Mather's Folly

Mather's Folly

 

Photo: Richard Wiggin ‘70

It is May 1978, and a small band of adventurers huddle inside a cluster of tents on an unwelcoming hillside in Alaska’s Aleutian Mountain Range. Outside, the rain pounds down like it was shot out of a huge fire hose. For nearly a week, they have trudged through waist-deep swamps, dodged bears, and prayed for blue skies–just as many of the group did the previous August, when the summer’s ferocious wind and driving rain simply caught their expedition by surprise and deterred them from their quest: to scale Mount Denison, the tallest peak in Katmai National Monument.

It had been so dubbed in 1923 in honor of Denison University by a 1909 graduate, Kirtley Mather, who was the first to document its existence. But to anyone’s knowledge, it had never been climbed.

On that first expedition, Richard Soaper ‘77 had suggested another name for the 7,606-foot-tall mass of rock, snow, and ice: “Mather’s Folly,” he called it when, confined to his own tent, he mused why their predecessor would place their college’s name among such brutal environs. Who would’ve thought that such a small peak–a cakewalk by any motivated mountain climber’s standards–could pack such a meteorological wallop?

And now, having passed the point where the first expedition turned around, some members of the second venture may have begun to agree with Soaper as crushing walls of rain, biting snow squalls, and disorienting fog posed all-too-familiar threats. They had planned this trip for May expecting the weather to be more cooperative. So much for that idea.

The group of experienced climbers includes five members of the first excursion–history professor Bill Dennis, John Phillips ‘75, Espen Brooks ‘77, Lou Berizzi ‘77, Richard Soaper ‘77, and John Faraci ‘72–who are joined by Fritz Kaeser ‘80 and Richard Wiggin ‘70. Confined once again to their tents as they wait for the clouds to part, they grow so bored that they separate M&Ms by color and count the hundreds of little squares that make up the fabric of the tent.

But, the weather be damned! It was their mountain; it was named for their school! They’d come thousands of miles to get here and waded for hours through numbingly cold wetlands and glacial streams before they even made it to Mount Denison’s foot. They climbed through deep snow, traced around gaping crevasses, and spent the last three seemingly endless days stuffed into tents. This time, nothing would stop them.

Finally, the squalls subside. The steepest part is behind them now and they’ve no idea what lies ahead. The maps show that a broad, gently sloping bowl rises into Mount Denison’s summit cone. This is the goal. Three lonely peaks tower in the distance, shining radiantly in the late afternoon sun. To their left and right, outcroppings, snowy ridges, and shoulder peaks frame an incredible panorama. The thrill of being the first people to tread this virgin land is lost on no one.

About half a mile from the summit there appear to be no major obstacles. All they must do is find the summit ridge, a few hundred yards short of the peak. But another snow squall enshrouds them and intensifies as they grow near the summit. It’s now actually raining through the snow. They pick a way forward with nearly zero visibility, soaking wet and exhausted.

Slowly, a dim outline of rock emerges ahead with a faint ridge of snow. The climbers pierce the squall where the ridge becomes an unusual jumble of mounds, all piled on top of each other as if pushed up into a huge bank by some giant snowplow. One by one, they climb over each mound only to find a higher one beyond it. Three feet on either side, the ridge drops into an unknown milky void. Bill Dennis tries to climb around some of the knobs, but can’t secure his footing. There are no shortcuts; they must keep climbing.

Through blinding fog, Dennis finds the highest mound. This is it! This is the peak! The clouds and snow steal the vista’s stunning view, and the expeditioners can only imagine how spectacular it must be. Dennis’s honor of reaching the peak first seems only fair to the others. After all, he took responsibility for coordinating both excursions. He insists it’s a community effort, but all look to him for guidance, literally and figuratively.

