Portrait of An Expedition
In the Fairweather Range, Alaska Dave Bohn
MUSHKIN traversing through shrouded, muted space on the ice pinnacles of Lituya; an abstraction because we could see no more than five hundred feet in any direction. Thus it became climbers and a sharp ridge and concentration and nothing else. On that ridge occurred some of the fine moments of May and June, 1962. The descent was in fog and no wind, seven of us on a silent piece of landscape now uncluttered even by mountains. As a result came the rare opportunity; a moment to see just enough space but not too much. I watched with care, then intruded for an instant with my camera and recorded, I hope, an insight but not a documentary.
The Fairweather Range Expedition. Yes, we carried loads, ad infinitum it seemed to me. We stocked camps (six in number), cut steps in ice, belayed, used handholds and footholds on rock, placed fixed rope, put up the tents and took them down (also ad infinitum), cooked meals, and in general did what a group of climbers would expect to do on any expedition. But statistics should be relegated to that category and not passed off as a poor descriptive substitute for narration. For weeks we plodded through vastness and this I shall write about. I do not remember how many ice pitons we used; the figure was never written down.
In the late afternoon of 29 April, somewhat south of Cape Fairweather, wind-driven spray trailed from the great surf as we landed by Tri-Pacer on the beach; desolation there was, and after months of planning we had surely earned the right to it. Intruders? No, no more so than the grizzlies against whom we were armed but never saw. For we were just passing through on our way to the mountains beyond, with no intentions of leaving behind the mess usually found after men (climbers and mountaineers included) defile the wilderness with their garbage.
The next morning, laden with eighty-five pounds apiece, the four of us walked away to the Fairweathers. Space? Yes, great chunks of awesome space; above us, behind us, in front of us, seaward. The wind, the smells, sand, rock, water, trees; we rubbed noses with all of them, revered them, and walked away to the Fairweathers.
It sounds simpler than it was. Eighty-five pounds is a curse. We walked eight hours a day, but the mountains stayed where they were. We stumbled through alder, endured the insufferable mosquitoes, traversed long moraines, watched carefully for rock tables precisely high enough for our burdens, lost Flachsmann and Arighi in a wet snowstorm and found them again, left the mosquitoes behind, discovered to Maki’s annoyance that everyone wanted hot jello and not tea, noted with care that Flachsmann could out-eat an army, and wondered daily if the mountains would not please move just a little bit closer. We gained the Fairweather Glacier, crossed innumerable crevasses, nearly lost Bohn and Flachsmann down a campsite hole, watched the stove explode in Maki’s hand, and discovered to everyone’s annoyance that we were not going to reach Base Camp in three days.
Now we were learning how big our wilderness really was, especially with that curse on our backs. No, the Fairweathers were not going to move any closer; we had to go to them. We were obtuse, you see. We were still only three days out of civilization, barely able to see a thing, but at least making mental progress because on that third day of walking we decided the mountains would not come to us. Finally, in a small, welcoming snowstorm on the afternoon of the sixth day we raised a Base Camp tent somewhere off the south ridge of Mount Fairweather. Since I was not taping tent conversations, I cannot report any deathless commentary that night, but I do recall the accomplishment (reaching Base Camp in six days) was viewed by all concerned with a certain amount of cynicism.
And then came the airdrop, that fantastic, mostly indescribable airdrop when Layton Bennett from the Piper Cub, in three flights, dumped 1000 pounds of food and 400 pounds of equipment within 200 feet of the target circle. Maki cooked imperturbably on in the big Logan tent while the rest of us puffed in all directions to bring home everything from Camembert to Fizzies. After the last piece of chocolate had come down, our great bush pilot came over at fifty feet and dropped on Arighi’s head a wee piece of paper; the message wished us all a most pleasant evening and goodbye.
And the food ? What of that precious commodity? Had we lost anything during those frantic hours ? Sixty minutes later, when all the pesky, detailed lists had been checked, we learned we were missing one eight-ounce can of imported French jam. I do not remember the flavor.
Long after Bennett’s plane had disappeared over the peaks, I came out of the tent in my parka to see where we were. More discoveries. First of all I discovered the desolation was now white but still immense. And then I realized we really had come to the mountains, were surrounded and overwhelmed by them. Fairweather and five satellites. For while these peaks are not of the highest, they are huge nevertheless. Finally that evening, standing in my parka on a cold glacier, I discovered the summit of Lituya: it was behind a dark ridge, but up high on that summit there was sun, and though I was barely acquainted with these mountains, I took a photograph, for this small part of the scene was remarkable. Then my camera and I went to bed.
