Kenneth A. Henderson
WHEN the rain beats down heavily or the wind threatens to tear off the roof, I often think back longingly to the year and a half that I spent in the Aleutians, and in fancy carry myself back to that weirdly beautiful region where the weather can be so perverse and so strangely fascinating. There the wildest storms would do millions of dollars’ damage in a few hours and then be succeeded by quiet, starlit nights, when the moon glistening on the snow would light up the countryside with a calm brilliance that made the war seem very far away.
Much of this time I spent on Adak, a large island well out in the western portion of the chain. Our installations were mainly in the north central section of the island, from which the mountains could be reached with reasonable dispatch—or rather, they could be after a few roads had been built over the tundra to facilitate travel. For many weary months, until the task of removing the enemy from our neighboring islands of Attu and Kiska had been accomplished, all was work and more work. Then followed a period of relaxation when the tired muscles could be stretched and, for a half a day in seven, one could even do as one pleased. Gradually life became more regular, and a whole day a week could be spent away from work. The mountains then seemed closer and less forbidding.1
Adagdak, April 1943
The winter of 1942-43 had been a dreary succession of ram, snow, wind, ice and work, with short intervals of watching the countless sea birds along the shores and cliffs. Always on good days the near-by Adagdak and the more distant Moffett beckoned, but life was too busy or the weather too bad for climbing. At last on April 1st the day seemed auspicious; and I determined that Adagdak, only four miles away, should be my goal. It was already daylight when I reached Clam Lagoon at 8 a.m., surprising a flock of emperor geese who flew off protesting noisily. It was a long walk across the spit connecting Zeto Point with the mainland, and the going was rough and slow. At several points on the lagoon side of the spit, there were small regular mounds laid out in streets, like the pre-Aleut villages found farther north on the Seward Peninsula. A few ruined barabaras testified to Aleut occupation, but this exposed spit between the Bering Sea and the lagoon did not offer sufficient security against attack to justify the larger settlements noticed elsewhere.
An old “cat” track leading up the slope was a welcome find, when at last the spit had been traversed. The hummocks and tall grasses of Aleutian tundra make travel difficult. Here the tractor had so beaten down the hummocks and the grasses that walking was relatively easy. The track had another great advantage: it carefully avoided the deep gullies which the stream had cut into the soft soil and rock of the mountain. Suddenly, on a small level spot, a slight motion near my feet drew my attention to a rock ptarmigan. Four small brown spots on its back showed that it was beginning to put on its summer coat. The protective coloring was perfect in this landscape, speckled as it was with many patches of snow.
The way led over a series of three humps, each flat on top and merging into the main mass of the next higher one. Finally, at 11.20, I stood at the top of the ridge. The altitude was 1450 ft. The “cat” track turned to the right and led down the ridge to an old outpost that had been abandoned as too difficult of access and too often blanketed by fog. A basin opened before me, and beyond lay a series of ridges leading up into the clouds which had begun to form. Striking across the basin, which was covered with hard frozen snow, I ascended the slope on the far side to a col which appeared through the mist. A few rocks broke through the icy surface and facilitated the climb. The air seemed alive with incessantly twittering snow buntings. A series of ridges ran off in three directions from the col; directly beneath, a deep valley opened out, leading abruptly down to the sea, nearly 1800 ft. below. Mist veiled the heights, so that it was not immediately apparent where the summit lay. I chose the ridge to the right and in a few minutes, at 12.10, reached the top. The aneroid read 1880 ft., and the ground sloped away in all directions. After a few minutes the mist cleared away long enough to show that only lower ridges lay ahead of me. But to my left there was definitely a higher summit.
