Trigger Twigg

Alaskan eccentric Trigger Twigg attempts the first winter ascent of the world's tallest face

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Do You Have to Be a Little Unhinged to Climb This? Nope. But It Can’t Hurt.


“It’s no secret that the Alaskan frontier is something of a magnet for people intent on dropping out, holing up, or just generally disappearing. But even by the insular standards of the 49th state, Trigger Twigg is no easy man to track down. Besides lacking a telephone, this former bear hunter, erstwhile barroom bouncer, and self-confessed winter-climbing junkie has no job, no car, and no regular routine (although he can sometimes be found doing his laundry at Talkeetna’s Fairview Inn, which has been catering to climbers for the past 75 years and takes considerable pride in the fact that Warren Harding died soon after having had dinner there). Short of actually flying into Talkeetna and planting your boots on the Fairview’s foot rail, the only way to reach Twigg is to call KTNA Radio and politely ask whoever answers to please broadcast a “Denali Echo” for Twigg, 48. “Hopefully somebody’ll tell him, and he’ll call you back,” explains the person manning the phones. “But with Trigger there are no guarantees.”

Thanks to a fire last summer that swept through the wall tent that he and his girlfriend were sharing in the hills just outside Talkeetna, Twigg also has no house — though he is currently building a cabin next to the birch privy that survived the conflagration. In the process of gutting the home, the blaze also destroyed most of Twigg’s ropes and ice axes, and the rest of his mountaineering gear. Nevertheless, sometime this month Twigg will make a bid to complete the first winter ascent of the tallest exposed mountain face in the world — a sheet of ice and rock running 14,000 feet up the north side of Mount McKinley. Known as the Wickersham Wall, the avalanche-prone face has been scaled on rare occasions during McKinley’s brief summer climbing season. The notion of a winter assault, however, is so audacious that the National Park Service’s Web site characterizes it as “bordering on the ridiculous because of its unfathomable risks.”

Chief among those hazards is some of the worst weather of any major mountain system on earth. Temperatures that often hammer the mercury to 40 below zero can plummet another 100 degrees in windchill when 50-mile-an-hour gales roar in from the Bering Sea, flogging McKinley’s exposed flanks and immobilizing climbers for up to three weeks at a time. Adding to the sense of siege are hanging glaciers, rockfalls, and the rather disconcerting fact that the north-facing Wickersham gets absolutely no direct sunlight in January. Indeed, much of Twigg’s ascent will be undertaken in the dark. “Just the approach is really dangerous. He’ll be climbing through a wall of darkness,” notes J.D. Swed, the mountain’s South District Ranger, who has participated in more than 100 McKinley rescues in the last seven years. Adds Rick Thoman, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks and apparently something of an authority on understatement: “The Wickersham Wall is not a nice place to be in winter.”

Twigg, however, is no stranger to discomfort. During a boyhood spent hunting raccoons, squirrels, and wild mushrooms in Cumberland, Maryland, he learned to climb by strapping on a mask, a snorkel, and golf shoes and scaling local waterfalls. Twice during a stint as a bouncer at a Santa Barbara bar, he jetted off to Siberia with a handmade bow and a set of flint-tipped arrows to bag grizzly bears. In 1994, he moved to Alaska and flung himself into mountaineering, notching one ascent of McKinley plus two winter climbs of previously uncharted peaks in the Yetna Range. Somewhere along the way, he managed to acquire the tattoo of a green dragon that runs across his face and a business card that reads, in part, “alligator circumcision by appointment only.”

For his Wickersham bid, Twigg has developed an unusual training regimen. Instead of hewing to a state-of-the-art cardiovascular program in a climate-controlled gym, he is pursuing less structured activities that seem mainly to concentrate on raw pain. He spends several hours each week hauling 10-foot logs up mountainsides “to practice suffering in the cold.” He undertakes nighttime ascents of frozen waterfalls scouted out by his bush-pilot friends, rubberizes the muscles in his wrists with a shot-filled gravity ball, and each day performs several sets of chin-ups with his new set of ice axes from the limbs of trees near his unfinished cabin. “You gotta be a harsh motherfucker, you know what I mean?” he says. “I make myself harsh every day.”

Unfortunately, this demeanor seems to dovetail with a dangerous trend bemoaned by many hard-core Alaska alpinists: the perception that McKinley can be climbed by anyone who is physically fit and laced with sufficient levels of testosterone. In recent years, this misconception has helped to transform the tallest peak in North America from a lonely wilderness outpost into a mecca for all manner of mountaineers — veteran, novice, and the woefully out-to-lunch. Since the mid-1980s, McKinley’s roster of climbers has more than doubled. The near-record number who made the attempt last summer (1,100) included a 12-year-old boy from Korea who became the youngest person in history to reach the summit. More notably, perhaps, three others perished, including a volunteer ranger participating in one of that season’s two dozen rescue missions. “It’s way too crowded,” declares Brad Washburn, 88, who in 1951 became the first to ascend the mountain by way of the West Buttress. “You need a damn traffic light up there.”

