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Leon "Pete" Sinclair

Pete Sinclair was interviewed on May 8, 2000 by Dave Krupa at The Elliot Bay Bookstore/Café in downtown Seattle, Washington. In this interview, Pete describes the famous 1959 first ascent climb of Denali's West Rib, shares stories of other Alaskan adventures, and gives a superb description of his climbing career and work as a climbing ranger in Wyoming. Pete's account is both compelling and humorous. He also discusses group dynamics, dealing with crises, decision making and risk taking, changing attitudes amongst climbers, and issues of overcrowding on Denali.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-04

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: May 8, 2000
Narrator(s): Leon "Pete" Sinclair
Interviewer(s): David Krupa
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Personal background, and growing up and moving around during the Depression

2) Hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and eventually getting into rock climbing in college

3) Getting together in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and planting the seeds for the Denali expedition

4) Routes up Denali, saving money, and preparations for the climb

5) Getting a permit and a physical to drive to Alaska

6) What climbing has become today and the drive to Talkeetna

7) Flying with Don Sheldon and his expression "waiting for parts"

8) Sheldon relaying in the team.

9) Some problems due to the change in altitude and the beginning of the climb

10) Beginning of the climb and initial obstacles

11) Inspecting routes and deciding whether or not to turn back

12) Climbing on steep, hard snow and his first time using crampons

13) The decision to move on and the view from Balcony Camp

14) Reaching the summit and the beginning of the descent

15) Searching for and eventually finding a buried cache and descending in white-out conditions

16) Crossing the glacier and group dynamics

17) Coming face to face with a huge crevasse, Don Sheldon arrives, and the story of Jake Breitenbach nearly getting strangled

18) Jake Breitenbach's innovative equipment and the team's "chemistry"

19) What holds a team together and what can split it up

20) Dealing with fear as things get rough, and being aware that there is no backup plan

21) Showing a famous photographer around Alaska

22) Climbing as an inspiration for writing, and the works of Harold Tilman and Eric Shipton

23) Becoming a professional climber and its disadvantages

24) Pete's interest in philosophy and literature and his decision to teach

25) Sending a manuscript to the New Yorker and the reception of his writing

26) The changing attitude towards publicity and fame in climbing

27) The problem of overcrowding on Denali and the resiliency of the mountain

28) The attitude of rescuers and comparing skills of older and younger rescuers

29) An exceptional moment in his climbing career

30) The role of intuition in risk taking

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

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Section 1: Chouinard, Yvon\ Maine\ Depression\ World War II\ Rhode Island\ Dartmouth College\ Boy Scouts\ Norfolk, CT\ Navy base\ countryside|

Section 2: Boy Scouts -- counselor\ New Hampshire\ White Mountains -- hiking\ hiking -- speed records\ Breitenbach, Jake\ Dartmouth College\ rock climbing\ high school -- running\ Army\ Navy\ training -- officer\ ROTC|

Section 3: military -- draft\ Army\ Corbet, Barry\ Breitenback, Jake\ Jackson Hole, WY\ skiing\ ski patrol\ Buckingham, Bill\ Forest Service\ Teton Mountains\ school -- dropping out\ Neale, Sterling\ Plummer, Carlos\ climbing\ Denali|

Section 4: Washburn, Bradford -- book\ Denali -- South Side\ Mt. Moran\ routes -- first ascent\ Cassin Ridge -- route\ West Rib\ skiing -- season\ Corbet, Barry\ Big Piney, WY -- oil fields\ Vancouver, B.C.\ writing\ Buckingham, Bill\ Princeton University\ Breitenbach, Jake\ University of Washington|

Section 5: Breitenbach, Jake\ Corbet, Barry\ Alaska -- drive\ physical exam\ doctor\ Big Piney, WY -- oil drilling\ government -- payment|

Section 6: climbing -- publicity\ Breitenbach, Jake\ climbing -- entertainment\ radio station\ Bonington, Chris -- website\ Denali National Park -- arrival\ Denali -- approach\ train\ Talkeetna, AK\ Sheldon, Don\ Kahiltna Glacier\ wolves -- shooting|

Section 7: Sheldon, Don\ airplanes -- accidents\ landings -- crash\ airplanes -- parts\ Breitenbach, Jake\ Denali -- flight in\ runways -- markings|

Section 8: landings -- glacier\ snow -- unpacked\ Breitenbach, Jake\ packs -- aluminum frame\ string -- nylon\ Sheldon, Don\ airplanes -- digging out\ runways -- glacier\ Buckingham, Bill\ Corbet, Barry\ tents\ Kahiltna Peaks -- routes|

Section 9: loads -- ferrying\ weather -- warm\ heat stroke\ Buckingham, Bill\ altitude -- acclimation\ Breitenbach, Jake\ Kahiltna Peaks\ ice fall\ snow -- blocks\ Stump, Mugs \ Salt Lake City, UT\ ice fields\ ice bridges\ avalanches\ caches|

