Ken Henderson (1906-2001)

an appreciation of a life well-lived

William Clack

Mount Rainier, Pinnacle Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Castle Rock in the Cascades. Yukness, Odaray, Huber, Victoria, Lefroy, Mumm, Whyte, Thompson, and The Mitre in the Canadian Rockies. In Chamonix: Aiguille de l'M by the face, Aiguille des Petits Charmoz, a traverse of the Mont Blanc massif, including an ascent of Mont Blanc du Tacul and a forced descent in bad weather to the Grands Mulets Hut. In the Zermatt district: the Matterhorn, Zinal Rothorn, Unter Gabelhorn, Monte Rosa traverse via the Dufourspitze and the Zumsteinspitze, a traverse of the Liskamm from the Lisjoch to the Felikjoch, the Dent Blanche by the Wandfluh, and the Tete Blanche. The Jungfrau from the Concordia Hut, and the Monch from the Bergli Hut in the Bernese Oberland. Explorations in the Wind River Range.

That's a pretty good climbing resume. Especially for a climber of the 1920s, when a trip to the Alps was a time-consuming affair, involving ocean-going ships.

Of course it's even more impressive when you realize that this is only a partial list of the climbs that Ken Henderson submitted on his application to join the American Alpine Club. Ken was 22 at the time, and many of his best climbs still lay in the future.

Kenneth A. Henderson passed away on September 13, at the age of 95, in Lebanon, New Hampshire. He was a world-class climber, explorer, and film- maker. He edited Appalachia, and wrote the first guidebook to the Wind River Range. Henderson Peak (13,115') in the Winds is named after him. The U.S. Army commissioned him to write a mountaineering textbook that introduced the post-war generation of American climbers to modern technical climbing techniques. I spoke with Ken in June of 2000 about some of his favorite climbs.

In 1926, Ken went to Europe for his first alpine season. He and his partner Percy Olton hired a guide--which was standard practice at the time--arranging to meet in Zermatt. The guide was late in arriving, however, and the two climbers, itching to get started, climbed the Matterhorn guideless, as a sort of warm-up.

They did many routes that summer, but too soon Olton had to return to the States. Ken stayed on, and decided to traverse Monte Rosa with the guide. When they arrived at the hut, there was a group of Japanese climbers and guides. "The Japanese of course were talking Japanese all the time, so we couldn't understand them." Over dinner, everyone conversed in their own version of High German, and it turned out that one of the Japanese was Prince Chichibu, the second son of the Emperor, and the younger brother of the man who would soon become Emperor Hirohito. "His father told him he had to have two guides." He also had four retainers, and they each had two guides; so the hut was occupied by two clients, four retainers, and eleven guides. That night, Ken had the honor of sharing the top bunk with Prince Chichibu.

The next day, the whole party climbed together, and they feasted upon fresh patisserie that the guides had hauled up from the valley. "The nice thing about climbing with the Japanese was all that carrying power."

From the late 1920s through the start of World War II, Ken participated in the first ascents of a number of classic climbs here in New England: Standard Route on the Eaglet, Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Standard Route on Whitehorse, and, of course, Henderson Ridge. Together with longtime climbing partner and mentor Robert Underhill, he made the third ascent of the Whitney- Gilman. Later, he went back and installed the famous pipe, to protect leaders at that notoriously exposed and precarious spot.

Ken also established routes out west, pioneering the East Ridge of the Grand Teton with Underhill, and the Lower Exum with Jack Durrance. He made the first ascent of Mount Owen, last of the Teton high peaks to be climbed. Ken told me about that ascent of Owen. Several parties had been close to success in the late 1920s. However, the final, smooth 100' summit knob had turned back all attempts. In July of 1930, Ken, with Underhill, Fritiof Fryxell, and Phil Smith, made it up to the previous high point.

While his three companions discussed the difficult rock climb they faced, Ken decided he needed a little privacy. "I had to take a crap, so I went down on the North Side a little bit, and then came back up, and I took a look over the ridge, and I could see a continuous grassy ledge. So I went over there, walked on the grassy ledge, and there was a crack in the dome, and I walked up onto the summit standing up. No climbing at all." He stood on the summit, and looked down on his partners. "They were getting ready to put on their sneakers." After his friends had joined him on the summit, it was time for a lesson. "Then Bob Underhill and I and the others roped down, and we climbed the face. Neither Phil nor Fryxell had ever heard of or seen a rappel. So we introduced them to the rappel. We rappelled down to where our packs were, and we climbed the face, and made a second ascent. We did Owen up proud that day."

