An illustrated memoir of one of the boldest and most dangerous first ascents in North American climbing history, the direct ascent of the Wickersham Wall.
I was one of the men who made it.
- It was a defining moment in my life, and it shaped everything that was to come.
The Wickersham Wall Bradford Washburn photo
Bradford Washburn, the guy who took that amazing photo, was an eminent mountaineer and cartographer, and the first to climb Mt. McKinley (now Denali) by what is now the standard route on the West Buttress. He became the pre-eminent expert on the huge peak, the tallest in North America, and the detailed photographs and maps he created have guided climbers there for decades. As head of Boston’s Museum of Science in the early 1960’s,he was one of America’s most accomplished explorers, photographers, and cartographers. He was also an informal mentor to the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC), a bunch of young, gung-ho climbers looking for challenge and adventure.
Washburn was consumed with Denali until the day he died in 2007, and with the possibilities for new, creative routes up one of the most difficult and dangerous mountains on the planet. Into the 1960s, he was particularly interested in finding a way up Denali’s fearsome, unclimbed, two-mile high, north face, called the Wickersham Wall, which was higher, bottom to top, than anything on Everest.
No climbers had ever even seriously attempted the climb, not so much because of technical and logistic difficulties, which were substantial, but because of the constant avalanches that swept down the Wall, making any attempt to climb it “suicidal”—or so said plenty of experienced alpinists. In 1963 the Wickersham Wall was unclimbed, pristine, inviolable. Washburn, however, pressed the idea that the right team of tough and intrepid climbers could conquer the Wall and return to tell the tale. And he thought he had the secret to how they could pull it off.
In the fall of 1962, he had invited three HMC leaders—Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan and Dave Roberts‑—to his home in Cambridge to hear him out. I wasn’t there, but I can picture those three friends filing into Washburn’s map-strewn study as if it were a church, which in a way it was to climbers, a sanctum sanctorum of North American mountaineering.
Washburn laid out on a large map table an overlapping series of incredibly detailed photographs he’d taken of the Wickersham Wall. The steep rock and ice faces were obvious, as were the long chutes that channeled massive avalanches falling from ice cliffs at 14,000 feet. Above those cliffs both the steepness and the avalanche danger lessened, leading to a fairly easy 50-degree snow slope to the North Summit. The problem was gettingto the easy part.
Others had seen this same view from other photographs. But Washburn’s photos were stereoscopic, meaning that with special glasses there was a 3-D quality to them, making the rock and ice ridges and cliffs stand out in a way that ordinary photographs did not show.
Washburn pointed out to the three young climbers that his stereo photographs showed a shallow buttress going straight up the center of the Wall from bottom to top, sticking out from the Wall just enough, he said, that avalanches would bounce off it to the left or right on their thunderous journey down to avalanche bowls at the mountain’s base. His theory, of course, would have to be tested by direct observation, but he was confident enough to suggest that the Club mount an expedition to climb the Wall the following summer.
The three listeners didn’t hesitate. To young climbers, Washburn was a god. He knew more about Mt. McKinley than anyone. He himself had taken the photographs in question and had pioneered the use of stereoscopic photography. If he said it could be done, then it could be done. And if the HMC mounted an expedition—and succeeded—it would be one of the damndest things ever achieved in mountaineering. The perfect challenge to a bunch of very young, very competitive climbers.
When Hank, Dave and Rick relayed Washburn’s proposal to the rest of the Club, there wasn’t a single dissenting voice. We were young. We were fearless. We couldn’t possibly fail. Or get hurt. Or die. (Many others did no share our optimism. When we were trapped for five days in a storm at 19,000 without a radio, bush pilots reported us missing, prompting a national media frenzy that we’d been swept to our deaths. We surprised a lot of people when those same pilots spotted our tents. We had no idea of the fuss until we got back down.)
