In the wake of what is being billed as the largest mountain rescue in Alaska history, it is hard to avoid pondering what the late and legendary Bradford Washburn might think.
Washburn – for those who don’t already recognize the name – is the mountaineer, cartographer, photographer and much more who in 1951 poineered the West Buttress route that thousands of climbers have since followed to the summit of North American’s tallest peak – what was Mount McKinley and is now 20,320-foot Mount Denali.
A member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, Washburn was a man better known as an adventurer than for his day job as the founder of the Boston Museum of Science and its director for more than 40 years.
In 2007, he died at the ripe old age of 96 back home in Massachusetts. No one would have bet on him living so long.
By rights, he and climbing companion Bob Bates should have died in 1937 in the St. Elias Mountains that straddle the Alaska-Canada border. These are the same mountains where-in the Alaska National Guard this week staged that headlined, “record-breaking rescue” to save eight climbers and four guides stuck in bad weather 10,000 feet high on the slopes of Mount Bona.
Washburn and Bates could have told the group all about the wind and snow for which the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains of eastern Alaska and the southwest Yukon Territory, Canada, are infamous.
Big, wild, dangerous country
First snow and then heat almost ended the 1937 plan Washburn, Bates, Russell Dow, and Norman Bright cooked up to summit 17,150-foot Mount Lucania, then billed as one of “North America’s highest (unclimbed) and most inaccessible peaks.
It remains the latter. Washburn and Bates made the summit in ’37. It would be three decades before anyone repeated the feat, and the mountain has been little climbed since.
Just across the Alaska-Canada border in the Yukon, it’s not an easy place to get onto, and it sits in the most glaciated corner of Alaska. The glaciers are built by the snowstorms that come in waves from off the Gulf of Alaska.
Washburn and his companions from the Harvard Mountaineering Club, a force in American climbing in the mid-20th Century, knew this, planned accordingly and went well prepared. There is an old warning about these mountains and the storms that can pin climbers down for days:
“If you’re going on a two-week trip, plan on food for at least a month.”
Some of it they later abandoned after accepting they would have to hike north for almost 100 miles through wild, trail-less country to reach safety. Washburn’s report for the Alpine Club downplayed that life and death struggle.
Author David Roberts didn’t when he 70 years later wrote “Escape from Lucania – An Epic Story of Survival.” This is how publishers Simon and Schuster summarized Roberts’ telling of the tale:
“Against awesome odds, (Washburn and Bates) 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.”
This was long before the days of satellite telephones and two-way satellite messengers like InReach that make it oh-so-easy to call for a rescue when things turn nasty.
Who makes the call?
But then it’s unlikely Bates and Washburn would have called for help even if they had the technology.
It was a different time. There were different standards. People lived closer to the land. Self-reliance was considered a virtue. Survival was judged as much a skill as the climbing itself.
Washburn, in his account of the expedition, described how he and Bates “descended the east shore of the (Donjek) River, bolstering our nearly empty larder with red squirrels and a rabbit killed with our six-shooters, and mushrooms picked in the woods at every rest.”
Few take a “six-shooter,” or any other weapon, on expedition these days in case it becomes necessary to live off the land.
Call-for-the-helicopter time comes long before most think about living on a diet of red squirrels, snowshoe hares, mushrooms, grubs, roots, berries or anything else.
How much different these times is on almost daily display on Denali these days.
“On the heels of the Denali Pass fall (that left a climber seroiusly injured on May 24), three climbers requested rescue assistance from 18,200 feet,” the National Park Service’s Denali Dispatches blog records for May 24-29. “After being advised the helicopter was unavailable, they descended to high camp on their own accord, where several guided parties provided food, shelter and other assistance.”
Why walk if you can call in a flight?
These marginal calls for rescue used to be frowned upon. But they have become increasingly acceptable as technology has made communication possible from almost anywhere and the residents of the Western world have become ever more used to their comforts.
When the Alaska Air Guard showed up on the Klutlan Glacier at 10,000 feet on the southeast side of Mount Bona to pick up two climbers in the St. Elias group reported to be ill with altitude sickness and another suffering from frostbite, nobody volunteered to stay behind and finish the expedition.
