By Doug Hare EBS Staff
Two days after Christmas in 1969, five college students walked into the St. Mary Ranger Station on the east side of Glacier National Park with the intention of climbing a 4,000-foot sheer rock face. The north face of Mount Cleveland had never been climbed before. But these Montana climbers were young, ambitious, and already had a fair amount of mountaineering experience on Glacier’s peaks under their belts.
The ranger in charge of the station, Bill Frauson, was an expert mountaineer and no-nonsense, decorated World War II veteran. He expressed his reservations about the attempt, warning the young men of the mountain’s severe weather patterns and the difficulty of rescue operations, but eventually allowed the crew of precocious alpinists to pass his inspection.
They were never seen alive again. Initial search efforts floundered and their broken bodies were recovered seven months later under 25 feet of debris from the avalanche that took their lives.
This enigmatic tragedy near the highest point in the Lewis Range not only rocked the tight-knit community of skilled mountaineers from Bozeman to Kalispell, but would impact a generation of adventurers in ways no one could have predicted.
The author of “In Search of the Mount Cleveland Five,” Terry Kennedy, was 15 years old at the time of the tragedy. While many would take this event as a cautionary tale about the precariousness of life and inherent dangers of snowy mountains, Kennedy found his own call to duty.
“I made a promise to myself. I would pick up the torch … the Mount Cleveland Five had carried and find whatever it was those guys were seeking,” writes Kennedy about a decision he made when the first search and rescue attempts were called off.
In his recently published book, that he says took him 40 years to write, Kennedy pieces together the fate of the climbers who never came back home and details the emotional burdens of those whose loved ones died doing what they love. Finally, the book crescendos into a coming-of-age story about mountaineering in Montana.
Even for those who don’t like their feet to get cold, or prefer hobbies safer than climbing, “In Search of the Mount Cleveland Five” mingles adventure, camaraderie, comedy, loss and suicide into a narrative that teaches us about the strange alchemy of turning tragedy into triumph, and grief into muted joy.
Kennedy and Jim Kanzler, brother of one of the Cleveland Five, eventually did make a first ascent of the north face of Mt. Cleveland, along with a number of difficult summits throughout their impressive climbing careers. Whether or not those two ever found what the five climbers were seeking is open for debate. What is certain is that, like his contributions to the mountaineering world, Kennedy has succeeded in honoring those who went before him.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.