Sunday, November 14, 2010

Umnak Island, 4 September 1944

Hello Piltzer my pet…

I climbed our mountain Saturday, which is my reason for missing a day in my letter writing. When I got back to camp I was as tired as on the downstream side of Box Canyon and as frazzled as a tinned gringo. I had my troubles staying awake on the graveyard shift and, that ordeal over, I went to bed and slept fourteen marvelous hours. The ascent took ten hours.

It must have been Mt. Recheshnoi: 6500 feet

The mountain—I can’t tell you its name—dominates our part of the island. It reaches up from the sea in a series of progressively steeper lava slopes. The peak is about five thousand feet above the sea.
Once before I tried to climb it but bogged down early and turned back after only a couple of hours. I think I was smarter that time, much smarter. On that trip I approached the mountain by way of the valley formed by two of the basalt arms. I got very tired waking across the plain and was in no shape to tackle the tougher climbing. So this time I decided to gain the top of the nearest ridge and then work along it to the peak proper. I still think it was good in theory. 

The first trouble was I went alone. That meant that I did not pace myself well and took fewer breaks than I would have had I been having bullsessions. Jack and I have been talking about making the climb for at least a month but he was tired and, I believe,  little piqued yesterday. So when I said Let’s go, he pointed out how late we would be getting back and added his doubts that the good weather would hold. I figured that with winter coming—the days are already noticeably shorter and colder—we would never have a better chance. So I said if he didn’t want to try I would do it alone and he said go ahead.
So with a bellyful of Robbie’s pancakes to give me ballast and a pocketful of Nestles and Mounds to ward off starvation, I started up. It was eight fifteen.

The first part of the trip was familiar.  I had been along it with Jack more than once. It follows an old trail for an hour or so to a point where the ridge is sliced by a ravine and then twists to the right, mountainward. Working down this ravine I came to a snowbridge, so deep that it must be perpetually shaded. I do not believe the sun gets far enough north ever to shine down on it. As I crossed the snow it broke through and I fell about five feet into a little stream. I was not hurt or shaken up. The only ill effect was that I got my feet wet and my fatigues splashed as I waded upstream to the mouth of the ice cave. But it scared me bastante. After that I went to pains—quite literally for extra steps hurt—avoiding the snow bridges.

Once up the other side of the ravine, the going was easy and pleasant. The grass thinned into tundra and there were many berries. I fund a furious little stream that had eaten through the thin dirt skin of the ridge and was working diligently on the bare rock. It was an ambitious little stream with took eight foot jumps with a run and a roar and I went quite a bit out of my way to follow it. I crossed a lot of little rivers during the day, but that was the only one I really liked. 

When I left my stream, the going was tougher. The tundra faded into the black dirt when was mushy as beach sand, but unpleasant to look at. The slope grew sharper, and I stopped to rest after each hundred yards. This went on a long time. Worse, the wind grew stronger and colder. As I gained the top of the main ridge it had a straight run at me across several hundred miles of the Bering. My hands were cold and when I tripped the sand stung and burned for a long time afterwards. Soon I was one up on Wordsworth, I was wandering lonely in a cloud. The puffy cumulus which do so well by the local sky are much prettier from the outside than the in.

The best part of this trip was a waterfall, which must be 150 feet high and leaps out around a huge gray rock in twin streams. It was here also that I saw a gray bird, big as a young seagull but with swallow-like wings, and a magnificently coated fox who gave me a K. Hepburnish look of frank disgust when I startled his quarry into flying away.

I constantly encountered ravines which if filled with snow I skirted and if filled with water I climbed through. These ravines were the worst feature of the ridge. They tired me out. When the ridge was not crevassed it folded into soft sand dunes. These were very soft and porous and when the sun came up they steamed until it seemed I was walking across a new lava field instead of an old one.

As I neared the base of the final slope I had an unpleasant surprise—the deepest ravine yet. Fortunately it was not as steep as deep but crossing it got me down to my last energy and my last candy bar but one.
At the start of the final ascent I followed a stream bed up to an ice crust. The grade was quite steep and I had to use my hands to make it. The ice was too slippery to cross so I had to skirt it. This was the most difficult part of the climb. I was desperately tired. The mountainside was covered by a layer of volcanic pebbles ranging in size from sand to baseballs. The blanket was at least five feet deep, probably more, and the pebbles were loosely packed. They rolled under my feet and if I dug my toes in they gave way and sent me sprawling. Looking down at the larger rocks bounding into the ravine inspired no confidence in my own ability to catch myself if I ever started rolling. I was scared stiff. I would have turned back but I was afraid to do that either. So I kept going up.

