Documentary revisits historic ascent in Kluane National Park

Robert F. Kennedy had never climbed a mountain in his life when he stepped foot on the tarmac at the Whitehorse airport in March 1965.

Robert F. Kennedy had never climbed a mountain in his life when he stepped foot on the tarmac at the Whitehorse airport in March 1965.

But by the time he left the territory he had conquered one of its highest peaks.

It was 50 years ago this week the iconic American was part of a National Geographic Society expedition that came to map an area of what is now Kluane National Park.

When Kennedy found out the team planned on climbing a mountain named in honour of his slain brother, John F. Kennedy, he asked to come along.

Renowned mountaineer Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest, would lead the team up the 14,000-foot mountain. He remembers calling Kennedy in Washington and asking him about the trip.

“I asked him if he’d ever climbed a mountain before, and he said no,” the 86-year-old adventurer said.

“Then I asked if he knew no one had climbed the mountain before and he said yes. He said he was getting in shape by running up and down the stairs and practising yelling ‘help’.”

The pair met for the first time on a plane at the Seattle airport, before flying up to Whitehorse.

Whittaker remembers Kennedy showing up with a yellow Abercrombie & Fitch rain jacket, which they quickly replaced with something warmer.

They hit it off right away.

Kennedy was a curious person. He spent the flight asking Whittaker about the sherpas who had brought him up Mount Everest in 1963.

But it was on the mountain where the pair developed a bond.

Climbing at a relatively slow pace, Whittaker led the team while Kennedy was about 60 feet behind him.

The rope that connected them was supposed to be tight, in case one of them fell into a crevasse, Whittaker said.

“All of a sudden I could hear him breathing behind me,” Whittaker said.

“I turned around and told him he had to slow it down a bit. He said ‘OK, but can you speed it up a bit?

“That’s when I knew we’d get to the top of the mountain.”

One night while high winds rocked their tent, Whittaker reached over to grab his parka, which had wolverine hair on it.

Instead he accidentally grabbed Kennedy’s famous hair, who yelled out in pain.

As the weather improved, Whittaker said it reminded him of the many Robert Service poems he’d memorized over the years.

“The Yukon is beautiful,” he said.

“It was sunny and you could see for miles and miles all around.”

As the team reached an area close to the peak, Whittaker told Kennedy he should be the first one to reach the summit.

“Bobby knelt there in the snow and that’s one of those climbs where the tears freeze on your parka,” Whittaker said.

Kennedy planted a flag with his family’s crest on it. He also left other items such as a copy of his brother’s inaugural address, his inaugural medallion and several PT-boat tie clasps used in the 1960 campaign to commemorate President Kennedy’s Navy service in Second World War.

National Geographic photographer William Allard captured the famous moment, and it was featured on the cover of Life magazine’s April issue that year.

Kennedy and Whittaker became close friends and spent time together right up until the politician was assassinated in June 1968.

Whittaker served as Kennedy’s presidential campaign manager and was a pallbearer at his funeral.

“The world would be a different place if he were alive,” Whittaker said.

This May, Whittaker’s son Leif – himself a two-time climber of Everest – will embark on a commemorative expedition to the summit of Mount Kennedy.

He and filmmaker Eric Becker plan on using a mix of archival and modern footage to create a documentary about the 1965 climb.

“I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” Leif said.

“We’re really excited to come up to the Yukon for two weeks in May. This is such a great story about two iconic Americans bonding.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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