The First Footprints on the Summit

Article excerpt

THE summit of the mountain was just ahead of me. In fact, I knew it couldn't be more than a dozen steps, but I stopped walking. I wanted to really live that moment of reaching the top, to experience and remember every detail because when I stepped on the highest point, I would be the first human being who had done so.

It had been a long road to get me to those last few steps. I had been learning the skills and training as a mountaineer for 10 years, and I had spent over a year researching and writing letters to find this untouched peak. When, at last, I saw a topographic map of the region, I knew immediately it was the right place.

Most topographic maps clearly mark the names of all major land features. But this one, a quadrangle featuring a remote area of the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, had only the mountains and glaciers marked. None of them were named and most were untouched by man.

As I looked at the map, I could feel an excitement I had known before. Even as a young boy, I had walked through a field at the edge of my small town and imagined that the footprints I left in the dirt were the first that had ever been made on that spot. I was thrilled by the idea and imagined being an explorer in ancient times who boldly took out his map and pointed to those uncharted areas vaguely labeled "terra incognita" or "here be dragons" and said, "That's where I want to go!"

I was 15 years old the night I sat in front of the television and watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to step on the moon. My imagination was fired up again.

I knew deep inside that one of the things I wanted to do in my life was to see and experience strange and wonderful places that were hard to get to.

It didn't take too many years to realize that improvements in transportation, cartography, and aerial photography were making it harder and harder to find an unexplored part of the world. The frontiers seemed to be pushed ever farther out into space, deeper into oceans, or within smaller and smaller subatomic worlds of the quantum physicists.

I could only wonder what it must feel like for an astronomer to discover a new star or galaxy, for the physicist to detect a new pattern of particle movement, or the oceanographer to find new mountains and valleys on the dark ocean floor. Those would be exciting events indeed. But they lacked something I needed: the actual physical movement of the body through the new landscape, perceiving the wonders of the place in real time with real human senses.

That's when I discovered mountaineering and realized that, even though the mountain ranges had been photographed and mapped, there was still a lifetime of exploration left in them. …