While such reservations are surely appropriate, climbers who know Twigg firsthand seem convinced that, braggadocio aside, his prowess is genuine. Perhaps the strongest testament to his skills is the fact that Artur Testov, the Russian climber who pulled off an astonishing winter ascent of McKinley via the West Buttress last January, has agreed to partner up with Twigg on the Wickersham. Another supporter is Rick Ridgeway, who participated in the first American assault on K2 in 1978. “When I first talked to Trigger back in 1992, I was definitely skeptical,” admits Ridgeway. “But I saw him on the mountain that year, and he’s great. Based on his history and credibility, I’d say he’s got a good shot at it.”



Polar Chic

There’s nothing hotter than cold women — or so some publishers say


During the eight months she spent in the frozen wilds of Two Rivers, Alaska, with her husband, their three-year-old daughter, and 33 dogs, Ann Cook weathered some trying ordeals. She spent a minus-60-degree night huddled in a pile of hay with her huskies. She employed a snow shovel to fend off an animal she thought was a renegade moose (it turned out to be a horse), stitched 12 fleece doggie jackets on a broken sewing machine, and endured a litany of other woes stemming from her decision to move from New England in 1991 to race sled dogs across the tundra. All of which are chronicled in chilling detail in her recently released book, Running North, a memoir that the publisher, Algonquin Books, has elected to promote through an inventive if somewhat strained device: Next month, Algonquin is sending her off on a dogsled tour across northern New Hampshire.

If all goes according to plan, Cook’s husky-enhanced publicity stunt will (a) sell lots of books and (b) catapult the 43-year-old debut author into the front ranks of the publishing world’s literary genre du jour: Women Who Write About Snow. The latest spin-off of the endlessly hyped and immensely profitable Men Who Write About Disasters category, the trend includes such recent works as Sara Wheeler’s Antarctic travelogue Terra Incognita; Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance, an account of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 polar expedition; Jenny Diski’s memoir Skating to Antarctica; and Andrea Barrett’s adventure novel The Voyage of the Narwhal.

Unfortunately, aside from snowy settings and the fact that they are penned by women, few of these books actually have much in common. That, however, hasn’t stopped publishing-industry insiders from announcing that a dramatic shift in the zeitgeist has taken place. Nor has it discouraged media pundits from making breathless inquiries into what this all means. (“Why,” demanded a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, “are so many chicks going polar?”) All of which has generated the kind of overheated hype that has left some of the principal players feeling a little confused. “I didn’t realize I was part of a new trend, because I didn’t know there was a new trend,” declares Diski. “Women have been off adventuring since the 19th century. It would be a bit sad to say that, on the brink of the millennium, we’re just now picking up our petticoats and venturing out of the house.”



Putting the “Loo” in Lewis and Clark

An archaeologist’s search for a long-lost privy


 Ever since Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage hit the best-seller lists in 1996, Americans have been reveling in a Lewis and Clark love fest that has achieved a variety of expressions, from plying part of the famed captains’ route aboard a 70-passenger cruise ship to schlepping dugouts over the few rapids that have survived the hydroelectric dams. This month near the Oregon coast, however, an archaeologist at the University of Washington hopes to resurrect a Corps of Discovery chapter that, some might argue, ought to stay buried. “The great thing about this,” says professor Julie Stein, “is that guides will be able to point to the very spot where Lewis and Clark answered the call of nature.”

Stein, 46, is hunting for evidence of a 19th-century privy that could offer a crucial clue to the location of Fort Clatsop, the long-vanished encampment where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men sat out the cold and rainy winter of 1805-1806. Last September she spent a week collecting more than 70 soil samples, which are now being analyzed for traces of mercury. That’s because whenever the men complained of stomach aches or showed symptoms of syphilis, Lewis administered a dose of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills — powerful purgatives that sent the men racing for the outhouse. The evidence they deposited (the pills contained an insoluble form of mercury) could enable Stein to pinpoint the privy itself and, by extension, the elusive fort: Army regulations dictated that latrines be dug exactly 90 paces away.

While awaiting lab-test results, which should be available this month, L&C devotees can scarcely contain themselves. “For the enthusiast,” declares John L. Allen, a University of Connecticut geographer, “the real Fort Clatsop is like the fingerbone of a saint.”



