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When we met them, early one evening, they had decided to try it and were loading their tubular climbing packs with enough rope, hardware, food, water and clothing for a two-day ascent. Steve, a college student and part-time Manhattan cab driver, had finished packing and was leaping about the moraine field in a kind of strange ballet. "Everything has slowed down, lying in that sleeping bag," he explained. "I've got to get my body moving before I can get my head together."
Rick said that if they made it up Thor, it would be the longest and most difficult climb he had ever done.
"Just looking at it scares the hell out of me," I offered comfortingly.
"I'm getting really scared," Rick said very quietly.
They cached the gear they would not need and we said we would look for it when we came back that way in five or six days. "If you come back in six days and those packs are still there, take what you want," said Ron, a tiny, frail-appearing man, but the most experienced climber of the three. "We won't need them anymore."
To start their climb, they first had to cross the Weasel River, no small challenge. Stripped, they linked arms to resist the current and moved slowly ahead, using ice axes for support. They worked their way from sandbars to ice cakes, occasionally turning back and finding a new passage when the ice water became more than shoulder deep. When they reached the far beach they turned to wave. In a thoughtful mood, Sam and I went on our way toward the summit of the pass. The gist of our thinking was "better them than us."
The highest of the emergency shelters along the pass stands on a gravel bar at the edge of Summit Lake, the source of the Weasel. It serves as a regrouping place for parties that intend to climb the mountains and glaciers of the Penny ice cap, which lies northwest of the nearly always frozen lake. It was also the principal communication center for the pass. A Swiss mountaineer named Maurice, who had arrived in Auyuittuq in late June by snowmobile, had packed in sufficient supplies (undertaking two round trips from the fjord head) to make the Summit Lake camp his more or less permanent summer residence. So situated, Maurice passed along messages between parties, guarded cached supplies and in time became known as the Mayor of Summit Lake.
We left part of our gear in his care and moved up along Summit Lake in search of a nice glacier. Finding a glacier in these pans is easy. Four major ones push down almost to the shore of the lake. Getting onto one is more difficult, because the glaciers are guarded by the formidable moraines they have created. By and by, we came upon the lakeside face of a great mass of ice called the Turner Glacier and began to ascend the 1,000-foot-high guardian moraine.
The Turner moraine was very wet and slippery, being in fact a covering of large, loose rock laid not very securely on a core of ice. If stepped on in the wrong place, a great boulder the size of a Volkswagen would shift and teeter alarmingly. Below and, worse, above were equally large pieces of glacial masonry that seemed no more firmly secured. It didn't take much imagination to conceive of one suddenly being set in motion by a ptarmigan landing on a bad balance point, then rolling down the slope, pulverizing everything in its path. There is nothing flashy about moraine climbing, as there is, for example, in rappelling down a cliff, but the penalties for clumsiness are just as severe.
For the first half mile the moraine was separated from the glacier by a 50-foot-deep chasm. We worked our way up through the rocks toward a place where it looked as if the gulch pinched in and we could get to the ice. The curved turtle-back of the glacier next to us was covered with loose gravel and small rocks that lay on the ice like a rough, muddy-colored skin. It was as if we were staring up at the flank of a massive elephant.