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The North Ridge of Mt. Kennedy

The North Ridge of Mt. Kennedy

In 1968, four young men pitted themselves against one of North America’s greatest challenges. Nearly 30 years later, they tell their story.

by Todd S. Thompson

David Seidman and I walked into Brad Washburn’s light-filled office on the top floor of the Museum of Science in Boston in the fall of 1967—and there it was. The huge photograph, one of many from Washburn’s collection of Alaskan mountains, showed the distant base camp of the 1935 National Geographic Yukon Expedition pitched on the Lowell Glacier with the lower few thousand feet of the north ridge of Mt. Kennedy soaring emphatically out of the picture.

The impact on both of us was immediate. It suddenly felt like we were in the presence of a large elemental force; the magnificent 6,000-foot ridge seemed to stand above the Boston waterfront visible from Washburn’s office, wind driving snow over granite and ice into the clear Yukon sky. I jumped up on a chair to get a closer look, and we began to plan a route.

In that defining moment, Seidman and I owed a lot to those who had gone before. The members of the 1935 expedition who first explored the area, particularly Washburn, who was so generous with his photographs and knowledge of those mountains, and Ad Carter, also generous with young climbers, whose American Alpine Journal was such a resource of mountain history, and an inspiration for future efforts. Dartmouth College, where we both were students, had a tradition of adventure, such as Jack Durrance and the start of the mountaineering club in 1936 and John Ledyard’s legendary 1775 dugout descent of the Connecticut River. We benefited from that tradition, carried its pregnant load a few steps forward, and were not only tolerated, but encouraged in many ways by that great college.

All that history, debt, and promise of the college was present in the photograph, which focused our ambitions and our energies. But we were young, arrogant, and oblivious, so we studied the route, asked for contact print copies for further study, and said inadequate thanks.

Seidman and I had been searching for months for a worthy Alaskan first ascent objective. We were ambitious, and wanted to write our own page of mountaineering history. The north ridge of Mt. Kennedy was shown and mentioned in the 1965, 1966, and 1967 issues of the American Alpine Journal (in a 1966 article, Washburn had called it “one of Canada’s top remaining mountaineering challenges”) but nothing made it clear how hard and direct, how beautiful and enormous it was, as that picture on his wall.

Seidman and I first met in the summer of 1966 at a gas station near Golden, British Columbia. He was on a Dartmouth Mountaineering Club trip to the Adamant Range, and I was climbing in the Bugaboos. It was the summer before I entered Dartmouth. We suited each other as climbing partners—our skills and energy were well-matched, we both loved the mountains, and we cared passionately about succeeding on a route. We also had differences. David loved to climb with people watching—he said it drove him to push himself a little harder—while I was happier without an audience. David lived in a fraternity and thrived on the social commerce there; I avoided them. David boasted of his aggressive dating methods; I preferred to spend time prowling the open stacks of Baker Library. But he didn’t complain, even when he burned his hands badly catching me in a leader fall in the Shawangunks the previous year.

David had his quirks. He had a theory that he could stay dry driving in a rainstorm in his Triumph TR-4 with the top down if he maintained a certain speed. He claimed that he could some- times lead safe descents in whiteout conditions with the help of route-finding visions. But in the ineffable chemistry that makes a partnership, we fit together well— for a time. David was a loyal friend, a reliable climbing partner, and a great mountaineer who died prematurely in an avalanche the next year on an expedition in Nepal attempting a new route on 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri. Though he had packed in a lot up until then, he was only beginning his promising career as a mountain photographer. He had plans for books and adventures, and we can only imagine what we missed by his early death.

Seidman and I felt that four was an ideal number for a long, difficult climb in a remote area like the north ridge of Mt. Kennedy. The landing spot on the upper Lowell Glacier near the base of the ridge is about 60 air miles from the dirt strip at Kluane Lake on the Alaska Highway, or about five days of tough, cross country travel on foot. Two pairs can trade off leading and load-carrying chores and provide a reserve of safety in case of sickness, injury, or an unplanned walk out. But who else to invite?

Rather than relying entirely on ourselves to lead the proposed route, we thought we needed at least one more strong leader, and that weak thought led to several follies. We extended an invitation to a California friend who had other plans. He suggested an Argentinean with an excellent reputation who was living in California, but who expressed more concern with his sock inventory than the proposed route. In the end, to our discredit and his, we connected with Joe Faint, an experienced rock climber and mountaineer with a good reputation who had been on the first ascent of the north face of Mt. Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies the previous year.

