A Most Hostile Mountain: Re-creating the Duke of Abruzzi’s Historic Expedition on Alaska’s Mount St. Elias. Jonathan Waterman. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1997. 30 photos, two maps. 253 pages. $25.00.
Being in the party that achieved the first American ascent of 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias in July, 1946, this reviewer had more than passing interest in the account of the two-man mini-expedition to the mountain a half century later. And the story is enriched by alternating parallel coverage of the century-ago 1897 first ascent of the peak by the famed Italian explorer Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi.
Included in the coverage of the Italians’journey is that of an American party led by Henry Bryant, which started for the mountain two weeks ahead of the Duke. Although Bryant’s party turned back only halfway toward the mountain, they and the Italians enjoyed amicable relations.
Waterman obviously has done considerable research on the Duke’s trip, perusing books and archive libraries of major universities and mountaineering organizations throughout the U.S., England and Italy. His access to the diaries of expedition members also brings out information missing from the Duke’s own The Ascent of Mount St. Elias. Of special interest are accounts of the sometimes sad and turbulent life and times of the Duke, before and following the historic ascent.
The author’s minimally financed and equipped (virtually “alpine-style ) mini-expedition is in sharp contrast to that of the well-supported Italian party. Besides ten American packers hired in Seattle and four Tlingit native porters, the original party comprised seven climbers and four professional guides, including scientists and famed alpine photographer Vittorio Sella. Enhancing Waterman’s text is the liberal use of quotes from the diaries of the Italians and of the Americans, and from the old classics of Whymper and Mummery.
Waterman’s own journey begins in Seattle with the father-and-son team of Gary and Jeff Hollenbaugh, and in a small sailboat they motor and sail north up the Inside Passage to Yakutat and into Icy Bay. From there, Jon and Jeff leave the father in charge of the boat, and they hike and haul a bare minimum of gear and food to the base of the south face below 10,000-foot Haydon Col. They contend with mosquitoes, up-and-down morainal debris, and the heavily crevassed Malaspina and Libby Glaciers, then slug their way up the face to the col, living with storms, heavy snowfall, and in constant dread of massive avalanches down the face.
But the summit attempt on this elusive and “most hostile mountain” seemed doomed from the start: The author left his mittens on the boat; the party of two travels crevassed glaciers and steep slopes of avalanching snow—with no radio contact and a minimum of time, food and equipment. Heavy snowfall and continuous avalanches experienced in the ascent discourage any attempt to return to a food cache left far below the col. With food and time running out they are forced to abandon hopes for the summit some 8000 feet above, and they descend to the peak’s base via the crumbling South Ridge (“Shale Ridge”-the route of our 1946 ascent).
The book’s appeal includes the author’s spirit of self-discovery while seeking the unknown in the uninhabited, heavily glacierized terrain of southeastern Alaska. In his forties and just through the aftermath of a divorce, Waterman has turned his attention to Mount St. Elias, which had fascinated him with its history of few successes and many failures. Before “settling down to a wife and kids,” the author responds to the need for personally experiencing this “most difficult of North America’s major mountains.”
The book will appeal to all with a taste for boating and climbing adventures in Alaska, and expeditioners will empathize with Waterman’s sensitive observations and philosophical mus-ings: “The true alpinist is the man who attempts new ascents… Since the beginning of alpinism, one climber’s ‘justifiable risks’ have always been perceived as another’s death trap.… Dreams are perhaps the best recreation when you’re stormed in. Aside from their entertainment value, they put you in touch with your desires and vulnerabilities.… Mountain expeditions used to seem like powerful metaphors. They are replete with challenge, strained communications, dead ends, uncertainty, leadership stalemates, and the overwhelming bewilderment you always feel beneath the big mountain itself. If you could pull through this gauntlet … you could have the tools to cope with the rest of life. But in practice … life in the ‘real world’ had none of the same grandeur.”
There are only a few negatives: a couple misspellings, and most photos occupy less than a half page, with one of St. Elias printed backward. To this map buff, the two maps are oversimplified and suggest the lack of appreciation for one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines, bordered by some of the highest peaks and largest glaciers in North America.