National Geographic : 1948 Feb
First American Ascent of Mount St. Elias BY MAYNARD M. MILLER EVERYTHING was set. On the icy shoulder of the mountain we had stamped out the drop square, 50 yards on a side, in deep new snow. The U. S. Army Air Forces support plane swept into view on its first drop run. Breath ing the thin, bitter air at 13,300 feet, we watched for precious food supplies to hurtle down, rations sorely needed to fuel our tired bodies the rest of the way to the top. Everything was going well. Above us swirling mists hid, revealed, and hid again the icy crown of Mount St. Elias, fourth highest peak in North America.* A mighty marker post on the Yukon-Alaska boundary, where Alaska's panhandle meets the "pan," the gleaming hulk of rock and ice soars 18,008 feet above the Pacific Ocean (map, page 231). It was July 13, 1946. We had waded ashore at Icy Bay nearly a month before. "I Felt Myself Drop" Then it happened. Unroped, with camera in hand, I stepped back a few feet from one of the tent pits we had dug out of the snow. I wanted to get both camp and approaching aircraft into my picture. Without warning, I felt myself drop. In stinctively, I spread my arms. By sheer luck, they held on the edges of the hole, abruptly arresting my fall. I don't think I breathed again until a couple of the boys ran over and hauled me out. Peering into the pit that had almost swal lowed me, I couldn't see bottom. It appar ently was part of a buried crevasse behind the cornice overhanging the 8,000-foot cliff in front of our Camp Ten. Then, after I had shaken the snow from my clothes and the fright from my heart, I looked on in dismay as the silver plane plunged through patchy fog on its last run. Two big boxes of priceless food tumbled from the aircraft's bellyand fell, not on the target area, but over the ice cliff, smashing to bits long before they ever hit the glacier far below. The pilot had overshot, but it was no fault of his. The weather was rapidly "going sour" and he had to let go through the thickening "soup" or not at all. That was the way it went. The "Saint," as we familiarly dubbed the great mountain, was ever alert to catch us off balance, as it had just caught me! Across our path it threw yawning crevasses, rumbling avalanches, and treacherous ice slicks. All these hazards we met with caution and strict safety technique. There were eight of us, seven men and one woman, all experienced mountaineers. Through the war we had buoyed our spirits with remembrance of our compact to join forces, after the "unpleasantness," to attack this great peak. The fruition of long planning and hard labors was now, it seemed, within our grasp. The Harvard Mountaineering Club Mount St. Elias Expedition was close to its goal. No American had yet stood on the summit of St. Elias. Sole previous conqueror of the peak was the illustrious Italian Alpinist, the Duke of the Abruzzi, who led an expedi tion to the summit in 1897, by way of the northeast ridge. Our approach was by the southwest ridge, a longer and more difficult route. Our climbing ropes held mountaineers from four corners of the United States: Andrew Kauffman of Washington, D. C., and his wife, Betty, who constituted the food committee; William Latady and William Putnam, from Cambridge and Springfield, Massachusetts, in charge of equipment and camps. Then there were the Molenaar brothers, Dee and Cornelius ("Kay"), Los Angeles nmen, respectively our photographer and me teorologist; Lt. Benjamin Ferris, from the Climatic Research Laboratory, Lawrence, Massachusetts, loaned to us as Army observer and medical officer; and myself, from Seattle, Washington, as leader. Keyed up with anticipation, our little party had flown from Juneau to Yakutat on the afternoon of June 12. Air Forces Give Support Through the interest of Gen. Carl Spaatz, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, (now Air Force Chief of Staff), and Brig. Gen. Edmund C. Lynch, head of the Alaskan Air Command, the AAF's Tenth Rescue Squadron had been assigned to give us air support as a practical training exercise. Ours was the first civilian mountaineering expedition to enjoy full-scale military aerial support throughout its progress. * See: "Mount St. Elias, Alaska, First National Geo graphic Society Expedition, 1890," and "Mount St. Elias, Alaska, Second Expedition, 1891," in the Cumu lative Index to the National Geographic Magazine, 1899-1946; also "Monarchs of Alaska," by R. H. Sar gent, July, 1909, and "National Geographic Society's Alaskan Expedition of 1909," by Ralph S. Tarr and Lawrence Martin, January, 1910.