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"Anything to declare?" asks the US Customs official in the friendly-suspicious tone of voice which goes with the job. I've arrived at Anchorage through portentiously dramatic skies in May, 1980.
"Nothing to declare!" I reply.
"Where was it last time?" he asks, eying the earlier Alaskan stamps in my passport, the last one dated the year before. "McKinley?"
"Yes. I'm hoping to climb Mount Hess this time!"
He makes a face of surprise but all he says is, "Good luck!" as he brings down the Anchorage stamp for the fourth time on a fresh page.
My choice of Mount Hess has not been arrived at quickly and involved a number of sessions in the Kingston-upon-Hull public library as I filled out a large notebook with the more important and difficult peaks of Alaska. One by one I began to cross them off the list. The Coast Ranges were too wet and windy. The Brooks Range in the far north was not high enough for my liking. This left the Alaska Range. The ease of access from the railroad made these mountains an ideal choice. The rail track cuts through them on its way from Anchorage to Fairbanks. To the east of the railroad stands the beautiful Hayes group of mountains, isolated, rarely visited, but savagely beautiful. To the west of the track the Denali National Park encompasses most of the highest peaks in the area, including Denali itself, the highest summit in North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley, which I'd attempted on my last trip.
The popularity of the National Park and the inevitable accompanying regulations ruled that area out for me. Time to explore the other side of the tracks. So it was to be the Hayes group, with a choice of the three main peaks, Mount Deborah, Mount Hess and Mount Hayes. I chose to climb the central peak, Mount Hess (3639m), because it is the least talked about, visited and documented of the three. There is also good access to the mountain from the Denali Highway to the south, but this is for strong walkers only through some real and wonderful wilderness country.
I push through the Arrivals door into the open air and there is John, a climbing friend of long standing who has appointed himself my support team. He is leaning smiling, arms folded, against the side of his pick-up truck with the largest pair of snowshoes I've ever seen propped in the back. (These ancient objects are about to be on loan to me.)
"Where to, David?"
There's no need for me to think long and hard about that question. The answer is simple. "Anywhere that serves food."
Soon John and I are joined by other friends to talk climbing as we feast on piled platefuls of chicken drumsticks, eggs, beans and chips, not the usual spindly little French fries normally served up in Europe either, but great big Alaskan chips, solid, absolutely dependable man-sized chips and lots and lots of bright red tomato sauce. I even come up for seconds, as if my body is already stoking itself up for what lies ahead.
Afterwards John parks his pick-up outside my hotel and we unfold the huge map of Alaska and spread it on our knees to study by the glow of the overhead cab light. It's time to make some important decisions.
I explain that I plan to take the train next morning as far as Cantwell, walk east along the Denali Highway towards Wells Creek, then strike off north into the wilderness, aiming for the side of the West Fork Glacier which should lead me to the foot of Mount Hess.
Put like that it sounds pretty straightforward but I can see John has doubts about the wisdom of what I'm planning to do solo and unsupported. He tries half-heartedly to persuade me to attempt something less demanding, or at least to accept a food drop by air. I tell him I'll have enough food for ten days and then can live off the land. We both know that last bit's a joke because where I plan to be at the end of ten days there will be nothing. So the joke falls flat. When John sees arguing is a lost cause, he agrees to be on the highway with his truck looking out for me ten days from now.
"That's plenty of time for you to get in, get up the mountain, and out again." He hesitates. "So at what point should I give up waiting for you and call out the rescue services?"
There is a silence as I stare blankly out through the windscreen into space. It's warm inside the cab, very warm, and I wipe the sweat from my forehead. John winds down his window. I don't know what to answer.
"Well, whatever you decide, if I do have to come out and look for you, I'll bring an aircraft in over the Main West Fork Glacier first. That's bound to be one of your big risk areas."
We agree on a full three weeks before he does this and I make him promise not to jump the gun.