Section 10: ice falls\ routes -- base\ rock -- comfort\ rock -- rib\ route -- searching\ route -- snow\ Corbet, Barry\ Buckingham, Bill\ gullies\ snowshoes -- cached\ glaciers|

Section 11: gullies\ ice dome\ climbing -- momentum\ Breitenbach, Jake\ Corbet, Barry\ weather -- good\ Buckingham, Bill\ cornice -- double\ climbing -- difficulties\ climbing -- experience level\ Army\ New Hampshire\ Washington\ climbing -- leading|

Section 12: outcrops\ snow -- steep\ crampons\ descending\ balance\ ropes -- fixed\ gullies\ Chouinard, Yvon\ guides\ rangers\ Teton Mountains\ British Isles\ Austrian technique -- ice\ French technique -- ice\ ice axes\ climbing -- technology|

Section 13: Jackson Hole, WY\ gullies\ loads -- ferrying\ Paradise -- view\ ice -- blue\ rocks\ snow -- softened\ cache -- food\ Balcony Camp\ sand\ rock climbing\ summit|

Section 14: Balcony Camp\ summit\ climb -- duration\ ridge\ ice falls\ altitude -- problems\ peaks\ Buckingham, Bill\ Corbet, Barry\ Breitenbach, Jake\ black out\ descent\ plateau|

Section 15: rope\ rock climbing\ caches -- buried\ mountain -- changed\ snow -- conditions\ ice falls\ West Buttress\ altitude -- maintain\ disorientation -- white out\ Buckingham, Bill -- experience\ Windy Point|

Section 16: camp\ glaciers\ snow -- depth\ glaciers -- main\ belaying\ Buckingham, Bill\ crevasses\ Sheldon, Don\ airplane -- pick up\ climbing team -- dynamics|

Section 17: crevasses\ Teton Glacier\ Teton Mountains\ glaciers\ avalanches\ snowshoes\ climbing teams -- roped\ Windy Corner\ ropes -- loops\ harnesses\ consciousness -- loss of|

Section 18: weather\ store -- hardware\ duct tape\ Breitenbach, Jake -- invention\ sleeping mats\ snow -- wet\ climbing group -- dynamics\ tolerance|

Section 19: integrity\ Buckingham, Bill\ Corbet, Barry\ values -- similar\ mountains\ literary convention\ climbing teams -- break up\ boredom\ humor|

Section 20: fear -- accumulating\ equipment -- abandonment\ snowshoes\ food\ Sheldon, Don\ routes -- options\ rescue -- options\ flags\ responsibilities -- personal\ Breitenbach, Jake\ Mt. Everest\ glaciers -- collapsing|

Section 21: marriage\ Talkeetna, AK\ Goro, Fritz\ Life Magazine\ Time Magazine -- researcher\ Talkeetna, AK -- bar\ guide\ Alaska -- North Slope\ Schrader Lake\ Round Island\ Walrus Island\ Alaska -- Southeast\ Denali\ bears\ book|

Section 22: Tilman, Harold\ Shipton, Eric\ writing -- climbing\ values -- mountain\ Mt. Everest\ climbing -- big wall\ ski bum\ employment -- Fish and Wildlife Service\ Mexico|

Section 23: Neale, Sterling -- guide\ Corbet, Barry -- guide\ Breitenbach, Jake -- guide\ apprentice\ National Park Service -- rangers\ rescue team\ entrance station\ Jenny Lake\ rescue -- body recovery\ climbers -- professionals\ New England -- social conscience\ responsibility\ ranger -- rescue|

Section 24: education\ philosophy\ literature\ University of Wyoming\ philosophy -- Wicktenstein\ philosophy -- metaphysics\ education -- graduate school\ National Park Service -- ranger\ teaching -- writing\ North Face -- rescue\ writing|

Section 25: manuscript\ New Yorker -- magazine\ Chouinard, Yvon\ Hemmingway, Gary\ Bernstein, Jeremy -- physicist\ writer\ climbing\ behavior -- standards\ fame -- traditional\ celebrities|

Section 26: Denali National Park -- ranger\ accidents\ rescues\ rescue team\ climbers\ respect -- peers\ climbing -- publicity\ climbs -- funding\ climbing -- entertainment|

Section 27: Denali\ Windy Corner\ Denali -- number of climbers\ mountain -- protection\ tundra -- protection\ Denali National Park -- regulations\ climbers -- foreign\ rescues -- aggressive\ Teton Mountains|

Section 28: self-righteousness\ rescuers\ helicopters -- use\ body recovery\ rescue team\ Teton Mountains\ Jackson Hole, WY\ rescue cache\ Cascade Canyon\ rangers -- age differences\ litter -- use|

Section 29: summit\ climb -- difficulty\ weather -- storm\ Alaska Range\ hard work\ clouds -- air quality\ view\ writing\ experience -- value|

Section 30: intuition -- importance\ kayaking\ senses -- transgression\ risks -- taking|