Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survivalby David Roberts
In 1937, Mount Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. Located deep within the Saint Elias mountain range, which straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon, and surrounded by glacial peaks, Lucania was all but inaccessible. The leader of one failed expedition deemed it "impregnable." But in that year, a pair of daring young climbers would attempt
In 1937, Mount Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. Located deep within the Saint Elias mountain range, which straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon, and surrounded by glacial peaks, Lucania was all but inaccessible. The leader of one failed expedition deemed it "impregnable." But in that year, a pair of daring young climbers would attempt a first ascent, not knowing that their quest would turn into a perilous struggle for survival. Escape from Lucania is their remarkable story.
Classmates and fellow members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, Brad Washburn and Bob Bates were two talented young men handsome, intelligent, and filled with a zest for exploring. Both were ambitious climbers, part of a small group whose first ascents in the great mountain ranges during the 1930s and 1940s changed the face of American mountaineering. Setting their sights on summitting Lucania in the summer of 1937, Washburn and Bates put together a team of four climbers for the expedition. But when Bates and Washburn flew to the Walsh Glacier at the foot of Lucania, they discovered that freakish weather conditions had turned the ice to slush. Their pilot was barely able to take off again alone, and there was no question of returning with the other two climbers or more supplies. Washburn and Bates found themselves marooned on the glacier, more than a hundred miles from help, in forbidding and desolate territory. Eschewing a trek out to the nearest mining town eighty miles away by air they decided to press ahead with their expedition.
Escape from Lucania recounts Washburn and Bates's determined drive toward Lucania's 17,150-foot summit under constant threat of avalanches, blinding snowstorms, and hidden crevasses. Against awesome odds they became the first to set foot on Lucania's peak, not realizing that their greatest challenge still lay beyond. Nearly a month after being stranded on the glacier and with their supplies running dangerously low, they would have to navigate their way out through uncharted Yukon territory, racing against time as the summer warmth caused rivers to swell and flood to unfordable depths. But even as their situation grew more and more desperate, they refused to give up.
Escape from Lucania tells this amazing story in thrilling and vivid detail, from the climbers' exultation at reaching the summit to their darkest moments confronting seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is a tale of awesome adventure and harrowing danger. But above all it is the story of two men of extraordinary spirit, inspiring comradeship, and great courage.
Today Washburn and Bates, now in their nineties, are legends in climbing circles. Bates co-led 1938 and 1953 expeditions to K2, the world's second-highest mountain. Washburn, whose record of Alaskan first ascents is unmatched, became founding director of Boston's Museum of Science and is one of the premier mountain photographers in the world. Some of his remarkable images from the 1937 Lucania expedition are included in this book.
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Chapter Four: Over the Top
It took another day, and three more load carries, for Brad and Bob to establish themselves at Shangri-La. The next-to-last haul, in the late morning of July 7, took place in the middle of a "wild snowstorm." Wrote Brad in his diary, "We could not see a thing either way -- just kept to the downhill side of the willow wands and scuffed along in the snow, feeling for yesterday's steps...[W]e couldn't even tell we were on a grade when we crossed the 45 [-degree] traverse under the séracs. It feels like walking in a cloud and it is very hard to maintain balance."
Then, as they rested in the tent at Ice-Block Camp before packing up the last load, a huge sérac collapsed nearby -- "we could feel the ice jerk underneath us," noted Brad. (Over the years, many climbers have been crushed to death by falling séracs. Usually their bodies are unrecoverable.)
The significance of reaching Shangri-La was monumental. Brad and Bob had placed their camp only three miles southwest of the summit of Mount Steele. Before the expedition, Brad had made a small album of the twelve best aerial photos of the Lucania region that he and Russ Dow had shot in 1935 and 1936, respectively. One of the pictures in that album now made it clear that there would be no difficulty in traversing beneath the summit of Steele on the north. Once they had gained Steele's northeast ridge, they would intersect the route by which Walter Wood's party had made the mountain's first ascent in 1935. And, as Brad and Bob were fond of repeating to each other, with the cockiness of their youthful expertise, "Anything Walter Wood can climb up, we can climb down."