That night sleep takes me off into a wonderful Alaskan dreamland, full of pure white polar bear fur, a curious moose, a rosy red fox, a playful beaver, a fabulously rich mink, a cautious lynx, powerful grizzly bears and flat-footed snow-shoe hares. Delicious edible berries will soon be ripening in the summer sun. They will melt in the mouth, blueberries, cranberries, cloud berries, so light airy and fluffy ...
So ignorant. So tired.
It's a relief to leave the confines of the train and step down into the crisp air of the Alaskan interior. Freedom surrounds me now. The damp woods beckon. A clear absence of time is everywhere. The haunting cry of the timber wolf cannot be far away.
There are no station buildings at Cantwell, just a railroad track, a pile of logs, and a dog, tail wagging, as it waits for its owner.
The huge wooden doors of the baggage car are already open and the guard hands down my luggage — struggling under its weight. "What have we here?"
"Just climbing equipment," I reply.
The words, "Good Luck!" drift back from the guard, as the train pulls away from the station, slowly at first, until gradually gaining speed for its long journey on to Fairbanks. Silence descends on the station, the dog, realizing I'm not for him, lies down, head resting on its paws in the snow, blinking, watching and waiting for its owner.
I pick up my rucksack, it's time to go. After hours of cramped inactivity on the train, I'm now stiff and sore, but bursting full of energy. My boots crunch in the gravel of the side road leading up to the junction with the Denali Highway. Numerous squirrels seem quite unconcerned at my passing. They just pause for a moment to look up, then carry on doing whatever it was that they were doing in the first place.
I'm now faced with the dreary prospect of walking thirty odd kilometres along the Denali Highway before I can step off into the wilderness. But the thought of all that untouched forest waiting for me pushes me onwards. I concentrate on placing my boots on the ground, in the most energy-saving manner possible. Heels high up onto the sharp stones. Trying to keep the rigid soles of my climbing boots level at all times. Zigzagging where possible. Never taking a slope head on. Uphill, downhill.
Then, suddenly, I'm sure I can hear a vehicle behind me. It's a truck.
"You want a lift?"
The driver opens the door for me. Self-sufficiency begins further on, I tell myself. The driver looks surprised at seeing someone out alone on the highway.
"Where you from?"
"Cantwell," I reply.
"That's some walk you've just done! And where you headed for? You do know there's nothing out here, no communities, no settlements ..."
I try to explain my climbing plans and he agrees to drop me off at Wells Creek. We set off in a loud screech of gravel and spinning tyres, my pack bouncing around in the back of the truck. It's all I can do to hang on to my seat for dear life, a little worried that I may end up back out on the road again.
The driver is happy to let me do most of the talking. But when I raise the subject of fishing, he takes over. He is a fisherman through and through. He talks of rivers, lakes, rod and line with all the passion and enthusiasm that I feel for climbing. His eyes light up when I mention that I've always wanted to try my hand at fishing for salmon. I hope to do this on the approach to the mountain.
"But watch out for the bears!" he warns.
"Bears?" I ask.
I can feel the sense of fun draining out of one of my long cherished dreams. Perhaps the idea of fishing isn't such a good one after all.
We continue to talk about all things Alaskan, passing over numerous small bridges spanning crystal clear mountain streams, bubbling and dancing down, looking for the shortest route to the sea.
I must be in the Wells Creek area by now, although, to be absolutely truthful, I've been far too busy talking to the driver to be sure of my position. But it doesn't really matter. The way towards the Nenana Glacier, my first check-point on my journey across the wilderness, is obvious. It's there in amongst those towering white peaks on the northern horizon.
The driver pulls over to the side of the road, although still questioning the soundness of my decision.
"What? Here? In the middle of nowhere?"
There's a look of genuine concern on his face, now. If my trip had been for anything else, for hunting, for fishing, or even, for gold prospecting, all would have been understandable.
"Climbing?" he said, "You're crazy. You got no rifle with you? Better take some more of these!" Already he has given me the majority of his reindeer steak sandwiches while we were chatting. I'm overcome by his generosity. To this day I don't know the name of that man.
