Companions in Misery

A cold mountain, a mismatched pair, and a meditation on the strange chemistry of partnership

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE GLACIER is scalding white, the sun a conflagration. An avalanche booms off a ridge far in the distance. Mike is caught with his pants down, straddling a crevasse. He leaps to his feet—harness and rope and wool pants and long underwear swaddled around his ankles—pirouettes, throws his arms out, and croons in falsetto:

"The hills are alive/With the sound of music!"

I bullet a snowball at him, triggering a flurry worthy of the wars we waged as kids. A hasty truce is called when two men appear on the horizon. We quickly don our huge packs, hitch ourselves to our ghastly haul bags, and lean into the traces. The climbers soon ski up to us, red plastic sleds wagging like tails behind them. Both men look familiar but I don't know why. The younger one has blond hair, the older black. We ask them what route they climbed.

"West Butt."

"We're heading for the Cassin Ridge," I blurt.

They glance at each other. The stocky, sandy-haired one nods and says, "Doing it the hard way, I see."

Mike and I don't know what he's talking about. He points to our homemade, 100-pound haul bags.

It is the first day of our first expedition and already we have learned something: Our haul-bag theory doesn't work. We thought nylon bags would glide along the glacier. They don't. They plow, cutting foot-deep furrows in the snow, and this only by dint of us straining like draft horses, sweat gushing from our pores.

Perhaps it is our imbecilic, Huck-and-Tom enthusiasm. Perhaps they see in us something of themselves whenthey were young and inescapably foolish. Perhaps theysimply can't stand stupidity in the mountains and feel a duty, as fellow climbers, to keep us from getting a herniaon day one.

"Come back to base with us," says the dark-haired, deeply tanned, older one, "and you can have our sleds."

We abandon our bags and ski with them the six or seven miles back to the airstrip-cum-base-camp. Turns out these two had also set out to climb the Cassin, but storms and cold had made it so dangerous they'd taken the trade route up Mount McKinley instead.

At base they empty their kid sleds and give them to us. It's an act of goodwill, a handoff from old partners to young partners. We say thanks, shake hands, and ask their names.

"Yvon Chouinard."

"Rick Ridgeway."