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Alaska Requiem: First Ascents, Tragedy and a Lifetime of Weighing the Cost

Lifelong climber and alpinist David Roberts was one of Alaska's most prolific explorers. He first climbed in, and named, the Revelations, and put up a bold and dangerous new route on Denali's Wickersham Wall. But after the deaths of friends he questioned whether it was worth the risk. 50 years later he has the answer.

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We took turns driving the VW Microbus, riding shotgun, or lying in back in a jumble of ropes, hardware, food boxes, and Ensolite pads as we tried to sleep. Outside, the dreary landscape plodded by at 30 miles an hour: jungles of birch and dwarf spruce, lagoons infested with ferns and tussocks. In the muddy truck-stop parking lots we piled out to buy burgers and coffee, the smell of bacon grease and stale fries wafting across the lunch counter, windows shut tight against the emptiness. Those truck stops broke the 1,200-mile book of unpaved Alaska Highway into chapters: Trutch, Wonowon, Toad River, Muncho Lake, Jake’s Corner … And for punctuation marks, the red roadside crosses: “Three died here 1953.”

I was afraid. As I lay in back, hiding under a sleeping bag, the engine drone a bass thrum in my head, I tried to dissect my fear. Of the mountain, of course, in all its hugeness. Of what I had agreed to do, after Rick and Hank had invited me up to Rick’s college dorm room and casually popped the question: “We’re thinking of climbing McKinley this summer. Wanna go?” Of the wild Northland this desolate trail was unfolding. Of the prospect of spending more than a month on glaciers, in storms, under seracs and rock walls. Of commitment. Of the unknown.

David Roberts, Pete Carman, Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan celebrating at 17,000 feet on the Wickersham Wall. Photo: John Graham

The summer before, I had worked construction in my hometown of Boulder. In these addled spells inside the hurtling Microbus, I might well have traded the prospect of the Wickersham Wall for a return to hefting two-by-fours and prying out bent nails. But the seniors in the Harvard Mountaineering Club were demi-gods. Rick and Chris had climbed Waddington, Hank had already been on another route on McKinley (renamed Denali, its original Athabaskan name, in 2015). What did I hope to become, if not their peer? In any event, there was no backing out now.

[Also Read: “Is Climbing Worth Dying For?” An interview with David Roberts]

Two weeks later, in tents pitched at the head of the icefall leading to the crux rock buttress on the unclimbed 14,000-foot face,  seven us—Rick Millikan, Pete Carman, Chris Goetze, Hank Abrons, John Graham, Don Jensen, and I—were camped in a shooting gallery. In my diary, I blandly noted, “It seems quite hazardous, and already two falling rocks have put holes in our tents, and a few big ones have just missed … About an hour ago a slide swept just to the west of camp, right over the ends of the rope on which we had been hauling.” Yeah, it was scary, but I wasn’t scared. This was what big-range mountaineering was all about.

After we got up the Wickersham Wall in 1963, among my six partners, one never climbed in Alaska again. Three ventured forth on a single second effort each in the Great Land, one other on two further expeditions. Don Jensen would end up assaulting Alaskan peaks on four long exploits, two of them failures on Mount Deborah. But I came back again and again, until I had notched 13 forays up North. Alaska had set its hook in my soul.

That April day in Rick’s dorm room, there was no way I could say no to him and Hank. Two years later, there would be no way Ed Bernd, a sophomore as I had been in 1963, could say no to Mount Huntington. In 1965 in our high camp, exhausted and giddy after gaining the summit on the 32nd day of our struggle, crammed four into a two-man tent, I said, “Man, that was the best climbing day of my life!” Ed answered, “Mine, too. But I’m not sure I’d do it all over again.”

Seven hours later, he was dead.

And 56 years later, guilt still gnaws holes in my well-being.

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