An exceptionally fine shower of snow dust is thrown up by the rear wheels of his truck as he drives his lonely way on to Paxson. There, according to his own estimation, the most perfect fishing awaits him, at Summit Lake.
If I had any doubts about this trip, now would be as good a time as any to exercise them. I could still turn around and get back to Cantwell. But I know I'll accomplish my expedition as planned — within my own given set of rules.
1 The first rule to follow is my own long and difficult approach route into the mountains. There are easier and more direct ways to reach Mount Hess on foot, but I prefer the unique challenge of my way.
2 I must travel alone
3 I will carry no weapons of any kind.
4 I must carry everything needed on my own back, there are no air drops for me here.
5 I must walk in and out unaided, except, of course, in an emergency.
6 I must achieve my climb at its purest with no reconnaissance of my route up the mountain. (I have not even looked at a photograph of Mount Hess.)
All this will not be easy, but if I had wanted an easy time of it, I would have returned to the European Alps, soft bunk beds, cable cars, guidebooks and all.
Instead of feeling intimidated, I suddenly feel full of enthusiasm, ready for the journey ahead. I look forward to the challenges my expedition will bring, and the first of these is finding a good camping spot to spend the night. The Nenana River can't be that far from here. The other side of the river would be an ideal place to erect a tent. By crossing the river, I'd have all night to dry my clothing out.
The moment I step off the highway, I'm onto wet snow, not total cover, just the occasional damp patch, here and there. The water continues to squelch up around my boots as I approach the Nenana River. One minute I'm in the woods, the next I'm surrounded by the smell, then the sound of running water. My boot prints press hard into the central island sandbar of the river.
Having found my ideal campsite at my first attempt, and erected my tent, I'm far too tired to do anything else. Instead I lie eating my remaining reindeer steak sandwiches, deep inside my sleeping bag, looking up at the bright red orange fabric of my inner tent. Nothing else seems to matter. If only the weather could remain like this, with beautiful, all red, orange and pink sunsets, and no storms at all. But I doubt it. Still, I can hope.
I've allowed myself two whole days in which to cross the wilderness. By then I should be well and truly established on the ice of the Main West Fork Glacier, surrounded by mountains I have not yet seen and about which I can only dream.
Excerpted from HUNTED by David Fletcher. Copyright © 2002 by David Fletcher. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 17, 2004
If you love a well written, engaging story with complex characters that continue to hold your interest then you will HATE this book. The main character is so single-mindedly narcissistic and the bear is so phenomenally bloodthirsty that the book becomes a joke. This story is perfect for young boys but most adults will find it intellectually insulting. I don¿t believe for a moment that it is true.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 12, 2002
David Fletcher tells a riveting story of a solo climb in the Alaskan wilderness while being pursued by a massive grizzly bear, which he ultimately kills. Unfortunately, it is obvious that there is a large element of fiction mixed in with the truth of the climb. While I am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt regarding the climbing exploits, the bear behavior described is simply ludicrous. From his killing of a cub by throwing his ice hammer at it, to being worried that the bear can see him from 1000 meters below--bears have notoriously poor eyesight--and most of all, that a bear would follow him to almost 20,000' up a heavily creavessed glacier is not believable. Oh, and did I mention that the bear would be so angry at Fletcher that it would destroy his food cache and not eat all the sweets and food it contains? If you can suspend your judgment a bit, you will enjoy the book and the harrowing tale it tells...sort of like the movie starring Anthony Hopkins in which he was pursued by 'Bart', the huge grizzly actor trained by Doug Seuss. Ultimately though, I believe the author does a diservice to knowledgable readers by insulting their intelligence and merits only two stars for this embellished tale.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2002
i really question the authenticity of this 'story'. i think a lot of this book was fiction. i don't doubt that mr. fletcher made the climb and saw a bear. some of his accounts are a little suspicious. i've never heard of a griz moving a glacier by shouldering a crevasse. i really doubt that a bear waited around on an ice berg in a lake waiting for this fool to return. great story but i believe it should have been in the fiction department. i gave the book to a couple of friends that are definite woodsman and they were also a little suspicious. good read though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.