Pulling secrets from thin air


Heights: As mountain climbing rises in popularity, longstanding mysteries are being solved on peaks such as Everest and K2.

August 02, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The Himalayas have given up another secret.

Climbers attempting to reach the summit of K2 in Pakistan have found the bones of Dudley Wolfe, a wealthy Boston socialite who 63 years ago became the first climber to die on the slopes of the world's second-highest mountain.

Chubby, clumsy and out of his element, Wolfe nonetheless insisted on being a member of the American-German expedition trying to be the first to conquer the 28,250-foot behemoth nicknamed "The Savage Mountain."

His motive was simple: He hoped to win back the affections of his ex-wife by impressing her with the headlines that would follow.

Instead, he became a cautionary tale long before Into Thin Air chronicled the disastrous season on Mount Everest in 1996 when nine climbers died.

The growing popularity of climbing has meant that many mysteries from mountaineering's pioneer days are being solved as more and more people traverse the territory.

Three years ago, in perhaps the most high-profile discovery, veteran Mount Everest climber Eric Simonson found the crystallized remains of George Mallory, who was last seen ascending the world's highest mountain with partner Sandy Irvine in 1924.

Simonson buried the body but was highly criticized for bringing back bits of clothing and equipment and taking pictures of Mallory, face down and partly buried under rocks.

He defends his actions.

"One of the things I have always taken solace from is I think these guys would want us to know what happened to them. I always thought that was what Mallory must have been thinking when he was laying there, dying," he says. "We solved a mystery and provided some closure for the family."

Wolfe's death has been a mystery since 1939, when expedition members left him near death in a tent high on the mountain. Three Sherpas who tried to rescue him also disappeared.

The survivors were met by a firestorm of international outrage that included charges of greed and cowardice - Wolfe had been included for his wealth rather than his climbing ability. And in the days leading up to World War II, expedition leader Fritz Wiessner was painted as a Nazi sympathizer.

No one attempted K2 again until 1953, the same year Everest was conquered. It wasn't until a year later that Italian climbers planted their flag at the summit.

On July 12, two climbers making a documentary film as part of the Spanish-Mexican K2 expedition discovered Wolfe's final resting place.

Jennifer Jordan and Jeff Rhoads found human bones, pieces of a canvas tent and a cooking pot and lid. The two returned to the spot the next day, when the sun had melted away another layer of ice and snow.

Jordan sent an e-mail that was posted on the Web site www.everestnews.com describing the scene:

"We found the definitive links; large, double layer pants with the label from an old clothier in Cambridge, Mass., and canvas and leather leg gaiter, and then casually as if waiting to be found, Jeff found a canvas and leather mitt with WOLFE written in clear block letters near the cuff."

All indications are Wolfe died alone in his tent. Two of the three Sherpas are still missing. (The bones of the other Sherpa, Pasang Kikuli, were found in 1993.)

"It's a significant find for America in that K2 was more of an American mountain in those days. The British concentrated on Everest," says Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club. "In climbing circles, K2 is a far more formidable mountain, yet it's largely ignored by Americans."

The story of Dudley Wolfe is poignant and heroic, a comedy of errors that ended in tragedy.

Wolfe was a playboy in the best tradition of The Great Gatsby who fancied himself a man of action. His mountain experience consisted of guided ascents in the Alps, where he gained a reputation for being a plodder, with no real alpine skills.

But he was dogged and had two things Wiessner admired: money and a devotion to the unbending German expedition leader with the stellar mountaineering resume.

With the effects of the Depression still being felt, Wiessner needed the former. As a self-centered, high-altitude athlete, he craved the latter. So Wolfe was included in the six-man expedition.

It wasn't long before the entire operation unraveled. Just days into the climb, Chappel Cranmer, a 20-year-old Dartmouth College student, fell seriously ill and dropped out.

High up on the mountain, Wiessner pressed on, with Wolfe at his side.

Other team members began feeling the effects of the brutal cold and thin air. Their deteriorating condition slowed progress further.

Wolfe proved so inept that, at times, he had to be winched up the mountain by Sherpas. But he followed Wiessner, scoffing at those who urged him to turn around.

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