Cover image for Escape from Lucania : an epic story of survival
Escape from Lucania : an epic story of survival
Roberts, David, 1943-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2002]

Physical Description:
206 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV199.44.C22 Y848 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



In 1937, Mount Lucania was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. Located deep within the Saint Elias mountain range, which straddles the border of Alaska and the Yukon, and surrounded by glacial peaks, Lucania was all but inaccessible. The leader of one failed expedition deemed it impregnable. But in that year, a pair of daring young climbers would attempt a first ascent, not knowing that their quest would turn into a perilous struggle for survival. Escape from Lucania is their remarkable story. Classmates and fellow members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, Brad Washburn and Bob Bates were two talented young men -- handsome, intelligent, and filled with a zest for exploring. Both were ambitious climbers, part of a small group whose first ascents in the great mountain ranges during the 1930s and 1940s changed the face of American mountaineering. Setting their sights on summitting Lucania in the summer of 1937, Washburn and Bates put together a team of four climbers for the expedition. But when Bates and Washburn flew to the Walsh Glacier at the foot of Lucania, they discovered that freakish weather conditions had turned the ice to slush. Their pilot was barely able to take off again alone, and there was no question of returning with the other two climbers or more supplies. Washburn and Bates found themselves marooned on the glacier, more than a hundred miles from help, in forbidding and desolate territory. Eschewing a trek out to the nearest mining town -- eighty miles away by air -- they decided to press ahead with their expedition. Escape from Lucania recounts Washburn and Bates's determined drive toward Lucania's 17,150-foot summit under constant threat ofavalanches, blinding snowstorms, and hidden crevasses. Against awesome odds they became the first to set foot on Lucania's peak, not realizing that their greatest challenge still lay beyond. Nearly a month after being stranded on the glacier and with their supplies running dangerously low, they would have to navigate their way out through uncharted Yukon territory, racing against time as the summer warmth caused rivers to swell and flood to unfordable depths. But even as their situation grew more and more desperate, they refused to give up. Escape from Lucania tells this amazing story in thrilling and vivid detail, from the climbers' exultation at reaching the summit to their darkest moments confronting seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is a tale of awesome adventure and harrowing danger. But above all it is the story of two men of extraordinary spirit, inspiring comradeship, and great courage. Today Washburn and Bates, now in their nineties, are legends in climbing circles. Bates co-led 1938 and 1953 expeditions to K2, the world's second-highest mountain. Washburn, whose record of Alaskan first ascents is unmatched, became founding director of Boston's Museum of Science and is one of the premier mountain photographers in the world. Some of his remarkable images from the 1937 Lucania expedition are included in this book.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Now in their nineties, in 1937 Bradford Washburn, age 27, and Bob Bates, 26, climbed to the summit of 17,150-foot Mt. Lucania in the Canadian Yukon, at that time the highest unclimbed mountain in North America. Washburn and Bates had been left stranded in the Yukon's Walsh Glacier at the start of their journey, when their pilot was unable to return with two other team members and part of their supplies after his landing site had become a "sea of slush," forcing them to hike more than 100 miles across unexplored territory. Roberts describes their expedition in vivid detail: what they ate (beans, soup, raisins, bacon, and dried beef); the weather (snow, rain, and fog); and the dangers involved (hidden crevasses, lack of sleep, inadequate gear, and no medical kit). Roberts draws on conversations with Washburn and Bates and quotes from their diaries. Some of Washburn's photographs from the expedition augment this hair-raising adventure story. George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

