1977 Denali East Buttress Expedition

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Trip Report
Alaska, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jul 17, 1977
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1977 Denali East Buttress Expedition
Created On: Mar 17, 2017
Last Edited On: Dec 28, 2017

1977 Denali East Buttress Expedition

  • IntroductionIn the Spring of 1976, when I was post docking at MIT, I mentioned my interest in climbing Denali to my recent climbing acquaintance, Mike Syvanen. We had met at a climbing slide show given by a mutual climbing friend, Arlene Blum. The next time I saw Mike he said he was interested, which started my effort in putting together an expedition to climb Denali. By 1976 my experience included a few big wall climbs in Yosemite, some technical ascents in the Sierras, Several rock and ice ascents in the French Alps, and altitude exposure on the Mexican volcanos.  I had never been on an expedition, but had been inspired by friend Paul Gehrhard, who had died with Boyd Everett and others on Dhaulagiri in 1968. Since then I had become friends and climbing partner with Louis Reichardt, who was with Paul when he was killed. Lou had since successfully summited on the second ascent of Dhauligiri and spent three weeks with me in France climbing several peaks in the Alps around Chamonix in the summer of 1974 while I was post docking at a Max Planck Institute in Goettingen, Germany. Lou, who was in preparation to participate in what would be the first successful American ascent of K2, urged me to consider a route on Denali that was less frequently climbed than the West Buttress or Muldrow Glacier routes. He was familiar with the East Buttress route, which originally had been suggested by Bradford Washburn, the director of the Museum of Science and expert on Mt. McKinley, and which had been climbed once by a group of Teton climbing guides in 1963. That route then became the focus of my preparation.
  • The Team: In December of 1971, when I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I had gone to Mexico with climbing friends Urs Kuhnlein and Will Spiegelman to climb volcanos (Popocatapetyl 17,802 ft and Pico de Orizaba 18,941 ft) that were near Mexico City. My friend Arlene Blum, who had climbed them earlier, indicated that they were excellent mountains to test ones ability to withstand high altitude before attempting to climb Denali. Both Urs and Will were interested in joining Mike and me to do the climb. Will was an anesthesiologist giving our expedition a trained medical doctor. Peter McGann, who was living in Boston at the time and had been on a Denali West Buttress expedition with Lou Reichardt in 1967 also joined our team and was an orthopedic surgeon, giving our team two medical professionals. Finally, Rick Meinig, an MIT undergraduate student, joined, making our team six climbers.
  • Preparation: Not having organized an expedition before, I took care over the course of a year to help guarantee success. I decided that we would use fixed lines between the camps on the buttress. I intended to use the sites proposed by Bradford Washburn that the first ascent had used: Base camp at 9100 ft on the shoulder of a tongue extending from the base of the buttress, Camp I at 11,000 ft on a shoulder on the right edge of the buttress, Camp II at 13,000 ft on a shoulder protruding from the middle of the buttress, and Camp III at 14,500 ft at the crest of the buttress. That was approximately 2000 ft between camps. I purchased five 600 ft spools of yellow 3/8" polypropylene water ski tow rope, giving us 3000 ft of fixed line. Except for being slightly unwieldy to manage, this non-stretchy, light weight, water repellant rope worked perfectly.
  • Equipment: I made measured foot slings for all the climbers, which were connected to Jumar ascenders that were always clipped to the climbing harness and rope. This allowed the team members to extract themselves if they fell into a crevasse and ascend steep sections with heavy loads once the fixed lines were in. For snow pickets I purchased lengths of 1/8" x 1.5" "L" stock aluminum which we cut into 2', 3', and 4' lengths. Rick and I spent hours in the machine shop drilling a pattern of lightening holes in the pickets. The frustration in sensing that all the drilling didn't make much difference in the weight was compensated for by the pleasing aesthetic appearance of the "holy" pickets. I made up meals for 30 days and sewed nylon bags to hold three days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. I used principally dehydrated food from the grocery store (macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, instant rice, tang, lemonade, etc.) and made six separate daily menus. I color coded bags: red to hold three menus and blue to hold the other three menus. The red bags held the meals with less fat, intended for use at the highest altitudes as fat is harder to digest at high altitude. After making up the food bags, Lou and Kathy Reichardt determined that they were low on Calories, which led to making a huge batch of logan bread (like nut and cereal energy bars) to supplement the meals. Everyone carried personal ice axes, ice hammers, and crampons with front points suitable for steep ice climbing. The remaining hardware included several tubular ice screws and numerous carabiners. We all wore stiff soled double boots and used the recently developed "Supergaiters" which completely covered the boot tops and cinched on the calf, protecting the boots from snow moisture. For tents we used the 4-man REI McKinley tent and a Sierra Designs 2-man tent. We also carried a large sheet of 38" Ensolite, large enough to cover the entire floor of the 4-man tent.
  • East Buttress History
1906-1956 It is interesting to note that The East Buttress is considered to be part of the route of the first ascent of Denali fraudulently claimed by the infamous Dr. Frederic Cook in 1906. However his postulated route approaches the buttress from the ridge extending east from it. There were subsequent failed expeditions in 1952, 1954 and 1956, attempting to vindicate Dr. Cooks claims by climbing the postulated route.

1963- The first ascent by W. Blesser et al. of a route proposed by Bradford Washburn by the Teton guides.

1969- An expedition ascended the buttress via "Catacomb Ridge" (a spur leading to the east ridge).

1977- Our ascent followed the Bradford Washburn route used by the first ascent.

1978-1980 There were two unsuccessful attempts (1978 & 1980).

1981- Third successful ascent and two unsuccessful attempts

1982- Fourth successful ascent by Bill Krause et al. and one unsuccessful attempt.

1986- Fifth successful ascent by George Bell Jr. et al.

1987-2017 Seven unsuccessful attempts: 1987, 1992 (2 attempts, including helicopter rescue from buttress), 1993, 1994, 1996, and 2005.

This list may not be complete, especially since I have not researched approaches to the buttress from the north. If you are aware of other ascents of the buttress please contact me so I can include them in this list. I am also not aware that any party has bothered to walk up the mound to the actual summit of the buttress, so technically the actual East Buttress, which is listed as a separate peak, is still unclimbed.

