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New Book “Hidden Mountains” Profiles Alaskan First Ascent with Tragic Ending

Michael Wejchert’s first book profiles four keen climbers, their unlikely rescue from an obscure Alaskan peak, and the physical and emotional cost of living through it.

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Hidden Mountains unfolded in ways I did not expect. The book’s main tension is no secret: four close friends, who are experienced and highly motivated climbers, cash in their respective jobs’ vacation days and book the trip of a lifetime to Alaska’s Hidden Mountains range. It’s a range of big granite and no beta. A range they’d never heard of, but one that one of their friends—the prolific Alaska first ascensionist David Roberts—insisted they explore. 

The foursome, two couples, are crunched for time since one team member has only two weeks to climb. Their intended objective—the one they’d spent weeks researching—would be too far to reach in their short window, and they pivot to a slightly closer, though even less known, cirque of serrated ridges. On the day of their climb, several hundred feet up a shockingly loose ridgeline, Emmett Lyman takes a long fall down a blocky gully. The other party is one ridgeline over, barely within earshot. Lyman is unresponsive, maybe dead, and his partner screams for help.

Wejchert’s storytelling of that trip is precise and gripping. And that trip is where most climbing-rescue stories would begin and end. The not-dead climber would be plucked from the end of his rope in an inarguably heroic rescue. The remaining three climbers make it down alive. That could have been Hidden Mountains’ happy ending. But it’s not—and that’s why I read the book cover to cover in just a few hours. Wejchert broaches a topic that many writers would dare not go: how a climber’s social support system can change after a significant accident. How friendships can be predicated on the act of climbing, on being able bodied, and what happens when that ability is taken away.

Hidden Mountains is about what happens during and after a rescue. It’s about living through a nightmare scenario—and then living with yourself after.

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Certain authors are poised to write of certain events, and Michael Wejchert found his with Hidden Mountains. Wejchert is the chair of New Hampshire’s storied Mountain Rescue Service, a respected alpinist, and, perhaps most importantly, had seemingly unfettered access to a range of protagonists both during and after the event. When news of the accident first arrived in the lower 48, for instance, David Roberts confided in Wejchert, saying, “This is all my fault. They never would have gone if I hadn’t made them.”

Hidden Mountains is more than a play-by-play account of the rescue; it gets to the bottom of what, exactly, happens when a climber presses that SOS button on their emergency beacon. Wejchert interviews the Air Force Pararescuemen (also known as PJs), who were responsible for the climbers’ high-angle rescue. He describes how, “with a single text, [she] had unleashed millions of dollars of training, manpower, and expertise … toward coordinates that had, until yesterday, been nothing more than a desolate spot in a state brimming with them.”

These descriptions of the rescue’s logistics were, for me, among the most compelling parts of Hidden Mountains. Wejchert sees eye-to-eye with the PJ rescuers in ways that I—and many other journalists—would have fallen short: as a mountain rescue worker himself, he’s empathetic to the immense risks accepted by rescuers, the mental aftershocks, the death and gore, and the understanding that you don’t save everyone. “It takes pluck to climb a mountain,” Wejchert writes, “but performing a rescue on one requires something different, as the risk you incur isn’t based on your own decisions.”

Hidden Mountains, at its core, is about decisions. The decisions we make before a climb, choosing partners, objectives, and acceptable risk; the decisions we make during our climbs, which are occasionally concessions of the former’s risk tolerance; and the decisions our friends and rescuers make once a climb proves tragic.

***

Cover of Hidden Mountains book

The following is an excerpt from  “Hidden Mountains: Survival and Reckoning After a Climb Gone Wrongby Michael Wejchert. Copyright © 2023 by Michael Wejchert. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

In the summer, the sun dances around the granite spires of Alaska, projecting shadows here, casting light there, though it never sets. On June 23, 2018, two days after the summer solstice, the sun came around a corner of ridgeline deep in the Hidden Mountains, a phalanx of peaks so remote they had no names or history. Tucked on the far western end of the Alaska Range, the Hidden Mountains were thin needles of rock capping a wild landscape. The mountains promised nothing apart from adventure in a world where adventure was becoming hard to find.

The rotting snow and dark rock of the peaks always seemed to have a gray shield of cloud hanging above them. On June 23rd, though, the cloud bank had wafted out to the ocean, the weather was clear and blue, and the wind was still. If you had been a raven or a bush pilot and had dipped your wings in order to level off and stare across at one of these unnamed spines of granite, you could have made out the unmistakable dots of four climbers—two teams of two— strung together by neon climbing rope, the bright colors of synthetic and nylon jackets and foam climbing helmets contrasting against the dark rock. Bits of humanity enveloped in wilderness and quiet.

All day long, Emmett Lyman and Lauren Weber had been climbing in the shade. Finally, at around seven o’clock in the evening, the couple was rewarded by the sunlight as it poked through the spires. On the opposite ridgeline, two other specks of color climbed upward. These were John Gassel and Alissa Doherty. Occasionally the two parties whooped and hollered to each other, though the complicated terrain meant one team could rarely glimpse the other. The four climbers were close friends; both teams were couples. John and Alissa had even introduced Emmett and Lauren on a sun-drenched weekend of rock climbing in New York State.

They ranged in age from Alissa, the youngest, who was twenty-nine, to Emmett, the oldest, who had just turned forty. Each had successful, ambitious careers back in Boston, but they climbed as often as they could. Together they had traveled all over the globe, climbing frozen waterfalls in Canada, overhanging rock caves in Thailand, the desert spires of the Southwest. This trip felt special, though, because this mountain had never been climbed. So far as they could tell, even the cirque they’d hiked into—a snowy basin ringed with similarly untouched peaks—had never seen a human footprint. Seven hundred feet below them, the climbers’ tents dried out in the sun, dwarfed by mountains that rose from snowfields and glacial rivers and the thick alders they’d struggled up the week before.