This short but sweet look at the ascent two Harvard buddies made of Mt. Lucania in the Yukon Valley in 1937-at the time, the highest unclimbed North American peak at 17,150 feet-is a welcome respite from the high-tech, thrill-a-minute climbing tales that have descended like an avalanche. With their friendship cemented in the elite ranks of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, the brash Brad Washburn and the more reserved Bob Bates decide to explore their "passion" for Lucania, but are immediately faced with hardship when their pilot, who lands them at an unexpectedly slushy base of the mountain, is unable to return to pick them up. Roberts's narrative shows how the resourceful duo decided to climb the mountain and then head more than 100 miles on foot to the nearest town, dressed in clothing that "essentially consisted of layers of wool and cotton." In this day of high-tech expedition gear, it's good to know that Washburn's headgear was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat. Roberts (True Summit), a longtime chronicler of adventure and exploration, deftly details a time when "the American public remained almost completely ignorant of mountaineering." Roberts's book reveals the true story behind one of the earliest and most remarkable expeditions of the 20th century. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Over the Top It took another day, and three more load carries, for Brad and Bob to establish themselves at Shangri-La. The next-to-last haul, in the late morning of July 7, took place in the middle of a "wild snowstorm." Wrote Brad in his diary, "We could not see a thing either way - just kept to the downhill side of the willow wands and scuffed along in the snow, feeling for yesterday's steps...[W]e couldn't even tell we were on a grade when we crossed the 45 [-degree] traverse under the séracs. It feels like walking in a cloud and it is very hard to maintain balance." Then, as they rested in the tent at Ice-Block Camp before packing up the last load, a huge sérac collapsed nearby - "we could feel the ice jerk underneath us," noted Brad. (Over the years, many climbers have been crushed to death by falling séracs. Usually their bodies are unrecoverable.) The significance of reaching Shangri-La was monumental. Brad and Bob had placed their camp only three miles southwest of the summit of Mount Steele. Before the expedition, Brad had made a small album of the twelve best aerial photos of the Lucania region that he and Russ Dow had shot in 1935 and 1936, respectively. One of the pictures in that album now made it clear that there would be no difficulty in traversing beneath the summit of Steele on the north. Once they had gained Steele's northeast ridge, they would intersect the route by which Walter Wood's party had made the mountain's first ascent in 1935. And, as Brad and Bob were fond of repeating to each other, with the cockiness of their youthful expertise, "Anything Walter Wood can climb up, we can climb down." The dangerous campaign of the last seven days, however, as the men had fought through storms to carry loads up the 4,000-foot headwall, ought to have given the conclusive lie to Brad and Bob's rationalization that climbing to the Steele-Lucania col to launch a long eastward trek toward Burwash Landing was the safest and easiest way out of the Saint Elias Range. Yet Brad's diary never addresses the question, and today both men still insist that it looked as though it would have been harder and nastier to flee west down the Walsh Glacier toward McCarthy. The real motivation for reaching Shangri-La, of course, was to have a crack at North America's highest unclimbed mountain. Despite all the handicaps with which the fickle weather had shackled the men, they were not yet willing to abandon the expedition's original goal just to ensure an outcome so mundane as survival. Late on July 7, as the storm that the lenticular clouds had presaged smothered the exposed Lucania-Steele ridge, Brad and Bob hunkered down in the tent at Shangri-La, while Brad made a long entry in his diary. With his passion for precise detail, he took stock not only of the men's food and gear, but of their prospects. They were short, Brad noted, on sugar, butter, and cereal, but had plenty of beans, soup, bacon, and the detested dried beef. As they had planned, they had managed to haul twenty-five days' worth of food to the high camp. Yet now they faced a cruel imperative. For all the chucking out of supplies the men had practiced over the previous two weeks, they still had well more than a hundred pounds apiece of gear and food. Once they began their descent of Mount Steele, they were determined to reduce their burdens to a single load apiece, preferably of no more than sixty pounds. It would be far too arduous, as well as too perilous, to double- or triple-pack loads down that unseen ridge. From the shoulder of Steele to Kluane Lake, the men's guiding doctrine of "fast and light" would rule every hour. It may be, moreover, that the two men miscalculated how many days their food was actually good for. A kindred error has dogged the heels of some of the most seasoned explorers: it led directly to the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. Under normal circumstances, it is hard for an average-sized man to burn more than 4,500 calories a day, even with all-out exertion. Most expedition rations are planned to supply about that many daily