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Landings on Mt. McKinley in 1932 opened new era of exploration

Colleen Mondor

In 1932, Allen Carpé, a research engineer with Bell Laboratories in New York who was also an accomplished mountaineer, received a grant to collaborate with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Compton on investigating cosmic rays in Alaska. Compton was organizing expeditions to measure the rays in locations around the world, and Carpé was tasked with putting together a group that would test their measurements at 11,000 feet on Muldrow Glacier, which sits on the flanks of Alaska's Mount McKinley. To give his climb a greater chance of success, Carpé decided to do something unheard of at the time and contacted aviation companies in Alaska to discuss the viability of landing on the glacier.

In 1930, Matt Nieminen and mechanic Cecil Higgins flew over the summit of McKinley and in 1931 Robbie Robbins flew two climbers to the 15,000-foot level so they could photograph a potential climbing route. As all of them were with Fairbanks-based Alaskan Airways, it made sense that this would be the air carrier of choice for Carpé.

Pilot Joe Crosson: Many firsts 

Joe Crosson, hired by the Fairbanks Airplane Company in 1926, is the pilot who flew the first commercial flight to Barrow in 1927 and two years later found the wreckage of Ben Eielson’s Hamilton aircraft in Siberia. He said he could land on McKinley. As operations manager of Alaskan Airways, Crosson was in a perfect position to coordinate the aviation portion of the expedition. Carpé arranged with another group of climbers, the Lindley-Liek party who were making an attempt on the summit, to haul 800 pounds of scientific gear up by dogsled. In April he, Edward Beckwith and Theodore Koven met Crosson in Nenana to attempt their flight to the glacier.

Writing later in the “American Alpine Journal,” Beckwith described the meeting:

The plane finally landed on the river and I secured good movies of Crosson greeting Carpé and Koven. He was a strong-looking Alaskan, weighing over 200 pounds, and seemed unconcerned at the prospect of attempting to land on the untried slopes of McKinley.

The plane was an enclosed, single-motore, Fairchild monoplane of 450 horsepower. With all baggage on board, we were in such close quarters that there was hardly room to use my movie camera.

Crosson had explained previously that landing at 11,000 feet was impossible due to the excessive ground speed needed at that altitude for takeoff (more than 100 mph, he believed). Instead, they aimed for a suitable landing site at 6,000 feet. As Beckwith recalled, Crosson made several passes over the glacier and then, after discussion with Carpé, dropped down with “no difficulty whatever on about the middle of the glacier.” They determined the altitude was slightly above 6,000 feet (though it has also been reported as low as 5,600 feet). “Carpé was delighted and shook hands with Crosson, who took it much as a matter of course and lit a cigar before leaving the plane.”

Windy takeoff

The plan was for Crosson to leave the party on the glacier where they would set up main camp and begin planning their hikes to various spots to conduct measurements. Crosson was to return to Nenana and await the arrival of the other two members of their party, who were traveling by ship to Seward and then taking the train north. Clouds quickly descended upon the group as they unloaded the aircraft,  however, and the wind picked up. Crosson taxied for some time before he reached the necessary 70 mph to gain altitude and the scientists saw him lift off in the distance. When he did not circle back overhead they became concerned however and Carpé and Koven skied off to check that he had not crashed. The men found no sign of the aircraft but a few hours later, as they set up camp, Crosson appeared. He had hiked several miles in snowshoes after leaving the plane when he was unable to gain enough altitude to clear the ridge. He was, according to Beckwith, “the same as usual -- calm and matter-of-course.” The aborted takeoff was a bit tricky however, as local newspapers later reported:

Crosson got the plane up to 300 feet once but a downdraft of wind forced him down to the glacier. The plane came down gently and as it did so another blast of wind started to lift it.

From then on, the flier’s efforts were devoted to holding the ship down. He finally succeeded in doing so and by dint of hard work was able to fold back the wings, which removed the danger of the plane being blown about.

Crosson trudged back to the camp and spent the night there. By next morning the wind had blown down and he took off at 7:45.

