 7 decided the composition of the two teams of four; one team to go for the face and the other to give support via the buttress. The two remaining members of the expedition had the unenviable task of keeping Base Camp clear and awaiting the outcome of the climbs.

On the morning of the ninth, Ivan Fiala, Milan Neumann, Gejza Haak and our film cameraman Juraj Weincziller set off up the route to the saddle whilst we four, Mišo Orolin, Dano Bakoš, Vlado Petrik and I turned our tracks to the fixed ropes decorating the lower blue-ice slopes of the face. Bearing in mind the litter problems that seem to have been associated with McKinley, we determined at least to try to make our clean contribution and accordingly we jümared up the 7mm lines to the previous high spot before dumping our sacks and descending to begin the cleaning operation. Having duly removed all the perlon, we sent it skidding down for Dušan Kovac and Fero Vernarcík to retrieve and turned to the climbing. Together at the high spot once more, Dano and Vlado started climbing virgin ground, leaving Mišo and me the task of maneuvering our 50-kilo haul bag as we jümared in their wake. The end of the steep ice brought us to the base of a mini rock band which we avoided, except for one pitch of rock climbing, by sliding around the right side before an ice ramp took us back leftwards into a steeply ascending traverse.

The ramp was marred by only one fault; no bivouac site was in sight for miles around. When the single remaining strand of a jümared rope brought progress to a halt after fourteen hours of continuous movement, there was no easy prospect of a restful night ahead. The weather was turning Alaskan-funny and a slot was a simple survival solution. No slots were to be found: directly down, verticle rock, the same above, whilst to the left and right ran that damned ramp. King Clog provided the tools and “lusty forearms striking true from the shoulder” the answer. Two hours later we had a slot of sorts and multi-anchors kept us to its confines.

Traditional weather kept us immobile for most of Day Two, though Mišo and I did manage a couple of token rope-lengths in the late afternoon whilst Dano and Vlado swung the ice tools. The second night was better and in the morning of Day Three Mišo and I followed the ramp through insistent and persistent snowfall. The ramp continued for another six rope-lengths before petering out in a broad icefield. Away to our left the rock of the American Direct broke through the snowy gloom. Straight upwards in the best traditions we went, via dinner-plate ice and hard snow runnels directly towards the obvious break in the big rock band high above. The gap was a two-pitch hard rock relief from the white stuff before we hit a steep but perfect snow arête arcking upwards, but to what? It was the end of the day and with relief we found the answer in another big snowfield at the bottom of which lay our haven, a large boulder projecting from the snow which saved us weary hours of digging.

A cold night was succeeded by a perfect day as we alternated leads towards a large gendarme marking our intended junction with the South Buttress route. Meanwhile the buttress team had spent a day ensconced in the snow hole on the saddle before proceeding without mishap to the summit in a further two days. They shouted down their news to us as we exited from the face. On our fifth day we passed them as they retraced their steps en route for Base. Our summit day was without incident and it was at one P.M. on Friday the 13th of June when we completed the route. Twenty-four hours later we were reunited with the lads at Base Camp to celebrate the success of the expedition with a banquet of corned beef and luncheon meat.

Within a day half of us were trying to drink Talkeetna’s Fairview Inn dry and a fully united party got fairly close to the target on the following day. There remained only the wholly pleasant task of preparing a traditional Slovak feast for all our friends in Talkeetna before starting the long haul back to Montreal. On behalf of the whole team I would like to record our thanks to the people of Talkeetna for looking after us whilst we were in that village and to send greetings to those American, German, Austrian, Swiss and Japanese climbers who, whilst watching our antics with some amazement, all joined in and made it a good place to have been. The return trip through Canada via our friends in Calgary and through the United States via our hosts in New York and Jefferson, N.H. only served to reinforce the impression the whole trip had on us.

If we learned one lesson during our sojourn through North America, it was this: despite the differences in cultural and political viewpoints, there is only one stance in the last analysis and that is one of contact between human beings. I am naïve enough to believe that friendship constitutes the greatest hurdle to dogmatisms. Long may the McKinleys of this world bring together those who think like wise.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

Ascents: Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, via a new route on the South Face, the Milan Kriššak Memorial Route, the summit reached on June 13, 1980 (Orolin, Bakoš, Petrik, Johnson); summit reached by the South Buttress team on June 12 (Fiala, Haak, Neumann, Wein- cziller).

Personnel: Michal Orolin, leader; Ivan Fiala, Miloslav Neumann, Gejza Haak, Juraj Weincziller, Daniel Bakos, Vladimir Petrik, Dušan Kovac, František Vernarcík, Slovaks; Philip Johnson, English.