David S. Roberts
“THE LANDSCAPE was one of the bleakest imaginable,” wrote S. B. McLenegan in 1885. “Not a sign of life was anywhere visible, and the cold piercing blasts which swept across the tundra caused us to realize keenly the solitude of our position and only increased our desire to see the end of the journey.”
“Pass the hollandaise sauce,” said Al de Maria in 1968. Chuck Loucks looked up from his copy of Time. “I think you’ll find,” he offered, “that it goes better on the trout than on the Danish bacon.” Turning a page, he muttered, “Things are not looking up in Czechoslovakia.” My wife, Sharon, gathered the dishes while I, reclining in stupefied ease against a food box, pondered the great decision of the day: whether to go flower- photographing or blueberry-picking. Or maybe just back to sleep.
This, of course, is not fair to poor old McLenegan. He was following orders, we our own desires. Even if he did have his moments of sheer lazy luxury in the Brooks Range, he would not have dared mention them in an official government report. And exploring was a rough and dreary business in those days, the days before airplanes and Off and freeze-dried pork chops. On the other hand, we had hardships McLenegan never dreamed of; for in 1885 nobody in northern Alaska needed to worry about Czechoslovakia.
We could not be blamed, I still maintain, for turning soft in the first two weeks of our Brooks Range idyll. After a sound and thorough schooling in the treacheries of the Alaska Range, the Canadian Rockies, or the White Mountains in winter, how could we have been expected to cope with a place where a day of perfect weather did not use up three weeks’ supply, where the snowbanks had given up in July, and where even the grizzly bears looked pacifistic?
What saved us from our own torpor was the advent of Vin and Grace Hoeman, who flew in to join us after very reluctantly giving us a 15-day head start. They put us to shame by covering the hike in, on which we had dawdled for three days, in only one. As soon as they arrived, as they cooked a frugal, light-weight dinner, we began to feel self-conscious about our gooey delicacies. Soon even our tents felt too roomy. We had known of the Hoemans’ legendary inability to sit still, but not having climbed with them before, hardly suspected the Puritan self-denial that accompanied it.
Indeed, we were a motley group, the six of us, ranging in impulse from Vin’s compulsive peak-collecting to Sharon’s desire simply to please her husband. Six of us who had hardly climbed at all with each other beforehand (in some cases, had not even met), drawn together by a mountain almost no one in the world had heard of, named Igikpak, which happened to be the highest in all the western and central Brooks Range, for 285 miles in any direction, apparently (from the inadequate aerial photos) difficult, and, best of all, unclimbed. Grace was there, also, partly to please her husband, but she was determined to get up Igikpak herself, as Sharon was not. Chuck was there because this was “his kind” of trip, and because he alone among us had seen Igikpak before, from the Arrigetch,* 25 miles to the east, in 1964. Al was there, like Chuck, for a pleasant expedition; but once he had seen Iggy it got under his skin, and he began to feel, like a knight of the Round Table, a personal responsibility for the demise of the monster. I was there, I suppose, because I had started dreaming, as I do each January, about Alaska, and had chosen Igikpak to fasten my three A.m. frustrations on. For all of us, it could in the first place have been another mountain just as easily as Igikpak; by some point in the early summer, no other one would do.
After rejecting approach by motorboat, pack train, and parachute, the four of us—Al, Chuck, Sharon and I—found ourselves at the end of July in the little arctic town of Betties, nervously appraising our pilot, who was himself nervously appraising the maps. We need not have worried. The next day Daryl Morris put us down neatly and inexpensively on a gravel bar beside the deep green Noatak River. Four days later, after we had fought mosquitoes up Tupik Creek and dared bears across Angiaak Pass, Morris dropped our supplies and food on the soft tundra of Base Camp, a meadow at 3000 feet, three miles directly west of Iggy. We lost only some coffee and a jar of strawberry jam. It was a superbly remote place, 60 miles from the nearest people, on the eastern end of an untrodden range (the Schwatka Mountains), at the headwaters of those two rivers so fabled in gold rush annals, the Noatak and the Kobuk—actually closer to Siberia than to Anchorage. Yet Base Camp itself could not have seemed more comfortable. Everything but Igikpak had the scale of Colorado, not Alaska. The babbling brook beside our tents, an upper fork of the Reed River (itself a tributary of the Kobuk), betrayed no hint of the weed-thick, bug-infested torrent it would become miles to the south. The flowers and moss beneath our feet grew as if they were there only to cushion our steps. In the daytime one could loll and bask for hours in the 60° or even 70° warmth. I spent some of my afternoons fly fishing in the pools of our little stream, and managed to catch enough trout to allay the monotony of glop. Even the mosquitoes magnanimously died after Augut 10. We were 65 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but no Alaskan trip any of us had ever been on seemed less arctic. I remembered my expedition the previous year to the inhospitable “Revelations,” a more typically Alaskan range: there in the night as our tents collapsed, we had had nightmares about log cabins that vanished at first touch, and in the mornings as we shivered in a disintegrating igloo, we had daydreamed about intricate ice mansions winding into the glacier itself. This year, if we dreamed at all, it was of puffy clouds and soft breezes and carefree strolls.