The dangerous campaign of the last seven days, however, as the men had fought through storms to carry loads up the 4,000-foot headwall, ought to have given the conclusive lie to Brad and Bob's rationalization that climbing to the Steele-Lucania col to launch a long eastward trek toward Burwash Landing was the safest and easiest way out of the Saint Elias Range. Yet Brad's diary never addresses the question, and today both men still insist that it looked as though it would have been harder and nastier to flee west down the Walsh Glacier toward McCarthy.
The real motivation for reaching Shangri-La, of course, was to have a crack at North America's highest unclimbed mountain. Despite all the handicaps with which the fickle weather had shackled the men, they were not yet willing to abandon the expedition's original goal just to ensure an outcome so mundane as survival.
Late on July 7, as the storm that the lenticular clouds had presaged smothered the exposed Lucania-Steele ridge, Brad and Bob hunkered down in the tent at Shangri-La, while Brad made a long entry in his diary. With his passion for precise detail, he took stock not only of the men's food and gear, but of their prospects.
They were short, Brad noted, on sugar, butter, and cereal, but had plenty of beans, soup, bacon, and the detested dried beef. As they had planned, they had managed to haul twenty-five days' worth of food to the high camp. Yet now they faced a cruel imperative. For all the chucking out of supplies the men had practiced over the previous two weeks, they still had well more than a hundred pounds apiece of gear and food. Once they began their descent of Mount Steele, they were determined to reduce their burdens to a single load apiece, preferably of no more than sixty pounds. It would be far too arduous, as well as too perilous, to double- or triple-pack loads down that unseen ridge. From the shoulder of Steele to Kluane Lake, the men's guiding doctrine of "fast and light" would rule every hour.
It may be, moreover, that the two men miscalculated how many days their food was actually good for. A kindred error has dogged the heels of some of the most seasoned explorers: it led directly to the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. Under normal circumstances, it is hard for an average-sized man to burn more than 4,500 calories a day, even with all-out exertion. Most expedition rations are planned to supply about that many daily calories in food. Yet for men in superb condition, working in the cold as hard as Bob and Brad were, it is possible to burn as many as 6,000 calories a day. A man eats and eats and never sates his hunger. What was more, Bob and Brad were lean, almost skinny, at the outset of the Lucania trip: they had precious little body fat to burn.
Brad's long July 7 diary entry breathes a deep sigh of relief. "It's a glorious feeling actually to be camped here, with no more of the grueling uphill that we have had up till now. The tension is relaxed." In his ebullience, Brad understates the task ahead: "Only a 2,000-foot spur [the shoulder of Steele] separates us from downhill to Burwash, and there isn't a crack between us and it. We certainly have fought to get here and I think that what we have done is downright amazing, considering that we have had fresh snow every single day so far, with the exception of one."
In the very next breath after declaring the tension relaxed, Brad comes to his senses: "Four men would have made a world of difference. With only two, no one can relax and take a breather; it is just a continual fight. But so far we've won."
While Brad was writing in his diary, Bob took the trouble to shave (exactly how he did so, with snowmelt for water and no soap or shaving cream, has escaped both men's memories). Wrote Brad of his partner's effort to maintain a civilized toilette, "I shaved at the Ice-Block Camp and Camp III; so I'm still one up on him, but we certainly are some specimens, on account of peeling sunburn and windburn."
Other climbers, facing a plight similar to Brad and Bob's, have felt their nerves fray to the breaking point. Cabin fever all too easily sets in, so that a teammate's mildest habits drive one to the edge of apoplexy. Two men sleeping head-to-toe in a single inadequate bag make a perfect recipe for such interpersonal antagonism.
Perhaps the single most remarkable aspect of the Lucania expedition is that both men swear they never felt a moment's antipathy toward each other, let alone indulged in an overt quarrel. "I can't recall an evil word from the beginning to the end of that trip," insists Brad today. "We got along very well," says Bob blandly. "I don't think we had any disagreements."
If this is true -- and not some rose-tinted distortion in the glow of memory, or the residue of an ethic of the day that one never airs in public the dirty linen of a private adventure -- then the remarkable harmony the two men enjoyed during the most hazardous exploit of their lives owes much to a happy symbiosis between their temperaments.
