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To Father from Daughter

Posted on: December 2, 2018


[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Peter and Alexandra Lev, City of Rocks, 1990. [Photo] Lev family collectionPeter and Alexandra Lev, City of Rocks, 1990. [Photo] Lev family collection

MY DAD HAD A BOOKSHELF in our house that was as wide as one of the walls in our dining room and reached all the way to the ceiling. It was lined with heavy hardcover volumes and worn-edged paperbacks—books on topics that ranged from climbing to Buddhism, Judaism and histories—along with souvenirs from his travels around the world. There was a gold-plated menorah, which we lit with flickering candles each Hanukkah. A colorful elephant stood next to a hand-carved wooden figurine of the Buddha. On another shelf was an old Russian ushanka: a black fur cap with earflaps and a gold-embroidered Russian emblem on the front. Nearby, two delicately painted Matryoshka dolls offered frozen, comforting smiles. I played with the dolls often as a young child, opening each one to find the increasingly smaller inner dolls, and then unstacking and assembling them in a row along the edge of the shelves.

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When I was twenty years old, in my first year of college, I stumbled upon a large-format book while cleaning the shelves one day. The notebook seemed older than I was, with frayed edges and faded pages. The writing was in German. Taped on the inside cover, there was a photo of a woman with long, dark hair that cascaded down her shoulders. She looked rugged and beautiful to me. A message appeared scrawled in German in unfamiliar cursive handwriting. As I turned the pages, I found pictures of climbing routes and descriptions of the Pamir Mountains, as well as printed and hand-drawn maps with notes scribbled along the sides. Folded up and stuffed between two pages was an article recounting a 1974 expedition. I looked through all these materials with confusion—back then I didn't even know where the Pamirs were. I immediately called my dad and asked him about the notebook. He told me that the woman in the picture had died while on an expedition with him. At first, he didn't give me many details, but once I pushed him he gave in, as he usually did to my requests.

The book was titled Das Grosse Bergbuch, "The Big Mountain Book" in German on the cover, and it had belonged to a Swiss climber named Eva Isenschmid—the woman in the photo. In 1974 the Central Pamir Range was still part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Federation of Mountaineering had invited United States mountaineers to the region for an international alpine camp. There, they joined more than 160 people from over twelve foreign nations to climb local peaks, alongside sixty mountaineers from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. My dad, Peter Lev, was among the nineteen Americans who arrived. As a result of an earthquake that triggered avalanches, as well as heavy storms that engulfed entire teams, fifteen people died during the trip, including Eva. Dad used to practice speaking German with Eva, and he had become fond of her. When I asked why he had never told me about such a big event in his life, Dad responded, "Well, you never asked."

Memorial in the Pamirs, 1974. [Photo] Peter LevMemorial in the Pamirs, 1974. [Photo] Peter Lev

When Dad got home that evening, he went straight to his big bookshelf and dug around, as if looking for something. "Ah, ha!" he exclaimed and pulled out an old paperback, which he presented to me. The book was Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs by Robert W. Craig. It became the first mountaineering book I read, and it kept me up late every evening, with its tense accounts of mounting disasters, close calls, violent weather and deaths. How had I never heard this story before?

When I approached my dad again with more questions, he went into further detail. On August 4, Dad and fellow mountaineer Marty Hoey stood atop Peak Lenin with other teammates, just a day after Molly Higgins, Chris Kopczynski, Frank Sarnquist and Pete Schoening had completed the first American ascent of the mountain. Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. After their return to Camp III, they learned that Eva and another Swiss climber, Heidi Ludi, and their Bavarian partner, Anja Vogele, were now trapped high on the peak in a severe blizzard. There was nothing that could be done that evening, so the next morning Dad joined a rescue team that set out to look for Eva's team through the cold, blowing snow. On the way, they met Anja, who was staggering down alone to summon aid for her friends. She warned them that Eva was in trouble. While the French mountaineer Michel Vincent assisted Anja to Camp III, another French climber, Francois Valla, and Dad kept climbing higher. Eventually, they discovered the two Swiss women amid some bare rocks high on the ridge. Eva was lying semiconscious on the frozen ground, barely moving, with no gloves on. Heidi was pale and freezing herself, but still trying to assist her friend. In eighty mile-per-hour winds, Dad and Valla put Eva in a sleeping bag, and accompanied by Heidi, they began lowering her down the north face.

