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Guy And Johnny Waterman

New England outdoorsman Guy Waterman and his son mountaineer Johnny Waterman both placed a high premium on their wilderness experiences-perhaps too high, considering their tragic fates. Whether the Watermans looked to their time in the outdoors as a chance to "find" themselves or to bag a difficult peak is a matter of speculation, one that rests on the idea that wilderness has the power to transform lives.

Johnny Waterman was the "crazy genius" of Alaskan mountaineering, an untamed eccentric who pulled off one of climbing's most audacious feats-a five-month solo ascent of Mount Hunter. Then he vanished into the northern wilderness. Young men go into the mountains all the time to discover themselves and to propitiate the ghosts of their fathers, but it's the rare father who goes into the mountains to join the ghost of his son.

Guy Waterman died on a winter evening on a mountain ridge in New Hampshire. He was 67 years old, a climber, a homesteader, an author widely known in New England outdoors circles. He was also the father of three sons, and he believed in the peculiarly American myth that says there is something between fathers and sons that can be understood only in the context of wilderness.

Waterman had two sons from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. Before his divorce, Waterman had begun teaching his sons Bill and Johnny to rock climb in the Shawangunks. Both boys seemed destined to become fine climbers. But on June 19, 1969, 18-year-old Bill, who had just graduated from high school, grievously mangled his leg while attempting to hop a freight train in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a Kerouac-like cross-country odyssey. Bill underwent a series of operations to try to save the limb, but a few years later it finally had to be amputated, and he was fitted with a prosthesis.

Johnny, about a year younger than Bill, continued to climb, and though it's tempting to suggest he threw himself into the sport as some kind of compensation for Bill's injury, he had already proved himself a prodigy. At the age of 15, stocky, explosive, and all of five-foot-three, he was leading many of the hardest pitches in the 'Gunks. A year later, he became the third-youngest person ever to summit Mount McKinley. "By 16 or 17," Guy once said, "Johnny was far too good to be held back by climbing with me." By 20, he was regarded as one of the boldest young alpinists in the country. But along the way he had suffered the loss, either by accident or suicide, of no fewer than eight of his climbing partners and mentors.

In 1971, after briefly attending Western Washington State University, in Bellingham, Johnny moved to Fairbanks, Alaska. Eventually he enrolled at the University of Alaska. Bill, who hoped to work with native tribes, would soon move to Alaska himself. (Jim, Guy's youngest son, was still in high school and living with his father in Stamford, Connecticut.) In 1973, four years after his accident, Bill sent Guy and other family members a short letter informing them that he was going off on a long trip; the destination wasn't specified. According to one rumor, Bill went north to live with an Inuit tribe. In any case, it was the last Guy, or anybody else, ever heard of him. He simply disappeared. James, the surviving son, lives in Longmont, Colorado.

Johnny continued to live and climb in Alaska. In 1978, he stunned the climbing world with a solo ascent of the previously unclimbed southeast spur of 14,573-foot Mount Hunter, a feat that has since passed into Alaskan folklore. It took him 145 days of fixing lines, ferrying loads, and waiting out storms to get up and down the mountain. He came back a hero, but something seemed to have changed him. "He became fixated on difficult climbs," says John Dunn, who met Guy and Laura at a mountaineering school at about the time Johnny climbed Hunter. Though Dunn never met Johnny, he had spoken with Guy often about his brilliant and troubled second son, and still has a few letters exchanged between the two of them. "If he survived," Dunn continues, "then the climb wasn't hard enough. In between climbs, it seemed like he was hanging on by a thread."

According to several written accounts, Johnny Waterman had always been something of a character in Fairbanks-a guy who ran around the university campus wearing a black cape and eyeglasses with a star glued between the lenses, maniacally serenading passersby on a beat-up guitar. In his 1994 book, In the Shadow of Denali, author Jonathan Waterman-no relation-devotes a chapter to Johnny and his strange fate. "The climb changed him irreparably," Waterman writes of Johnny's experience on Hunter, and he quotes a climbing friend of Johnny's who said that "after Hunter he was almost dangerously psychotic."