Early and late, Brad Washburn was notorious for the obstinacy of his will. On an expedition, one pretty much did things his way or not at all. Brad could lead brilliantly, but not follow, and it is not surprising that he was the leader or co-leader of every expedition he ever went on. On Mount Crillon in 1933, Washburn locked horns with a similarly obstinate teammate two years his junior, Charlie Houston. Houston would go on to make the first ascent of Mount Foraker, Alaska's third-highest peak, and to co-lead the 1938 and 1953 American K2 expeditions with Bates. But though the two men have remained loyal friends all their lives, Houston and Washburn never climbed together again after 1933.
Bob Bates was the temperamental opposite of Washburn. A peace-at-all-costs go-between, he more than once interceded gently and wisely between expedition teammates who were on the verge of serious conflict. The phrase "the nicest guy you'll ever meet" comes readily to the lips of most of Bates's lifelong friends.
If this suggests a certain acquiescent passivity about the man, that was not the case in the mountains. The last person in the world to speak ill of another (The Love of Mountains Is Best is serenely free of rancor throughout its 493 pages), the first to volunteer for any dirty or dangerous job, Bates possessed a will in its own way as strong as Washburn's. And Bob had a valuable quality that Brad entirely lacked. In an ominous or uncertain fix, Bob summoned up a Zen-like equanimity. If a predicament was beyond his control, he accepted the fact. Stoicism of this sort makes a powerful antidote to paralyzing fear.
As Bob puts it today, "I take things in stride. If I can't do anything about [the situation], I don't worry."
Brad, on the other hand, found it hard to relax when matters were beyond his control. Just as he insisted on being the leader, he felt a nagging anxiety when he could not bend the world to fit his will. And he was the soul of impatience. In a 1983 interview in American Photographer, alluding to his camera work, he acknowledged as much: "A lot of people have said to me, 'You must have an enormous amount of patience.' Actually, I'm impatient as hell. I'm just stubborn."
There was another ingredient to the two men's remarkable rapport on Lucania. During their downtime on the mountain, when they lay in their tent waiting out storms -- those moments when it is easiest to get on each other's nerves -- they whiled away the hours singing cowboy songs and railroad ballads out loud together, for which music they shared an inexhaustible zest. "The Wreck of the Old '97," "Ain't Got No Use for the Women," "Casey Jones," "The Red River Valley," "The Wreck of the CNO No. 5." (Reminiscing in Bates's living room in New Hampshire in the winter of 2000, Bob and Brad suddenly burst into dual concert: "I awoke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail / With a rope in my hand and cow by the tail / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay, yippee yay / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay / There's a stray in the herd, and the boss said kill it / So I slammed it in the ass with the handle of a skillet / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay...")
As Brad's July 7 entry makes clear, the pull of the escape route that lay just beyond their tent door at Shangri-La was powerful. In two days, the men sensed, they could be off Steele and back in the lowlands, with nothing but a long hike between them and Kluane Lake. At 14,000 feet on a windswept ridge, moreover, with a tent missing half its floor, a single sleeping bag that could not be zipped closed, and no air mattresses, Bob and Brad were in an exceedingly vulnerable position. All day on the 7th it snowed, and that night the temperature plunged to minus 1°F.
Yet the men were determined to have a stab at Lucania. On July 7, the 17,150-foot summit lay more than 3,000 feet above them and five miles away, invisible in the storm. Any attempt, the two men agreed, would require an intermediate camp. This in turn raised the specter of an insidious scenario. The broad ridge on which they had pitched their tent at Shangri-La was almost featureless, one stretch of billowing snow looking just like the next. To make another camp closer to Lucania, they would have to carry their tent with them, leaving the rest of their belongings in a cache at Shangri-La. On other expeditions, Bob and Brad had seen just how quickly blowing snow on a high ridge could drift over any object that protruded from the surface. If the storm continued as it had the last several days, with Brad and Bob camped several miles closer to Lucania, they could well lose their Shangri-La cache for good. They had only their three-foot willow wands to mark the depot of supplies.
