The south spur of McKinley
In 1961, the mountain was not yet known as Denali. Very few new routes had been opened there. And since the peak sends huge ridges plunging over the surrounding glaciers, vast potential remains. At the pinnacle of his legendary talent, Riccardo Cassin opened the perfect route. Text: Claude Gardien.
West Buttress, opened from 4th to 10th July 1951, was to become a highly popular classic.Three years later, North-West Buttresswas in turn opened – a route that left no memorable mark, with the exception of Fred Beckey1, the Alaskan climbing legend, as a member of the group that made the first ascent. South Buttress, reached via the west branch of Ruth Glacier, enjoyed greater success.The opening of this long multipitch route, from 23rd April to 15th May 1954, was crowned with the first south-north traverse of McKinley. West Rib, opened from 7th to 19th June 1959, also became a much appreciated route.At this point in the mountain’s history, an Italian expedition headed for Alaska. Leader: Riccardo Cassin! He had come to repeat his Walker feat. He was no more familiar with Alaska than he had been with the Grandes Jorasses in 19382, and he was to take the obvious multipitch route, a safe and difficult option, that was to become the great climbing classic on the range’s highest peak. Carlo Mauri was the man behind the adventure. Unfortunately he had a skiing accident and was unable to join the expedition. Cassin contacted Bradford Washburn, director of the Boston Museum of Science, pioneer of Alaska and a talented photographer. He was the man who told Cassin of the south face. He gathered together a fine team: Luigi Airoldi, Gigi Alippi, Jack Canali, Romano Perego and Annibale Zucchi. The expedition began on a holiday note: tour of New York, meeting with Italo-Americans from New York and Anchorage, aerial reconnaissance with the pilot Don Sheldon (they dropped a hundred kilos of material on the wrong glacier, Kahiltna Northeast Fork, to the west of the south buttress, rather than Kahiltna East Fork), then bad weather, hunting and fishing around Talkeetna: Riccardo, a hunting enthusiast, relished in the experience. But the time had come to move on to serious matters: the weather had become stable on the mountain and Sheldon could take to the airs again. The pilot flew over the site where they had dropped their material, but could not land: the snow was too soft. On his return, he had to have his plane skids repaired and there was no point in counting on him to move equipment dropped in the wrong place. Enough time had been lost and it was on their backs and on improvised sleighs made from local snowshoes that the Italians recovered their parcels. Goodwin, Petrecca and Stocco, local alpinists who had joined the expedition, reached their limits over this arduous exercise. Riccardo tried convince them with much diplomacy that, higher up, they may have trouble keeping up... Goodwin nevertheless made a few incursions over the lower part of the route.
An impassable dihedral
The base camp was established, but not the good weather. At last, on the 6th of July, they began their climb of the corridor that was to take them to the buttress.Two days of climbing for a very modest progression. They wondered how they would make their way out of the corridor.Then the storm held them back at base camp. When they set off again, on the 9th,Alippi,
Top right: Riccardo Cassin at the base of the south face. He was 52. Opposite: Bradford and Barbara Washburn
on their honeymoon at the summit of Mt Bertha (Fairweather Range) in 1940.
Top left: Annibale Zucchi and Jack
Canali, frozen, on the descent.