As adamantine as its protagonists, this chilling and exhilarating story of the travails on the ascent of the Yukon’s Mount Lucania is ably retold by Roberts (Points Unknown, 2000, etc.).
It was 1937 when Brad Washburn and Bob Bates made their bid to climb Mount Lucania, in back-of-beyond Canada, a peak then unscaled. The two young men were veterans of the Harvard Mountain Club (as is Roberts), which specialized in remote Canadian and Alaskan climbs, so they were no strangers to the area. But when it became clear that the plane they took into base camp would not be able to return with supplies and their two climbing mates—not to mention providing planned extrication—Washburn and Bates trusted their talents and resourcefulness, “not yet willing to abandon the expedition’s original goal just to ensure an outcome so mundane as survival.” It falls to Roberts, with his own experience on North American peaks, to tether Washburn and Bates’s aw-shucks panache—the now nonagenarian men were interviewed at length for the book, and Washburn’s diary liberally dipped into—to the reality of the adventure, and to give it dramatic curve. He captures both the personality of the climbers—one salty, the other serene, a combination that likely helped avoid the apoplexy of cabin fever—and the arduousness of their achievement. They managed to scale Lucania and another nearby peak, climbing in whiteout conditions in bitter cold, hauling loads back and forth until they were essentially forced to pioneer the light-and-fast technique, with one sleeping bag they shared, then making the horrendous walk out—dodging quicksand, scrabbling through the taiga’s fiendish terrain, winding through ankle-spraining tussocks, crawling on their knees through alder thickets, then fording (and nearly drowning in) a glacial-melt river—with little food and less luck.
A bold deed that’s rattling and—given the character displayed by Washburn and Bates—exemplary. (Photographs)