Ascending the Black Towers
It seems like another lifetime ago. Some of the memories as vibrant and fresh as morning’s dew, though time has time frosted many of the details. No matter how long ago, years cannot overcome moments spent with friends, particularly those of suffering with large backpacks that are always followed with laughter and joy of base camp. There’s something similar shared between soldiers and climbers in overcoming somewhat impossible odds at times, and feelings of restful joy in coming home. For mountaineers, the wilderness is our mountain home. It is a place that refreshes the soul and reveals life as it once was.
In what feels like another life, more than fifteen years ago, Mark Hoffman and I seemingly spent our every spare moment together in the mountains. During the winter we’d share weekends climbing in Yosemite Valley, awaiting the promise of summer’s warmer days to return to the high country.
On a particular rainy evening at home, Mark pulled out his climbers guide, saying, "Dude, we have to go here this summer", as he pointed to the book.
"The Devil’s Crags?" I said, as my face tightened. The name alone invoked something both mystical and very dangerous.
"Absolutely" he replied, "Check it out. Read what Roper says."
"The Devil’s Crags (11,040+ to 12,560+) At the southern end of the Black Divide is a spectacular group of pinnacles, easily spotted from the Palisades group. Although the John Muir Trail passes within a few miles of the pinnacles, they are seldom visited." Finishing the passage, I looked up from the pages. "Hmmm."
"SELDOM VISITED!!!" he said with excitement. "...And look at the first ascents" Flipping to the back of the book to the names of dates, he pointed to the record - Dave Brower, Hervey Voge and Norman Clyde, June 1934. "I bet those registers are still there from their knapsack survey of routes and records. We gotta check it out. If you can’t go, I think I’m going to go solo."
"C’mon Mark, you’re not going solo to a place more than twenty miles in, and climbing class 4 peaks on metamorphic rock by yourself."
"Yes I am."
"No, you don’t understand. I won’t let you go by yourself. If you really want to go there, you know I’m there also."
On August 7, we set out on the most memorable journey of my life. From the top of Bishop Pass, we could see only the tops of the distant black towers as a few cumulus clouds rose above the ridgelines in the distance. It seems as if God took amazing care in creating this magnificent part of the Sierra. Sculptured granite walls seem to abound everywhere, all looking upward, reflecting His greatness. The eastern Boundary of Dusy Basin is guarded by the soaring walls of the Palisades. At their feet, a wandering hiker is treated to countless meadows and azure lakes.
From Dusy Basin, the trail quickly falls into a series of switchbacks until bottoming in LeConte Canyon. Here is a place reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, though remaining wild. Nestled amongst the pines at the trail’s junction of the John Muir Trail we passed a small ranger’s cabin. As we moved on, we talked of both wonderful adventures, and long lonely days known only by these hearty souls. Late that evening we set up camp in a stand of pines and aspens near Grouse Meadows.
August 8. Early that morning we waded across the King’s River, and began climbing through a fortress of waist deep brush toward the Devil’s Crags. Of all our hikes, this was proving to be among the most difficult. We felt as soldiers, agonizing under constant attack, our clothes and packs being pulled, and dragged down. After several long hours, the steep brushy slope yielded steps to glacial polished slabs. It was a welcome relief, but the weight of 75 pound backpacks were taking their toll.
Along the upper benches of Rambaud Creek, everything here seemed to welcome us as first visitors. On the fringe of a lakeshore meadow we settled into camp. After raising the tent, Mark filled our water bottles from the crystal waters as I searched the creek for Trout. With rod aimed high, the golden instrument splashed into the water. With the first cast, the pole recoiled overhead as a Golden Trout danced from the water. Second cast, second fish. Third cast, third fish. Fourth cast, fourth fish. We played the ballad together, one after another, splashing, coming ashore, and being set free.
"Yooowwwwww" I hollered.
"Nothing, you gotta check this out. Four casts, four Goldens."
"No", he said with a question.
"Watch", I said, as I threw out the line. Baaammm. "Number five!"
I handed Mark our shared rod, and over the next hour we landed and released over twenty Goldens. It seemed nothing could be more perfect. Everywhere we looked, there were no trails, no footprints, and no garbage. As we walked back to camp we passed the only sign of man’s presence. A small fire ring melded into the meadow as its charcoal was becoming concealed by lush grass. As evening fell, a wonderful alpenglow consumed the Palisades far in the distance. Dawn would approach soon and bring our first climbs in the crags.
