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The 46 Blitz

Thirty-five years ago, a quartet of college kids attempted to bag the biggest peaks in one arduous winter outing

IN JANUARY OF 1967, AFTER IT WAS ALL OVER—the planning and sewing, the placing of caches, that first hoisting of fifty-five-pound backpacks, the many short days and many long nights, the arguments, the exhaustion, the unbroken trail that went on and on—my uncle Evan T. Bergen sat down and penned these words:

“A trip in mind have we,” he wrote. “A trip of fellowship and company. A trip of endurance and will, and challenge and uncertainty. A trip borne of dreams and fed by plans and now ready to be launched into reality. This trip have we.”

Evan, never much of a poet, was a computer student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, when he wrote those lines. It was a few weeks after the expedi­tion that changed his life.

A month earlier my uncle and three friends planned and very nearly carried out what is now a small and forgotten footnote in the lore of the Adirondack Forty-sixers: appar­ently the only team to ever attempt to hike, nonstop in win­ter, all forty-six Adirondack High Peaks (those summits orig­inally surveyed to be more than four thousand feet high). They would do it without assistance.

On this trip, there would be injuries, disagreements, dif­ficult decisions. At one point, one man would ask another to cut the hairs off an area men don’t usually ask other men to scrutinize, much less approach with scissors.

In the end, it would be an adventure that would affect some of these young men the rest of their lives—even though they wouldn’t succeed.

HOW OBSESSED WAS EVAN BERGEN with those particular mountains? To find out, one need only consult The Adirondack High Peaks, published in 1970 by the Adirondack Forty-sixers. There, on page 71, in an essay by Paul F. Jamieson, the author quotes a friend who tells of meeting a sweaty college student from Cornell Uni­versity on Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the state. The hiker in question had already topped three summits that day and was hop­ing to climb a few more before the day was out so he could earn the honor of a Forty-sixer number below four hundred (that is, to be one of the first four hundred people to climb all forty-six peaks since the organiza­tion began keeping track).

That sweaty college student was my uncle. I know this because in his copy of the book he crossed out “Cornell” and wrote “RPI,” then added, “Me, Evan T. Bergen”—in case no one got the idea. By the time the essay was published, Evan had become Adirondack Forty-sixer number 402.

Decades later Evan would use the peaks to help recov­er from the first of several surgeries to remove a malignant brain tumor. In his hospital bed, and later at home, he kept his mind active by writing from memory all forty-six peaks in order of height. He usually got them right.

Given this devotion, it may be understandable how it was that Evan Bergen, in 1966, first got the idea for “The 46 Blitz.”

At that time only the bravest of hikers entered the Adirondack woods in winter. These were days of epic snowfalls: snows so deep snowshoers found themselves walking on the tops of small trees. Snows so deep that higher-elevation lean-tos couldn’t be found. Those who entered these cold and forbid­ding lands rarely found company. Trails were never broken. Rescue was a long way away. Evan was in the fall of his senior year at RPI when he told his friend and fellow Rensselaer Outing Club member Dick Andrews about the idea. Dick was hooked immediate­ly. Evan soon figured out their most efficient route. Meanwhile, Dick set about figuring out how much food they’d need. In time, they recruited two other RPI students, Bob Saunders and John Hess.

The next few weeks required lots of work and deter­mination. Evan estimated the trip would take them nine­teen days. But RPl’s Christmas break was short. They might miss the first two days of spring semester, and that was a problem. RPI usually dropped a letter grade from a student’s final average for such an unexcused offense. “This was real serious,” recalls Dick, now fifty-five and living in Vermont. “If your average fell below 1.8 you got drafted and went to Vietnam. You didn’t want to drop a letter grade.”

But the four young men agreed to face the conse­quences, hoping that RPI would look kindly at them if they were successful in The 46 Blitz.

Next came planning. Dick calculated that the team would need to eat 5,600 calories a day. He decided it would be easi­est if they ate the same food every day: instant oatmeal for breakfast; raisins, peanuts and chocolate for lunch; soups, instant rice and corned beef for dinner (they called it “glop”). They bought twenty-two pounds of chocolate, which required trips to four supermar­kets. They also bought a lot of margarine, both for the calories and because it was cheaper than butter.

During the hike, John would in­vent a special concoction, which they called “sugar sauce,” a mix­ture of sugar and margarine, with cocoa added occasionally. “Now it does sound kinda gross,” says John. “But at the time it was the equiv­alent of a PowerBar.”

They would eat their rations on $1.10 Army-surplus cook sets, using two heavy Optimus kerosene stoves that roared like jet planes. Dick sewed a muslin liner for the inside of their fourteen-pound dome tent, which would prevent condensation from dripping onto their down sleeping bags. The clothes were military-style wind pants made from heavy cotton and oddly shaped Army mittens that included an extra trigger finger, plus lots of wool sweaters and wool long Johns.