For the next nine days we carried loads again, stocked the Salisbury camp at the head of the Fairweather Glacier, reconnoitered in wild winds and snow on the 12,500-foot peak just north of Salisbury, sat out every second day stormbound in the tent, reconnoitered Salisbury’s savage north ridge, and made another trip to Base Camp to deposit Flachsmann amidst the piles of eatables (admittedly a calculated risk) where he would greet the rear guard when they arrived by ski plane. During those days of intermittent storms, all of us came to feel at home in our white desolation, I think; though we had come here to climb and strenuously objected to weather which prevented us from doing so, nevertheless one does not learn much about the mountains when the barometer is high.
Thus from the Salisbury camp I was no longer apologetic about my photography. There was a relationship now, and if the mountains did not know it, I did. I saw Fairweather often inscrutable under strange mantles. I saw space and light and Lituya, all of them changing constantly. Then 5000 feet above us I watched wild, swirling clouds across Salisbury’s summit, and the moon. I stood until I was too cold to work the camera, but the hell with the cold. I was truly seeing now and working hard at it.
On 14 May Chappelear, Mushkin, and Nielsen landed at Base Camp, beeline from Haines, one at a time. Those were exciting hours for the rear guard, particularly so for Mushkin whose flight coincided with our reconnaissance of the Salisbury ridge; in fact, to take in such a scene from an airplane—climbing companions on a horrendous ridge—is almost too exciting, and I guess Mushkin ended up flying the machine while Bennett photographed us, or vice versa, or perhaps both at once, and of course the men were screaming at each other to be heard over the roar of the engine. I guess we should have been photographing them, for up on the ridge everything was quite calm. Two days later we descended to Base Camp through a murky whiteout and in a damp fog met the rest of the expedition. Mushkin was taking pictures of us, and would not shake hands until he had finished, even though I had not seen him in two years; and Hans was eating, naturally. Chappelear kept stumbling into the enormous garbage pit, and Maki couldn’t find the chocolate. All in all, this was one of those asinine, confused scenes, accentuated by the fact it took place in a damp fog somewhere out there in the Fairweathers.
It was time for Mount Quincy Adams. After completing our reconnaissance on Salisbury, in one backbreaking move we shuttled the entire camp to the foot of Quincy Adams’ south ridge. Here at this advance base Mushkin made some of his more notorious casseroles, garlic oil included, and from this camp we stocked two sites high up on the ridge, the highest not far below the great ice cliff. Of that ice cliff I shall speak briefly: it was the edge of a relatively inactive glacier and it was about two hundred feet high—which is a lot of ice. We had to cross a couloir six hundred feet wide just forty feet away from that wall. Maki and Arighi, who did the routing, spent the longest moments under the towering mass, but on subsequent days the rest of us traversed in great, mad dashes, only a casual eye on our footing so intent were we on the oppressive thing above us. But other than climbers, nothing moved up there and we all came back to eat more casseroles.
At five p.m. on 21 May, Arighi and Maki attained what they thought was the summit, but as so often happens, there was another large hump on the ridge a mile further on, and it was possibly higher. Not wishing to chance a bivouac, these prudent gentlemen returned to the tents after making their fourth crossing under the ice cliff. Two days later five of us left the tents early on a magnificent morning. Flachsmann and Bohn, who had arrived on the ridge scene only the night before, were far less philosophical about the ice cliff than the rest of the expedition, all of whom regaled the newcomers with tales of how it felt to be under that mess. As a result, Hans and I made the traverse in the space of eleven minutes, which means we literally ran. But by all odds the most marvelous moment of the climb occurred two hours later when Flachsmann and I cramponed past the other rope high on the 800-foot, 35° ice slope. And at 8:30 on the morning of 23 May, there sat Mushkin belaying from a tiny step cut with the axe, taking in the sun with 600 feet of bare ice stretching away under his legs. He waved gaily at us as we passed on, to the rocks above.
At about noon we moved over the top of the first summit (the international boundary peak), traversed into British Columbia to the second summit, and still further to the third. According to our barometer, the difference between the first two was ten feet, which means either one could be the summit in a given year. The third bump was not in the running. Thus, Mount Quincy Adams—at 1:30 p.m. and 13,680 feet.
We had about ten days before Layton Bennett was due. But storms were starting to move in with more frequency as June approached, and for forty-eight hours we sat immovable at Base Camp, unable to begin the approach to Lituya. It was a combination of rain and soggy snow, and those poor, heroic souls housed in the experimental Logan tent, which had inadvertently been made of the wrong material, bailed twenty-five gallons of water in two days. When desolation also becomes wet, it is much harder to be philosophical.
As it began to clear in the evening of 27 May, I came out of my damp, canvas hole with the camera. There followed moments of really great beauty as the 10,000-foot peak next to Lituya broke through the mist; and up glacier, though the 12,500-foot peak was still beset by weather, the summit streamed sun and a cloud plume.
