THE FOUR OF US were a hopeful band at the outset, skimming over the calm Alaska bay with the wind in our faces, seven days food in our packs and gear for a mountain journey. When the fin back whale welled out of the water, it seemed like an omen. We cut the engine and stood in the boat. The mammal breached again. It was glistening, auspicious and huge. The overcast that had been drizzling over the small town of Homer for more than a fortnight began to tear apart into patches of blue, and shafts of sun spotlit the ice ahead.
Even this third week in August the weather preyed on our thoughts. If it wre not good we might never even see, let alone climb, a mountain called Iceworm that, in the course of past rebuffs, had become our thorn and ardor. Although it was not the highest in the long crescent of mountains that swept down the Kenai Peninsula, 200 miles south of Anchorage, Iceworm was the crown of the range's southern half. It rose 5,800 feet above the water, and no person had ever set foot on its summit.
For our part it was not for lack of trying. Two years ago on a long day's lark Joel Gay, Tom Kizzia and I discovered that the world was bigger than we had imagined from maps and Iceworm, mantled in mist, was further than we could go.
Then last year Joel and I had been weathered in several miles from the mountains. We had lain in our tent for three days, lapsing into that mountain dementia that sets in when storms persist and hope is no longer for the climb but for escape. Perhaps this time would be differnt.
Our fourth was a tousel-haired Virginia expatriate named Eddie Taylor who had drifted into Homer and, like so many of the pilgrims who lived there, could not bring himself to leave. Homer is where the road ends in North America: You can't get any farther west by car. Joel calls it home. Tom had built a house there, and once the town was my home too. But I had left and I wasn't exactly sure why I had taken a vacation to come back -- except maybe for the sweet torture of memory, or old friends, or the incantatory silence of the wilderness.
The boat slapped over the water as we made the six miles from the Homer harbor toward the country of islands, coves and upsweeping mountains known simply as "the other side of the bay." Here the land was not linked to any road; only a few homesteaders lived in cabins by the water's edge.
Eddie motored up a winding channel into a lagoon where he could safely moor his boat out of the surf and tides of Kachemak Bay. We shouldered our packs and filed out across the cracked mud flats of a tidal lagoon. The mountain we had set out for was 15 miles away up a glacier. Simply to get near the bottom of it meant a journey through alder and icefalls that could be as hard as any climb.
We picked up a trail that circled four miles to the foot of Grewingk Glacier, a valley of ice named for a Russian geologist who mapped in the area in the 19th century. Half a mile thick and twice again as wide, Grewingk stretched more than 15 miles, the largest of three valleybroad glaciers that drained into the bay.
It led upward into an unearthly realm, a place of peaks and snow and sky that took you back 10,000 years in time to the geologic age of the Pleistocene era.
As we hiked we talked about our supplies, which had been hastily assembled the day before we left. When Eddie learned that I had neglected to bring instant coffee, he clutched his head like a character in a Chekhov short story.
Our fare, assembled by Joel, was almost all organic. But I had been on enough trips with him to know that the privations of the wilderness could make Joel look more warmly on food he would have spurned in town. It would not take that much to make him trade a fastidious diet of bulgar, rice and lentils for a case of Zagnuts. So I brought along a special stash of candy. But no coffee.
On the far shore of the silt-murky lake that abuts the snout of Grewingk, we encountered a man who was staying at a wilderness lodge a few miles up the bay. He had been out on a day hike with a couple of other guests. We chatted for a while, and then, in what seemed like divine intervention to Eddie, he withdrew a plastic bag from his knapsack and said, "I won't need this. Would you like some coffee?"
With our larder complete we headed out along the western edge of the lake. There was no wind, and several icebergs floated motionlessly. The traverse became increasingly difficult where the stony shore gave way to cliffs that plunged down from a high ridge above us. We reached a section of nearly vertical rock which we had to traverse 20 feet above the lake holding on to pitiful clumps of grass and scrabbling with our boots for niches while small streams of pebbles sluiced into the water. This was the section our friends with the coffee said had queered their plans to go further. It took us more than an hour to gingerly traverse no more than 50 yards. But we came safely through, and it seemed as if we had been admitted into the mountains.
We clambered up the heaps of rotten stone and dirt that the glacier had piled up and marched onto the ice. The going was easy at first, but soon the ice grew hummocky and the crevasses wider. The features of the ice, the fins and abyssal seams, were shunting us to the left. Forward progress, on which so much morale in the mountains depends, was nil. We could move only laterally, and soon had cut all the way across the bottom of the glacier hoping to get on to the rock of a mountain overlooking the ice.