When Hank, Dave and Rick asked me to join the expedition, I was ecstatic. I was a relatively inexperienced climber but, at 6’4” and in top shape from rowing crew, I could haul heavy loads up steep faces and do it all day long (my Club-mates had nicknamed me “the Moose”). Now I was going to help conquer the Wickersham Wall. Washburn had to be right, and we were going to make history. Never mind the possible falls, notoriously vicious weather, the avalanches and rockfalls that continually swept the Wall, scouring everything in their paths. We’d go up the one narrow route snaking up the center, the path Washburn marked out on his photos. Washburn had to be right.
In fact, it turned out that Washburn was at least partially wrong. We succeeded, despite the fact that his photos had missed a key feature that made climbing the Wall just about as risky as other experts had said—something we did not see until we got to the base of the climb. His protective buttress turned out to be unclimbable at its base, forcing us to defy the avalanches by climbing up an icefall directly into a large bowl into which the avalanches fell, then dashing to a protective cliff off to the left.
To improve our odds, we spent two days carefully timing the avalanches, discovering that they were most likely to fall in the morning just after the sun hit the ice cliffs at 14,000 feet, loosening the huge blocks—and again in the afternoon when the ice re-froze and expanded. Armed with this information we timed our trips up the icefall to minimize getting hit by the next massive, roaring onslaught of ice and snow.
We did this not once but seven times, daring the avalanches to hit us, carrying all the food and gear we needed for the vertical two miles of climbing ahead. Each time we found our tracks from the previous trip buried under tons of avalanche debris. Our avalanche prediction system was not infallible, and no doubt the sensible thing to do would have been to stop playing Russian Roulette with the avalanches and go home. But that never occurred to us.
Washburn’s photos were still a useful guide, but pure luck had as much to do with our climbing that unclimbable Wall and living to talk about it. We not only did that epic climb but also made the first traverse of the mountain—up the Wickersham Wall to the North Summit, across to the South Summit, then down the West Buttress. 38 days. Without a scratch.
In 60 years, the “Harvard Route” still has not been repeated. At least one climber—a friend and colleague named Chris Kerrebock—has died trying, wedged upside down in a deep crevasse in the Peters Glacier until he froze. He and his partner hadn’t even made it to the base of the climb before Denali defeated them. Even without the awful image of Chris slowly freezing to death, the extreme dangers of the climb have made it a “don’t even consider” for the global climbing community. There may never be another attempt.
I’m telling the story now, because of three powerful prompts. The first is my discovery of the diary I kept on that climb. For decades I‘d forgotten it existed. Reading it over, I loved the passion, exuberance and irreverence I found in it and resolved to use those unedited words, in all their raw clumsiness, as the spine of a new story of the climb. I’d add just enough new language to provide context and connections where needed.
Almost at the same time I discovered the diary, I also found a trove of black-and-white photographs I’d taken on the climb that had somehow escaped notice and lain in a drawer as prints and strips of negatives for half a century. Some of them are quite spectacular so I added them to the color images I already had. The editors of Ascent, a prestigious mountaineering annual, considered some of these shots important enough to feature in its 2021 edition.
And the final nudge to get busy writing is the passage of time. Three of the seven of us are dead and the rest of us are in our early 80s. It’s time to do something about the missing elements of our story that need telling. Read on....
(narrative not from diary is in blue)
CHAPTER ONE: North to Alaska
Scarsdale June 8 1963: Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan, Dave Roberts and John Graham. Not shown: Chris Goetze, Pete Carman and Don Jenson
Hank Abrons was headed for med school in the fall and packed our medical kit. He said we needed a bone-saw in case of a gangrened leg. Ugh.
Rick Millikan had the right credentials; he’s the grandson of George Leigh Malory, the famed Everest explorer.
Dave Roberts would become one of Americans foremost mountaineering and adventure writers.
John Graham, at 6’4,”the big man of the expedition.
Chis Goetze, the only grad student in the group; he designed and made all of our tents, which stood up to everything Denali could throw at them.
Pete Carman, famous for the loud ties he wore on the toughest climbs.
Don Jensen even then was making a name for himself as a mountaineering equipment designer.
Graham, Goetze, Abrons, Roberts and Millikan
- June 2 (1963)—Cambridge.
