Some years ago, on the day after Christmas, five climbers walked into Bob Frauson's ranger station in St. Mary, on the eastern side of Glacier National Park. The young men, all local boys, were prepared for a serious winter expedition, their packs heavy with skis, crampons, and ice axes. They also came equipped with a deep knowledge of the Glacier backcountry and extensive avalanche training at the hands of some of the West's finest mountaineers. But their plan was audacious even by their own standards: an ascent of the north face of Mount Cleveland, one of the country's biggest vertical walls at 4,000 feet. It was the winter of 1969, and the face had never been climbed.
For months, the boys had enjoyed one of the mildest climbing seasons in memory: warm, clear weather that had lasted deep into autumn. But despite that fall's run of good weather, winter conditions are notoriously unpredictable in Glacier's mountains, nowhere more so than on its highest peak, 10,448-foot Mount Cleveland. What the team needed to know was not Frauson's opinion about its north face—they had been studying that for years. They needed to know about its snowpack.
In Bob Frauson, they could not have encountered a more competent adviser. A large man with bright eyes and generous jowls, Frauson was a World War II combat veteran who had served with the Army's Tenth Mountain Division; in 1944, he'd celebrated his 21st birthday on a reconnaissance mission to the base of the German stronghold in the Italian Apennines known as Riva Ridge. Recognized nationally as an expert in winter mountaineering, he had spent the years since in the northern Rockies and knew the moods of winter weather as well as anyone alive. When he trained new rangers, Frauson made no bones about the dangers of high-mountain rescue, or high-mountain play. He would show his young charges a body bag and tell them, "This is how you'll come back if you go out climbing where you're not supposed to."
Montana was filled with expert mountaineers like Frauson, many of them Tenth Mountain vets, and their protégés. The five boys who knocked on his door—Jerry Kanzler, Clare Pogreba, Ray Martin, Mark Levitan, and James Anderson—were only in their late teens and early twenties, but they had rambled around Glacier since they could walk. Jerry Kanzler, 18, and his older brother, Jim, had been raised climbing here with their father, Hal, an Okinawa vet with a passion for wildlife photography. Park rangers knew the Kanzlers to be among the most talented climbers in the region.
Their friends Ray Martin and Clare Pogreba had founded the climbing club at Montana Tech. They were known as Mutt and Jeff to family, friends, and professors alike: Ray, who worked summers in Alaska fighting fires, was a gangly six-foot-six with a grin as broad as his face. Clare was a stocky five-foot-two, with a sloping, Eastern European nose; his head came to just under his friend's armpit. Clare had taken to flooding sections of ramp inside the college football stadium to construct a long sheet of ice, and he'd inch his way up it using crampons and ice axes.
At 22 years old, Martin and Pogreba were the oldest, and the leaders in spirit if not necessarily in ability; even they considered Jerry Kanzler to be a superior mountaineer. Not long before the Mount Cleveland trip, the Kanzlers had gone off to Oregon and Washington to climb some of the highest mountains in the Northwest—Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams—all in a week. Jerry's grace on rock faces left his companions awestruck. Peter Lev, a skiing and climbing instructor at Montana State who would go on to become a co-owner of the world-renowned Exum Mountain Guides, considered Jerry the best mountaineer he'd taught.
James Anderson and Mark Levitan were not nearly the technical climbers their friends were, but they were nonetheless comfortable on high peaks. Levitan, 20, was the bookish son of a Tenth Mountain Division battalion surgeon who had been the division's only officer taken prisoner of war. Father and son had scaled the Grand Teton. At Montana State, Mark had also enrolled in Peter Lev's ski mountaineering class, and it was there that he befriended fellow intellectual James Anderson. By the time of the Mount Cleveland expedition, Anderson, 18, had already climbed the comparatively gentle west face twice, although during the summer. The sheer wall of the north face, especially in winter, would present challenges of a different order.
The team was missing its most accomplished climber, Jerry Kanzler's brother, Jim. Recently married and responsible for a young son, he had accepted a job as a ski patroller at Bridger Bowl. But if anyone could do the north face, this group could; together they'd pioneered routes up peaks from Bozeman to the Canadian border, including a first ascent of Glacier's Citadel Spire, with its daunting 350-foot pinnacle. Pogreba and Martin had completed a two-week course in avalanche safety in the Tetons. Before they graduated, before jobs and families and Vietnam, they wanted to scale Mount Cleveland.