In 1981 Johnny, now 28, prepared for the ultimate challenge: a winter solo of Denali's unclimbed east face, some 6,000 feet higher than Hunter. He was last seen on April 1, heading up the Ruth Glacier, a vast minefield of hidden crevasses, carrying absurdly minimal gear and provisions. Jon Krakauer, who spends several pages telling Johnny's story in his book Into the Wild, quotes a climber who had seen Johnny at a lower elevation a few days earlier: "He was wearing a cheap one-piece snowmobile suit and wasn't even carrying a sleeping bag. All he had in the way of food was a bunch of flour, some sugar, and a big can of Crisco."

To many who knew Johnny, his death did not appear to be an accident. "When he wandered up there, he didn't expect to survive it," Dunn says. "Whether he jumped in a crevasse or just fell into one doesn't really matter. Basically what he did was akin to wandering numbly across a highway at rush hour."

The National Park Service searched Waterman's route for a week by air before giving up. His body was never found. Guy got the news two weeks later. "Poor Johnny embodied those impulses in me which have been destructive, as they were so finally for Johnny," he wrote in his unpublished memoir. "He was always at war with the world, never knew calm, always teetered on the edge of being out of control."

Before he sat down in the snow and froze to death on a February night, he wrote some notes to friends, hoping to explain his decision to take his own life. One was to an old pal named Brad Snyder, who knew of the special kinship Guy felt with his middle son, John Mallon Waterman.

In December 1968, when Johnny was 16, Guy had set out with his son on a grand winter circuit in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They planned to follow the string of boarded-up Appalachian Mountain Club huts along the entire length of the Presidential Range and then to traverse the ranges west-something no one had ever done in winter. They wore snowshoes and carried 80-pound packs. The temperature when they started was 12° below zero. They soon ran into a storm, and on top of Mount Jefferson got lost in an icy cloud.

Guy wrote about how they survived the bitter whiteout: "To guard against losing their way-which could have been disastrous-the son would go out from the last identified cairn as far as he could and still see it. Then the father would go out from there as far as he could without losing sight of the son, and stand there waiting for some brief lapse in the wind to try to squint forward into the fury of the storm in a forlorn effort to find another cairn."

To keep their tent from exploding in the wind, they had to stay awake most of that night holding the aluminum poles. Their clothes got soaked; their down sleeping bags had no loft. They beat a dire retreat and hiked into a town, where they found a Laundromat and dried their gear.

Then - the index of their zeal - they started back in, walking up the Mount Washington Auto Road. They got to 5,500 feet when another storm hit. The temperature dropped to 26° below zero. The winds were shrieking at a hundred miles an hour.

Father and son spent four days holed up in one of the metal bivouac sheds that once provided emergency shelter for road crews: 6 1/2-Mile Box it was called. To fetch water, one of them had to get completely dressed-boots, crampons, over-mitts, parka, face mask-go out into the storm, chop at an icy snow crest with an ax, hope the gales blew some of the chips into a stuff sack, then dive back inside the shed and melt the collection of ice chips.

They played poker for lunch snacks with a handmade deck of cards. To his chagrin, Guy discovered that Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground was no help in passing the time, whereas Johnny's trashy detective novels were riveting. How long those hours were! And, in retrospect, how short.

Six months after the winter outing in the White Mountains, Guy let Snyder take Johnny to Alaska on a climbing expedition to Mount McKinley. The teenager became the third youngest person to stand on the highest point in North America. The ascent was the first of Johnny's many formidable achievements in Alaska and a moment of crowning pride for his father. Then, in 1978, Johnny produced his masterpiece - a 145-day solo expedition on 14,573-foot Mount Hunter, the third highest peak in the Alaska Range. Of that feat, American climber Jeff Lowe once wrote, "There is nothing else in the history of mountaineering with which to compare it." Three years later, Johnny vanished while soloing on McKinley. The grief that seized Guy never really let him go.

Saying good-bye to his old friend Snyder, Waterman wrote: "Sorry to be leaving like this, but I've tried to explain my thinking about old age prospects and other shortcomings, for me, of this life. . . . It isn't a question of going or staying-just when and how to go. Above tree line in the wind seems appropriate-I'll be joining Johnny, to whom I was always closer akin than anyone realized." Here was the saddest sort of faith - faith not that a father and son would be reunited in the next world, but that they would always be paired in this one by the likeness of their deaths.

Chip Brown. The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga. Adapted from Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild. National Geographic Adventure.. March 2003.


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