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David Roberts: Our Loss

On a 1969 trip in Alaska, the author discovered a climber’s paradise. Half a century later, he ponders how much more the pioneers who came before him discovered and what has been forgotten.

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It was August 12, 1969. In my hand I carried a copy of a black-and-white photo, shot 58 years earlier by an explorer who was almost surely the first white person to enter this obscure corner of the wilderness. At the head of Arrigetch Creek, in the western Brooks Range of Alaska, I triangulated on distant ridge crests until I stood at the very spot where Philip Smith had taken the picture on July 16, 1911. A USGS geologist, Smith was seeking a traverse between two of the great Arctic river systems, the Alatna and the Noatak. An Inupiat man—or Eskimo, as Smith would have called him—had recommended a pass at the head of this 12-mile long valley.

That August day, I pointed my camera and duplicated the 1911 photo.

Philip Smith, almost certainly the first non-native to explore the range, took this photo from the head of Arrigetch Creek, in 1911.

The Brooks, stretching 600 miles from the Canadian border to the Chukchi Sea, is the most extensive range in Alaska and the only one north of the Arctic Circle. I’d pursued my first five mountaineering campaigns in the Alaska Range farther south, on Denali, Deborah, Huntington, the Kichatna Spires, and the Revelation Mountains, where my partners and I had battled avalanches, collapsing cornices, falling rock, crevasses, and hideous weather. Now I turned to the Brooks Range in hopes of balmy days, clean rock and base camps on tundra rather than glaciers. And for the first time I hoped to include my wife, Sharon, in my northern adventures.

But above all, the Brooks promised real exploratory climbing in a vast, poorly mapped wilderness. In the Arrigetch, a single team had made a handful of first ascents, mostly of the easier peaks. Most of the difficult summits remained untrodden. In 1969, I was the proverbial kid in the candy shop.

A few days after I duplicated the old photo, Bob Waldrop and I tackled the pass. Smith had blanched at the prospect, later writing in his official bulletin, “A thorough search showed that this report, like much other hearsay testimony, was untrue. Although it is probable, as has already been pointed out, that the Noatak … lie[s] on the other side, this divide is so nearly unscalable that almost any other route would be preferable.”

Smith’s report did not indicate how serious an attempt he made on the pass, but the Inupiat informant knew what he was talking about. In 1969 Bob and I followed a steep, exposed Dall sheep path that wove a clever route between sketchy slabs and loose scree. From the pass an open valley stretched westward toward the headwaters of the Noatak.

Peaks just east of Igikpak, all still unclimbed. Photo: David Roberts.

Twenty-six years old, feeling my climbing oats, I wasn’t surprised that Philip Smith had backed off. However skilled he was at overland travel, he was no mountaineer, and besides, nearly six decades of alpine gear and technique yawned between him and us. Still, what Smith had accomplished just getting to the head of Arrigetch Creek was pretty good for 1911—or so I patronized.

***

Humbled by all the ups and downs of my own exploratory career, and now by old age and cancer, I recently reread Smith’s classic report, The Noatak-Kobuk Region, Alaska (1913). It’s dry, 80 percent geology, with only the barest hints of the human adventure. In a single paragraph Smith recounts that summer’s expedition:

During the open season of 1911 the first Geological Survey party to visit the Noatak went up Alatna River in canoes, portaged across to the Noatak, and descended that stream to its mouth. In addition to the writer the party consisted of C.E. Giffin, topographer, and four camp hands. Work was commenced at the mouth of the Alatna July 1 and was finished at Kotzebue August 27, during which time an area of nearly 10,000 square miles, three-fourths of which was within the Noatak basin, was surveyed geologically and topographically. Three canoes were used in order to facilitate the movement of the different units of the party. Supplies for the entire trip were brought in from Seattle, and were sent by freight down the Yukon and up the Koyukuk to the mouth of the Alatna by the regular river steamboats. From this place the supplies were carried in the canoes or back packed. Game was abundant, so that sheep, caribou, and birds formed a considerable addition to the routine camp fare. The weather was especially favorable for the work; numerous slight showers kept the streams at a good stage, but did not make traveling disagreeable nor obscure the distant landscape except in the mountainous regions.

