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Local Hero: Clint Helander on Mark Westman

Posted on: June 22, 2016


Mark Westman in his Talkeetna home with his cat, Cessna. [Photo] Lisa Roderick

Four months ago, Mark Westman was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of adrenal gland cancer, and he has recently undergone surgery.

Mark possesses all of the finest attributes of a climber and human. He perseveres where others have fled. He gauges fear and reacts accordingly. He charges into the unknown with confidence. But sometimes, even our heroes need a helping hand.

Anyone who has ever climbed in Alaska, Patagonia, the Cascades or Yosemite has likely heard of Mark Westman. Many of us have sought him out, seeking some tidbit of his wisdom. If you would like to help out one of the pillars of the climbing community, please consider purchasing one of Mark's stunning photographs from his website, MarkWestmanImages.com. All proceeds will go directly to offset the cost of his medical bills that his insurance company won't cover.
—Clint Helander, June 22, 2016

[This story originally ran in Alpinist Magazine Issue 46—Spring 2014—Ed.]

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May's everlasting sun hovered in a low, lateral arc over the Alaska Range, bathing the massive peaks in fiery light. Waves of clouds washed up the Kahiltna Glacier and flooded the lower mountains in an ever-darkening fog. From the summit of Mt. Hunter, I traced lines up Denali: the well-worn, undulating path of the West Buttress; the rocky bastion of the Cassin Ridge; the seldom-repeated Denali Diamond; the narrow vein of the Slovak Direct; the five-mile rhythm of cornices and domes of the South Buttress.

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My crampons crunched in wind-etched snow as I turned west. Shadows fell from Mt. Foraker's Sultana Ridge. Out of view, the Infinite Spur slashed the south face like frozen lightning. A common story linked each line like a long and intricate ridge: Mark Westman had climbed everything I saw—in impeccable style. To the east, Mt. Huntington's gleaming ice pyramid pierced the grey clouds. There, with Joe Puryear, Mark had established a sneaking, diagonal variation to the Harvard Route in 2000.

Thousands of feet below me (as I later learned), Mark was now standing near the roar of a helicopter's rotor wash while he helped move a man with severe frostbite to an air ambulance. Although Mark's background is in civil engineering, he works seasonally as a Denali climbing ranger while his wife, Lisa, manages Kahiltna Base Camp. As we descended the west ridge, I peered over its claw-like cornices and picked out their tent amid the other rainbow-colored specks. Lisa's nightly weather forecast transmitted to our radio. Through the random mountain chatter, Mark asked, "How is the Mt. Hunter team doing?" I imagined him honing in on us through the giant telescope, and my tension about the descent evaporated. Below the Ramen Couloir, we relied on the intricate directions he'd given us before the climb to find the single rappel anchor.

Clint Helander during a "shivering, hanging, sleepless bivouac" on his 2011 first ascent of Mt. Mausolus (9,170') in the Revelation Mountains, Alaska, with Scotty Vincik. Helander now says the Fun Meter registered a higher reading the next day. [Photo] Clint Helander

Several days later, I took shelter in Lisa's weatherport from a scalding Kahiltna afternoon. NPR crackled through a small radio. Lunch simmered on a propane stove. Sunburned climbers walked past a faded lawn flamingo and knocked on the door, asking about an obscure route farther up the glacier. Mark gently massaged Lisa's feet. "If I recall correctly," he said, "you'll climb up a steep mixed corner for sixteen meters. Or is it eighteen? Torque your right tool and place a red Camalot in a flared crack two feet to your left." For thirty minutes, Mark described each move and placement of a climb he'd done ten years ago. "You're Norwegian, right?" he asked them. From beneath Lisa's bunk, he eagerly pulled out The Onion's Our Dumb World. Even more than the book's quips at national stereotypes, Mark's laughter—an explosive snickering, full-body squirm—sent everyone into fits. Mark, of course, has plenty of entertaining stories of his own, such as the time he had to ask a climber why she chased her ex up the West Buttress with a pink-wheeled suitcase.

During the off-season, Mark and Lisa travel the world, occasionally settling in their secluded cabin in Talkeetna, Alaska. When he isn't expanding his encyclopedic knowledge of Alaska climbing history, Mark sometimes spends hours weed-whacking the yard until it's perfect or baking cookies with his nieces, India and Tatum. In Joshua Tree, he proudly showed me dozens of photos of Cessna, their seventeen-year-old cat.

Mark and Joe Puryear became friends while working as rangers on Mt. Rainier. Joe's Alaska guidebook is a testament to their enduring bond: of the thirty routes described, they climbed nearly half of them together, several of which were first ascents. After Joe's death in October 2010, Mark wrote an obituary for Alpinist.com: "Above all we were like brothers, and we became nearly inseparable, spending the next decade climbing together almost exclusively." Amid the sadness, Mark also recalls humorous moments: for example, Joe once awoke from a nightmare and thought Mark was dangling knives above his face.

If I have a question about a future objective, I dial Mark. I may only have a few minutes, but we end up talking for an hour. In that time, his humility has softened my ego, he's gone on and on about that damned cat, and I've realized I didn't call him just to talk about climbing. When I became enthralled with a difficult Alaskan route, I told almost no one. Mark simply said, "It is waiting for you." His words neither pushed nor cautioned. I wish every range had a Mark Westman.

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