- Pete left for Alaska. Will pick up Don on the way.
- Dave left for Scarsdale
- June 4—Cambridge.
- Dave returned to pick up me and Rick
- June 4-7—Scarsdale.
- Packing. Food is broken down into Pack-in, Base Camp, Low Altitude and High Altitude. All but Base Camp food is packed in meal-sized servings. Takes a lot of measuring and millions of plastic bags. We get two or three days food for seven into a small carton. Freeze-dried meals for high altitudes really cut weight.
Tents, pickets are checked and wands painted. Fixed ropes are cut. Medical kit is packed. Everything is pretty well organized and packed by midnight on the 7th.
We’d made the tents ourselves. We cut the aluminum snow pickets from what we found in a hardware store. We painted garden store bamboo wands to mark our paths in inevitable white-outs. We made our own snow shoes by bending aluminum tubing and adding nylon webbing stiffened with spar varnish. A lot of our personal gear was from Army surplus. About the only things we had to splurge on were Eddie Bauer down sleeping bags and Peter Limmer custom-made boots.
Everything is pretty well organized and packed by midnight on the 7th.
- June 8—en route to Alaska
- Left Scarsdale at 10:00 AM. Odometer mile 55,360.
- Never thought we’d be done packing. Took photos of ourselves and the bus. Took the turnpike towards Chicago. Ran out of gas in central Pennsylvania.
- June 9
- Driving without stop past Chicago
- June 10
- 3:00 AM Fargo ND. Noon in Minot.
No trouble at the border with customs although I think the guy was a little bit skeptical that we’d made it up the Al-Can. I drove from 7-12 over flat Saskatchewan farmland. Road straight as a string. Didn’t stop until after ten PM.
- June 11
- In Edmonton at 9:00 AM. Dawson Creek 9:00 PM . Beginning of the Al-Can Highway. Hit the gravel at mile 83. Tough driving. Mud everywhere. Battery gave out at about 2 AM. Low on fluids. We borrowed water in a teakettle and got the bus to work again.
- June 12
- On the Al-Can. Not so much mud now. Lots of dust. Road in good condition. We’re making over 600 miles per 24 hours on it. Scenery is rapidly improving and we are starting to see big mountains. Prices rise as we go. Into the Yukon by 11PM. Tonight there is no night. The light only dims for a few hours.
On the Al-Can Highway June 12. Graham and Roberts
- June 13
- Scenery really superb. Rushing streams, clear mountain lakes, peaks, and big game. In Whitehorse at 9 AM. Got a flat tire in the afternoon. People up here are tough, just as tough and taciturn as the land in which they live.
- June 14
- In Anchorage at 7:00 PM. Six days from New York. We put up at a motel and start checking out the gear. Pete and Don are already at McKinley Park. Bad news. Another party is climbing on the north side of McKinley right now but it seems that their route is far off to the right of the Wall proper. But the bastards have taken the 2-way radio that had been reserved for us.
- June 15—Anchorage
- In Anchorage. Run errands, repack gear. Rest up. Weather still very overcast. Haven’t seen McKinley yet.
- June 16—McKinley Park
- Left Anchorage under overcast skies. Is there such a thing as a blue sky in Alaska? Drive north and then west on the Denali Highway, a dirt road which winds over the tundra. What tremendous scenery! Range after range of tremendous peaks. Never have I seen mountains like these. It's wild country. Moose, grizzlies, caribou, rabbits. The tundra is barren and foreboding. We’ve descended a bit and made McKinley Park at midnight and camped out in the rain. Rain. Rain. Rain.
- June 17—McKinley Park
- Railroad Stationmaster let us stay in the station to cook and to sort our gear for the airdrops. Bush pilot Don Sheldon is set to make our air drop of food and gear into Base Camp on the 22nd. Pete will wait for Chris (Goetze) who is finishing some Army Reserve training in Alaska and two of them will start in to Base Camp on the 27th. We’re lucky to find this kind stationmaster—the hotel had kicked us out of their lobby. Plenty of tourists come in on the train and a bus takes them out to see the countryside.
