ORDEAL ON MOUNT HOWSON
With two staunch friends Rex Gibson, Canada’s most famous mountaineer, was climbing the peak that had beaten him three times before. Then, at 7,000 feet, began an epic of endurance, pain and heroism that will endure as long as man pits his strength against the towering rock of nature
Major Rex Gibson braced himself against a rock pinnacle seven thousand feet up Mount Howson to change places on the safety rope. His two companions wanted him in the lead for the final climb to the summit, partly because he was the most experienced snow climber and partly because they knew he had a personal account to settle with this mountain. They had reached this height to discover that the only way up was a snow-filled cleft that rose steeply to the peak. Downward, the narrow snowfield disappeared abruptly over a cliff five hundred feet below.
Gibson and his companions, Dr. Sterling Hendricks and Dr. Donald Hubbard, knew the climb would become somewhat more dangerous when they stepped out on the snow crust. What they did not know was that they stood literally on the verge of one of the
most remarkable episodes—an episode at once tragic and triumphant —in all the eventful annals of the supremely dangerous sport of mountain climbing.
The idea of turning back did not occur to any of them. Gibson particularly was in a mood of rare elation. As he knotted the nylon line about him with practiced fingers he nodded toward the panorama of forest and mountain that started at timberline far beneath their feet and spread to the horizon. “When people ask me why 1 climb mountains 1 can’t find words to tell them,” he said. “But here is the answer—getting up where nobody ever stood before and looking down at a thousand square miles with not a soul in it.”
Hendricks and Hubbard, in a hundred climbs with him, had seldom heard the trenchant, matter-of-fact Gibcontinued over page
“Rugged but not impossible,” said Gibson appraisingly. And his companions knew this was to be no ordinary climb
son speak in such terms. On the contrary, they had seen him cringe at being referred to as “Mr. Mountaineer of Canada” and knew he took no collector’s pride in having made more first ascents of peaks in the Canadian Rockies than any other man. But this was no ordinary occasion. During the three years he had been president of the Alpine Club of Canada, Rex Gibson’s goal had been the conquest of Howson. Three times in the short climbing seasons of northern British Columbia he had come to this lonely mountain fifty miles beyond Kitimat, accessible only if one could persuade a chartered pilot to risk setting down a float plane amid the unmapped shoals of Burnie Lake in the foothills.
Each year it seemed as if Mount Howson reserved its worst storm of the summer to hurl at Gibson. Torrential rain on the lower slopes and blizzards above the snowline had blockaded him. Each year the weather cleared only long enough for him to scout the glacier that guards the approach to the main peak and to catch glimpses of forbidding heights lost in clouds of snow.
Gibson determinedly renewed his attack on Howson this year. He felt fit as ever, but at sixtyfive he faced the fact that he was past the age when most alpinists have climbed their last mountain. This time he came with Dr. Alexander Fabergé, of the University of Texas, who had, in vain, tackled Howson with him twice before, and three other United States members of the Alpine Club, all experienced climbers but of age and eminence that made them a little incongruous as athletes in this most strenuous of sports.
Fabergé, at forty-five the youngest of the party, and fifty-five-year-old Sterling Hendricks are among the world’s top agronomists. Fabergé, called by associates “a genius in genetics,” was born in Russia of French parents, lived most of his life in England and went to the U. S. in 1945. Hendricks, chief of chemical research at the vast U. S. experimental stations at Beltsville, Maryland, is known for recent discoveries in the effect of light and dark on growth, work his colleagues regard as of Nobel Prize calibre. Hubbard, fiftyseven, is a research physicist with the U. S. Bureau of Standards. The fifth man, Alvin Peterson, fifty-two, is an experimental engineer with the U. S. ordnance laboratory in Washington.
This party landed in Burnie Lake on August 8. The members had agreed to devote twelve days to the attack on Mount Howson, and the chartered plane was to return from its base at Terrace, on the Skeena River forty miles westward, on Monday, August 19.
No sooner had they pitched their base camp in the foothills three miles upslope from the lake than what they came to call “Gibson’s weather” started. For a solid week it rained on the camp
and snowed on the mountain. Then, with only four days remaining before the plane’s return, the skies cleared. The five men hurried to reconnoitre the mountain. In the sunlight Howson was a grimly beautiful study in black rock and white snow, towering more than nine thousand feet, its flanks guarded by four stark ridges. Those formidable buttresses, though, offered the best hope of climbing Howson safely. “Scale the ridges,” warns unwritten mountaineering law, “and ava-
lanches or rock slides can’t come down on you.” For two days Gibson and his party circled the base of the mountain, sizing up the ridges. In turn they wrote off the north, east and south ridges as impossible. That left only the west ridge. Gibson’s face showed mingled hope and anxiety as this last route came into view. The five men stood amid the vast untidiness of boulders in a moraine at the foot of a thousand-foot glacier under the west continued on page 91
Ordeal on Mount Howson
Continued from page 17
ridge and studied yard by yard the cliffs and the outcrops and the ravines that marked the upward climb of the ridge as far as the eye could distinguish perspective.