Yet the very gentleness of the range lent itself to a subtle, though haunting sense of ennui, of hugeness, of immutability. The blandness of the whole of the Brooks Range (which other travelers have also commented on), the gray-green-brown sameness of it, unrelieved by snow or glacier, could build up an oppressive sense of emptiness: of all the mountains I have been in, these seemed capable of the greatest loneliness. In the lower valleys, the moss had carpeted the rocks, even the boulders, so thickly that, clambering among them, one felt as if part of his sense of touch had been turned off. The slopes were full of dark nooks and holes, in which, one suspected, the furtive life of small animals went on, century after century. During most of the August we were there, although we were well north of the northern limit of wooded land, the air was often thick and sweet with the smoke from forest fires, far to the south, raging out of control. Of the animals we saw, the grizzly alone seemed to command the awe we were used to offering Alaska. (Only two of them had anything to do with us: one that walked right through a camp on our hike in, pausing just to use the bathroom; another that broke into
cache we had left on Angayu Creek, but apparently fled in terror after biting through a Bleuet cartridge.) The mountain sheep, bounding effortlessly up some broken cliff, seemed, unlike the stolid bears, to unlock the wildness inherent in the dreary landscape. The nights could be beautiful, with a romantic suggestiveness for which most of Alaska is too harsh, too boldly sculptured. I felt it one midnight when I rose to find the moon, Halloween orange, sliding between two hills. Indeed, the romance was there every night, when one could tiptoe barefoot through the grass outside the tents in a world not frozen and lucid, as in higher mountains, but dark and warm, in which the stream flowed as usual, talking to itself. Several of our nights were interrupted by bright flashes of lightning and the sudden pelting of hard rain on the tent fly; startled awake, we would lie counting the seconds, then hear the tired rumble of the thunder, as if gathering in these hills for the last time its ancient fury.
Nor would we have characterized as gentle the solemn black pinnacles— “gargoyles,” Chuck called them—that brooded over every valley, and seemed to take on the fantastic shapes of angels, monks or prehistoric birds, in various kinds of light: more suggestive than one would think mere rock could be, caught, like Michelangelo’s “Slaves,” in the posture of their struggle to escape from cold stone.
The landscape seemed haunted, in another sense, by the disappearance of the Eskimo, who in the last decades of the nineteenth century had been forced, by the inexplicable dwindling of the caribou herd, out of the interior, out of their ancestral headwaters, down to the coastal villages, where they could live off the growing whaling trade. I had read beforehand, in the official accounts of Reed, McLenegan, and Stoney, of the deserted dwellings, the chilling burial cairns they had come across; of the sacred hot springs to which several Eskimo had guided Reed, somewhere very near what would become our Base Camp. But we were unprepared for the thrill of finding our own signs of the Eskimo: the strange series of cairns, each only a rock or two propped up together, several in a row, so unlike the cairns a white man builds. (The white man, one suspects, builds a cairn to proclaim, "Look at this—I was here!”; the Eskimo, perhaps, to say, “Here I found many caribou,” or "That way is the best pass to the big river.”)