  • Comments About the Climb

This route offers significant climbing challenges, including segments of steep ice and negotiating a safe route past crevasses and seracs. My impression is that the hazards and difficulty of this route are extremely changeable. During our ascent there were two major crevasses between Camp I and Camp II, but both had thin bridges that were negotiable. The seracs over the route appeared relatively stable and unlikely to fall, however between the time that we summited the buttress on July 11th and when we returned to descend it on July 19th, there had been major avalanches down the chute in the middle of the buttress' south face to the left of our ascent route. We actually chose to spend about a half hour in that chute in descent to avoid down-climbing the icefall that we had ascended above Base Camp. Climbing the ice fall above Base Camp avoids the chute to the left that drains probably the most active avalanching from the buttress south face, but it involved at least one pitch of very steep (70 degree) ice. The buttress between Camp I and Camp II was broken by two large crevasses that extended across the entire ramp up the buttress, except for thin bridges. If those had not been there the alternatives included much climbing and traversing on steep ice. I question whether our expedition would have been successful if the crevasses were not bridged. Above Camp II there was a large overhanging serac which was worrisome. Digging in Camp II revealed chunks of ice, indicating that when there is a fall from that band the debris carries on to the shoulder where the Camp was placed. That band of seracs was passes on the right on steep (60 deg) solid ice. Above that the angle drops off and then steepens as it passes the rocks near the crest to the left on a extended smooth 45 degree slope to the crest. The composition was a couple of inches of aged snow over ice, which was easy to kick step in, but hard to drive snow picket into. I stayed well away from the edge on the right after passing the rocks to avoid suspected cornicing, which was revealed after summiting the buttress.

The route to the summit, following the ridge surrounding Thayer Basin was relatively straight forward, except for passing rocks on the ridge to the right, which put us on very steep snow, possibly prone to avalanching.

Descending the buttress was relatively easy, using the fixed 3/8" polypropylene lines, leaving snow pickets behind as rappel anchors. The lines from the crest had been buried slightly in snow, but were easily pulled out for rappelling. We recovered the lines from the lower angle sections, but left the lines over the steepest long sections. I had some trouble with the lower crevasse, as I didn't place the anchor in line with the bridge, which couldn't be seen from above, and had to rappel into the inside lip of the crevasse and climb back out. Descending during the day there was some trouble with our crampons balling up with snow, leading to uncontrolled sliding.

It is interesting to note that this route is not being attempted anymore (since 2005). My impression is that the long list of unsuccessful attempts since 1986 (30 years!) have discouraged further attempts. I would recommend a reconnaissance of ice and crevasse conditions on the buttress before seriously considering an attempt.

  • Denali East Buttress Expedition Daily Progress 

June 27: Bill, Urs, & Mike Arrive in Anchorage, rendezvous at Steve Morrissett’s house]

June 28: Train to Talkeetna, Join Rick, fly to Ruth Amphitheater (now Sheldon Amphitheater), move supplies ~3 mi west through Amphitheater

June 29: Move all supplies through crevasses ~1 mi. up NW fork of Ruth Glacier to “Crevasse Camp.”

June 30: Move supplies ~ 4 mi. up glacier to cache at base of buttress, return to glacier camp

July 1: Rick & Urs return to airstrip by Sheldon Mt. House, Bill & Mike establish base camp on buttress

July 2: Rick & Urs at glacier landing strip. Bill & Mike ferry supplies up to Base Camp and start fixing route to Camp 1

July 3: Bill & Mike fix ropes to 10,500’. Peter flown in. Rick, Urs, and Peter to Crevasse Camp.

July 4: Everybody and equipment to Base Camp on Buttress.

July 5: Fix ropes to “Igloo Cache” at 11,000’

July 6: Establish Camp 1 at 11,000’ on edge of buttress.

July 7: Fix ropes to “Raven Cache” at 12,100’

July 8: Establish Camp 2 at 12,500’ on shoulder below seracs.

July 9: Bill & Mike fix ropes to 13,200’ above seracs, below rock band

July 10: Rick & Peter fix ropes to 13,800, high on buttress by rock band

July 11: Bill & Mike fix ropes to 14,300 at crest of buttress

July 12: All equipment brought to crest of buttress

July 13: Moved to Thayer Basin (Camp 4)

July 14: Slept and read during whiteout

July 15: Climbed to “Boulder Camp” on ridge at 15,900’ above Thayer Basin (Camp 5)

July 16: Climbed to Karsten’s Ridge “Col Camp” at 17,200’ (Camp 6)

July 17: Climbed to summit and returned to Col Camp

July 18: Descended to Thayer Basin Camp 4

July 19: Descended to Camp 2 on buttress

July 20: Descended to glacier and hiked through night to glacier landing strip

July 21: Arrived at glacier landing strip above Sheldon Amphitheater

July 22: Waited through bad weather

July 23: Flown back to Talkeetna. Took train to Anchorage

July 24: Flew home


  • W. Dimpfl Diary [Annotation in brackets]