“Rugged, but not impossible,” pronounced Gibson.
Fabergé, his companion on many a hazardous climb, disagreed. “Impossible —uneiimbable,” he said.
Hendricks and Hubbard agreed to try the west ridge v/ith Gibson. Amicably, Fabergé and Peterson decided to tackle another peak of the Howson range some milesto the south. The Gibson party spent the rest of the day establishing an advanced camp near the foot of the westridge glacier, three miles from base camp and a thousand feet higher.
At dawn of a bright day, Sunday, August 18, they started upward. Five hours of hard climbing confirmed Gibson’s estimate of the west ridge: “Rugged —but not impossible.” But now, seven thousand feet up. the ridge sharpened into a pinnacle that barred further progress. On the south shoulder of the ridge, though, ran a narrow cleft filled with snow. It was no more than fifteen feet wide and enclosed in rock walls, so that the sun scarcely touched it and the snow’s crust was hard and slippery as glass. Down the middle of the narrow snowfield ran an even harder gutter of ice, three feet wide, formed by the periodic avalanching of snow from above. The climbers could trace this gutter’s path downward in a series of hummocks and fall-offs to the lip of the cliff where it ended.
Gibson, in the lead, had to chop steps in the snow with his ice axe for himself and his companions. Hubbard was ten feet behind his leader. Every few steps he would thrust the steel-tipped handle of his ice axe into the snow ahead, ready to hitch the rope, which joined the three men, around the handle if the lead man should fall. Hendricks followed twenty feet behind Hubbard, also climbing between thrusts of his axe handle, in the role of anchor man.
Then with frightful suddenness the unexpected, the unexplained, happened.
Hendricks, looking directly up at Gibson, saw him half turn in his tracks, utter a soft exclamation, and lose his foothold. Gibson slid into Hubbard who, by great ill chance, had at that instant of time raised his axe to thrust it in for a new hold. The tangle of two men skidded down on Hendricks and accelerated past him on the steep glassy crust.
Instinctively, Hendricks braced himself for the shock that would come in an instant. He had been twenty feet behind Hubbard, and since they were tied at fifty-foot intervals, the rope Hendricks clutched had thirty feet of slack before the weight of two falling men jerked at the knotted rope firmly tied to his own waist. If he could only brake the rope with his hands before the thirty feet ran out ...
Now the slack ran out and the weight was on the rope. He closed his hands on it tighter and tighter until he was holding it with all his desperate strength. Pain
seared his palms as the rope cut through gloves and burned through flesh.
But it was elation Hendricks felt instead of pain. The headlong flight of Gibson and Hubbard was slowing, ff Hubbard could make a lucky thrust with the ice axe he still held in his flailing right hand, this nightmare might end in just another incident to be added to their mountaineering “close ones.”
In a sort of agonizing slow motion, Hendricks felt the rope come almost to a stop in his hands. At just the right moment, Hubbard drove his axe head into the ice crust. But in the same instant safety was snatched away. The two men, still tangled, reached the brink of a short drop in the snowslide before they could come to a total stop. It was an inconsequential fall-off, not more than three feet deep. But it was enough to jerk Hubbard’s hand off his axe and, coming at the point where Hendricks ran out of slack in his rope, to snap him off his feet.
Instantly the three men pitched down the slope, not sliding but in sickening bounds of ten or twenty feet at a time, a tangle of arms and legs, rope and flailing axes and rucksacks heavy with equipment, ricocheting toward the cliff they had seen five hundred feet below.
A man’s thoughts in such a desperate moment have seldom been described because few have survived such an experience to tell their thoughts. Both Hendricks and Hubbard remember clearly what flashed through their minds during the seconds they were falling off Mount Howson. There was no passing of life’s incidents before the eyes, no philosophizing at death’s imminence.
Hendricks, indeed, thought as he fell that his own death was certain. He gained some comfort from the thought that the unbearable shock of pain that came with each crash landing could not continue, that one more must knock him into merciful unconsciousness. One more . . . two more . . . three more. His brain kept on counting the rhythm of his awful plunge.
Hubbard’s thoughts were angry resentment at himself for having “missed his catch,” when Gibson first lost his footing. This was followed by desperate exhortations to himself to “get that axe in”— which so nearly succeeded. And in the last part of the fall humiliation at total failure flooded his thoughts.
Hendricks’ count had reached ten when the falling men were jarred by the heaviest blow yet. But when its shock was over they realized that they had stopped falling. They had fallen through the ice crust, adding extensive cuts and bruises to their other injuries, but halting their descent just short of the final cliff that would certainly have been fatal to all.
In fact, Hubbard, who fell farthest, found himself so near the brink when he pulled himself out of the snow that he shouted a repeated warning to the others, “Don’t move! Don’t move! Don’t move!”