Sorting gear in McKinley Park. We made those snowshoes ourselves, from stuff we found in a hardware store.
CHAPTER TWO: BASE CAMP
Five of us left McKinley Park at 5 PM. Drove down near Eielson, talked to a ranger at Toclats about the river crossing. He advised us to take the long route in over Gunsight Pass because of treacherous fording further down. Went toward Wonder Lake. Out first view of Denali was a tremendous experience. First a high peak poked through the clouds. “That’s it! That’s it!” we all shouted. Then a ridge was seen growing even further up into the sky. Then, unbelievably, the North Summit appeared above everything, way, way above the low cloud layer.
I don’t believe it. Jesus Christ. Can anything be that big? It is huge. Unbelievably huge.
Pete sees the mountain first
We stop and park about five miles short of Wonder Lake. The sun goes down on McKinley at 11:30 PM. It is still very light. We can take pictures. We head for the McKinley River through scrub and sparse spruce forest. We are at the river at 1:20 AM.
We begin fording. It’s difficult but not impossible. The rangers don’t know what they’re talking about. The river is about a mile and a half wide, in 8-10 braided channels. The water averages one foot in depth with a maximum of two feet. We cross it in an hour.
1:50 AM sunrise on McKinley is quite a sight. We pad (go to sleep on our Ensolite (rubber) pads) on the far bank. Clear skies. The crossing was a fine adventure and a great start.
8:30 AM—we hoist up our 75-pound packs and set out. The going was not too bad. We did hit bad patches of muskeg (a kind of peat bog with treacherous footing) and these areas were tough. We tried to follow the game trails but even so we occasionally had to fight our way through very thick underbrush. We are moving pretty well, however. We take compass bearings and follow them out.About 12 we hit Clearwater Creek. This was the toughest crossing of the trip so far. One bad channel put a good scare into all of us before we were safely across it. It would have been bad to slip. Lunch in the rain, ponchos on.
After lunch the rain stops and we push on. We find an easy ford at Carlson Creek. We are getting pretty bushed and at five PM we stop by a creek bed about six miles from the snout of the Peters Glacier and camp. McKinley looks even more incredibly huge. Mosquitoes getting very think but repellants and head nets do a good job. Had a great glop meal by the stream. Smoked a cigar. Dave felt lonesome for classical music so Hank and Rick attempted some Mozart on their harmonicas. Beautiful view of the mountain.
June 20 —pack-in
Up and at ‘em. It rains off and on all day long. About 3 PM starts a steady downpour. Pretty darn miserable, hiking in ponchos. We pack over some muskeg but the going is generally pretty good and we move well. About 5 we are at the edge of the Peters Glacier. The moraine is terrible hiking—it’s wet serpentine (a slippery rock). We get onto the Peters and pitch our tents on a snow patch. So far, our plastic rain flies are keeping the pelting rain out. Hope they will continue to do so.
June 21—Base Camp, 5,350’
Get off late and started up the Peters. Temperature is 48 at 10 AM. High cirrus, then socked in for most of the rest of the day. Some of the moraines provided pretty tricky going. We encountered huge crevasses and one very large ice cavern. Got to the site for our base camp at 5 PM and set the tents solidly. Base camp snow is 1 to 1/2 feet deep and very wet. Most everybody’s feet got very wet coming in. Weather clears in the evening. We are right under the Wall now and can do a lot a visual route-finding.
Bottom of route: Icefall in center; rock and ice gully to its left; rock ridge top center; avalanche bowl ("Cannon's Mouth") top right
June 22—Base Camp
Heard a big roar during dinner and rushed out in time to see a huge avalanche breaking off from ice cliffs high above and roaring down the Wall. Gave us some food for thought. By 9, two smaller avalanches have also fallen. Rick and I are driving the others batty with off-key Kingston Trio.
A stock photo of avalanches falling on either side of our route—the "Cannon's Mouth" to the right and the "Eiger Face" to the left
The Image above is a stock photo of avalanches crashing down either side of what would become the "Harvard Route" The sights and sounds of them crashing past just to the left or right was awesome. But so long as we stayed on that shallow buttress, the only thing that hit us were brief blizzards of flying ice and snow.