To fill the fourth position we wanted a strong, reliable apprentice to help with the hard work of load carrying and cold belays, and we picked well. Philip Koch, at that point a veteran of ice fishing on his native Lake Champlain and of many attempts to traverse New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in winter, had the toughness, the grace, and the drive required. He also was a good companion, thoughtful and laconic—important traits when tied in together for weeks. If only Seidman and I had the sense to see other able and willing apprentices under our noses at school in Hanover, New Hampshire, and trusted ourselves to do all the leading, we could have avoided the controversy that settled on us in the end.

Koch was the only one of us to sense Faint’s apparent desperation and sense of isolation. Three people who know each other well and share an objective can exclude a willing fourth. It is common behavior on school playgrounds—and ugly. When the crisis came late in the climb, Seidman and I refused to acknowledge Faint’s existence, but Koch made a chess set from match sticks, took it into Faint’s tent and played chess.

Koch went on to do some good climbs on his own in Yosemite, Baffin and Bylot Islands and elsewhere, and is fascinated by the mountaineering/sailing example of H.W.Tilman. (Tilman was a climber who worked on early routes in the Himalaya, finding, in 1934, for example, the Rishi Gorge route into Nanda Devi with Eric Shipton. He turned from the climbing scene in the early 1950s when it became too crowded for his tastes, and combined sailing and climbing on voyages in a series of Bristol Channel pilot cutters named Mischief to places like the Arctic and Kerguelan Island in the Southern Ocean.)

The mountaineering world was at that time engaged in a controversy between the alpine and expedition styles of ascent. There was a deep cultural gap between believers in light, swift ascents with bivouacs on one side, and those who believed in using fixed ropes and supplying a series of camps on the other. Proponents of each school of thought tended to be disdainful and dismissive of the other. Seidman and I preferred the light, alpine style, but were pragmatic, expecting that the ridge and the St. Elias Mountain Range would dictate the terms on which we could climb. We went prepared to go either way. The development of climbing equipment and tools has long played a role in determining the standards of the day. In 1968, we went to a metal shop and welded stiffening bars onto the front of our Grivel twelve point crampons, forged ice daggers that looked like screw drivers with ergonomic handles, carried our 60-centimeter Simond ice axes in holsters, and thought we were very cutting edge. There were no suitable anchors made at the time for the kind of hard ice we expected—tubular ice screws weren’t effective or economical for fixed anchors—so we made 50 of our own T-shaped, steel ice pitons fitted with Goldline tie-off loops. We cut lightening holes into the cases of Optimus 111B stoves to save weight.

Today that outfit seems as dated as alpenstocks and hemp rope did then. Yet equipment has little to do with the quality of the adventure. For that we ask: is there a bold line, uncertainty, objective danger, isolation, and the need for self-reliance?

In early June, 1968, the four of us flew into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. We bought and repackaged the last of the food, and arranged for a ski-equipped DeHaviland Beaver to fly us in two trips from Kluane Lake to the Lowell Glacier. We hitchhiked from Whitehorse to Kluane to save money by getting a little closer to the mountain.

Koch and I went on the first flight south into the mountain, and as the powerful Beaver roared off the dirt strip, I wondered, “What will it look like? Can we do it?” Fully alive, exhilarated by the bush flying, the fear rat gnawing my stomach in anticipation.

When the ridge came into view after 45 minutes in the air, it fulfilled the promise of Washburn’s photograph. It was beautiful, intimidating, moving. We unloaded the Beaver, made sure we had plenty of ski plane shots for the expedition slide show, and set up camp. The pilot promised to return to pick us up on July 25, weather permitting, but we never saw him on the Lowell Glacier again.

It was about a mile across the glacier from base camp at the landing spot to the base of the ridge. The glacier was well covered, so there were no crevasse problems, and we were far enough out in the middle that the frequent avalanches coming off the peaks had little chance of reaching us. All of us strapped on wooden bear paw snowshoes and carried loads of supplies to a cache in the bergschrund at the foot of the ridge in preparation for starting the climb. Faint put in the first lead over the bergschrund in easy snow. Then the real work began.

Climbing on the right side of the ridge crest, we encountered 10 pitches of snow, ice, and some mixed climbing on rotten ice over rock slabs to a spot on the ridge where we were able to cut out a platform for our two two-man tents at Camp I. Four pitches of mixed climbing up the crest led to 12 pitches diagonally across an ice field, then straight up a shallow couloir just right of the crest. At the top of this section, where the ice met a blocky granite section, we spent 10 hours cutting away enough ice to pitch the tents at Camp II, and had the comfort of solid rock anchors for both ourselves and the tents. We wore our swami belts (the predecessors of harnesses) day and night. We ran a line through the tents—in one end and out the other, anchored at each end—so that we would have a convenient tie-in for sleeping, and the ability to salvage the tents if they blew off their perch.