The warning was not necessary. Gibson was unconscious, bleeding from a severe head wound. Hendricks was under Gibson, deep in the snow and doubled up with intense pain. Hubbard tried to stand up to go to their aid but his right leg collapsed under him and a wave of nausea resulted from the sudden agony of putting all his weight on a broken leg.
Hendricks worked his way out from under Gibson, dazed and weak. The two conscious men took a quick inventory of their injuries. Hendricks could stand up but his left shoulder was broken and his arm useless; one rib at least was fractured and his back hurt. Hubbard could not stand, but he had the use of his arms. Gibson, still unconscious, seemed obviously the most seriously injured. The
wound on his head was the only visible damage.
Hubbard, propelling himself cautiously with his hands while sitting on the ice crust, tried to move Gibson but found he was solidly frozen in. Under the insulation of the crust the snow was intensely cold, even though the air temperature was above fifty degrees. This meant that the three men could not long survive where they had fallen. Atop the crust they were in constant danger of sliding into the abyss; under the ice lurked fatal frostbite. So the discovery of a narrow shelf in the sheer wall of the gully was scarcely less providential than the interruption of their fall.
Gibson regained partial consciousness while Hubbard was chopping him out of his ice prison and was able to help propel himself as Hubbard dragged him to the shelf. Hubbard drove a piton—the mountaineers’ indispensable ringed iron stake— into a crevice above the shelf and roped Gibson securely in a half-reclining position. Gibson spoke for the first time, to ask a pertinent question:
“What stopped us?”
The answer, Hendricks and Hubbard had discovered, was that at this point a trickle of water flowed under the ice field, too small to be called a stream or even a rill but enough to weaken the ice crust so that it collapsed under the weight of three tumbling bodies.
Hendricks and Hubbard knew, without discussion, what had to be attempted. Hendricks, with a broken shoulder, useless arm, broken ribs and—although he did not know it at that moment—a fractured spine, must try the almost impossible task of descending the mountain for help because he alone could walk. Fabergé and Peterson, if they had returned from their own climb, would not begin to worry about the three men unless they did not return in time for the rendezvous with the plane on Monday afternoon; a search of Mount Howson’s wildernesses of rock and snow might take a week— which would be the same as an eternity as far as the fate of the waiting men was concerned.
Hendricks had to work on an agonizing timetable: he must descend the mountain fast enough to bring help before Gibson and Hubbard had spent more than two nights on the ledge. The air temperature would drop below freezing at sundown; exposure would endanger an injured man’s life even on the first night, more gravely the second, and a third night would almost certainly be fatal.
Yet Hendricks must climb down with
utmost caution so as not to injure himself further. Even a slight aggravation of any of his injuries might, he knew, leave him unable to move and death for all three would be certain instead of probable. As it was, his injuries would make climbing of any kind barely short of physically impossible.
Hendricks decided he must travel light. He refused any share of the party’s food supply and shed his waterproof coat and spare socks. At eleven o’clock on as bright a Sunday morning as Mount Howson had witnessed. Hendricks bade a brief farewell to his companions. Gibson seemed semi-conscious but was apparently aware that Hendricks was trying the perilous descent for help.
"Tell them to bring in a helicopter,” Gibson told Hendricks. “That's our best chance for getting out.”
Hendricks nodded and silently started the climb back to where the fall had begun. He carried with him eighty feet of nylon rope Hubbard cut off for him, his indispensable ice axe, and a supply of pitons he would need to lower himself over half a dozen sheer drops on the way down. He and Hubbard had debated briefly whether he should try to find a way down from the point at which their fall had stopped, or undertake the ascent that would be both tedious and perilous.
Hendricks decided that since he knew the way down from the top. it would be safer to start from there, climb and all, than to venture into the unknown terrain beside the cliff that yawned so close to their feet. Hubbard paid out rope behind Hendricks as he climbed, but so slowly did the latter move that the rope scarcely ran. Gibson opened his eyes and peered after the laboriously retreating figure.
“He’s a tough boy, Sterling Hendricks,” he said. “He can make it if anybody can.”
Hubbard nodded an agreement he was far from feeling. And, he later admitted ruefully, he might have given up hope altogether if he had known then that the injury that reduced Hendricks’ step to a painful shuffle was a fractured spine.
An hour later Hendricks was still in sight, and Hubbard became so discouraged that he stopped looking up. Half an hour later when he allowed himself another glance the climber had merged with the rocks. He had made the first lap.
Hubbard saw something else when he looked upward—his own ice axe, clearly silhouetted, with its point firmly fixed in the snow crust where he had sunk it in the last desperate attempt to stop their headlong fall. It gave him some small comfort to think that he had made a solid catch, even though the fall over the little drop-off prevented his holding it. But mostly it brought back the melancholy thought that he had failed in his duty as No. 2 man, failed to save the leader who was lying in desperate straits on the ledge beside him.