June 29

Yesterday was a mixed experience. The train to Talkeetna seemed to crawl but we got there about 1 PM, only about 1/2 hour late. Mrs. Hudson [she appeared to come from native eskimo heritage] met us and helped move our supplies to the airstrip across the road. [Cliff] Hudson was not there but he had a young fellow flying for him (Doug). We started unpacking and sorting supplies for being flown in. After ~1/2 hr the plane came in. [I had hoped that the pilot could fly us to a landing strip, suggested by Bradford Washburn, at the bottom of the West fork of the Ruth Glacier, but Doug was only familiar with landing by the Sheldon mountain house on that side of the mountain, several miles further across the Ruth (now renamed Sheldon) Amphitheater, meaning we would have several more miles for our approach.] Rick and I were flown in first, then Urs & Mike. We arrived about 2:30 PM and U. & M. came about 1 1/2 hr. later. Started with all equipment in packs and sleds about 7:00 PM. [We carried about 50 lbs in our packs and pulled about 200 lbs on each sled. The supplies included 10 food bags, 5 red and 5 blue. Each food bag included different breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for 3 days. Since I made them up I had the advantage of selecting food that I liked, although I made an effort to select food that was generally acceptable. The red and blue bags had different menus, one color being better suited for higher altitude, which included less butter, as fat is more difficult to digest at high altitude. I had designed the and sewn the food bags from heavy Nylon Taffeta with a drawstring. My memory is that they weighed 30 lbs each. I had requested that everyone pack have a bag large enough to accommodate two food bags.] We were always tied into a rope whenever we were any distance from a camp to avoid being lost in a crevasse or falling any distance when we were on steep slopes. A technique I had learned from a slide show in 1967 by Paul Gerhard of his ascent of the West Buttress route with Louis Reichardt, Peter McGann and team, was to always have Jumar ascenders clipped to the rope that you are tied into and their climbing harness. I had made foot slings for all the team members, which were attached to the Jumars that they wore under their wind pants and gators, so they were always prepared extract themselves from a crevasse or ascend a fixed line over steep ice.] By 11:00 PM we had moved from Sheldon’s landing strip to about 5700 ft at the west end of the Ruth Amphitheater. [This was about as close to the buttress as the point I had hoped the pilot could bring us to.] The temperature has been warm. A little rain last night but clearing this morning.

June 30

Pancake breakfast slow yesterday so didn’t get started until 11:00 AM. Then Mike and I headed up the jumble [lots of crevasses] of the confluence of the W. Ruth & NW Ruth [Glaciers] towards route before the closing fog obscured the route. We moved all the equipment ~1 mile through the jumble and then continued with packs into the NW fork. After ~1 hr we were into level, smooth glacier and we returned for the sleds. Glacier camp was made ~2 mi. down glacier from the intended location. [Later, in my July 21st entry I refer to this as “Crevasse Camp,” named for a long thin, perhaps 4” wide, crevasse nearby.] Avalanches seem to cease about midnight and start up about 6:00 AM. Today we decided to push the sleds up as far as we can in 8 hrs, leaving camp unbroken. Everybody a little sunburned from yesterday. Some boots are wet. Mine about the worst.

July 1

Moved supplies on sleds up to ~8300 ft. just about below the Buttress. The climb looks hairy above [the proposed site for] Camp 2 and there is a large crevasse below Camp 2. The wind picked up for the first time on the mountain and some high clouds are appearing (high cirrus - mares tails?). We started at 10:30 [AM] and moved up until 6:30 [PM]. We were back at camp at 9:00 PM. Everyone tired. Dry socks helped my boots a lot. Wind died down at ~10:00 PM. Today Urs & Rick will go down to wait for Peter to come in. [Peter’s arrival was delayed a few days due to work commitments.] Mike and I will move camp up to the base of the Buttress. Everyone is badly sunburned and all of our lips are swollen. Mine the worse, Mike the least.

PM: Leaving glacier camp site [Crevasse Camp] we arrived at the cache below [the proposed site for] Base camp at about 4:30 PM. There, we sorted out additional equipment for the base camp and enough climbing supplies to start climbing toward [the proposed site for] Camp 1 in the morning. We managed to cut the large crevasses on the N.W. Ruth short and get onto the knoll [at the base of the buttress] at about 7:00 PM (time uncertain since my watch stopped sometime around 4:30 [PM]). It has been snowing lightly since we left the cache but there is no wind. No sign of the others yet, though we don’t expect to see them till late tomorrow. Temp. 34 deg F in tent at 8:00 PM.

Reflecting back on our meeting in Anchorage reminds me how incredibly rushed everything was. I arrived ~8:45 PM and called Steve Morrisset. [Steve was a friend of Will Spiegelman living in Anchorage who had agreed to put us up in Anchorage] Rick answered and asked if Mike was with me as he hadn’t arrived yet. He also said Will wasn’t coming for personal reasons. I called [Mike’s wife,] Sue and got her up (2:00 AM for her in Boston) to find if Mike had left. She said he had but took a later flight which had a connection in Chicago, which he must have missed. I felt confident that he would arrive on a later flight. Rick and Steve came with a VW which just barely held us and my gear (pack & large suitcase). At Steve’s place Urs was waiting and we had a warm reunion. My immediate interest was to find why Will wasn’t coming and how we were going to get the equipment he was bringing. Will said his marriage was failing and didn’t feel he would be a good member if he were to leave the relationship in its present state. It was really disturbing to me that Will and Pat might be separating, considering that Pat is expecting a child. My understanding was that it was Will’s intense work as an intern which caused him to neglect Pat. This, with the pregnancy, was understandable cause for the development. With Will’s internship over now I only hope that Will will push his marriage back together. Will said he would send the equipment to Anchorage air freight for Peter to pick up and relay the change in plans to Peter. Next I called the airport (N.W. Orient Airline) and found that the last flight from Chicago was just coming in, so I expected that we should be getting a call from Mike soon. As hoped and expected Mike called in about 15 min. and we (Steve and I) went off to pick him up and pick up a pizza. After returning Steve said he wanted his upstairs neighbor to meet us. Her name was Flow and she was a 60+ yr. old vista worker. We ate our pizza with her and went back downstairs for some much needed sleep. At 11:00 PM it was 4:00 AM Boston time for Mike. The next morning we rose at 7:00AM and put things together to put in Flow’s car. She had offered to drive our stuff to the train station along with Steve. Will called with some worries about the equipment he was sending, saying that his stove didn’t work but he would send someone else’s. Finally, before we left we borrowed 7 cups of butter from Steve which Rick had forgotten to pick up in Anchorage (He had found the shovel, radio, and fire ribbon). At the train station we had some trouble with the baggage check in clerk. He told us that the cardboard box was too heavy and we had to break it down into two. This was absurd since we had already shipped 10 identical boxes ahead on the same train. With some difficulty we managed to get all the equipment on the train and settled back to catch up on sleep.

