Boston Globe

August 28, 1986


Author: Christopher Farley, Contributing Reporter

Bob Kaufman gazes through the window of his seventh floor office at Copley Place, where he works as a management consultant at Bain and Company. He walks through the plush offices, strolls through halls and looks through windows with vistas of other offices, and mentions that sometimes cities can swallow you up.

Mount McKinley is in Alaska. It is 20,320 feet high. It is the highest, coldest mountain in North America. This summer, Kaufman left his white walls and windows to climb the mountain. He had never climbed a mountain before. If you ask him why he did it, he can't tell you at first, and you know and he knows that "because it was there" isn't good enough.

McKinley's climbers often have an easy walk up the West Buttress path to its summit. And, according to Bradford Washburn, honorary director of the Boston Museum of Science and a specialist on McKinley, 754 people tried to climb the mountain last summer and 424 people made it. "! Some of the easy routes up almost need traffic lights," Washburn said.

"It's a mountain that can be extremely pleasant to you if you're lucky," he said. Then he added, "if you're not lucky, you can have storms that are incredibly bad. By bad I mean temperatures below zero and 120 mile-per-hour winds."

So McKinley's unpredictable clime can make simple routes complex and dangerous -- and bad weather can make McKinley one of the hardest climbs on earth.

An expedition up Mount McKinley begins with a short flight in a small plane from the closest town, Talkeetna, to the glacier base of the mountain. For his try, Kaufman was part of a six-man group that included three other climbers and two guides. They were going to try a new route on the South Buttress and elected to fly to a landing area near their climb site to save as much time as possible.

However, landing beyond the existing airstrips didn't work. "This is how our first South Buttress trip beg! an," said Kaufman, "with the very first plane that came in for a landi ng, crashing."

No one was injured, and the group called in another plane with tools to get the crashed plane back in flying condition. Then both planes left, leaving Kaufman and his group alone.

"The first feeling you have when the plane takes off is that there's no sign of civilization and you are sitting in the middle of this vast sanctuary. It's quiet. It's a great feeling," Kaufman said.

The new route proved to be easy going at first. The four climbers and their guides joked around, taking pictures and lingering over breakfasts.

"There were to be three parts to the trip," said Kaufman. "One was slogging across the glacier; two was doing the actual climbing. And three, which we never reached on this trip, would have been to somehow get up to the summit."

The climbers moved slowly up the mountain, making sure they became used to the thinning air. Climbing too quickly can cause cerebral edema, commonly called altitude sickness. Fluid builds i! n the brain bringing headaches and hallucinations. If someone reaches this point and doesn't descend, death can result. A cerebral edema victim may experience apathy, sit in the snow, refuse to go on. He may lose control of his muscles, go into convulsions.

So, while the climbers were taking their time going up, they were also taking care to avoid crevasses -- holes or depressions that may be hundreds of feet deep but masked by thin coverings of snow. The climbers were roped together for support in case someone did fall into a crevasse. And at one point, Kaufman did break through the snow and thereby became acutely aware of what he called "the indifference of the mountain."

"The first thing you have to worry about is that you have this heavy backpack on," Kaufman said, recalling the slip. "So you are sitting there hanging, and the very next thought that crosses your mind is 'wow, if this rope breaks or my partner falls in with me, the whole show's over with, fin! ished. The whole thing's going down deep into the darkness of this cre vasse and you are sitting there hanging from this rope and that's where you really feel the indifference of the mountain.

"It doesn't care. It's not human. It doesn't have any feelings or thoughts. And it's not going to give you a second chance."

As for the rest of the climb, things went from good to bad to worse. After three days of moving up the glacier, the trail began to narrow. Huge ice cliffs loomed above their path, providing a potential for McKinley's greatest danger, avalanches.

During the night, tons of rocks and snow are frozen together. During the day, the sun's heat loosens the ice and hunks of it and rock can come crashing down. "These things were just begging to drop on somebody," Kaufman said.

Still, the group continued on, passing under the more dangerous spots in the early morning before the sun had a chance to loose potential avalanches. Every once in a while, the climbers heard behind them the thunderclap of an avalanche, destroyi! ng an area they had just passed, wiping out their tracks, sometimes a quarter of a mile's worth.

After a week they passed through the most dangerous area of avalanches. "We thought the rest of the route would be a piece of cake compared to the dangerous conditions we had just come through," Kaufman said. But the route became even worse.

Safe paths became even harder to find. There was a storm, which held the group in its tents, eating up a week of time and a week of rations. Finally, according to Kaufman, the guide said "we're done." There was no argument.

"So we made a radio call and said we were withdrawing from the mountain," Kaufman went on. "Everyone was delighted to hear it because they knew we were 23 days into the trip and we had told them we had brought only 21 days' worth of food.

"We had been counting on finding a cache of food stored at 17,000 feet," Kaufman said, "so we wouldn't starve to death, but we didn't actually know if we coul! d find it or not. The conditions were terrible, avalanches were all ov er the place . . .

"But," Kaufman continued, "I had decided that I was going back up again. Solo."

Organizing another expedition would have taken too long. Kaufman knew that if he didn't go right back up again, he would have to get acclimated all over again. He didn't have the time. So he got supplies in town and headed back to the mountain. This time he chose the less difficult West Buttress.

But on a solo journey, even the "easier" West Buttress can be life threatening. Kaufman had to pass through a mile of suspicious snow -- heavy enough to mask crevasses, yet too light to support his weight. And there would be no partner or rope to help out if the snow gave way.

"Three or four times I heard these big 'whoomps' and I didn't know what it was, and even though none of them turned out to be a crevasse, I was spooked because I felt that nothing was sure, and also that if I did fall in, I would drop down into a slot and no one would ever see or hea! r from me again. Kind of a scary thing to do."

Washburn sees climbing McKinley alone as something more than "a scary thing to do."

"Anyone who climbs that mountain solo is crazy," said Washburn, who has climbed McKinley three times and made one of the earliest, most comprehensive maps. He called it "a game of Russian roulette," adding that unless he was roped to a partner he "would never step onto the damn thing."

It costs around $1,500 to fund an expedition, complete with airfare and guide. But Genet Expeditions, an adventure travel service in Alaska, said business has increased fourfold over last year. The McKinley ranger station reported a steady increase in climbers -- in the late '70s the mountain saw less than 200 of them a year and now it sees close to 800.

So why do people climb this mountain?

Well, on his way to the summit, Kaufman met and passed other climbers similarly bound, and eventually he reached it himself. There was a momen! t when he looked down on all the peaks that had once towered above him . They now seemed very small. It seemed strange and ridiculous that he had ever looked up at them. He says that's why he went. He took a picture.

Then he went back down.


Copyright 1986, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 00246361