But There’s a Nice 5.11 Up That New Taco Bell

Yosemite’s latest expansion has America’s most hallowed base camp under siege


“It’s probably the only campsite in America known worldwide because of its history, and if the Park Service goes through with its plans, many of the reasons to go there will be erased,” declares Tom Frost, 62, who completed the second ascent of El Capitan’s Nose route in 1960. The camp to which Frost is referring is a four-acre patch of dirt in the Yosemite Valley just east of the base of El Cap. Known simply as Camp 4, it is revered by rock jocks from the Shawangunks to Trango Tower as the place where, during a halcyon interval in the 1950s and 1960s, modern big-wall climbing was born.

It was here that Frost, together with Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Warren Harding, TM Herbert, Chuck Pratt, and others, fashioned the tools and techniques that took them up the Valley’s granite monoliths. It is here that successive generations of wall rats have made pilgrimages to test their mettle and learn from the masters. And it is here, within 500 feet of the cradle of contemporary climbing, that the National Park Service now wants to build a parking lot, 12 cottages, a registration building, an Indian cultural center, and four three-story dormitories containing 340 beds.

While similar forms of expansion have overtaken parts of the park in recent years, Camp 4 has remained somewhat aloof from the sort of concession-industry ravages that makes Yosemite Valley synonymous with overdevelopment. Until a few years ago, rangers rarely even visited the unruly cantonment, where picnic tables were typically adorned with neat rows of hardware and the ground between was strewn with beer bottles, haul bags, and radios blaring the Allman Brothers. When climbers who called this place home weren’t cutting their teeth on routes like Crack of Despair, Lunatic Fringe, and The Meat Grinder, they were crashing church picnics, mooning the tourist bus, and attempting to inveigle young women into their unwashed sleeping bags (or, in the case of one intrepid Don Juan, into a secondhand tent appointed with purple sheets purloined from a Nevada brothel).

All of which may help to explain why the Park Service’s plan has provoked a level of protest more typically associated with the desecration of an ancient Indian burial ground. “If they put up more buildings,” asserts photographer Galen Rowell, who has about 30 Yosemite first ascents to his name, “they’re just plain stupid.” In their defense, park officials point out that construction will take place adjacent to the campground and will not touch a single tent site. Most of the new structures, however, would be highly visible from Camp 4 — and thereby corrupt the mythic essence and legendary funk of what Frost calls, with risible but endearing grandiloquence, “an ever-evolving colony of minds and spirits.”

Since last January, Frost and 26 other prominent climbers have been spearheading a crusade to stop the plan. In November, just as this magazine went to press, they won a temporary victory when their threat of a lawsuit induced the Park Service to withdraw its current plan and begin crafting an alternative, details of which could be announced as early as this month. Unfortunately, insiders fear that the new plan will simply modify the existing one and that it is only a matter of time before the project goes forward. That, however, has done nothing to dampen the determination to protect a living testament to the spirit of the people who invented modern big-wall climbing. Plus, adds Chouinard, “it’s the only place left where climbers can really dirtbag it.”



Just Like Moses, Except for the Red Sea Bit

Four Coloradans wander the desert, leading their people to adventure-racing’s promised land


“They’re dirty animals, and they make weird noises,” declares adventure-racing veteran Billy Mattison. That may be an unfair indictment of a noble beast, especially considering the fact that Mattison, 41, and his three fellow adventure racers from Colorado failed to apply themselves to the finer points of dromedary science before embarking on the camel-derby segment of last October’s Eco-Challenge in Morocco. (Their entire preparation consisted of watching Lawrence of Arabia on video just before boarding a plane for Marrakech.)

Perhaps sensing this disdain, the animals responded by biting and bucking throughout the initial nine-mile slog along the sand dunes of North Africa’s Atlantic coast. Upon completing this phase of the competition, Mattison and his Team Vail colleagues — Michael Kloser, 38, who manages an outdoor-recreation center; Andreas Boesel, 48, who runs a restaurant; and mountain-biking instructor Sara Ballantyne, 38 — found themselves consigned to the middle of the pack, ranking a dismal 28th out of 57 teams.

Had they remained there throughout the rest of the seven-day, 300-mile race, whose eight events had competitors pounding up the Barbary coast, through the Atlas Mountains, and across sections of the Sahara — they would have adhered to a venerable Eco-Challenge tradition. In the four-year history of the race, no Americans have ever taken the title. And though a U.S.-based team did win the rival Raid Gauloises, which concluded a week earlier in Ecuador, most of that team actually hails from Australia and New Zealand. “It’s taken a while to spring this sport in the United States,” sighs Mattison. “People look at me and shake their heads, like I’m a freak or something.”

