The Strange History of Mount Kennedy

In 1965, eight men made the first ascent of Mount Kennedy, a 13,944 foot peak in the Yukon. At the time, it was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. The first man to the top didn’t really belong there. In fact, he hadn’t climbed a mountain before—there’s little time to climb mountains when you’re a United States Senator. The other men were experienced mountaineers (two were on the first American team to summit Everest.) Why would they give up a notable first ascent to a novice who had no business on top of a mountain?

From his pack, the novice mountaineer took out a summit register, which contained three WWII PT Boat tie clasps and a speech given by his brother, who was shot and killed two years earlier while riding in a car in Texas. The ascent was a memorial, of sorts—in fact, the Canadian House of Commons named the peak in honor of the first ascensionist’s dead brother. And Robert F. Kennedy, on top of the only mountain he would ever climb, looked out at the spectacular arctic vista, a view he was sure would have “greatly pleased the man after whom the mountain was named,” as he later wrote in a personal account of the ascent published in Time magazine.

1American Royalty
The climb was supposed to be kept secret. Kennedy’s mountaineering gear was purchased  in Seattle under the pseudonym JR Williams. It didn’t stay this way for long: when he touched down at the SeaTac airport, Kennedy was greeted by hordes of well wishers. At his arrival in Whitehorse, Yukon, 143 miles from Mount Kennedy, there was another horde of people to see him off before the climb. There he met up with the rest of the expedition, which was originally formed to survey the mountain, a project organized by the Boston Museum of Science and The National Geographic Society. Both Robert and Ted Kennedy were asked to join the expedition in honor of their brother, but Ted was too ill to climb. (Ted after the climb in the New York Times: “I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher.”)

From Whitehorse, a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter flew them to the beginning of the climb at 9,000 feet – the perquisites of being a member of the closest thing America will get to a royal family. On the night before the ascent, the guides taught Kennedy how to self arrest with an ice ax, how to tie in to a rope and how to ascend a glacier with crampons. By their accounts, Kennedy was a quick learner and competent climber.

2Real Danger
That night, Kennedy talked with his guides about the mountaineering life. Many of them had lost friends on climbs, as have most experienced alpinists. Kennedy was scared to climb the mountain, as are most inexperienced alpinists. He had a “psychological distaste for heights.” Before the climb, a reporter told him that he had written up his obituary, just in case.

But the guides downplayed the sport’s dangers. “They insisted that politics was far more dangerous than climbing,” Kennedy wrote. And it’s partly true: The other climbers would live relatively long lives. Three years later, Kennedy would be dead like his brother.

The Climb
The next day, Kennedy, on a rope between two other climbers, was eager to reach the summit, and kept overtaking the leader. The lead climber had to increase his pace to ensure the proper order of the rope team.

The climbing wasn’t difficult, although to a novice it might have been Everest. Crevasses dotted the glacier; Kennedy fell into a narrow one, but only up to his waist, and quickly scrambled out. The mental crux of the route came just before the summit: a narrow ledge next to a sheer, 1,000 foot drop. Upon reaching the ledge, Kennedy, a man afraid of heights, “leaned on his ice ax and looked over for a while,” one of the guides said later. “If he felt any fear, he kept it to himself.”

Just before the summit, Kennedy switched positions with the leader, to ensure the first ascent was his. Four hours after leaving camp, he stood atop the summit, “an aerial armada of photographers’ planes” circling overhead, taking pictures.

Mixed Metaphors
Mountaineering traffics in metaphors. Many of them are of military origin: Climbers lay siege on mountains, and stay in camps. They make their final push on the summit, just as an army prepares the coup de grace on a weakened enemy. A summit can be “won.”

And to lay people, climbing a mountain is a facile metaphor for any activity that requires determination and endurance. Climbing the corporate ladder is like climbing a mountain. So is winning a football game.

Metaphorically, what was Kennedy’s ascent of Mount Kennedy saying? The whole thing seems to be a confusion of mixed metaphors, like the sentence of a bad writer. The mountain, named for the fallen brother, in a sense representing him, is the antagonistic force of nature against which the climbers pitted themselves. Was Kennedy trying to conquer the memory of his brother? To conquer death itself?

Further complicating matters, Mount Kennedy is a misnomer: it’s not a real mountain. It’s in fact a ledge on the shoulder of the much larger Mount Logan. So, Kennedy climbed a peak—an activity he had never done before and one that had never interested him—named Mount Kennedy, which wasn’t actually a mountain, to celebrate the life of the man after whom the mountain is named.

On the subject of the climb, Kennedy is a little vague: “I climbed the mountain for personal reasons that seemed compelling,” he wrote.

“How did I get myself into this?”
Kennedy also brought with him to the summit a three foot pole with a pennant of his family’s coat of arms. One of the guides advised him to bring it down – the inhospitable winds of the summit would have torn it to shreds within hours.

“I’d never go back up there,” Kennedy wrote. “It’s not exactly a pleasant experience. I kept thinking, ‘How did I get myself into this?’”

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