July 3

Rose late yesterday, July 2, since it had been snowing lightly all night. About 6” of light snow on ground. We decided to bring up all the climbing supplies from cache at 8300 ft. The old tracks are barely visible but help for resetting the trail for the return. Cache appears in good shape. We sort out the ropes and pickets and one set of wands (50). After straightening the remaining food sacks and misc. supplies we return to Base Camp, adding wands to the route. We get back at ~4:00 PM (left around 12:30 [PM]). It had been snowing lightly and generally overcast. If Peter wasn’t flown in yesterday he couldn’t come in today. Still no sign of the others. We decide to start to fix the route to Camp 1 and get started about 9:00 PM. [On the buttress the strategy is to climb at night, as it is clear that there is much more risk of avalanche from steep snow and seracs. We hear avalanches constantly and they are clearly more common during the day. For fixed line we have five yellow 600 ft 3/8” polypropylene water ski tow ropes, making 3000 ft of rope intended to be fixed repeatedly between camps to facilitate ferrying equipment to the next camp] The first pitch is most difficult with about 20 ft of 70 degree ice. The fourth & last pitch end without absolute proof the routs will go. [This first segment of technical climbing was a learning experience in using the unwieldily 600 foot fixed ropes. I was protected by a standard climbing rope but pulled the doubled fixed line through a carabiner clipped to my waist. The polypropylene worked well as fixed line as it didn’t stretch, but it was prone to kinking as it had a three strand twisted lay.] We rappel off and return to the tent about 3:00 AM this morning. We turn in at 5:00 AM with the mountain beautifully clear for the first time, having dinner first and setting equipment & boots out to dry.

PM: 3 o’clock and no sign of the others. Glacier was foggy earlier but is clear now. If Peter is coming he has to be flown in today. In any event we should see the others tomorrow. If we don’t we will go down to look for them. All equipment dry including boots. Tonight we will try to push route to site of Camp I.

July 4

Starting last night at 9:00 PM and ending this morning at 4:00 AM Mike and I advanced the fixed line to 10,500’, 500’ below the site for Camp1. [I remember snow and ice on the fixed line clogging the gripping teeth on my Jumars, and found myself needing to stop and suck the ice off the cams so they would grip the rope as I ascended the 70 degree ice wall.] It snowed lightly (~20 deg F) the whole time and we stopped because the cloud ceiling at ~10,000 ft reduced visibility to ~50 ft. We cached the two remaining poly ropes, snow pickets, and the hardware at the top of the line. The route has been enjoyable climbing with two truly technical sections of good ice. The route is also interesting, winding among seracs (safe) and around crevasses. Still no sign of the others at noon. I am anxious and want to go down to look for them but Mike recommends waiting a couple of hours. It’s been a total whiteout and snowing since early this morning. The sun broke through from above once raising the temp to 70 deg in the tent.

July 5

Yesterday we left the tent at 4:00 PM (actually 5 since my watch was 1 hr slow) in a total whiteout and moderate snowfall. To my understandable joy there were three figures standing at the cache below Base camp when we arrived. Peter had not been flown in until yesterday afternoon at 3:00 PM. They hiked until midnight arriving at the glacier campsite and now they had just arrived, after 5 hrs of hiking, at the cache, 5 min. before us. We loaded all but 2 food bags and fuel cans on the sleds and started back to base camp. When Mike and I arrived the ridge site was very uncomfortable in the increasing wind so we move it just below on a platform (formed by a crevasse?). As we pitched the tent we heard the sound of an enormous avalanche from the direction of the S.E. spur. It seemed to continue for minutes. Shortly after it subsided we were hit by its cloud with cold winds from all directions and heavy snowfall. It covered everything immediately with ~1” of snow. We wondered if the avalanche hit our track from the cache which we were on just 1 hr ago. Everyone was very wet from the long day in the snow but we managed to set up camp and make dinner in relative comfort. The sun broke through the clouds about 10:00 AM this morning, causing the tent to rain melted ice on everything. Peter got his first views of where he was before the fog closed in again. The sun is very warm through the tent so it looks like we will have a chance to dry our wet clothing. No plans for the day yet.

July 6

Yesterday we awoke to rain coming from the tent walls as the sun, coming through the thin fog, melted the ice on the tent. After drying our clothing and making breakfast we sat around reading, talking, and playing chess. The weather does not improve during the day and we only get occasional glimpses of the buttress. At 7:00 PM we decide to carry the food to the top of the fixed line. After lunch and dressing up we get started at 9:00 PM. The ropes are all buried by 6” of snow. Being first I finished leading out the last 200 ft of the third line and solo the 4th bringing the high point to about 11,000’ across a [avalanche] chute from the site of Camp I. After returning to the previous high point, where everyone else is just arriving, we carry the equipment to the new high point. [I believe this is the point where Peter built an igloo over the course of the next day. He had brought a highly sharpened snow machete which he used to cut snow blocks. I learned a lesson in carrying loads up our fixed lines. After working my way through the ice fall above Base Camp the glacier on the buttress was fairly steep. At one point there was ledge in the snow, which was a convenient place to rest. I chose that spot to put in a snow picket to anchor the fixed line as I was putting in the line. Later, as I was carrying a load up the line. I fell to my armpits into the hidden crevasse that had made the ledge in the slope after I had unclipped from the rope to pass the picket. I should have been aware of the sign of a hidden crevasse. It was a mistake to put the picket there, as everybody had to unclip right over the crevasse to pass the anchor.] It appears that the glacier fog level is at about 11,000 ft. and much of the climbing was fairly clear. Returning to the tent at 3:00 AM this morning we cook dinner and turn in. This noon the sun begins to warm the tent through the clouds again. It feels like 90 deg in the tent. The altimeter is reading ~300 to 400 ft. low so we must be in a high pressure system. Today we hope to move camp up to [the intended site for] Camp I.