calories in food. Yet for men in superb condition, working in the cold as hard as Bob and Brad were, it is possible to burn as many as 6,000 calories a day. A man eats and eats and never sates his hunger. What was more, Bob and Brad were lean, almost skinny, at the outset of the Lucania trip: they had precious little body fat to burn. Brad's long July 7 diary entry breathes a deep sigh of relief. "It's a glorious feeling actually to be camped here, with no more of the grueling uphill that we have had up till now. The tension is relaxed." In his ebullience, Brad understates the task ahead: "Only a 2,000-foot spur [the shoulder of Steele] separates us from downhill to Burwash, and there isn't a crack between us and it. We certainly have fought to get here and I think that what we have done is downright amazing, considering that we have had fresh snow every single day so far, with the exception of one." In the very next breath after declaring the tension relaxed, Brad comes to his senses: "Four men would have made a world of difference. With only two, no one can relax and take a breather; it is just a continual fight. But so far we've won." While Brad was writing in his diary, Bob took the trouble to shave (exactly how he did so, with snowmelt for water and no soap or shaving cream, has escaped both men's memories). Wrote Brad of his partner's effort to maintain a civilized toilette, "I shaved at the Ice-Block Camp and Camp III; so I'm still one up on him, but we certainly are some specimens, on account of peeling sunburn and windburn." Other climbers, facing a plight similar to Brad and Bob's, have felt their nerves fray to the breaking point. Cabin fever all too easily sets in, so that a teammate's mildest habits drive one to the edge of apoplexy. Two men sleeping head-to-toe in a single inadequate bag make a perfect recipe for such interpersonal antagonism. Perhaps the single most remarkable aspect of the Lucania expedition is that both men swear they never felt a moment's antipathy toward each other, let alone indulged in an overt quarrel. "I can't recall an evil word from the beginning to the end of that trip," insists Brad today. "We got along very well," says Bob blandly. "I don't think we had any disagreements." If this is true - and not some rose-tinted distortion in the glow of memory, or the residue of an ethic of the day that one never airs in public the dirty linen of a private adventure - then the remarkable harmony the two men enjoyed during the most hazardous exploit of their lives owes much to a happy symbiosis between their temperaments. Early and late, Brad Washburn was notorious for the obstinacy of his will. On an expedition, one pretty much did things his way or not at all. Brad could lead brilliantly, but not follow, and it is not surprising that he was the leader or co-leader of every expedition he ever went on. On Mount Crillon in 1933, Washburn locked horns with a similarly obstinate teammate two years his junior, Charlie Houston. Houston would go on to make the first ascent of Mount Foraker, Alaska's third-highest peak, and to co-lead the 1938 and 1953 American K2 expeditions with Bates. But though the two men have remained loyal friends all their lives, Houston and Washburn never climbed together again after 1933. Bob Bates was the temperamental opposite of Washburn. A peace-at-all-costs go-between, he more than once interceded gently and wisely between expedition teammates who were on the verge of serious conflict. The phrase "the nicest guy you'll ever meet" comes readily to the lips of most of Bates's lifelong friends. If this suggests a certain acquiescent passivity about the man, that was not the case in the mountains. The last person in the world to speak ill of another (The Love of Mountains Is Best is serenely free of rancor throughout its 493 pages), the first to volunteer for any dirty or dangerous job, Bates possessed a will in its own way as strong as Washburn's. And Bob had a valuable quality that Brad entirely lacked. In an ominous or uncertain fix, Bob summoned up a Zen-like equanimity. If a predicament was beyond his control, he accepted the fact. Stoicism of this sort makes a powerful antidote to paralyzing fear. As Bob puts it today, "I take things in stride. If I can't do anything about [the situation], I don't worry." Brad, on the other hand, found it hard to relax when matters were beyond his control. Just as he insisted on being the leader, he felt a nagging anxiety when he could not bend the world to fit his will. And he was the soul of impatience. In a 1983 interview in American Photographer, alluding to his camera work, he acknowledged as much: "A lot of people have said to me, 'You must have an enormous amount of patience.' Actually, I'm impatient as hell. I'm just stubborn." There was another ingredient to the two men's remarkable rapport on Lucania. During their downtime on the mountain, when they lay in their tent waiting out storms - those