Avalanches heard steadily all through the night and day. The shock waves from some of them shook the tent. We will be damn lucky to make this climb in one piece. The Wall is shedding almost continually. It takes 45 seconds for an avalanche, breaking off ice cliffs at 14,000', to fall nearly two vertical miles.
Totally socked in today with snow and whiteout. No airdrop. Spend the whole day in the tents playing word games and poker dice. At 9PM the weather turns colder and the snow is not so wet. There is a steady roar of avalanches. Six inches to one foot of new snow. We start rationing food.
CHAPTER THREE: INTO THE CANNON'S MOUTH
June 23—Base Camp
Morning fairly clear, Rick, Dave and I go out to snowshoe out an airdrop site. All wet things are brought out and dried in the sun. All of us lay around and play poker dice on Ensolite pads in the snow. Weather starts to deteriorate about noon and we retreat inside the tents. No airdrop. We are on two meals a day to stretch the food.
We did get several hours of good observation of our route. Our buttress is the only part of the Wall not continually swept by the big avalanches. Only some snow avalanches have come down it. But we find to our concern that the buttress ends 1500 feet above the Peters Glacier. So our big sweat is that first 1500 feet.
Our first option is go up an easily climbable but exposed icefall that rises 1200' from the glacier. On top of it is a bowl which catches the big avalanches. We must cross this bowl, then climb a steep rock rib to its left to reach the beginning of our route up the buttress. It will take perhaps 20 minutes a trip to cross the bowl and if any poor SOB is hit then with an avalanche ain’t heaven or hell can save him. We hope this is the most dangerous spot of the climb. We can’t tell much about the high ice from here. The technical difficulties are, we feel, all surmountable. If the weather and the avalanches only give us a break we can do it.
All through dinner we hear the roar of avalanches. They never stop. What a face the Wickersham Wall appears from here! What a feat if we can climb it! Damn bad weather. Still snowing.
June 24—Base Camp
Morning dawns bright. Only puffy clouds here and there. Don and I go out and re-stomp the airdrop site. All of us lay around on our pads playing poker dice. Our two meals a day keep us fed, but a might hungry.
Sheldon does not show. Weather begins to deteriorate. Rick and I rope up and go up to reconnoiter the first part of the icefall on snowshoes. We go about 400 feet up it—enough to see that it is pretty easy going. We are where no one has ever been before. No avalanches fall during the hour or so we are up there. We do encounter small crevasses. We return and Dave and I serve up another glop for dinner. Afterwards it is decided by lot that Don and Rick will hike out for more food tomorrow is the weather is not really promising.
Dave and Hank will leave tonight to put the route up the rest of the icefall and into the bowl. All through the evening avalanches crash like mortars.
At 10 PM all hell comes down the face and into the bowl above the icefall and over the lip. The cloud sweeps to the bottom of the icefall and three minutes later the shock wave shakes our tents. Thank God it went off before Hank and Dave were in the bowl. Would have been really bad. Big problems are encountered even if you are not reached by the snow—the fast-moving avalanche cloud can suffocate a person easily. We all hope Sheldon will drop tomorrow. The SOB has had two good mornings and not shown.
June 25—into the Cannon’s Mouth
Hank and Dave snowshoed to the top of the icefall, to the avalanche bowl which we have christened the Cannon’s Mouth. They went clear across the bowl from right to left and returned before starting down. Their route up the icefall is fairly well-protected. The only difficulty is the fifteen-minute crossing of the bowl. Dave reports that the bowl is filled with huge chunks of avalanche debris and “looks like a battlefield,” as does the top part of most of the icefall. If we take this route it will mean that for fifteen minutes each way, each trip we will expose ourselves with no hope of protection to the super-avalanches which thunder over the bowl. About one super-avalanche seems to fall every day, plus dozens of regular avalanches. There would be little hope for anybody caught in the bowl. It would be like being hit by a swarm of express trains. Hank and Dave return about 4:30 AM. At six and at seven two super-avalanches fall and the shock waves shake our tent.