July 7

The clouds cleared, or fog rather, in the afternoon yesterday, leaving very pleasant weather to dry equipment and pack up camp. We managed to load everything into our packs and head up, starting about 8:30 PM. We left the skis, snowshoes, one medical kit, some unused food, and the sleds at the Base Camp site covered with the orange tarp tent. Mike and Rick went up the ropes first with the plan that they would lead the last rope to Camp I. I followed, with Peter and Urs to follow me. Urs was to remove the stakes in the last line so it could be retrieved without going to its bottom.  Mike, Rick, and I arrived at our dump of the night before at about 11:30 PM. Peter was about 30 min behind and said he had not seen Urs since he left him. I decided to descend to retrieve the first two lines while Mike and Rick strung the last. I found Urs just above the top of the first carrying a coiled line. He was happy but obviously tired. [Urs since has mentioned that he was experiencing a strange euphoria and was in a dream like state.] I took the line and let him pass. I followed behind him, pulling the stakes of the second line. At the top of the second line Urs was just sitting in the snow, very tired. He said his pack was too heavy, so we traded and he continued up. I coiled the second line and followed very slowly pulling the stakes on the third. This load was really backbreaking. At the cache I met Mike returning on the new line. He said the climbing was fun and there was a good site for Camp I [This was the intended site on a level spot on the ridge at the edge of the buttress], there had been some ice on the route, and that Peter and Urs were stringing another rope needed to reach the site. I started the traverse after unloading the rope from Urs’s pack and Mike descended to retrieve two more ropes. After Urs, Peter, and I arrived at Camp 1 I suggested they dig a hole for the camp considering its exposed location. I then returned for my personal gear. I arrived to meet Mike with the other ropes. I loaded my gear and a rope in my pack and headed back to camp. Mike followed with lines, gear, and two ropes. We left mainly food back at the dump [Igloo Cache] with the thought that the next day two could lead while the others ferried the rest of the food to Camp 1. As we dug our platform (hole) Peter cut his thumb badly with his snow machete. [Since Peter was our medical professional] He had Mike stitch it up, as he instructed. Urs prepared dinner and we all turned in at about 9 AM, this morning, all very tired. [I have difficulty looking at blood. It was a disappointment to me, as the expedition organizer and leader, to have such difficulty with being able to help Peter. I mainly looked away as Mike stitched Peters hand back together. Peter, in the mean time, was incredibly tough, enduring the pain of the sutures without anesthetic as he gave Mike instruction on how to apply them. In retrospect, Peter continuing on the climb without a complaint showed his strength of character. I now have remorse for my insensitivity to the discomfort that he must have endured.]

July 8

Yesterday, after ~10 hrs to rest there was still no motion in the 4-man tent where Urs, Rick, & Peter were sleeping. They rose reluctantly after some emphatic requests for breakfast. After that Mike and I came over and made breakfast for them, spending many hours. It had become clear, but very cold. About 11:00 PM Mike and I headed up in 14 deg F to put in 3 fixed lines, leaving the others to relay the rest of the food in the last dump [Igloo Cache] to the base of the new fixed line and to take out the traverse line [from Igloo Cache across the avalanche chute to Camp 1] and bring it up to us so we could continue to Camp 2. The three lines brought us very close to [the proposed site for] Camp 2 (maybe one more rope will do it). [This point became labeled as “Raven Cache” as explained later.] We descended and met Peter at the top of the second line with a load. He did not have a rope, but Urs, who was lower was bringing one up. I suggested he and Rick, who was just behind him, get the lines from Urs and lead the last stretch to Camp 2. Mike and I then returned to Camp I for loads ourselves. I picked up miscellaneous camp items (repair kit, extra equipment, food bag, etc.) while Mike picked up a food bag and the last rope. When we arrived at the top of the ropes Peter was just starting to lead! They then said that since the sun was on the slope it was unsafe and they didn’t want to continue. That they shouldn’t continue was good judgement, however, the fact that they had taken so long to get started seemed to indicate that they really didn’t want to lead. [In retrospect, Peter was uncomplainingly nursing a fresh wound on his hand, which must have reduced his ability to use his ice ax, especially if he fell and needed to self arrest.] We all returned to camp in the warm sunshine, made dinner, and turned in at about 11:30 AM today. This evening the plan is for Rick and I to take our personal gear and camp equipment to the top of the ropes and to lead the last stretch to [the site for] Camp 2 while the others follow with the rest of the camp. We are a little on a limb since everything is planned on our making it to Camp 2, and there is one questionable crevasse crossing left. The weather appears to be closing in a little again too. Altimeter still reads ~500’ low however [, a good sign]. Enormous avalanche fell from East Face [the headwall at the end of the NW fork of the Ruth Glacier, where the 500 ft thick glacier that accumulates in Thayer Basin cascades a vertical mile to the glacier below] as we returned from climb today. The cloud went well down the glacier [clearly continuing over our route up the glacier. I remember reading that the first ascent party was immersed in such an avalanche cloud, which was a blast of thick, pulverized snow.].

July 9

Despite a dubious start, our last days activity has been very successful. Rising at 8:00 PM yesterday we had a quick breakfast, and Rick and I left camp with personal equipment and camp equipment at 10 :00 PM. The clouds were closing in and I was anxious to get to the top of the ropes as fast as possible. Upon arriving I found Mike’s untangled rope frozen into the ice slope below. After loosing one end I decided to use the tangled rope and proceeded to straighten it. In straightening it I let the untangled portion slide over the ice slope. In retrieving it it jammed and then slipped out of my hands!. I rappelled the ice slope on the frozen rope and pulled it out of the ice. I continued to the lower slope [over the edge of overhanging seracs] and retrieved the fallen rope. [The view from below must have been dramatic. Peter who was coming up from below said that it was a good picture opportunity. I, who’s principal concern was that what I wanted to accomplish was being delayed, only wanted to clear the rope and get back to the lead. Urs, who was also coming up, commented on how driven I was. I must have appeared like a mad man with how driven I was. I have often regretted that I didn’t wait for a photograph of the rappel over the serac.] After returning to the top of the ropes Rick had pulled up the frozen rope and we began to lead the last pitch. As I approached the crevasse it appeared that it might not be bridged. Upon arriving I found, happily, another shaky but complete bridge. After finishing that rope I returned and received the last rope from Urs, which I soloed out to Camp 2. The others all followed with their loads. Meanwhile Mike was working like a mule, bringing up his [heavy] load and taking out the lower fixed ropes. He cleaned out the lower “Raven Cache” and brought 3 ropes up to the crevasse. [The Raven Cache was the point from which I had hoped Peter would be able to push the route, and where the ropes had become frozen into the slope. From far below at Camp 1 we saw a huge raven, the only apparent wildlife on the mountain, land at the cache and worried that it would break into our food bags. We screamed and yelled to scare the huge bird from the cache, to no avail. When we returned we were relieved to find no damage to the supplies. The thick nylon bags I had sewn for the food were too tough for the raven’s beak to penetrate.] At the end of the day (~11:00 AM today) almost everything but the extra food bags (4) were at Camp 2.