Hendricks, making his laborious way in what he feared was a futile gesture, on his part was filled with what he called “sodden thoughts.” Heaviest on his mind was the conviction that he would never see his dearest mountaineering comrade, Rex Gibson, alive again. The thought kept occurring to Hendricks, “What an odd and rather absurd way for him to die, after all that he’s gone through.”
They had met each other, this military English-Canadian and this Texasborn scientist, a quarter of a century before on a mountainside above Maligne Lake in Jasper Park, and had hit it off instantly. They had climbed together
since, and in a hundred bivouacs Hendricks had come to know the bare bones of the story of this odd and enchanting man.
Gibson was a younger son in a “good" English family, for whom a situation was found in Lloyds Bank. He served in the artillery in World War 1 and emerged as a captain after four years of charmed life in action that more than once saw his
unit almost wiped out. He returned to the bank and while stationed at Cologne managed one unforgettable fortnight’s holiday mountain climbing in .Switzerland,
After that introduction to mountains, any career that kept him away from them was unbearable. In 1926 he threw up his banking job and sailed for Canada with a cunning plan. He would become a
wheat farmer on the prairies and climb the adjacent Rockies in his spare time.
He carried out that plan, too, even though he had to work as a farm laborer to learn wheat farming, and the farm he could afford, on the 6NR main line a dozen miles west of Edmonton, was a day’s journey away from the Rockies. There were years when bad crops or poor prices provided him with barely enough
to eat, but after harvest he would keep his rendezvous with Hendricks and others, full of zest for the climb.
They had accidents — but referred to them as “incidents.” There was the time when Hendricks fell on Mount Robson and got an axe point in his neck. Gibson and the third member of the team, R. C. Hind, of Calgary, patched him up and they continued the climb. On Mount Louis, near Banff, Hendricks broke an arm and hand in a fall and Gibson helped him down to level ground. And above all there was the incident on Mount Thor when Hendricks was traversing under a big rock with Hubbard, a new member of the fraternity at that time, behind him. Without warning the rock fell, Hendricks had to leap back into space, and Hubbard was alert to make the catch with axe and rope. The rock partly severed the nylon rope, but it held and Hendricks swung to safety.
World War II, the group feared, would end their climbing. Instead, for Gibson it started five exultant years as both soldier and mountaineer. At forty-eight he easily passed the stiff Canadian Army medical examination and was appointed liaison officer between British, Canadian and United States groups concerned with equipping and training troops for highaltitude warfare.
He and Frank Smythe, a noted Everest climber, were put in charge of training Lovat Scouts, a British regiment with a large proportion of Scottish highlanders, which had been selected for special preparation for mountain operations. It was a happy tour of duty for Gibson—in command of men once more and teaching them his great love, mountain climbing and snowfield skiing. It was a period, though, that was punctuated with an almost fatal accident. He fell through a crust of snow into a deep crevasse on the Athabaska Icefield. For nearly an hour he dangled in space, fighting suffocation and exhaustion from exposure while his two companions, to whom he was tied and thus saved from a plunge to the bottom of the crevasse, struggled in vain to raise him. Finally, with a supreme effort, they raised him to a point where the fissure narrowed enough for him to struggle out with his feet against one wall and his back against the other.
After the Lovat Scouts assignment Gibson was loaned to the U. S. forces. At this stage of the war the Americans thought they might have to invade Japan via Siberia, and launched a large-scale project for testing clothing and equipment for cold mountainous battlefields. Gibson found Hendricks had been asked to take part, and happily the two men and many others swarmed over the mountains of Alaska wearing experimental clothing. On Mount McKinley, Alaska, Gibson had a mishap that resulted in five crushed vertebrae. He was seventeen thousand feet up at the time, on difficult terrain on the highest mountain in North America, but he brushed off the injury and carried on.
The vertebrae healed, but the injury curved Gibson’s ramrod-straight spine and in 1945, at fifty-three, he was retired as a total disability case. Characteristically, Gibson snorted at this indignity and proceeded to start life anew. He married and became a father. He had met his wife, Ethne Gale, also an enthusiastic climber, when she joined the Alpine Club. Gibson sold his farm and moved to Saanichton, B.C., from where he could foray into the high mountains with that almost boyish enthusiasm his friends found so engaging. Gibson would undertake even minor routine tasks with enormous zest. Frank Smythe, who had become famous for his attempts on Everest before coming to Canada, described Gib-
son in action on one of their expeditions:
“Wood was needed for the Jcitchen and supports for the mess tent. This is an occasion when Rex Gibson comes into his own. He glances around with a proprietary and predatory eye, and I seem to see the trees shivering. He selects one, and with axe in hand almost leaps upon it. He does not merely cut it down, but attacks it. The chips fly like bullets from an automatic gun. A tree a mere eight to ten inches in diameter is slain in a matter of seconds, and if a foot or more, in a minute or two.”
