I suspect that most people only have a few good teachers during their
lifetime. It is even rarer for a teacher to become a friend. John Roper
is a special friend, indeed. Where do I start? Although we rarely spent
more than a week or so together each year, it was always memorable because
it was always an adventure. The man has been an integral part of my life
for at least 20 years, spanning three decades. And who knows what the future
may bring along with Aaron? There are at least a few new routes left in
the mighty Cascades.
I first met Roper when I was 15 (going on 16) in 1977. He had heard that
Alex Medlicott, my Dad and I had been visiting the Diobsud Lakes for a few
years and offered to tag along and then take us beyond. Whenever anyone stepped
off the trail in the Cascades, he seemed to know it. Although born in Seattle
, I mostly grew up on the beach in California and I had never climbed a mountain
before. I was skinny and small: grew 3 inches after high school. But I was
also tough and athletic and sports were always part of life. The idea of visiting
the remote Cascade Mountains certainly seemed like an adventure. It started
easy enough, trail to Watson Lakes , then cross-country along a route I'd
done twice previously. It was always a long day that ended by dropping into
the Diobsud basin. We whacked fish, probably just before dark, since I would
soon learn that Roper wasn't the type to lay around all day fishing.
We left the Diobsuds to climb Bacon, a peak near Berdeen Lake and one of
the Hagen 's. Roper led, Dad stayed in the rear to keep Medlicott and I in
place. At first, cross-country travel in the Cascades was anything but easy.
Not long after leaving the lowest Diobsud Lake , my Dad and I were trying
to keep within shouting distance of Roper while side-hilling through wet,
7-foot high brush. This wasn't the dreaded vine-maple under-story we would
encounter so often in other areas, but a near wetland on a steep slope where
every piece of vegetation either scratched or was otherwise worthless to grab
for support. It was comical. My Dad and I wallowed in our heavy Levi's, falling
constantly, filthy and soaked with sweat, simply unable to follow Roper's
smooth lines. I had a bulky frame pack that kept catching the brush and knocking
me down. Just when we caught sight of Roper he would disappear. It was damn
frustrating but we kept our complaints to ourselves. My pack frame hooked
on a branch at one point and I did half a summersault and landed on my back
head facing downhill; Dad picked me up and managed to break the agony by cracking
some joke. When we finally broke free of the brush into a heather meadow,
Roper was already hundreds of feet away ascending a huge snowfield. Other
than a few dirty patches between Watson Lake and the Diobsuds, Dad and I had
never really walked on snow. In fact, we tried to avoid it.
But Roper charged on. And I realized that by following his footsteps in snow
there was no reason why I should fall if he didn't. Indeed, by watching him
closely, even imitating his body language, I ought to avoid any slips he makes
and reap a significant benefit from following. It seemed to work. He probably
slowed for me, but I caught him on that snowfield, and once I became his shadow
and fell into his pace, everything was easier. And to be free of the brush!
In later years, I would shadow Roper in all types of terrain and I truly was
fortunate to receive a crash course in cross-country travel.
That night was my first up high in the Cascades and I do believe I was hooked:
so little human disturbance, such difficult terrain; I felt so lucky to be
out there. But the body was getting a bit beat up. And Roper's pace was relentless.
It was years before his ceaseless efforts, dawn to dusk, became normal to
me such that hanging around a lake or sleeping late seemed silly. The next
morning Roper gave us our first lesson on glacier travel and we walked up
Bacon, my first peak.
We had another amazing high camp above the bugs and brush near Berdeen and
Green Lakes , even a bit of fishing, then I do believe we bagged a first,
or maybe a second, ascent of a peak over the lakes. Roper let me go first,
photos were taken, ice axes raised. Roper gave the experience a sense of adventure
and carefully recorded our history. A summit register was left behind, the
first of many. Roper said that if the pleasure is just a little better than
the pain, it is worth doing, worth climbing. He suggested that I collect a
bit of rock, something that represents the specific peak we climbed. No two
pieces of rock are exactly the same, right? The weather was perfect and so
was the vista. Roper started naming every peak in all directions, pointing
out possible unclimbed summits for future trips, the ridges he had run and
others that he would surely visit. Early on, I noted that he was clearly doing
what he loved.
Later in the trip my Dad and I got hung up descending off an arm of one of
the Hagen 's. Even Roper hesitated above a high angle snow chute but he said
nothing before literally jumping into a steep glissade that really amazed
me. Again he looked smooth, in control. We had played around with the technique
a bit but not in any real steep areas. I hesitated, turned to Dad and he said
just sit down.I think Roper shouted after he saw me make the mistake but I
lost it down that chute, out of control, then quickly safe into a soft run-out.
