Camera: Leica M3; Film: Fujichrome 35mm, Velvia 100
Connecting Generations through ice & snow:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Trailer: Return to Mount Kennedy
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
Alaska’s Big Five; Chapter Five:
Dall Sheep, Ovis Dalli dalli, can be found throughout Alaska’s mountain ranges. Dall Sheep prefer relatively dry country, their territory is the open alpine ridges, mountain meadows and steep slopes. They like to keep an extremely rugged “escape terrain” close at hand, and are not often found below tree line.
The rams are known for their massive curling horns. The ewes have shorter, more slender and less curved horns. The males live in groups and seldom interact with the females until breeding season, which is in December.
Lambs are born in late May to early June. Ewes usually reach breeding age at 3-4, and have one lamb each year after that. The lambs are most vulnerable during their first 30-45 days of life, and mortality rate is high during this time. Wolves, black & brown bears and golden eagles are the main predators.
Dall sheep horns grow steadily from early spring to late fall, but tend to slow, if not stop growing altogether, during the winter months. This leaves growth rings on the horns called annuli. These growth rings can help identify the age of Dall Sheep. In the wild, 12 years of age is considered old for a Dall Sheep, but rams have been identified as high as 16, and ewes up to 19 years of age. A Dall Sheep ram can weigh up to 300 pounds, with the ewes being about half that weight.
Between 1990 – 2010, Dall Sheep numbers had dropped by 21%, from 56,740 to 45,010. Numbers started increasing up until 2013, when a later than average snowfall put a damper on recovery efforts. Dry, heavy snow loads appear to have little effect on sheep population, but the heavy, wet snowfalls, with a frozen crust can make foraging and travel difficult. Freezing rain has also become more prevalent. All of these factors contribute to more avalanches, which have become a significant cause of death for Dall Sheep in the state.
The temperature on Easter Sunday reached 56F degrees in Fairbanks. The last time we broke the 50 degree barrier was on September 30.
My daily hikes have been taking place in the morning now. Partly, because the day is usually wide open for interpretation, but mainly because the snowpack is still firm early in the day. Breaking trail gets old in a hurry. The mukluks will be retired any day now for the rubber breakup boots.
Our length of day has surpassed 15 hours. In fact, length of visible light, has gone over 17 hours. The northern lights have been out, but they are already faint, unless they put on a show around 2am. Soon, we will not see them again, until late August.
Rabbits can be seen morning & evening, bounding over the massive piles of snow with ease. Already, the new brown fur is mixing with the white of winter. An owl can be heard at night, hooting off in the distance, and I have seen the tracks of lynx, but the wary cat has evaded my camera traps. Neither the owl nor the lynx seem to have put much of a dent in the rabbit population. The frisky bunnies seem as numerous, if not more so, than last year.
Plow it, and they will land:
At the end of last week, the annual plowing of Creamer’s Field happened. The old dairy farm is now a migratory waterfowl refuge. The field is used to tempt waterfowl away from Fairbanks International Airport. Fairbanks has an annual lottery on when the first Canadian goose lands at Creamer’s. It’s not as widely bet on as the Nenana Ice Classic, but it may be as closely followed. Creamer’s saw its first arrival on Sunday the 12th. However, for only the second time since 1976, it wasn’t a Canadian honker that landed first, but a pair of trumpeter swans. When I was out there on Wednesday, the swans were off in the distance and ducks were flying in, and landing on the puddles. The woodchucks are also out and about at the refuge.
This is the first month of April that I have spent in Alaska since 2003! I always leave around the end of March, if not earlier, to get some traveling in, and head to the Frozen Four Hockey Championship, wherever that may be held. It’s a bit odd for me to be here to watch the snow melt.
With the above average snowfall this past season, and the quick upturn in temperature, we are in for a very messy breakup with winter.