Retracing my steps to the col, I continued on the ridge toward the higher summit until a second snow-filled basin opened out ahead. I climbed up to this and crossed it to the farther ridge, which I reached at 1.15. Luckily the mists were not so thick now, and I could recognize the cornice on which I stood. A glance over the edge showed the slope dropping away precipitously to the Bering Sea, hot half a mile away and 2000 ft. below. Directly below the cornice, the wall was nearly vertical and heavily covered with rime from the cold, moisture-laden winds of the north. Through breaks in the drifting mists could be seen the ermine- clad mass of Mount Moffett, very beautiful and impressive in its winter coat. Still I was not on the top. The aneroid read only 1970 ft., and farther up the snow basin which I had crossed loomed a higher peak. Quickly I crossed the basin, hacked a few nicks in a smooth ice slope with a jackknife, and in 20 minutes arrived on the summit. The aneroid agreed very closely with the observed height of 2072 ft., the highest point of Adagdak. I stayed here for some time, sampling the rock (strangely enough, a soft tuff) and enjoying the views which began to open up more frequently. Twenty-five miles away across the Bering Sea, Great Sitkin gleamed like a great white jewel on a sapphire sea. To the south, the snowy peaks of Umak, Little Tanaga and Kagalaska seemed to form a continuation of the great snowy massifs of Adak, with the dark blue sea sparkling at their feet.
The trip back was fast. The old “cat” track on the ridge was reached at 2.40; but this time, instead of returning as I had come, I followed the track down the ridge to the abandoned observation post, which I reached in only 20 minutes. From here, 1100 ft. in altitude, down to a bluff above the sea, it was hard going through the tundra: the grass was thick, and the hummocks close together. But in some two hours I was back at the lagoon. A 40-minute walk carried me across the spit back to camp, food and a night of work.
Mount Moffett, Peak 1, Peak 2: Summer
It was not until several months later, after I had moved to a more central location on the island, that I found another opportunity to get up into the hills. It was the middle of July, and we were all suffering from a heat wave. The sun had shone all day for two days in succession, and at midday the thermometer rose to close to 70°F. Shortly after lunch Dr. Frederick O. Rankin and I drove up to the height of land toward Shagak Bay, about 1100 ft., and started up the ridge toward Mount Moffett. On the lower slopes, which are composed largely of thin tundra interspersed with rocks, we met several dozen people, all headed toward the wreck of a plane that had crashed a few days before. This was only about a mile from the road, in a spot to which a jeep could be driven, albeit with some difficulty. Shortly above this spot the ridge rose in an abrupt step. Having chosen the left-hand edge of the step and ascended it part way, we crossed on to the farther slope and traversed obliquely across the face of the ridge to a low spot considerably farther along. A few patches of snow still remained, facilitating passage over the boulder-strewn slope. Once the ridge was gained, the going was easy along the narrow crest. The rock was rotten; it demanded care in the narrower places. The sun was warm, and we met several other parties on the ridge. A steep bit of rotten rock led to a large plateau where the west ridge met the south ridge up which we had been progressing. Our altitude was now about 3700 ft., and the summit loomed only a few hundred feet above us.
An easy slope led to the summit rock, and a short scramble up a rotten chimney and around a corner placed us on the top—3900 ft., and the highest point on the island. The view was superb. The island of Adak lay spread out to the south, with the many lesser hills of the southern ranges running into each other in a bewildering jumble of peaks and ridges. To the north lay the Bering Sea, very blue and sparkling in the sunlight. To the east, far below us, was the mass of Adagdak; and beyond it lay the great blue expanse of Kagalaska Bay, with the volcanic cone of Great Sitkin on the other side, sending up wisps of smoke to show that it was still alive. To the west, across Adak Strait, towered the beautifully symmetrical cone of Kanaga, sending up a thin but steady stream of smoke; and beyond could be plainly seen the even higher and more impressive twin cones of Tanaga. Over the horizon lay Kiska, and all about us were signs of the effort to wrest that bleak outpost from the enemy. The return was a race with time, to reach the mess hall before closing. Success crowned our efforts: we celebrated the ascent of the island’s highest point, our goal for the past six months, with a hearty dinner, complete with sauterne.