Gibson repeatedly assaulted one of the most difficult peaks in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Alberta. He explained to friends, “There’s an axe on the summit I want as a souvenir.” He meant that he wanted to wipe out what he considered an indignity—the fact that Mount Alberta had been climbed only once, in 1925, by a team from Japan supported by Swiss guides hired at great expense for the purpose. What annoyed Gibson was that the climb was undertaken for national prestige by the Japanese, and not for the sport of mountaineering. The propaganda mountaineers had left an ice axe behind. In the stories that spread about Gibson’s many (and always unsuccessful) attempts to climb Mount Alberta, the humble Japanese implement was magnified into “a golden axe.”
It was in the same spirit of searching out challenging ascents that Gibson had launched his fourth attack on Mount Howson, an attempt that now found him gravely injured and roped to a narrow shelf halfway up the mountain, while his friend Hendricks, almost as severely battered, crawled downward with faint hope of fetching help in time.
To Sterling Hendricks that climb down was an unforgettable nightmare of frustration. Normally a mountain climber leaps lightly down a drop as much as five feet deep, but Hendricks had to crawl down even the smallest declivity because of his back injury. He could not turn on his stomach and use his chest for leverage because of his fractured rib. One good arm and a pair of moderately operative legs proved to be surprisingly poor equipment for climbing down a mountain.
The first crucial test of whether the descent was at all possible came when he encountered a fifteen-foot sheer drop. Hendricks drove a piton into a rock cleft at the brink, snapped a ring to the stake, passed his rope through the ring and began to experiment with the rope wrapped around his body and legs in various ways that might permit him to lower himself safely. Two-handed, it was
Who ÍS it? on page 94
Barbara Ann Scott (now King) who was the first Canadian to win the Olympic Women’s Figure Skating Championship.
Hendricks’ rope caught on the rockUnless he could get it free in time three men would die
a five-minute routine operation. Onehanded, it became a perilous experiment in an unknown technique. It was an hour before Hendricks felt he had worked out a procedure safe enough to trust.
When he reached the bottom of that first drop, he sat exhausted with his back to rock wall for a long time before he could continue. Nearby was a small pool of melted snow. Hendricks leaned over for a drink but the agony of his back prevented his reaching the water. He chewed a mouthful of snow instead.
There were steeper, deeper cliffs to be scaled yet, Hendricks knew. When he had picked his way to the next, the trialand-error process started again. This time he must be sure beyond question that he had the rope rigged for a controlled descent. He might survive a fifteen-foot drop, but not a plunge of thirty feet. It was another hour before Hendricks touched rock at the bottom. With his good arm he tugged at the precious rope, to free it from the piton ring and coil it for the next rappel, or rope descent. The rope stuck. Hendricks pulled harder, but the rope did not give.
It was a desperate situation. Unless he could retrieve the rope he would be unable to negotiate later drops. He would be marooned alone on Mount Howson's west ridge, as far from aid as Gibson and Hubbard back there on the ledge.
He tried again, this time taking the rope in his teeth and pulling with his neck muscles in unison with his arm. The added force freed the rope and it snaked down upon him.
When he had roped himself down the last of the sheer drops, Hendricks could see far below the rim of the glacier above the advanced camp. Mentally, he worked out a rough timetable for survival: if he could reach the glacier’s final snow slope, six hundred feet above where it debouched into the rocky moraine near the forward camp, before darkness descended, his own chances and that of the injured men behind him would be doubled. The surface of the glacier, with the sun still shining on it, would be soft enough to be kicked into footholds; and only with light to see could the glacier be negotiated. He could rest in the advanced camp and gather strength to make the threemile journey down to the base camp in time for Fabergé and Peterson to meet the plane, which they had arranged to return for them on the next day, Monday, and send it back for a helicopter. Meanwhile, Fabergé and Peterson could try to get a tent, sleeping bags and firstaid supplies up the mountain to Gibson and Hubbard after only one night of exposure. Hendricks also made an estimate of his own chances of survival: good, if he could get down the glacier before dark; zero if he tried the descent after sundown;. fifty-fifty if he had to spend a night in the open at below-freezing temperature. The clothes he was wearing were pitifully inadequate — medium-weight underwear and a Dacronlined jacket were his principal protection against cold.
So Hendricks increased his ratio of speed to safety. The ground above the glacier was rough and broken, but it was the least difficult going he would encounter in the whole descent. Sometimes sliding painfully on the seat of his pants, sometimes shambling from rock to rock, steadying himself with his good hand, he made his best time yet. Whenever possible he traveled so that a patch of snow
was behind him, in the hope that the westering sun might silhouette him against the white and be visible to the men in the base camp more than three miles away. There were two hours of daylight remaining when he reached the glacier.