Seidman and I were both in good form, but couldn’t put up more than four leads in a day, mostly chopping tiny steps in the 60- to 65-degree ice on 150-foot runouts with no intermediate protection. Most of the first 41 pitches were difficult and unrelenting. The exposed ice that season was so hard that frontpointing was not possible except in short bits where snow was able to bond to the ice below. On rappel, if you were not careful to keep your body perpendicular to the ice, your carefully sharpened crampons would skate off over the surface ineffectively, slamming your body to the ice while you scrambled to regain control.

The weather was mercifully less extreme than we expected. Storms brought heavy snowfall that avalanched down the route, but the ridge was usually protected from the prevailing Gulf of Alaska winds, and the temperature rarely dropped below zero. When climbing on stormy days, it was common to be hit by manageable spindrift avalanches, a rooster tail forming as the slide deflected off our heads and we clung to our stances. Big storms meant holing up, reading, and waiting—except on one memorable occasion.

Koch and Seidman had descended from Camp II to the cache of food and equipment left at the Camp I site. There was no refuge there, as the only tents we had were above. They intended to carry loads the 12 pitches back up the fixed ropes when they were caught out in the worst storm of the expedition. As they jumared up the ropes, they were caught in a powder avalanche that poured over them for five minutes, but they managed to hang on. The ropes were covered with ice, jumars became useless, and they found it impossible to find the line of tiny steps in the ice. As their struggle upward became desperate, they left their loads tied to fixed rope anchors, and made progress hand over hand on the icy ropes, using crampons for help on the hard ice as best they could. Visibility was zero, and the wind became fierce.

Meanwhile, at Camp II, Faint and I were spending the day tucked in our sleeping bags, eating and reading. When Koch and Seidman finally reached camp after many hours of struggle, they grumped at me for not having hot tea ready, then collapsed exhausted into their bags. I had utter confidence in their ability to survive the conditions, and they had the grit to get up and say little more about it.

The next 15 pitches included the crux of the route: four pitches of steep granite requiring free and aid climbing with some awkward ice mixed in. It all had to be done in crampons, with wild exposure at the 4,000-foot level on the route. This was the most worrisome part of the climb. We could tell very little about what to expect from Washburn’s photos, but it was clearly the key to success as there was no alternative but to find a way or fail.

The day Seidman and I emerged from the problem of the crux onto the low- angle hanging glacier above was, I think, one of the high points of our partnership. Unfortunately, when we rappelled back into Camp II, we learned that Faint, who had not ventured above that camp, was determined to leave the climb. He decided to take a tent and descend alone to base camp on the Lowell, to wait, we assumed, for all of us to meet there on the agreed pick-up day.

Koch, Seidman, and I packed loads and jumared the fixed ropes to set up Camp III, which we placed four pitches up the hanging glacier at the base of a rotten diorite buttress. This was the end of the fixed ropes. Three of us crammed into a two-man tent. We weren’t very keen on the safety of Faint’s solo descent and glacier crossing, but since he seemed physically fit and was determined to go, it didn’t occur to us to abandon our effort to complete the route.

The morning of July 23 was sunny and beautiful. Of course, in the Arctic summer, you can’t think in terms of morning and evening because there are only a few hours of darkness. We had lazed in the tent late, rehydrating with hot drinks after the draining efforts of the preceding two days on the crux and the relief of passing it. About ten o’clock, Seidman and I thought we would reconnoiter the next few leads, which were unknown, out of sight, in preparation for a final summit try the next day. Koch, selfless and uncomplaining, said he didn’t mind waiting in camp, and to this day I regret that he was not with us on the rope that afternoon. We left most of the climbing hardware rack, extra clothes, and bivouac gear behind so we would be light. We carried sweaters, lunch food, water, and cameras.

The mixed climbing on rotten diorite and snow went more easily than anything previously on the climb. For four pitches we couldn’t see more than 50 feet or so at a time, but we were compelled forward by our urge to find a route, the pleasurable continuity of the climbing, and the rare beauty of the day. We had removed our balaclavas and sweaters and were climbing in wind shirts alone—a real treat. At the end of the fourth pitch, we emerged onto what we thought must be the summit snowfield. And we kept climbing. Koch had earned the right to go to the summit with us, but we didn’t know how far that was. We planned to push farther as long as we had time and weather with us, then descend to Camp III for the night, going for the summit with Koch the next day. We were pressed for time, as the plane was due to pick us up on the 25th.