As he grew older, Ken shifted from putting up first ascents to mentoring younger climbers. William Putnam, who would go on to become president of the AAC and write several guidebooks to the Canadian Rockies, was an undergrad in the early 1940s. He said, "Ken was the godfather of the Harvard Mountaineering Club. Between him and Henry Hall, we had all the guidance we could use. Ken was more practical; Henry, more theoretical. Ken took us on a number of good climbs--inspired us, cajoled us, played with us."

It was at this time that Ken shot several 16mm films of rock and ice climbs in New England. In the '20s, he had purchased a Pathe 9.5mm camera in Europe, which he used to shoot motion pictures of Zermatt. By 1938, however, he had moved up to 16mm, and he had a new idea: "I wanted to make a film which would tell a coherent story from start to finish."

The films that Ken made in this era are not home movies; they are well- edited professional films. He wasn't simply tagging along on a climb, and documenting the results as best he could. He was staging climbs for the camera, and getting the shots he needed to put his story together.

A film called Straight Up, about an ascent of the Whitney-Gilman, begins with four climbers getting into a car in front of Harvard, and heading off to the mountains to climb. When he had finished editing the film, he realized that he was missing a shot--the one where they arrive in the car, and get out to fiddle around with their climbing gear. Getting everything together to go back up to Franconia Notch and shoot this would have been time consuming. But Ken was imaginative enough to take the climbers and their car to an undeveloped stretch of road in Belmont. The shot ends with them heading off into the woods, and, if Ken hadn't shared this story, none of us would ever have guessed it wasn't in the White Mountains.

At the beginning of World War II, the government needed a book "to assist the United States Army in its plans for the training of mountain troops." The result was what Putnam calls "Ken's greatest claim to mountaineering fame: his Handbook of American Mountaineering. This classic how-to book, published by the AAC in 1942, introduced American climbers to rock climbing, ice climbing, rope techniques, and outdoor survival. It even covered the Tyrolean traverse, the use of dog sledges, and, of course, mountain photography.

Ken climbed in an era of adventure. The best available ropes were made of Italian hemp. Putnam tells us, "There was very little stretch in hemp. So if you fell, you stopped--clank. Or... you didn't stop." Protection consisted of stepping around trees and boulders, with the occasional hammered- in piton--clipped directly to the rope with no sling. Placing pro' took time and energy, and created tremendous rope drag. So the leader didn't place much protection. Ken said, "It was just axiomatic that the leader didn't fall."

What was the confidence-inspiring footwear they used? Many climbers liked crepe-soled shoes, but these provided little purchase on wet rock. Some preferred rope-soled shoes. Putnam says, "The beauty of rope-soled shoes was they climbed just as well wet as they did dry." Of course, unfortunately, they climbed just as well dry as they did wet.

Ken said, "Once on Mount Willard, on the upper friction slabs, we got hit by a tornado-like storm. I was wearing crepe-soled golf shoes. I took them off, tied them together, and gave them to my second, who carried them in his teeth. I felt confident that I could lead the slabs in my stocking feet."

Much has been made of Ken's elegant attire when climbing. He generally wore a coat and tie, and often a fedora. Ken has said that in those early days, no one had specialized athletic clothing--you simply climbed in what he called "just ordinary old clothing." He was an investment banker; hence, his old clothes were business suits. I asked Putnam about this. He allowed that everyone just climbed in their old clothes; however, he added, "I don't think I wore a tie. Didn't add a great deal to warmth or water protection."

Ken left his mark on climbing. If you climb the Lower Exum on the Grand Teton, you are following in Ken's footsteps. If you climb the Eaglet, imagine leading the upper pitch without the bolt, in crepe-soled golf shoes. If you venture to Zermatt, and climb the Matterhorn without a guide, then you are simply repeating what the 20-year-old Ken accomplished 75 years ago, in his second season of mountaineering.

In 1997, Craigen Bowen and Bev Boynton climbed Sulphur Peak, in the Wind River Range. Summitting on a beautiful day, they found, sitting on the ground, between a couple of rocks, a small glass jar with a metal lid. They unscrewed the lid, and out fell an engraved visiting card--with no address, only a name: Kenneth A. Henderson. It had been there since 1932, when Ken made the first ascent of Sulphur Peak. As far as we know, it's still there.

Thanks to Bill Atkinson for his archival materials. This article originally appeared in "The Crux", and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Home Page Site Map Mountaineering Page