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

Posted on: June 4th, 2010 by AAC Library

“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