After a while, the Bavarian climber Sepp Schwankner emerged from the storm to find them. Francois and Heidi went ahead to get more help, and Sepp and Dad continued to lower Eva. When Eva became immobile, they took turns attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Then her lips became cold, and they realized she was dead. Avalanche conditions were growing increasingly dangerous, so they tied Eva in the sleeping bag to an ice axe and left her body on the mountain. As Dad looked down at the ground, telling me this story and rubbing his forehead, it was clear that the memory was still painful for him all these years later. It was then that I realized that there was still so much I didn't know about him.

Peter Lev on the Grand Teton, 1983. [Photo] Lev family collectionPeter Lev on the Grand Teton, 1983. [Photo] Lev family collection

MY DAD WAS FORTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD when I was born, and he'd already had a long life in the mountains before I even existed. My parents weren't just lovers of the outdoors; nature was deeply ingrained into every aspect of our lives and community. I'd been given the same middle name as Marty Hoey, who had remained a dear friend to them and who had died on Chomolungma (Everest) exactly four years before my birth on the same day. When I was growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mom and Dad both worked at the nearby ski resorts of Snowbird and Alta. Our winter weekends were spent waking up at 6 a.m. to drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon for ski school or to be in line for the first chair lift. The assumptions were clear: I was to be a climber or skier, and if my parents were lucky, I would be both.

Dad worked for Exum Mountain Guides for forty-six years, and he eventually became a senior guide and co-owner. Every summer, for his job, we left Salt Lake City to go to Grand Teton National Park. We lived in a tiny, three-room cabin at the foot of Teewinot that my parents built when my mom was pregnant with me. My parents divorced when I was five, and my time was split between them, yet I continued to spend my summers in the Tetons with my dad. This area, Guide's Hill, where employees of Exum lived, was like a neighborhood in a way, though its inhabitants were even more like members of a large family. Each guide cabin had electricity but no running water. We all shared a communal bathhouse, and we frequently had potlucks around a big, crackling fire. Deer grazed in the nearby woods and fields. At night, the stars shone brighter overhead than they did anywhere else I'd been.

Exum Guides, from left to right: Peter Lev, Fred Wright, Al Read, Rod Newcomb, 1963. [Photo] Lev family collectionExum Guides, from left to right: Peter Lev, Fred Wright, Al Read, Rod Newcomb, 1963. [Photo] Lev family collection

As an only child living in the mountains, I developed a fierce independence. I hated rules of any kind, and I frequently talked back and ignored what I was told to do. When I was young, there were only a few other children my age living on Guide's Hill. While our parents went to work in the mountains, they left us with older kids or with no supervision at all. During the days, we swam in Cottonwood Creek or rode bikes to String Lake where we would jump off rocks into the cold alpine waters. We built forts in the old cottonwood forest behind the cabins or headed into Jackson Hole for the occasional movie.

It's hard to say exactly when I learned to climb, because I was always around the rock, even as a baby. I remember loving the rough feel of granite against my fingers and the way it glistened in the sun. My dad taught me how to be responsible and respectful in the mountains with lessons that became ingrained: never rush, always double check everything, take moments to be thankful, pack plenty of snacks, and never take shortcuts. Dad appeared to climb without effort, as if he were floating up the rock. He shouted down commands. "Don't forget your prusik! Watch your feet!" His hands were always rough with scabs on his knuckles from the sharp textures of the rock and cracks in his skin from the dry sunlight. His calves looked like tree trunks, but I glimpsed a softer, interior side in the crinkles around his eyes when he grinned and hugged me.