 

Beckwith accompanied Crosson to Nenana so they could pick up the other two members and some more supplies in a second aircraft. The return trip to Denali required they all fly out on wheels however and then stop over on Birch Lake for skis. The thawing Tanana River could no longer be trusted, although Beckwith was able to record a novel Alaska event, witnessed the award of the Alaska Ice Pool, which paid out $60,000 that year when the ice went out 11 a.m. May 1.

On May 3, Crosson flew Nicholas Spadevecchia and Percy Olton, (who had never been in an aircraft before) in the Fairchild, while Beckwith traveled in a Stearman with pilot Jerry Jones. Upon reaching the main Muldrow Glacier camp they found a note from Carpé informing them the two scientists were up at the 11,000-foot level in a satellite camp. Beckwith and Crosson took off again and dropped supplies to the men, one of whom waved from the tents. It was the last time either was seen alive.

In the days that followed, Beckwith became ill and by May 10 his condition was serious. Spadevecchia set out that day for Stony Creek, 35 miles away, with enough food for six days. He believed a ranger’s tent and telephone was there. Two days later the Liek-Lindley party arrived at the lower Muldrow camp with terrible news. On their return from the summit they had found the body of Theodore Koven about 100 yards from a crevasse. They chose not to investigate the crevasse itself due to the risk and also, sadly, because even if Allan Carpé was still alive they would not have been able to help him. Koven’s body was wrapped and left in a marked spot for later recovery. As Beckwith awaited transport off the mountain, it was clear the Cosmic Ray Expedition was over.

Sea of mud takeoff 

The Liek-Lindley climbers reached the ranger station and reported the deaths of Carpé and Koven and Beckwith’s illness. Crosson was in Barrow with a film crew on a charter for MGM, so on May 16 Jerry Jones was tasked with flying the rescue mission. Birch Lake was no longer frozen but skis were necessary on the glacier. Somebody came up with the novel idea to have the Fairbanks Fire Department flood the dirt runway at Weeks Field and create a sea of mud for takeoff. As later reported in the News-Miner, Jones and his Stearman “slid over the mud until 10 feet from dry ground, when Jones lifted the plane sharply.” Within a short time he was touching down on the Muldrow Glacier, where he packed up Beckwith and returned him to town. Olton stayed behind in case Spadevecchia, who had not been heard from for nearly a week, returned.

In the following days a hunt began for the missing scientist, organized by Beckwith in Fairbanks, who’d recovered from his illness. Thankfully, Spadevecchia returned to the camp on his own but after Robbie Robbins broke an axle on the Stearman on his May 19 landing, it was decided there would be no more flights in the immediate future to the mountain. Parts were dropped to Robbins who flew out alone, at the lightest weight possible. Olton and Spadevecchia safely hiked out in the company of two rangers who arrived on foot having been dispatched days earlier. In the coming months members of the Parker-Browne Expedition recovered Koven’s body and also the two men’s personal effects (including Allen Carpé’s expedition diary), their cameras, and four film packs, which produced impressive photographs of Denali. Their cosmic ray measurements proved to be significant and as Beckwith noted, “the scientific objective of the expedition was therefore partly carried out.”

6 successful landings 

Ultimately, the 1932 expedition resulted in six successful landings on Mount McKinley, (three by Crosson, two by Jones and one by Robbins), proving that the aircraft’s time in mountaineering had arrived. But the loss of two men of science, the first fatalities on the mountain, make it an unforgettable episode in Alaska history. Allen Carpé and Theodore Koven were trying to understand more about our world, and sought knowledge, not glory, on Denali.

Alaskan Airways enabled them to achieve their goals much more quickly. The Cosmic Ray Expedition proved the days of the 19th century explorer were clearly over. The skies were now the answer to achieving the difficult, with opportunities that looked limitless.

For more information see Edward Beckwith’s article: “The Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, 1932” in American Alpine Journal 2 (1933) and Dirk Tordoff’s article “Airplanes on Denali” in the Fall 1994 issue of Alaska History.