This year’s Eco-Challenge, however, proved to be something of a turning point. Once free of the cantankerous camels, Team Vail flung itself with such alacrity into the other phases of the competition — kayaking the Atlantic coast, racing Arabian stallions, and traversing the Altas range on foot — that as it entered the final 110-mile mountain-bike haul down to Marrakech, there was only one team in front of it. “We were pretty much brain-dead at that point,” admits Mattison.

Nevertheless, his squad of fat-tire fanatics fended off Team Australia and Team Spain, whisking across the finish line with a winning time of six days, 22 hours, and 16 minutes — and forcing adventure-racing aficionados to concede that the Americans had finally proven themselves. “They raced smart and didn’t make any mistakes,” says Chris Haggerty, an instructor at San Francisco’s Presidio Adventure Racing Academy who was part of Team Navigator, which placed 17th. “Americans are new to this sport for the most part, so that’s pretty amazing.” Mattison, however, says he’s competed in his last dromedary race: “I couldn’t care less if I never see another camel again.”



For the Record


By Jake Brooks, Kimberly Lisagor, and Andrew Tilin (with Alex Salkever)

Ground Zero
For nearly 40 years, the Aral Sea has topped the list of the most beleaguered bodies of water on the planet. Straddling the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake has shrunk to less than half of its original size, sucked dry by decades of intensive Soviet-style irrigation. What remains — parched salt flats and beached trawlers — is only slightly less dismaying than what has disappeared altogether: 80 percent of the area’s birds and mammals, a once-vibrant fishing economy, and the health of entire communities now stricken with cancer and typhoid. There are, however, two small grace notes. Last September, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed out that the Aral will stop shrinking and stabilize, albeit at less than 20 percent of its original size, by 2015. And early this year, contractors will break ground on part of an $86 million project designed to restore the region’s wetlands and improve its drinking water. It’s a mildly heartening turning point after a half-century of degradation. “Up to now, it’s been compared to a bad nuclear accident,” laments Tom Price of the OSCE. “Something along the lines of Chernobyl.”

A Race Too … Pointless?
OK, it’s official: The adventure world’s fixation on impressive but absurd accomplishments has now achieved the apotheosis of extremism. Last October, Himalayan potato farmer Kazi Sherpa shattered the Mount Everest “speed-ascent record” by pulling off the grueling slog from the 17,600-foot base camp to the 29,028-foot summit in a brisk 20 hours and 24 minutes. But despite besting the existing record by nearly two hours, the 33-year-old climber is far from thrilled. “I wanted to do it much faster,” he grumbles, explaining that heavy winds delayed him at the 26,000-foot South Col. Which is why Kazi Sherpa plans a second sprint up the mountain sometime in the next two years, with the intention of topping out in 18 hours or less — a mark that he hopes will stand as unassailable, and one that more sober minds deem pretty irrelevant. “It’s certainly a virtuoso display of high-altitude climbing,” concedes American alpinist David Breashears. “But there aren’t many people lining up to see how much faster it can be done.”

Yes, I Do Speak Snow Goose
“Fortunately, they couldn’t swim as fast as I could paddle,” says veteran adventurer Jon Waterman, referring to the two hungry grizzlies he encountered last summer during stage two of his attempt to complete a solo traverse of the Northwest Passage — a 1,023-mile journey along the Arctic Coast in which he spent weeks on end without seeing another human. (“It’s pretty twisted in that respect,” he concedes.) But evidently not twisted enough to dissuade the 42-year-old Colorado writer from embarking on the third and final leg of his expedition this month: a 1,100-mile trek from Umingmaktok to Repulse Bay via sea kayak and touring skis. If Waterman pulls it off, he’ll become the first American ever to complete the feat — although he admits to being far more anxious about surviving the profound loneliness than about setting records. “You begin talking to birds and seals,” he says. “Which, when you’re out there all alone, starts to seem perfectly normal.”

We Accept Your Apology. The Turtles, Alas, Do Not.
When 222 baby hawksbill turtles poked their heads out of the sand at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last September, they were intent on doing what chelonian hatchlings do best: bumbling down the beach and into the sea to join their brethren, only a few thousand of whom survive (a statistic that ranks the hawksbill as one of the world’s most endangered marine species). Sadly, a number of them never got that far. Seven weeks earlier, a group of earnest volunteers had covered the fragile eggs with wire mesh to shield them from predators — and then failed to remove the protective cage before the hatch, which began a day earlier than anticipated. By the following afternoon, 37 of the newborns had been toasted to death by the Hawaiian sun — a potentially debilitating blunder for Volcanoes’s underfunded turtle-protection program. “We all have our screwups,” sighs Tim Tunison, the park’s resource management chief, who has launched a search for turtle-friendly fencing. “But this is the most lamentable one to date.”