Peter and Alexandra Lev, Tetons, 1994. [Photo] Lev family collectionPeter and Alexandra Lev, Tetons, 1994. [Photo] Lev family collection

On most of Dad's days off, we climbed together. He'd take me up the cliffs at Hidden Falls where Exum clients learned climbing skills. When I got older, we practiced on Baxter's Pinnacle, and no matter how many times I climbed it, I always felt a sharp rush of fear at the sudden drop of air below me on the summit spire. We went on backpacking trips to wander amid the meadows and towers of the Wind Rivers with other guides and their kids. In the spring and autumn, we had adventures amid the surreal granite steeples of the City of Rocks. I know there were times when I was bored or homesick for my mom, but life outside was magic. The other children and I had the freedom to run wild, to explore every corner of the woods, to dip our feet in every nearby creek, and to howl at the moon on clear nights.

After Dad retired from Alta, he started working from home in the off-season, doing long-range weather forecasting. He sat at a big desk he'd made from an old door in front of a large window that overlooked our backyard. From the window, Dad would lower his glasses and sometimes wave at me as I sat up in the tree house he built on top of our apricot tree. Most of the time, however, his focus was intense, and he'd snap with frustration if I interrupted him. I began to notice, more, how different he was from the fathers of my Salt Lake City friends. He didn't wear a suit or go to an office every day. He made awkward jokes that embarrassed me.

As a teenager, I started to feel isolated at Guide's Hill. The other kids my age were off on trips or at summer camps, and the forests and cliffs no longer appeared like an infinite wonderland to explore. I noticed the empty spaces of the clearings and the heavy silent darkness of the nights. I began to resent the outdoor pursuits that had started to feel like burdensome expectations—not just from my dad, but from our whole community. I quit skiing, and I argued with my parents hard enough that eventually they didn't force me to spend the whole summer in the Tetons away from Salt Lake anymore.

In high school and my early college years, I'd meet climbers and skiers who would say to me with excitement, "Your dad is Peter Lev?" They called him a legend. To me, he was just my dad. I was aware that he'd gone on some expeditions in the Himalaya and that he'd skied extensively in Canada, but I knew none of the details. I wanted to picture him as a young man in the mountains, carrying a heavy pack up a granite boulder field or skiing through fluffy pillows of powder, but I needed to hear more stories to fill in the gaps between the lines in the maps of where my dad had traveled and who he had become.

AS I ASKED MORE QUESTIONS, and Dad shared more anecdotes, many of them were about loss. I learned about the expedition to Nanda Devi that he and Marty Hoey joined in 1976, how a young woman named after the mountain—Nanda Devi Unsoeld—died on that trip led by her father, Willi. During the approach, the team camped on top of a steep, rain-drenched hill. After a heavy goat stew dinner prepared by the porters, some of the climbers became ill. The next day, Marty still hadn't recovered, and the group suspected that she might also have altitude sickness. The expedition doctor Jim States was also concerned about a hernia that Devi had developed. After an intense team debate about Marty's illness, Marty decided to be evacuated by helicopter, but Devi continued onward.

Nanda Devi Unsoeld at Camp I on Nanda Devi, 1976. [Photo] Peter LevNanda Devi Unsoeld at Camp I on Nanda Devi, 1976. [Photo] Peter Lev

The trip took place during monsoon season, and amid the steady accumulation of snow, avalanches burst and swept the route to advanced base camp—where the windblasts from several of these slides knocked tents down. Nonetheless, after weeks of effort, the team had established a high camp at 24,000 feet. On September 1, three members reached the top: Lou Reichardt, John Roskelley and Jim States. As the first summit team continued the rest of the way down, Devi, Willi, Andy Harvard and Dad, along with other teammates, made their way up the mountain to prepare for a second summit bid. Three days later, Devi wasn't feeling well, and while she and Andy stayed at the high camp (and Willi was still at Camp III), Dad decided to try to reach the top alone.

"A primary obstacle involved climbing a short rock face," he later told me. "I practiced the moves, in crampons, going a little higher each time, until I was certain I could climb back down. Then onward. The final ridge is a knife-edge, and...my legs were straddling it as if I were sitting on a horse, and it was starting to snow, and there was electricity in the air, and I was thinking, 'Maybe I should not be going any farther.' I retreated, facing into the slope down steep, good crampon snow and reversing the tricky rock face. Then, on still steep but easier terrain below the rock face, I turned and faced out. It's a rightward diagonal descent, with serious cliffs below and left. I tripped, perhaps on one of the rocks barely poking out of the snow. My ice axe was stuck in the snow above me; I tumbled. Instinctively, I flung myself over into the 'cat arrest,' all four claws (fingers and crampons) digging into the slope, and I stopped very close to the great precipice. Youth, quick reactions and luck."