Passive voice, deadpan, the poor “camp hands” not even named—all the same, when I reread the summary it blew my mind. Who was I to have condescended to the great Philip Smith? Portaging canoes with a month’s worth of cargo across trailless divides? Not only floating the Noatak, but heading up scores of side valleys to map and survey? Blithely living off the land? Even praising the weather? If the men suffered setbacks, much less accidents, on their journey of more than a thousand miles, Smith wasn’t admitting it.

That two-month excursion through unknown land may well have been a blithe adventure. But it’s the kind of expedition almost no one undertakes today. The best voyagers of our own era would be hard put to replicate the trip, as Smith and his five teammates pulled it off. Nowadays “adventure travel” companies offer the Noatak as a happy two- or three-week float trip. They fly their clients into lakes below the headwaters, and most of them take out at Noatak Village, still some 70 miles short of the river’s mouth, to avoid the dangerous sea crossing to Kotzebue. On their rafts they carry steaks and gin-and-tonics, sat phones, and bearproof food canisters. But it’s quite another matter to paddle up the Alatna, or portage across to the Noatak. And Smith didn’t have a map.

Upper reaches of Igikpak with its distinctive summit spire, nine years after the first ascent. Photo: David Roberts.

I suppose we all know in some vague way the old-timers were tougher than we are, made do with gear we’d sneer at, had an infinite capacity for hard work and suffering. But rereading The Noatak-Kobuk Region hammered home for me the notion that Smith and his companions were characters from a semi-mythic era. They didn’t need to stay in touch with the “real” world. Two months in the outback, sorting out each tributary and peak, were what you did to discover the world. It didn’t matter when you got home.

Their passage through the glorious unknown was what explorers lived for. And we don’t any more—not the way they did.

***

At the end of our 1969 expedition, the five of us headed down the Alatna in a small rubber raft and a Klepper collapsible kayak. On the last day before launch, I hiked alone up the west bank of the river, fishing for grayling and searching for an old cabin. Opposite the mouth of Kutuk Creek, I found it.

Before the expedition, as I devoured all the accounts of the western Brooks Range I could find, I’d read Constance Helmericks’s We Live in the Arctic. It’s a richly detailed memoir about a young couple’s escape from overcivilized south-central Alaska into the little-known north country. With a canvas canoe they built themselves, dubbed the Little Willow, and a three-horsepower outboard motor, Bud and Connie hauled a thousand pounds of gear (a stove with an oven and a stovepipe, pots, pans, traps, guns, axes, staple foods, gasoline, clothes for all seasons, sleeping bags, and a sturdy tent) up the Yukon, Koyukuk and Alatna Rivers. There on the bench opposite Kutuk Creek they built a cabin in which they spent the winter of 1944-45. After the ice break-up in late May, they headed downriver back into the world they had fled.

The penultimate pitch on Igikpak summit tower, led by Al De Maria (out of sight). Chuck Loucks is seconding. The last pitch begins around the corner to the left, overhanging by 30 degrees. Photo: David Roberts.

I’d read We Live in the Arctic with mixed feelings. Connie emerged as compulsively chatty and domestic, her vague anxieties counterbalanced by passionate enthusiasms. Bud seemed the strong, silent mountain man, the jack of all wilderness trades. I imagined he went off on solo scouting and hunting forays to flee his wife’s jabbering neediness, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Helmericks had divorced several years after their Arctic wanderjahr.

But what I couldn’t understand in the book was the couple’s neglect of the Arrigetch Peaks. For nine months, they lived within a mere 10 miles of the most spectacular mountains in all the sprawling Brooks Range, and not once did they hike into its gentle valleys. Connie mentions the Arrigetch only in three short passages. Indeed, the granite spires, seen from a distance, seemed to terrify them. “They looked like the teeth of some monster, black and forbidding,” she wrote. “‘Even the sheep must shun them,’ we agreed. Slanting out in weird angles, they appeared to be a howling hell of winds and rock.”

That August 25, however, the cabin upended my feelings. As I noted in my diary, the windows were gone and there was a big hole in the roof, but a pair of handmade chairs sat ready for the next visitors who might drop by. Knick-knacky shelves festooned the walls. A jar on one shelf contained several old tea bags.

