Bobby On The Mountain Of Grief
Armed with high-powered rifles and binoculars, more than a dozen Alaska State Troopers peered down from the mountainside overlooking Juneau International Airport. A Pan-American jetliner was approaching from the south, descending slowly over Gastineau Channel. Aboard was the Yukon’s most unlikely mountaineer, New York Senator Robert Kennedy. He was coming to challenge Canada’s highest unclimbed peak, but first he needed to avoid being shot. The day before, Bill Bagron, acting chief of the Juneau police, had received a call from the FBI warning that two men had come to Alaska to kill Kennedy. The politician’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been gunned down in Dallas just 16 months before, and America was on edge. Bagron was warned “not to turn Juneau into another Dallas.” So as the unwitting senator stepped onto the tarmac, a detail of four officers swarmed him, forming a human shield against potential assassins. It was an inauspicious start to Kennedy’s Northern pilgrimage.
Less than a year before, in tribute to his brother’s death, the Canadian government had assigned the name “Kennedy” to a remote but staggering peak in the southwest Yukon. When Robert Kennedy, elected to the Senate only four months earlier, got word of a National Geographic expedition to survey the 4,240-metre mountain, he invited himself along.
Friends in Kennedy’s inner circle called it reckless. Robert was the seventh child of the most famous family in the United States. He’d grown up yachting and playing touch football on the sprawling Kennedy estate in Massachusetts. He’d never scaled a mountain except while riding a chairlift. He was also afraid of heights. So the expedition leader, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, was tasked with a challenge: to usher an inexperienced but very important climber up a cold, isolated, dangerous mountain. Before they met in the North, Whittaker called the senator to ask how he was training. “Running up and down the stairs and practicing hollering ‘Help!’” Kennedy joked. In reality, though, Kennedy was determined: He had a legacy to live up to. During World War Two, his brother Joe had died over the English Channel after the experimental bomber he was piloting exploded. JFK, meanwhile, had been hailed as a hero following the sinking of his PT boat, when he saved a badly-burned crewmate by clenching the man’s lifejacket in his teeth and dragging him from shark-infested waters. But where John had been a handsome and charismatic orator, Robert was an awkward, intensely devout Catholic with buck teeth. When he arrived in Whitehorse from Juneau, Yukoners who met him described him as shy. He was bundled into an Eddie Bauer parka and climbed aboard the RCAF helicopter that would ferry him to base camp. Whittaker assured the media that Kennedy would come back safe. “He’ll be on a rope and there’ll be a good man on each end,” he said. “There is no problem."
“It is appropriate that Canada’s memorial should be a mountain – a graceful, towering mountain,” Prime Minister Lester Pearson had told the House of Commons on the first anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Discovered only 30 years earlier, Mt. Kennedy was indeed a stately, imposing peak. Immediately after Pearson’s announcement, Americans moved in to take stock of the massive new memorial. High-altitude U.S. spyplanes conducted an initial pass of the area, and the Boston Museum of Science and the National Geographic Society recruited a climbing crew to fill in the details. Robert had spent his entire adult life in service to his brother’s ambitions. He’d run John’s congressional, senatorial and presidential campaigns and been one of his closest White House advisors. After his brother’s death, Robert lost weight, “wore his brother’s clothes, smoked the cigars his brother had liked, and imitated his mannerisms,” wrote U.S. historian Thurston Clarke. Kennedy was successful in a 1964 run for the Senate, but the one-time attorney general soon felt stifled by the chamber’s dull routine. He could often be seen impatiently drumming his fingers during committee hearings—or storming out altogether. Analysts saw the impromptu mountain-climbing trip as an act of restlessness. While he didn’t have mountaineering experience, he hoped to succeed through his fanatical resolve. On the Harvard football team, he had once scored a touchdown on a broken ankle. When skiing, he was known to fly down hills at breakneck speeds because it “took his mind off other things.” According to a newsreel account of the expedition, “the climb is not considered dangerous, but it is a strenuous climb.”
The first two-thirds of the slope were completed via a helicopter Whittaker had commissioned at the last minute. From there, it was a zig-zagging vertical ascent, first by snowshoe, then by crampon. A cameraman followed the climbers. Buzzing planes kept tabs on their progress. At the base camp, a small party of reporters sat in wait. In case the press pool became stranded by a blizzard, Whitehorse Star reporter Bob Erlam hired Yukon outdoorsman Alex van Bibber to keep them alive. The thin air gave Kennedy a constant headache. The heavy pack strained his shoulders. About 300 metres short of the summit, he plunged into a crevasse. The rope saved him; his feet dangled in empty space as his teammates braced to hold him aloft. Regardless, he continually urged the party to go faster. A few dozen metres short of the summit, Whittaker unroped Kennedy and told him to go on ahead. The team watched as his tiny form scurried to the peak, planted a flag bearing the Kennedy crest, made the sign of the cross and gazed out at the vast, snow-covered Yukon vista. Kennedy said later that his body surged with the thrill of accomplishment, then was checked by the memories of the tragedy that had brought him there. It was an emotional moment for Kennedy’s ropemates, as well. Some of them had met his brother in a White House ceremony only months before the assassination, and they now cried at the sight of Robert’s mountaintop vigil. “Tears rolled down my cheeks and froze on my parka,” wrote Whittaker in his autobiography.
Before leaving the summit, Kennedy dug a hole in the snow and left behind his brother’s inauguration medallion, a copy of his inaugural address and a pair of tie clasps from his wartime PT boat. After a quick descent—narrowly dodging a blizzard—Kennedy’s team was whisked back to Whitehorse. They were taken to the Capital Hotel, where they washed up and bought a round for the house—paid for with an IOU, since the senator didn’t have any Canadian cash. To anyone who asked, Kennedy was clear that he’d climbed his last mountain. “I didn’t really enjoy any part of it,” he told a reporter.
A different Robert Kennedy returned to Washington from the Yukon. No longer the aimless former sidekick of his brother, he came into his own. He spearheaded an ambitious community development project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor black Brooklyn suburb. He traveled to South Africa and denounced the country’s racist apartheid system. He toured Brazilian slums and scolded the country’s ruling elite, saying they were “breeding their own destruction.” He broke with his brother’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Mount Kennedy had “tested” Robert Kennedy, says biographer Joseph Palermo. The two-day climb was a “gesture of love” towards John that enabled Kennedy to finally emerge from under his brother’s shadow and “become an international figure in his own right.”
In 1968, amid an ever-escalating conflict in Vietnam, Kennedy reluctantly challenged Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. From the outset, the possibility of assassination loomed large. Yet Kennedy continued, parading through urban areas in open convertibles and speaking to standing-room-only crowds numbering in the thousands. His campaign “either showed no sense at all, or a lot of guts,” Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, would say later. On June 5, 1968, Kennedy won the California democratic primary—a huge coup. He gave a victory speech in the ballroom of Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, then went to leave via a shortcut through the kitchen. There, a man named Sirhan Sirhan approached him, drew a .22-calibre revolver and shot him three times. Kennedy died in hospital 24 hours later. Jim Whittaker—who had since become a member of Kennedy’s campaign team—was at his bedside.