From the Archives: 1959 First Ascent of Mt. McKinley’s West Rib

“This method of approaching McKinley directly from the south is so continually steep and difficult, and so exposed to the full force of the southwesterly storms that none but the most uniformly experienced and powerful team of climbers should even think of attempting it. But I mention it here in conclusion because to omit it would be to sidestep the greatest remaining pioneer ascent in North America.” – Bradford Washburn from Mountain World, 1956/57, page 81.

With a ceremonious toast, and the words of Bradford Washburn resonating within, Barry Corbet, Pete Sinclair, Jake Breitenbach, and Bill Buckingham began planning an expedition to summit Mt. McKinley via its West Rib. Despite being one of the youngest expedition teams to attempt such a feat, the team left Seattle 10 months later, heading for Talkeetna, Alaska. To view the full photo library, click here.

In Seattle we had pressed our luck and shipped the food before we had found the money to ship ourselves to Alaska, but the prowess of Millicent, my 1940 Chevrolet, coupled with the climber’s innate penchant for deficit financing, turned the tide and justified our faith. -Barry Corbet

Base Camp at 10,000 feet. Mt. Hunter sits behind. Photo by Barry Corbet, © AAC.

Once in Talkeetna, the climbers were taxied to the Kahiltna Glacier by Sheldon and ski-equipped plane. After caching four days worth of food and fuel at “Landing Camp,” the team began relaying loads up the glacier, towards the foot of McKinley. At the base, the team planned to tackle a 1,000 foot Rock Ridge, then climb a snow ridge which rose more moderately for 3,000 feet. Above that was “the great unknown,” a 5,000 foot face of mixed ice and snow, capped with a cornice. This cornice marked the edge of the plateau, the last piece of climbing before the summit.

After threading their way through the icefall from Base Camp, and successfully completing the first major portion of the trip, the team set their sights on the steep granite Rock Ridge. While climbing was their specialty, Bill and Barry felt the need for a rope most of the 1,000 feet, and knew with a pack it would be too strenuous. One alternative presented itself; a steep 1,600 foot couloir protected by a large bergschrund which “seemed to have teeth.”

Balcony Camp high above the clouds. Photo by Barry Corbet, © AAC

Above the couloir, the team excavated a small tent platform from the 45º ice, calling it “Concentration Camp,” both for the work required in building it and the concentration required to not fall out of the tent. Above Concentration Camp was the snow ridge, which climbed over two large bumps and eventually lead to Camp Fatigue. There, the climbers cached everything but the bare necessities for a summit attempt, planning to descend via the West Buttress route by traversing on the descent. Marking the spot with a spare ice axe, the final portion of the climb began, ascending the steep face towards the summit plateau.

My goggles filled to the halfway point with a fountain of tears. Tears of relief, of gratitude, of fulfillment... I learned later I was not alone in my weakness. -Barry Corbet, © AAC

Balcony Camp offered a final spot to rest and was perched at around 16,800 feet – 3,500 feet below the summit. Nine hours after departing camp on the 19th, Barry, Jake, Pete and Buck were sitting atop Mt. McKinley.

On the descent, the storm they had feared finally arrived. Below balcony camp, visibility was under 100 feet, making location of the cache nearly impossible. Barry Corbet wrote “of all our cache, the only part visible was four inches of ice axe.” Following Jake down the West Buttress route, the route he had climbed the year before, the team slowly made there way back to the glacier and landing camp, playing cards until Sheldon transported them back to Talkeetna the 28th.

To write this post, Library clerk Brendan McDonald used images and text from the AAC archives of Barry Corbet. The AAC gratefully acknowledges the donations courtesy of Jennifer Corbet and Muffy Moore.  For more information about donating your personal archives, read this.  The archives have always been built by AAC members for the members.  Be a part of it!

The complete route, as depicted by Bradford Washburn in the 1960 AAJ, © AAC

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From The Archives: 1958 Bugaboos to Rogers Pass Traverse

L to R: Briggs, Corbet, Neale, French.

One of the many things that makes the AAC Library special are the unique archives and personal papers donated by our members.   The library is much obliged to Bob and Jenny French for the donation of slides and supporting documents about his pioneering trip and for their hard work in captioning and description.

AAC library clerk Brendan McDonald provides the following summary.  All of the slides are available for viewing on the AAC’s Flickr page.

In June of 1958, four members of the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club set out to complete the first Bugaboos to Rogers Pass Traverse. Proposed by Bill “Brigger” Briggs, the traverse started at the Bugaboos Camp near Spillamacheen, B.C. and ended at Rogers Pass, the heart of Glacier National Park. The route travelled through 100 miles of wilderness, 80 of which were unmapped. Accompanying Briggs were Barry Corbet, Sterling Neale, and Roberts French, who all also taught at the Bill Briggs Ski School. “After a challenging drive (some road-building required) from Spillamacheen, B.C., to Bugaboo Camp, we began our trip on June 2.”

Road building at Bugaboo Camp

According to Bob French, 3 recent innovations made the trip a possibility:
“(1) Head metal skis, a recent innovation. A broken ski would have caused major problems, since we were in such remote territory. We drilled the tops so that they could be used as tent poles and, if needed, as an emergency litter. (2) Kelty packs, again a recent innovation. By concentrating the weight upon the hips they made extreme skiing possible. (3) Trima climbing skins. We had the attachments drilled into our skis. It was easy on, easy off.” Carrying food for 12 days, the team departed for Rogers Pass.

Ski tent poles

Beginning the traverse

With 43 pounds of weight each (plus the weight of worn items such as skis and poles), Brigger, Corbet, Neale, and French completed the “Bugs to Rogers” traverse in only 10 days. Arriving in a total whiteout, the team was “able to navigate by compass on our way to the trail leading to Rogers Pass. We arrived within 100 yards of our destination. Close enough.”

"Brigger" under blue skies

Repeated by a party that included Chic Scot (author of Summits and Icefields, Columbia Mountains which details the traverse) in 1973, the traverse has gone on to become a classic. Roberts French comments “His [Scott’s] book mentions five huts along the way. We found one, at the end. Chic also mentions that food drops can be arranged about midway, at McMurdo Hut, and that arrangements for flying in must be scheduled in advance. Food drops? Flying in? Our trip was definitely low tech.” Chic’s book details the Bugs to Rogers, as well as the other Canadian Grand Traverses, and is available in the AAC library!

Riding out of Rogers Pass in an open boxcar while enjoying the extra 2 days of rations, you have to wonder if the Corbet, French, Neale, and Briggs realized they had pioneered a traverse that would test countless skiers for years to come.

Brigger, Neale, and Corbet descending to East Creek Cirque

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Map Exhibit Opening Reception

The Opening Reception for Cartography of Topography is Thursday, January 29th, from 7-9pm. RSVP at http://www.cmc.org/events/eventdetails.aspx?EventID=1653

Learn more about the exhibit by looking at our Flickr Pages. Just click the image!

More Slides from the Kapada Collection

Thanks to volunteer Pat Wallace, nearly 200 more slides have been added to the Lt. Nawang Kapadia Himalayan Slide Collection. This group includes images from the 1974 1st ascent of Devtoli, reached by a route through the inner Nanda Devi Sanctuary, as well as expeditions through the Panch Chuli range.

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