Former Denison psychology professor Allen Parchem crosses a glacial stream in the first expedition to Mount Denison. If only that was all his team had to endure…

Photo: Richard Wiggin

Espen Brooks positions his bulky movie camera and films his professor’s rise to the summit. Dennis plants his ice axe and drops his backpack, beckoning the rest to follow. This is the culmination of two expeditions and two years of effort. As if the heavens are praising the achievement, the clouds lighten overhead. Beyond them, a large dark shape emerges dimly, and disappears. Then, like something out of a Hollywood movie, the clouds blow apart, revealing not one, but two massive snow covered peaks standing two to three miles away.

“Oh, my God!” they cry, among other expletives. “This isn’t Mount Denison!”

Their view of Mount Denison’s distant peak, while a gut-wrenching disappointment, was the first visual identification of the mountain since Kirtley Mather named it nearly 55 years earlier. When the first expedition landed on a rocky beach at Alaska’s Hallo Bay to begin its ascent, Mount Denison was obscured by clouds and remained so during the entire trek. There was simply no way for them to chart an accurate route to what they perceived to be the summit, much to the chagrin of the second expedition. The first expedition, had it been successful, may have met with the same unpleasant surprise.

Mount Denison lies within the remote boundaries of Alaska’s Katmai National Monument, the largest unit in the American National Park Service System. In 1923, Mather was part of a U.S. Geological Survey team sent to the base of the Alaska Peninsula, about 300 air miles southwest of Anchorage. From June through October, Mather traveled the back country by horseback mapping the region. The highest summit he saw, an extinct volcano, he named for his alma mater–Denison University.

Fast forward to 1976, when Allen Parchem, assistant professor of psychology and director of Denison’s Wilderness Outreach Program, learns of a display in Barney Hall dedicated to Mount Denison. It was the first time he’d heard of Mount Denison, but his immediate reaction was to climb it. He believed that he, along with Bill Dennis, who ran Wilderness Outreach with him, and a few undergraduates and recent alumni were ready for the challenge. Nearly as difficult as climbing Mount Denison, however, was raising the money to get there, even though the expedition had the university’s blessing. Parchem noted that the group had about $1,500 available to it from the university, leaving thousands more to be raised independently. But the enthusiastic group–the two professors and Faraci, Phillips, Berizzi, Brooks, Soaper, Jan Auman ‘78, and Susan Goodale ‘80–got the money and a plan together and embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime.

Parchem said that he had his first taste of the ‘77 expedition’s forthcoming difficulties at King Salmon, Alaska, which was the group’s last stop before being flown by a bush pilot to the foot of the mountain. The team loaded more than 700 pounds of gear onto a single engine DeHavilland Otter cargo plane. The Otter was likely overloaded for this flight as it strained to lift above a runway lined with wreckage from previous unsuccessful flights. On the first attempt to reach their Hallo Bay destination, a low ceiling prevented them from passing through the mountains. They had to wait three more days for the Otter to safely deliver them to a rocky beach and the journey’s true beginning.

The trek began with a soggy five-mile march through an alder brush-laden, icy cold swamp to Hallo Glacier at the base of the mountain. Legions of brown bears lurked everywhere. They continually clapped their hands and banged on their backpacks to keep the bears away. Fortunately, the bears were too stuffed on salmon that time of year to look upon the group as anything but a curiosity.

After camping the first night, three members forged ahead to find a good route to the huge Hallo Glacier. It was more than 300 feet thick and topped with ice towers called seracs. The surface was so heavily broken and crevassed that it looked like a sea of peaks. No snow was left on the ice and the next day’s travel would be wet and slick. The worsening weather and the rumble of ice falling off the glacier warned of harsh conditions ahead.

A rare, heartening sunshine falls on Mount Denison on the morning of the final ascent–a welcome sight to the weatherworn climbers.

Photo: Richard Wiggin

They roped themselves into two teams and made their way up the ice. Rain pounded in frigid torrents, but the glacier provided nowhere to make camp. Trudging forward, their morale eroded in the nearly horizontal rain and their mental determination became more important than physical conditioning or climbing skill.