I was within fifty yards of the top when the clouds rolled in again, thick as fog over the Montesano valley. It blotted out the wonderful view of the island rolling out in soft folds to the ocean and the sea. It blotted out our neighboring islands. And worse, it covered the peak so thoroughly I had to feel my way to the top. So I reached my goal thoroughly disgusted. 

I waited about a quarter hour for the fog to clear. Once or twice it rolled away and I had a glimpse of the beautiful green desolation below, or of the brute hulk of the nearest island [Unalaska], but each time it closed in again.

Whenever I could see I studied the possible routes down. I didn’t want to tackle the same path back and it seemed there must be an easier way. After a bit I decided to try the Pacific slope. My plan was to go to the bottom of the peak proper on this side and then work around to the north and get into the valley which leads to our settlement. It didn’t work: ravines. 

I had two bad scares on the descent, the first when I slipped in the volcanic gravel and rolled about fifteen feet.  I stopped against a welcome boulder. The second bad moment came at a ravine. A rock pulled loose under my hand and I feel about ten or fifteen feet. I lit on the only moss within a mile and the damage was purely mental.

The ravines kept forcing me away from our camp. I worked across them for an hour or so—I was too tired to think much about the time. In fact, I was so tired that whenever I tripped I just lay where I fell if it were comfortable. At first I crossed the streams by jumping from rock to rock but finally I disgustedly sloshed through. The water was very cold and felt good. At the biggest stream I took off my pants.

When I thought I had crossed the last stream and came to one bigger than ever I gave up and followed the line of least resistance, although it lay almost straight away from camp. Consequently I was about five miles from camp—some say eight when I tell them the position—when I finally reached sea level. I cut over to a road, expecting a ride. But no one stopped. The things I thought about one lieutenant who breezed by, solo, in a command car have no place in a letter which must pass censorship. …

I staggered into camp about six o’clock, tired and not you know what. But a goodly bundle of letters from my everloving fixed me up enough so that I could creak into the kitchen and sponge the remains of a meal off the KPs and then go and stand under a hot shower for nearly an hour. After that I killed a can of pineapple juice and went to bed, too tired to sleep.

Rosa Morgan photo, 1944
I am tremendously proud of your smiling paralytic, Nunny, and even without being told I recognize the difficulties in snapping it. Personally I think you should have had a byline and a check for that sort of a shot. What did you get paid for it? I think that Bill’s writing, to be polysyllabic, is odiferous. It probably would be advisable not to quote me. 

About “Day of the Dead.” I haven’t carried out my project to work on it regularly because I have no time at the office and there is always someone asleep in the hut this month. I can’t send it to you in pieces because censorship requirements seem to be that such things must be submitted whole. Consequently it will be a month or more before I mail the book and how long it will take to clear censorship God only knows.
Rosa Morgan photo, 1944
I finished an article, humorous in intent, on our local library the other day but have to retype it. I hope to find time to do that today. But this week I am on KP again so there goes another hour out of each day. And if the weather remains fair it seems advisable to make the most of it, because in the winter they say there will be weeks at a time when we can’t be out of the hut more than a few minutes. 

The news from the European part of our war is incredibly good, and that from Rumania brings memories reinforced by your diary. You should hear the army announcer wrestle with “Girgiu.” He also achieved four different pronunciations of Ploesti in four tries. But he could call it Puyallup and I’d still be pleased with the news about it. 

I am getting to be quite proficient on the teletype. I can hang the machine now, which means I must be punching at around fifty words a minute. Gail Fowler, who is still around awaiting transportation, has been watching me operate and suggests that I write letters home to you in five letter groups liket hisip resum ebuti guess not. 

I am quite disappointed with Gail. He talked me into taking the job as local correspondent for the ACS Bulletin, a task I don’t like and didn’t want. And he brought a bottle of Scotch and finished it before I had so much as even a smell. He also started calling me “Murray-cle of Morgan’s Creek,” which might stick, Godforbid. In return I call him “Big Wind” and “Blow Hard Gail,” both of which he seems to have encountered before. Since my climb, he has called me “So Red the Nose” in deference to my one spot sunburn.

That covers it, Nunny. I’ll send the picture from the Star to Dad after everyone here has admired it sufficiently.

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