Undaunted, the two men set out after dinner on July 7, with light snow falling, to carry a load of gear and food toward Lucania. The going was as bad as they might have feared: eighteen inches of new snow, with soft stuff beneath, once more requiring snowshoes. In three hours, they were back at Shangri-La, having deposited ropes, crampons, and eight days' worth of food on a swale two miles closer to the summit. (It was not so much that Brad and Bob thought it would really require eight days from Shangri-La to get up Lucania, as that the food was in any case expendable, since they could not carry all twenty-five days' worth down Mount Steele.)
Yet the next day Brad indicated in his diary just how strong the habit of frugality had become for these men living on the edge: "We are trying to save food. We each put one quarter of a teaspoonful of sugar in our cereal (which we have sweetened a bit with raisins); and we save the cereal pot to cook the soup in for lunch and supper, and wash it only once a day." Because of the weather, the men remained pessimistic. The night before, Brad had closed his long diary entry with "That wind simply must change or we haven't a prayer. Ovaltine and bed."
Through most of July 8, the men "loafed" (Brad's usual word for anything other than all-out activity) as they peeked periodically out the tent door to check on the weather. At last their wait was rewarded, when, just before 4:00 p.m., the snow stopped falling and the clouds peeled rapidly away. Despite the intense cold, Brad and Bob packed up their tent after a quick dinner and set off toward their cache of gear two miles to the southwest. When they arrived there, instead of camping on the spot, they loaded up the food, ropes, and crampons and pushed on. By 10:00 p.m., they were three and a quarter miles from Shangri-La, camped at the very base of Lucania's summit pyramid. Inside the tent, it was zero degrees Fahrenheit, and an icy wind out of the northeast drilled the cotton walls of their shelter, but the sky remained gloriously clear.
That night the thermometer crept down to minus 8°F. It was impossible for the men to stay warm with their skimpy gear: as the hours passed, the vigil felt more like a bivouac than a normal night in a tent. By 9:00 in the morning on
July 9, the temperature was up to a plus 6°F, and the day was still perfectly clear.
From the moment the two left the tent, they were forced to plow along with their snowshoes on. "I doubt if Lucania is ever anything but powder," Brad later wrote. "It was waist-deep flour with not a trace of crust anywhere." For four hours, the men inched laboriously ahead, changing the lead often. "One of us would get so pooped that he couldn't move," Brad remembers, "and he'd step aside, and then the other guy would do it for a while." In his diary, Brad recorded, "We fought on as I have never fought in my life."
The northeast ridge of Lucania unfolds in a long string of subsidiary summits. Rather than climb over each and have to descend into the gap beyond, Bob and Brad skirted several of these subsummits by traversing across a plateau on the north. After four hours, the men bent their course south and upward to aim at a saddle between two of the highest false summits of Lucania. As they neared that saddle, the slope grew steeper and steeper, until they were forced to traverse "a 40 [-degree] sideslope of fathomless powder, veneered with an inch of rock-hard wind-crust."
Such terrain was impossible to negotiate in snowshoes. In the lead, Brad took his bearpaws off, hoping the crust would support his weight. All at once he plunged through to his knees, so suddenly that he dropped his snowshoes. With a sinking heart, he watched them slide toward the void below -- only to fetch up a mere ten feet away on an imperceptible bulge. Gingerly, he crept down and retrieved the invaluable footgear.
There was only one way to proceed. With his snowshoes back on, Brad used his ice axe to smash away the inch-thick crust ahead of him. Gaining only a few feet with each flurry of axe blows, he waddled forward in the powder two feet below the surface. In effect, he was carving a trench through the fiendish snowscape. It took Brad an hour to advance a mere hundred yards. It was the hardest single passage the men had confronted during their twenty-two days on Lucania, and it had to be performed in the rarefied air of 16,000 feet.
Exhausted, Brad turned the lead over to Bob. Finally, at 2:25 in the afternoon, the pair topped out on the saddle. They let out what Brad later called "a loud huzzah" and collapsed to rest. After five-and-a-half nonstop hours of struggle, they indulged in a snack of chocolate, dates, and raisins. There was not a breath of wind, and the day was holding perfect.
At last, on this final ridge, a true crust gave the men the break they needed. They put on their crampons and started on. The steel points bit cleanly into the hard snow, and the crust failed to collapse beneath their weight. Ahead, the last subsummit beckoned. Near its crest, the ridge serpentined into a plume that seemed to overhang, giving Brad and Bob a last grave doubt about their success. But that apparent overhang was a trick of foreshortening. When they confronted a plume that was merely steep, they found they could crampon right up it.
