Line of Ascent

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Line of Ascent
On a breeding ground for greatness, wisdom comes one humble step at a time

It only takes a few minutes to learn how to strap on crampons, but if you want to become a true mountaineer, better set aside some time. Like the next ten years of your life. Because learning the trade in one of America's most illustrious climbing dynasties takes a decade of weather-reading, terrain-memorizing, load-carrying lessons. Ask Ed Viesturs. Thanks to the success of last year's IMAX film, Everest, the 40-year-old may be the most famous mountain climber in America. With nine Everest expeditions under his belt and 12 of the world's fourteen 8,000-meter peaks summited without oxygen, he's definitely one of the most accomplished. But 17 years ago he was a peon. Literally.

"That's what they called the first-year guides at Rainier," he recalls. "My job was basically to keep my mouth shut, listen, and learn from the senior guides." That, and ferry 50-pound packs up the mountain.

Viesturs apprenticed in a tradition of American climbing pedagogy that stretches back to the 1930s. Lou Whittaker, the 70-year-old co-owner and head guide at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., picked up his own skills by serving the same listen-learn-and-schlepp apprenticeship in the 1940s. "My brother Jim and I climbed with older guys like Wolf Bauer, who taught us how to stay alive in the mountains, which we've managed to do so far," says Whittaker, who's been minting new mountaineers on Rainier since the 1960s. In addition to Viesturs, Whittaker's alumni include Eric Simonson, the leader of the expedition that found George Mallory's body on Everest earlier this year.

The Whittaker boys? Oh, sure, Wolf Bauer remembers them. "They helped us quite a bit when we started the first mountain rescue unit in 1948," recalls the 87-year-old Bauer. "They were good, solid guys who could do a lot of things for us, especially carry big loads." Nine years after arriving in Seattle from Germany as a teenager in 1925, Bauer single-handedly invented climbing instruction in the Pacific Northwest. "The older mountaineers here were a clique; they didn't want to pass anything on to us," he says. "And they didn't know any of the modern alpine techniques. They were basically just good scramblers." So Bauer sent away for mountaineering books from Germany and taught, straight from the text, such newfangled Euro-notions as "the rappel."

The mentoring that began with Bauer's mountain primers continues. Whittaker just hired ten new guides for the summer season, one of whom is probably carrying a load, ears open and mouth shut, at this very moment. Viesturs, recently back from expeditions to Manaslu, 26,760-feet, and Dhaulagiri, 26,810-feet, answers mail from 11-year-olds who want advice on how to be just like him. And Bauer still takes his younger colleagues to school. "Four years ago I took a bronze medal in a slalom race at Sun Valley," he says. "Oh, yeah! At 87, I still go like hell."

One Big Classroom
He brought education to the wilderness, and vice versa
"Living in the woods was just my life," says Ernest "Tap" Tapley, one of the twin titans of wilderness education (Paul Petzoldt is the other). "I learned how to work with Mother Nature and not against her, so it came naturally to teach all that." Tapley, the man who imported England's Outward Bound School to America and who codirected the National Outdoor Leadership School with Petzoldt, talks about himself only after persistent prodding and even then employs long, unhurried pauses before speaking.

Part Passamaquoddy Indian, Tapley grew up trapping, foraging, skiing, and woodworking in rural Essex County, Massachusetts, before heading west at the age of 17. In 1942 he was ski patrolling in Sun Valley, Idaho, when the Army's Tenth Mountain Division drafted him to teach skiing, avalanche forecasting, and high-angle rescue. Tapley was trained as a scout, specializing in unsupported reconnaissance behind enemy lines, and saw combat in the invasion of the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands. On Attu, he rappelled down cliffs carrying a 30-caliber machine gun to take back caves where Japanese troops were holed up.

Tapley had been fighting fires, breaking horses, and teaching skiing throughout the Rockies for a decade when Chuck Froelicher, then headmaster of Colorado Academy, asked him to help start America's first Outward Bound School in Marble, Colorado, in 1961. Never one to hold back, Tapley selected the site, bulldozed the first road, and designed the curriculum. "Tap was the premier role model for every OB instructor that followed—patient, skilled, and creative," says Froelicher. "If you got lost in the wilderness, by God, you'd want this guy with you." Petzoldt, by then a renowned Himalayan climber and Teton guide, and a buddy of Tapley's from his Tenth Mountain days, read about the new school in Reader's Digest and showed up in Marble willing to work for no pay. Then, in 1965, Petzoldt lured Tapley to Lander, Wyoming, to be the first instructor at the nascent NOLS. "Our courses made a deep impact, because learning survival skills gave students confidence," Tapley says proudly. "Some of them still keep in touch after 30 years."

Tap's retired now, as is the nonagenarian Petzoldt, but he still rides his horses bareback and plays his viola and fly-fishes near his home outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. At 75, the teacher emeritus is not afraid of the long pause, of letting the wind speak for him.

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