by Colleen Mondor
In 1932 two men were involved in a fatal crevasse fall on Mt. McKinley. Allen Carpé and Theodore Koven were scientists and mountaineers taking part in the Cosmic Ray Expedition. Armed with cameras to record their efforts and instruments to measure high-energy particles, they were alone in the advance camp on Muldrow Glacier when the accident occurred. Based on Carpé’s diary, which was later recovered from the camp, it is believed that he and Koven were hiking down toward McGonagall Pass on May 9th, possibly returning to their fellow scientists in the lower camp. They were apparently crossing an ice bridge when it collapsed, sending one of them into the crevasse; the other likely fell in while trying to provide assistance. Koven pulled himself out but then collapsed and succumbed to hypothermia after dragging himself only a few feet away. His body was discovered by a party returning from the summit on May 11th and eventually recovered. Carpé has never been found.
My research into the deaths of these two men began by accident more than a year ago. At the time I was on the hunt for more information about Joe Crosson, the pilot who transported them to the mountain. I write often about Alaska aviation, and the Cosmic Ray Expedition was the first time an aircraft landed on McKinley, known by Alaskans as Denali. My interest was focused on the six flights to the mountain and the pilots who made the high altitude judgment calls to land on it; I didn’t plan on discovering the first men to die there. More surprising, once I found Carpé and Koven, was that I couldn’t seem to let them go.
Everyone asks writers where their ideas come from. I don’t know how to explain why so many of mine can be traced to the second floor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) library. That is where I spent endless hours scrolling through rolls of microfilm when writing my first book about the exploits of the pilots who flew over Alaska’s mountains and tundra decades before I was born. When I was in graduate school I practically lived on those machines, working on a thesis that now, remarkably, is shelved right in the middle of the books I used as source material. I thought it would be the last thing I would write at UAF, but the stories kept drawing me back. Now, here I am again, unable to resist yet another explorer’s quest.
With Carpé’s name in my notebook, followed by several questions marks, I went up to the library’s third floor and the bound volumes of the American Alpine Journal. Carpé’s official climbing reports, on Mt. Logan, Mt. Bona, and Mt. Fairweather were all submitted and dutifully published by the AAJ, a publication where he served as the first editor. The report on Denali, however, was written by Edward Beckwith, an expedition member who remained at the lower camp and later submitted the official story of what happened on the mountain.
Beckwith’s words are necessarily dispassionate. The deaths are described as just one element of what was a complicated and intense experience for everyone involved. Beckwith became quite ill and was eventually flown out from 6,000 feet (the first aerial rescue on the mountain). Another member of the expedition tried to hike out for help before the aircraft arrived and was missing for ten days before returning (miraculously) to the camp. In spite of these difficulties, Carpé and Koven did gather the only high-altitude value of cosmic rays at such a northern latitude and the science was quite valuable to the ongoing investigations of these mysterious particles (between 1930 and 1945 measurements were conducted around the world to better understand the source of the rays and their energy potential). But then, as all too often happens, time passed and everything about the Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition was forgotten.
Mt. Carpé and Mt. Koven, both in the Alaska Range with Denali, stand as memorials to the expedition. But they are among countless names on plaques, names on charts, names on maps; Alaska is covered with names of those whose deaths were front page news then and now are hardly recognized. The 1932 expedition does not include any firsts for height or route that a mountaineer would note. Researching it, I was always alone in the third floor stacks, just me and my mess of a notebook paging through the indexes of the AAJ for Carpé and Koven. Those books looked like they hadn’t been touched, let alone read, in years.
More than once the lights flickered above me while I read. More than once I felt like I was sitting on someone’s grave.
My intention with my next book was to write about the pilots who created the modern air routes for Alaska—the men who flew every day before they knew where following the horizon would lead them, before they knew the canyons with no way out. There were stories in those flights for a thousand books, I thought. But where I find myself now is a place where the engines are silent and the props still. I think of Allen Carpé at the bottom of that crevasse as Theodore Koven struggled to pull himself free. They were so young, the two of them, only 38. Both so young and eager to explore.
“This country has lost none of its fascination for me in the last four years which have changed so much else in my life,” Carpé wrote to his wife as he sailed north. “It has haunted me for years, as you know, and I doubt if I will ever be really satisfied until I have tried to live in it.”
This is how stories find us, really: we sit at a library desk, we scroll through documents, we scan the shelves, we open the books. We look and, most importantly, we listen. My whole life I have been told over and over to “write what you know.” What I did not realize when I was younger was that what I know best is how it feels to be lost and, even worse, to be forgotten.
Within the heart of the tallest peak in North America, is a man who scaled mountains pursuing the secrets of the universe. My own stories have always seemed far too small and insignificant, and yet I find myself oddly belligerent about Carpé’s vanished legacy. Write what you know, I tell myself, and while I do not know what those last terrifying moments of fear and resignation must have been like, still . . . I do know what it is to be lost.
A careful consideration of my personal cartography yields moments where I disappeared in the sound and fury of parental arguments, held court in the corners of high school and college parties that whirled around my silent observing self, and struggled through flying courses that took me off the ground but left me unsure of where I wanted to go. An entire decade of my life was punctuated with one careless step after another, pins in a coming-of-age map that trace my journey across the country, in and out of jobs and romances, a return to college out of desperation as much as hope.
At 25 and 30, I was looking for myself, but now, finally, I am searching for others. Somehow, unbelievably, I found Allen Carpé. This is the kind of research discovery that a writer should never question. The story is already there, written in all those trips north, in a geography that haunts, in scientific dedication and a cold and brutal fall. Sadly, the truth of the Cosmic Ray Expedition has already been lost once; it seems cruel to let it slip away again. Besides, now I know it and in every way that matters, this story has become a little bit mine and I can’t let it go.
Colleen Mondor is the author of The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, (Lyons Press 2011), an NPR Great Summer Read of 2012. She is a columnist for Bookslut, a reviewer for Booklist, and writes about aviation for Alaska Dispatch. The small press she co-founded, Shorefast Editions, is reissuing an Alaska flying classic, “The Flying North,” next month. Colleen maintains a blog at chasingray.com and can be found talking airplanes and books (and baseball) on twitter via @chasingray.