The next afternoon I was glad to receive a telephone call from Dr. Rankin proposing that we leave the office early and climb several peaks in the southern ranges before dark. The sun was still shining; this seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I quickly made arrangements to leave at 5 o’clock (an hour early) and drove around to the hospital to pick up the doctor. We drove over a doubtful track toward the rifle range, as far as we could, and then, leaving the jeep, started out on foot. Fortunately, since the ranges were not in use, we could take a direct route around the lake and straight to the mountain. Our peak, which we designated Peak 1, rose some 1500 ft. above us. The meadows around the lake were aflame with color. The narcissus, anemone, aster, lupine, fire weed and even wild iris were all in bloom. The grass on the lower slopes of the peak was lush, and the slopes were steep —a combination which made progress very slow. Gradually we rose above the thick grass to slopes carpeted with a low-growing heath. On the crest of the ridge, this growth was interspersed with rocky patches. We were on the N. E. ridge, which became quite abrupt in its upper section, so we chose to traverse across the steep slope separating us from the N. W. ridge.
The going was so hard on the ankles that we were glad to arrive on the crest of the ridge. Here the great panorama to the west opened out before us—the wide expanse of Adak Strait and the length of Tanaga Island, with its great volcano emitting a fine column of steam and dominating the northern end. It was only a short distance up the narrow ridge to the meeting of the two ridges, an airy perch whence another narrow ridge led gradually up to the highest point. This was an exposed traverse: on the left, the east, the cliffs dropped sheerly for many hundreds of feet, while on the right the heath-covered slope, about 60° in its upper part, led down about 1500 ft. to the valley bottom. The distance to the summit, 1820 ft. in altitude, was only a few hundred feet. Here, quite fortunately, the ridge was somewhat wider. The highest point itself was a lichen- and heath-covered mass of rock standing about four feet above the ridge, leaning out over the sheer drop on the east and just big enough to stand upon. Once we had satisfied the technical requirements of treading the actual summit, we retired to the broader ridge and enjoyed the magnificent panorama. We were particularly interested in the view to the west. The cloud bank from the North Pacific, which covered the ocean to the south, was beginning to come up the passes between the islands. It was low, only 100 ft. or so off the water. Curiously enough, no matter how thick as it rolled northward, it did not cover the land, but divided when it reached the islands. In fact, the outline of the southern end of Kanaga could be plainly discerned, etched in fog like an intaglio.
The breeze was cool and our way was long, so we soon began our journey northward along the ridge toward the conical peak at the farther end. This we called Peak 2. The ridge continued narrow for quite a way, and several abrupt pitches had to be climbed down with care, but we soon arrived at the broad saddle which had separated us from our conical peak. Despite the lateness of the hour, we decided to climb on up. It was not too long a climb, and it promised a fine view into the Bay of Islands, which had previously been hidden from us. With a wide choice of routes, we could select the easiest. From the summit we looked down into the Bay of Islands and across it to the mass of peaks to the south. The fog was beginning to come into the bay from Adak Strait. In the interval since we had last noticed it, it had pushed northward through the strait into the Bering Sea. It still had not encroached upon the land, but no water was to be seen—only a low- lying mass of fog.
We could not linger long upon the peak. We started down toward the east, keeping high above the large lake (sometimes called Alpine Lake) which lay below us, and swung over a rocky ridge and under the forbidding precipices of our peak back to the car. The first long fingers of fog were just beginning to encroach upon the land when we reached the jeep. To the west the steaming cone of Kanaga stood out silhouetted in the sunset, high above the intervening fog. It was only a short trip back to the hospital—some seven or eight minutes. When we arrived there, the fog had already crossed the island, a distance of perhaps three miles, overcoming a ridge of more than 1000 ft. Such is the speed of the summer fogs of the Aleutians.
