On Climbing Mountains, Part II: Mountain Man

Woodall Mountain, Mississippi, as seen from Tishomingo County  Fairgrounds

Woodall Mountain, Mississippi, as seen from Tishomingo County

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, there were few occasions to climb mountains—the highest point in the state is Woodall “Mountain,” standing at 800 feet above sea level, in the northeast corner of the state where the last vestiges of the Appalachians peter out into gently rolling hills. Tall hills were plentiful in the bluff and hollow country near the Tennessee River (steep hills folded up like the pleats of an accordion), but it wasn’t the same. As a teenager, I aspired to be a mountain man, influenced by books about Jim Bridger and John Colter and the Robert Redford movie, Jeremiah Johnson. I bought steel traps and set them in creeks and ponds and caught muskrat, mink, raccoon, and beaver. I bought a backpack and on weekends a friend and I would hike three or four miles out to a state park to camp out, and one time we hiked three days down the Natchez Trace Parkway, part of the National Park system, camping in the woods along the road and sneaking water from farmhouses. Once I got a driver’s license, a friend and I turned our sights toward real mountains, a short eight hour road trip away, in North Carolina, where we caught the whitewater canoeing and kayaking bug, at a time when the sport was on the verge of a popularity explosion due to the development of polymer plastics that made boats both light and nearly indestructible. We canoed the Chattooga River in Georgia, braving the threat of hillbilly rapists just six years after the movie Deliverance simultaneously popularized white water canoeing and “Dueling Banjos” while making mountain people and the wilderness look backward and dangerous. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail near where it crossed the Nantahala River in North Carolina, but I never climbed a mountain until years later, as a college student spending a last summer before graduation in Alaska.

I had gone to Alaska looking for wilderness adventure and spent most of my time working two jobs in order to make enough money to pay for a plane ticket home before school started in the fall. I worked 10 pm to 6 am in a convenience store, listening to an all night rock station while mopping floors and stocking and selling food to workers taking a break from a commercial fish cannery across the street. At 7 I’d catch the bus to the Alaska Zoo, where I spent the days building fences to keep tourists out of biting distance of the bears and wolves. The zoo was fun work, since I got to go inside the restricted areas and get close to the animals and there was the occasional escaped  bear to tranquilize and herd back to safety, but it wasn’t quite the Jack London adventure I’d imagined. After I made a few friends, though, all that began to change.

Summit of my first mountain, unnamed, somewhere north of Anchorage, Alaska

Summit of my first mountain, unnamed, somewhere north of Anchorage, Alaska

The church I attended had a weekend retreat in the woods near Anchorage, and one night after supper a couple of guy suggested climbing a mountain. In my Mississippian naïveté, climbing mountains meant ice axes and crampons, ropes and deep crevasses, all the dangers I’d learned from watching television. But these guys knew what they were doing. Kurt Rasmusson was close to my age, and he was ranked 15th among American cross-country skiers. He had Olympic dreams. Keith Riser was older, probably mid-thirties, and he was either in training for Mount Denali, the highest point in North America, or he had made an attempt. That mountain required serious training, including rope and ice work, not to mention enough cash to fly a plane to the base camp glacier. They seemed to think we were well prepared enough for the climb, given that we’d just eaten supper and had a few hours before the dusk that serves as night at that latitude in Alaska.

We bushwhacked through heavy, low growing trees, thick but not much taller than head high, making noise to warn off bears but only surprising a moose—statistically much more dangerous to hikers—that crashed off through the brush. We probably didn’t gain much more than a 2,000 feet of elevation, but we passed tree line and topped out on a spongy, tundra-covered peak about 10 pm, with a 360 degree view of mountains and valleys and forest and rivers, and we still had two or three hours of daylight to get down the mountain and back to camp. For me, it was a transformative experience, and from that day on, when I saw a peak my only thought was how to climb it. In the weeks before I left Anchorage, I quit the night job and spent the evenings after work at the zoo climbing the mountains in the “Glen Alps” above anchorage. And for a few years I was able to live within a couple of hours drive from mountains, and when I wasn’t on a river, I spent weekends rambling mountain tops where north Georgia, east Tennessee, and west North Carolina nestle together.

Keith Riser and Kurt Rasmusson, near Victory  Bible Camp, May 28, 1983

Keith Riser and Kurt Rasmusson, near Victory
Bible Camp, May 28, 1983

For a time I learned about ropes and practiced the technical aspects of climbing, but as I grew older and life choices led me back to Mississippi, I found myself longing for the joy of a good hard hike to the top of a mountain.

Author, standing atop unnamed mountain near Anchorage, Alaska, near midnight, May 28, 1983

Author, standing atop unnamed mountain near Anchorage, Alaska, near midnight, May 28, 1983

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