SI Vault
Dolly Connelly
April 05, 1965
Bobby Kennedy climbs to the top of a 14,000-foot Yukon mountain, and then he comes down—to stay
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 05, 1965

How Did I Get Myself Into This?

Bobby Kennedy climbs to the top of a 14,000-foot Yukon mountain, and then he comes down—to stay

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Two hundred feet below the summit the three men on the first rope—Big Jim, Bob and The Bear—stopped on the final steep snow ridge and changed positions. The smallest bundle of the three, muffled to plump anonymity in a quilted goose-down jacket, his size 9� feet enormous in black Korean boots spiked with 10-point crampons, his face hidden behind snow goggles, took the lead position on the 120-foot nylon rope.

He synchronized his breathing as he had been instructed, with a slow, steady "rest" step, in which the knee of the trailing leg is locked to take the weight off tired muscles, and moved up alone to a summit believed to be more than 14,000 feet high. He was the first man ever to stand atop the superb peak that Canada had named for his dead brother. He took off his goggles to look out upon a vast panorama of granite tyrannosaur teeth extending in all directions across the roof of the Yukon as far as the eye could see, and he stood very still for one private moment. Then, as James (Big Jim) Whittaker and Barry (The Bear) Prather, both veterans of the U.S. Everest expedition, watched and an aerial armada of photographers' planes circled overhead, Senator Robert F. Kennedy planted a family memorial flag. He also placed in a cache in the snow a copy of President Kennedy's inauguration speech, which was tightly wound in a metal cylinder of the type used for mountaintop registers, and three PT-boat tie clasps. Thus ended the climb of an obscure peak which had started in secrecy in Washington and evolved into the biggest story in Yukon Territory since the cremation of Sam McGee.

The climb had its beginnings on the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, when the Canadian House of Commons named for Kennedy a ledge on the shoulder of Mount Logan under the impression that it was a true peak. Old Mapmaker Bradford Washburn, who first charted the little-known St. Elias Range in 1935, pointed out that there was no such unnamed peak in the vicinity, but to the south, near the junction of the borders of Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory, there loomed a 14,000-footer that was all a mountain should be, a spectacular ice-hung granite slab rising upward from a 5,000-foot plateau.

Under the sponsorship of the Boston Museum of Science and the National Geographic Society, Dr. Washburn set out to get an accurate survey of the entire region. From the scientific viewpoint, the first ascent of Mount Kennedy, until then the highest unclimbed peak on the North American continent, was only one chore in the two-month production of the first definitive map of the area. Late March was chosen as the best climbing time because powder snow is deep and stable for the landing of aircraft, small crevasses are filled in with drift, and avalanches are infrequent.

Then a Mr. J. R. Williams signified his intention to join the finest climbers of the Pacific Northwest in this job. At Seattle's Recreation Equipment, Inc. high-altitude gear made to Williams' measurements (five feet 10 inches, weight 160, "wiry as hell") piled up in a corner. There were an electric-blue quilted down jacket and trousers, Cruiser pack, ice ax, crampons, interlined snow boots and a suspiciously luxurious selection of freeze-dried delicacies—crab legs, chicken stew, strawberries. By the time J. R. Williams reached Seattle-Tacoma Airport last week to pick up his gear and head north, hundreds of people were milling through the terminal. The secret that Bobby Kennedy was about to climb a mountain was as well kept as news of a Beatle concert.

On the Monday morning at Whitehorse, 143 miles from Mount Kennedy, Yukoners came out to greet Kennedy with an enthusiasm unseen since Queen Elizabeth popped through in 1959. While taxi drivers, hotelmen and bush pilots fattened on swarms of newsmen, the climbers and their gear were whisked up to a base camp at 9,000 feet on Cathedral Glacier by a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter that "just happened" to be in the area.

The route to the summit, plotted but not climbed by Dr. Washburn 30 years before, was 10 miles long, with a vertical rise of about 5,000 feet. A high camp was established at about 11,500 feet where the climbers would exchange trail snowshoes for crampons to be used on the dangerous ridge above, some of it pitched as much as 40�. Whittaker, the leader of the climb, graded the route as "moderately difficult and heavily crevassed." It wasn't Everest, but it was all the mountain that a 39-year-old neophyte with a psychological distaste for heights ought to be found on, no matter how "wiry" he is.

The Senator was irrepressible. The climbers spent Monday night at base camp, and the next morning Kennedy was chafing to get going. "The hardest part of mountain climbing is getting out of camp," he grumbled through the irritating ritual of making up packs and checking supplies. Inexperienced climbers rarely are given tasks in camp, on the assumption that they need the time to acclimate themselves. Not Kennedy.

When the Senator discovered that he had been cut out of chores he trotted around asking, "Can I lend a hand?" and finally assumed the job of lugging pails of clean snow to melt for cooking and drinking. Kennedy used water to wash his face and brush his teeth; nobody told him that these niceties usually are dispensed with on a major climb. The Senator carried his own gear, taking 35 pounds to the high camp, where the climbers spent Tuesday night. Topping his Cruiser pack was a three-foot pole and furled black pennant that had been made for him especially to place on Mount Kennedy. It displayed the family coat of arms—three gold helmets against a black background with a border of maroon and silver. (The climbers eventually persuaded Bob to bring the flag back down with him. Violent winds at the summit would have shredded it within 48 hours.)

A full day was cut from the estimated climbing time when it became quickly apparent to Whittaker, who was leading, and Prather, who was last on the three-man rope, that Kennedy could pick up mountaineering techniques en route. He was shown how to self-arrest with an ice ax, to force himself to breathe to the bottom of his lungs to get the maximum amount of oxygen, to toe into steep snow when going up and to move flat-footed on steep ice, driving in all points of his crampons.

Continue Story
1 2 3