The true summit looked about a mile away. The intervening ridge was seamed with a few small bands of rock -- "the first rock we have seen anywhere for nearly four weeks," Brad later wrote. Skirting these bands on the left, the men marched forward with a growing elation. Brad's diary entry late that evening captures the mood of the moment: "It seemed like a dream -- the two of us approaching the top of Lucania, with no more difficulties in sight...We did not want to lose our mountain this time. We both knew that if we failed on this try, we'd probably be too tired to take another crack at it before the weather changed; we were still, as we had been all day, desperately serious."
At 4:30 p.m. -- they had been going for seven and a half hours with only one short break -- the men, still roped together, topped a feathery cornice and stood on what they assumed was the summit, only to see yet another, slightly higher crest ahead of them. They stifled their cry of joy and trudged on.
It was a short-lived disappointment. Ten minutes later, Bob and Brad laid the first human footprints on the summit of Mount Lucania. "[O]ur yell of triumph could have been heard in Timbuctoo!" Brad later bragged to his diary.
The hour the men spent on top would turn out to be one of the most magical of their lives. In the cloudless air, a stunning panorama of glaciated peaks ranged about them on all sides. Far to the southeast, 190 miles away, they could see Mount Fairweather, the first Alaskan mountain Brad had attempted, in 1930. Much closer, to the south, sprawled the summit plateau of Mount Logan, the biggest mountain in the world, in terms of sheer bulk, over the right shoulder of which they stared at the graceful summit pyramid of Mount Saint Elias, whose first ascent by the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1897 had launched mountaineering in the Far North of North America. Off Logan's left shoulder, they saw the peaks in the Yukon that Brad and Bob and their teammates in 1935 had been the first men to approach: Alverstone, Hubbard, Seattle, and many more, some still unnamed.
The men could also see, twisting darkly far below them away to the west, the Chitina valley that had given them such gloomy pause on the flight in with Reeve on June 18. And in the opposite direction, to the east, they caught a glimpse of the lowlands they would have to traverse to reach Kluane Lake. Only there had the weather turned bad, as they peered down on what Walter Wood had named Wolf Creek Valley, "black with pouring rain," in Brad's phrase. "Oh, what a relief to know that it could be warm enough to rain somewhere!"
Before they left the summit, Brad was determined to take a team portrait. It was not an easy task, for in the zero-degree air his Zeiss camera had frozen. He found that he could make the shutter work only at 1/200th of a second.
No problem. Brad tied the camera to the top of his axe with a shoelace, got himself and Bob into position, and activated the self-timer. The summit photo from Lucania on
July 9, 1937, was the best taken to that date on any mountaintop in Alaska or the Yukon. It remains to this day a masterly evocation of radiant exuberance (see photo insert). In it, perfectly exposed in razor-sharp black-and-white, Brad and Bob stand shoulder-to-shoulder, almost at attention. An ice axe is planted between the men, exactly on the summit. Brad carries coils of the hemp rope over his right shoulder. He holds his hat in his right hand, while Bob's hood is pulled off his head. Brad's hair is tousled with the wind, but Bob's looks almost combed in a neat rightward swoop. Both men grin wearily but with utter joy at the camera, as the strain of twenty-two days of struggle and uncertainty shows in the creases in their weather-beaten faces. As much as an image of triumph, the photo forms an icon of ideal friendship.
Ironically, on the same day that Brad and Bob reached the summit of Lucania, Bob Reeve wrote a letter to Brad's mother (who had written him, expressing concern about her son). Perhaps the pilot was nagged by guilt for not having checked up on the charges he had left on the Walsh Glacier three weeks earlier, for in the letter he reassures Brad's mother far more blithely than he had any business doing:
Don't worry about the boys, Mrs. Washburn, for they are experienced and competent and now that they are above where it is ice and hard snow, their going should be plenty fast. It was only about a three days' job for them to establish a camp at that level and they will work early mornings and nights when there is a good crust. I, personally, think that it is a certainty they will make Lucania for the approach from where we landed them was almost perfect and fast travelling.