August 9. Before sunrise we began climbing up a maze of talus and short cliffs toward Devil’s Crags #5 and #6. No matter how many times we arose before dawn, moving through the dark of predawn always seems an odd exercise, making one wonder if we’ve lost our minds. Slowly, a small amount of colour crept across the sky. As we topped the first bench above camp, God’s golden light touched the top of the huge black spires. The crags rose into the air like the spiny back of a Stegosaurus protruding the granite trapping its existence. Words just cannot describe those sights and feelings of best friends seeing such pure wildness with God’s greatness everywhere. Those early morning sunrises go beyond description. It’s a rare moment shared only between friends, the awakening birds, and God himself. Such moments are eternal gifts that we will never forget, and praise His greatness.
Within a few hours we entered the chute between Crags 4 and 5, where the mountain became a scary narrow corridor of steep loose rocks. After climbing through dangerous sections of unroped class 4, we reached the pass and traversed onto the west face. Reaching a large ledge, I leaned against a huge automobile sized boulder that suddenly shot down the cliff without warning! "Rock!", I yelled, thankful Mark wasn’t in the monster’s path.
Despite being mountaineers, the crags tested every move. One hold after the other seemed to break with the smallest body weight, sent bouncing hundreds of feet to the slopes below. With the greatest care we climbed across difficult and dangerous cracks, faces, and ledges without rope to the summits of Crags #5 and #6. Roper’s description that included the word "seldom visited" were a understatement. Only eight people had ever climbed these peaks before our ascent. We happily added our fourth ascent to the fragile papers and carefully retraced our route back to camp.
August 10 was a day of recuperation from both an eighteen mile approach and climbing. After exploring the areas around camp, marveling at the meadows, gnarled trees, and clear waters of Rambaud, we made an easy ascent of Rambaud Peak. Though small in stature, the panorama it provides is vast. To the east, the slopes of the Black Divide fall dramatically into LeConte Canyon and rise again to the walls of the Palisades. Looking back to the west, we studied the Devil’s Crags for our last day’s climb. Though we were desirous of Crags 1-4, we felt safest with the southern most end containing crags 8 and 9.
August 11. Our final day of ascents began as our first as we left camp before dawn. Something odd continued flowing from the back of my mind, something impossible to discern, something impossible to understand. In the predawn light, I struggled to keep up as we hiked up the steep slope. Self reassurance that a certain amount of anxiety was normal didn’t seem to help. Something wasn’t right, but we continued to the cliff’s base and began climbing the steep precipice unroped. About 200 feet below the top of the peak I stopped climbing, sat down, and looked at the rugged landscape extending in all directions.
"You alright?", Mark asked.
"I’M NOT DOING THIS!"
"What! What’s wrong with you today," he asked. "I’ve noticed you’ve been a little slow."
"I don’t know, but I’m not going any further. I’ve got a weird head today," I replied.
Without pause, Mark pulled the rope from his pack and said, "I’ll lead. Let’s be safe and rope up."
Tied together, Mark effortlessly danced up the easy class 5 cliff and attained the summit in little time. There was no register here, and it really didn’t matter. The view was wonderful. Hundreds of peaks and valleys rose and fell in the distance, like waves of a beautiful colored sea. Granite peaks, valleys, and forests rose and fell in a wonderful symphony of lines and tones, punctuated by gathering cumulus clouds. After enjoying the rewarding panorama of efforts, we repelled from the summit pinnacle, and dropped to the western slope of the crags to climb Devil’s Crag #8, the easiest of the group.
Over large talus and areas of sandy scree we walked to a wide easy chute extending to the top. Again, no register, so we erected a small cairn, and left a small register of our ascent. The day had waned into late afternoon and a group of thunderstorms began approaching from the north. Tired and happy, we began descending down the chute. Although loose rock was scattered over the entire chute, the dangers here seemed less than on the other crags.
As we walked together over mounds of rock, our normal laughter and conversation echoed from the walls. We couldn’t help but marvel at a group of clouds gathered around Mt Woodworth. It was kind of like being in an Ansel Adams photograph; black mountains, and white clouds. The only color in the landscape was the blue sky. A few hundred feet above a branch in the chute, I stopped for a photograph. The black and white tones seemed to underscore the ruggedly sublime nature of the area.
I snapped my lens cap back on, and began following Mark down the right fork of the chute. We leaped from boulder to boulder, and bounded through areas of loose sand. Just above chute’s bottom, Mark climbed over a refrigerator rock and jumped to the downhill side. Suddenly without warning, the boulder skidded sideways and seemed to gain life. The entire chute, just a few feet below me, started exploding in a huge slide as rocks bounced and flew all around him. Dust clouded the air as rocks crashed down the chute. In utter disbelief, the agony of seeing my best friend dragged 150 feet down the chute, pummeled with rocks, was only exceeded in the sight of his disappearance over a 50' cliff. The echoes of smashing rock was followed by complete silence.