If there was any danger that the rewards of our Brooks Range trip, including several quick summits, were coming too easily, Igikpak made up for it. For the first week we never saw its top, as it hid in storm and cloud. When it cleared, four sharp towers (which was highest, we could not tell) disclosed themselves. After a rained-out reconnaissance, Al,
Chuck, and I set out on August 6 for an attempt, leaving Sharon alone with our rifle to police the grizzlies, if need be. It was a typically cloudless day. Al seemed like a mechanical demon as he tore up the slope, scarcely pausing to look at the view; Chuck and I grumbled along in the rear, complaining about our digestion or lack of sleep. After 5000 vertical feet of scrambling, hiking, and cursing, we caught up with Al on the top of the first of the four towers. From there we could see that the third, the most incredible of all—a 200-foot cylinder topped, like a mushroom, with a 30-foot block overhanging on all sides, was the actual summit. Ecstatic at its nearness, we started toward it—and nearly blundered into what I shall forever after refer to in my private catalogue of horrors as the Hinterstoisser Elevator Shaft.” Geologically, it was simply a gap in the summit ridge between the first and second towers. But a gap so precipitous, so deceptively guarded by knife-edge, blank wall, and dead-end chimney, so irreversible, that after three hours of some of the airiest granite ballet we had ever choreographed, we were forced to give up. The Arrigetch, shining in the east, all its summits well below us, mocked our failure. As we climbed and hiked back down, the sense of having been cheated faded gradually into exhaustion.
Nor did we sleep well the next few days: in the early morning hours, when we were wrapped snugly in warm sleeping bags, climbing began to seem a peculiar kind of masochism; we tried to ignore the threat of a day of good weather or the scornful commands of the achieving beast in us, and each of us left it up to the other two to rouse him out of bed. We managed, however, to set off again early on August 9, better-armed, wiser, with a whole new route in mind. Circling the bulk of the mountain, we approached its southern face, the only one thinkable as less than a full-scale siege effort. Everything went perfectly; though the scrambling was more difficult than before, the rock was so good that we did it all unroped. By mid-afternoon, we were approaching the summit pillar, full of hope, the hideous elevator shaft now well-skirted on the left.
Looking up at the mushroom, Al said, “You know, I wouldn’t mind if it isn’t too tough. First ascent and all, and after getting shot down on the first attempt.”
“You’re getting old, Al,” I told him. “You’re getting old.”
It turned out to be spectacular. I took the first lead; in the warmth of the sun, clutching the dry, sound rock, I felt my spirits soar as they seldom have. They turned out to be just adequate to the task, when I had to back out of one jam-crack and swing on tension into another. My awkwardly pounded left-hand piton pulled just as I got to the further crack. Chuck, coming up second, managed with a great grunt to do the first crack direct, which made my pulling the pin look like a stroke of genius. From my ledge, halfway up the summit tower, Al led the second pitch, a beautifully exposed chimney and jam-crack right up to an eyrie beneath the final overhang.
My turn for the finale. We had our stirrups, but the overhanging block offered on this side not the slightest of usable cracks. The only break in its smoothness was a wedged 200-pound chockstone that looked as if it were begging to be pulled loose. Instead I crawled shakily around the pillar on a tiny ledge until I was on the opposite side from Chuck and Al, in the shade above the sheer 3000-foot east face, which we had never before seen. Standing on a kind of balcony, I saw to my joy that the 120° wall above me was split by two horizontal cracks, at apparently the right intervals for aid. But what a place to stand up in those stirrups! Pirouetting dizzily above the abyss, I wondered if the whole summit block were loose. The first pin I placed in the upper crack bounced loose under my nervous hammer, hit rock somewhere below, and vanished silently in thin air. The second really unnerved me, for when I hit it it disappeared inside the crack, slid noisily (almost back through to Chuck and Al? I wondered), and came to a stop, demonstrating neatly how uncemented this summit might be. At last I found a pin that stuck, got the stirrups clipped in, stepped into them, reached for the top … too far, still out of reach. A pin two feet to the left, shift the stirrups, get into the top steps, arch against the leaning wall, reach again … then, as I nearly wept for joy, my fingers closed on the sweetest thank-God hold I ever grasped, the very summit! A pull-up, a muscle-over, and I stood on top, shouting self- congratulations down to Chuck and Al.
With much less ado, they came up one by one. The summit was easily the most remarkable any of us had ever been on, a little platform (it seemed) in the middle of extraterrestrial space, just big enough for a well-disciplined game of ping-pong.
