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 9½ 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.
April 5, 1965
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.
"You only had to show him a thing once," said Whittaker later. "We did not have to tell him not to lean in toward the mountain, the chief problem with novice climbers. He kept perpendicular, kept his feet under him. Coming down around an exposed corner with a 6,000-foot drop immediately below him, he used a set line fixed to ice axes the way it should be used—as a hand line. Skiing has made him accustomed to steep snow—it doesn't scare him. And his boating experience has taught him how to handle rope."
"He's pretty tough. If there had been a weak member in the party we would have been in trouble," said Prather, who slipped into hidden crevasses three times. Kennedy slipped once, with a startled "oof!" into the bottleneck of a curving crevasse that may have been hundreds of feet deep. He caught himself with his arms about chest-deep and scrambled out with a belay from above.
At one point in Wednesday's 4½-hour climb to the summit, Kennedy halted, assuming that there was no way up a 45° rock wall ahead. He was astonished a moment later to see Whittaker's long, lean legs moving steadily upward. "You can't climb that!" Kennedy called. He discovered that with a firm belay you can climb anyplace you can get a toehold.
But his ropemates' chief problem was Kennedy's inclination to overlap, to push out ahead of the lead man on his rope. "He was wound up pretty tight, too eager," said Whittaker, who discovered that the best way to hold Kennedy in the center of the rope was to set a faster pace than normal.
Whittaker, having no desire to be the first man in history to take a U.S. Senator up a mountain and not bring him down, had judiciously added special safeguards to the usual first-aid and emergency gear in his guide's pack: an Arctic sleeping bag good for 30° below zero in which to shroud an injured man, and a pulmonary-edema kit in case Kennedy suffered an unfavorable reaction to high altitudes. But all he really needed was a small Band-Aid, for Kennedy's only injury was a slight blister on one heel.
Beautiful is a poor word for the first—and, most likely, the last—mountain to be climbed by Bob Kennedy. It is not a tough enough word, or grand enough, for Mount Kennedy is magnificent, with everything that a good peak should have. Corniced on its windblown summit, it has bergschrunds, gaping crevasses, avalanches pouring down glacial sidewalls, wind-packed deep powder, rock-hard glacial ice, terraced rock, ice wall breaks and a snowy wind plume boiling up over its ridges. The mountain proved both higher and tougher than anticipated—not the "easy peak" envisioned back in Washington.
"The final sharp ridge looked a lot like Everest," said Whittaker. "While we were on it Bob wanted to look down the face on the left, thousands of feet of sheer drop. It was the kind of spot that sometimes freezes experienced climbers. He leaned on his ice ax and looked over for a while. If he felt any fear, he kept it to himself."
The climbers spent an hour and a half on the summit, arrived back at base camp just before darkness and were flown down to Whitehorse the next morning. When Kennedy stepped out of the RCAF helicopter he looked bushed. The familiar expressive face, sad and wise like that of a city child who has gained too much knowledge too young, was gaunt, sunburned, bearded and dirty. He expressed his gratitude to the Canadian people, but he "reserved opinion" on the subject of climbing large mountains.
"I'd never go back up there again," he said. "I understand why climbers like it. They are a special breed of men. I'm mindful of the story General Maxwell Taylor tells of reviewing paratroopers during World War II. Each man in turn said that he had become a paratrooper because he liked to jump. Finally Taylor told them, I don't like to jump, but I like to be with people who like to jump.' Well, I like to be with people who like to climb. But I don't want to climb again. It's not exactly a pleasant experience. I kept thinking, 'How did I get myself into this?' "
A bath, a shave and a meal later, ex-mountaineer Kennedy was showing the giddy signs of postclimb euphoria that are so familiar to climbers. Delaying his departure five hours, he set forth on a tour of Whitehorse. He shook hands at RCMP headquarters—all the Mounties had stayed in town as a "protective measure" instead of leaving for their bush posts—and visited a high school. He poked into Sam McGee's 1899 cabin, viewed an early steam locomotive of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway and slopped through thick gumbo around the Yukon River sternwheelers Klondike, Whitehorse, Casca and Loon, which are rotting in the mud.
Finally he boarded the plane for Seattle, and as it took off he shed his suit jacket and his necktie and pulled on a battered old cashmere sweater. Written in indelible ink on the neck label was the name of its former owner, John F. Kennedy.
Meanwhile, the Mounties of Whitehorse were looking back on Bob Kennedy's visit with the fondest regard. During late March and early April in the north country, cabin fever reaches a high pitch. With relief from the long, dark winter just a matter of days away, emotional frenzy grips the thinly scattered populace, and the homicide rate rises sharply. This year the good people of Yukon Territory have let off so much steam over the Kennedy climb that the Mounties predict they will make it through the ice breakup without so much as an assault case.