"NOOOOOOOOO!!! MARK!! MARK!! ANSWER ME!!"
In horror and disbelief, it felt as if something was squeezing the air out of me. I suddenly choked on the grim reality of our mortality as tears flooded my eyes. Running down the right branch of the chute, I continually screamed, "Mark, Mark, answer me!" The only returning sound was the lonely desperate echo.
Exiting the chute, I frantically ran around the corner. There, lying upon the talus at cliff’s base, I found him. "Mark!" I yelled frantically. At the sound of my command he sat up! He was alive! Everything was going to be ok!
As I raced toward him, he let out a huge grown, "AHHHHHHHH", squirming in pain.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"My leg is broken", he screamed as he tried to stand.
The sight of his shattered leg, tattered, limp, and destroyed, brought tears to my eyes. As he grimaced in pain, I quickly set his leg in a cradle of rocks to keep it from wobbling. How badly I wanted to wipe the blood from his face, but it seemed the least of our problems. How bad I wanted to stay and comfort him, but nothing was possible. Writhing in pain, he continuously begged, "Robin, please don’t leave me, don’t leave me. Ahhh, my arm hurts. Ahhh, my back hurts. Please don’t leave me".
"You’ll be okay" I reassured him, as I pulled a coat over his shoulders, and covered his legs with my coat and long sleeve shirt.
"I have to go, I gotta get help."
"Robin, don’t leave me, please don’t leave me"
"Mark, I have to get help. I’m going to get a chopper up. I’ll be back with help soon."
Upon leaving, the landscape became a total blur. My mind was trapped in a spindrift of dread as tears flooded my eyes. Although not wanting to face the reality of the accident, my heart began fearing the worst. Oh, how I realized the fragility of life. How I realized how badly we needed God’s help. While running over miles of talus toward camp, I continuously prayed for God’s forgiveness and mercy, praying that Mark would be delivered into God’s gentle hands.
5:00 PM. Gathering thunderstorms began dropping a combination of light snow and rain across the landscape. The slick rocks made running increasingly dangerous, yet I was undetered. Although becoming wet and cold, I wondered how Mark has doing. I wondered if he was cold. I wondered how badly he hurt.
6:00 PM. I finally left the rocky slope, and ran through the final meadow above camp. Dashing into the tent, I looked at everything in an instant, surveying what I’d need. Flashlight. Batteries. Candy bars. Dry shirt. I looked at my sleeping bag, but threw it aside. Too much weight. If I had to rest during the night, I knew hypothermia was a possibility. It was a gutsy decision.
A short distance from camp, lightning slammed across the peaks as thunder echoed throughout the canyons. Desperately battling through deteriorating conditions, gales, thick tangles of brush and wet slippery rocks, I reached the Kings River before dark.
8:00 PM. In the deepening shadows of evening’s approach I finally reached the LeConte Canyon Ranger Station. RANGER OUT ON PATROL. WILL RETURN IN AFTERNOON, read a note on the door. My heart sank.
"You’re late and I need a radio", I muttered as I thrust my foot into the door, splintering the frame. My flashlight scanned the darkened room for help. There was no radio. Everything had changed. I quickly found a pencil and paper and began to leave an account of the accident, my name, social security number, and my parent’s telephone number. My last line summed it up, "Must get help. Attempting to ascend Bishop Pass tonight in the dark. Please call parents if I don’t survive. Tell them I love them. -Robin Ingraham, Jr."
Turning to the cabin’s door, a voice boomed, "What in the HELL are you doing in MY CABIN??!!"
My eyes raised in hope to see Park Ranger Randy Morgensen, glaring in total disgust.
"We have to get a helicopter up. My friend is dying. We have to...."
"Wait a second, slow down. Tell me what happened", he said with great concern.
Seeing that this was a life and death situation, Randy moved quickly through the dark cabin, firing the lanterns and gathering papers. "What happened, when and where" he asked as he sat at the small table.
As I quickly recounted the ordeal, he picked up his radio, saying, "This is (ranger #), please close all park channels, we have a SAR in progress."
"We need to get a helicopter up now", I broke in.
He gently pointed his palm at me to stop and set down his radio. His eyes focused on the floor as he searched for the words. "Robin, we need to think this through. I need to coordinate the rescue with Fallon Naval Air Station. Maybe we should hike back to him right now. There are no civilization air evacuations in the mountains at night. The Sierra is too high and rough. Too dangerous. Those helicopter rescues are television fiction. What do you want to do?"