The whole cabin, built without a single nail, bespoke loving craft.

On the back of the door, I found a penciled note. “Welcome,” it read.

This cabin was built by Bud and Connie Helmericks September, 1944. We spent a very happy and comfortable year here. Left June 1, 1945 for Alatna.

Al De Maria and Chuck Loucks on the summit of Igikpak. Photo: David Roberts.

You are welcome to use this cabin as long as you like and anything in or about it. Freeze-up came October 15. Break-up came May 29.

Bud & Connie

Visitors may sign below.

In the quarter-century that had passed, only four entries had been logged, the second of them marking a return visit by Connie and Bud in 1947. I added my own note and signature, though I’ve long since forgotten what I wrote.

***

A couple of years ago I reread We Live in the Arctic. My annoyance at Connie’s chattiness, her record of daily triumphs like the recipes for pies she made out of berries and moose tallow, disappeared. In its place I felt a new admiration. As for the epic upriver journey the couple made to get to their winter hideaway—how had I failed in 1969 to realize what pluck and courage it took to pull it off? The outboard motor on the Little Willow was too feeble to fight even a gentle current. Time and again on the Alatna the pair had to wrestle the boat upstream by hauling on the bow-line. Sometimes, when Bud was off scouting, Connie pulled the boat, thousand-pound load and all, by herself. On the upper Alatna, for nearly a year, should an emergency arise they were utterly beyond the reach of outside help or rescue—as few adventurers are today.

Standing inside their erstwhile home that August day, I realized with a pang that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to build a cabin in the wilderness. Before he felled his first spruce, Bud eyed the job and predicted that it would take 70 trees and 100,000 strokes of the axe. Yet Connie felt in 1944 that she and Bud had arrived near the end of a vanishing legacy: “It used to be thought nothing for two experienced men to throw up a livable cabin in a short time. But men who can do this in our generation … are certain to have a hard time of it at best.”

In 1944, heading off for the Arctic, the Helmericks judged that lining their canoe up powerful rivers was the only way to get there. “The airplane has barely begun to touch this land,” she wrote.

How much had changed between Bud and Connie’s advent and mine! In 1969, a bush pilot landed us on an Alatna gravel bar near the mouth of Arrigetch Creek. A few days later, he flew his Super Cub 25 feet above our base camp on a tundra shelf halfway up the valley to airdrop all our supplies. Near the end of the trip, he met us on the Alatna bar again to swap our climbing gear for our boats.

I could easily have looked up Connie Helmericks after our Arrigetch trip and traded stories with her. Born five months before my mother, she died only in 1987. Why didn’t the idea ever occur to me? I could also have sought out Bud, who became a crack bush pilot based in the Brooks Range—but it was Connie’s sensibility, not that of her laconic husband, that infused We Live in the Arctic. Still, was I too proud of my own alpine deeds to ponder what I might have learned by seeking out pioneers who came before me? Add that omission to the mountain of regrets a lifetime of headstrong vagabondage leaves in its wake … .

Fifty years have passed since my first expedition to the Arrigetch—almost as long a span as the gulf that lay between Philip Smith and me, and twice as long as the lacuna bridging the Helmericks’ overwintering and my ramble among the granite spires. I wonder if the cabin’s still there, or if a flood or fire has wiped it out completely. And I wonder about the glacier in Philip Smith’s 1911 photo from the head of Arrigetch Creek, which had shrunk considerably by 1969. Today, as recent pictures suggest, that glacier may be almost gone.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: The author on a rest day. Loucks with caribou antler near Igikpak base camp. Sharon Roberts, Arrigetch, 1969. Photos: David Roberts.

Surely a comparable void of knowledge, of skill, of the very concept of adventure, stretches between me and the 22-year-olds now setting their sights on prizes in the Karakoram or western China. But of what that void consists, I am at a loss to say. That I learned how to rappel with a Dülfersitz? That I tied in with a bowline on a coil? There must be something grander, something more poignant never to have known, than those climbing anachronisms.