Nothing could spoil such a day, not even when, on the second rappel, Al kicked loose a boulder that wiped out one of our two ropes and made a good try at me. Late in the afternoon, as we climbed wearily, carefully down the south face, full of numb gratification, I looked back at the little pillar in the sky, and commented, “What a great climb! That should satisfy me for a while. Maybe I’ll even retire.”
“Dave,” said Al sadly, “you’re getting old.”
The rest of the trip, by all rights, belonged to Grace and Vin. Not about to grant us the exclusive claim to Iggy, they set out the day after they got to Base Camp on their own attempt, following our route and advice. Twenty hours later they were back, having made the summit after some exhausting work, with Vin leading the summit pitch and Grace jümaring up a fixed rope to clean it. They too lost a rope, this time when it snagged as they pulled it off the top rappel. They agreed they had never seen a summit like it.
On August 15 the whole party climbed “Sikspak Peak,” the third highest in the range, a broad and complicated structure four miles northeast of camp. This was Sharon’s best and favorite climb, a knee-wrenching haul for all of us, as we gained and lost more than 7000 vertical feet on rock, scree, and glacier. Three days later, having spent only a week at Base Camp, Vin and Grace took off for peaks west and north; we rejoined them only at the end of the trip on the bank of the Noatak where we awaited the flight out. Chuck, Al, and I wanted to spend our last efforts on the second highest peak (and obvious second prize), the 7800-foot prong north of Iggy that we called “Tupik Tower.” When we got our chance, on August 20, we found the peak much harder than it looked; after four pitches of exposed climbing on a rotten, shingled ridge, we gave up well below the top. Meanwhile Vin and Grace managed to scramble in a thick mist up the limestone curiosity of Mount Chitiok, and several days later to make a long circuit on the broad “fish’s tail,” Mount Papiok. The other four of us split up to make a pair of farewell summits, both easy walks, then hiked out to join our friends.
Morris picked us up, almost disappointingly on schedule. Catching fat grayling in the Noatak, picking our last bowls of overripe blueberries, we had begun to wish that we had followed through on our original plan of rafting down that graceful river 400 miles to the Arctic Sea. In the plane on the flight back to Betties, we all felt smugly, for the first time in our lives, that we had come close to climbing out a range. But as we flew past Tupik Tower, I felt the stirring of the old itch: the puzzle of one summit that had outfoxed us. We had failed, too, to find the sacred hot springs, and not for lack of trying; already in my nostalgic memory I see the six of us again, searching each hillside for a telltale wisp of steam, pausing at each rivulet to dip a temperature-testing finger. And though at times we felt we knew our part of the Brooks Range only too well, I know that one of these days, sitting in an armchair before a fire some cozy winter, I will suddenly realize that I have forgotten the smell of the reindeer moss, and will discover the need to go back there all over again.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Schwatka Mountains, Western Brooks Range, Alaska.
First Ascents: Mount Igikpak, 8510 feet, August 9, 1968 (De Maria, Loucks, D. Roberts); August 12, 1968 (G. & V. Hoeman). “Sikspak Peak,” ca. 7775 feet, August 15, 1968 (whole party).
Peak 6900± feet, August 22, 1968 (De Maria, Loucks).
Peak 6550 feet, August 14, 1968 (V. Hoeman).
Mount Papiok, 6530 feet, August 21, 1968 (G. & V. Hoeman). Mount Chitiok, 6480 feet, August 19, 1968 (G. & V. Hoeman). Peak 6300± feet, August 4, 1968 (De Maria, Loucks).
Peak 6270 feet, August 25, 1968 (G. & V. Hoeman).
Peak 6l00± feet, August 21, 1968 (G. & V. Hoeman).
“Bread Loaf Peak,” 5700± feet, August 12, 1968 (De Maria, Loucks, D. & S. Roberts).
Peak 5300± feet, August 22, 1968 (D. & S. Roberts).
Peak 5205 feet, August 12, 1968 (De Maria, Loucks).
Peak 5100± feet, August 3, 1968 (D. & S. Roberts); August 11, 1968 (V. Hoeman).
Personnel: Alvin De Maria, Grace Hoeman, J. Vincent Hoeman, Charles Loucks, David Roberts, Sharon Roberts.
* See A.A.J., 1965, 14:2, pages 315-319.