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Inspirations, Part II: High Alaska

Many climbers have a favorite mountaineering book or essay. Athletes and guides, those whose lives are so deeply connected to climbing, often have literary obsessions–and everything from a story’s lyricism to its ethical stance has influenced how they approach the sharp end.

We at Alpinist picked a handful of climbers we found inspirational and asked them to share their literary influences. Read Vince Anderson’s first installment in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature.

This second installment features Kelly Cordes, prolific Greater Ranges American climber, and Masatoshi Kuriaki, the “Japanese Caribou” who has spent more than 500 days climbing solo on Alaska’s biggest peaks. They chose the same book.

Kelly Cordes on High Alaska, by Jonathan Waterman

High Alaska, the classic from Jonathan Waterman, started it all for me.

Kelly Cordes representing the leisure class in Talkeetna. [Photo] Kelly Cordes collection

But different writings have influenced me in different ways at different times. For me, influence has come from photos, words and people. These have led me to places of inspiration. Photos are obvious: Hey, what’s that, and has this line been climbed? Bradford Washburn was, and still is, the greatest photographer. I can’t imagine that anyone else has influenced and inspired American alpinists the way he has. You always know a Washburn shot when you see one, and I saw plenty of them in High Alaska and the American Alpine Journal.

I can’t remember exactly when I first bought High Alaska, but it was within a month or two of when I first started to climb, the winter of 1993-4, in Missoula, Montana. In May of 1994 I went to Alaska for the first time, aiming for Denali’s West Buttress. I was so inept that the Butt was over my head. Still, it meant everything to me then, at least as much as anything I’ve done since. Even more, all the stories of obscure badass routes and real-deal climbers (unlike me at the time, for sure) inspired me beyond belief. All of my heroes put in their time there. I wanted to be like them.

I’d see something in High Alaska and crave more. More about a specific route. More offshoot conversations sparked by the words and photos. Soon I’d call Gray Thompson (FA of the American Direct on Denali back in 1967, along with a million other great climbs, and a Missoula local) and his wonderful wife, Eloise, to ask if I could come over for a half hour or so to look up something in the AAJ. They’re always generous, and they had all the Journals; their bookshelf was the epicenter of new beginnings for me. My “half hour or so” always became five or six hours, because I’d look at one thing and it would lead to another.

I’ve always loved all climbing periodicals (even those that supposedly make you cooler if you say you don’t like them, evoking the timeless “I’m a hardman” phrase: “aww, I never read them mags”). However, the AAJ was, and I’d like to think still is, in a category all its own. As an aside that I never could have imagined back then, Christian Beckwith, then AAJ editor and now, of course, the man at Alpinist, hired me to be his editorial lackey back in 2000, and I’ve been with the Journal ever since.

Scott DeCapio descending from London Tower, in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge, after the first ascent of Trailer Park (WI6 M6+, 3,200′), Ruth Gorge, Alaska. [Photo] Kelly Cordes

Mark Twight, the undisputed king of rants, has influenced an entire generation or more of alpinists. I first read his story “Twitching with Twight” (in his Kiss or Kill collection) when I moved to Estes Park and paid $65 each month to live in a shack. I’d just gotten divorced and struggled hard to get myself together. I had no “real” job, and The Shack was a dump, but it was cheap and two miles from Rocky Mountain National Park–even closer to Lumpy Ridge. Part of me feared I was rolling into a go nowhere, do nothing life, battling with myself over what I loved to do and what I wanted to be rather than following the generic recipe. I love this passage from “Twitching with Twight”:

Kelly Cordes (right) and Scott DeCapio back to enjoying
the good life on the Tokositna after climbing Mt. Huntington. [Photo] Kelly Cordes collection

“Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions.”

The article was over the top–that was the point of it, I think (Mark says so in his Author’s Note after the article)–but some parts hit me hard, with power. The other day, while climbing in the Park, a friend and I talked about this article. It still influences me, even with the little things–when I get self-conscious about my gray hairs and deepening wrinkles around my eyes, this line fires me up to always try my best: “Don’t worry about the gray. If you’re good at what you do, no one cares what you look like.”

Jonny Copp in the East Fork of the Kahlitna Glacier, approaching what would become Going Monk (4,300 feet AI6 M6), on Mt. Andrews (13,790 feet). [Photo] Kelly Cordes

One of the greatest articles I’ve ever read is Jack Tackle’s “The Accidental Mentor,” in the Voices from the Summit anthology. It’s an awesome story about an insanely desperate situation, camaraderie, trust, inspiration and the bond of good partnerships.