***

The year before my trip to the Arrigetch, I organized my first expedition to the Brooks Range after I figured out that Igikpak, at a mere 8,276 feet, was not only the highest peak in the western half of the range, but had apparently never been climbed or even attempted. In the USGS aerial oblique photos, Igikpak looked like granite, not the crumbly schist that dominates the rest of the Brooks, and the Survey Pass 1:250,000 quadrangle indicated that the mountain’s steep faces soared almost 3,000 feet from minuscule glaciers to its twin-towered summit.

On July 27, 1968, a bush pilot landed four of us on a gravel bar near the headwaters of the Noatak. In three days of moderate backpacking, we forded two tributary streams, hiked up Tupik Creek, camped at Angiaak (“Stone-scraper”) Pass (where a bear left his steaming deposit between our tents while we slept through the night oblivious), and strolled down the Reed River valley to a tundra meadow under the southwest shoulder of Igikpak that would serve as our base camp.

The first white people to penetrate this inland fastness were a two-man team led by the naval explorer S. B. McLenegan in 1885. He was not pleased to arrive there. “The landscape was one of the bleakest imaginable,” he wrote in his official report. “Not a sign of life was anywhere visible, and the cold piercing blasts which swept across the tundra caused us to realize keenly the solitude of our position and only increased our desire to see the end of the journey.”

August 1969 in the Arrigetch would dampen our ardor with five separate snowstorms and unseasonable cold presaging an early freeze-up. But August 1968 under Igikpak, a mere 30 miles due west of the Arrigetch, unfolded as an idyll of prowling through side valleys in T-shirts and lazing on carpets of reindeer moss under a warm sun and blue skies. In the pools of the Reed River just below camp, I caught 10-inch trout to supplement our freeze-dried dinners and glops. Sharon and I filled bowls with ripe blueberries. We watched the blazing magenta fireweed bloom up their stalks, and arctic poppies swivel in heliotropic homage to the sun.

The Reed was named after an ensign on another naval expedition the year after McLenegan’s, who discovered a hot spring—“a pool twenty feet in circumference and two feet deep, full of water, of blood-warm temperature”—very near the headwaters. Despite several searches stretched across a month, we never found the hot spring. For decades, I wondered if perhaps it lost its thermal magic in the 82 years since Reed stumbled upon it. But in 2018 Roman and Peggy Dial, on a 10-day, 200-mile trip through the Brooks Range, rediscovered the hot spring, after an anomalous patch of algae-choked creek led them uphill away from the river to the well-hidden pool.

Among the very few modern explorers who still pursue marathon cross-country journeys in Alaska, Roman Dial is the innovative genius, perfecting light-and-fast dashes across huge tracts of wilderness. But in comparison with the pioneers,  “We have airplanes and maps and light gear and packrafts that make rivers not obstacles but easy-going,” he says.

***

On August 9, on our second try, Chuck Loucks, Al De Maria and I climbed Igikpak. The granite was as clean and sharp, as I was to find in subsequent years, as the best rock in the Arrigetch. A complex but moderate route via slabs and ridges led to the summit pinnacle, a 200-foot tower soaring like a gargantuan golf tee out of the crest that connected it to another tower only slightly lower. In three short leads, following the only cracks in the monolith, we circled the pinnacle from south to northwest to northeast. On the last lead, I aided up a huge block overhanging 30 degrees, stood in the top loops of my stirrups, then arched out and reached as far as I could, grasped the lip with my fingers, and cranked a herculean pull-up to land gasping on top. As Chuck later commented, it was “the most summit-like summit” any of us had ever visited.

On that near-perfect expedition, a single discovery we made on the third day stopped us in our tracks, and it has haunted me ever since. About a mile below Angiaak Pass, as we followed the trickle of the Reed River downstream, we passed a talus field that spilled big boulders into the valley. Atop five of the boulders, aligned in a ragged row, were cairns, assemblages of two or three stones apiece that had obviously been placed by human hands. But they didn’t look like the neatly stacked cairns climbers build, and the edges between the propped-up stones were coated with gray-green lichens, indicating age. Why were there five of them, in what seemed to be a purposeful row?

The mysterious cairns discovered by the author near Igikpak in 1968. They were most likely erected long ago by Nunamiut caribou hunters to channel their prey toward an ambush. Photo: David Roberts.

