Archive Discoveries: Exploration of Mount Kennedy

Mount Kennedy was named by Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson after John F. Kennedy.

The film documents the mapping and exploration of Mount Kennedy — co-sponsored expedition by National Geographic Society and Boston’s Museum of Science.

The expedition was led by Bradford Washburn, who first discovered the peak on his NGS-sponsored Yukon Expedition of 1935.

Robert Kennedy and NG Photographer William Albert Allard at the summit of Mount Kennedy, in march, 1965.  Photograph by Dee Molenaar.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy wished to be among the first climbers to set foot on the peak named in honor of his brother and was invited on the expedition by the National Geographic Society and assigned to place a survey marker there.

In Senator Kennedy’s own words (from the July 1965 issue of National Geographic Magazine):

“I climbed Mount Kennedy for compelling personal reasons.  I gained other rewards as well.  There was the unassuming courage and dedication, intelligence and good humor of the climbers. There was the mountain itself, and there was the knowledge that we had helped bring this remote part of the world closer to all of us.

“The complete explanation of why men leave their families to huddle in a cold little tent on the side of a difficult mountain is something that perhaps can’t be explained until we can explain man himself. I tried to figure it out as I looked around our crowded, uncomfortable tent.

“Why did these men who had climbed and faced death so many times now wait on this high glacier—a glacier interspersed with crevasses, some huge, some small, some breathtaking in their starkness, some hidden and far more sinister?

“Why did these men wait here, dwarfed by vast mountains on all sides, to climb this peak who’s summit had never been reached?

“I think of Jim Whittaker’s favorite quote, the words of James Ramsey Ullman, noted author and chronicler of the Geographic-sponsored American Mount Everest Expedition:  ‘Challenge is the core and mainspring of all human activity. If there is an ocean, we cross it; if there’s a disease, we cure it; if there’s a wrong, we right it; if there’s a record, we break it; and finally, if there’s a mountain, we climb it.’ ”

Senator Kennedy was the first to each the summit, and planted the family flag on the top of the peak.

For more information about the expedition please read the July 1965 issue of National Geographic Magazine which features the following three articles:

“Canada’s Mount Kennedy : I. The Discovery” by Bradford Washburn

“Canada’s Mount Kennedy : II. A Peak Worthy of the President” by Robert F. Kennedy

“Canada’s Mount Kennedy : III. The First Ascent” by James W. Whittaker

Below are photographs from the National Geographic archives, which were published with that story in the magazine:

EXPEDITION Photographs by William Albert Allard.

Above left: An explorer carves out a glacier cavern for camping, on the 1965 expedition to the summit of Mt. Kennedy. Center:  Robert F. Kennedy placing the Kennedy family flag at the summit, receiving a congratulatory hug from a climbing partner.  Right:  A climber on the expedition stabs his ice axe handle into the crust, for stability.


Climber George Senner (left) helps Dee Molenaar make a National Geographic Society flag to plant at the summit of Mt. Kennedy.

Senner leads the climbing expedition up a zig-zag path at the 12,800-foot mark, followed by Mt. Everest climber James W. Whittaker and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Left: spruces cut far below serve as runway markers for a ski-equipped plane, unloading supplies at base-camp.  Right: orange smoke flares aid a helicopter’s wind-navigation, carrying expedition members to the camp.

Mt. Kennedy in 2017. Photograph by Richard Droker.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Karen Buckley Cerka is Director of the Film and Audiovisual Archive and has worked with the Archive since 2008. The Film and Audiovisual Archive dates back to 1901 and houses 770,000 hours of viewing material. Highlights include Louis Leakey and William Beebe, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.