A friend recently sent me this photo. I came back to Minnesota a year after first driving up to Alaska, because I needed a pickup, and vehicles can be expensive in Alaska, and often beat on. I forget all of the details, but it’s possible, I simply wanted to drive the AlCan again.
I found a 1966 Chevrolet C20, Camper Special in one of the auto trade magazines that were around back at the time. It came with bald, bias-ply tires, but a sound 327 engine, and a rather smooth ride, compared to my Bronco. I didn’t have anything in the trailer that belonged to me, but the canoe riding on the top is mine. I sent my Dad into a state of mild depression, when he saw what I was about to drive for 4000 miles.
I bought a set of tires, replaced all fluids, hoses and belts, and the truck made it to Alaska without so much as a hiccup.
Last summer, back in the days when I was volunteering to self-isolate, I was out at a lake cabin and happened to see a wildfire gets its start from lightning.
The following day, a pair of water scoopers showed up at the lake. They would fly overhead, bank around the lake, skim across the top of the lake, picking up their load of water, then take off again to fly back to the fire. The two aircraft made the roundtrip from fire to lake to fire, all day long.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the people of Canada wanted to honor the slain president. In November 1964, the Canadian government, following the suggestion of famed mountaineer, photographer and cartographer, Bradford Washburn, elected to name an unclimbed peak in the St Elias Mountain Range, Mount Kennedy.
RFK on Mount Kennedy
The mountain lies 145 miles from Whitehorse, YT, within Kluane National Park, and less than 10 miles from the Alaska panhandle. Mount Kennedy forms a triangle with Mount Alverstone and Mount Hubbard. At the time of the dedication, the mountain was the tallest (13,944 ft) unclimbed peak in the St Elias range.
National Geographic put together a team to make the first ascent of Mount Kennedy in 1965. The team was led by Jim Whittaker, who had been the first American to climb Mount Everest, and was made up of mostly experienced mountaineers. Also making the climb: Bobby Kennedy, to honor his fallen brother.
Jim Whittaker & Robert Kennedy on the summit
On 24 March 1965, the climbers made for the summit. This was Kennedy’s first taste of mountaineering. To add to the tension, RFK was no fan of heights. The other climbers insisted that politics was far more dangerous than climbing mountains, which would prove prophetic.
Crossing the Cathedral Glacier, Kennedy fell into a crevasse. Luckily, it was a narrow one, and he only went in to the waist, and quickly scrambled out. The final run to the summit is the most risky, as the climber has to traverse a narrow ledge with a sheer one thousand foot drop.
Photos credit: Whitehorse Star
Jim Whittaker and Bobby Kennedy would become good friends on the climb, a friendship that would last until Kennedy’s death. Whittaker would name one of his sons after the U.S. Senator.
50 Years Later:
The Whittaker Brothers
Fifty years after the original ascent of Mount Kennedy, the two sons of Jim Whittaker wanted to honor their father and his friend Robert Kennedy. They decided to climb the mountain themselves.
Leif Whittaker is an experienced climber like his father, but Bobby Whittaker had more experience in Seattle’s Grunge Scene than summiting mountains. Christopher Kennedy, the son of RFK, would join the Whittakers on the expedition.
Return to Mount Kennedy is the documentary about the two ascents. The footage from the original climb is pretty impressive to see.
I saw a screening of the documentary prior to the Coronavirus outbreak. It was put on by REI, the outdoors store, which had Jim Whittaker as its early CEO.
The documentary is available on several streaming platforms. The original National Geographic story can be found in the July 1965 edition of the magazine.