Mountaineering Club Climbs to 25th Year
Members Mix Macabre Sense of Humor With World-Wide Human-Fly Acts
Frederick L. Dunn '51 was trapped last month on the vertical wall of a 700-foot cliff in British Columbia. Below him was a 500-foot sheer drop to a pile of avalanche rock and above him a 200-foot granite face; he had nothing to stand on but a rock ledge two feet wide. The sun had set and a blizzard was tearing about him, and there was only one thing Dunn conld do. He rolled out his sleeping bag and went to bed.
For the last 25 years, Harvard Mountaineering Club members have gotten into the same sort of jams and gone back for more. The club celebrated its silver anniversary this summer by sending four expeditions to four countries, climbing mountains like Teepe's Pillar and Devil's Paw and mapping miles of snow-covered peaks never before seen by human eyes.
Stairway Up a Mountain
Dunn's party had a typically tough time. The all-Harvard group chopped staircases into ice cliffs, climbed skyline ridges, and waded through glacial streams for six days only to have snow and rain force them into their mountain tents for the rest of their stay.
They had more trouble getting back--like the two-foot ledge. "It was too dark to go on," says Dunn. "We tried to sleep on the side of the cliff. Nevison huddled into the wall and Scudder crouched by a crack. I stretched out on the ledge and lined up four rocks to keep me from falling." The cliff was no place for sleepwalkers.
The rest of their story sounds like a Pearl White thriller. When the group woke up in the morning they were covered with three inches of snow, and spent most of the day edging down the face. Then they started on the road back home--a seven-mile ice field called the Illecilliwaet Neve--through a blinding snowstorm and with only two cans of Spam and a handful of prunes for food. They were on it for 28 hours, and just had enough strength to effect rescue when one of the students fell twenty feet into a crevasse.
Other HMC parties were deployed this summer to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, the Coast Range in Alaska, and the French Alps--a fact which might surprise some of the founders, who originally started the club as a bull-session society. This was in 1924, when Henry S. Hall, Jr. '19 returned from climbing near Banff and wanted to tell all his friends about it. So he invited them to his house and started talking, and called it the Harvard Mountaineering Club.
Club Has Its Ups and Downs
It was the first collegiate mountaineering club in the country. But in those early days members did all their climbing in the summer, returning to college to spend beery winter evenings in praise of their achievements. Finally it occurred to someone that there were, after all, some rocks in Boston; and from then on the club supplemented its oral activities with term-time climbing.
The first HMC-sponsored climb was probably to the granite quarries in Quincy, whose smooth, vertical walls were originally cut away for the Bunker Hill Monument. By 1932 the Club had graduated from the molehills of Quincy to the mountains of Asia, and joined in a year-long expedition that reached the top of Minya Kouka--the biggest peak in China--despite makeshift wood-and-iron equipment. The party's original equipment had been shanghaid, logically enough, in Shanghai.
Minya Kouka started a series of daring Asian climbs. The highest mountain ever scaled--Nanda Devi--fell originally to an HMC group in an ascent where the routine calamities of mountain climbing expanded into a series of near-disasters. Seven Harvard men (plus a gentleman from the Alpine Club of London) attacked the 25,600-foot "White Goddess" in 1936 and (1) ran into a glacial flood, (2) lost half of their local porters in a mass mutiny, (3) had to make six trips down a 12-mile gorge to carry in supplies, and (4) had a case of ptomaine poisoning 1000 feet from the summit. After half a year of work, only two of the party reached the peak. They spent an hour there and left.
In 1938 a part-HMC party set out to reconnoiter K2, the second largest mountain in the world. To their surprise they get 1000 feet from the top--and had to turn back because of a food shortage. A few years later a Harvard man and a Dartmouth man made headlines by rescuing a starving aviator from Devil's Tower, a fantastic-looking column jutting from the Wyoming desert. It seems that the flyer, who parachuted onto the tower on a bet, had imprudently neglected to make further plans.
In its 25 years of climbing, the club has seen only two fatalities, both of them in the last two years. In 1947 Charles Shiverick '50 was killed in a Canadian avalanche; this summer Graham McNear '50 fell 1500 feet to his death near Mt. Blane.
The 1949 HMC is a live-wire group that runs a cabin on Mt. Washington and a library back home, and diffuses over the countryside at regularly stated intervals in search of half-inch fingerholds on half-mile cliffs. When beginners are invited along on these trips as they are every Sunday for instruction--the experience can be traumatic.
The Brahmins Are Shacked
The Sunday afternoon climbers, averaging half experts and half dudes, toss on backwoods clothing and 120 feet of coiled rope and ride the subway to Quincy under the disapproving glances of Bostonian eyebrows. The quarry itself is a city of rock cliffs and groundwater lakes, where engineers built America's first cog railway in 1836 and a local murderer dumped a dead salesman in 1948. Old-timers in the Har- vard crowd simply sidle up to a cliff and start, walking up the wall in a manner that is quite disconcerting to observe.
It's like a human-fly act. The mountaineer reaches two feet above his head and pulls himself up by his fingertips; he stands with one foot on an inch-wide ledge looking for another-inch-wide ledge; he jams his fist into a crack for a hold fast. From the top of the cliff another mountaineer, who has gone up the sane way, "belays" the climber with nylon rope in case he should fall. From the bottom of the cliff the rest of the party offers verbal encouragement:
"Put your left foot about three inches above your right shoulder."
"Put your foot in your mouth and spit it up to the next ledge."
"Wait a second--don't fall--you'll crush my egg sandwich Mountaineers have a peculiar sense of humor.
For the novice attempting his first climb, HMC rule-makers have devised a devilish set of directives and frustrations. The experts tell you there's no holds barred, but the man who uses his knee in a climb is roundly booed from below, and the student who grabs the belaying rope for support is hold in disdain for the rest of his days. And you can't walk to a cliff by the back slope, you've got to scale the face. And you can't scale the face the easy way, you've got to climb the barest flattest, most unyielding wall in sight.
There's a reason for it, of course, Rock-climbers are always practicing for the day they'll be climbing alpine peaks, when there won't be any belay from above and there isn't any choice of easy routes. When they reach this stage, they will travel in pairs tied together by a rope. One man will tie himself to the cliff wall by wedging a "piton" or spike into a crack, while the other man climbs. Sometimes mountain-climbers have to drill holes in the rock and screw in expansion bolts to conquer a difficult cliff.
Rock-climbing is one side of mountaineering; the other side is ice-climbing. HMC members wear "crampons" with two-inch spikes when they're ice-climbing, and carry ice axes to chop zig-zag staircases in glaores. "Glissading" is their name for skiing down a slope without any exis; "glassading" is a similar procedure involving another part of the anatomy.
With its rock-climbs at Quincy and its ice-climbs at Mt. Washington, HMC promises to prepare a novice for mountain conditions anywhere in the Alps. Just why a man should want to travel 4000 miles to climb an obscure pinnacle in Liechtenstein, of course, is a question that even a mountaineer couldn't answer.