July 10

Yesterday evening (~10:00 PM?) Mike and Urs started up from Camp 2 with three ropes for fixing. Meanwhile I headed down to the upper Raven Cache to pick up the rest of the hardware to bring to Mike and Urs. I also picked up other miscellaneous supplies (repair kit, etc.) and a food bag and headed back to Camp 2. At the crevasse I met Peter and Rick coming down. Peter reset the upper ice screw since it had melted out some. On the way up I reset the screw on the crevasse lip and continued to camp. There I unloaded everything but the climbing supplies which I had brought up to Mike and Urs, who had only made about 300 ft progress. It seemed Mike had a lot of trouble with a bergschrund just above camp. I returned on the rope to the Raven Cache and passed Peter with a heavy pack (2 food bags) and met Rick at the bottom of the crevasse bridge. He had cleaned out the cache and left wands, pickets and the ropes for me to pull up. We all returned to Camp 2 and coiled the ropes as we watched Mike and Urs, who were coming to the end of their first line. Mike was going slow but was obviously on ice. Peter was obviously unhappy about the route through the seracs and kept suggesting alternatives. Finally Mike called down that maybe we should try another route, and would I like to take over the lead. When I arrived at the top of the rope Mike felt much better and was willing to continue. I took over the lead and started to run out the rest of the first line. The route continued over about 300’ of 45 degree ice and then back into snow. [This was where we climbed around the huge overhanging ice wall above Camp 2, placing ice screws for protection as I crossed back over the top of the serac. I felt the ice slope slip maybe an inch, making a sharp sound as I was climbing on it and felt uneasy, realizing that If it fell I was attached to it by a screw anchored deeply in the ice and would be pulled down with it.] While we moved up Urs chopped large steps in the ice traverse that Mike had led and then went down. We ran out the second rope, belaying all but the last 300 ft, which led almost to the rocks high on the buttress. After returning to camp where everyone else was asleep (6:00 AM) we had breakfast and tried the radio. [I had been instructed that we shouldn’t expect the radio telephone we had rented in Anchorage to work until we were above 14,000 ft. Camp 2 was at 12,500 ft, but we had a clear view over the SE Spur in the direction toward Anchorage.]  First Rick called home, then Urs, and finally I tried. Both Deb [my wife] and my folks didn’t answer. [After we returned I was reminded that July 10th was the one day of the year that my family kept silence as followers of an Eastern religious philosophy. My father later said that he guessed it was I that was trying to call from the mountain.] Mike tried Sue but she also didn’t answer. At 1:00 PM today Rick and Peter headed up the ropes with the remaining three ropes, with hopes of continuing the line to the top of the buttress. Urs headed up at about 6:00 PM. It is now 10:00 PM and we haven’t heard from anyone yet. Both Mike and I get through to Sue & Deb, respectively at 7:00 PM. The weather these past few days has been beautiful. Clear from midnight on. As the sun warms the ground clouds begin to form, but these are thin and they come and go. Nighttime lows are estimated at 10 deg F and highs seem to be in the 70s. 

July 12

Late in the evening of the 10th, Rick and Peter returned saying they had led to within 500 ft of the crest of the Buttress. They had run out one complete rope and 150 ft of another, leaving the rest tangled dangling below. Rick said the climbing was up to 70 degrees ice. I later estimated the angle at ~45 degrees. [It is very common to over estimate the steepness of ice. It always feels much steeper that it actually is. In trying to make accurate determinations I try to carefully compare the angle of the surface with the horizon or a dangled vertical line.]  Mike and I started off to continue the rope to the crest at ~1:00 AM July 11. I carried a load up to about the end of our last lead while Mike continued toward the end of the fixed line with his [load] after me. Arriving way ahead of Mike I untangled the dangling line and began soloing toward the crest. It was apparent that it was the [foreshortened] buttress ridge that was ~500 feet away and the crest was another 800 ft beyond. Mike arrived after I had climbed ~70 ft. He tied his load off and came up to belay me. We ran out the line and ~300 ft of the 5th [poly rope] before we reached the crest. The euphoria was immense. We were both overwhelmed by the experience. The view was awesome since the crest was a high point in all directions. We returned and brought our loads up and then returned to camp after about 12 hours work. After sunset and breakfast Rick, Urs, and Peter packed up the 4 man tent and the rest of camp and started for the crest. They arrived at ~3:00 AM today [and were treated to an amazing sunrise, paining everything a deep red]. We moved into the 2-man tent and slept until 2:15 AM and then started up. I arrived at 5:30 AM and Mike about 1 hr. later. Camp was being set up, Urs feeling a little down from digging so hard. After dinner I returned to the high cache and brought up  the remaining food bag and rope, leaving the hardware and 1 fuel can. This evening we plan to move camp into Thayer basin.

July 14

4:00 AM, minus two deg F. White out conditions persisted July 12 so we started to move camp the next morning [July 13]. After breakfast the skies cleared partially. I made radio contact with Anchorage and left the message that we are at Camp 3 and changed our upper route to Thayer’s Ridge. [I called the spur to the northeast of Thayer Basin, coming off Karsten’s Ridge and its continuation around Thayer Basin “Thayer Ridge.” I had originally intended for our route to include a first ascent of the SE facing pyramidal face starting at the top of the South Buttress. But I felt we were pushing our luck to include more steep ice and need for fixed line when there was a simpler, safer alternative.] Also that we expected to be on the summit in 3 days. I made a sled with three food bags and the blue ensolite and the melt tarp so we could all move at once. [The blue ensolite was an ensolite pad large enough to cover the entire floor of the 4-man tent. The melt tarp was a black plastic sheet used to melt snow in the sun.] After ~1/2 mile we were in a whiteout again and decided to pitch the tent to wait it out. Finally, after dinner we started out in marginal conditions. Just as we were about to stop and make camp the clouds cleared. We continued into Thayer basin, leaving the sled for a return trip. After making camp Mike, Urs, and Peter returned for the sled.

