Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

Going to great heights

For Ken Ruddy, AS '89, setting out last spring to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, was "a great personal challenge-physically, mentally and emotionally."

Though his first summit expedition fell a little short of the top, reaching the 16,300-foot mark of the 20,320-foot mountain, Ruddy says he wasn't disappointed.

"It was rough work with heavy loads in bad conditions, long days and not great food," he says. "You have to reach past what you perceive to be your limits. You find out your body can do a lot more than you thought it could.

"When you climb, you need to be conservative. Your goal is self-preservation," Ruddy explains. "If it's done for the glory of bagging summits, that can cause problems."

Mount McKinley, the North American holy grail for mountaineers, is one of the highest mountains on Earth, with its base at 2,000 feet. (Mount Everest, in comparison, is 29,028 feet high, but its base lies at about 18,000 feet.) Each year, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 people attempt the peak between the end of April and early July. Climbers are told that if the weather holds and if they have trained adequately, they have a 50 percent chance of "summitting."

Ruddy opted for May which is colder and generally clearer. The trip cost about $3,000, not including airfare or purchases of personal gear such as a sleeping bag rated to -40 degrees F. The trip lasted 26 days, with 21 days on the mountain.

A vice president of an Abington, Pa., building company that specializes in new home construction, Ruddy started climbing while at the University, as a member of the Outing Club. As his skill level increased, he taught other students and led climbing trips.

Over the past decade, Ruddy has participated in about 30 rock and mountain-climbing trips in a dozen states. He has scaled New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the Grand Teton's Owen-Spalding and Exum Ridge and Mount Baker in the northwest Cascades. Although he says he enjoys heading into the mountains any time of the year-either backpacking or climbing-he especially relishes the winter season, when he and his climbing partners have to cope with multi-day, sub-zero conditions.

"I use guided courses to propel me to the next level of climbing difficulty," explains Ruddy, who's recently gained considerable experience in ice climbing. "They are confidence boosters. About 95 percent of my climbing involves just one other partner on shorter, steeper rock and ice climbs."

For the McKinley expedition, Ruddy and his seven fellow climbers transported about 500 pounds of food, 18 gallons of stove fuel, tents, stoves and climbing gear-including rope, metal pickets, ice axes and ski poles-plus personal provisions of clothes, snowshoes, harnesses and sleeping bags.

"Each person had about 120-130 pounds of gear, total," Ruddy says. "So, what we had to do was make double carries, using sleds on the lower section. For example, we'd set up camp, make a carry up the glacier and cache our loads, return to camp to sleep, then break camp and move it to the cache. Or, we could leapfrog the cache the following day, carry the loads up to the camp and so on."

Ruddy explains that there are essentially six camps on the trek to the summit of Mount McKinley. Base camp is at 7,200 feet; Safe Camp at 9,400 feet; and a third camp is at 11,100 feet at the base of the couloir, or gorge. Three more camps are located further up the West Rib: Apex, or Wishbone, Camp at 12,800 feet; the Bergschrund Camp at 14,700 feet; and High Camp at 16,300 feet.

Dressed in multi-layers of clothing, the climbers tied onto a rope, keeping about a 30-foot length between them. With each uphill glide step, it was essential to maintain a precise tension on the line-taut, but not too tight-in case anyone fell into a crevasse, Ruddy says.

The Kahiltan Glacier where they climbed is a vast, moving carpet of uneven, steep snow. On the way to the Safe Camp, the team ran into problems with ice falls-crevasses opening up, leaving 4 to 5-foot gaps that had to be jumped. This area is known as the Valley of Death, Ruddy says.

The team established the Bergschrund Camp at 14,700 feet and then carried a load to approximately 16,100 feet (a few hundred feet below High Camp).

"We cached here because the winds were too strong for us to continue," Ruddy says. "We then returned to the Bergschrund Camp and spent seven more nights there due to the high winds, blowing snow and extreme cold. It wasn't until Day 19 that there was a weather window, allowing us to move up and off.

"We knew that even in marginal weather we had to move. When we went at 3 p.m., it was - 20 degrees F. with 30- to 40-mile-an-hour winds. The quickest way off the route from the lower section is to gain the ridge at 16,000 feet (where our cache was) and then descend off the other side to get to the standard (West Buttress) route and camp at 14,200 feet."

At about 15,000 feet, most of the team members were stumbling, their progress significantly slowed by the cold, thin air, he says.

"We then took two more days to descend to base," Ruddy says, "since our allotted time on the mountain was 21 days. Once we started moving, we did not wait for the weather to change."

The members made peace with their failed attempt and terminated the expedition.

"I wasn't disappointed we didn't make it," Ruddy says. "It would have been nice to get to the summit for a personal goal, but things just weren't going our way. As we ascended from the 14,000-foot plateau camp, we were able to look out to all the major peaks of the Alaskan Range. It was a spectacular, thrilling sight. Everyone on the trip had a good time."

The Alaskan expedition delivered the harshest weather compared to his other trips, Ruddy says, and the most strenuous day-to-day trek. But, he says he's had technical rock climbs of 26 hours that were much more intense.

"For me, the last 10 years have been a phenomenal experience. Climbing brings me rewards on many levels. Although, sometimes, it takes me awhile to get back to reality."

-Terry Conway