Reeve was either talking through his hat (for at the time he fled the Walsh on June 22, he had no knowledge of conditions higher on the mountain, and good reason to fear the worst) or telling an anxious mother what he thought she wanted to hear. "Nine-tenths of their battle was over when they landed on Walsh Glacier," Reeve added. This was patent nonsense -- as no doubt Brad's mother suspected.
The pilot closed with a jaunty encomium: "You may well be proud of your boy, Mrs. Washburn, for, as I wired the Associated Press, Father Hubbard and Admiral Byrd are pikers compared with Brad Washburn and Bob Bates." (Father Bernard Hubbard was a pioneering explorer of the Aleutian chain, who had written a popular book about the region, called Cradle of the Storms.)
On the descent, Brad and Bob stopped at the rock bands on the summit ridge, where they prized loose a pair of chunks of black schist, as mementos of consolation to give to Norman Bright and Russ Dow. Most of the way down, they were forced to wear their snowshoes, which made for delicate going on the side slopes. Something was wrong with the binding on Bob's left snowshoe, for the bearpaw kept falling off. It was not until 8:20 p.m., after eleven and a half hours of arduous struggle, that the two men regained camp. "We barely had our boots off before falling asleep," remembers Bob; but Brad's diary records a celebration of sorts: "And then came quantities of beans, tea, and cocoa brewed from the chocolate in an empty butter tin -- and singing old Western Range songs -- and a glorious sunset -- and, finally, to bed at 10:30."
In the night the thermometer dropped to minus 10°F, the coldest the men had yet experienced on Lucania, and a sharp wind rose out of the north. Next morning, Brad and Bob performed a further triage on their supplies. They discarded all the white gas they had carried to this supplemental camp, as well as all the food save some soup, bacon, sugar, and beef. Bone-tired from the previous day's effort, they nonetheless got off by 10:15 a.m. and, lugging fifty-pound loads, arrived at Shangri-La in only two hours.
If ever a pair of climbers had earned a rest day, Brad and Bob were now entitled to one. But they were still in a vulnerable position, and as long as the weather held good, they felt they could not afford to "loaf." In the late afternoon of
July 10, the men carried forty pounds apiece over to the base of Mount Steele, marking the trail with willow wands until, just short of where they dumped their loads, they used up the last of the hundreds of black-tipped dowels they had brought along to demarcate their route. There was a certain poetic justice in this economy, for that ferry toward Steele would be the last time Brad and Bob would have to retrace their steps.
From the base of Steele, for the first time, the men caught a glimpse of Kluane Lake, the goal of their escape, nestled among low green hills to the east -- only fifty-five miles away in a direct air line, but much farther by any overland route the men could devise. Having taken in that tantalizing view, the pair dashed back to Shangri-La. That night the temperature dropped to minus 9°F, and the tent flapping in the bitter north wind made it hard to sleep -- as did the men's hopes of getting all the way down Steele's northeast ridge on the morrow.
They were up at 6:30 in the morning, but waited almost three hours for their world to warm up before setting out. In the meantime Brad recorded the scene: "My, but it was cold writing this diary last evening when we returned. We have a deep pit in the middle of the tent, in which we put the stove. Then we sit on packboards, dangling our legs by the stove, while we alternately drink hot Ovaltine and cocoa, warm our hands and diaries, and write them bit by bit." (One would give much to be able to read Bates's diary from Lucania, but somewhere over the ensuing years, perhaps in a change of residence, the little book was lost.)
At 9:15 in the morning, the men set off. The temperature had warmed to 8°F, but the incessant north wind, driving gales of spindrift across the ridge, made for chilly going. Following their own broken trail, the men took only an hour and ten minutes to reach their gear dump from the evening before. They lashed these supplies to their already laden packboards, hoisting burdens of seventy-five pounds each -- more than they liked for what promised to be a tricky descent of Steele's northeast ridge.
The men's initial plan had been simply to contour around Steele's summit pyramid on the north, but now, with the weather holding clear, the chance to bag the second ascent of the 16,644-foot peak proved irresistible. Bob and Brad detoured laboriously upward to the crest of the Steele ridge, dumped their packs, and in twenty minutes virtually waltzed to the top. The last stretch required crampons and a bit of step cutting with the ice axe, but presented no real technical difficulty.
