Mather’s Folly

by Scott Rawdon

The story of one large chunk of the earth way up in Alaska–named for one small college in Ohio–and two attempts to conquer it.


Photo: Richard Wiggin ’70

It is May 1978, and a small band of adventurers huddle inside a cluster of tents on an unwelcoming hillside in Alaska’s Aleutian Mountain Range. Outside, the rain pounds down like it was shot out of a huge fire hose. For nearly a week, they have trudged through waist-deep swamps, dodged bears, and prayed for blue skies–just as many of the group did the previous August, when the summer’s ferocious wind and driving rain simply caught their expedition by surprise and deterred them from their quest: to scale Mount Denison, the tallest peak in Katmai National Monument.

It had been so dubbed in 1923 in honor of Denison University by a 1909 graduate, Kirtley Mather, who was the first to document its existence. But to anyone’s knowledge, it had never been climbed.

On that first expedition, Richard Soaper ’77 had suggested another name for the 7,606-foot-tall mass of rock, snow, and ice: “Mather’s Folly,” he called it when, confined to his own tent, he mused why their predecessor would place their college’s name among such brutal environs. Who would’ve thought that such a small peak–a cakewalk by any motivated mountain climber’s standards–could pack such a meteorological wallop?

And now, having passed the point where the first expedition turned around, some members of the second venture may have begun to agree with Soaper as crushing walls of rain, biting snow squalls, and disorienting fog posed all-too-familiar threats. They had planned this trip for May expecting the weather to be more cooperative. So much for that idea.

The group of experienced climbers includes five members of the first excursion–history professor Bill Dennis, John Phillips ’75, Espen Brooks ’77, Lou Berizzi ’77, Richard Soaper ’77, and John Faraci ’72–who are joined by Fritz Kaeser ’80 and Richard Wiggin ’70. Confined once again to their tents as they wait for the clouds to part, they grow so bored that they separate M&Ms by color and count the hundreds of little squares that make up the fabric of the tent.

But, the weather be damned! It was their mountain; it was named for their school! They’d come thousands of miles to get here and waded for hours through numbingly cold wetlands and glacial streams before they even made it to Mount Denison’s foot. They climbed through deep snow, traced around gaping crevasses, and spent the last three seemingly endless days stuffed into tents. This time, nothing would stop them.

Finally, the squalls subside. The steepest part is behind them now and they’ve no idea what lies ahead. The maps show that a broad, gently sloping bowl rises into Mount Denison’s summit cone. This is the goal. Three lonely peaks tower in the distance, shining radiantly in the late afternoon sun. To their left and right, outcroppings, snowy ridges, and shoulder peaks frame an incredible panorama. The thrill of being the first people to tread this virgin land is lost on no one.

About half a mile from the summit there appear to be no major obstacles. All they must do is find the summit ridge, a few hundred yards short of the peak. But another snow squall enshrouds them and intensifies as they grow near the summit. It’s now actually raining through the snow. They pick a way forward with nearly zero visibility, soaking wet and exhausted.

Slowly, a dim outline of rock emerges ahead with a faint ridge of snow. The climbers pierce the squall where the ridge becomes an unusual jumble of mounds, all piled on top of each other as if pushed up into a huge bank by some giant snowplow. One by one, they climb over each mound only to find a higher one beyond it. Three feet on either side, the ridge drops into an unknown milky void. Bill Dennis tries to climb around some of the knobs, but can’t secure his footing. There are no shortcuts; they must keep climbing.

Through blinding fog, Dennis finds the highest mound. This is it! This is the peak! The clouds and snow steal the vista’s stunning view, and the expeditioners can only imagine how spectacular it must be. Dennis’s honor of reaching the peak first seems only fair to the others. After all, he took responsibility for coordinating both excursions. He insists it’s a community effort, but all look to him for guidance, literally and figuratively.

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