I was leading the tenth pitch of the exposed but easy 55-degree snowfield when, abruptly, I was at the summit. I stopped a half dozen steps short, belayed David up, and we took the last steps together. The view was wonderful, and it was novel looking in all directions after so many weeks of craning our necks looking up and down. We had run out of color film, so we took a few black-and-white snapshots and hurried down the 14 pitches to the tent at Camp III.

We were outraged and shocked when we looked out the tent door the next morning to see “HELP” stamped in the snow at base camp 5,000 feet below in 50-foot letters clearly intended to initiate a rescue if a plane happened near enough to read them. We didn’t reflect on our role in driving a seasoned climber to this extreme of despair, but only thought of the embarrassment and disgrace that an unnecessary, full-scale rescue in that remote place would bring on the expedition. We could only think that the sign violated the code of self-reliance that we followed.

After seeing the sign, we felt compelled to get off the mountain as fast as possible to obliterate the sign before anyone saw it and started a rescue. We descended the ridge in a grueling 20 hours, and didn’t stop to set up the tent at base camp until the sign had been erased. Koch was denied his moment on the summit; a few black-and-white snaps would have to do for photography.

The Beaver ski plane didn’t show up on the 25th. It’s amazing how many planes you think you hear that aren’t there when you are waiting in a quiet place for one to show up. We had run out of food, going for five days on liquids alone, when a small Bell helicopter came up the Lowell on July 29. He flew over the hundred-yard-long airstrip that we had tramped into the snow, landed at camp, and asked us if we wanted to go out. In spite of his commitment to return, our pilot had decided that he didn’t think it was safe to land there again; he feared getting stuck in soft snow. His conscience must have bothered him because he finally did ask the helicopter pilot to check on us. We accepted his offer, with mixed feelings, packed the camp in a flash, and flew north out of the St. Elias mountains in two flights. We had lived on the ridge for 29 days eating grocery store-bought Lipton’s packaged dinners and oatmeal, packed in four-man day units, and planned according to Boyd Everett’s useful guidelines for expedition food consumption.

Faint left immediately after he and Seidman landed at the airport in Whitehorse. Koch and I were dropped at a truck stop landing spot on the Alaska highway to save flying time, and hitchhiked back to Whitehorse. Lengthy negotiations ensued about paying for the helicopter; they are more expensive than Beavers. Our agreement was for the Beaver, and they knew we could have walked out if necessary. The party that made the second ascent of the North Ridge—Boley, Lewis, Millar, Stevenson and Baker during May and June, 1977—walked both ways, seven days in and five days out.

I felt detached on reaching the truck stop. We had been days without food, yet the availability of hamburgers, pie, and sodas simply for the asking had no appeal. Though we were not capable of living in the mountains indefinitely, I felt empty without the intensity, the commitment, and the partnership on the ridge. I don’t remember speaking with Seidman about this on July 29—we were busy with the getting to Whitehorse, negotiating with the bush pilots, getting clean, notifying families and sponsors of our achievement, and planning a celebration. But I know we shared in this. When he wrote an article for Ascent about the 1967 first ascent of the south face of Mt. McKinley he said:

We were free to return to a rational existence off the mountain.… I think the joy in climbing is not so much the move(s)… but the crossing of those borders which allows you to live in complete involvement with the environment… For those long days we were within the scheme of things, that short time of movement among the rock and the ice which allows us to live through the rest of the year.

Seidman was courageous, but he had no death wish. Had he been able to step out of his death scene on the southeast glacier of Dhaulagiri in Nepal on April 28, 1969, for a few seconds to speak a dramatic aside to his friends, I can readily imagine him giving a hearty laugh that would echo across the Kali Gandaki Valley below, and saying with a playful tone he used, “My boy, it looks grim!” then stepping back into his scene and playing out his last seconds with dignity.

After we had checked into the modest Sourdough Hotel across the street from the Indian Bar and took turns using the shower, we went to Club 21, recommended as the best restaurant in Whitehorse by our helicopter pilot. Seidman, Koch, and I had a feast there that night. It was one of the best I ever had.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: St. Elias Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada

NEW ROUTE: The North Ridge (56 pitches, Alaskan Grade VI 5.8 A3) of Mt. Kennedy (13,905 feet), June 26 to July 29, 1968. Summit reached July 23 (Seidman, Thompson)

PERSONNEL: Joe Faint, Philip Koch, David Seidman, Todd Thompson