The Turning Point

As I said in “Calling The Roll,” I read William O. Douglas’s account of climbing Kloochman Peak when I was in middle school, in seventh or eighth grade.  I don’t remember the textbook I read it from (other than that the book had a red cover), and I never knew what the original source was.  All I knew was that the essay made an enormous impression upon me.  I’ve never forgotten it.

Imagine then, my delight in discovering that Douglas’s account of the adventure is called “Kloochman,” and it forms  the twenty-second and final chapter of his 1950 book, Of Men and Mountains, which is now available in a Kindle edition.  I would urge you to buy it and read it.

Douglas climbed Klootchman in 1913 with his friend, Douglas Corpron, and climbed it again in 1948.  It is upon the occasion of the second climb that Douglas recalls the first, more frightening climb.  Douglas was  fifteen when he made the first climb, and his friend, of smaller, slighter stature, was nineteen.  The two of them made the ascent up the rockface using hand and toeholds only.  It was, at all times, slow going, as both fellows constantly searched for purchase with their hands and feet, discovering that fractions of an inch often made all the difference.  The higher they climbed, the more dangerous the ascent became, and the more great the penalty for a mistake in judgment.

The passages I most deeply remember involve these perilous moments.  During the ascent, Doug Corpron was above Douglas on the rock.  Corpron reached a point beyond which he could not go.  Just out of arm’s reach was a crevice that could hold several men.  William O. Douglas himself could have reached it and pulled Corpron up; but there was no possibility of them switching places on the rock; Douglas’s balance below was too insecure.  Corpron would have to jump up for it.  It was just a little jump–six inches or so–but, pressed against the rock face as they were, if Corpron failed, he would fall 600 feet and die.  (Douglas himself wonders if, in the event of such a fall, whether a man dies before he hits the bottom.)  After deciding to make the jump, Corpron asks Douglas to do him a favor:  deliver messages to his family in the event he fails.

Douglas writes,

“Tell Mother that I love her dearly.  Tell her I think she is the most wonderful person in the world.  Tell her not to worry–that I did not suffer, that God willed it so.  Tell Sister that I have been a mean little devil but I had no malice towards her.  Tell her that I love her too–that some day I wanted to marry a girl as wholesome and cheery and good as she.

“Tell Dad I was brave and died unafraid.  Tell him about our climb in full detail.  Tell Dad that I’ve always been very proud of him, that some day I planned to be a doctor too.  Tell him I lived a clean life, that I never did anything to make him ashamed. . . . Tell Mother and Sister and Dad I prayed for them.”

After a few seconds, (with Douglas turning his head so that Corpron cannot see him weeping), Corpron makes that jump–and finds himself a moment later hanging from the wide ledge by his arms.  He hoists himself up, turns over, and says, “Nothing to it.”

On the contrary, as both of them well knew, there was everything to that jump.  In reading it, I felt for the first time in my life a sense of my own mortality, the sure and certain sense that I, too, could one day die.

The other passage that has always stayed with me comes later.  The two partners fail in their attempt to climb and descend to find another way.  On this second attempt, they have separated.  Douglas is on his own against the rock face, 200 feet up.  But he’s got a problem:  the box-type camera on a strap around his neck becomes wedged between himself and the rockface, literally pushing Douglas away from the tenuous grip he has on life itself.  I myself had only recently had a similar experience with a box camera (a Brownie).  It, too, became wedged between my body and the wall to which I was trying to cling.  Oh, the terror one feels when his grip is slipping and there’s nothing he can do about it! In Douglas’s adventure, I was there, with him, on that rockface.  For the first time, I was shown, through the specificity of Douglas’s language, what words could do; what power they could have; what power they were meant to have.  I became a writer in that moment.

Oh.  It would be unfair to leave Douglas hanging.  Corpron hears his cry for help and inches his way towards him.  He guides Douglas with his hands and feet toward the safety of a ledge just below the perilous spot.  The two of them acknowledge saving each other’s lives.

Because Of Men and Mountains is retrospective, Douglas has a larger purpose in writing than just autobiography.  That larger purpose–to evoke a sense of responsibility in all of us for tasks greater than we ourselves–was not visible in the passages excerpted in my grade-school reader, but those passages did valuable work nonetheless.  They made me want to be an adventurer myself.  They made me understand there might be a price to pay for being that adventurer.  Yet they also made it clear I wouldn’t necessarily have to travel all the way to Washington state to be the kind of person I wanted to be.  I could be the kind of person I wanted to be just staying at home, sitting behind a desk.  That choice suited me just fine.

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