The upper part of the glacier was an unpleasant mixture of short, sharp rock drop-offs and steep snow slides, almost beyond the powers of an injured man traveling alone to cross. One careless step could mean a fatal tumble. Even though he kept his pace of descent at the danger point. Hendricks’ progress was maddeningly slow. In two hours the sun was on the horizon’s rim and he was still two hundred feet short of the final snowfield.
Hendricks now had to accept defeat, to face the ordeal of spending the night on the glacier, within sight of the unattainable camp with its tent, food, gasoline stove and sleeping bag.
Hendricks knew that this night must be devoted to one objective: survival. He must not sleep, therefore he must not try even to make himself comfortable. He sat in a crouch through nine hours of darkness. At intervals he opened his jacket and shirt and breathed into the space between his clothing and his body, using the warmth of his lungs, retained by the Dacron lining of his jacket, to keep the temperature of his body above the danger point. That lining saved his life, he says now. His arms and legs were numb with cold, but his body kept thawed out.
Death waited in ambush
It was an exhausting night, though, and dawn found him cramped and with energy at a low ebb. The coming of the sun revealed a dull overcast day. The glacier’s final snow slope would remain frozen and impossibly dangerous to descend. A bright sun would have softened the surface and made it possible for him to kick steps for his downward passage.
Hendricks also needed the sun badly to put his own battered body into a semblance of working order. In the chill early light he was slowed down even worse than the day before. It took him a painful hour to travel the two hundred feet from his night’s resting place to the top of the snow slope. There he sat and watched the surface impatiently for signs of softening. Three hours, and the snow crust remained glasslike. Another hour brought slight signs of softening.
Hendricks would wait no longer. He wrapped his eighty feet of rope around his body, hoping it might have some braking effect on the snow crust. He drove his ice axe into the snow with his good arm, swung his legs over the rim of snow, kicked two shallow heel holds in the resistant crust, and launched himself onto the giant slide, sixhundred feet above where its tail fanned out in an ambush of waiting rocks.
The rope and the axe and the heel holds combined to hold Hendricks’ descent. He kicked more holds and lowered himself cautiously. Then more and more. In two hours he was a hundred and fifty feet beneath the rim. The time was noon.
Hendricks knew he was not moving fast enough. At this rate he might not be able to reach the base camp before dark. It would mean another night in the open, with the odds against him higher. Worse, it would mean that the plane, due this afternoon, would be sent back by Fabergé
and Peterson when Gibson and his party didn’t show up, with instructions to return in a day or two — but without the summons for a helicopter.
Hendricks tried to kick his heel holds faster, but succeeded only in kicking them shallower — too shallow to hold his weight. He lost control of his descent and started sliding freely on his back toward the black rocks below.
His first thought was annoyance at all the ordeal of yesterday and last night being in vain, at his failure to survive on this last traverse. He abandoned himself to the grim exhilaration of riding a glacier to doom.
Somehow, the uncontrolled acceleration of such a fall did not come. In fact Hendricks realized that he was descending at a brisk but reasonable speed, braked by the friction of his roped body against the softening snow. Tentatively, he dug his axe head in — and his slide slowed, then stopped.
Hendricks felt pleased with himself. He had finally evolved a way of traveling fast. Now he could survey the next section of the slide for hazards and calculate how far he could ride freely to the next rough part or other obstacle. He tried to sit up. Nothing happened.
“Stop the plane”
For the first time since he had extricated himself from under the crust after he and Gibson and Hubbard had fallen down the mountain, Hendricks’ injuries had taken over. He lay paralyzed on his back on the snow crust. He flailed with his good arm; he kicked at the snow with his legs, but these struggles only brought pain. It required half an hour of concentrated desperate effort for Hendricks to sit up. From what he could see of the snowfield below he calculated that he could slide another hundred and fifty feet safely. This time he traveled on his stomach, hoping that it would be easier to sit up from that position when he came to a stop. But he had to keep his broken rib from scraping on the ice, and his posture was so awkward that he had to use both hands on his axe to bring himself to a stop. The pain of using his broken shoulder was so great that he had to lie still and muster strength for another half hour before he could sit up.
Somehow Hendricks summoned the patience to descend the last part of the snowfield with caution, and finally he stood on solid ground below the snowfield—past danger. A few steps away was the tent of the advanced camp, and in it food and warmth and safety for blessed sleep. But that would be defeat. He turned doggedly toward the base camp. He stumbled the three miles in five hours. Near the camp Peterson saw him coming and ran to help the dazed man.
Hendricks was almost incoherent, but he made Peterson understand what had happened. Peterson told him that Fabergé had gone to Burnie Lake to meet the plane. Since the Howson party had not returned, Fabergé intended to send the pilot back to his base at Terrace, forty miles westward, with instructions to wire Mrs. Gibson there had been a delay, and to return in three days.
“Stop the plane,” Hendricks demanded. “Get there before it takes off.”