Emmett, Lauren, John, and Alissa hadn’t planned on heading up this valley, but their original objective, a mountain several miles to the west, had proven too difficult to get to. They had spent four days ferrying loads of gear and crossing rivers swollen with snowmelt only to realize they’d likely run out of time to pursue their planned objective. A bush pilot was slated to pick them up on a gravel bar thousands of feet below on June 27th. But to the east lay another cirque of intriguing mountains, smaller and easier-looking.

Why not notch a few quick first ascents instead of one? Climbing was always better than not climbing, especially when they’d invested so much effort getting here. Short on time, they headed east and trudged up two thousand feet to this current group of mountains instead.

The mountain they chose from this ring was unnamed, but Emmett started calling it Mount Sauron because the dark, twin-tipped summit spires reminded him of Sauron’s foreboding tower in Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s summit was only sixty-five hundred feet above sea level. From where the group had crouched in their cook tent, melting snow and boiling water, the peak rose fifteen hundred feet above the snowfield. Rocky ridgelines swept down from its twin summits. Between these, snowfields eased back down to the basin where they camped, like the indentations between knuckles on a hand.

On June 22nd, the day before their climb, it had rained—the only crummy day of the trip. The foul weather had confined the couples to their tents. The gullies came alive with small, wet-slide avalanches, less dramatic than huge storm slabs but capable of knocking climbers off their feet all the same. Small rocks and debris bounced down the gullies, punctuating the light drum of rain against the tents.

But the next day, the sun shone clear and the two teams packed up, throwing climbing shoes, harnesses, crampons, ice axes, rope, and equipment into their bags and starting off. A tension simmered between them, if only a playful one. After all, whichever party reached the top ahead of the other would enjoy the distinction of being the first people to climb the mountain. Alissa and John had left base camp slightly before Lauren and Emmett. Now they were tackling the left ridgeline while Lauren and Emmett turned their attention to the right one.

Falling on Sauron would be disastrous. Much of the rock was crumbling and rotten and reliable protection was hard to come by. The closest true civilization lay across the Cook Inlet, a good ninety miles of mountain, ocean, and tundra away. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, home to the Hidden Mountains, is not accessible by road. But the peak looked moderate—well within each climber’s ability level—and as the day wore on and Emmett made his way up the mountain, he felt like he was climbing better and better. Early on, during the second pitch, a rock had crumbled underneath his foot. His last piece of protection far below him, Emmett had chided himself. Hey, dude, pay attention, make sure you get your gear, don’t do anything stupid on this, you’ve got to be careful, you can’t have any accidents today. But for the most part, bounding up a new route was just fun.

Discussing logistics in their base camp, everyone had nodded in tacit agreement. No falls. They all promised to climb as carefully as they could.

By evening both couples were high up the mountain, though John and Alissa were climbing more quickly on their ridge, about three hundred feet higher than Emmett and Lauren. Their options for descending were narrowing, and this sharpened their minds into a state of razor-like awareness.

Chasing this uncertain, fleeting feeling compels alpinists. It is why climbers return to the mountains. These moments prove difficult to describe to romantic partners or close friends, but the four climbers in the Hidden Mountains wouldn’t have to. They were all here together. If anything, this experience would galvanize them. If Emmett and Lauren married—and Emmett, at least, thought they would—tonight would punctuate the rest of their lives. Climbing Sauron together would be something they’d tell their kids about one day.

Emmett had been in the lead throughout the day.

“He was just cruising all day long. He was in the zone. He was probably having one of his best days ever on the rock,” Lauren remembers. There seemed little doubt they’d reach the top soon. The climbing was easy, although they moved more slowly than normal in order to not dislodge anything. They posed for a selfie at the start of a new pitch before Lauren settled herself onto the belay ledge. It sloped downward uncomfortably, but she’d leave this perch soon and climb up after Emmett, who was currently rearranging his gear before casting off on lead.

At first, Lauren paid out slack in the rope by watching Emmett’s movements. But as he crested the ridge and disappeared over the left-hand side, she could only hear the muted jangling of equipment. Then nothing. The angles of the mountain threw sound in unexpected directions, and it was easier to hear John and Alissa, even though they were hundreds of feet above her. Lauren kept paying out rope until he was halfway, then more than halfway. He’d have to build a belay soon and then she could follow him up. With Emmett out of sight around the corner, Lauren relaxed a little and looked at her surroundings. It was eight in the evening. The light was brilliant. Her stance allowed an unmitigated view of the neighboring peaks, of the tents far below.

Suddenly Lauren was snapped out of her reverie by a violent, wrenching sound. She felt the rope come tight and knew that on the other side Emmett was falling, though she couldn’t see him. Rock and debris flushed down the snow gully to her left so forcefully that it caused a small avalanche. To Lauren, the snow just looked like water cascading down, some unreal force of nature that still didn’t seem like it was happening. Dust clouded the air. 

Somewhere in this “I heard a human sound,” she recalled. “It wasn’t words. It was just a sound of . . . maybe surprise and dismay.” The whole episode could not have lasted more than a few seconds, but to Lauren, this roar of rock felt like it had happened in slow motion. Somehow, Emmett had fallen, taking hundreds of pounds of rock with him. Lauren’s position on the ridge, far to the right of the fall line, had spared her any injury. “The rope got tight and eventually the rock and snow and stuff stopped coming down,” Lauren said. “And then it was just dead silent.”


To read more of Hidden Mountains: Survival and Reckoning After a Climb Gone Wrong, purchase the book here.