This is a fine story about a daughter’s love and admiration for her father. Alexandra has really captured Peter’s nature. Who he was and who he is through the eyes of a daughter. rŌbert
Posted on: December 2, 2018
[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 64, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 64 for all the goodness!—Ed.]
Peter and Alexandra Lev, City of Rocks, 1990. [Photo] Lev family collection
MY DAD HAD A BOOKSHELF in our house that was as wide as one of the walls in our dining room and reached all the way to the ceiling. It was lined with heavy hardcover volumes and worn-edged paperbacks—books on topics that ranged from climbing to Buddhism, Judaism and histories—along with souvenirs from his travels around the world. There was a gold-plated menorah, which we lit with flickering candles each Hanukkah. A colorful elephant stood next to a hand-carved wooden figurine of the Buddha. On another shelf was an old Russian ushanka: a black fur cap with earflaps and a gold-embroidered Russian emblem on the front. Nearby, two delicately painted Matryoshka dolls offered frozen, comforting smiles. I played with the dolls often as a young child, opening each one to find the increasingly smaller inner dolls, and then unstacking and assembling them in a row along the edge of the shelves.
When I was twenty years old, in my first year of college, I stumbled upon a large-format book while cleaning the shelves one day. The notebook seemed older than I was, with frayed edges and faded pages. The writing was in German. Taped on the inside cover, there was a photo of a woman with long, dark hair that cascaded down her shoulders. She looked rugged and beautiful to me. A message appeared scrawled in German in unfamiliar cursive handwriting. As I turned the pages, I found pictures of climbing routes and descriptions of the Pamir Mountains, as well as printed and hand-drawn maps with notes scribbled along the sides. Folded up and stuffed between two pages was an article recounting a 1974 expedition. I looked through all these materials with confusion—back then I didn’t even know where the Pamirs were. I immediately called my dad and asked him about the notebook. He told me that the woman in the picture had died while on an expedition with him. At first, he didn’t give me many details, but once I pushed him he gave in, as he usually did to my requests.
The book was titled Das Grosse Bergbuch, “The Big Mountain Book” in German on the cover, and it had belonged to a Swiss climber named Eva Isenschmid—the woman in the photo. In 1974 the Central Pamir Range was still part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Federation of Mountaineering had invited United States mountaineers to the region for an international alpine camp. There, they joined more than 160 people from over twelve foreign nations to climb local peaks, alongside sixty mountaineers from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. My dad, Peter Lev, was among the nineteen Americans who arrived. As a result of an earthquake that triggered avalanches, as well as heavy storms that engulfed entire teams, fifteen people died during the trip, including Eva. Dad used to practice speaking German with Eva, and he had become fond of her. When I asked why he had never told me about such a big event in his life, Dad responded, “Well, you never asked.”
Memorial in the Pamirs, 1974. [Photo] Peter Lev
When Dad got home that evening, he went straight to his big bookshelf and dug around, as if looking for something. “Ah, ha!” he exclaimed and pulled out an old paperback, which he presented to me. The book was Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs by Robert W. Craig. It became the first mountaineering book I read, and it kept me up late every evening, with its tense accounts of mounting disasters, close calls, violent weather and deaths. How had I never heard this story before?
When I approached my dad again with more questions, he went into further detail. On August 4, Dad and fellow mountaineer Marty Hoey stood atop Peak Lenin with other teammates, just a day after Molly Higgins, Chris Kopczynski, Frank Sarnquist and Pete Schoening had completed the first American ascent of the mountain. Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. After their return to Camp III, they learned that Eva and another Swiss climber, Heidi Ludi, and their Bavarian partner, Anja Vogele, were now trapped high on the peak in a severe blizzard. There was nothing that could be done that evening, so the next morning Dad joined a rescue team that set out to look for Eva’s team through the cold, blowing snow. On the way, they met Anja, who was staggering down alone to summon aid for her friends. She warned them that Eva was in trouble. While the French mountaineer Michel Vincent assisted Anja to Camp III, another French climber, Francois Valla, and Dad kept climbing higher. Eventually, they discovered the two Swiss women amid some bare rocks high on the ridge. Eva was lying semiconscious on the frozen ground, barely moving, with no gloves on. Heidi was pale and freezing herself, but still trying to assist her friend. In eighty mile-per-hour winds, Dad and Valla put Eva in a sleeping bag, and accompanied by Heidi, they began lowering her down the north face.
After a while, the Bavarian climber Sepp Schwankner emerged from the storm to find them. Francois and Heidi went ahead to get more help, and Sepp and Dad continued to lower Eva. When Eva became immobile, they took turns attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Then her lips became cold, and they realized she was dead. Avalanche conditions were growing increasingly dangerous, so they tied Eva in the sleeping bag to an ice axe and left her body on the mountain. As Dad looked down at the ground, telling me this story and rubbing his forehead, it was clear that the memory was still painful for him all these years later. It was then that I realized that there was still so much I didn’t know about him.
