In the summer of 1967, I went mountain climbing with five friends to a part of the Alaska Range that had never before been visited. The whole chain of sharp granite peaks, in fact, was still unnamed. (We ended up calling the place the Revelation Range -- now an official designation.)
To reach our base camp, we flew with a nervy young bush pilot named Jim Cassady. Relatively new to his trade, he seemed jittery as he circled, but he pulled off a textbook ski landing right at the head of the cirque where we wanted to climb.
During the next 40 days, we made seven first ascents, but the most difficult peaks eluded our grasp. In large part this was due to the weather. Eventually I would participate in 13 climbing expeditions in Alaska and the Yukon (the Revelations trip being my fifth), but I would never see a more fiendish series of storms than descended on us that July and August.
At the peak of our misery, we had to stay up all night fighting to keep our tents pitched, with stoves burning continuously to ward off hypothermia. Hurricanes of sleet and freezing rain ripped our tent flies, bent aluminum poles and blasted holes in our igloo. A drilling horizontal spray soaked us inside the tents. Rock helmets, cooking pots and food blew as far as a mile from camp.
At the same time that we were hanging onto our tent poles, 140 miles away on Mount McKinley seven members of a team stranded near the summit were dying of frostbite and hypothermia. The Wilcox party debacle is still the worst mountaineering accident in Alaska history.
Finally we got a little good weather and could do some cautious climbing. On each foray, we kept scanning the horizon for any hint of the next storm. Cassady was supposed to fly in on Aug. 15. That day passed with no sign of a plane, then the next, and the next.
In Alaska it's not unusual for a bush pilot to be a day or two late: we feigned professional patience. But we were running short on food and morale, and the nearest settlement, a lonely tundra outpost called Farewell, was 70 miles away, across so many swollen rivers that we might have been unable to hike to it.
While we waited, we got in several days of good climbing and bagged a few last summits. On Aug. 22, with Cassady seven days late, a friend and I went off on a long climb. We had superstitiously minimized talk about our overdue pilot, but now my friend joked, "He's probably cracked up somewhere else, waiting to get rescued himself."
An hour later, we heard the blessed drone of a plane engine.
Back at base camp, the other four saw an unfamiliar aircraft break through the clouds and circle dubiously over the glacier. Then the plane came in low and bounced to an expert stop. From the cockpit, however, emerged not Jim Cassady, but Cassady's partner, Erik Barnes.
Barnes broke the news. A week earlier, flying a big-game hunter in bad weather near Anchorage, Cassady's plane had been caught in a downdraft and crashed. Both men were killed. Barnes knew the six of us were off somewhere in the Alaska Range, but in those days most bush pilots kept all the details of their clients' itineraries in their heads. Barnes didn't even know when Cassady was supposed to pick us up.
In Cassady's office, Barnes found a large-scale map of Alaska with a tiny "X" marked in ink. He put new skis on a Cessna he'd never flown, and as soon as the weather allowed, came looking for us in a part of the Alaska Range where he'd never been before.
In 1967 -- or today, for that matter -- there were not many pilots who could have found us under such circumstances. For Erik Barnes, it was simply what you did for your customers. David Roberts' most recent book is "Moments of Doubt" (Shadow Mountaineers, 1986).