Straddling the summit ridge on a solo attempt of Nanda Devi, 1976. [Photo] Peter LevStraddling the summit ridge on a solo attempt of Nanda Devi, 1976. [Photo] Peter Lev

Back at high camp, Dad rested with Devi and Andy, while Willi climbed up to meet them for another attempt. By September 7, Devi had become increasingly ill with diarrhea and abdominal pain. The freezing air around the tents whirled with high winds and heavy snow. On September 8, although the storm continued, they knew they had to get her to a lower altitude quickly. As they got ready to leave, Devi, sitting in the tent next to Dad, announced, "I'm going to die." She then fell over dead. Willi made the decision to send Devi's body, in her sleeping bag, off the northeast side of the mountain, from the top of where their last fixed rope was. He compared it to "a burial at sea."

Outside, a full-blown blizzard was raging. Dad went first down the fixed rope over a steep, rocky ice face. Through the swirling snow, he discovered that the end of the fixed line was dangling free: it had not been tied in at the lower anchor. He might easily have slid off the loose end into oblivion, right where Devi's body had plunged. He attached a prusik knot to the rope, and then he pulled up the end and tied in. The next anchor was on a rock ledge about fifteen to twenty feet to his right. He tried countless times to swing over to it without success. From sheer panic and exhaustion, Dad shit his pants. He recalled that there was nothing to do except to keep trying. After several more swings, he was able reach the ledge, and secure the bottom end of the fixed line. When Willi, Dad and Andy finally made it back to Camp III, the site was deserted. They secured one of the collapsed tents together the best they could and crawled inside to retreat from the storm. [More information about this expedition and other history surrounding Nanda Devi can be found in the two-part Mountain Profile series that is featured in Alpinist 62 and Alpinist 63.—Ed.]

There was no language to contain the grief he'd experienced, any more than there was to explain away the longings that kept drawing him back to the mountains. And yet, when I asked, he seemed to need to talk about everything that happened—as if he were trying to piece together a sense of pattern out of the people and places he'd encountered, one in which the absences and silences expressed even more than the words. In other tales he shared, ones of climbs that were joyful, the experience seemed both powerful and fragile, always imbued with a sense of how quickly the moment would vanish. He said he had his "best and most satisfying climbing experiences ever" on the Triple Direct route on El Capitan. In May 1972, he and his partners had spent five and a half days on the wall, when Dad took the last lead over an inverted staircase. "The last step out of my aid slings onto a small foothold on the lip of the low-angle summit slabs would be the end of the climb," he said. "Standing on that one small step I could look down the entire 3000-foot overhanging wall. Then, after taking in the view, I made the move up and the great wall was gone and the climb was over, and I felt sad."

Dad never went back to Yosemite after that ascent. He said that perhaps he just wanted to keep that one memory completely pristine.

DURING MY TWENTIES, I felt lost, wondering what the hell I wanted to do with my life in a world that seemed, increasingly, like a desolate chaos of highways, cubicles, strip malls and floods of information. Instead of scaring me away, my father's mountain stories merged with new landscapes of my dreams. I'd find myself hiking in a canyon or at the base of a mountain, imagining what was beyond the walls or what might become visible from the top of a nearby jagged summit. I longed to visit the Himalaya and see the snow-capped peaks that my dad had visited when he was my age. I yearned for something unknown, even if it might be terrifying, something that glimmered beyond the vanishing point, where the blue of the last ridge faded into the blue of the sky.

As I moved away from home, I began to reconstruct my own path in the outdoors—independent of my parents and my community. I looked forward to having a sore body after a long day in the mountains, and I started to consider myself more beautiful when my face was flushed and glistening with sweat. I fell in love with a man who treated me as his equal. Although he'd never climbed before he met me, I was eager to introduce him to the wild places where I was still trying to find my way. My dad revisits his guiding days by passing on his teachings to my husband as the three of us climb together on crags here in the Pacific Northwest. Slowly, in the past few years, the roles have changed, and now we lead Dad up routes. I worry as I watch each of his movements—how his face tightens as if he's concentrating all his strength on each step—and as I listen to the huffing cadence of his breaths. He looks up, his eyes glint: the intensity is still there.