At one point in the story Jack writes of an evening in Talkeetna, when he finally met Bradford Washburn. Jack was nervous, as meeting one’s heroes can be dangerous: “My lessons with other ‘heroes’ stuck vividly in my mind. In their cases, the book was definitely better than the movie.” Not so when he met Brad, and they talked until 5 a.m. A few hours earlier, Jack, feeling bad about taking up Brad’s time, said he should let Brad get to bed. “I can always go to bed. I can’t always talk to you,” Brad replied. I’ll never forget that line.

Kelly Cordes on a failed attempt at the French Route on Mt. Hunter. [Photo] Scott DeCapio

Jack wrote of the impact Mugs Stump (from an earlier part of the story) and Brad Washburn had on him: “I am sure they had little or no idea of what influence they had on my life, especially at that time.”

I first met Jack in Missoula, where he gave a slideshow. I’d been climbing for only a year or so, and I watched in awe, taken not only by his accomplishments, but by his overall demeanor and humility. After the show, I really wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid–after all, he’s Jack Tackle, and who am I? Finally I summoned the nerve. He made me feel so big, genuinely asking about my life and my climbing ambitions. Jack Tackle! These days Jack and I are good friends. He still inspires me.

When I first poured over the stories in High Alaska and the AAJ, it was just the climbing that made me want to be like those guys. Over time, perhaps I’ve matured a bit, and I feel like I’ve grown into my own person. But, at least when it comes to people like Jack Tackle, yeah, I still want to be like those guys.

— Kelly Cordes, Estes Park, CO

Masatoshi Kuriaki on High Alaska, by Jonathan Waterman

At age 22, in April 1995, I was preparing for my first challenge overseas: climbing Denali. At that time I found High Alaska by Jonathan Waterman from reference materials in a Japanese version of Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve. The historical guidebook provided me with not only a history of the ascents of Denali, but also scenic route-delineated photographs, taken by Bradford Washburn, which showed completely accurate topographical information.

Kuriaki on the east ridge route of Mt. Hunter in April 1996. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection

With a partner on the summit of Denali’s West Buttress in July 1995, I dreamily gazed at the eight- and twelve-mile distant mountains, Hunter and Foraker, rising in pyramidal form under the midnight sun. After returning home I thumbed the leaves of High Alaska again because it provided information on the three greatest peaks in the Central Alaska Range: Denali, Mt. Foraker (Sultana) and Mt. Hunter (Begguya). At that time, I felt the tug of destiny. The three big ones, the “family”–because in Athapaskan, Denali means “high one,” Sultana means “woman or wife” and Begguya means “child”–enchanted me a great deal.

During an attempt on Denali via South Buttress Ramp route in 2006, Kuriaki’s climbing hardware was lost in a monster avalanche at 11,600 feet. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection

From April to June 1996 I attempted solo climbs of both Hunter (via the east ridge) and Foraker (via the southeast ridge). I failed on both attempts because of unstable snow conditions. These attempts gave me a keen interest in winter climbs, and it was not long before I climbed Denali solo in February 1997 and March 1998. My dream from that day forward became a quest to climb the whole “family” in the same style: alone and in winter.

Kuriaki during a recent expedition to Alaska. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection

After ten winter solo climbs, which collectively have absorbed 483 days of my life, I only count the summit of Denali in 1998 and the summit of Foraker on March 10, 2007, via the southeast ridge as a success. Although I had successfully climbed Foraker on the northeast (Sultana) ridge in 1999 and the southeast ridge in 2001, these earlier summits occurred several days after the spring equinox, which technically disqualifies them as official winter ascents. I entirely agree with the official climbing book definition: “Winter is defined by ascents completed between December 21 and March 21. Although winter conditions are often encountered during April climbs, they are not true winter ascents because of the lack of continuous cold and the lengthened daylight hours.”

The Northern Lights with Kuriaki’s tent in the foreground. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki collection

Four times I have attempted to summit Hunter (once in spring and three times in winter), and all four times this 14,573-foot mountain south of Denali has refused to let me do so. In 2003, I quit my ascent at 9,000 feet on the original west ridge route after a ferocious blizzard forced me into a snow cave for twelve days. During that time, fierce winds ripped roofs off houses in Anchorage, which is 140 miles south-southeast of the mountain. Avalanche danger and poor weather in both the 2004 and 2005 climbs turned me back. In 2004, I observed more than fifteen avalanches that were big enough to kill me on the west ridge cut-off route from the Kahiltana glacier in a single month.

I will return to Hunter next winter, my fifth solo trip to the mountain, hoping to complete the trifecta. My journey continues in parallel with the inscription of High Alaska: “To the Spirits of Denali, Sultana and Begguya–The High One, The Woman and The Child.”

— Masatoshi Kuriaki, Japan