Bates and Washburn finished the expedition.
Dow and Bright, it should be noted, never actually made it onto the mountain. What would be described as a “freak storm” if freak storms weren’t the norm in the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains hit just as legendary and late Alaska Bush pilot Bob Reeves landed Bates and Washburn on the Walsh Glacier.
After lifting off on skis from the Valdez mudflats, he landed “successfully late in the afternoon in the face of a heavy southeast storm,” Washburn wrote in his account. “The storm broke before we could get the plane unloaded and camp established, and both plane and pilot were marooned with us for five days on the glacier. During that time the temperature rose even at night to higher than 60 degrees, and we were simply deluged by heavy rain and thunderstorms – as unseasonable and amazing as the occurrence of a summer rainstorm in Florida.
“The surface of the glacier aged months in those few days. Myriad crevasses cut our 6000-foot landing strip nearly in half and it was only after digging the plane out of four hidden crevasses and changing the pitch of the propeller that we were able to get Reeve safely off for Valdez again when the weather cleared. The original plan had been for him to bring in Dow and Bright on a second load, but the condition of the surface of the glacier was so bad that this plan had to be entirely abandoned. Dow and Bright never came in, and Bates and I were marooned on the surface of the glacier, with a mighty long walk between us and civilization.”
Things would get better as the two climbers made their way to the 17,192-foot summit of the seventh tallest peak in North American, and then they would get a whole lot worse.
By the end, Washburn and Bates were struggling northeast into Canada on starvation rations in an effort to reach the tiny outpost of Burwash Landing. Washburn downplayed the danger of the situation in his account, but Roberts was explicit about the deterioration of the climbers’ month-long, nearly 100 miles hike toward what passed for civilization.
This was Roberts’ description of day number 26 of their journey:
“Whether they were simply worn out from the marathon effort of the previous day, or had begun to weaken from consuming barely adequate provisions, on the morning of the 14th (of July), the men found carrying their 60-pound loads nearly intolerable. (Both had noticed that they had lost a lot of weight, for their trousers hung loose on their hips.) They decided once more to chuck out some of their baggage – or at least to leave it in a cache, in the forlorn hope of being able to retrieve it in the distant future.
“To that end, they hung one of the two packboards in a tree near the Donjek with every last piece of clothing they thought they could do without, and – most agonizing of all – Brad’s Zeiss camera and all his exposed film. In that abandonment, there was also a first hint of the pair’s darkest thoughts about the upcoming days, for as the men left the cache, Brad said, ‘Now at least they’ll know what happened to us.’
“Bob understood at once: should the two of them vanish in their effort to escape the range, some hunter or mountaineer, perhaps years hence, might come across the cache, retrieve the film, get it developed, and thereby apprehend all but the very end of the story of the first ascent of Mount Lucania.”
Washburn and Bates eventually survived, but it was close.
Having hiked up the Donjek – opposite the direction they wanted to travel – hoping to find it possible to cross above that torrent by making use of the Donjek Glacier only to find that route impossible, Roberts described the two men huddling together in a bad bivouac in rocks between blocks of ice near the glacier.
“Neither man slept more than a few minutes that night,” he wrote. “Too exhausted to discuss their plight, each of them lay in the private cocoon of his fear. For the first time, in fact, true fear overruled the plucky self-confidence that had seen the two men through every previous challenge.
“Gazing back on that night’s ordeal from the vantage point of sixty-four years of hindsight, Brad summons up a metaphor he borrowed from Andy Taylor, the Klondike veteran, trapper, and mountain man who had been a stalwart member of (Washburn’s) 1935 Yukon expedition.
“‘You know the phrase, ‘scared shitless’?” asks Brad today. “Well, Andy used to say about his own worst scrape – ‘The shit was right up in the back of my throat.’ That’s what Bob and I felt that night.”
Washburn and Bates lived in a time uncorrupted by the technology of the 21st Century, a time when survival meant knowing more than how to use a phone or a text-messaging device, a time when you couldn’t make that call which ensured that you wouldn’t.
Now, it is awfully easy to push the rescue button, and it seems to get easier and easier – not to mention more socially acceptable – every day.