In 2017, when my husband and I summited Mt. Hood for the first time, my heart pounded in a way it never had before at the sensation of skiing across a glacier surrounded by the possibility of so much destruction from collapsing snow or falling ice. At first, my legs felt as if they each weighed 100 lbs. As the slope got steeper, I stopped dreading each kick turn, since it brought me closer to the place where we would start climbing. The sky warmed with a pink morning glow, and I couldn't help smiling. Strapped into my crampons at last, I pressed the metal points into the snow and ice, and the self-doubt faded.

From the top, I looked out at the vast forests and the snow-capped peaks. I was only a speck amid all this immensity. The mountain didn't care about my accomplishment or about my feelings, though I knew my dad would. I pictured the way his big smile would cause his eyes to squint and wrinkle as he told me how proud he was. I thought of everything that had led me to this moment—from the shadows that dance throughout the Tetons to the sun that glistens on the snow during an early morning ski tour; from Dad's lessons about responsibility and respect to the simple camaraderie that he'd shared with me; from the times that I fought with my parents and wished my dad was just "normal" to the way that finding that notebook, by chance, had opened a portal back to a strange, dangerous and beautiful realm, where I've experienced moments that felt almost spiritual. I laughed and cried at once, and I was filled with gratitude for all that my dad had taught me.

Alexandra Lev on Mt. Hood. [Photo] Brad BurnhamAlexandra Lev on Mt. Hood. Lev writes of her childhood, "The assumptions were clear: I was to be a climber or skier, and if my parents were lucky, I would be both." [Photo] Brad Burnham

By then, my father had left his life in the Tetons, but we both still make occasional trips back to the meadows at the foot of Teewinot. Each time we drive on the dusty dirt road to Guide's Hill, I feel as if we're going home in a way. The same little trail leads to our cabin where my cousin now spends each summer managing the Exum office. The trees don't seem to stand as tall as they used to when I was a child, but deer still graze behind them. There's a new generation of kids running through Guide's Hill. New families live there that don't recognize me when I visit but we're all still like kin. Everyone always welcomes me with a warm smile, a comforting hug or a curious hello. Even as a grown woman, I find those mountains make me feel small and yet at peace in a big and confusing world.

Dad has always referred to his generation as the Golden Age. "We were misfits," Dad said. "We climbed for the adventure and to feel more alive. If we survived all the ordeals of the mountains, we would have a fund of stories to draw on for the rest of our lives." I realize now that I am more like my dad than I ever thought I'd be. I, too, am drawn to the high peaks where a breeze runs through my hair, and the sun adds freckles to my face. I find myself most at home when I sit up high atop a rock, gazing at the golden sun as it dips below the horizon. When I awake again in the mountains, with another adventure ahead of me, the stars appear to grow brighter in the crisp, dark air. It's as if my senses are sharpening, and I'm becoming more and more alive.

From time to time, now, I can close my eyes and glimpse myself as a child running through the deep purple wildflowers of Lupine Meadows or exploring the endless granite caves in City of Rocks without any thoughts beyond the simple joy of flowing through the world. I imagine that my dad experiences something similar, even now when his old, tired legs plunge into the snow or when his wrinkled, but still-muscular arms lift him up a familiar rock.

In a way, I feel like one of those Matryoshka dolls. Through every outdoor adventure, big and small, every memory, I reveal another hidden part of myself. Like my dad, I am composed of stories. I am slowly unstacking each piece of me and lining them all up for the world to see.

—Alexandra Lev, Pacific Northwest

[In addition to the expeditions described here, Peter Lev's climbing experience includes first ascents of the Lev Route on the Underhill Ridge of the Grand Teton in 1960, the Denali East Buttress in 1963, the direct North Face of Mount Robson in 1969 and Chulu West in 1978, among others. Peter now resides in Ouray, Colorado, in a studio apartment above a friend's garage, which he proudly refers to as the garage-mahal.—Author Note.]

[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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