The weather was relentless. Whiteout conditions made it impossible to find the horizon through the wall of swirling snow. Parchem and Dennis, both selfproclaimed worrywarts, slept in separate tents as not to fuel each other’s anxiety. They each felt a parental responsibility to the rest of the team and things were not going well. But one morning, over a week into the expedition, Parchem happily woke everyone, proclaiming that the sun was shining through the clouds like rays of hope. For the first time in days, reaching the peak seemed possible.

Spirits soaring, they roped up once more and enjoyed beautiful weather and excellent climbing conditions– for about an hour. Slowly, the clouds enshrouded them and the inevitable pounding rain returned. The beleaguered team pushed onward, their visibility dropping to near zero. They came upon a large crevasse and Brooks, the excellent climber at the head of the group, had the honor of trying to find a suitable ice bridge to cross it. Gingerly, he moved over the snow, poking it with an ice pick before taking a step. It wasn’t long before Brooks ran out of rope and he’d still found no way across the crevasse. He unclipped himself from the others and ventured forth alone, disappearing into the dense fog.

“Espen, come back!” cried Parchem. His mind raced with panic as he faced his darkest worry. “Get back here!” For what seemed like an eternity, there was no reply. Parchem searched for the extra ropes and anchors to follow Brooks into the fog. Brooks’ silhouette finally emerged through the gloom. His expression was gloomier. Not only was there no good way across the crevasse, but there was another larger crevasse beyond it. That was it. It was too dangerous to continue. Begrudgingly realizing they would not reach the summit, the expeditioners solemnly turned back to set up camp at the old site.

It would take days to get back to Hallo Bay and another three days of waiting on the beach for the Otter. Back in Anchorage, Faraci, Brooks, Phillips, and Berizzi sat at the airport bar, reflecting on their experience. They vowed to return.

___

How frustrating it is for the second expedition, ten months after suffering through one failed attempt, to now be staring at Mount Denison’s peak in the distance. Just moments ago they had believed that they reached the summit. There is immediate denial and lots of soul-searching. Most of them accept that their map was wrong and they had simply picked the wrong peak, rather than that they had lost their way in the whiteout and their instincts had failed them. But, regardless of the reason for the misjudgment, they have time, the weather is cooperating, there are no expletives left to shout, and there is only one thing to do–keep going!

The next morning they make excellent time getting up and over the lower slopes. The weather and the snow conditions are so perfect that they change their route midway in favor of one steeper and more direct. An avalanche is a very real possibility, but there’s no time to dwell on such dangers.

Kick, step, anchor, kick, step, anchor–it’s a delightful climb straight up the side of the mountain. The summit nears. Deftly, carefully, Brooks leads the expedition through uncertain footing at the lip of the real summit. It’s the expedition’s first clear day and the false Mount Denison lay below, completely exposed. What a perfect climax! They plant a marker–dated for the 1977 expedition–at the peak, alongside Denison and Alpha Tau Omega flags and a Phi Beta Kappa key. As if right on cue, a small plane flying through the mountains buzzes the expedition and waggles its wings in recognition. At last, Mount Denison is theirs!

A world-renowned climber once told Parchem, who was unable to join the second expedition, that he’d walked off of far more 20,000-feet peaks than he’d ever climbed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of persistence. Parchem, who is now president and CEO of the management consulting firm RHR International, said that those on the first expedition were forced to rethink the way they looked at winning versus participating. They had to mature a bit. They didn’t get to the top, but they had accomplished a lot on that trip, including setting the groundwork for the successful second venture.

At the summit, finally, in May 1978 (l-r): Fritz Kaeser ‘80, Bill Dennis, Espen Brooks ‘77, Richard Wiggin ‘70, John Faraci ‘72, and John Phillips ‘75.