I began to weep again. "He probably won’t laaaaaast the niiiiiiight, but there’s no way we can get to him on foot in the dark."
"Robin, I’m really sorry, but all we can do then is wait until dawn. Let me coordinate the rescue."
Over the next hour I listened helplessly as Randy argued with the Fallon Naval Air Station to send one of their "airships". They answered, "Nothing is available. Park service resources must first be used." While the night wore on, he gave me dry clothes and dinner. I choked down canned vegetables.
August 12. 4:00 AM. The cabin awoke with a hiss as the lantern lit the small room. After a brief breakfast, we left the cabin and stood in the frost covered meadow to await the helicopter. Dawn broke over the highest peaks, and still the air remained silent. Anxiously, we looked at our watches, wondering what was taking so long, listening for the distant beat of the air rescuer’s blades. About an half hour after sunrise the rhythmic bass thumping tones echoed down the canyon, and we were soon lifted skyward toward the rugged peaks. The helicopter made several passes above the crags. No place to land.
With military precision, the pilot quickly floated the craft to the east side, and dropped us onto a slab. Beneath the cloudless sky, I retraced our route up the steep chute across the crags. While several of the rangers questioned the climb, I wondered how I ran down the route the night before without falling. I recounted how fortunate I was to never be knocked down in the slide. I realized how fortunate I was to find the ranger. Hope grew as I recounted my blessings. I knew Mark would be alive!
As we rounded the cliff’s base on the western slope Mark’s brightly colored clothing stood out vividly against the black and gray rocks.
"Mark! Mark!" No response.
"You’re going to need to be real strong", Randy said, placing his hand gently on my shoulder.
I sat on a rock as they walked up to Mark. Randy grasped Mark’s arm and gently shook it. I was too late. My mind emptied as the weight of the mountains seemed to crush me. Hatred burned my eyes looking at the mountains that had taken Mark’s life. Tears blurred the landscape as I stared from the ground, then into a empty sky.
As we climbed over the crags, a huge military helicopter came in, hovered beyond the cliffs, and hauled a black bag skyward. Later that afternoon another chopper took our gear to Kings Canyon where I called my parents. I remember choking back the tears as my father answered the phone and asked, "Are you okay."
"Yes. Please come pick me up. I’m at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon. Mark is dead."
Friendships as ours come seldom in life. A day didn’t pass that we didn’t talk or see each other. Over the coming months I had to constantly stop my reach for the phone, realizing no one was home. Like a solider returning from a distant battle, flashbacks were a daily torture, yet I found comfort in remembrances of good times together. Mark’s 28 year life was one filled with adventure, but life is more than adventure. The most important things in life are not the trophies and monuments of experiences with which we embroider our lives. What is important is what we do with our lives, and whom we do them with. An activity or experience alone in itself is meaningless. We often talked about knowing how uncertain life is. Odd for people in their twenties.
There are so many things I wish I’d said to Mark in those final moments. I wish I’d have told him how much his friendship meant to me. I didn’t want to admit to myself that this conversation might be our last. I’ve learned to live and struggle with the pain through optimism and determination developed as mountain sojourners. After all, life lies within God’s plan. We only deceive ourselves into thinking we are in control.
I’m prayerful that God allowed Mark the fleeting moments of consciousness to ask for forgiveness of not living up to His standards. Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul wrote, ". . .for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." His truth is one I’ve come to intimately know, and am grateful. God helps us to deal with all things if we trust in Him.
John Muir summed up our lack of direction, and need for recognizing His invisible presence, in writing, ". . .we never know where we must go, nor what guides we are to get - men, storms, guardian angels, or sheep. Perhaps almost everybody in the least natural is guarded more than he is ever aware of. All the wilderness seems to be full of tricks and plans to drive and draw us up into God’s light."
Looking at the mountains, the trees, lakes, rivers, and flowers, I wonder how people can walk through life and not see His presence? While invisible in spirit, what may be known of God is manifest in all things, for God has shown it to us in His creation. His invisible attributes are clearly seen in everything, though people suppress the truth, professing the philosophy of men instead.
I often look at Muir’s philosophy, making mention of God’s influence in his life, considering how my life should be spent. "After dark when the camp was at rest, I groped my way back to the altar boulder and passed the night on it - above the water, beneath the leaves and stars - everything still more impressive than by day, the fall seen dimly white, singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the altars peering through the leaf roof seemed to join in the white water’s song. Precious night, precious day to abide in me forever. Thanks be to God for this immortal gift."
Life is an incredible gift. We never know when it will fade as a last sunset.