The First Footprints on The Summit
THE summit of the mountain was just ahead of me. In fact, I knew it couldn't be more than a dozen steps, but I stopped walking. I wanted to really live that moment of reaching the top, to experience and remember every detail because when I stepped on the highest point, I would be the first human being who had done so.It had been a long road to get me to those last few steps. I had been learning the skills and training as a mountaineer for 10 years, and I had spent over a year researching and writing letters to find this untouched peak. When, at last, I saw a topographic map of the region, I knew immediately it was the right place. Most topographic maps clearly mark the names of all major land features. But this one, a quadrangle featuring a remote area of the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, had only the mountains and glaciers marked. None of them were named and most were untouched by man. As I looked at the map, I could feel an excitement I had known before. Even as a young boy, I had walked through a field at the edge of my small town and imagined that the footprints I left in the dirt were the first that had ever been made on that spot. I was thrilled by the idea and imagined being an explorer in ancient times who boldly took out his map and pointed to those uncharted areas vaguely labeled "terra incognita" or "here be dragons" and said, "That's where I want to go!" I was 15 years old the night I sat in front of the television and watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to step on the moon. My imagination was fired up again. I knew deep inside that one of the things I wanted to do in my life was to see and experience strange and wonderful places that were hard to get to. It didn't take too many years to realize that improvements in transportation, cartography, and aerial photography were making it harder and harder to find an unexplored part of the world. The frontiers seemed to be pushed ever farther out into space, deeper into oceans, or within smaller and smaller subatomic worlds of the quantum physicists. I could only wonder what it must feel like for an astronomer to discover a new star or galaxy, for the physicist to detect a new pattern of particle movement, or the oceanographer to find new mountains and valleys on the dark ocean floor. Those would be exciting events indeed. But they lacked something I needed: the actual physical movement of the body through the new landscape, perceiving the wonders of the place in real time with real human senses. That's when I discovered mountaineering and realized that, even though the mountain ranges had been photographed and mapped, there was still a lifetime of exploration left in them. It is a far different thing to see the granite ridge of a mountain from the valley and then to know that ridge in intimate detail by having searched over it inch by inch from bottom to top. What I most wanted, I learned, was to comprehend a piece of nature by my own explorations. That is how I came to be in Alaska, poised as I was at the edge of a rare opportunity in today's high-tech world. My partners - Joe Sears, Rick Dare, Dallas Virchow - and I had already climbed two other unnamed mountains on this expedition, but we knew that those summits had been reached by others. We did climb those two peaks by new routes, which is exciting in itself, but this third peak was all ours. WE had climbed up a winding snow ridge to a place just below the summit. There, a thin knife-edged ridge pointed the way to a summit that was sharp and so small it could fit only one person at a time. My friends and I had taken turns leading on the climb, and as we reached this thin ridge, it became my turn. I carefully took those last few steps to the summit and when I reached it, I turned to smile at my friends. I looked down at my footprints in the snow, the first footprints ever placed on this mountain. I looked around at the other peaks, which burst forth from the white plane of the ice field, and knew that the view I was seeing had never been seen by another human being. My three partners took their turns standing on the summit, and we climbed back down to our camp. During the next week, we managed to make the first ascents of two more unnamed and unclimbed peaks and wait out a two-day blizzard. Although a small expedition such as ours is hardly the material that makes headlines or draws much attention even in the climbing world, it was precisely the kind of experience I wanted. For a brief period of time, we passed over terrain where no person had ever been. It was adventure, pure and exciting, and completely unrelated to any sense of gain, except for the satisfaction we felt about what we were able to do together as a team. Exploring those obscure peaks, and standing on those distant summits had been our collective dream. We had shared the thrill of planning, of preparing our equipment, and of training our bodies and minds. In the end, we own memories of wonderful mountain scenery and times spent with good friends. And those are important and valuable possessions.