Me on the summit of Denali 1975

In many ways, my 1975 ascent of Denali was the trip from hell.  Bookended by a minor earthquake and some expertly aimed pigeon excrement, the expedition featured a group that was too large, severe hypothermia, foul weather, an endless diet of instant mashed potatoes, the most uncomfortable and poorly planned bivouac I have ever endured, a pilot who refused to fly us off the mountain and a head guide who was, I believe, certifiably insane.  Along the way, however, we saw some of the greatest mountain scenery the world has to offer.

After my 1972 trek in Nepal I knew that I was very strong at high altitude, but I also knew from experience that I was not a very good climber, nor ever likely to become one.  There are many big, beautiful mountains that require only modest climbing skills, and I set my sights on these.  Denali would be the first.

I joined a trip offered by the same company that had organized my wonderful Nepal trek.  We met in Talkeetna, Alaska, a dreary little village that served up some alarming earth tremors our first night there.

Beautiful downtown Talkeetna

A bush plane took us to base camp on a glacier, where we met our guides.

Our guides

That’s our head guide waving his ice axe in the centre.  Out of respect (he later died on Mt Everest) he shall remain nameless, but he clearly had a screw loose, while his cohorts seemed barely qualified for a climb of this nature.  The first night on the glacier one of our party came down with severe hypothermia, which was not noticed for hours until he was found, incoherent and helpless, slouched in front of his tent.  A few years later I would have abandoned the trip at that point and flown back to Talkeetna with my ailing colleague, but I was still pretty clueless in 1975.

Our weather, our gear

Snowshoes, army boots, big frame packs – and half the time we couldn’t see the mountain.  Our guide kept running back and forth between ropes, screaming at us to hurry up and KEEP THE ICE AXE IN THE RIGHT HAND AT ALL TIMES!  I never did understand the reason for that command.

That’s me under all that stuff.

It didn’t matter that I was half the size of some of the men in the party – I had to carry the same weight.  I’ve had back trouble ever since.

Hot day on the glacier

When the sun came out the glacier radiated heat.  As soon as the sun was obscured the temperature plummeted and we dove for our down gear.  Dinner consisted, clouds or shine, of instant mashed potatoes one night, and freeze-dried cardboard the next

Looking down on the world

It is, indeed, a glorious mountain.

Me at high camp

By the time we reached high camp a number of people had dropped out, unable to handle the altitude.   With the group now split into 2 or 3 parts (I was never sure how many), the guide ran back and forth between all of them, seemingly oblivious to the crevasses that lurked under the snow.

After dinner in high camp, our leader decided that the best way to sort out who would go to the summit next day was to have us run around in a circle and see who lasted the longest.  This at 17,200 feet!

I felt amazingly well next morning, but the altitude took its toll on the summit party.

Do we really want to do this?

In the end, only 6 or 7 guests made it to the top that day.  We arrived in a raging storm, took the obligatory photos and staggered down to a flat area about 500′ lower, where 2 tents had been set up and others in our party had taken shelter.  The assistant leaders simply dropped ropes, ice axes and crampons in the snow and crawled into the tents.  Our head guide didn’t arrive until well after midnight. Earlier he had come upon a group that was not moving well and cut the rope in two, telling the men to go back to high camp. He then tied in with a girl on the other half of the rope and took her to the summit, where she wanted to make a phone call to her family.

So there we stayed for three days: 13 people in two tents, with 6 sleeping bags, one stove, a sausage and some dried soup mix.  When the storm finally blew itself out, the summit, which we had never seen, appeared.

Summit and our bivouac site

But where were our ropes, ice axes and crampons?  We had to dig them out of the snow with the cook pots.  The guides gave those who had stopped their climb at the tents a chance to reach the summit while the rest of us descended to high camp, passing a couple of shredded McKinley tents at the pass above camp.  It had been a wild storm.

We returned quickly to base camp, only to find that our guide had insulted our pilot to the point that he refused to fly us out.  Negotiations continued for a couple of days while other pilots took pity on us and dropped some beer.  Once we got back to Talkeetna we found a limited supply of hot water, so most of us took ice cold showers.  As I was running to catch a train back to civilization a pigeon pooped directly on my head – a fitting comment on the entire expedition!


Moonrise over Nuptse and Everest

I should be in Greenland now, dogsledding with the Thule Inuit, but injury has caught up with me once again. Sidelined with a broken arm (thanks to a Mexican horse), I have decided to revisit some of my early adventures, the ones on which my love for high, beautiful mountains and rugged wilderness grew into a lifelong passion.  Be forewarned: the photos here are from slides dating back to 1972.

My first climbing schools were in 1967 with the  Edmonton Section of the Alpine Club of Canada.  Despite being spectacularly unfit and terrified of heights, I persevered, ignoring the often vigorous suggestions of fellow club members that I should find some other form of recreation.  Stubbornness has its rewards, however, and eventually I became, if not a good climber, at least one who was no longer a complete hazard on the mountain.  I settled into a routine of weekends in the Canadian Rockies climbing easy peaks.

