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These Glaciers Ain’t My Home!

From Ride the Breath by Gerry Roach

Chapter Two – Touching History

Mount Lucania, Yukon, Canada, 1967

The surface of the Chitina below us was bare ice, hence no good for a landing, so we flew up the glacier looking for snow. We soon passed the firn line, above which last winter’s snow still covered the ice. I kept my mouth shut as Wilson flew a mile above the firn line, circled twice, and landed. Just before the plane stopped, the left ski went squish into slush. We both had a sinking feeling.

The flight had drained both of us, and worse, the prospect of plunging into a crevasse terrified me. I crawled out on shaky legs, and my first few steps looked like a newborn chick’s. The peak loomed thousands of feet above my dry mouth. Slowly, our equilibrium returned, until we realized that we had to do something. We struggled with the plane, stomped a runway with our snowshoes, and struggled with the plane, but it was really stuck. After more effort, Wilson could just barely taxi the plane, but there was still no chance of taking off. We stomped a longer runway, positioned the plane at its top, and pitched camp. Wilson would have to spend the night here and hope for a freeze. This scene sounded astonishingly similar to Washburn’s struggle thirty years earlier on the other side of the mountain.

As late light curved across the huge face above us, I cooked a dinner that Wilson proclaimed “commendable.” Then, we crawled into H13—my old, faded Himalayan tent from the Denali trip—and chatted through the long evening hours. As the weak sun finally slipped behind the last ridge, the temperature dropped and we dozed.

Wilson popped awake at 4 AM, pulled on his boots, crawled out of the tent, took a whiz, and headed straight for the plane. He opened the door, put one foot on the step, and turned back toward me. All he said was, “These glaciers ain’t my home! I wouldn’t land here again for fifty-thousand dollars!” He pulled up into the seat, slammed the door, fired the engine, and roared down the glacier. Never mind landing again. Could he take off?

The plane struggled down the glacier and passed the end of our runway, but Wilson kept going until the fading engine drone echoed off the mountain walls. The plane disappeared from my sight where the glacier dipped at a steeper angle, but I knew that Wilson was rapidly approaching a series of crevasses and bare ice below the firn line. He was going for it on this run, and he would either lift off in time or be beyond trouble. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind, then the sound of the engine faded and I thought, “Oh no! He crashed!”

Several seconds later, I heard a much fainter sound, then finally saw the plane. Finally airborne, it was already a small speck in the sky, and it rapidly disappeared down the valley. Soon, the faint sound ebbed into silence. Wilson was gone.

I stood still for a long moment, then slowly turned in a circle. No climber had ever seen this view, especially a solo climber. I was in frosty shadows at 7,000 feet, but Lucania’s summit 10,000 feet above me basked in the morning sun, and purifying purple light crept toward me. I did another slow three-sixty and scanned the exquisite basin carefully. In the silence, I was acutely aware that I was alone. There was something sinister in Wilson’s voice when he said that he wouldn’t land here again. Did he mean that he wouldn’t come back at all? Rationality said surely not, but turbid thoughts tugged at the corners of my mind.

Jerry Halpern’s dented bug, Halpern, Gerry, and Mike Humphreys at the Chitna airstrip Jerry Halpern’s dented bug, Halpern, Gerry, and Mike Humphreys at the Chitna airstrip


While waiting for Wilson on June 19 we assembled our pile of gear on the Chitina airstrip after which I began my nervous pacing. Again, I paced at the edge of a great wilderness and a great adventure. I felt like an insatiable satyr creeping toward the great peaks.
Lucania was too big for my brain Lucania was too big for my brain


As I prepared my precarious position, the clouds lowered, then unleashed fat flakes that drove me into my tent. I could no longer see the face above me, so its danger became an unseen unknown. Did I have to re-choose between avalanche and crevasse? I listened to syncopated snowflakes hitting H-13 for an hour, then drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Toe Camp on Lucania Toe Camp on Lucania


The skies cleared while we shoveled, the last twinkling snow in the air dissipated, and we worked transfixed as a fairyland appeared around us. Usually we saw the views in small pieces through the clouds, but today the Chitina basin sparkled in all its glittering glory.
Our reverie on the Lucania-Steele Plateau Our reverie on the Lucania-Steele Plateau


Since it was light all night, the time of day did not matter. Since we worked seven days a week, the day of the week did not matter. Since we were committed, the week of the month did not matter. As long as it was summer, the month did not matter.
Mike, Gerry, and Halpern on top of Steele Mike, Gerry, and Halpern on top of Steele


Suddenly, we were on the summit in the wind. Since no one had been here since Washburn and Bates 30 years earlier, ours was only the third ascent of Steele, but it was a first ascent for me. Beyond these mere statistics, what was important was the intensity of the moment. Like Washburn and Bates, the few minutes we spent on top of Steele deeply etched themselves in my cells. Scripted by the cold, windy, wild, wonderful wind, Steele’s summit urged me to go higher and I felt a strong pull in that direction.
Our surrealistic view of Lucania Our surrealistic view of Lucania


Steele’s summit was Transcendent for me, and also temporal, since, as we started down, I realized that we had a chance to go higher without transcending. Across the plateau, rising evening clouds framed a surrealistic view of Lucania, which gave a new meter to our march.
Eve of our Lucania climb at Camp Superieur Eve of our Lucania climb at Camp Superieur


In the evening, clouds swirled around our superior but still tiny camp, and I felt strangely suspended between two worlds.
Steele looked wild, stormy, high and far away
Amazingly, I climbed beyond the clouds and emerged into clear skies. The only thing I saw was Steele’s summit and Lucania’s final slope still arcing above. Steele looked wild, stormy, high and far away, but Lucania’s summit was sunny and close. My suspended universe consisted of steps, breathing and summits. My detachment was complete, and I led on without breaking stride.
Eve of the Lucania climb at Camp Superieur
Listening to the puzzle pieces clicking into place and surging with the potency of my Transcendent Range, I looked anew at Logan, but without having to resolve anything, I knew that I would climb Logan someday.

These photos from the Gerry Roach Collection were taken by Gary Lukis

 

 

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