The clearing weather presented both a threat (mostly to our wallets) and an opportunity. As we pulled into Haines Junction, we debated our options.
The circle was nearly complete. Along with my 13-year-old son, my Alaskan friend Elizabeth and I had traveled from Juneau to Skagway, and over White Pass to Carcross and Whitehorse. Canoed on the Yukon River and soaked in the Takhini hot springs.
Should we venture out to the Kluane-St. Elias Ice Fields — the world’s largest non-polar icefields and the largest protected natural area in the world? The plane was small, the price steep. Plus, after packing so much in already, might we fail to appreciate the awesomeness of the ice fields?
I reminded myself — and explained to my son — that as a living-on-the-edge 20-something, I had emptied my bank account to take a similarly expensive flight to Glacier Bay National Park. Although it’s possible that I’ll get to Haines Junction again, I had to admit that it’s not likely. Hence, we went for it.
As the plane buzzed its way deeper into the remote ice fields, the pilot pointed out different peaks, including Mount Kennedy, named for JFK after his assassination, and climbed in 1965 by his brother Robert — the only mountain Robert ever climbed.
The expedition was the first attempt to climb Mount Kennedy. The highly experienced team included Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather, both part of the first American team to climb Mount Everest. Senator Robert Kennedy had been invited to join them, although he had a fear of heights and had never climbed any mountains (not even Mount Washington). He accepted the invitation, he said, “for personal reasons that seemed compelling” and he “returned with a feeling — apart from exhaustion — of exhilaration and extreme gratification.” Despite attempts to keep his participation a secret, word leaked out. The climb became a huge media event (for more, see newscast clip and other resources at the bottom of the post).
Robert Kennedy left several JFK mementos on Mount Kennedy, including his watch, a copy of JFK’s first inaugural address, and several PT boat tie clips.
In his Life magazine article, Kennedy wrote about how impressed he was by the climbers’ measured courage. The climbers told him that “politics was far more dangerous than climbing.”
Today, scientists study the ice fields to learn more about climate change. This past summer (2014), bad weather stranded a group of Japanese scientists for two weeks after their pick-up date, at the camp pictured below:
The plane landed at the Haines Junction airfield like a feather dropping to the ground. Behind the pilot, one passenger was suffering from the effects of motion sickness (it was messy). Even so, he was grinning along with the rest of us. Definitely not too much awesomeness.
After our flight, we camped at Kathleen Lake Campground, a $10 bargain that mentally reduced the cost of the flightseeing tour. The next morning, we took a dip in the lake, where average summer surface water temperature hovers around 52 degree F (11 C), just a few degrees less than what we are used to, but cold enough to render The Seal speechless.
Heading down the Haines Highway to pick up the ferry in Haines, Alaska, we passed by Dezadeash Lake. Although just a few miles south of Kathleen Lake, Dezadeash is a shallow bath tub known for its warmer temperatures (up to 65 degree F/18 C in summer) and many migratory birds, including Trumpeter swans.
Links and resources
Kluane Glacier Air Tours operates out of the Haines Junction Airport.
“The Strange History of Mount Kennedy,” by Sean Sullivan at The Clymb.
“Our Climb Up Mount Kennedy,” by Robert Kennedy. Reproductions of images and text from Robert Kennedy’s April 9, 1965 Life magazine account of his climb.
Below, news report Senator Robert Kennedy’s climb up Mount Kennedy.