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Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Leslie "Les" Viereck

Les Viereck was interviewed on May 23, 2000 by Dave Krupa at Les' home in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Les recounts his experience as a member of the Thayer Expedition who made the first successful ascent of the South Butrress of Denali in 1954. He recalls this climb not only as a remarkable achievement, but a tragedy due to the death of Elton Thayer. Les describes the climb and subsequent epic in great detail, adding fascinating observations about crew dynamics, observations on high altitude ecology, and the foodless trek across the Muldrow Glacier that he and Morton "Woody" Wood took in order to get help for the injured George Argus. Les also reflects on his ongoing commitment to protection of parklands, and the threats to Denali that come with increasing visitor use.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-06

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: May 23, 2000
Narrator(s): Leslie "Les" Viereck
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
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1) Background information, his introduction to climbing, and the move to Alaska

2) Moving to Alaska and meeting his climbing partners

3) Organizing and preparing for the Denali climb and the first ascent via the South Buttress

4) The seven day approach from the railroad station in Curry

5) Using photographs to select routes, and the group dynamics of the climbing team

6) The success of the airdrop, and the difficulty of climbing the steep face to get onto the South Buttress

7) The combined experience of the team and the process of cutting steps

8) The process of caching and relaying supplies, and the decision to traverse the mountain, rather than descend the South Buttress

9) Reaching the summit and the tragedy that took place on the descent

10) The fall resulting in Elton's death and George's injury, and the decision for Les and Woody to leave and go for help

11) Les and Woody's trek back into the Park after leaving George, all their food, and fuel

12) Organization and execution of the rescue of George, and the decision to leave Elton's body on the mountain

13) Climbing after the Denali trip, and his dissertation research at the University of Colorado

14) Continued research in the Park and involvement in building Camp Denali

15) Meeting his wife, and continued work on the Muldrow Glacier vegetation study

16) The attention the climb received in 1954 and changes in climbing on Denali

17) The problem of funding rescues, and possible solutions to the traffic problems on the mountain

18) The reception of pioneer style climbs in the climbing community, and his appreciation for the protection and maintained preservation of Denali National Park.

19) His son and daughter-in-law's attempt to traverse, and problems with air traffic in the Park

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Section 1: Massachusetts\ Dartmouth College\ rock climbing\ mountaineering\ Dartmouth College -- Outing Club\ Mt. Katahdin\ climbs -- winter\ education\ botany\ biology\ ecology\ University of Colorado\ graduate school\ mountain rescue group\ ski mountaineering\ Colorado\ Alaska -- move to\ Alaska -- employment\ mining -- coal\ Healy, AK\ Lathrop, Cap\ hiking\ Denali National Park\ climbs -- Healy, AK area|

Section 2: Fairbanks, AK\ Dartmouth College -- fellowship\ wildlife management\ University of Alaska\ Alaska -- move to\ Army -- draft\ Fort Richardson\ Army -- ski team\ Anchorage, AK\ mountaineering\ Wood, Morton\ Denali National Park\ Wonder Lake -- ranger station\ Thayer, Elton\ Argus, George\ climbers -- community\ Wilson, Bucky\ Mt. Drum -- reconnaissance|

Section 3: Thayer, Elton\ Denali -- South Side\ Mt. Drum\ Argus, George\ Fort Greely\ Army\ Wood, Morton\ climb -- organization\ National Park Service -- regulations\ Denali National Park -- headquarters\ train\ Curry, AK|

Section 4: climb -- approach\ Parks Highway\ railroad station\ Curry, AK\ Chulitna River\ Ruth Glacier\ Ruth Amphitheater\ Great Gorge\ Great Basin\ airdrop -- location\ Denali National Park -- Boundary\ National Park Service -- regulations\ airdrop -- Ruth Glacier\ Wood, Ginny\ Hunter, Celia\ Summit Lake\ snow -- conditions\ snowshoeing\ Chulitna River -- crossing\ ice -- thin\ Great Gorge -- ice fall\ messages -- snow\ Washburn, Bradford\ photographs -- use\ routes -- selection|

Section 5: photographs -- use\ judgement -- distance and height\ Ruth Glacier -- West Fork\ routes -- selection\ ice conditions\ Thayer, Elton\ decisions -- consensus\ climbing team -- compatibility\ weather -- conditions\ basecamp\ Ruth Amphitheater\ birds -- Snow Buntings\ South Buttress -- first climb\ climb -- traverse|

Section 6: climbers -- age\ Wood, Morton\ airdrop -- supplies\ Ruth Amphitheater\ messages -- snow\ crevasses\ packs -- weight\ gear -- relaying\ gear -- Army surplus\ food -- compact\ Thayer, Elton -- wife\ food -- "Logan bread"\ South Buttress -- steep face\ ice -- poor conditions\ Lotsa Face\ steps -- cutting\ weather -- storm\ slope -- exposed\ avalanche -- conditions\ ice pitons\ rope -- fixed|

