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?’”