From a camp high up in the valley between Lituya and the 10,000-foot peak, we made our initial try. For 1000 feet there were steps, kicked the day before by Arighi, Mushkin, and Chappelear. Then for six hours Maki and Bohn waded through knee-deep snow to reach the west ridge of Lituya. Further on, at four p.m., Flachsmann started hacking a great traverse out of the first of the pinnacles, suspended up there in space and only seen with difficulty through thickening weather. At six o’clock we reached the top of that first snow and ice gendarme. In all probability we were only 350 feet below the summit, but a mile away in horizontal distance, and there were three more pinnacles to get across. With visibility at one hundred feet, we turned around after twelve hours on the mountain and went home. When we reached them, at 10:30 that night in a total whiteout, the tents were sheathed in ice and there was two inches of water in the experimental Logan. Or about as unpleasant a homecoming as any of us would wish to have. Under these miserable circumstances, Arighi and Chappelear volunteered to cook one of the most difficult meals of the expedition; seven of us jammed into the reasonably dry non-experimental Logan, everyone cold and dead tired, pots and food strewn all over the floor, and the tent dripping as it began to thaw out.
For one day we rested and waited on the unstable weather, then on the first day of June we climbed Lituya, all seven members of the expedition reaching the summit at the same time.
Since Bennett was scheduled to fly us out on 3 June, our timing was rather good. We descended to Base Camp and packed our equipment, now intent on hot baths at Clarence Mattson’s fine hostelry back in Haines. Well, tomorrow certainly came, but the sky fell in. It started to snow, and it snowed all that day and all the next, the snow getting wetter as each hour passed. On the third day the rains came, and for forty-eight hours the heavens dumped tons of water on us. Everything and everybody were a mess, an indescribable, filthy mess. I was afraid to go near the experimental Logan tent, for I was already discouraged enough without having to see that. And meals in the cook tent——no, I won’t even attempt to describe them; they were just too awful. Finally, at nine p.m on 6 June four men made a break for the beach and the alternate rendezvous with the plane. As we later learned, they moved for two days—almost without pause—before reaching the sea. At Base Camp Arighi, Nielsen and Bohn waited on.
The weather cleared over the glacier late on 7 June. On 8 June there was hardly a cloud in the sky. On 9 June there was not a cloud in the sky. On 10 June there was nothing but blue sky. On 11 June there was nothing but blue sky. On 12 June, the same. Our existence became almost surrealistic. We had now been waiting ten days, the last five caught in a paradox; the low-lying cloud layers could not escape until the barometer broke, and those clouds were pinning down our bush pilot. But at noon on 12 June the cirrus began to form, deceptively beautiful cirrus riding high over our peaks, for of course they are the forerunners of a storm. Late that aftenoon Bennett finally got through and landed with mail, a thermos of hot coffee, and tales of the beach evacuation. In an exceedingly dangerous, bouncing takeoff, the overladen Piper Cub got away with Nielsen aboard. At 10:30 p.m. the plane returned; it was getting very dark and it was obvious the storm was almost upon us. Another difficult takeoff, and they were gone. The wing lights disappeared to the east, and then silence.
Space closed in on me, and so did the weather. Two hours later the rains came again. I thought it had rained before, but I discovered it had only sprinkled. Now it rained in wild sheets, vertically, horizontally; it was the monsoon. It rained for sixteen hours without surcease, and during this time—practically immovable in the two-man tent—I listened to the unending roar of avalanches all over the Fairweathers. It was bedlam, but I couldn’t see a thing; I could only lie there in my ridiculous orange house and listen.
When it stopped raining, I rushed to set up the Logan tent again, and moved in quickly. It started to snow. It snowed for two days, and my infinitesimal world continued to shrink; excepting the tent, I had seen nothing for almost three days. At last, in the late evening of 15 June, I began to see shapes again. At first the shapes were vague, but by nine o’clock they were mountains.
At 11:00 that night, my last at Base Camp, I came out of the tent in my parka to stand on the cold snow. There was a sullen sky overhead, and great storm clouds hung close to the sea. The scene was one of silent, outrageous desolation. Then out of that vast silence came one of the most mournful sounds in nature; the cry of geese. They were resting somewhere across the glacier, but only briefly I knew, because they were headed for nesting grounds in the Yukon. I wished them well, those geese—in that vast silence as I stood not quite alone.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Fairweather Range, southeastern Alaska.
Mount Quincy Adams, 13,680 feet, May 23, 1962 (Arighi, Bohn, Flachsmann, Maki, Mushkin)—first ascent.
Mount Lituya, 11,910 feet, June 1, 1962 (whole party)—first ascent. Personnel: Scott Arighi, Dave Bohn, David Chappelear, Arthur Maki, Martin Mushkin, Lawrence Nielsen, Americans; Hans Flachsmann, Swiss.