The Cleanest Line


This distant view of the Hummingbird Ridge shows the immensity of the climb, starting at the rocky cliffs at lower right to the summit three and a half miles away and some 13,000 feet higher. Photo: Roy Johnson Jr.
This distant view of the Hummingbird Ridge shows the immensity of the climb, starting at the rocky cliffs at lower right to the summit three and a half miles away and some 13,000 feet higher. Photo: Roy Johnson Jr.

First Ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge (1965)

By Allen Steck   |   Nov 16, 2017 November 16, 2017

In honor of the release of A Mountaineer’s Life by Allen Steck, Patagonia Books is pleased to share this excerpt from chapter eight. 

Camp II was a desperate and fearful place. We spent seven days there in severe weather. We could not leave the tents without going onto the fixed lines; the weakened cornice behind us was unpleasant to contemplate. We were not much closer to the summit than we had been at base camp, and our thoughts vacillated between advance and retreat. As the storm engulfed us we became more and more despondent. One evening Long lay in the back of the tent, his face reflecting a deep sadness. “What will it take to climb this ridge?” he muttered quietly.

“It is not the role of grand alpinisme to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs.”

—Lionel Terray, 1965

Some wanted to start the retreat right away, but we eventually agreed to continue to the Snow Dome with the proviso that we would return to base camp if we weren’t across the traverse beyond it by August 2. This part of the climb, which came to be called the Shovel Traverse, was a forbidding 3,200-foot horizontal ridge, capped by an unbelievable array of double cornices, which led out from the Snow Dome toward the summit.

Looking up-route across the “Shovel Traverse,” you can discern all five of my partners. The team was moving from Camp IV to Camp V, and two partners are gathered at Camp V, while three others are negotiating the corniced ridge. Photo: Allen Steck
Looking up-route across the “Shovel Traverse,” you can discern all five of my partners. The team was moving from Camp IV to Camp V, and two partners are gathered at Camp V, while three others are negotiating the corniced ridge. Photo: Allen Steck

Our pessimism was such that each of us was imagining how to arrange the retreat. Coale had a wild scheme to tie all our ropes, belts, and shoelaces into one huge rappel, should the need for escape arise. This was just the sort of fantasy one would expect of his vigorous engineering mind. He displayed a beautifully positive, fearless spirit at Camp II, which the rest of us felt was surely fraudulent but nevertheless endured.

Bacon also performed well considering his rather recent recovery from a fall he’d taken in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder, Colorado. He was new to the expedition game. One day he, Evans, and I were engaged in a ten-hour load-hauling session when I heard what sounded like a falling rock and instinctively hugged the wall. But no rock came down. I looked around and there hovering over my red pack was a hummingbird, obviously hoping for a bit of nourishment. In a moment it flew away, consuming its fuel supply at a rate perhaps thirty times my own. My little friend, you and I are both intruders on this lifeless ridge, I thought. We are now both engaged in a struggle with our environment, though mine appears the more absurd. Or is it really? Maybe it’s the city that’s absurd and life here is more real. I wonder which of us is the better prepared to meet the trials to come. I shall be thinking of you. Thanks to you we have a name for our route. The mind struggles now to comprehend the meaning of all this.

A view looking back over the 900-meter-long corniced “Shovel Traverse” section of Mount Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge from about 170 meters above. Photo: Allen Steck
A view looking back over the 900-meter-long corniced “Shovel Traverse” section of Mount Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge from about 170 meters above. Photo: Allen Steck

Wilson, expedition philosopher and cook, pronounced Camp II safe by postulating that the cornice, should it collapse, would not take the tents and its occupants with it. He was a proponent of the value of “suffering” to be found in mountaineering, the enjoyment of the sport being in direct proportion to this ingredient. Another certainty that came to mind was that of the unwashed body. Shortly after our return I recall that my aunt, a psychologist, asked me in astonishment, “You mean to say that you went thirty-three days without washing?” The great mental forces that lead inexorably to mountaineering were well known to her, but going unwashed was a concept she could not quite understand.

I heartily recommend a week at Camp II for anyone desirous of experiencing the deep excitement of living. The view from Camp II was most peaceful as long as your eyes were closed. You could then evoke such pacifying images as lush, expansive green meadows, tropical ferns, soft leaves pressed into moss. Open your eyes and there you have it—great contrast and the cult of danger. As Wilfred Noyce once wrote: “See that vast glacial expanse: no living thing … the only forces at work being the wind, the caress of the sun and the terrible crushing power of moving ice.” Wilson, his eyes happily closed, merely noted, “I would rather be back in Livermore fighting for fluoridation.”

One of my partners descends from Camp III. The precarious perch of Camp II, where the team excavated a small ledge from a cornice, can be discerned at the high point of the serrated ridge below. You can make out much of the trail of climbing along the jagged ridgecrest. Photo: Allen Steck
One of my partners descends from Camp III. The precarious perch of Camp II, where the team excavated a small ledge from a cornice, can be discerned at the high point of the serrated ridge below. You can make out much of the trail of climbing along the jagged ridgecrest. Photo: Allen Steck

Through the ritual of democratic discourse we arrived at a temporary solution to the problems of Camp II by abandoning them for those to be found at Camp III. The Snow Dome became our primary objective. The main concern now was our dwindling supplies. By the time we arrived at Camp III we had been out twenty-one days and while our loads were getting lighter, visions of food were becoming more intense. Our cache on the glacier below King Peak intruded more and more into my thoughts. There was no more disturbing idea than not being able to find it on the great expanse of that icy plateau.

Camp II was precarious. Camp III was even more exposed, although without the excitement of the cornice, which had collapsed on the day of our departure. The weather turned really bad during the carry to Camp IV on the Snow Dome. Long and I contemplated going down to collect the fixed lines below Camp IV that evening, but decided not to since we were certain that retreat would begin the following day. You may imagine our joy when the storm miraculously dissipated and we looked out onto the incredible traverse in brilliant sunshine on the following morning. It was July 31 and suddenly the summit seemed possible.

First Ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge (1965)

NOW AVAILABLE

A Mountaineer’s Life

Tales of the trail from a living legend, The Slim Fox. 

Sixteen-year-old Allen Steck made his initial climb, a first ascent of Mount Maclure in the Sierras, with no hardware, no ropes, no experience. But the event turned his into a mountaineer’s life. These are stories from the days when mountain climbing was discovery, when men like Steck forged new routes, both literal and literary. With dry humor and detailed recall, he captures the excitement and intrigue of a time when there were few rules and no guidelines. As he says, “We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaging in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless and totally without redeeming social significance. One should not probe for deeper meanings.”

With amazing photographs, many published for the first time, this memoir is a treasure, an inspiration, and an anchor to the foundation of the life-changing sport of alpine climbing.

Now available at patagonia.com and local booksellers. 

Allen Steck looks through some of his slides at Patagonia HQ while working on his new book, A Mountaineer’s Life. Photo: Kyle Sparks
Allen Steck looks through some of his slides at Patagonia HQ while working on his new book, A Mountaineer’s Life. Photo: Kyle Sparks

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