The camp we made that night was a dismal hivouack on a rocky bluff 500 feet above the glacier. We were miles from nowhere and even further, it seemed, from Iceworm.We had been so sure we would find water in the alder-choked raviness that we had not filled our bottles when we were walking on the ice. That night we ate a dry dinner of carrots and cheese. I dreamed Buddha sat cross-legged beside a frothy rill while supplicants plied him with Gatorade.
In the morning the weather was faultless again. But without milk our granola was awful. Eddie had such a thirst that he licked the dew off the leaves of alder bushes. We strugged up the side of a small mountain, with spiritless legs. Then Tom cried out "Blueberries!" and we ran up to where he was bent double gorging himself in the low bush patches.
At midday we were at last able to fill our water bottles in a tarn cupped in the heather on top of the small mountain we had not really meant to climb. In the valley on the other side we saw a black bear amble across a clearing in the quilted pattern of alder and willow. We ate lunch, listened to the wind and started down, still on land, heading toward a saddle where it looked easy to drop back onto the ice.
It was like walking on a road now, back on this section of the glacier above the icefalls that had plagued us yesterday. We clipped off four miles and threw our packs down for the night just before sunset on a high promontory where we had seen white mountain goats. The goats had scampered up to new redoubts in crags above us. We pitched our tents where they had been in a patch of forget-me-nots and lupine. Tomorrow we would sleep on ice where nothing lived except the iceworms, the thread-like mountain namesakes that were no bigger than the fibers in a dollar bill.
Again in the morning the sun shone in a cloudless sky. We daubed our faces with zinc oxide to screen out the reflected light, which bounced off the snow with 30 times the intensity of light reflected off earthier landscapes. Even with goggles we squinted. Without them we would have soon gone blind. As it was, the sun nearly fried us to insensibility, and at noon we threw down our packs and set up one of the tents to escape it.
Since the morning we had come five miles, wending our way through a staircase of ice and then toiling up an eternally rising basin of snow where all three of the major glaciers were spawned. In the snow that mantled all but 500 feet of mountains that were thousands of feet high, the wind had scooped out deep bowls. The air seemed to strike with a kind of primordial freshness. We played hearts in the tent, read and scribbled in journals, but mostly we gazed at Iceworm, which at last we could see, rearing in the stillness of the day, not three miles distant. If the weather would hold, our chance was at hand.
In the morning I knew it had, for I had looked out before dawn and seen stars as sharp and large and bright as a cluster of molten jacks. The sun climbed above the nunatak where we had pitched camp. At 7 we trussed up our boots and coiled two ropes. We stashed lunches and gear in a couple of packs and lit off for Iceworm, burnished rose in the morning light.
Our boots sprang off the snow, which had been firmed up overnight by temperatures in the low 30s. As we trudged toward the peak, four ravens circled overhead, then skreeked and swooped down onto the snow, paralleling us. Who knew what message nature was trying to deliver? If the birds had been roped up we surely would have turned back, but we took their presence as a harbinger of good fortune.
The apron of snow grew steeper, and soon we were kicking toeholds and scrambling on all fours until we came to a snow ridge under the hanging glacier. To the left was one of the dozen routes we mighty mountaineers had climbed from base camp yesterday with our eyes. When we saw how sharply the other side of the ridge fell away, for more than 1,000 feet, we swallowed hard and redrew our plan.
Roped now, wearing the metalspike crampons on our boots for purchase on the steep snow, we edged along the bergscrund at the bottom of the hanging glacier and crept through a mishmash of ice onto a rock buttress on the right skyline of the mountain. Up that we went, and then up a section of snow. There was a long stretch of rock marked by frighteningly portable handholds. Rock skittered loose and leapt into space. Large rocks buzzed past the climbers below the leader with the sound of a supersonic bumblebee.
As we climbed we could hear the deep shudder and hiss of avalanches falling on the hundred nameless mountains which stretched all about us but now were no longer higher than we were. Iceworm itself seemed terribly unstable in both the snow softening under the noonday sun and in the dispensation of the rock itself, which appeared to have been piled piece by piece and seemed as likely to collapse as a heap of pick-up sticks.
As I payed out rope for Tom, who edged along the upper rim of the hanging glacier into a couloir of snow that plumbed toward the summit, rocks scrabbled loose, glanced off the incline and hurtled free for thousands of feet. It was hard to keep from imagining the trajectory as it might apply to me. I had made a lead of 40 feet, then Tom had climbed on past. We were only 50 feet from the summit now. It wouldn't be long. He called out. He was on top.
I followed him up. It was noon exactly. The culmination of Iceworm was no roomier than one of our tents, and there was nothing there, and nothing special except that you could see as much of the world as anyone had ever dreamed.I don't think I have ever seen such a view from the top of a mountain before.