The team was fanatical about not sweating. Such cloth­ing, once wet, is extremely hard to dry when in cold con­ditions, and any moisture would diminish the insulating value. The wool long underwear had the added benefit of becoming itchy once damp. That was their early-warn­ing system, telling them it was time to strip off a layer to keep cool.

Before the trip the team drove to the mountains and hid three food-and-fuel caches in garbage cans along the route. An early thaw was under way; the ground at one trailhead was so soft they had to sit on the trunk of the car to free the vehicle from the mud.

On a Friday before Christmas they parked and camped below Cascade Mountain. At 7:10 a.m. on Saturday, December 17, the trip began. There was no snow on the ground, and the temperature was just be­low freezing with a slight breeze. “We think we look impressive with our stacked packs,” Evan wrote later. “Mine usually is about one-third to one foot over my head. It’s a shame though that we’re al­ways carrying the snowshoes.”

The route climbed over Cascade and Porter, the easiest peaks. From there, they would head east to Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge, then south to the Dix Range, then slow­ly work their way westward. They would hit each summit in the clus­ter during the next three weeks before making the long slog north to their final peak, stand-alone Whiteface.

By the end of the first day their shoulders ached. It had been a full day, and there would be many more. To meet their tight schedule, they’d have to walk nearly every day from sunup to sundown, cooking breakfast and dinner by the light of heavy miners’ head lamps.

That first night, like nearly every other night on the trip, Evan recorded every detail in his journal. He noted what time they woke up, when they hit the trail, when they went to sleep. He wrote down what time they reached each summit, the wind speed there (using a plastic wind gauge) and how long they stayed on top. He figured out the mileage they walked each day down to the hundredth decimal point. He even kept track of each time a team member moved his bowels. He wrote it by the light of a single candle as his friends were cocooned in their mummy bags.

But in his fifty-page journal the one thing Evan almost never noted was his feelings. What was going through his mind that first night in the woods as he lay in his bag feel­ing the day’s aches? What was it like to listen to the wind blowing around their thin-walled tent, knowing there would be another eighteen days as tough as this one?

Evan didn’t see fit to report those thoughts. Just four simple words: “We’re all pretty bushed.”

THE SECOND DAY passed without incident. “Another great day,” Evan wrote. “We made it 1.8 miles up Giant. That makes it 21.07 [miles] into the trip. Today it was mud all day with all day precip. of rain. We wish it would snow already.”

The packs continued to be a burden. Their rubber Army-surplus “Mickey Mouse” boots were waterproof and warm, but blisters re­quired frequent application of adhesive tape to their feet.

There were a few minor problems at night—John left his headlight on, killing the batteries, and Dick spilled syrupy hot chocolate when a burning candle came loose from the ceiling lantern and plunged (“like a meteor,” Evan noted) to the floor. Following dinner, the team dropped off to sleep five minutes after zipping their bags.

“They hardly even talked,” Evan reported.

Friction came the third day as the team summited Giant and completed a difficult bushwhack down into a saddle and up to Rocky Peak Ridge. Evan, a leader even at age twenty-one, felt they needed a lecture. “Dick and I have to work together and discuss, not argue,” he wrote a night later, when he had time to catch up. “John shouldn’t push so much and should watch his ridicule, even if in jest. John and Dick have to realize that Bob is slower and still needs rest stops. And I take time for pho­tos so don’t rush me!

“They took it well,” he added. The lack of snow was as much a problem as it was a benefit. It made walking easier, but it was harder to set up the tent on the uneven, unforgiving ground. And on the fifth night, when they camped four hun­dred feet below the summit of Dix, there was so little snow they had to crawl around the woods, filling their pots spoonful by spoonful to melt enough water to cook what would be a twig-seasoned dinner.

“Everyone’s moving to beat the band,” Evan reported. “Last night and the night before we heard stumps splitting from the freeze … our meals have been pretty good. The margarine is delicious. We each had a half-stick for supper and a quarter-stick for breakfast. Maybe a half-stick for bkfst. wouldn’t have been a bad idea.”

He also noted that the team was getting along well. “From time to time we all get pretty grouchy—all except Bob. The whole trip is an interesting bit of research into hu­man behavior and living together. We’re doing fairly well—no fights yet.”

Those words were premature: the next day would test them.

Evan, perhaps the strongest of the bunch, pushed them to climb the entire five-peak Dix range, a tough bushwhack even now. Back then, when herd paths were nonexis­tent, it was unrelenting. The route took them over Dix, Hough and South Dix to McComb. Then it was back to South Dix, over to East Dix, back to South Dix, over Hough again and up and over Dix in order to get back to camp.

At 3:10 p.m., when they were about to head to East Dix, Dick spoke up. There were only ninety minutes of light left, and camp was several miles of tough bushwhacking away. They were all wet from crashing through snow-covered spruce trees. They should save East Dix for another day. Evan disagreed. They’d have to retrace miles of hiking; the mountain they sought was only a few minutes away. The argument became heated. But in the end Evan won. The detour only added twenty-five minutes to the hike. But they didn’t get back to the tent until eight p.m., after a long battle through trailless woods, and they were soaking wet.

