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Pen, Paper and a Mountainside: Expedition Diaries from Mt. Logan
A climber looks down towards the tents at Camp 2 from somewhere above Camp 3 on the 1965 Hummingbird Ridge climb, one of the many expeditions to be documented in journals. [Photo] Allen Steck
But mountaineering expeditions involve as many stories of pain and tragedy as joyful accounts of success and satisfaction. And sometimes the memories are just too painful. For House, "Reliving [the painful memories] through the pen opens partially healed psychic wounds of hard climbing." Sometimes, writing about the events even long after they have occurred has the same effect. A recent fall and rescue off Mt. Temple in the Canadian Rockies left House with a collapsed right lung, six broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and seven smaller fractures in his spine. House explained that six weeks went by before he wrote more than a paragraph.
In re-reading his Hummingbird Journal before sending it to Alpinist, Evans mentioned he was surprised by how many scary encounters he had written about. "I wrote several times about small falls, missteps and scary stuff, and I don't remember that being such a great part of the trip," he said. Whether on purpose or not, he had forgotten about the more troublesome details from his climb up Mt. Logan.
"Forgetting is an important attribute of a good alpinist," House said. An alpinist may not otherwise climb again if he had to relive the scariest and most painful moments in his climbing career.
Accuracy at Altitude
Remembering may be as important as forgetting for some climbers. Whether they like it or not, and whether or not the physical journal is read by others, the scribbling that occurs on the mountainside often enters into the pool of public knowledge and the documentation of climbing history.
Considering the conditions—mental, physical and emotional—in which these climbers were writing, an interesting question arises: Can we really trust the fuzzy brain of an alpinist writing after a long day out in the elements?
As MacCarthy reflects upon his descent from Logan in his submission to the CAJ:
"Thus, at midnight of June 28th, we again were down to the level where men think and breathe and work in a rational way and so may be held accountable for their actions. If sometimes while above that level, I was harsh and disagreeable, I ask that my companions please forgive me."
Would the altitude not have affected his writing also? How do you keep the facts straight when you can't even keep your eyes open? Do frostbitten fingers muddy recollection?
Glidden also observed that "rare is there an expedition that is without error, misgivings, accident or imperfection of some kind." Glidden reflected on his second ascent of the Catenary Ridge on Logan, a claim he felt is "slightly fraudulent" due to the fact that another party, though unsuccessful with their summit bid, had left behind tent platforms, assisting Glidden's crew in gaining the summit. "A careful and honest reading of a faithful journal should divulge at least some of [these imperfections]," Glidden remarked.
The blurred memories, difficult conditions and less glamorous occurrences during expeditions become a part of the story itself so long as the writer admits to them. It is only the perspective of an individual climber, who like any writer in history, is prone to bias and his particular view. But, sometimes the documentation in these journals is the only clue to the truth. It is the only story we know. At times it leads to clarity. At other times, controversy.
For the most part, it is the best explanation of why an expedition succeeded or failed, Glidden said.
And this is what makes these journals and climbers so unique. Each journal, and each entry, tells a story, even if it is only the author who reads it. Even then, the author may discover a person from the past, like Steve House or Jock Glidden encountering their youthful selves who were, at one time, immortalized in ink.
Sources: Pushing the Limits (Chic Scott), 1925 Canadian Alpine Journal, John Evans, Jock Glidden, Steve House, David Jones, stevehouse.net
Learn more about the history of Mt. Logan in Alpinist 31. Subscribe to Alpinist.