I puzzled over those stone constructions for the rest of the expedition. Two weeks in, I discovered a second set of boulder-topped cairns, much less conspicuous, a hundred feet away from the first set. After the expedition, an anthropologist suggested to me that they were probably the work of Inupiat hunters. Their purpose would have been to imitate humans, so that the caribou, shying away from these lurking anthropomorphs, could be funneled into a narrow trap where hunters lying in ambush could slay them with bows and arrows.

The tribe of Inupiat who occupied the western Brooks Range were the Nunamiut. Today, their only inland presence is the village of Anaktuvuk Pass (population 250, not all natives) at the head of the John River, 120 miles northeast of Igikpak. But for centuries, maybe for millennia (folk tales recount men killing mammoths with spears), the Nunamiut roamed as hunter-gatherers all over the drainages of the Noatak, the Kobuk, the Colville and the Alatna Rivers. Their existence was so intertwined with the caribou hunt that a poor summer’s kill could spell starvation and death for a whole band in winter. In stories passed down through the generations, men married caribou women who deceived them. The god Aiyagomahala created the Nunamiut, taught them to hunt, and gave them a giant white dog to pull all their sledges, at a place near the head of the Alatna, not too far upstream from where the Helmericks would build their cabin.

As he traveled up the Noatak in 1885, McLenegan passed many Nunamiut “huts” on the lower reaches of the river, including one sizable “village” that appeared to have been abandoned only days before. Farther up, he found a cache of sledges the natives evidently used to navigate the frozen river in winter. But he encountered not a single living Nunamiut on his dreary journey. Yet one year later, G. M. Stoney, Reed’s boss on the naval expedition, found 30 Nunamiut ensconced in four huts on the banks of the upper Noatak, at a point only a few miles downstream from where we landed on the gravel bar in 1968.

For centuries, the Nunamiut had traveled down to the Arctic Ocean to trade with the coastal Eskimos, or Tareumiut. By the 1890s, as traders, whalers and gold miners appeared along the coast, the Nunamiut began to succumb to the temptations of white men’s food, tobacco and alcohol. But starting around 1900, for reasons still unknown, the caribou catastrophically disappeared from the western Brooks Range. On his voyage down the Noatak in 1911, Philip Smith found the ruins of temporary huts and decaying caches, but not a single living native until he neared the coast. By 1920, the whole Nunamiut homeland was abandoned.

The cairns we found in 1968 on the upper Reed River, then—far deeper into the mountains than McLenegan or Stoney believed the Nunamiut ranged—were the ghostly talismans of a lifeway that had sustained a people for eons, but that had failed them when the caribou stopped coming.

***

Between the mountain exploration of my 20s and the kinds of expeditions climbers go on these days, there’s one sea change that I cling to, because I think it marks an irreversible psychic watershed. In the Revelation Mountains of Alaska in 1967, where no one before us had ever climbed, my teammates and I spent 52 days with no contact with the outside world. I’ll ask younger friends just back from their own expeditions how long they’ve ever gone without such contact—no radio, no Internet, no sat or cell phones, not even an emergency transmitter. The norm to which they confess is about three days.

It’s not just a matter of the compulsion for outside contact. All those modern contraptions bestow a huge margin in terms of safety and potential rescue. With a sat phone linked to S & R, you’re never really on your own.

But even as I smugly tout the virtues of self-reliance, of cutting off the outside world, I’ll think about the Helmericks on the Alatna, completely on their own not for 52 days but for almost a year, with less hope of rescue than we had in the Revelations, since at a prearranged date in late August our pilot was due to pick us up.

And then I’ll wonder if the Helmericks, or Philip Smith, or McLenegan or Stoney pondered the Nunamiut in the way I have so often since we discovered the cairns on the upper Reed River. Until the caribou began to disappear, until the first white men and women came into their ken, those indigenes moved through a daily round that, for all its hardships and tragedies, was more seamlessly whole than we can imagine. For the Nunamiut, life itself embodied everything we call exploration and adventure. And wilderness was the only world they knew—or needed.

Ours is the loss.


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 258 (July 2019).


David Roberts is the award-winning author The Mountain of My Fear, ranked by National Geographic Adventure as among the 100 best adventure books ever written. “Our Loss” received an honorable mention in Best American Sports Writing 2020.


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