This past weekend, noted environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and his family went on a rafting trip along the Alsek River in Canada's Kluane National Park. This was the first time that a member of the Kennedy clan had visited the Yukon in quite some time.
Nearly a half century earlier, Kennedy's father, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, became the first to climb Mount Kennedy, a 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) peak named in honor of the senator's brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Making a Mountain Out of a "Burble"
Bradford Washburn realized that someone had made a mistake. The Canadian government announced in 1964—about a year after the assassination—that it was going to name a mountain after President Kennedy. Washburn had heard a radio report indicating that the mountain the Canadians had chosen was 12,200 feet (3,718 meters) high.
"That's not a mountain. That's a burble!" he exclaimed.
Washburn spoke from experience. An accomplished mountaineer and explorer, Washburn had conquered many Alaskan peaks and was the first to climb the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. At Washburn's urging, the Canadian government reconsidered, choosing a different mountain to name for the slain president, a 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) peak in the Yukon's St. Elias Mountains, just to the east of the border with Alaska.
At the time, it was Canada's tallest unclimbed peak. As Washburn explained, with their choice, "the Canadians sought a mountain that had not previously been named, that towered lofty and magnificent, and that lay as close as possible to the international boundary, where it would endure as a symbol of the unique friendship that exists between our two great nations."
Off the Map
Washburn had discovered what would later become Mount Kennedy in 1935 when he led a National Geographic expedition to map an unexplored corner of the Yukon. He first glimpsed it and its neighboring peaks when he and his party conducted an aerial mapping survey in a single-engine Fairchild ski-plane.
"Here the map ended," Washburn later recalled. "It is hard to believe that ... a totally blank area of nearly 5,000 square miles [12,950 square kilometers] could still exist in North America so close to civilization. Yet it did. Maps labeled the area 'unexplored mountains and glaciers.'"
A New Expedition
While the 1935 expedition had greatly expanded the knowledge of this corner of the Yukon, there were still many unanswered questions. So in 1965, Washburn, then the director of the Boston Museum of Science, planned a new expedition.
This time around, the goal was to provide a detailed map of the 10-by-15-mile (16-by-24-kilometer) area that included Mount Kennedy and two other peaks, Mount Alverstone and Mount Hubbard. The National Geographic Society and the Boston Museum of Science were the sponsors of the trip, which was set for March.
Washburn's team would include several seasoned mountaineers, including Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather, who had participated in the first American expedition to Mount Everest in 1963. Also on hand would be National Geographic photographer William Allard.
When Senator Robert Kennedy heard about what Washburn had planned, he expressed an interest in being among the first to climb Mount Kennedy, and Washburn agreed. Asked by the New York Times why he wanted to participate, Senator Kennedy replied that it was simply "because the mountain had been named after President Kennedy."
The senator's wife, Ethel, offered a more playful explanation: "I think he wants to take his mind off the fact that he's not an astronaut."
A Novice Climber
Senator Kennedy came to this expedition with some challenges. He had never climbed a mountain before. And, as he admitted on the eve of the climb, "I hate heights. But I'm getting braver now. I've been up Everest three times in my mind."
The New York Times asked Whittaker if it was unusual for a novice to be part of a professional mountain-climbing expedition. "Yes, it is," Whittaker replied, "but Senator Kennedy is an unusual man."
The climb was not expected to be particularly dangerous, which isn't to say that it would be easy. The glacier-covered mountain featured treacherous crevasses and, with spring starting, melting snow sometimes caused avalanches.
There was also the X-factor. As Whittaker explained, "Any unclimbed mountain poses problems, and one doesn't know what those problems will be."
The Senator and the Mountaineer
Whittaker had initially declined to join the expedition, given the worry that such adventures caused his family. But he changed his mind when he heard that Senator Kennedy would be participating, as Whittaker thought he could help the senator on his first climb.
Whittaker recalled meeting President Kennedy in 1963, after Whittaker had been the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest:
"I ... will always have ... a very vivid mental picture of the smiling young President of the United States as he presented us with the National Geographic Society's gold Hubbard Medal on a glorious July day in the White House Rose Garden, only a few months before his assassination. Anything I could do for his family I wanted to do. I told the Society it could count on me."
When he first met Senator Kennedy, Whittaker asked him what he was doing to prepare to climb Mount Kennedy. "Running up and down the stairs and practicing hollering 'Help!'" the senator quipped.
On March 23, 1965, the team was ready for the ascent. They hitched a ride on a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter to the Base Camp at 8,700 feet (2,651 meters), where they stayed overnight.
The next morning, they made for the 11,700-foot (3,566-meter) High Camp. Senator Kennedy was roped between Whittaker and Prather. The climbers' gear included snowshoes, rubber overboots, crampons, an ice ax, and a ski pole to help with balance.
It took nearly eight hours of skirting crevasses on Cathedral Glacier for the group to reach High Camp, which consisted of two tents and a snow cave that had been carved into the glacier by an advance team. In silver spray paint on one wall of the cave had been written the words "Senate Chamber." On the side of the tunnel, it read "Members Only," echoing the signs on elevators on Capitol Hill.
There were blizzard conditions that night, but the climbers woke to clear skies. As they made their way to the summit, they encountered occasional 50-mile-per-hour (80-kilometer-per-hour) gusts and a 65-degree slope, but it was generally smooth climbing.
Senator Kennedy strived to distract himself from the work ahead. "I did this by seeing how far we would be in 100 steps," the senator later wrote in Life magazine, "or by reciting a poem and then determining how much progress we had made by the end of it."
At one point, Senator Kennedy fell into a crevasse to his shoulders, perhaps bringing to mind the advice his mother had given him before the trip: "Don't slip, dear." He carefully pulled himself out. Looking down into the hole, he was unable to see the bottom.
Nearing the summit, Whittaker encouraged Senator Kennedy to take the lead. "It's all yours, Bob," Whittaker said, and the senator took the final steps alone.
A Tribute to the President
Senator Kennedy brought a flag featuring his family's coat of arms to place on the summit alongside the U.S. and Canadian flags. The team had forgotten to bring the National Geographic flag with them so they improvised, making an impromptu one with a strip of a brown duffel bag sewed on pieces of fabric from blue nylon tent sacking and the green lining of a shirt. On it, they wrote the words "National Geographic Society."
Among the other mementos that Senator Kennedy took to the summit were a copy of President Kennedy's Inaugural Address, his Inaugural Medallion, and several PT-boat tie clasps used in the 1960 campaign to commemorate President Kennedy's Navy service during World War II.
Writing in Life magazine three years before his own assassination, Senator Kennedy explained the significance of that moment on top of the mountain:
"I planted President Kennedy's family flag on the summit. It was done with mixed emotion. It was a feeling of pain that the events of 16 months and two days before had made it necessary. It was a feeling of relief and exhilaration that we had accomplished what we set out to do. It was a feeling of gratitude toward Canada and the elements because the mountain and the views from it in all directions would I'm sure have greatly pleased the man after whom the mountain was named."