Peaks 5 and 6, January 1944
Summer turned to autumn and merged into winter, the snowiest winter in many years. My companion, Dr. Rankin, had left; and there appeared no one else to take his place. In January 1944 work slackened, and one fine day the opportunity for a trip presented itself. I left just before lunch, drove over to Finger Bay and started up the trail to Lake Betty. This trail had been broken out and offered fairly good going to the lake, which was solidly frozen over. My original intention was to go only as far as seemed safe under these conditions, so I gingerly tested the snow surface. In most places it was hard enough to support my weight. By picking my way over the obviously wind-packed areas, I could always find a hard supporting crust. In some places the softer snow would let me sink in a few inches, but nowhere did there seem to be any danger of deep penetration—which was fortunate, because many of the gullies were filled to enormous depths by the heavy snow that had fallen. Carefully picking my route, I worked up the mountain to the right, Peak 5 (1750 ft.), on the west side of the lake, my spirits rising with the altitude. The windblown snow formed curious swirls and, in places, waves like the sand on the beach. The surface was frozen hard in many places, but nailed boots held fairly well except on real ice. A few steep pitches where hand- and footholds had to be punched and kicked were more difficult, because the snow beneath the hard surface was soft and offered poor footing. I stopped often for pictures (it was a beautiful day), but as my watch had stopped I could not tell the time. It was probably about 2.30 p.m. when I reached the summit. This seemed early, and I determined to continue on to the next summit, Peak 6 (1822 ft.), as I had done one day during the summer. The going was icy in spots across the ridge and required considerable care, but I soon arrived at the higher summit. A stick standing in a small cairn was covered with frost feathers nearly a foot long, and rime covered the whole summit area. The view was most extensive. As the ridge around the southern edge of the lake did not seem so distant, I decided to continue on around the lake.
I started down the peak and suddenly, without warning, found myself in a driving sleet storm. I sat down for a while to let it blow over, but finally concluded that I must make some progress to complete the trip. Visibility was reduced to about 50 yds. or less, and route-finding was largely luck; but the wind would blow the drifting scud aside for a moment and give me a chance to get a bearing on some more distant object. After seemingly interminable scrambling up and down, I found myself at last on the ridge which was my objective. Although there was no reason to climb to its crest for the view to the south, which I had been looking forward to, but which was now non-existent, it was necessary to climb nearly to the top to reach better going. I progressed along the ridge in a general easterly direction to gain the farther side of the lake. Suddenly, during a rest, I looked up and saw a blue patch of sky and crimson clouds high above. It was sunset—and I was at the opposite end of the lake, some three miles of trackless snow from a trail. It was imperative to travel as fast as possible. I decided to head down to the lake and cut across a large bay which cut deeply into the ridge. This brought me into the lee of a series of small cliffs where the snow was deep and unconsolidated. In several places it became necessary to slide down in a prone position in order not to sink in.
Finally, just as dusk came on, I reached the lake. Here the going was much easier. Although the ice was covered with snow, it was flat. Keeping a straight course in the gathering dusk was possible only if one picked out a dark object and headed for it.
Luckily there was a partially covered rock on the farther shore, and this I headed for. About half way across, I had the feeling that the ice was not so secure as it should be. Glancing back at my track, I noticed to my horror that water was welling up in my footsteps. Since retreat was impossible, I hastened my pace for the farther shore, walking as lightly as I could, and taking care to move steadily, without stopping. Just as I stepped onto the snow- covered shore, the ice gave way beneath my foot; but the water was shallow, being so close to the shore, and I did not even get my foot wet.
By now it was dark, and it was obvious that a direct line across the lake to the outlet was most inadvisable. To climb high on the ridge for easy going promised to be both time-consuming and fatiguing—factors to be reckoned with, for I had had nothing but a chocolate bar since breakfast. I therefore chose to follow the shore line as closely as possible. After several near misses on breaking through the ice. I was convinced that a somewhat higher route would be better. It was very dark now, and in starlight the slopes were impossible to distinguish. A prominent knob, or sometimes a partially covered rock face, would serve as a landmark; and by heading for these I managed to make my way along the lake for nearly two miles. At the end the choice lay between taking to the ice and climbing over a high cliff that barred the way. Remembering my previous experiences with the ice, I chose the cliff and finally reached the top. From here it was down hill, but unfortunately in deep snow, to the outlet of the lake, where I once more found myself on a trail, only a mile from the road. It was after 10 o’clock when I got back. After this trip of eight or ten miles through trackless snow, I slept soundly, so soundly indeed that I missed breakfast the next morning. The net result, however, was most beneficial to a figure which had been suffering from too long a spell of desk work.