Morning—weather fairly good. No airdrop. At eleven, all of us are laying around on our Ensolite pads in the sun, playing poker dice. We hear the familiar roar of an avalanche and look up. Way above, at 14,000’, just to the left of our route, a big avalanche is building speed. It looks really big. Dave runs for his camera. The avalanche takes about twenty seconds before it reaches the top of what we've named the "Eiger Face," the rock face to the left of the bottom of our route. then crashes into its bowl with a huge roar It’s still coming! Now we are alarmed. The avalanche cloud rises, expands and blots out the sun. We are a half-mile away but the cloud is upon us in seconds. In a second we are in the middle of a howling blizzard. Three minutes later the cloud has passed and we are covered with snow and cursing. It is the biggest avalanche we’ve seen and certainly of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen. Wow! The whole view from base camp is super-impressive—just to look out and see that tremendous Wall of rock and ice and the roaring avalanches.
To date we have not seen any of the avalanches come down our route up the buttress—the only strip of the entire Wall where climbing is not totally suicidal.
2 PM. Rick and Don are picked by lot to hike out and get more food from our van since the airdrop is so late. It will be at least a three-day trip for them.
4 PM. A plane! It’s Sheldon! He buzzes our camp and drops a tin of food and a message wishing us luck and saying he’s got some frostbite cases but will drop in six hours. Hooray!
6 PM. Rick and Don, having seen the plane, return.
8 PM. Sheldon returns. We run up to our pre-arranged drop site but no! he starts dropping only feet from our tents. What a flyer! He comes in at about 30 feet and each box drops within a 30-foot diameter circle. We wave and shout and take pictures. He drops half the stuff.
John climbing up gully
10:30 PM. Rick and I rise and get on our climbing gear. Given the danger of climbing straight up into an avalanche chute, we will try to put an alternative route up a steep gully to the left of the icefall which emerges at the far left of the Cannon’s Mouth. This will lessen playing Russian roulette with the avalanches.
The gully is very steep ice in some places, rock, dusted with powder in others and verglas (ice)-covered rock in others. The verglas is horrible and will hardly take our crampon points. There are four pitches of bad ice and we cut a lot of steps for some and frontpoint up the others. Rick climbs wonderfully and I almost peel on a long stretch of steep rock and verglas. Near the top we must climb under hotel-sized overhanging seracs (unstable towers of ice). The night is warm and it had been snowing lightly and the icefall creaks and groans. So do the seracs. Brrr! We reach the top of the gully and go up one more pitch on rotten rock. It is obvious now that we cannot pack up this route. It is technically difficult and the seracs and lots of treacherous loose snow don’t make it much safer than Hank and Dave's snowshoe route.
Rick and I start to downclimb. The snow has stopped and the rising sun (2:30 AM) and the clouds and the glaciers and peaks to the north are absolutely spectacular. And we neglected to bring a camera! We downclimb swiftly, mostly frontpointing. No mishaps, which is good because there is hardly a spot for a good belay.
June 26. Up
4:00 AM, Rick and I return.
5:30 AM Sheldon returns and Pete is with him to throw out the rest of our food and also a letter saying 1) Chris has arrived and 2) Gmoser—the guy whose party climbed the right edge of the north face last week—thinks we are going to our doom.
The morning is fairly clear. We sort out all the drop stuff. Everything is there except one spare case of Wylers lemonade. Sob! Most of the food boxes are in pretty good shape.
We pad for the afternoon and eat at 8:30 PM. Fried pork chops. Ummm! A real treat.
At 10:30 we get up and start buckling on our gear. The scene reminds me of a wardroom of pilots or gunners getting ready for a fight. No talk. Tonight we will go into the Cannon’s Mouth.
Hank and Don will keep going and try to establish a route up a rock rib to a rock shelf at 7,100 feet. The rest of us will take food up and establish a cache at the left edge of the Cannon’s Mouth hopefully out of avalanche danger (6,650).