Peterson ran. From the base camp to the lake was three miles, half of it through scrub woods just below timberline, none of it friendly to a runner. He was deep in the woods, with the lake almost in sight, when he heard the roar of the plane's motor. Peterson’s shouts were drowned in the plane’s take-off.
Fabergé and Peterson returned to the base camp. There was never any doubt
what they would do—go up the mountain after the two injured men. But first they must attend to Hendricks’ injuries. He refused their attention.
“I’ve survived to this point,” he said testily. “Put me in a sleeping bag, leave some food within reach, and I’ll manage.” He gave the two men directions as best he could for reaching the ledge at the foot of the snow-filled cleft. From what he had observed on his descent he believed they could climb directly from beneath instead of taking his route.
Fabergé and Peterson left immediately for the advanced camp, although it was by then nearly dark and the last mile would be perilous. They spent the night at the camp and at dawn on Tuesday, August 20, they packed up most of the camp into two shoulder packs of fifty pounds each — tent, sleeping bags, food, medicines, primus stove, cooking gear and half a gallon of gasoline. They had to be prepared to set up some semblance of a field hospital for two men with severe but unknown injuries. Under the heavy burden Fabergé and Peterson climbed slowly. By late morning they could see the incredibly steep snow-filled gash in Howson’s southwest face described by Hendricks. Somewhere up there were the men they sought. From time to time they paused, to shout and to listen for a sign of life, for an answering call from Donald Hubbard.
Hubbard, crouched on the narrow ledge with his back against the wall, supporting Rex Gibson’s head in his arms, had indeed been shouting periodically that morning; not long-odds cries for help, but signals to guide possible searchers.
He had survived the two most unearthly days of his life there on the ledge, sweating out two mathematical formulas that would decide their fate. First, the certainty that they could outlast only a limited number of nights’ exposure. Even if Hendricks got down safely, Hubbard did not believe Fabergé and Peterson could rescue Gibson and himself. He did not think they would try, but would consider it wiser to fly out for help, either for a helicopter or an experienced rescue party. Hubbard drew considerable comfort from the thought that he shared the ledge with Canada’s foremost mountain climber, and that the thousand-member Alpine Club would rush into action as soon as it heard of its president’s predicament. Nevertheless Hubbard had to draw up a grim balance sheet: help could not come before Thursday at the earliest— and he could not live beyond Thursday night at the latest. Gibson probably could not last as long.
On the other hand there was a wildly unpredictable danger that a rock fall or an avalanche would snuff out their lives at any instant.
The first rock fall had crashed and ricocheted past their ledge a few minutes after Hendricks disappeared over the rim of the rock face above. It seemed to Hubbard that the shrapnel of rocks had come from the height where he had last seen Hendricks. This lent a chilling thought: the climb had been too much for Hendricks; he had collapsed of his injuries just beyond sight and his struggles to arise had started the rock fall. For two days now he had lived with that fear, that Hendricks lay helpless on the mountain and he was patiently waiting for help that would not be summoned.
Their bombardment by the mountain punctuated the monotony of that waiting. At unpredictable intervals would come the rumble of a rock fall starting. Hubbard would hear it bounce at its first landing and would try to guess, almost impersonally, where it would land next.
Mostly the rocks, like flocks of nightmarish black birds, whistled past the shelf and on down the gully. But one fall came from directly overhead and the biggest boulder shattered itself just above them and leaped over them. Gibson opened his eyes and said evenly, “That was close.”
Apart from the danger it was an eerie experience to be the captive witness of a mountain’s slow, inexorable self-destruction. As an experienced mountaineer Hubbard knew that the Rockies and their tributaries are crumbling mountains, geologically no more than a temporary feature of the western landscape, in a few eons of time to be broad heaps of rubble. But now he was listening and dodging while Mount Howson went about the process of disintegration. Every pound of rock that fell was lost to the mountain, never to be replaced. Gravity, wind, rain, freezing and thawing were joining forces to pull a mountain down about his ears.
Avalanches were more predictable than rock falls, but perhaps more dangerous because they flowed rather than bounced. From sundown to mid-morning the snow was locked in place by cold. Then the sun would soften the snow and by noon the avalanches started. Most of the falls followed the “avalanche gutter” in the middle of the gully down which he and his companions had fallen, but some piled their ten-foot drifts too close to the ledge for comfort. One spent itself so near that the boots of the two men were buried in its side.
Hubbard fought the sleepless hours of ever-present danger by instituting a system, a routine, for life on the shelf. First he made an inventory of the food supply. They had started out with enough for two meals for three people, and had eaten nothing. In the food pack was half a pound of cheese, a can of corned beef, a can of sardines, a loaf of bread, a quarter pound of butter, dried apples, dates and shelled pecans.
