In June 1977, I had. the incredible good fortune to climb in the Alaska Range with two of my personal heroes, Jeff Lowe and George Lowe. Four thousand feet up a new route on the north face of Mount Hunter, Jeff rode abroken cornice for sixty feet, snagged a crampon, and cracked his ankle. Somewhat naive and certainly far less experienced than these titans of the North American alpine climbing scene, 1 viewed this development with considerable alarm, while my more worldly companions seemingly took it in stride.
In reality, the level of concern Jeff and George had for our predicament equaled or exceeded mine. They simply had so many more miles than I did that they knew exactly how to deal with it. I had the technical skills, but each of them had the head. It was an invaluable lesson, but I would learn a lot more in the coming weeks.
We worked out an efficient system for our retreat and reached the glacier a day and a half later, Jeff flew out to have his ankle treated, and after a few days' rest, George and I returned to the face and completed the Lowe-Kennedy and a descent of the West Ridge in a five-day round trip. Mount Hunter had been abig route, especially for me, but now George and 1 were faced with a difficult decision. We had originally planned to go for yet another first ascent, but with Jeff, who we both felt was the strongest member of our team, out of action, we struggled with our doubts and fears. What if we came up against something we couldn't climb? What if George or I were injured? Most important, could the two of us, alone, put out the sustained physical and psychological effort needed for our next project, the south face of Mount Foraker?
Unlike Hunter, which was largely a snow-and-ice climb, Foraker would involve mostly technical rock and mixed climbing on a longer route on a higher peak. After reaching the mountain's south summit, we'd have to traverse to the higher north summit, and then descend the treacherous Southeast Ridge. Nothing quite like it had been done alpine-style in Alaska before.
After much discussion, we decided to go to the Cassin Ridge, the classic hard route on Denali. The route had been climbed many times before, and we both felt confident in doing it. But doubts swirled around in my head; and fifteen minutes before leaving, I told George that we should go to Foraker instead. I thought that we'd always question ourselves if we didn't take this step into the unknown.
We made the long approach that night, and spent most of the next day resting and observing the face, guessing at where we'd go, how far we'd get each day, where we might encounter problems. An early-morning dash across the serac-threatened glacier put us onto the route, the line revealing itself as we worked our way up the initial rock pitches.
Scott Backcs climbing near the top of the fourth rock band during the first ascent of Deprivation on the North Bnttress of Mount Hunter, Alaska. Pftnfo: © Mark Twight
FOR EWOR D
After our second night on the route itself, we knew we didn't have enough gear to rappel down the ground we'd already covered. The only way out was up arid over the top. Foraker was the first time I'd experienced this level of commitment, and it was a marvelously liberating experience. We had been apprehensive starting up the route, but as we gained elevation the doubts arid fears gradually faded away as we became more and more immersed in the climbing, the details of eating, drinking, and sleeping in this steep, apparently inhospitable world.
On our fifth day, near the end of twenty-four hours of continuous climbing, we came to the hardest part of the route, a steep mixed gully. George suggested that we bivouac so we'd be able to tackle the problem fresh, but I had a second (or third or fourth) wind and went ahead.
What remains is one of my most powerful climbing memories. I recall very little of the actual climbing, the technical details of the moves. What I do remember is looking up and visualizing myself climbing this section —which was probably the hardest climbing of that sort I'd done at the time—and then some time later, looking back down at George as he came up. It is one of the few times I've gone outside my own consciousness, beyond what 1 thought or knew I could do, a feeling that I've kept looking for since, in climbing, skiing, running, hiking, all the mountain activities we're so fortunate to enjoy. As befits such a rare gift, it has always come unheralded, never when I thought it would or should.
We continued to the top and back down, with a few exciting moments along the way. George and 1 had spent eleven of the most intense and rewarding days of our lives on the Infinite Spur. Twenty-two years and many mountains later it remains my most influential climb, an experience that opened my eyes to the possibilities in the big mountains of the world. But as much as anything, Foraker awakened in me a deep sense of spirituality and reverence for life that has helped define my life since then.
Like so many who started climbing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I began as a hiker, soon took up rock climbing, and eventually gravitated toward the mountains. I've never taken a climbing lesson or been to a climbing school. I learned from friends, taught myself a lot, and served a lengthy apprenticeship under the guidance of more accomplished climbers. My education continues, as does my shedding of decades-old bad habits and weaknesses.
There is no shortcut to experience and the hard lessons that only come from making your own mistakes. I've had plenty of both, but how 1 wish I'd had a resource like Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High to draw on during those dangerous formative years. Even today, this book inspires and motivates me, forces me to rethink and refine ideas I've long held sacrosanct.
While routes completed and summits attained are a measure of success in alpinism, Mark TVight recognizes that one learns as much or more from failure. He covers, in great detail, the necessary minutiae of taking care of oneself in a cold, vertical environment, climbing technique and training, how to deal with all kinds of terrain, what equipment to
bring, and what tq leave at heme. Of critical importance is the emphasis he places on attitude and character, that vital internal knowledge one gains only through experience and rigorous self-analysis. Follow the advice and you'll eventually develop a sense of how far to push it when the weather gets bad, how to deal with your own inner fears and conflicts, how to be intuitive and aware of every detail, and how to live fully in the present. Mountains are fantastic examples of the power and mystery of nature, and the routes we climb on them are expressions of all that is best in the human spirit. Mountains and routes are only animated by our interaction with them, however, and it is the people we share the mountains with—the relationships we have with them—that are ultimately the most important. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson that Mark has distilled from many years at the edge,
Michael Kennedy Carbondale, Colorado March 1999
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