7 Mountains I Did Not Conquer

1. Mount Erebus, Antarctica

It’s the world’s southernmost active volcano, a hulking ice monster with a beating magmatic heart. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say more. I was working for the United States Antarctic Program at the time, and my superiors — who were many — told me again and again that I was at The Bottom Of The World to shovel snow, not go on adventures. They explained that should I wander from the station, drawn heavenward by the promise of soul-purifying solitude or “whatever it is dudes like you [me] get off on,” my contract would be terminated, and I would be sent home. On top of that, they said, I would die. The volcano seemed to confirm this last part.

2. La Plata Peak, Colorado

My friend Chris remembered his ice axe but forgot his boots. And his pants. It was early December and our objective was the Ellingwood Ridge, two miles of confused jaggedness topped with a foot of fresh snow — horribly exposed, horribly loose, not for the faint of heart or, in our case, the faint of preparedness. Delicately, ever so delicately, I picked a line through the chaos. My stylish partner followed in tennis shoes and boxers worn over long-underwear tights. The boxers were paisley patterned. A third of the way across we were forced to bail down a steep gully, not that I blame anybody or anything.

3. Sgùrr nan Gillean, Scotland

“Ir’a only a wee scramble,” my guide Eliot said, then repeated it as if I hadn’t heard him the first time, though he knew I had. We were stuck on a small ledge in the rain on the Isle of Skye’s Pinnacle Ridge. The rock: sharp, black gabbro. The rain: increasing. The surrounding peaks: terrifying names like Sgùrr Dearg and Basteir Tooth. I replied that there was nothing wee about the situation. Eliot, a mostly drunk, mostly chain-smoking, mostly fearless Glaswegian, said that I was being wee. It took many pints at the pub that evening to resolve this difference of opinion.

4. Mount Ritter, California

Of his first ascent, back in 1872, John Muir wrote the following: “After gaining a point about half-way to the top, I was brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock . . . My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble.” Sure, old, squirrely J.M. lived to tell the tale, but let’s recall that this was a man known for climbing Douglas firs in windstorms and rambling weeks on end with only bread and tea for fuel. Anyway, I was on a backpacking trip with my lovely girlfriend, Sophia. Who needs “lifeless rumble” when you’ve got “mac n’ cheese and cuddling”?

5. Mount Tom Taylor, British Columbia

Having bushwhacked sixty miles of hellacious thicket; having watched one member of our party tumble down a slope and stop three feet from a hundred-foot cliff; having edged up to insanity at the relentless behest of mosquito hordes; having run out of food, courage, and hope (in that order), we finally reached the lake that led to the glacier that led to the peak. The peak we’d circled on our maps a lifetime ago. The peak we no longer cared to climb.

6. Middle Teton, Wyoming

There was ice in the couloir at 12,100 feet, and I had no crampons, nothing better than a sharp rock for a self-arrest. I retreated to a lower meadow and consoled my thwarted ambition with a long snooze in the sun. When I awoke, marmots and pale blue butterflies that flew like snowflakes surrounded me. I was held in the embrace of alpenglow. I was wrapped in the joy of a plan abandoned, a desire released and forgotten.

7. Camel’s Hump, Vermont

She’s my personal Mount Everest, my Sagarmatha, my Chomolungma, my Goddess Mother of the World. The first time I climbed her I was five years old and accompanied by my father and sister. Since then, I’ve stood atop her summit in snow and rain and brightness, alone and with friends, in the company of dogs and wild birds, in all seasons and moods. I’ve sipped from her springs and gulped down her clouds; I’ve eaten of her mossy, ferny flesh. I’ve slept with her, learned from her, suffered by her again and again and again. I’ve been up there, that’s all I’m saying. But conquer her? Conquer Camel’s Hump? Hardly. If anything, she has conquered me.

Leath Tonino is the author of The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, a collection of essays about adventures in the Northeast. A second collection, The West Will Swallow You, will be released this fall.