Hubbard opened the corned beef and gave some to Gibson. He became violently nauseated, which caused Hubbard to fear severe internal injuries. Gibson asked for water. Their only cup was the corned-beef can. To reach the water— the same trickle that had saved their lives by weakening the snow crust—Hubbard had to edge his way past Gibson, who was tied to the widest part of the ledge for safety, and thus lay between Hubbard and the inner part of the gully. Then he had to reach out to the extreme limit of his balance until the trickling water filled the can. The procurement of water became Hubbard’s major project. He counted twenty trips.
Hubbard also experimented with his broken leg. In the event that Hendricks was on the rocks above, his own ability to descend the mountain somehow depended solely on that numb useless limb. Hubbard tried holding the broken bone in various positions. Suddenly he found one in which, when some weight was put on the leg, nauseating pain did not ensue. He padded and bound the leg in that position, and ensuing trips for water became exercises in how to walk with a broken leg.
Hubbard could do little for Gibson, and it saddened him that Gibson was so deeply grateful for what little he could do. Gibson refused food, so Hubbard plied him with water: Gibson sometimes showed discomfort and Hubbard would shift him to a new position; sometimes he seemed cold, and Hubbard lined his torn clothes with the socks and jacket Hendricks left behind.
“Ah, splendid of you . . . that’s just right now,” Gibson would say gently, and
Hubbard would almost weep at his own impotence to do anything worthy of thanks.
On Monday, Gibson seemed semi-conscious and had scarcely stirred. Then, in the afternoon, came a strange and pitiful change. In a clear forceful voice, without stirring his body, Gibson enacted his own rescue. In his imagination, the helicopter landed on the glacier below the cliff at their ledge. Gibson took charge of the operation from there. Once more he was commanding officer of a squad of likely young men who needed only his firm kindly guidance to be excellent climbers. He had praise for this one, a word of advice for that one, as the rescuers reached the shelf. He directed them how to place him on the stretcher and carefully lower him down the rough slopes to the waiting helicopter. Then he was in hospital, battered but quite comfortable and inclined to treat the whole incident as a bit of the price a man must pay for good mountain climbing.
Presently Gibson said to Hubbard, “Have they got you down yet?”
“Not yet,” said Hubbard.
“Don’t worry,” Gibson told him. “I’ve been through it and it’s all right.”
“It was a wonderful dream”
On Tuesday morning Gibson seemed weaker. He refused a drink for the first time, by shaking his head. He did not speak. Later Hubbard saw him smile. “Getting rescued,” he said, “was a wonderful dream.” Those were his last words.
Toward noon Hubbard knew that Gibson’s end was near. He was holding Gibson’s head on his knees and rubbing his head and chest, which seemed to ease his discomfort, when he noticed his breathing had become almost inaudible.
Hubbard thought; “I cannot let a friend die like this, without some sort of religious rite.” Holding Gibson, Hubbard raised his head and pealed the words of the hymn Lead Kindly Light into the echoing mountains. After a long silence he knew that Gibson was dead.
An hour later he heard a noise that came to him from up the slope. It was unmistakably a human voice calling. Hubbard thought it was Hendricks, thought that this confirmed his fear that Hendricks had never got down. He shouted in answer.
Then he saw two heads appear over the rim of the cliff below him. It was Fabergé and Peterson. Their calls had echoed above from a trick of mountain acoustics.
Little was said. Hubbard set about the melancholy task of securing Gibson’s body with extra ropes to the shelf. Peterson spoke a silent Quaker prayer, and the three men started downward. There was no question of trying to bring back the body then. To get Hubbard down was in itself a task of incredible patience and fortitude that lasted three days. Each stage of the descent required elaborate roping procedures by Fabergé and Peterson to lower Hubbard and his almost useless leg. Hubbard had to rest every half hour, and this added to the delays because after two sleepless nights he fell asleep repeatedly at rest stops. On the last day of the climb down an airplane suddenly appeared around the mountain, flying as low and as slowly as it dared. It had been sent by Mrs. Gibson to reconnoitre, after she had learned that her husband’s party had been delayed. Fabergé signaled it with a mirror. The pilot blinked his landing lights three times, as if confirming that three men were coming safely down the mountainside.
Unfortunately, the pilot's optimistic report raised Mrs. Gibson’s hope that her husband was safe—hope that was dashed when the four survivors reached Terrace in their own chartered plane.
Immediately, members of the Alpine Club of Canada organized a party to go to Mount Howson to attempt to recover Major Gibson’s body. Provincial-government officials discussed a similar operation. But Mrs. Gibson requested that nobody climb the slope that killed her husband. She said he had left this request with her: should he die in the mountains, no life must under any condition be risked to bring his body out. She asked that his wish be respected. Both the Alpine Club and the government have acquiesced.
But next year, when climbing weather returns, a group of Alpine Club members will go to Howson. They will raise a rock cairn to Rex Gibson’s memory on Howson’s slopes. And Sterling Hendricks, Donald Hubbard, Alexander Fabergé and Alvin Peterson wish strongly to help build this memorial to their friend. ★