There was the island of Kodiak floating on the water 100 miles to the southwest. And there was the upper end of Alaska's magnificant chain of volcanos, part of the Pacific rim of fire -- five conical mountains spaced every 40 miles. Their names -- Cape Douglas, Augustine, Iliamna, Redoubt and Spur -- formed a litany I had often membled in my awe on the extraordinary day one might glimpse them all from some high spot in Homer.
North of them, nearly indistinct in the glare of the sun, were the enormous bulks of Mts. Foraker and McKinley, the highest point in North America. It was a distance of nearly 400 miles, a gift of prodigious clarity.
Tom and I had not been on the summit more than a few minutes when suddenly there was a terrible thump and the clatter of rocks. Tom peered over the edge and said, "There goes a pack!" My heart tripped like a jack hammer.Eddie or Joel had fallen, I thought. The pack slithered down the upper portion of the hanging glacier with our camera, Joel and Eddie's emergency gear, and an apple Joel had stowed for the top. Miraculously, it caught in a small crevasse 50 feet down. And up came Eddie, breathing hard.
What had happened was that he had knocked loose an 80-pound rock.It brushed his left leg, bashed into the pack he had wedged in a crevice for Joel to carry up, and jarred it free.
Eddie was rattled and rubbing his leg, but unhurt. Joel followed him to the top. The four of us crowded onto the cramped summit uneasily. We split a crumbly candy bar. As the mountain did not seem much more cohesive, we decided not to stay long.
For me at least it was not possible to relax. The summit was no resolution of my anxiety, only the midpoint, and I could not let go until I knew we had extricated ourselves from the center of this labyrinth. For 10 minutes the four of us gazed as if we could brand this view on our memories: the chain of volcanoes, the hatchet blade mountains of the Kenai below, the dells of the ice-free Nuka River valley, the bay, the inlet, the gulf, the forms of the earth. Then we started down.
That was the hardest part, and it took as long as it had to ascend. Joel led the most difficult pitch, the climb down off the summit. Tom roped into the crevasse and retrieved the pack. Nothing was damaged very much. The frame and the apple, which had been smashed to quarters, had taken the brunt of the blow.
When we got off the technical sections at 3 that afternoon we were ecstatic with success and relief, and flush as never before with the starkness and beauty of the world. We coiled our ropes and glissaded down the long steep snows. Now they led away from Iceworm and back toward camp, toward home, toward the places we had come from which we knew were no different and yet somehow were not quite the same. A punishing sun hung in our faces. The snow grew soft and along with it our brains. We were burnt pink from the day of exposure and exhausted by the time we slogged into camp. Tom had had trouble focusing on the f-stops of the camera and crawled into the tent. I rummaged around for some candy bars.
"You want a bar?" I said.
Ordinarily Tom would as soon turn down a job at The New Yorker as decline a candy bar in the mountains, but he said "I honestly don't want a candy bar."
I threw Joel one. He bit into it and said "Oh, far out!"
"What kind of bar is it?" Tom chirped.
We gorged ourselves at supper on a bulgar and curry specialty of Joel's. The sun had gone down and the sky at the zenith was black, banking into azure, and orange, and on the western horizon, serrated by the mountaintops, a rich plum ink lingered until the moon came up. Redoubt's regal outline gleamed in a ghostly hue and the lights of Homer winked on from across the bay.
The town where I used to live seemed so close that I might tell you what was happening there. I could see the roads I'd driven and the places I'd stopped to watch fishing boats or sunsets or snappy-looking women from Anchorage. And yet it was as if I had never been there; as if everything I would ever do would end in this silence that enveloped us tonight like an ocean, so deep and absolute and immemorial. What could I show to prove I had lived? Atop one of a hundred small pinnacles silhouetted in the moonlight there was a rock so delicately balanced I thought for the longest time it was a bird. It could have been a bird, but I did not stay out in the cold air long enough to see it fly.
We slept like stones that night.It had been a signal day for us all; for Eddie, especially momentous. On the 24th of August 1980 he turned 30 years old.
In my mind the rest that followed seemed trivial and telescoped. We retraced our 15-mile journey along a different route, coming down through the same staircase of ice but swinging wide down the middle of Grewingk. We made 12 miles that day. There was a low moment when our path was blocked by crevasses but we cut left and delicately picked our way out. As grungy as we were, we felt fit and alive and we had done what we had wanted to do.
Again we inched along the lake and emerged from the high world into the region of spruce trees and verdure and the sweet, complex, humid smells of life. Our small society of six days would be dispersed. In the end we were homeless vanishing creatures and there was no mountain, no town, no earth that would remember us.
It makes no sense, but before I crept out over the precipice to begin the long descent I built a cairn a few feet off the summit of Iceworm. Gales would topple it and ravens fly over coldly, but I wrote the date and the names of my three friends on a card to leave under the stack of rocks. One last time I looked up and filled my eyes with the infinite world. And then I put my name with theirs and started down.