Section 7: climbing -- front point\ steps -- cutting\ climb -- approach\ Thayer, Elton\ Wood, Morton\ climbing team -- experience\ Argus, George\ camping -- winter\ rope -- fixed\ climbing -- off rope|

Section 8: cache -- supplies\ weather -- storm\ supplies -- relay\ South Buttress\ Thayer Basin\ Karstens Ridge\ Denali -- North Side\ snowshoes -- carrying\ routes -- pioneering\ high camp\ summit|

Section 9: summit -- photographs\ down climb\ high camp\ Harper Basin\ Karstens Ridge\ packs -- weight\ ridge -- steep\ Thayer, Elton\ Argus, George\ rope -- fixed\ ice axe\ climbing -- fall\ Coxcomb\ earthquake -- effects\ fatigue -- effects|

Section 10" climbing -- fall\ rope -- cut\ Thayer, Elton -- death\ injuries\ Argus, George -- dislocated hip\ Viereck, Leslie -- injured ribs\ Wood, Morton\ gear -- locating\ fall -- recovery\ trail -- cutting\ Karstens Ridge\ Muldrow Glacier\ Wood, Ginny\ Hunter, Celia\ airplane -- fly over\ fly over -- missed\ signal mirror\ supplies -- food\ supplies -- gas|

Section 11: Argus, George -- injury\ rescue group\ tents -- homemade\ Thayer, Bernice\ tents -- quality\ Muldrow Glacier\ crevasses\ fear\ down climb -- difficulty\ McGonagall Pass -- no cache\ climbers -- Mexican\ McKinley River\ McKinley Bar Cabin\ Thayer, Elton\ food\ Denali National Park -- road\ Wonder Lake -- ranger station\ Kantishna\ Busia, Johnny\ National Park Service\ Pearson, Grant|

Section 12: climb -- overdue\ Wood, Ginny\ Hunter, Celia\ airplanes -- fly over\ Denali National Park -- headquarters\ Pearson, Grant\ Argus, George\ rescue -- organization\ Fort Greely\ helicopters -- limitations\ McGonagall Pass\ rescue -- on foot\ McCall, John\ Milan, Fred\ rescue crew\ Army\ Wood, Morton\ hospital -- Anchorage\ boots -- felt\ Thayer, Elton\ body recovery -- decision\ Thayer, Elton -- spirituality\ climbing -- inspiration|

Section 13: climbing -- Alaska Range\ Gulkana, AK\ White Princess\ climbing -- Colorado\ ski mountaineering\ climbers -- closeness\ University of Colorado\ graduate school\ dissertation -- research\ Muldrow Glacier -- vegetation\ moraine\ Viereck, Teri\ research -- small mammals\ Denali National Park\ American Geographic Society\ research -- glaciers\ Muldrow Glacier -- rapid advance|

Section 14: Denali National Park\ Camp Denali\ Wood, Morton\ Wood, Ginny\ Hunter, Celia\ Denali -- view\ Wonder Lake\ research -- wildlife\ Castlerock Lake|

Section 15: research -- edible plants\ Fairbanks, AK\ Geophysical Institute\ Dogpatch -- community\ Wood, Morton\ Wood, Ginny\ Herreid, Gordon\ Wilson, Bucky\ Denali National Park -- use\ Camp Denali\ bus -- shuttle\ camping -- children\ vegetation plots\ research -- vegetation\ helicopter -- fly in\ Muldrow Glacier|

Section 16: climb -- publicity\ Life Magazine\ Argus, George\ rescue -- attention\ Wood, Morton\ climbing -- interest\ Denali -- number of climbers\ Kahiltna Glacier\ Denali -- number of routes\ accidents -- NPS response\ mountain rangers|

Section 17: climbing -- risk\ rescue -- cost\ National Park Service -- regulations\ Denali -- number of climbers\ airplanes -- basecamp\ Denali -- North Side\ airplanes -- restrictions\ airdrop -- supplies\ Denali -- approaches|

Section 18: Fairbanks, AK\ climbs -- community reception\ Denali -- approaches\ climbers -- community\ climbs -- pioneer\ Washburn, Bradford\ climbs -- military\ Karstens Ridge\ access -- changes\ West Buttress\ Viereck, Teri\ Camp Denali\ dissertation -- field work\ Denali National Park -- preservation\ Kahiltna route|

Section 19: Denali -- immensity\ Viereck, Leslie -- son\ Viereck, Leslie -- daughter-in-law\ traverse -- attempt\ Anderson Pass\ Scott Peak\ Eielson Visitor Center\ helicopters -- tours\ air traffic -- problems\ Gates of the Arctic National Park|