Dangerous Steps: Vernon Tejas and the Solo Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley

Publication Year: 1991.

Dangerous Steps: Vernon Tejas and the Solo Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley. Lewis Freedman. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1990. 200 pages. Paperback. $14.95.

To introduce Vem Tejas, the author Lewis Freedman writes, “Heroes … do not come in six-packs.” The reader then learns that U.S. News & World Report’s survey determined our three greatest heroes are Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy, and Ronald Reagan. Certainly the author doesn’t claim Tejas shares similar billing, but by the end of the book, this reviewer felt Tejas deserves it.

In the winter of 1988, Tejas became the first climber safely to solo Denali (unlike the solo climber Naomi Uemura, who disappeared in winter 1984 after summiting). Tejas is renowned amongst his peers for being a free thinker, a generous soul, and one of the most masterful mountaineers in Alaska. Freedman tells us that Tejas had reached Denali’s summit twelve times, that he had been amongst the first teams to climb Mount Hunter and Mount Logan in winter, and that he is an experienced guide. However, if the reader was shown more of the significance and underpinning of Tejas’ accomplishments, they might ring with even greater authority.

Soloing Denali in winter was a masterpiece, the fruit of a long career of climbing in high and cold places. In the book there is no mention of Tejas climbing such technically difficult routes as Denali’s Northwest Buttress and the Cassin Ridge. Either route is a lifetime ambition for many climbers, but Tejas climbed them back-to-back while shod in floppy bunny boots! It should be mentioned that Tejas has proven that the hardest, coldest routes can be done without incurring frostbite—certainly these would be “dangerous steps” for most climbers, but even Tejas’ winter climb of Denali was a methodically plotted, hard-won goal. It was also an omission not to mention that Tejas’ 1980 Hunter climb was the first technically difficult winter climb on a big Alaskan peak. Nor do we learn of Tejas’ direct new route up the elegant West Face of Mount Deborah, or the first traverse of the 350-mile wide Bagley Icefields— done with a blues harp strapped in front of his mouth the whole way.

We do not learn that Tejas is also a spontaneous, fun-loving clown who flies kites with his clients during storms to keep them laughing. Or that he often straps himself to a kite and has made hundreds of parasail descents. (If the book mentioned that Tejas has done lots of training flights before jumping off Vinson and Aconcagua, he would seem less crazed.)

Tejas once told a friend that he hallucinated geometric cartoon figures during his winter solo. He turned these images on and off at will to entertain himself while stormbound in snowcaves, a fascinating entrance into his mind—but too aberrant for this staid book. Without knowing Tejas, Dangerous Steps could unintentionally lead a reader to believe that he is a rather intense, yet simple-minded, folksy-mouthed bore.

The author, however, does have the guts to stand up for what he believes in. Lewis Freedman—a sports writer for the Anchorage Daily News—might be the only Alaskan mountaineer who prefers the name Mount McKinley (after the Ohio-born President) over the indigenous Denali. Most any Alaskan familiar with this mountain will look at you cross-eyed for pronouncing it “McKinley”— akin to farting in a Chattanooga parlor room. Just ask Tejas.

So, Dangerous Steps is for the uninitiated who need convincing that there are greater heroes than movie stars. Here’s an example of its style: “A teasing lady who often is no lady, McKinley lures and seduces. It flirts with men who can’t say no to its beauty.” Sounds like a movie Clint Eastwood could direct, no? Then there is a reference to the protagonist going on vacation to Japan. Tejas will be the first to admit that he’s a climbing bum. Eddie Murphy goes on vacation. Vem Tejas goes on climbs, which is what he did in Japan. And finally, toward the end, when Tejas solos Mount Vinson: “With 98% of its five million square miles layered in ice almost two miles thick, [Antarctica] is a wasteland.”

Since we’ve established that the book is for readers unfamiliar with mountains, the following omissions could be overlooked. Freedman claims that Denali’s second winter ascent was via the West Rib in 1983 (the Cassin Ridge was the second winter ascent in 1982). Or that John Waterman disappeared during a winter solo (it was April). The book presents a District Ranger as a Chief Ranger, gives the wrong elevation for Mount Logan, lowers the West Buttress headwall by a thousand feet, and sends a rescue helicopter from Talkeetna hours earlier than it actually left, and so forth. Any number of experienced Alaskan mountaineer proof-readers could have prevented such errors.

His personality is of the compelling soulful stuff that other biographers have uncovered in tortured artists, early presidents and great musicians. He is not yet forty, but he single-handedly pulled off history’s most heroic rescue on Denali. He soloed the mountain in winter, unscathed by frostbite, then two months later was unduly anguished by the death of his client. To Lewis Freedman’s credit, he has touched all of these facts.

There’s nothing wrong with a mainstream interpretation of a figure who dwells within the narrow subculture of mountaineering. Yet Dangerous Steps personifies inanimate mountains, bumbles historical facts, attaches stereotypical values, and sensationalizes the truth. Presenting his hard-won accomplishments as something from the lunatic fringe cheapens the whole art of mountaineering.

Jonathan Waterman