  1. The Mountain that Conquered me: Humphreys Peak, Arizona

    My friend Chuck explained it was already too late in the day to attempt the peak. Then added: “Heck, we don’t have to go all the way. It’s not like it’s a date!”
    What started out as a pleasant walk through meadows of cowpen daisies soon turned rough and steep. But I was expecting that, since we had more than three thousand feet to climb to gain the highest point in Arizona, Humphreys Peak in the San Francisco Mountains north of Flagstaff.
    San Francisco Volcanic Field is a Rhode Island–sized area of cinder cones, lava vents, flows, and domes, and one ash-and-lava layer cake, San Francisco Mountain. The region has seen six million years of fiery upheaval, the most recent at Sunset Crater less than a thousand years ago. San Francisco Mountain, what locals call “the peaks,” comprises an open ring of six of them. The highest peaks, turning clockwise from the south—Fremont, Agassiz, and Humphreys—make up the familiar skyline.
    Some people say the mountain got its name because you can see San Francisco from the summit. The Navajo consider the mountain sacred. They call it Dook’o’oosliid, the Summit That Never Melts.
    Cinders crunched like Grape-Nuts underfoot. From the saddle at 11,800 feet, the dark head of Agassiz Peak rose into the stratosphere on my right. Humphreys’s naked dome stood on my left. Sweat chilled my skin, more sweat than what seemed necessary. I was breathing hard and the nausea was rising. “Go on up, Chuck,” I said. “I’ll stay here and . . . upchuck.”
    He vanished. I looked over the mountain to still myself before trying the summit. So blue. Even the bare rocks were blue. Sunlight carried no warmth, no radiance. Every outcrop on the edge of the world leaned outward in vertigo, as if gravity had reversed itself. I wanted to inhale the entire sky from up there—and throw up the entire planet. Like that volcano at one time, everything on the inside wanted outside. Ejecta. Hot, gaseous venting from the bowels of the earth. Projectile volcanism. Explosive flux.
    A girl wearing nothing but running shoes, a thin T-shirt, and shorts, and carrying a water bottle shot past me. A body of pure thrust. Now I felt sick and old. I climbed another two hundred feet and collapsed. I could go no farther. Chuck glided high along a ridgeline under the flank of Humphreys Peak. The rocky trail was his springboard. Supple spine and leg muscles carried him upward. A leaf-blower trachea slammed oxygen into red blood cells the size of jujubes. In moments, he was a speck on the summit, while I sucked air through a cocktail straw.
    I was close. But I had to turn back to where I left my insides at trailside.
    Later that evening in Flagstaff, my wife, Karen, and I met Chuck and his wife, Sarah, for dinner at Beaver Street Brewery.
    “How’s the altitude sickness?” Sarah asked. She was a clinical manager of pediatrics.
    “Better,” I said. “Better now that I have more air above me than beneath me.”
    Karen, who had been force-feeding me salty crackers since my return, mentioned how she loves the Navajo word for the mountain: “Summit That Never Melts.”
    Then she said she wanted to know the Navajo word for “Summit You Never Reached.”

  2. Camels Hump has so many seasons. Up to view and down in the summer, winter ice. Trails direct and lyrical. Daily to some, a walk. 17 Below, that’s another story. Same mountain.

  3. Had a couple of great naps up on the saddle near the Middle Teton. Great nap spots up there.

  4. I’ve climbed Mt Washington in New Hampshire many times starting about age 10. It’s the highest peak in NE England at approx. 6K.

    It has a unique topography where three weather patterns converge there which can create weather that can and have killed the unprepared in August. It actually has an Alpine-like climate and vegetation.

    I had friends who wanted to attempt a summit in the winter. I signed on but I didn’t make it due to equipment malfunction.

    Although the weather started off fine, it soon turned bad. Very bad. It became a winter Nor’easter. Vision was reduced to almost zero with the gale-like winds blowing almost horizontally into our faces.

    My ill-fitting boots cuffs were now cutting into my shins so that I had to stop almost every third step to lessen the pain.

    We had crossed the Alpine Garden for the final assault of the “cone” to reach the peak. I advised our guide of my equipment issue and told him that I felt I would be a detriment to the rest of the party if I continued.

    He agreed and left me at the base of the “cone” while the rest of the group attempted the final leg.

    It was a long wait but they finally appeared out of the driving snow. They looked like abominal snowman, all covered with frost. Their goggle lenses had frosted over making them useless. Their facial features were hardly discernible.

    The remaining descent was extremely challenging. The wind speed had increased significantly and it was almost impossible to see the rock cairns that marked the trail with the storm blowing almost directly into our unprotected eyes.

    We needed to get to the tree line quickly to reduce our exposure to hypothermia. The other danger was that Huntington Ravine was close to the trail and any missed cairn trail marker could lead us to an almost fatal fall into the ravine.

    We made it to tree line and the rest of the descent was anti-climatic.

    I tried the winter ascent three more times in the ensuing years but still have not made it yet. Two times the weather was so windy that it was blowing us off the trail, even in one case when we were on our hands and knees.

    The last time the weather was warm and therefore very foggy. The word came down from earlier hikers that because of the existing snow depth there was a danger of falling into “tree holes”. My companions who had summited on the first attempt decided to turn back. Not happy.

    I’m 72 now and still want to summit Mt Washington in the winter. Maybe this will be the year.

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