Climbing the icefall—into the Cannon's Mouith
Climbing the icefall—into the Cannon's Mouth
Climbing the icefall—into the Cannon's Mouth
Climbing icefall—into the Cannon's Moiuth
We climb the icefall by the snowshoe route, wanding our path. We cross lots of crevasses. I fall in one up to my neck but catch myself by jamming with arms and pack. We reach the Cannon’s Mouth, cross it as fast as we can and pick our way across some snow bridges to the bottom of the rock rib and make our cache (Camp I). Then we return to Base Camp.
Hank and Don return after having put the route in over the lower ¼ of the way up the rock rib that goes from the Cannon’s Mouth to the rock shelf. They report that the going was tough because of rotten rock but that the route will go. We all eat a hearty hot breakfast and pad.
Rick and I are more or less established as base camp cooks – which means we are two in a tent while the others are three. We have approximately ten days of Base Camp food but hope to leave Base Camp within five. All we have to do is complete our cache near the Cannon’s Mouth (now Camp 1) and finish the route up to the rock shelf (wihich will be Camp II).
It will be great when we are living on the face. Even at Camp I (1300’ above Base Camp) the scope and view are tremendous. We are now climbing at night, sleeping by day. A snowstorm starts at daybreak and continues for over 24 hours.
Did no climbing this morning due to continued warm, wet, sticky snowfall. Did nothing but play games, read and sleep all day. The storm stops in late afternoon and it becomes clear and cold. Tonight Rick and Dave go to put the route up the rest of the way to the rock shelf (7,100’). The rest of us pack loads up through the Cannon’s Mouth to Camp I.
This is a half-page from Hank Abron's climbing journal, giving you a sense of the technical moves needed to climb this steep and icy rock:
Pitch 4: Rick continues up couloir 80 feet to beginning of steeper snow (one piton). Pitch 5: Rick leads 70 feet further up couloir to bottom of 20 foot rock band which is climbed on small face holds, then 30 feet up 55° snow to rock outcrop on the left (two pitons). Pitch six: Dave traverses around corner 20 feet to the left on 35° snow, climbs back onto rock on the waist high outsloping block with verglass (5.5), Then continues 40 feet diagonally at juncture of rock and snow to belay stance (one piton). Pitch 7: Rick leads; from a steep tongue of snow there is a difficult move balancing up to a vertical block which is surmounted by a retable [essentially doing a pushup to a head-high flatter area] (5.4), then 25 feet directly up snow to rock protrusion climbed by another retable, and 30 feet up gentler snow toward rocks on the right (one piton).
We consider trying to get in two loads but snowshoe troubles and the late hour dissuade us. There is perhaps only 1-½ hours when the sun does not hit the hanging glaciers high on the north face. Only then can we be fairly sure that a super-avalanche will not get us. We figure that the hours for maximum safety in the Cannon’s Mouth are about one to three AM. Anything outside that is tempting fate a bit too much.
.One avalanche does hit the back of the bowl as I am leading across it. It scared the hell out of us for a moment. This kind of risk is an integral part of mountaineering—and of adventure. For perhaps fifteen minutes we are thumbing our noses at the Almighty. Not much could save us if He let a Big One go at the wrong time. Crossing the Cannon’s Mouth is one of the biggest thrills I have known.
We are all getting pretty blasé about the avalanches now and do not even bother to look up anymore unless we hear them start up high.
The terrain here is out of this world. The huge Wall enclosing us, the avalanche bowls, the Eiger Face to our left, the sunrises and sunsets—and our route, which is the one wrinkle in the massive Wickersham Wall which seems to protrude enough to deflect the deadly avalanches.
The Cannon’s Mouth is an awfully impressive sight—huge hotel-sized blocks and seracs, snow bridges, tons of avalanche debris—and the sheer ice walls behind which are the Cannon’s fuse. The Mouth itself is the apex of a funnel, which drains at least 1/3 of the Wall. It’s funny, all this ice, ice movements and exposed rock seems to be reviving my interest in geology.