Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a wave of tributes and memorials commemorated him around the world. One such memorial was the naming of a mountain in Canada – Mount Kennedy. Here, Christopher Benedict explains the story of how JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, attempted to make the first ever ascent of the mountain.

 The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

Difficult and Perplexing Times

There is no setting the clock on grief. Tragedy does not come with a catch-all instruction manual to help survivors cope in some uniform fashion with the incomprehensible. Retreating into a cocoon of counter-productive and self-destructive tendencies-denial, despondency, and inactivity-may suffice for most people. But, Robert F. Kennedy was not most people.

Which is not to suggest that he was impervious to such things. In the time spanning Jack’s murder and his own, he took to wearing his brother’s naval jacket, literally cloaking himself in sorrow. However, he also accepted this most wretched of calamities as a provocative personal challenge. To struggle against the stagnation of pre-conceived notions and overcome confidential fears and ideological obstacles to achieve forward progress in his own thought process and, therefore, of the society of which he was an active participant and public servant.

“He had always been a taker of risks from that day, so many years before, when he had thrown himself off the yawl into Nantucket Sound in his determination to learn to swim,” historian, Special Assistant to the President, and family friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote of Bobby, “and John Kennedy had said he had shown either a lot of guts or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it.”

When the National Geographic Society proposed that the surviving Kennedy brothers Robert and Edward join the assemblage of experienced climbers seeking to be the first to ascend the Canadian mountain peak named for their fallen brother, a horrible plane crash less than seven months after Jack’s assassination, in which Ted suffered three broken vertebrae, two cracked ribs, and a collapsed lung, removed him from the equation.

It would have been more than understandable had Robert, terrified of heights and otherwise “rash but not reckless” in Schlesinger’s estimation, begged off the expedition, especially given the perilous nature of recent circumstances. For most people, this would have been perfectly acceptable. But, again, Bobby was not most people.

 

Lofty and Magnificent

Tributes to the martyred President John F. Kennedy emanated from all points on the globe common and obscure, his name and/or likeness affixed to coins, plaques, statues, stamps, streets, high schools and law schools, office buildings, an international airport in Queens, New York, the former Plum Pudding Island in the South Pacific from which Lt. Kennedy and his surviving PT-109 crew were rescued during World War Two after their craft had been demolished following an encounter with a Japanese destroyer.

The Canadian government had something in mind on a much grander scale. Though initially, in the opinion of Bradford Washburn, not grand enough. Washburn, founder and director of Boston’s Museum of Science, was a cartographer and mountaineer with an impressive list of first ascents to his credit, most notably the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

He urged the Canadian Parliament to reconsider their original choice for Mount Kennedy, a 12,200-foot peak which he referred dismissively to as “a burble”. The uncharted 14,000-foot Yukon mountain near the Alaskan border that he had in mind was one Washburn had discovered himself from a Fairchild ski-plane during a 1935 mapping mission for National Geographic. Thirty years later, he was now gathering a survey and summit party on behalf of National Geographic and the Boston Museum of Science to set out for Mt. Kennedy and its two adjoining peaks. The expedition would include in its ranks Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963, Barry Prather, who was a support member of the 1963 team but fell ill with pulmonary edema and was unable to continue, Mount Rainier park ranger Dee Molenaar and fellow Washington state native George Senner, British Columbia Mountaineering Club member James Craig, National Geographic photographer William Allard, and last  - but not least - New York Senator Robert Kennedy.

Asked by Whittaker about his training regimen for the upcoming journey, Bobby joked, “Running up and down the stairs and hollering, help!”

Lightheartedness was a fine defense mechanism to ward off the fear which must have been substantial to a novice climber. Even Whittaker worried over the potential for avalanches caused by melting spring snows, not to mention the concerns inherent to exploring uncharted territory where “one doesn’t know what those problems will be.” 

 

 Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available  here .

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available here.

Commitment of Body and Mind

His first actual sighting of the mountain came, “lonely, stark, forbidding” Kennedy recalled, on March 23, 1965 from a relatively safe sixty-mile distance in the confines of a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter. The team members were deposited at 8,700 feet where Base Camp One had been established on the newly christened Hyannis Glacier for their first night’s stay. The following morning, the expedition gained an additional 4,000 feet of elevation over the unwelcoming terrain of Cathedral Glacier to reach the High Camp through a snowstorm that, by early evening, had developed into white-out blizzard conditions. This turn of events threatened the next day’s planned summit attempt.

Fortunately, wrote Robert Kennedy for his Life cover story, “during the night the snow stopped, the stars became bright, and the northern lights appeared over the ridge of the mountains.” As picturesque as it was propitious for the task at hand, their tents were nonetheless buffeted by 50 mph winds which “made sleep impossible” but also “either cleared or packed the fresh snow which had fallen and made our climb to the summit that much easier.” Not that it would be free of near disaster.

After waking at 6am to amenable temperatures of 5 above 0 for a breakfast of “soup, mush, and chocolate bars”, the climbers geared up and set off on their final assault at 8.30am. Bobby had learned well from his mountaineering mentors who were all duly impressed with the Senator’s efforts. He was, after all, a veteran of the legendary Kennedy football games on the front lawn at Hyannis Port which would not uncommonly end in bloody noses and bruised egos for brothers and sisters alike. He kept his attention on the progress of “how far we would be in 100 steps” but would also create a diversion in his mind by way of mentally reciting poems as well as passages from Churchill and Emerson. It was not for lack of focus, but simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that Bobby, negotiating a 65-degree incline, suddenly plunged into an icy crevasse up to his shoulders. Quickly pulled free, he looked down from whence he emerged unable to see the bottom, pondering in retrospect the advice given by his mother Rose: “Don’t slip, dear.”

 

What Am I Doing Here?

“I had three choices: to go down, to fall off, or to go ahead”, reflected Bobby, who was told by a newspaper reporter prior to his departure that he had already written Kennedy’s obituary. With the grim determination for which he was famous (and feared), he reassessed that “I really had only one choice.” 100 feet from the summit, the ridge flattened and widened considerably and it was about here that he was untethered from his rope team of Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather.   

Whittaker, who had been awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by President Kennedy during a Rose Garden ceremony a mere four months before JFK was killed in Dallas, was the first to selflessly urge Bobby ahead of the pack of proud and accomplished climbers so that he could be the first man to set foot on the summit of Mount Kennedy.

Ironically, at approximately 1pm Robert Kennedy unfurled and planted at the pinnacle of the mountain a three-foot tall flag bearing his family’s crest - the official moment of death ascribed to his brother. He also set in the snow, “with mixed emotion”, two PT-109 tie clasps as well as a golden inaugural medallion which complemented the bound copy of the President’s historic “Ask Not” address encased in plastic. “It was with a feeling of pain that the events of 16 months and two days before had made it necessary,” Robert later wrote. “It was a feeling of relief and exhilaration that we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

Happy to be home, Kennedy would neither scale another mountain nor entertain the desire to do so. Removed from the immediacy of quick thinking and physical exertion necessary in the present moment, however, Bobby was finally able to treasure the views and elements which “I’m sure would have greatly pleased the man for whom the mountain was named.”

 

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Sources

  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)
  • Our Climb Up Mt. Kennedy by Robert Kennedy (Life Magazine, April 9, 1965)
  • Mountain Tribute to JFK Evoked by Kennedy Trip to Yukon by Michael Jourdan (National Geographic, August 5, 2013) 
  • The Strange History of Mount Kennedy, http://www.theclymb.com/stories/out-there/the-strange-history-of-mount-kennedy/