July 15

Yesterday was a complete whiteout and we slept and read all day. Only about 4” of snow fell. It was very warm at midday and very cold at night. Today the clouds appeared to be clearing in the morning, so we all packed up bare essentials and headed for Thayer Ridge. We left all unwanted items in the 2-man tent at advanced base. This included 1 food bag. We brought 6 days food with us. Urs broke trail on a rope with me to just above the bergschrund. I continued to the top of the ridge ~15,500 ft. There I established radio contact with Anchorage, left the message of where we were and got the weather forecast: good weather for 2 days. Peter broke trail up the ridge to ~16,000 ft where we pitched Camp 5 under a large boulder. [At one point the ridge was blocked by a rock tower, which we passed by dropping down on to the steep snow slope on the east side of the ridge. As we angled back to the ridge crest the snow conditions became unstable, steps we took broke out and appeared to result in avalanches below. Rick, who must have had a very heavy pack, became panicky as his steps were not holding and he was starting to slide. We decided to head straight back for the ridge instead of our current trajectory, angling gradually back to the ridge. We were relieved to make it safely back to the ridge without further trouble.] Everyone well: Rick tired, Mike with mild headache.

July 16

Now on a daytime schedule Mike led off from our camp at 16,000 ft. on a rope with Rick and Peter. Urs and I followed. At the break in the ridge at ~16,400 ft [where it becomes steeper] Peter took over the lead and broke trail to the top of the ridge at ~17, 300 ft. Before we left, Rick called his fraternity [at MIT], Urs his wife, and Peter his wife [, Kris]. Again Mike and I couldn’t contact Deb or Sue. At the ridge peak Mike led off attempting to skirt the peak to the south. He shortly got into difficult climbing and Peter took over the lead. After waiting behind them for ~1 hr. Urs and I headed for the ridge and followed it to the col in Thayer’s ridge at ~17,200 ft. [The “col” is a saddle in Karsten’s Ridge, between peak 17425 and the summit.] The ridge proved to be better and we arrived ~30 min. before Peter’s rope. This is where we are camped now on the south side of large rocks at the col. Weather was clear today with cloud levels at 14,000 ft. and wispy clouds around the mountain. Later the clouds cleared some while high cumulous developed to the north. At about 7:00 PM it started to snow. Mike called Sue but I still couldn’t get through to my folks. We ate a double dinner in preparation for the summit tomorrow. I have a mild head ache and took two codeine [tablets that Peter prescribed, to help sleep]. The plan is to arise at 6:00 [AM] and leave at 8:00 [AM] for the summit. Hope the weather clears.

July 18

We had a bad wind and snow storm the night of the 16th. As a result, when we woke at 6:00 AM no one felt rested. The weather was clear above 13,000 ft. and we got a good weather forecast. [I called the weather service for a forecast. They said, “What does it look like to you?” When I said it looked clear they said, “Then it looks like you have good weather.” !!] We decided to rest 1 more hour and start breakfast at 7:00 [AM]. By 9:15 [AM] Mike and I led off the first rope with Rick, Urs, & Peter behind. It was 0 deg F when we started out. By 12:30 [PM] we were at the knoll at 18,700 ft. where we waited for the others. The weather began to close in in the form of high cumulous, which had developed to the north. We continued when we could see the route. We arrived at the summit at 3:30 PM as the wind had just abated. I first, then Mike. The experience caused us both to [spontaneously] to break into sobs?! [This is the only time I experienced this. It was an unexpected strong rush of emotion. I guessed it was a release resulting from how hard I had worked, and the responsibility I felt for everyone making it safely to the summit.] The other rope was a short (1/2 hr.) behind. We took many photos and the clouds began to lift. [The temperature was 8 degrees F. I put my down parka on for the first time in the climb. I didn’t need it, but I had carried all the way to the summit and thought I should get some use out of it. For the rest of the climb I had worn a net undershirt, a turtleneck, a heavy wool sweater, a wind parka, and a heavy wool balaclava.]  I called my folks, Rick his mother. At 4:30 [PM] Mike & I headed back to camp, arriving about 6:30 [PM], the others arriving ~2 hr. later. I had a bad headache and took a Darvon and then a Tylenol to sleep [recommended by Peter].  Urs felt nauseous and threw up. Mike, Peter, and Rick had mild headaches, Everyones appetite has been impaired. [I didn’t eat dinner. Mike urged me to eat, saying that it was not wise to not eat at high altitude. He was right, but, being stubborn, I didn’t overcome my difficulty in trying to eat.] This morning has dawned clear but windy.

PM: We left high camp at 1:00 PM and arrived at Thayer Basin at 5:00 [PM] in a whiteout. Decided to camp and wait until early AM to move, when it should be clear. Now at 9:00 [PM] it is already clear on the route to Camp 3 [at the crest of the buttress]. There is a strong west wind but we are sheltered in the basin. Had double dinner again. This time to use up food. Urs’ appetite just beginning to return.

July 19

Arose at ~6:00 AM after windy night. Wind abated and Thayer basin clearing. 2-man tent drifted in ~1 ft. Started out to buttress top at 9:00 AM. By 2:30 [PM] we were at top of buttress after slogging through deep powder. Mike, I, and Peter broke trail. Urs, Peter, and Rick descended ropes to Camp 2 and set up tent. Mike and I attempted to retrieve ropes with some difficulty.[I remember being frustrated in retrieving the ropes. Mike borrowed my ice hammer to retrieve snow pickets and seemed to take forever. I was a little lower down sitting in the snow and wanted to work on extracting the snow pickets by me. Normally I would drive the picket a little deeper to break the ice that was locking the picket in place. Without my ice hammer after waiting what seemed to be a half an hour I tried to extract them with my ice ax, but the ice ax didn't have a hammer head, causing me to cut deep gouges in the head of the pickets. By the time we made it down to Camp 2 I was in an anxious state from my frustration. Mike, being the most tolerant person I know, Laughed, saying I was having an anxiety attack and urged the team to feed me some dinner. I suppose I was stressed by my concern that the team make it safely off the buttress.] Called [Cliff] Hudson [from Camp 2] and arranged to be picked up morning of July 21. [I should have been insistent that we be given at least another day to make it back to the glacier landing strip. In agreeing to meet the plane in a day and a half I was committing our team to a “death march.’ Later I figured it was probably Cliff Hudson’s policy to come in at least a day after his scheduled rendezvous to avoid waisting a trip by arriving before the climbers had returned.]

