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Stuart were excellent climbers; Schmidt had had moderate climbing experience; and Johnson and I, although basically neophytes at climbing, had ...

1 Nov


...Stuart were excellent climbers; Schmidt had had moderate climbing experience; and Johnson and I, although basically neophytes at climbing, had had extensive experience in the outdoors and in wilder- ness travel.

It's hard to visualize the preclimb organization of food and equipment and the intergroup correspondence that it necessary for a major expedition. Reams of paper went out as letters to possible food sponsors and equipment manufacturers and in ordering gear and supplies. Hours were spent working up menus for six somewhat varied tastes. Food for 45 days was planned to the nearest ounce. Since most people find it difficult for their systems to digest fat above 15,000 feet, high- and low-altitude diets were worked up. The high-altitude diets were higher in carbohydrates to help combat the possibility of altitude sickness. Quantities of dehydrated and freeze-dried foods were ordered, along with specialized climbing hardware and cold- weather gear.

After nearly cleaning out an Anchorage supermarket of cheese, sausage, sugar, oatmeal, powdered milk, candies and other foods, it took us nearly three days to package the food into man-day units. Bulk oatmeal was measured for three-man meals, and raisins, sugar and powdered milk were added in proper proportions. Lunches of cheese, salami, fruit bars, hard chocolate, prunes, gorp, rye crisp and hard candies were packaged in individual units. Dinner menus were assembled. The 300 bags were divided into three man-day packages for ease of handling on the mountain.

The piles of gear filled an entire room. They included two tents, a thousand feet of 3/8-inch manila rope for fixed line, converted aluminum grain shovels for snow, climbing ropes, slings, webbing, extra crampons, ice axes, snowshoes and racks of carabineers, ice screws, pickets, flukes and other hardware. We had three stoves; two Swedish-made Optimus IIIB's that were veritable blowtorches and one Army surplus stove for an emergency spare. The stoves were operated with pressure pumps, and for fuel, we filled 33 one-gallon containers with gasoline. An extensive expedition medical kit was an important part of our equipment.

Airdrops are now prohibited in Mount McKinley National Park, but because of the length and early season of our climb, we received special permission for one air drop at base camp. (Most Mount McKinley climbs are made in June and July. We had decided on an early spring climb for several reasons, not the least of which was the hope for clear weather which is often present in April and May. While temperatures are colder then than later, we felt we were prepared.) Our 1,000 pounds of equipment were taken to Talkeetna, where arrangements were made with pilot Don Sheldon to make the air drop.

We had originally all planned to make the 95-mile over- land approach to base camp on foot, duplicating the expeditions of sourdoughs and early climbers who had to approach McKinley on foot or by dog team. Last- minute complications made it necessary to divide the group. Jacober, Johnson and Schmidt flew to Kantishna and snowshoed in 35 miles to expedite setting up base camp, receive the airdrop and start leading the route.

Pettigrew, Stuart and I took the longer route to stay with the original plan. On April 12, 1972, at Mile 12 of McKinley Park road, we loaded an eight-foot toboggan with supplies and strapped on our webs and stepped into our pulling harnesses to start our approach. Twelve days later, we were once again a team at base camp at 7,000 feet on the Traleika Glacier.

A 40-foot plunge into a crevasse by Jacober and a close call with an avalanche had failed to dampen the early party's enthusiasm. They had established our first high camp at 8,500 feet on the magnificent, four-mile, 12,000- foot Traleika Spur Ridge.

Our hope for good weather was realized until, at our 10,400-foot Camp II on the ridge, we were hit by a raging storm of 60- to 80-mph winds, driving sand-like snow, and zero temperatures. We built a wall of snow blocks behind the tents to help break the winds, but throughout the storm, we had to shovel the tents clear of drifting and piling snow every four to six hours. The high winds caused extreme tent flapping; the fabric often cracked like a shot. Some of our party found it necessary to take sleeping pills to get through the night. Snow driven through unsealed holes accumulated inside the tents, and steam from cooking formed heavy frost which rained down constantly. By the third day, all sleeping bags were soaked, and it was difficult to keep our clothing dry even in the cold temperature. For the third and fourth days, we put ourselves on half rations.

Once the storm ended, five days later, we crawled stiffly out from our wet, matted down bags. The tremendous radiant energy at the high altitude dried even the wettest equipment in a couple of hours. In once-again beautiful weather, we pushed on up the ridge.

The ridge was even more spectacular that we had anticipated. The unblemished grandeur of the McKinley massif was everywhere around us, the great East Buttress to the south, twisting glaciers, giant icefalls and blue hanging glaciers -- a wild and unhuman setting. Yet, on this serene day, in an atmosphere of silence and incomparable beauty, came a feeling of deep, intimate association -- an uplifting of the soul.

Our route followed the knife-edge ridge down to a col at 11,500 feet where we set up Camp IV. From there, we moved over and under enormous snow cornices to a camp at the base of the upper Traleika icefall. This is a 2,000-foot high maze of twisted ice, giant seracs and crevasses which heave and undulate up to the 14,000-foot Thayer Basin. After much effort and luck, we moved the supplies and ourselves safely through it.

Now more than a month into the climb, we were able to move supplies from one camp to another in two days after a route had been established. Earlier, it had taken five full days of hauling in the thin air to move gear and food to a higher camp. Fixed lines were put in the near- vertical ice pitches and Jumars (mechanical hand ascending devices) were used to overcome these areas. We began to feel like pack animals, and often the morning silence was broken by our braying like donkeys as we started up with our loads of "fodder."

Another three-day storm at 14,500 feet was harder for some of us to weather psychologically than physically, as we were concerned about our food supply. The storm ended, and the climb nearly did also when Schmidt and Jacober peeled off the ice face above camp. (See box, page 7.)

Our ninth and last high camp was situated at 18,400 feet. Sudden deteriorating weather forced us to abort our first summit attempt. We struggled down to camp on rubber legs to collapse, packed like sardines in a four-man tent. Every effort must be reckoned with when trying to work about 18,000 feet. Appetites were practically nonexistent. Blank stares and drawn faces lent a pall over an atmosphere usually marked by spontaneous good humor. Spilled food and litter filled the tent.

Finally, we decided to make a night-time attempt for the summit. Weather conditions on McKinley often stabilize at night, with winds reduced and skies clear and storm- free. And at this time of the year, there is no darkness at night. Leaving at midnight, we labored slowly up in -20 degree temperatures and a chill 20-mph wind. Six or eight gasping breaths between each footstep magnified the distance, but six hours later, we laughed, cried and embraced in the golden glow of the summit at sunrise.

We had reached our goal, but during our descent, a storming whiteout caused a desperate struggle down the icefall and we weathered a 24-hour storm at 11,000 feet without food. Back at base, we ravenously ate half our cached four-day food supply. This was a mistake, since it took us twice as long as we anticipated to walk out through extremely bad spring breakup conditions. Our 45-day food supply could not be stretched to 52 days. Fortunately, mutual friends, pilot Chalon Harris and biologist Gordon Haber, found us on our outward trek and airdropped CARE packages of fine-tasting goodies.

The story of an expedition like ours always brings up the question, "Why?" I will leave the answers to those who enjoy philosophizing -- I'm not sure I know all the "why" myself. Suffice to say that as long as there are mountains and a Mount McKinley, they will be climbed.