In 1972 a sabbatical from my university allowed me to spend a month trekking in Nepal.  Starting near Kathmandu, we hiked through leech-infested forests, passed groves of giant rhododendrons, and crossed raging rivers on fragile bridges. After several days we entered the high Rowaling Valley, almost the first western tourists to go there.  At the valley’s end we surmounted 19,000′ Tesi Lapcha pass and descended to Thami and the Everest region, eventually reaching Everest Base Camp.

Nepal was a turning point in my relationship with mountains, and Tesi Lapcha pass was the instrument that turned a simple pastime into a passion.

The young head lama of Thami in 1972

Just below the glacier that flows from Tesi Lapcha pass, we were joined by a young boy who we were surprised to learn was the head lama of Thami.  He had come to the Rowaling Valley for his first visit with his family since being taken away as a small child.  Now on his way back, he was accompanied by a few Sherpas and 2 yaks which his father had donated to the monastery.  From the moment our parties came together until we reached Thami our Sherpas were far more interested in the welfare of this holy figure than in us.  Far from resenting his presence, we knew that we were witness to something very special, something that few other visitors to Nepal would ever experience.

Starting up toward Tesi Lapcha.

Unless one has been there, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the Himalayan landscape.  As a Canadian I was no stranger to glaciers, but the “trade route” over Tesi Lapcha pass filled me with awe.  How could humans be at home in this chaos of sheer rock walls, ugly moraines, vast snow slopes and towering ice?  Yet the Sherpas carried their loads of firewood and baggage with the matter-of-fact air of people crossing a meadow.  The young lama (seen at the far right above) displayed a calm grace and obvious pleasure that belied the perils of the terrain.

Entering the icefall

I had never felt so small and insignificant, yet at the same time so captivated by the savage beauty of a place.  To the Sherpas our crossing was all in a day’s work; for me it was the first encounter with an untameable, primordial geography.  I did not know it at the time, but I would develop a longing for wild, desolate terrain that would rule my life for decades; indeed it still does.

In the icefall

Just how were they going to get the yaks up this?  We had our climbing ropes to use as a hand line and crampons to give us purchase on the slippery surface.  Sure enough, as soon as we westerners were safe our ropes were co-opted to help with the yaks.  With ropes secured to the horns, several Sherpas pulling, even more pushing, the frantic yaks were dragged up the ice and deposited on the snow at the top like so much baggage.  Then the Sherpas, wearing running shoes, brought up their heavy loads, not without difficulty, but as always, without complaining.

Approaching the top of the pass

Among the soaring peaks of the Himalayas, this summit, seemingly swathed in icing, barely rates as a bump. Yet it was one of the most beautiful we saw, painted against the deep blue of the sky.  We spent a night just below the top of the pass. As we descended to Thami, passing first blue poppies, then tufts of green vegetation and finally grass, I felt that I was stepping out of a dream and back into the real world.  Or was it the other way around?

We saw the lama safely to his monastery and were granted an audience and blessing.  I promised myself that I would send him copies of the photos I took of his crossing, but somehow I never got around to it.

A few days later I climbed Kala Patar and trekked to Everest Base Camp, where there was only one set of tents belonging to a British expedition.

Me on the summit of Kala Patar

Khumbu Icefall from Everest Base Camp

While we were camped at Gorak Shep, I watched the full moon rise over Nuptse and Everest, and I asked myself, “What can I ever do to top this?”  I wished that I could reach out and stop the hands of time.  I did not know that this was only the first of many moments when I would ask the same question.

Images of Patagonia


All journeys unfold chronologically, but for me Patagonia is a collage of snapshots, without order or even geographical cohesion.  I remember blue lakes, immense glaciers, flaming skies, tranquil landscapes, arid badlands, strange birds and soaring granite peaks that stretch to the heavens.

Who dropped the petrified firewood?  The tree that produced these logs lived during the age of the dinosaurs, long before there were humans around to use an axe.

One crazy rock!

Some giant was obviously having fun.

Mother-in-law cushion

Ubiquitous in Patagonia, this thorny mat plant is no place to sit.

Fitzroy massif.

An iconic image of Patagonia on a rare cloudless day.

Long-tailed meadowlarks, the signature bird of Patagonia.

More colourful than our Rocky Mountain meadowlarks, these birds are happy to pose for photographs.

Perito Moreno glacier

Even the hordes of tourists and intrusive metal walkways cannot spoil the majesty of this roiling sea of ice.

Lake below the Upsala glacier.

A far more peaceful and natural landscape.

A lone guanaco stands guard.

These camelids of Patagonia roam the grasslands, paying little attention to hikers.

Sunrise on the Torres del Paine

Once in a rare while a photograph does justice to a memory.  This image will never fade from my mind.


I’m not sure what kind of earthcreeper he is, but he is certainly bright eyed and cheerful.

Prehistoric cave paintings

In this cave high above a valley nomadic people paused and hunted.  The open hand indicates that this is a good place to hunt.

Sunset at EcoCamp