July 21

PM. Still waiting for Hudson after our “death march” to make the appointed rendezvous at the landing site. It started yesterday at 6:00 AM. As soon as the sun lit the tent at Camp 2 I suited up and jumarred up the bottom rope hanging above the camp. I felt safe up to ~150 feet of the end (tied to the end of the rappel rope hanging over the seracs) and cut the rope there and climbed down, removing the last of the anchors. We decided to go without breakfast to get a fast start. Mike had divided up lunches and camp was being broken by the time I returned. Mike and I headed off first with the three ropes (1 full and 2 shortened by ~150 ft). [We were descending with extremely heavy (~100 lb) packs, as we avoiding multiple carries.]  After negotiating a new crevasse, just below Camp 2, we strung the last rope over the bergschrund below Camp 2. I rappelled first, landing in waist deep powder. Mike came down and we cut the rope at the bottom. Peter, Rick, and Urs followed. We continued down to string a rappel from the upper Raven Cache. The remaining fragment of the last rope was just right in length and left us on a gentle slope (Mike went first). We continued down to just above the bergschrund above Camp 1. In going over the lip [I didn’t line up with the thin ice bridge we had climbed, and] I ended in a 15 ft. free rappel which was lowering me into the bergschrund. The pack pulled me over backwards but I managed to flop back just on the lip. [I tried calling for help when I was down in the crevasse a short way, but the pack straps were compressing my lungs and the party was high above the upper lip of the bergschrund, so they couldn’t hear me.]  After 10 min. I was together below the bergschrund. The rest followed, each with a little difficulty. [I encouraged them to rappel where the thin ice bridge was and pulled on the rope to help keep them from going into the bergschrund.] Below that we attempted to cut right and walk down to Peter’s igloo. Mike’s crampons were balling badly and he slipped twice sliding ~70 ft. to a runout each time. [The slope, facing the hot sun directly, was melting on the surface. Our weight pressed the wet snow into colder snow deeper down, freezing a ball of ice over the points of our crampons.] Because of this we did one retrievable rappel before reaching the igloo. There Mike and I continued into the avalanche chute to head for Base Camp. [There was some risk, since any avalanches on the buttress from higher up would be directed to this chute. It was clear that there had been avalanches in the chute during the time we were higher on the mountain. The chute, however, bypassed the ice fall that we had climbed and was a much faster retreat route from the buttress.] After descending 200 ft. I removed my crampons as Mike had above and seemed to have more control. 500 ft. down in a whiteout we came to a cul-de-sac in the form of steep slopes and crevasses. Waiting 30 minutes the whiteout lifted and I could see a routs to the slopes above Base Camp. We continued and the others, who had just come into sight, followed. Everyone was relieved to finally reach the safe slopes above Base Camp. At Base our cache was in tact with the tarp tent draped over it. We spread our stuff to dry and Rick cooked his first meal of the expedition: a double breakfast. At 4:00 PM we were packed up with the sleds and headed for the landing site. After tramping down through knee deep spring type snow to the glacier we put on our snowshoes and skis (Rick). Urs [being a very experienced downhill skier] started out with his skis.  We continued toward the bend in the glacier. Base Camp cache [in the middle of the glacier] was intact. Peter and Urs took food bags while Mike and I took gas cans. At the bend in the glacier a whiteout enveloped us, but we managed to find occasional wands buried in the snow. After ~1/4 mile we began to follow our original track. I replanted the wands for Urs and Rick, who were ~1/8 mile behind. [On the way up the bend in the glacier had seemed steep, but now it seemed like a gently slope. Mike surmised that it seemed gently since we had been living on much steeper slopes for the past three weeks. The contrast in our perception was remarkable!] We were below the whiteout and snow when we reached the straight section of glacier. Urs and Rick caught up and we continued to the Crevasse Camp site. There, all over, excrement had been melted through to and it looked like it had been hit by numerous shit bombs [, a clear indication of the importance for climbers to remove all their waste as the accumulation would become intolerable as the number of climbing parties increases.] The crevasse had opened up to ~1 ft. and had to be skirted.  At the confluence of the W and NW Ruth [Glaciers] I deviated from our original wanded track and found a much smoother path through the glacier. The rest of the way to the landing site was a grueling march, which ended at 4:00 AM (A 20 hr. day!). Rick and Mike fixed a double dinner while Urs & I erected the tent. Everyone’s optimism about pick-up gradually faded as 9:00 AM passed. About that time a fellow, Rick, called down from Sheldon’s cabin [just on the rock ridge parallel to the landing slope, about a hundred yards above]. He is one of many employee’s of Ray Genet, who was spending a week at the cabin. Rick and I went up to see the cabin. The real surprise was when we saw ourselves in the [shard of a] mirror he had. I looked as though I had aged 20 years, and I had a strange compulsion to cry, out of pity for this poor soul who had appeared to have suffered so much. So now its 5:00 PM and we are still waiting for Hudson. Everyone is sleeping except for Mike, who has gone up to visit Rick.

July 23

This morning at ~10:00 AM Doug came in and flew us out. First Rick, Peter, and myself and ~2hr. later Urs and Mike. After a shower at the laundromat and lunch at the [Talkeetna] Roadhouse we packed and sorted the equipment and had Rick from the mountain house help us move it to the train station. We caught the train at 5:00 PM for Anchorage. Yesterday the glacier was whited out until late in the afternoon.


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1977 Denali East Buttress Expedition

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