Mount Moffett and Peak 2: Winter
A few days later, Peaks 1 and 2 attracted me. I had been there six months before with Dr. Rankin, but now the peaks looked far higher and more forbidding. Furthermore, I wished to reach the pass at the southern end of the range which would lead to the Bay of Islands. One fine afternoon I walked over to Lake Christopher, which was by now frozen solid, and found a “cat” track leading toward the upper lake, Alpine Lake. Following this, I quickly covered the mile and a half to the upper lake. The former outpost which guarded this spot seemed to have been reduced in size, but across the lake on the slope leading to the pass could be seen a group of men at work. Following the track across the solidly frozen lake, I soon caught up with the work crew, just finishing their work for the day on a telephone-pole line. This was no mean undertaking at this season, for some of the poles had to be sunk through seven or eight feet of snow into the hard ground beneath. I went on to the pass, where the violent winds from the west funnelling through the passage had produced excellent examples of sastrugi. The view was wild and wintry in the extreme, with no sign of life or habitation.
The peak towered another 500 ft. above me, but did not appear too difficult of access; in fact, despite the icy slopes, it took only half an hour to reach the top. The view along the ridge toward Peak 1 was definitely alpine. Since several storms could be seen in the west, headed in my direction, I did not linger but returned to the pass. Here, consumed by curiosity to see what was on the other side of the mountain, I started up the low summit to the south, as I hoped from the top to get a better view of the ridge which hemmed in the valley to the south. It was very icy, but by a judicious choice of route I managed to avoid the worst difficulties. The storm which had been approaching for the last 20 minutes was by now very close. I ran the last few feet to catch a view before it should be obliterated. In a matter of seconds I was standing in a raging blizzard. The return in high wind and low visibility was more difficult than the ascent, but I soon reached the trail of the line crew and found easier going. As quickly as it had come, the storm was gone. A beautiful sunset filled the pass, while a nearly full moon stood in the eastern sky. It was well after dark before I arrived home, but not too late for a good dinner. This climb, with many variations, I repeated often; but it was not until April that I succeeded in traversing the entire ridge and repeating the climb of the previous summer.
Ever since my climb of Mount Moffett in the summer, I had been planning a winter ascent. After my recent experiences, the idea seemed quite feasible. And so, one reasonably fine-appearing noontime, I obtained a ride, right after lunch, to the highest point on the ridge accessible by road. Despite the fact that here on the ridge the winds blew with great force, an entire encampment of Quonset huts had been completely covered with snow. In some spots even the chimneys had to be dug out. Climbing onto the snow and crossing over the buried huts, I struck out for the mountain. The sun, which had promised so much earlier, now hid behind a cloud. The snow here was not so well consolidated as on my previous ascents, and I sank in to my ankle or above at nearly every step. This, in addition to the uphill going, made progress slow. It was well over an hour before I arrived at the wrecked plane, now completely submerged save for a rime-covered rudder. A glimpse of sunlight on the frost-covered ridge high above cheered me on. An hour later, when I reached the ridge itself, not only was there no sign of sunlight but the ridge was wrapped in fog. I chose the crest of the ridge as the easiest route to follow under these conditions and continued along it with care, occasionally breaking off sizable rime formations in order to obtain secure footing. Finally, after what seemed hours, I ascended a steep step and stood on what appeared to be a large flat surface. This I remembered from my summer climb as the junction of the west ridge.
A slope led up to the right, to the summit. The slope was easily negotiated; but the rocks, which in the summer had given a nice scramble, were now baffling. The vertical parts were covered with a thick coat of rime that offered no holds or footing. I had no ice-axe to clear them off, and the coating was so thick that an ice-axe would have been of doubtful value, anyhow. The chimneys and gullies were filled with deep powder snow. I knew the summit could not be far off, yet the problem seemed insoluble. The wind was numbing and blew ice and snow particles into my eyes, nearly blinding me. Then, in a last desperate attempt, I fought my way up a short snow-filled gully, immersed in snow to my waist. My feet still found nothing solid. It was like treading water. My arms all the while were flailing the snow above. I half swam, half floated up that chimney until I could catch a most uncertain hold on some frost feathers and then slowly drew myself onto more secure footing. It was still most precarious, but the worst was over. In a few minutes I stood on a point from which the frost-covered rocks appeared to drop away in all directions. My aneroid, which I had set just before starting, confirmed my belief that I had reached the summit. The wind was rising to a crescendo of fury and drove the flying spicules of ice and frost so hard into my face that I could not keep my eyes open. It was imperative to retreat as rapidly as possible.