Peter Lev on the Grand Teton, 1983. [Photo] Lev family collection
MY DAD WAS FORTY-SIX YEARS OLD when I was born, and he’d already had a long life in the mountains before I even existed. My parents weren’t just lovers of the outdoors; nature was deeply ingrained into every aspect of our lives and community. I’d been given the same middle name as Marty Hoey, who had remained a dear friend to them and who had died on Chomolungma (Everest) exactly four years before my birth on the same day. When I was growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mom and Dad both worked at the nearby ski resorts of Snowbird and Alta. Our winter weekends were spent waking up at 6 a.m. to drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon for ski school or to be in line for the first chair lift. The assumptions were clear: I was to be a climber or skier, and if my parents were lucky, I would be both.
Dad worked for Exum Mountain Guides for forty-six years, and he eventually became a senior guide and co-owner. Every summer, for his job, we left Salt Lake City to go to Grand Teton National Park. We lived in a tiny, three-room cabin at the foot of Teewinot that my parents built when my mom was pregnant with me. My parents divorced when I was five, and my time was split between them, yet I continued to spend my summers in the Tetons with my dad. This area, Guide’s Hill, where employees of Exum lived, was like a neighborhood in a way, though its inhabitants were even more like members of a large family. Each guide cabin had electricity but no running water. We all shared a communal bathhouse, and we frequently had potlucks around a big, crackling fire. Deer grazed in the nearby woods and fields. At night, the stars shone brighter overhead than they did anywhere else I’d been.
Exum Guides, from left to right: Peter Lev, Fred Wright, Al Read, Rod Newcomb, 1963. [Photo] Lev family collection
As an only child living in the mountains, I developed a fierce independence. I hated rules of any kind, and I frequently talked back and ignored what I was told to do. When I was young, there were only a few other children my age living on Guide’s Hill. While our parents went to work in the mountains, they left us with older kids or with no supervision at all. During the days, we swam in Cottonwood Creek or rode bikes to String Lake where we would jump off rocks into the cold alpine waters. We built forts in the old cottonwood forest behind the cabins or headed into Jackson Hole for the occasional movie.
It’s hard to say exactly when I learned to climb, because I was always around the rock, even as a baby. I remember loving the rough feel of granite against my fingers and the way it glistened in the sun. My dad taught me how to be responsible and respectful in the mountains with lessons that became ingrained: never rush, always double check everything, take moments to be thankful, pack plenty of snacks, and never take shortcuts. Dad appeared to climb without effort, as if he were floating up the rock. He shouted down commands. “Don’t forget your prusik! Watch your feet!” His hands were always rough with scabs on his knuckles from the sharp textures of the rock and cracks in his skin from the dry sunlight. His calves looked like tree trunks, but I glimpsed a softer, interior side in the crinkles around his eyes when he grinned and hugged me.
Peter and Alexandra Lev, Tetons, 1994. [Photo] Lev family collection
On most of Dad’s days off, we climbed together. He’d take me up the cliffs at Hidden Falls where Exum clients learned climbing skills. When I got older, we practiced on Baxter’s Pinnacle, and no matter how many times I climbed it, I always felt a sharp rush of fear at the sudden drop of air below me on the summit spire. We went on backpacking trips to wander amid the meadows and towers of the Wind Rivers with other guides and their kids. In the spring and autumn, we had adventures amid the surreal granite steeples of the City of Rocks. I know there were times when I was bored or homesick for my mom, but life outside was magic. The other children and I had the freedom to run wild, to explore every corner of the woods, to dip our feet in every nearby creek, and to howl at the moon on clear nights.
After Dad retired from Alta, he started working from home in the off-season, doing long-range weather forecasting. He sat at a big desk he’d made from an old door in front of a large window that overlooked our backyard. From the window, Dad would lower his glasses and sometimes wave at me as I sat up in the tree house he built on top of our apricot tree. Most of the time, however, his focus was intense, and he’d snap with frustration if I interrupted him. I began to notice, more, how different he was from the fathers of my Salt Lake City friends. He didn’t wear a suit or go to an office every day. He made awkward jokes that embarrassed me.
[In addition to the expeditions described here, Peter Lev’s climbing experience includes first ascents of the Lev Route on the Underhill Ridge of the Grand Teton in 1960, the Denali East Buttress in 1963, the direct North Face of Mount Robson in 1969 and Chulu West in 1978, among others. Peter now resides in Ouray, Colorado, in a studio apartment above a friend’s garage, which he proudly refers to as the garage-mahal.—Author Note.]