n September 5, 1991 three climbers pull themselves across heather and rocky slopes to a rounded summit named Mount Asa, just east of Mount Agnes. One of them, John Roper, is on a mission – to find an old summit register with several historic names in it.
“Doctor, you just have to get up there and see it. You won’t believe it,” said his frequent climbing partner, Silas Wild, who with Russ Kroeker chanced upon the unheralded Asa in 1984, the third ascent in nearly eighty years. Mount Asa is not a typical alpine objective, overshadowed by nearby Agnes and Gunsight Peaks. It sits in one of the most remote areas of the North Cascades and is difficult to approach under any circumstances.
Roper, along with friends Mark Allaback and Norm Burke, now picks through the rocks of a small summit cairn, pulling out a rusted tomato can containing a weathered scrap of paper, wrapped carefully in a second, larger piece of wax-coated photographic paper. Written in firm pencil are the names they seek: first ascent by Asa Post in 1908, second ascent by Austin Post in 1947, followed by Silas and Russ in 1984. They marvel at what they see – three ascents, the first two separated by 38 years and accomplished by father, then son. The third and now fourth ascents are by modern climbers driven to seek out every remote corner of the range.
Just who is Austin Post, the legend in the shadows of the Cascade Alpine Guide? Roper leaves Mount Asa with this question, determined now to find and meet Austin to see for himself.
Without finishing high school, he left for the hills, building trail for the Forest Service and working as a fire lookout. Summers were spent on Crater Mountain, Horton Butte, and his great love, Pyramid Mountain, with its broad panoramas of Lake Chelan and the Chelan-Sawtooth range – all manned by lookouts during the true romantic era, with pack-horse access and hand-cranked bare-wire telephones. World War II would interrupt this peaceful existence, yet ultimately have an indirect influence on Austin’s eventual role in glacier research and aerial photography.
About to be drafted and unsuccessful in trying to enlist in the Coast Guard (“They had a six month waiting list, and I was three days away from being called into the army…”), Austin enlisted in the Navy. As a carpenter’s mate, he fatefully avoided combat (“We always said that they were too afraid of our bosun so they stayed away from us.”) sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a 103-foot patrol boat. Hawaii, American Samoa, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Eniwetok and Saipan were the exotic landfalls.
He later joined an ammunition ship ferrying explosives. When peace was declared, the ship helped land the U.S. 8th Army in Japan, then ferried 3,000 Chinese Nationalist troops from Shanghai to Tsingtao.
Upon his discharge, Austin returned to the Forest Service. As a trail crew boss in the upper Stehekin valley in 1947, he met Dr. Lawrence Nielsen, a research chemist who studied glacier flow as a hobby. A long friendship and correspondence ensued. When Nielsen was invited to lead the American Geographical Society (AGS) Juneau Icefield Research Project in 1953, he asked Austin to join him. By then, Austin had left the Forest Service; his naval experience had helped him land a job with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he got his first taste of the great glaciers of southeast Alaska.
With Nielsen, Austin spent a summer gathering data on the Taku Glacier and the Juneau Icefield. While there, Austin contracted pneumonia and was saved only by an epic hike for antibiotics by Dr. Richard Hubley, the IGY (International Geophysical Year) Northern Hemisphere Coordinator.
“Had it not been for Dick Hubley’s efforts, I probably wouldn’t have survived,” Austin says. As a project technician, Austin made his first contacts with the Project Director, the great pioneering glaciologist Dr. William O. Field. Their association blossomed, with Post and Field working closely together for many years.
“It is entirely due to Bill Field’s enthusiasm and support that the aerial photo work began and my interest in the glaciers and glacier photography evolved from an amateur’s hobby into serious science,” says Austin. “So often I had looked at Bradford Washburn’s superb glacier and mountain photographs. How I wished to see and photograph all of that magnificent country!” he adds, revealing an underlying devotion to the beauty of alpine and glaciated regions of the world.
Austin continued working as a technician on glacier projects in Alaska, the Cascades, and the Olympics, which brought him in contact with many distinguished scientists. Eventually he enlisted their support to launch the air photography project that would firmly establish his reputation.
His break came when his proposal to conduct aerial surveys of glaciers of Western North America was funded by the National Science Foundation in support of Field, the AGS, and the University of Washington. Austin was hired and given the title “Senior Meteorologist,” although he was neither. The “two year” project eventually stretched out to more than six, extended by Alaska’s great 1964 earthquake and the need to document quake-caused glacier changes. Ultimately, Austin was granted a professional position with the U.S. Geological Survey as a research scientist, a remarkable achievement for “an untrained high school dropout like myself,” he says.
Meeting Austin Post
More visits follow. Austin and Roper join up for a trip that summer to look at Austin’s old haunts. They travel to Chelan, fly up the lake to Stehekin and climb Boulder Butte, a former lookout site. Austin, now 70, nimbly handles the 6,250-foot climb. On another trip, the two join prominence expert Jeff Howbert to explore Douglas County, an area bulldozed by glaciers, and Austin gives lessons in glaciology and catastrophic ice-age floods.
They venture east on trips in 2003 and 2004 to the Okanogan and Palouse country, which kindle Austin’s abiding interest, glacial ice. Although he is long retired, the books, photographs, maps, and computer full of research in his home office attest to his enduring fascination with glaciers. Austin is now on a personal quest to answer an old question – where is the eastern-most glacier in the North Cascades? The answer isn’t known yet, but he thinks it can be found, and with the certainty of a life of glacier study, he names it Eacas Glacier, for “Eastern Cascades Glacier.”
In 2003, I find a different way to Austin’s door. While doing aerial photography of Mount Baker and the North Cascades, a pattern emerges. Repeatedly, I return from flights and turn to Austin’s photographs in the Cascade Alpine Guide for reference. Who is this guy whose name is everywhere, I wonder. I eventually pose the question to a good friend, Dr. Kevin Scott, a USGS geologist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory. Kevin seeks out his associate, Dr. Carolyn Driedger, a glaciologist who worked with Austin in Glacier Bay, and an introduction is arranged.
Within a few weeks, my wife Karen and I are on our first visit to the Ferry Boat House – to me, a shrine for mountaineering and glaciology. Austin and Roberta welcome us warmly, and like those before, we sign the guest book at the top of the stairs. Soon we are deep into his photographs and mapping projects.
Austin looks over pictures I have brought and says, “I know a fellow who would like to see these. His name is John Roper.” The name is familiar to me from the Cascade Alpine Guides. Our visit with Austin and Roberta ends with me extending an invitation for a flight. “Oh yes, he would never turn that down,” says Roberta. “There’s something I’d like to see north of Lake Chelan,” Austin says. “It’s called Mount Bigelow.” So we make a plan. Once home, I send a letter to Roper, and with a shared passion for the North Cascades, we hit it off immediately.
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