In 1936, fresh off a sometimes-harrowing (by his own account) traverse of the St. Elias Mountains, mountaineer Bradford Washburn was funded by the National Geographic Society to lead a photographic expedition over Mount McKinley. The National Geographic Society-Pan American Airways Mt. McKinley Flight Expedition was planned in April after it became clear photos from the mountain itself were unsatisfactory for climbers and scientists who wished to explore the peak.
“Rising to such an altitude and in almost complete isolation,” wrote Washburn in a 1938 article for National Geographic Magazine, “it is virtually impossible to find a spot from which a truly undistorted view of its whole mass may be obtained.”
Washburn was determined to use, if at all possible, a multi-engine aircraft for the flights and a partnership with Pan American facilitated this selection. Based out of Fairbanks, the Lockheed Elektra flown by S.E. Robbins, who had previously landed on McKinley as part of the Allen Carpé Cosmic Ray Expedition in 1932, also included Robert Gleason as a radio operator. This brought a level of safety to the trips that Washburn felt was lacking in his St. Elias experience.
Circling McKinley, door open
The primary piece of photography equipment was a large Fairchild K-6 aerial camera on loan from the leader of the National Geographic’s Stratosphere Expeditions Division. There were also light filters, two DeVry movie cameras and film magazines for the aerial camera, which were loaned by the Institute of Geographic Exploration. The crew carried oxygen onboard, necessary for all work above 15,000 feet.
The three men and Washburn’s assistant (a distant relative named Lincoln Washburn) departed Fairbanks on July 12. Initially flying in a Fairchild 71, they circled the mountain to make sure the summit was clear above the lower layers of fog. After gaining visibility at 10,000 feet, “the peak rose, clear and distinct, into the deep-blue sky...” They radioed to Fairbanks for the Electra to be prepared and returned to gather their gear.
The passenger door had been removed from the Electra and Washburn sat on an old gas can while a rope tied to the cabin floor allowed him to lean out the doorway to better frame his shots. This was Washburn’s first experience seeing the mountain this closely from the air and he was awestruck, writing:
Every side except that which cascades down the Muldrow Glacier is guarded by an almost vertical cliff of rock or ice. The walls to the south, at the head of the Ruth Glacier, are the most stunning of all, dropping in a dizzying series of avalanche-swept crags and gullies for 10,000 feet to the almost-flat glacier surface.
Most impressive from the standpoint of sheer greatness, however, was the famous northwest wall. From the summit of the north peak, whose altitude is well over 19,000 feet, this side of McKinley drops in a terrific slope of glittering ice and rock — one unbroken, stupendous cliff — to the plains of the Kantishna, 17,000 feet below.
Robbins made a complete circle of both McKinley and Mount Foraker, maintaining a constant altitude of 15,000 feet. Washburn continuously snapped photos while Lincoln Washburn operated the movie cameras. As they rounded the western precipices a second time, Robbins climbed to 17,000 feet, steadily increasing in altitude until at 12:45 p.m. they reached 20,020 feet. This was the third circuit of the summit and by then they were less than a mile from the south peak and directly over the north. Washburn recalled there was virtually no wind, a particular “piece of good fortune.” But the temperature inside the open aircraft was rather uncomfortable, at 14 degrees below zero.
Significant, iconic photos
They returned to Fairbanks that afternoon and were unable to depart again for several days due to overcast skis in Fairbanks and a storm in the Alaska Range. On July 16, however, they took off at 9 a.m. and in 3 1/2 hours of flying obtained images of the two unphotographed sides of the mountain. The next day they flew northeast and used infrared film and a red filter to capture McKinley from a distance. Smoke from forest fires hindered their plans somewhat, but Washburn was able to obtain some shots of the peak from Fort Yukon, 295 miles away and both McKinley and Foraker from over the Chatanika Valley.
In the end, the expedition was responsible for some of the most iconic and significant photos ever taken of Mount McKinley ever taken, including a spread of two photographs showing the route the Stuck-Karstens Expedition took to successfully summit in 1913. (It also included a note pointing out where in 1932 the Lindley-Liek Expedition recovered an expedition themometer left by Hudson Stuck. The thermometer had recorded a temperature colder than 100 degrees below zero.)
“The work,” Washburn later wrote, “[was] successfully completed in less than a quarter of the time that we had expected it would take.” Everything came together perfectly— the weather was good, the equipment performed flawlessly and the choice of aircraft and pilot allowed Washburn to accomplish his goals fairly easily. There is, in fact, almost no record of Robbins from the entire expedition. He controlled the aircraft so professionally -- and maintenance was such a non-issue -- that Washburn was able to worry about everything else and aviation simply got him to where he needed to be to make historic photographs.
The National Geographic Society-Pan American Airways Mt. McKinley Flight Expedition effectively proved that aerial photography was crucial to understanding the world’s peaks and, just as importantly, that airplanes were up to the challenge of showing climbers the highest points on the earth. Now they just had to prove themselves capable of physically getting back on the mountain, and making takeoffs and landings commonplace on Denali.
Colleen Mondor is a former dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based air carrier. Her book, The Map Of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, details her years working in the Alaska aviation industry. You can contact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.