Mountain of My Fear

Posted on: June 1, 2007

Matt Hale below the "Nose," an overhang that proved the crux of the Harvard Route. Ed Bernd would perish on the descent; the climb would be immortalized in David Roberts' book, Mountain of My Fear. [Photo] Don Jensen

For Don Jensen and me, Huntington was a third Alaskan expedition, after our success on Denali's Wickersham Wall and a grinding, forty-two-day failure on Mt. Deborah's east ridge. Twenty-two years old, we were at the zenith of our mountaineering fanaticism, so it seemed logical to invite two younger Harvard students—Matt Hale and Ed Bernd—who had no expedition experience at all. Matt had proved his mettle in ranges in the Lower 48, but on Huntington Ed was really in over his head. That knowledge has haunted me for the last forty-two years.

Because of our fanaticism, it seemed logical to choose an objective even harder than Deborah: Huntington's west face. The year before, a powerful team of eight Frenchmen under Lionel Terray had beaten us to the mountain's first ascent. Terray had been our hero ever since Don and I had read Conquistadors of the Useless. For forty days that summer, the French Ridge would hang over us on the left, a touchstone of alpine greatness.

For the first four weeks, nothing seemed to go right. The weather was atrocious, the snow conditions treacherous, the route convoluted and difficult. A whole day's brutal effort sometimes gained us only a single pitch of new terrain. After a month on the mountain, we were only halfway up the face, with the hardest climbing still above. In our gloomy base-camp snow cave, Don and I nursed the evil memory of the kindred setbacks that had decreed our failure on Deborah.

Then, out of nowhere, appeared five straight days of superb weather. We bombed up the route, Don and Ed in the lead, Matt and I hauling supplies in support. If only two of us got to the summit, it would still be a glorious triumph. But on July 29, climbing better than we ever had in our young lives, Matt and I caught up with Don and Ed on their bivouac ledge below the summit. We roped all four together, climbed through the night, and stood on top at 3:30 a.m.

It was the perfect expedition, I thought—until, twenty hours later, Ed and I stood on a ledge in the penumbral midnight and he got on rappel. Suddenly the anchor failed—to this day I do not know why. Without a word, Ed flew backward into space. He fell 4,500 feet—so far that we could not even go look for his body.

Without a rope, I descended seven pitches to our Alley Camp, then waited through two agonizing days and nights, as I began to think that maybe Matt and Don were dead, too. Finally, in an all-out blizzard, we got off the face. When our bush pilot plucked us from the Tokositna Glacier on August 7, we were a broken-spirited trio. A single fluke accident in the night, I thought, had ruined our perfect expedition.

For months afterward, I was pretty sure that I was finished with mountaineering. But our success and Ed's death obsessed me. I was in my first year of grad school at the University of Denver, far from Don and Matt. There seemed to be no one to talk to about Huntington.

Gradually I decided I needed to write a book about the expedition. For the first and last time in my writing career, I was driven by an impulse of purgative catharsis. But I was taking my studies seriously enough that I thought I had no time to write. In March of 1966, however, DU let out for spring vacation. A week and two weekends: nine days, so my book would have nine chapters, and I would write one chapter a day.

The third publisher I sent my typescript to agreed to take The Mountain of My Fear. When I reread the book today, I wince at the more overwrought passages, penned under the fevered influence of Faulkner and Conrad. But the book is still in print, and more climbers than I can count have told me that it had a lasting impact on their own mountaineering.

In France, Lionel Terray heard about our climb. He wrote to Brad Washburn, incredulous that four unknown college students could have climbed a harder route than the one that had taken the stuffing out of his all-star team. Could the "Harvard Route" be a hoax?

Brad wrote back, vouching for the authenticity of our climb. But before Terray received the letter, on September 19, 1965, he fell a thousand feet to his death on a climb in his beloved Vercors. The hero of Don's and my mountaineering dreams—on Huntington, we had quoted from memory long passages out of Conquistadors—had gone to his grave believing that some upstart Americans had faked the first ascent of the west face.

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