Although it was probably only 75 feet or so, the helpless, frantic feeling
of a fall was nothing I had ever felt before. And there was that ice axe to
worry about. But Roper had selected the spot carefully, knowing that whatever
happened would likely turn out okay. He quietly but firmly told me never to
sit down while glissading.(".yeah, yeah, but Dad told me."). Unfortunately,
I would take 2 or 3 more out of control falls on snow and ice over the next
That first trip with Roper seemed to have a little of everything including
a brutal last day descending below timberline. Roper seemed to think that
there was a trail somewhere, but maybe it was a running joke, since we spent
a terrible last day beating brush. The previous night's rain didn't help.
There was no trail. There was thick brush, steep slopes and endless windfalls.
Near the end of the day we made it to a river crossing, one of the big drainage
basins near Mt. Baker , and I had to really fight the current to make the
crossing. Maybe it was easier for the adults but I doubt I weighed more than
Roper invited us back every year, a true compliment for a couple of guys
from the beach in California . We were happy to go wherever John wanted. He
seemed to save many unclimbed areas for us. They may not have been interesting
to most climbers since they were mostly scrambles but I felt honored to be
walking where others had not. Hell, I could climb the other peaks whenever.
I knew Roper was doing something special, one step at a time. And each year
he carefully exposed me to more technical climbs such that by the 1990s I
was doing a bit of leading. Although I had some natural ability, I did not
live and breathe climbing: I was a beach person, a surfer, baseball and basketball
player. This wouldn't be much of a problem until the climbing got serious.
It wasn't long before my Dad's knees failed him but I kept returning each
summer in August or September. There were times when I had absolutely no money
after the plane ticket, but Roper made it easy by taking care of everything
once I arrived. We often went straight from the airport to the mountains.
He had all the food figured out, including extra cheese and pita bread for
me. There was always extra gear if I needed to borrow anything.
Roper's ability to keep going, all day everyday, dawn to dusk, was something
I had never experienced. It seemed normal for him, so it had to become normal
for me or I wasn't going to make it; I wasn't going to be asked back. I learned
to see little routes through walls of brush. I learned to look down a ridge
and not get intimidated at the formidable terrain ahead. For a few years on
bad days in endless snowfields riddled from exhaustion, I counted steps, which
was not a sane way to be. I overcame the false summit conundrum. Roper really
tested me a few times early on, especially up along the Canadian border near
Mad Eagle Peak and Bear Mountain , a trip that was also tough on my Dad. I
remember reaching a flat spot high on a ridge maybe an hour and a half before
dark after a grueling day, which included our first ascent of Mad Eagle. Dad
seemed to collapse and I felt wasted. But Roper asked me to grab my fishing
pole and ice axe since we needed to check out a lake just out of site on the
opposite side of the ridge. The good news was that we were able to glissade
much of the descent and a snowfield led all the way down to the lake. But
I remember my legs shaking badly from exhaustion and holding the glissade
position was difficult. The bad news was that the ascent back to camp was
between 2100 and 2500 feet and it was almost pitch dark when we got back.
I was too tired to speak. We didn't catch any fish but Roper thought he saw
one. Later on that trip I remember being so tired late in a day that I wished
my leg would break just so we could stop.
In 1986 that unfortunate wish came true. Roper thought I was ready to enter
the Southern Pickets with the hotshot climbers. He was mostly right, I was
strong and tough, but still not comfortable on high angle snow. I have since
realized that steep snow requires significant skill, which is only acquired
through experience: innate coordination and nerve can take one only so far.
There are all types of snow and the conditions can change quickly. Anyway,
the Koala, Rhino and I crossed a snow bridge to reach rock, and the route
led back into a snow chute with a bad runout into an abyss between rock and
ice. I started punching steps up steep snow and felt strong, but was undoubtedly
moving too fast; we were not roped. It happened so quickly: I reached up with
both hands overhead to plunge my axe, then went over backwards, headfirst.
Did I lift a foot at the same time? Regardless, I was out of control and heading
into a berkshrund less than 100 feet below. I knew I had to hit rock on one
side of the chute to have a chance to slow down or stop so I kicked my feet
desperately to fall at an angle. Thankfully, I suppose, I hit rock and stuck,
slammed my helmeted head and bent my ankle inward so severly that the tibia
broke on the outside just below the knee. Roper packed my ankle in ice, left
me on a nearby ledge and finished the ascent with the Koala. I fell asleep,
woke up by rock-fall in a whiteout. The weather went bad but the Koala and
Roper orchestrated a fairly advanced rescue to get me back on snow and then
out via helicopter late the next day. It was very humbling to be taken care
of by so many people.
We ran a lot of ridges and bagged a lot of peaks together. There are lots
of stories to tell; lessons were learned. Roper helped me grow up. I really
do miss the sport and the Cascade Mountains . But it takes time and dedication
and it helps greatly to live in proximity to the peaks. I am grateful to John
Roper for teaching me how to be a mountaineer and bringing me into his world.
His accomplishments speak for themselves. Happy 60 th Birthday my good friend
John, I sure miss you!
Aptos , California
2 January 2004
Copyright 2004, John W. Roper.
All Rights Reserved.