Photo: Richard Soaper ‘77

Faraci said that many of his mountain climbing skills helped him to become CEO of the International Paper Company, the same company he had been working for in the late ’70s. A business leader, like a mountain climber, must possess the ability to rely on others while also contributing as an individual to meet a common goal. Through mountain climbing, Faraci learned to be a courageous achiever, not a bystander.

Wiggin, now CEO of the biotech company Attogen, Inc., wishes his daughter could have a similar experience to his Mount Denison adventure. He dreams that she’s on top of a mountain in New Hampshire. She still has five miles to go before making camp and she’s cold. As Wiggin sees it, such experiences at least unconsciously provide a background for facing tough situations in everyday life. “Once you’ve climbed a mountain,” he said, “there’s a high degree of thinking of yourself as different from everyone else.”


Scott Rawdon is a writer from Newark, Ohio. Portions

of this article were excerpted from previous written accounts by John Faraci and Allen Parchem, who wrote for the Autumn 1977 issue of this magazine, and Richard Wiggin, whose story was published in the June 1980 Alaska magazine.


Return to the Mountain

Plans are currently being made for a third (or second, depending on how you look at it) Mount Denison expedition in 2007. Chris Dickey ‘03, a fourth-generation Denisonian and avid outdoorsman, is organizing the independent expedition and seeking fellow adventurers to join him in the quest. At this point, he’s planning a mid-2006 training expedition on Washington’s Mount Rainier. Anyone who wishes to see in person the fair college’s other hill is welcome to contact Chris at mt.denison.2007@gmail.com.

The Life and Times of

a Cowboy Geologist

Kirtley Mather, the 1909 Denison University graduate who taught at his alma mater from 1918 to 1924, is probably best known on campus as the geologist who named Alaska’s Mount Denison in 1923. But there was much more to this quiet gentleman–”Courtly Kirtley” he was called–who possessed a steel backbone, an adventuresome spirit, and a taste for standing up for his deeply-felt beliefs.

After leaving Denison, Mather became a respected member of the Harvard University faculty and a celebrated figure in liberal political circles. He also became a staunch spokesman for causes outside of his narrow scientific and academic domains, and his name often adorned newspaper headlines throughout the 20th century. Mather was on Clarence Darrow’s team that defended evolutionary theory at the 1925 Dayton, Tenn., Scopes Trial. He fought for freedom against the government-mandated Teachers’ Oaths, which called for all Massachusetts teachers to sign an oath of loyalty to the state legislature in 1935. As head of the Harvard Summer School in 1934, Mather sponsored a Boston fundraiser to support the Spanish Civil War’s Left-Wing Loyalists, who fought General Francisco Franco for the separation of church and state. He even lectured visiting Germans on the evils of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Mather is most famous politically for his fearless stance against McCarthyism and what he perceived to be un-American activities on the part of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s.

Even though Mather was a tough adversary for those who threatened his cherished beliefs on organic evolution, justice for all, and the value of politically liberal visions of democracy, he typically had a twinkle in his eye and greatly enjoyed chatting about books and ideas, according to Ken Bork, geology professor emeritus at Denison and author of the Mather biography Cracking Rocks and Defending Democracy. Bork tells that while Mather was in college, he exemplified Denison University as a scientist within a liberal arts environment; he explored his passion for politics and freedom while pursuing an education in geology. Indeed, Denison’s campus climate foreshadowed Mather’s life.

In the following years, Mather supplemented his teaching income as an adventuresome field geologist with rigorous petroleum exploration in the mountains and jungles of Bolivia and Brazil, and he was part of a U. S. Geological Survey team that investigated the geology of Alaska’s Aleutian mountain range. Awed by the rugged Aleutian landscape, Mather named the highest peak he saw for his beloved alma mater.

Mather died in 1978 at age 90 and now rests in Granville’s Maple Grove Cemetery, forever in the shadow of the college that he held so dear.

Published November 2020