“Hidden Mountains: Survival and Reckoning After a Climb Gone Wrong”
By Michael Wejchert; Ecco/HarperCollins, 2023; 239 pages; $28.99.
In June of 2018, two young couples from the East Coast, all very accomplished technical climbers, came to Alaska to climb in a remote and practically unexplored mountain range within Lake Clark National Park, on the western end of the Alaska Range. “Hidden Mountains” — the name of that range — tells the story of those four climbers and the dramatic unfolding of their expedition. Author Michael Wejchert, a climber and mountain rescuer himself, goes beyond the personalities and events themselves to probe the history and nature of sports climbing as well as questions about risks and ethics. The result is a masterpiece of adventure writing, solidly grounded in both factual details and empathetic understandings of human motivations.
The book begins on the fateful day — June 23 — with the two climbing teams — ”bits of humanity enveloped in wilderness and quiet” — making their way up two ridges of the same mountain. The granite peak was not the one they’d planned on, but they’d found the approach to their chosen mountain too difficult and settled on a nearer one, more modest but, still, unclimbed. They knew that all the rock in the area was crumbly and unstable, and they’d vowed to climb carefully and not to fall. At the end of the prologue, Emmett Lyman, leading a pitch, crosses over the ridge and out of sight of his partner. Suddenly, the rope jerks tight, rock and debris cascade down the gully across the ridge, and Emmett goes silent.
Wejchert is a tremendous storyteller, and the next pages bring the four climbers and their circle of friends to life through their passions and previous climbing adventures. Readers learn too about the mystique and history of climbing, and that the four friends, who had trained in gyms and on well-established routes throughout the country and beyond, were encouraged by their mutual friend — the well-known older climber and writer David Roberts — to attempt an adventurous first ascent in Alaska.
We learn of their careful planning, which included the procurement of inReach devices for communications and of rescue insurance. An aside tells of the 1989 mountaineering accident of Alaskans Jim Sweeney and Dave Nyman, in which a decision not to carry a radio proved nearly fatal.
Back on the mountain, we pick up with the climb. “The day was spectacular ... A few wisps of clouds drifted high overhead, casting shadows and splotches of sunlight that glinted in the riverbed, miles below.”
“Then everything changed.”
Even knowing that there’s a fall and an eventual rescue, the high-wire drama of everything that follows makes for stomach-knotting, heart-racing reading. The details that the author gleaned from interviews with everyone involved along with his own knowledge of mountain accidents take readers directly into the experience, including the science of what happens in brains at such times. Wejchert also cuts in short segments about other accidents for comparison; these provide not only context but brief emotional breaks, without pulling too far away from the immediate scene.
The author also gives detailed attention to the rescue that arrives hours later, by the 176th squadrons of the Alaska Air National Guard at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The rescue involved a helicopter, a refueling plane, and a number of PJs — pararescue jumpers — accurately described by Wejchert as “the most storied rescuers in the United States: equal parts commando and first responder, accustomed to dropping into dangerous war zones and mountain terrain alike.” The Alaskan PJs are the busiest in the country.
“… with a single text, Lauren had unleashed millions of dollars of training, manpower, and expertise, and all this was now on the verge of barreling toward the coordinates that had, until yesterday, been nothing more than another random, desolate spot in a state brimming with them.”
Between poor weather, vertical cliffs, a critically injured man, low fuel and a snafu involving ropes, the eventual rescue was nothing short of heroic. The author not only spells out every detail of it, including the mechanics of the hoist operation, but examines the risks involved — those calculated, or not, by adventurers and those imposed on their rescuers. In a different age, Emmett Lyman never would have survived. As Wejchert writes, “It takes pluck to climb a mountain, but performing a rescue on one requires something different, as the risk you incur isn’t based on your own decisions.”
In his final pages, Wejchert further interrogates the ethical issues and realities of climbing and rescuing in our modern age. “Hordes of new climbers are striking out from climbing gyms with real gaps in their knowledge base, from both a safety and a recreational standpoint … it’s imperative that we keep self-responsibility alive. Deciding how much risk we take is on us.”
Few examples of climbing literature do as impressive a job as “Hidden Mountains” to explore today’s climbing culture within its historical context, a specific set of characters and circumstances, and a larger consideration of risk-taking and ethical choices. Michael Wejchert, in his first book, has succeeded with a work that will enthrall and educate both experienced climbers and armchair adventurers who’ve never placed a toe on rock or a climbing wall