I hurried down, jumping down the chimney that had caused me so much anguish, and tried to follow my obscure track on the slope below. I was successful as far as the plateau; but on a hard section, where the nail marks barely showed, I lost the track. The williwaw was now blowing in full fury. Even the small bit of my face exposed by the mask stung and smarted from the cold and vigor of the wind. I was lost near the summit of the highest peak on the island, and I had no compass—a lack I had vainly sought to remedy for many months. I carefully checked my track behind me and, feeling that I had been on approximately the correct course when I lost the track, endeavored to maintain it. Visibility was absolutely zero. The white in front of me and to the side was sometimes snow, sometimes cloud; it was impossible to discern the difference. Each step had to be taken with care; it had to land on something as solid as snow and not as ephemeral as cloud. Never have I spent a half-hour more full of suspense. Despite every effort to keep on the ridge, I soon found myself on a steep slope. Still trying to keep altitude, I went on until a sudden clearing of the mist showed the summit of a ridge far above me on my right. I could return to the ridge and follow down it. But suppose it were the west ridge! Then I should be many miles from civilization, and even several miles from the nearest outpost—and that was a long ridge, to boot. If it were the south ridge, it would be my nearest and surest route home. I decided that the safest course was to go straight down: no matter which cirque I found myself in, it was a matter of only a few miles to a road. Changing my course, I plunged straight down the slope and soon encountered better visibility. In another 600 or 700 ft., I came out of the cloud and the blizzard to find myself in the cirque between the south and west ridges. It was the west ridge that I had seen. My choice of route had been most fortunate.
I was still far from home, and the snow was deep. Going downhill was not so bad, but it was tedious and very tiring when I started to traverse the slope to gain the lower end of the south ridge. From the ridge, however, the route was over harder snow and all downhill. I made good time to the Army camp at the road end, where I caught a truck back to town.
Most memories of the home of the williwaw become pleasanter as the actuality recedes further into the distance. Among the pleasantest are those of my days in the hills.
An Appendix Concerning the Weather
The weather of the Aleutians has been the subject of infinite discussion and jest; like New England weather, it provides a ready topic for conversation. If you do not like it, wait five minutes, and it will change! It can give you rain, snow, sleet, hail and sunshine within an hour; but fortunately it has its better days.
In summer the winds are of fairly low velocity, but fogs are common. These come up very rapidly; I have seen them cover the whole island in half an hour. Usually they come from the south, but they may travel up the passes between the islands and envelop any particular island from the east or west, depending on local conditions of wind and topography. They usually enveloped Adak from the west. Very often envelopment is not complete; the leeward side of the island may remain clear, and the peaks there may be accessible under clear conditions. The fog layer may be from a few feet to some 4000 ft. thick, but commonly provides a high overcast which permits climbs on the lesser peaks.
In winter there is more good weather, but winds are apt to be high—15 to 35 knots, on the average—and storms far more severe. The temperature is not cold—usually about freezing, with low temperatures around 15° to 20°F. The cooling effects of the wind make heavy arctic clothing and wind-proof outer garments necessary. The snow cover varies widely. One winter will Bring deep snows and avalanche danger; the next may bring barely enough snow to cover the ground. It rains as often as it snows in winter. Hence the mountains are frequently sheathed in coats of ice which make climbing both difficult and dangerous.
In the spring and fall, storms are frequent, and winds of well over 100 miles an hour are registered. Tents and Quonset huts disappear with astonishing rapidity, and the flight characteristics of lumber piles and even dories can be studied. It was generally considered a fair blow when stacks of one-inch boards were blown away; when two-inch boards began to fly, work was secured, and men retired to wait out the storm and hope for the best. In a severe storm the greatest hazard is air-borne sheet steel from disintegrating Quonsets. Good days for climbing can still be found, but the consequences of a mistake in judgment are more serious than in summer.
1Although the Aleutians are famous for their volcanoes, there are no active volcanoes on Adak. Several of the peaks are of definitely volcanic origin, but the main highland mass appears to be of igneous origin.