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Mount St. Elias is not a trophy peak. It may be the fourth highest mountain in North America, it may stymie 70 percent of its climbers (and kill another 5 percent), but the trophy climbers want Denali. That was fine with Waterman; he preferred his mountains pure, free of the commercialization of climbing. Waterman was fascinated by the duke of Abruzzi, the aloof, melancholy, scholar-explorer who was the first to ascend St. Elias a hundred years ago, and he wanted to tackle the mountain as the duke did, though with fewer companions (just one partner) and a drastically reduced payload (no porters, for instance to carry an iron bedstead). No radios, thank you, and no flight in and out; he wanted the sanctity of the wild, to discover remnant instincts, deploy map-reading and route-finding talents, be self-sufficient. He would sail up from Seattle, climb, and return. Using diaries and letters from Abruzzi and his team, Waterman entwines his climb with the duke's, although the pleasure here is in Waterman's tale. The climbing almost immediately goes badly and then gets much worse. Crevasses lurk, nonstop avalanches thunder by, it rains watermelon-size rocks. The climbers run out of food. His companion isn't amused; then again, they survive, barely, returning without having gained the summit.
Waterman's soul-searching can get trying, but he followed his dreams. In sharing them, he gives readers back some of their own.