moments when it is easiest to get on each other's nerves - they whiled away the hours singing cowboy songs and railroad ballads out loud together, for which music they shared an inexhaustible zest. "The Wreck of the Old '97," "Ain't Got No Use for the Women," "Casey Jones," "The Red River Valley," "The Wreck of the CNO No. 5." (Reminiscing in Bates's living room in New Hampshire in the winter of 2000, Bob and Brad suddenly burst into dual concert: "I awoke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail / With a rope in my hand and cow by the tail / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay, yippee yay / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay / There's a stray in the herd, and the boss said kill it / So I slammed it in the ass with the handle of a skillet / Come a ki yi yippee yippee yay...") As Brad's July 7 entry makes clear, the pull of the escape route that lay just beyond their tent door at Shangri-La was powerful. In two days, the men sensed, they could be off Steele and back in the lowlands, with nothing but a long hike between them and Kluane Lake. At 14,000 feet on a windswept ridge, moreover, with a tent missing half its floor, a single sleeping bag that could not be zipped closed, and no air mattresses, Bob and Brad were in an exceedingly vulnerable position. All day on the 7th it snowed, and that night the temperature plunged to minus 1°F. Yet the men were determined to have a stab at Lucania. On July 7, the 17,150-foot summit lay more than 3,000 feet above them and five miles away, invisible in the storm. Any attempt, the two men agreed, would require an intermediate camp. This in turn raised the specter of an insidious scenario. The broad ridge on which they had pitched their tent at Shangri-La was almost featureless, one stretch of billowing snow looking just like the next. To make another camp closer to Lucania, they would have to carry their tent with them, leaving the rest of their belongings in a cache at Shangri-La. On other expeditions, Bob and Brad had seen just how quickly blowing snow on a high ridge could drift over any object that protruded from the surface. If the storm continued as it had the last several days, with Brad and Bob camped several miles closer to Lucania, they could well lose their Shangri-La cache for good. They had only their three-foot willow wands to mark the depot of supplies. Undaunted, the two men set out after dinner on July 7, with light snow falling, to carry a load of gear and food toward Lucania. The going was as bad as they might have feared: eighteen inches of new snow, with soft stuff beneath, once more requiring snowshoes. In three hours, they were back at Shangri-La, having deposited ropes, crampons, and eight days' worth of food on a swale two miles closer to the summit. (It was not so much that Brad and Bob thought it would really require eight days from Shangri-La to get up Lucania, as that the food was in any case expendable, since they could not carry all twenty-five days' worth down Mount Steele.) Yet the next day Brad indicated in his diary just how strong the habit of frugality had become for these men living on the edge: "We are trying to save food. We each put one quarter of a teaspoonful of sugar in our cereal (which we have sweetened a bit with raisins); and we save the cereal pot to cook the soup in for lunch and supper, and wash it only once a day." Because of the weather, the men remained pessimistic. The night before, Brad had closed his long diary entry with "That wind simply must change or we haven't a prayer. Ovaltine and bed." Through most of July 8, the men "loafed" (Brad's usual word for anything other than all-out activity) as they peeked periodically out the tent door to check on the weather. At last their wait was rewarded, when, just before 4:00 p.m., the snow stopped falling and the clouds peeled rapidly away. Despite the intense cold, Brad and Bob packed up their tent after a quick dinner and set off toward their cache of gear two miles to the southwest. When they arrived there, instead of camping on the spot, they loaded up the food, ropes, and crampons and pushed on. By 10:00 p.m., they were three and a quarter miles from Shangri-La, camped at the very base of Lucania's summit pyramid. Inside the tent, it was zero degrees Fahrenheit, and an icy wind out of the northeast drilled the cotton walls of their shelter, but the sky remained gloriously clear. That night the thermometer crept down to minus 8°F. It was impossible for the men to stay warm with their skimpy gear: as the hours passed, the vigil felt more like a bivouac than a normal night in a tent. By 9:00 in the morning on July 9, the temperature was up to a plus 6°F, and the day was still perfectly clear. Continue... Excerpted from Escape From Lucania by David Roberts Copyright © 2002 by David Roberts Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Fast and Light
Over the Top
Rabbit's Feet
Fresh Milk from a Real Cow