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  July/August 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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I Was Here
A High Sierra search for the voices of climbers past
By Andrew Becker
July/August 2008

(page 2 of 2)

Did He Do the Right Thing?
I kept my mouth shut about the woodworth register for 15 years. In 1992, acting on a hunch by my friend Robin Ingraham, my wife, Nancy, and I had climbed Mt. Woodworth to see if the oldest summit register in the Sierra was really there. The climb itself was nothing special--a Class 2 grunt over miles of loose terrain. After a few minutes of searching, we carefully opened the metal cylinder and found the frail scrap of paper with Bolton Coit Brown's signature, route description, and a date of August 1, 1895. The register contained a who's who of Sierra climbing, including Joseph LeConte, Robert Price, and Helen Gumpertz. There was plenty of space left to sign on pages that still listed John Muir as Sierra Club president. We added our names and left.

Last fall Ingraham called to tell me he had seen an Internet post that included a description of the Woodworth register, pictures, and directions leading to it. We agreed that the register was in peril from unscrupulous collectors and/or vandals: Now was the time to take it down.

It had just snowed six inches, and the days were short. I trudged through slick loose powder up Bishop Pass. As I crossed into Dusy Basin, there was not a soul in sight that November day. At the Woodworth summit, I was greeted by an icy blast of wind. Snow grains whipped through the air and drummed the hood of my parka. With immense relief, I saw the register. Time for this old thing to get down the mountain and to the Sierra Club library before it's too late. I stowed the register in my pack, jammed my hands into my gloves, and headed back to camp. —Claude Fiddler

THREE WEEKS AFTER I REACHED the top of Lyell, my friend Jeff Nachtigal and his wife, Sara, join me for the climb up Black Kaweah. We hike in a few miles and set up camp the night before to cut off some time and distance from the 14-mile approach that scales two significant passes just to get to the base of the route. The next morning we get a late start, leaving camp around 8:30. As we trudge up the sandy switchbacks of Sawtooth Pass, two climbers descend toward us. When they tell us they climbed Black Kaweah and saw the signatures of Starr, Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, and others, I practically jump into their arms with excitement.

Jeff is stricken with a cold, however, and as his energy wanes our speed plummets. After crossing Hands and Knees Pass and descending into a gorgeous basin known as Little Five Lakes, we split up, my friends encouraging me to push for the summit. I run down the trail, hoping to reach the base by 4 p.m. Eight hours from camp, I am still a mile from the base of the route and face the reality of at least ten more miles of hiking to go.

At 4:30 I'm still a half hour from the tarn below Black Kaweah's looming southwest face when I meet Joe Stephens, a climber from the San Francisco Bay Area. He first topped Black Kaweah 20 years before and spent the day preparing for another ascent by scaling other peaks in the Kaweah Range. "It's suicide if you try to climb Black now," he says.

I wiggle my toes as I consider his advice. He's right. I glance back at the peak and retrace my steps, stumbling down the steep forested slope I took out of the deep Big Arroyo, then back up to Little Five Lakes.

A gauzy light covers the sky, the sunset reddened by forest fires burning to the south. I face a dilemma: I can either try to return to camp that night or trek to the backcountry ranger's cabin, hoping to sleep there, albeit without a sleeping bag. But my friends and I had agreed that if I didn't return to camp the next day by 11 a.m., the Nachtigals were to seek help, so I push on, passing by three climbers who are already bedded down for the evening. As dark falls, I arrive at the crest of Hands and Knees Pass. By memory, I work my way down the slabs and scree, barely aided by the sliver of blood-orange moonlight. On a ledge, I don my helmet and turn on my headlamp, then drop to another ledge.

Where I find myself stuck.

Then something catches my eye. From Spring Lake, a few hundred feet below, a light flashes once, then again. I turn my headlamp off and on again, signaling back. I take a deep breath, promising myself (and my wife and unborn twins) I'll never get into a situation like this again, and delicately ease myself down the rounded granite wall. I extend far to my left and inch my fingers into a grassy crack. Lowering my left leg, I shift my weight onto my pointed right foot and ease onto another bench. A wave of nausea rises and falls inside me. I'm glad that's over.

It's nearly 9 p.m. by the time I reach level ground. I still have another Class 3 pass and two or three hours of stumbling before I reach camp. As I try to visualize the cross-country route we took this morning, the light flashes again, and a voice booms out from 50 feet away: "Campsite over here!" I wobble into camp and am greeted by a gigantic hand, which I shake vigorously. The next thing I know, I am being showered with offers of food, water, clothes, and even a tent and sleeping bag.

Around seven the next morning, I get my first full view of the man attached to the hand that welcomed me into camp. Standing seven feet two inches, Ralph Drollinger is a former pro basketball player (he also played center on John Wooden's last UCLA team to win a national championship). The day before he led a group of evangelical Christians, including an 11-year-old boy, to the summit of Black Kaweah. I stuff my pride back down my throat and try to hide my jealousy.

An hour or so later we break camp, and although I am not accustomed to morning hiking prayers, I belt out an "Amen!" at the end of theirs--and add a plea that the register still be there next season when I try again.

Andrew Becker has written for Los Angeles magazine, PBS/Frontline, and Outside. He lives in Oakland, California.


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