Undaunted by the Wickersham Wall

Long before Yosemite was a climbing destination and Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Project was drawing the mainstream media to the Valley, climbing was a wilderness experience in the alpine. One of the greatest challenges of the 20th Century was the north face of Denali (20,237 ft./6,168 m.)

In a 2013 article of Harvard Magazine proudly proclaimed”Seven Harvardian’s Denali feat still unmatched 50 years later.” Rightfully so. The 1963 ascent of Denali that the article referred to filled many of my daydreams when I was in high school. It’s possible few climbs will surpass that ascent in greatness.

The students from Harvard, from its own Harvard Mountaineering Club, successfully scaled the Wickersham Wall. The name itself stung like a whip. It’s name given to the gargantuan north face of Denali. The wall rises from an ice fall, of cleaved glacial fissures, at a mere 5,000 feet, and then rises in a steep, and steady slope for 15,000 feet to the mountain’s modestly junior north summit.

The name of that wall was not merely to honor Alaska’s first federal circuit judge and one of its popular policymakers, but to honor the same man who was an Alaskan pioneer.

Ten years prior to Hudson Stuck’s first successful ascent of Denali and just shortly before Frederick Cooke tried to fool the world as the greatest explorer the globe had seen, James Wickersham organized a daunting quest to climb to the top of Denali. It was 1903 and the roads were far, the trails were not obvious, and the equipment was practical but may not have been efficiently functional.

The way up, it seemed to Wickersham, was a straight line up the north face from where the Peter’s Glacier ended. At first glance the path was simple and uncomplicated.

I have long speculated the feelings Wickersham and his four men, who threatened to flea several times, were thinking standing at the base of the north face. Despite witnessing rock fall and avalanches, they climbed to 8,100 feet on the Jeffrey Spur (named for one of Wickersham’s team members). Those same conditions pushed the determined, but inexperienced adventurers back to civilization.

When the Harvard Mountaineering Group traveled from Boston to the great north face, they climbed, as Harvard climber and respected climbing author David Roberts later explained, in a state of naivety. The avalanches and rock fall persisted, despite Bradford Washburn’s recommendation of a line that might be sheltered from them. But when the inexperienced college-aged climbers arrived, they didn’t know that the amount of rockfall and avalanches nearby were reasons to retreat. In reality, they scathed death.

I suspect that the route will one day be climbed again, but the conditions will have to be such to allow it and the climbers will have to accept more risk than the average climber would on a normal alpine route.

It still makes up my daydreams, but today, instead of thinking of climbing it myself, I consider what else is as challenging or as bold as the 1963 ascent of Denali. I’ll be looking…

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