Since he was 15 years old growing up on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, Terry Kennedy has been compelled to enshrine the heroes who defined his mountaineering career, both for the sake of climbing lore and posterity, as well as to fulfill a personal quest and honor his fallen friends.
In Kennedy’s new book, “In Search of the Mount Cleveland Five,” the author succeeds on all fronts, documenting one of the most enigmatic mountaineering accidents in the nation’s history while articulating the grief and ambition that drove a clutch of local climbers to push the sport into a brave new era.
“I’ve been wanting to write this book since I was a kid dreaming of climbing mountains,” he said. “I realized early on that something special was happening, and the Mount Cleveland tragedy sort of ushered in a new era of climbing in Montana.”
In December 1969, two days after Christmas, the climbing community around Glacier Park was stripped raw when Jerry Kanzler, already a prolific mountaineer at the age of 18, and four other ambitious young climbers were swept to their deaths in an avalanche while attempting to scale Mount Cleveland’s unclimbed sheer north face.
The tragedy would leave an indelible mark on Hal and Jim Kanzler, Jerry’s father and older brother, respectively, who both committed suicide years later, as well as on Kennedy, super-charging the climbers’ ambitions while saddling them with grief.
“After the tragedy, I thought, ‘I could do that. I should do that,’” Kennedy said. “And so I did it, in part to continue the legacy that the Mount Cleveland Five began.”
“I became part of it sort of by happenstance. The Kanzlers were like heroes to us. Back then, your heroes weren’t NFL stars; they were players on the local basketball team. And then we heard about these explorers climbing these mountains. We regarded them as astronauts walking on the moon.”
Kennedy forged a deep and abiding bond and climbing partnership with Jim Kanzler, an inspired and talented climber in his own right, and together they set their sights on a series of steep, unclimbed faces in Glacier National Park.
They focused their energy first on Mount Cleveland.
After Jerry’s death, achieving Cleveland’s north face became critically important to Kanzler and Kennedy, and the pair launched an all-out assault on the park’s tallest mountain.
Achieving a first ascent of Mount Cleveland’s north face was widely regarded as the most difficult technical mountaineering project in Glacier, and it was crucial to both Kanzler and Kennedy that it was set by locals. Indeed, it was J. Gordon Edwards’ ominous description of both the north faces of Cleveland and Siyeh as “unclimbed” and perhaps “unclimbable” that so entranced the Kanzlers and Kennedy. Both peaks loomed at the forefront of their imaginations.
In 1976, after the friends finally succeeded in summiting the north face of Cleveland, they decided to commit all their energy to climbing the park’s other big unclimbed face, the north face of Siyeh — a Blackfeet word meaning “Mad Wolf.” The ascent required 3,500 vertical feet of technical climbing (the Nose of El Capitan, by comparison, is about 2,900 feet high), 22 pitches and two cold nights on the rock face.
Over the course of three days in September 1979, the 25-year-old Kennedy and 31-year-old Kanzler inched their way up the sheer north face of Mount Siyeh, a menacing, monolithic tower of limestone that is widely considered the most difficult climb in the park. The duo had attempted the route three times prior; they succeeded on their fourth attempt after spending two cold nights suspended from the massive wall.
In the introduction to his new book, Kennedy recounts a phone call from Kanzler just months before his suicide. Kanzler asked if his friend had finished his book yet, and Kennedy told him no.
“You’ve been writing it for about ten years now,” Kanzler told him.
“Actually, more like 40,” Kennedy responded.
“Well, don’t wait too long,” Kanzler said, causing Kennedy to wonder, “Was Jim foreshadowing?”
“I kind of feared he was going to leave this world,” Kennedy said in a recent interview. “We all did. After his brother’s death and his dad’s suicide, his life kind of became this cascade of events that he had no control over. Climbing was an outlet for that.”
Signed copies of “In Search of the Cleveland 5” are available at Rocky Mountain Outfitters in downtown Kalispell, and the book is also available on Amazon.