On top, the men were stunned to discover, sticking out of the snow, the upper few inches of a bundle of willow wands left by Walter Wood's party two years before. The find belied the wisdom of the day (to which Bob and Brad subscribed), that the vagaries of storm and snowfall caused the summits of great glaciated mountains to rise or shrink substantially from year to year. Instead, it seemed that some mysterious parsimony of wind conspired with the mountain's shape to keep the summit drifts nearly as stable as the tops of mountains made entirely of rock. Beyond that geological surprise, however, lay one of purely emotional impact: the willow wands were the first sign of human presence not their own that Brad and Bob had seen in twenty-four days.
Once more Brad contrived a summit photo, this time with the men kneeling behind the bouquet of the upright willow wands. The smiles on their faces look far more relaxed than the weary grins of two days before.
Back at their packs, the men sorted out their belongings one last time, determined to chuck out enough food and gear to reduce their loads to sixty pounds each. They discarded one rucksack (the cloth pack each man used for lighter loads than those that required a packboard) and four pounds of food; they cut out the rest of the tent floor, threw away the tent pegs, and even cut the guy strings off the tent. They were left with a mere half gallon of white gas and nineteen pounds of food, as well as a tent that it would now be next to impossible to pitch properly. They did not abandon, however, Brad's precious Zeiss camera, with his last three film packs, nor Russ Dow's heavy police revolver and the eight or ten cartridges that remained. At last the loads were down to sixty pounds each.
On the face of it, nineteen pounds of food would seem to be stretching the pair's margin awfully thin. Working as hard as they were, Brad and Bob were consuming at an absolute minimum two or two and a half pounds of food each per day. That would mean that nineteen pounds of rations would last only four or five days.
The men had, however, an ace up their sleeve. They knew that Walter Wood's party, supported not only by pack train but by supplies parachuted in, had had an excess of food by the time it was done with Steele. They knew Wood had left a substantial cache of food behind, emergency rations for some future party. And they knew precisely where that cache was, on a grassy bench above the right edge of the Wolf Creek Glacier where it bent to the east only fifteen miles from the base of Steele's northeast ridge.
Brad and Bob began the descent at 3:30 p.m. on July 11. They covered the first 2,000 vertical feet in snowshoes, despite the steepness of the terrain. At 14,500 feet, a gentle plateau suddenly gave way to a sharp ridge. Here, at last, the men dared abandon the bearpaws without which they would never have been able to reach Shangri-La, let alone climb Lucania and Steele. They switched to crampons and started down the curving crest of the ridge.
The men's blithe conviction that "anything Walter Wood can climb up, we can climb down" notwithstanding, it is a far more difficult proposition to descend a route one has never seen before than to ascend it in the first place. From below, a ridge gives away its secrets: a pair of binoculars can usually make plain the traverses that lead to dead ends, the towers that can be circumvented. From above, on the other hand, a ridge unfolds beneath you as a series of nearby cusps and brows, each eclipsing the hidden snags below.
All the way down Steele's northeast ridge, Bob took the lead, held on a tight belay by Brad. With more Alaskan experience and his teenage training in the Alps, Brad felt perhaps more comfortable in the role of the partner entrusted with stopping any fall; but Bob had an uncanny instinct for route-finding. Now, at regular intervals, the men pulled out Brad's album of aerial photographs, trying to correlate their position on the ridge with these omniscient mountainscapes. Each time Bob approached a blank edge, the men felt a heightened tension. Then Bob would call out "Okay!" or "All's well ahead!" and the tension would ebb.
On July 7, Brad had predicted that from the shoulder of Steele to Burwash Landing, "there [won't be] a crack between us and it." He was quite wrong. At 12,000 feet, Bob entered a zone where vexsome crevasses covered with thin snow bridges lay directly athwart the knife-edged ridge. He fell into several, but caught himself each time only waist-deep, with the aid of Brad's tight rope. Then the hard crust, so good for crampons, began to give way to a breakable crust with slush beneath. This made for slow going, as the men bruised their shins and cut their socks to tatters on the icy crust.
The men grew as tired as they had been on the summit day on Lucania. "We could not possibly have made it," Brad wrote that evening, "if we had not been able to see the green forests in the distance before we started, and felt that each step was bringing us nearer to warmth and running water."
