Two Mountaineering Classics by David Roberts

When I visited Alaska, I did two things everyone else does when they go: I hiked up Flattop Mountain outside of Anchorage and took in Denali. I did a lot more than that, but it was taking in the view of a lesser peak southwest of Big Mac that I really wanted to see! Through my binoculars I saw Mount Huntington (12,240 ft / 3,731 m). To me, it’s almost mythical.

Mount Huntington was first climbed in 1964 by French alpinist Lionel Terray of the Annapurna first ascent team. It’s also one of the most beautifully formed peaks in the Alaska Range. But what puts it on the map of mountaineering lore are the events that mountaineer and author David Roberts captures in his first book, The Mountain of My Fear, originally published in 1968.

The story tells of the second ascent of the mountain including the planning and the relationships with his teammates. The story focuses on the eerie event on the descent when the team of four split up. Roberts and partner Ed Bernd rapped down but in a flash, Bernd vanished with only a spark in the night, undoubtedly falling to the Tokositna Glacier. Due to the separation and the incoming storms Roberts endured five days alone in a lower camp. It sounds simple, but Roberts has a way of articulately saying what was in his mind and connecting the hearts of other climbers, which is what makes it such a great read!

Roberts explains in his autobiographical book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined (2005), that Roberts wrote the manuscript for The Mountain of My Fear in one fantastic push. It was mainly an exercise in therapy. The apropos title comes from the poem “The Climbers” by W.H. Auden.

The experience on Mount Huntington was actually the second of two epic adventures in Alaska that Roberts was among the primary architects. The other was when he and Don Jensen planned to make the first ascent of Mount Deborah (12,339 ft/3,761 m). The peak has an enormous prominence among the other features surrounding it and it is remote. Sometime after writing his first book, Roberts wrote Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative (1970). While Roberts thinks it is the literary of the two, most readers feel it is far dryer. I disagree.

Deborah is not as profound and moving as The Mountain of My Fear, it is like many other climbing stories about flying into the mountains, climbing, struggling in alpine style, and trudging out of the backcountry. It’s actually a worthy model for a lot of those of us planning a grand ascent. The drama of the story, and what makes it somewhat a downer, is that even before Roberts departed for Alaska, he knew his heart was not in this expedition and certainly not committed to Jensen as he ought to be.

The Mountaineers Books published both of these works in one volume in 1991. I bought my copy in the Denali National Park gift shop; I hadn’t even seen it on my local bookstore shelves back home. I’ve read both twice and return to them periodically. I recommend reading both in gulps rather than sips. Their worth the purchase and certainly the time.

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