“I threw a full set of dry clothes from my bag into the tent, stripped naked leaving a pile of wet clothes outside and hopped into the tent to get dressed,” Evan wrote. “That would have been interesting with a girl along.”

They didn’t get to sleep until 11:15 p.m. The next morning Evan woke up and found that his jacket was frozen stiff and now could stand up by itself. He had to stomp on it to make it flexible enough to wear.

The team moved camp a few miles down the mountain to the Boquet River lean-to. Evan filled in his jour­nal (he had been too tired to write more than a paragraph the previous evening) and reflected on the chances they had taken: “We had been ex­tremely close to the limits. Had someone gotten hurt on the way back, he would have froze!”

They were so exhausted and wet they took the next day off and spent most of the afternoon sitting inside the tent with the stove blasting to dry their clothes.

Meanwhile, they found someone had left food in the lean-to and made short work of it: canned spaghetti and meatballs, frozen applesauce, some peanut butter. Evan ate a whole can of peas by himself because no one else wanted it.

That day was notable for one more incident. Evan, an extremely hairy man, asked for a volunteer to cut the hair away from a certain difficult-to-reach place. When asked, each mem­ber of the team found an excuse to avoid the task. “I’ve felt bad about that ever since,” says Dick, thirty-four years later.

ON DECEMBER 24, their ninth day in the woods, disaster struck. After summiting Dial and Nippletop, Bob Saunders slipped on the steep trail as they descended to Elk Pass. He slammed down his foot to stop a fall—and suddenly found himself in considerable pain.

The team camped that night in a snow­storm so heavy they spent much of the eve­ning punching the sides of the tent to keep the snow from pushing in the walls. They woke to twenty-one inches of snow on the ground.

Normally this would have been cause for celebration. On that day, though, it just meant more work trying to get Bob back to the road. He was in too much pain to continue backpacking. In the end, Bob’s injury turned out to be just a bad bruise, but a very painful one. The hike out to the trailhead took much of the day, with the others car­rying Bob’s equipment.

At 2:30 p.m. on day ten, after 57.9 miles of hiking, The Blitz was over. The team had agreed before they started that if one person dropped out they all would.

“We were disappointed,” Dick says. “[But] we felt like it had gone according to plan.”

Bob took a bus home. The other three went to Adirondak Loj to work as guides at a winter-mountaineering school. There they camped out in the snow and amazed clients by making and eating John’s margarine-and-sugar paste. It took the young men the rest of the spring semester to gain back the weight they lost on the trip. For Evan, the skills he learned on The 46 Blitz lasted the rest of his life. Twenty years later, he organized and led a team of climbers up what was then called Mount McKinley in Alas­ka (now Denali), the highest moun­tain in North America. Unlike most expeditions, which are flown in by ski plane, Evan’s team left from the road, walking dozens of miles over mos­quito-infested tundra before climb­ing a glacier and making their way up. Evan never reached the top, but the rest of the team—all alumni of the Rensselaer or other college outing clubs—did successfully summit.

In 1983, when I was fifteen years old, Evan brought me up Saddleback Mountain—my first High Peak. It was to be his last. A few months later he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgeries took away his bottom­less strength, and the cancer killed him in 1989.

Bob Saunders suffered a similar fate, dying of a tumor in the mid-1990s.

John Hess is now fifty-four and lives outside Atlanta. He doesn’t eat margarine-and-sugar paste anymore, and he said his love for mountain climbing ended with the birth of his son four years after The Blitz. “It was fun,” he says of the trip. “And I was glad I did it.”

Dick Andrews is a free-lance writer and editor in Vermont. After college he became a backcountry ski guide for a time. He still maintains a love for the outdoors (when I first called him for this story, his wife said he was out taking a long walk). The 46 Blitz is something he’s never forgotten.

“It’s much more valuable for some­one to organize his own hike up Cas­cade and Porter than to be guided up McKinley,” he says. “You can cook up your own expeditions without having to go to the Himalayas.”

My uncle never told me about The Blitz when he was alive. I learned about it at his funeral, where Dick gave a eulogy and read aloud those verses Evan wrote as a prelude to his journal. A few weeks after the funer­al, Dick and some of Evan’s friends took his ashes to the top of Algonquin Peak. As snow blew sideways in a rag­ing February storm, they dumped the remains of Evan T. Bergen over the land he loved so much.

A few years after the funeral, Dick sent me a copy of Evan’s journal. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

Dick mentions he and Evan would often reminisce about The Blitz. It was the planning details Evan loved to talk about most. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that qualifies as an expedition,” Dick says. “It’s a benchmark that everything else gets measured against. It was the same way for him.”

Evan must have been proud. The team may not have succeeded but it didn’t matter. “For a group of moun­taineers are we,” he concluded in his journal. “And this trip have we.”

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