Yet Bob unerringly chose the right line: not once did the men have to backtrack in the face of an uncrossable crevasse or a vertical cliff. A thousand feet above the base of the ridge, they threw away their crampons, counting on step-kicking slush the rest of the way down. This proved a mistake when, as Bob later wrote, "the slope became steeper, a sort of frozen, windswept scree, with no belays possible." Without packs, the men might have tried a controlled glissade, skiing carefully on the edges of their boots; with sixty-pound loads, such a gambit would have been reckless.
Those last thousand feet proved the hardest and most perilous stretch of the whole descent. Wound to the breaking point with the tension of the treacherous footing, at 8:35 p.m. they stepped at last off Mount Steele. They had completed an extraordinary blind descent of 9,000 feet in only five hours.
After staggering just far enough out to be safe from rocks falling from Steele's slopes, Brad and Bob pitched their tent. At last the weather broke, as a light rain started to fall. But Brad still had the energy for an ebullient diary entry that night: "[W]e are down in God's country again, and for some time there will be nothing but fun!"
He added, "To bed at 10:30, after a grand supper of dried beef, celery soup, gravy, beans, and tea. My, but it's grand to have all the water we need, flowing by us in a real brook. No more melting snow!"
Bob and Brad awoke around 8:00 a.m. on July 12 in the highest of spirits. The rain had stopped. "[W]e had a fine night," Brad wrote in his diary over breakfast. "The sun is shining. Little streams of water are chuckling outside, and all's right with the world!"
The men were off at 9:30. At an altitude of some 7,800 feet, they were lower than they had been at any time during the expedition, and as they hiked along, they basked in the relative warmth. For two hours they traveled roped, until they reached the glacier's snow line, below which only bare ice obtained, leaving the crevasses open and obvious. The head of the Wolf Creek Glacier (known today as Steele Glacier) curls around the skirts of the 16,644-foot mountain, from which it flows first north, then east-northeast, some twenty-three miles toward the lowlands. All Brad and Bob needed to do was follow this broad highway toward the streams that would lead them to their ultimate deliverance at Burwash Landing. Brad felt so good that, observing the curious geology of the region with his professional eye -- granite overlying "a weird mass of highly metamorphosed, steeply tilted, reddish rocks" -- he planned to add samples to his load as he marched down the glacier.
Nine hours after setting out, the men approached the grassy bench where the glacier bent eastward. They left the ice and climbed the scree of the lateral moraine to gain that shelf. All day they had daydreamed about the bountiful cache Walter Wood had left here; already they could taste the goodies on which they would gorge on the spot and the treats they would add to their packs.
They crested a rise and saw, just ahead of them, metal cans gleaming in the sun. Something was wrong, however. As they came up to the cache, instead of a neatly stacked depot of supplies covered with a tarp, they found cans strewn wantonly in the grass. They picked up several. Each was smashed, with deep holes gouged in the sides. Bob and Brad knew at once what had happened. Sometime during the past two years, a bear or bears had found the cache and destroyed it, biting into every can to get at the exotic-tasting stuff inside. Virtually all the cans had been licked clean, and those that had not been, the men dared not scrape for the residue of food that was left, for fear of botulism. They found only a single intact container -- a small jar of Peter Rabbit peanut butter.
"All the way down the ridge," recalls Brad, "we were thinking about what we were going to eat. And we were terribly hungry after that long walk [down the glacier]."
"That was a shock, a real shock," Bob remembers. "Suddenly we realized we were going to run short on food."
In their packs, they now had less than fifteen pounds of food, good for at most four days at the rate they had been eating (and even at that rate, they were constantly famished). There was still the police revolver. With great good luck, they might run across a caribou or even a moose, which, if Bob made a perfect shot with the old gun that fired high and left, they might kill.
As the men stared at the wreckage of the cache, an edge of dread, darker than anything they had felt even during the worst of the storms up on Lucania, seized their spirits. And now a host of doubts and worries about the route ahead, which for twenty-five days they had kept safely tucked in the backs of their minds, thronged to the fore.
Copyright © 2002 by David Roberts
Meet the Author
David Roberts is the author of twenty-four books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.
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