Robert Service remembered in alpine expedition

There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who seek adventure and fame. But perhaps none stranger than a group of American adventurers climbing a lonely Canadian mountain...

There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who seek adventure and fame.

But perhaps none stranger than a group of American adventurers climbing a lonely Canadian mountain to bestow the belongings of a famous British bard atop a peak that bears his name.

Toby Dittrich, 66, and a group of fellow mountaineers did just that this summer.

Dittrich is a researcher who has worked with the Juneau Icefield Research Program in Alaska since he was a student in the 1970s, studying the Gilkey and Llewellyn glaciers.

Almost two decades ago, he was studying U.S. Geological Survey maps in the area and noticed that two formerly nameless peaks had suddenly sprouted famous names – Mount Service and Mount London.

Immediately, Dittrich’s imagination began to swirl. Thoughts of the famous Yukon writers and first ascents ran through his head.

“In 1996 I thought that, since they were newly named, no one had ever climbed them, and I thought about trying it,” he said.

He sat on the idea for a few years, and discovered that Service, at least, had apparently been summitted once already. There was no record of anyone having climbed London.

Still, the more he thought about it, the more the idea of simply climbing the isolated peaks – located outside Atlin, British Columbia – wasn’t quite fitting for the mountains’ legendary namesakes.

Dittrich has long been fascinated by the poetry of Robert Service. He knows those words, penned about the Klondike chaos a century ago, by heart. He decided he wanted to use his expedition to pay tribute to the writers.

“In 2000 I contacted and asked if there were any relatives who might want some of his memorabilia placed on the summit. They put me in touch with Madame Jean Longepe, in Paris, France. She said she was Robert Service’s granddaughter,” Dittrich said.

After some email correspondence, Dittrich convinced Mme. Longepe that he was genuine, and even sent the family photos of Mount Service.

In return, they mailed him a box of Services’s belongings – the scribe’s wallet, his driver’s licence, letters from the family and photos of his old cabin – along with a request that Dittrich deliver the items to the summit.

He tried to do the same for Jack London’s family, but discovered that London’s only children were the characters in his books, and sadly Dittrich couldn’t find anything to contribute to London’s peak beyond the man’s well-crafted words.

In 2005, things looked to be progressing well towards the actual expedition, but fate, it seemed, can be as cruel today as it was to the Sourdoughs in 1898.

“I came down with acute lymphocytic leukemia and the doctors gave me no chance to live. That kind of put a damper on things,” Dittrich said.

Undaunted, Dittrich simply refused to die.

He fought complications from the disease for eight months before doctors decided he qualified for chemo treatments.

When he was admitted to hospital for the first round of treatments, the doctors told him he would be stuck there for at least a month.

“I said, no, no, my birthday is on Oct. 17 and I’m going to walk out of this hospital on my birthday. On Oct. 14 they gave me a biopsy and the next day the doctor came in and said, ‘You’re in remission from leukemia.’ On the 17th I walked out of the hospital with my blood count back,” he said.

Even in remission, it took Dittrich years to rebuild his stamina. He spent his summers with the ice research program in Juneau, gazing longingly into the nearby peaks, so close but just out of reach.

Finally, he decided that he’d rested long enough, and this year was the one to tackle his long-awaited dream.

He set about assembling a team, including Stacy Allison, the first American woman to climb Mount Everest, and one of her climbing partners, John Petroske.

They set out from the States in late July, hauling a trailer loaded with gear and Dittrich’s venerable Volvo station wagon.

After reaching Atlin, they helicoptered to the base of Mount Service and set about preparing for their summit attempt.

The weather, however, refused to co-operate. They dug in at the camp, and bided their time climbing smaller unnamed peaks nearby, waiting for the weather to clear over Service.

Finally, on the evening of July 26, the clouds broke.

“We inspected the ominous south ridge with binoculars and decided to prepare to an attempt to summit at 5 a.m.,” Dittrich said, reading his trip log from his home in Portland, where he is recovering from an injury sustained on the trip.

Summit day arrived, and the team set out for the peak.

“The mountains in that area are all completely shattered by frost. Every rock you touch will probably move. We went up a steep rock pile that was just crumbling all over the place to get to the top of the ridge.

“Most of the ridge was fairly easy, but we came to one pitch that was about 200 meters long. The ridge narrowed down to anywhere between one foot and one inch wide, and on the right was a 1,500-foot drop and on the left was a 1,000-foot drop,” he said.

With the help of climbing ropes and the team’s expertise, Dittrich finally reached the summit near 1 p.m.

“We celebrated. I presented the box on the summit with a little speech, which we videotaped. We took the contents of the boxes out, and I sat down on the summit pyramid, and put a Canadian flag on the Canadian side of the border and an American flag on the American side of the border. I read The Cremation of Sam McGee,” he said.

He also read another of Service’s poems, one much more personal to him than the famous tale of McGee’s re-warming.

“I count each day a little life, / With birth and death complete; / I cloister it from care and strife / And keep it sane and sweet.

“With eager eyes I greet the morn, / Exultant as a boy, / Knowing that I am newly born / To wonder and to joy.

“And when the sunset splendours wane / And ripe for rest am I, / Knowing that I will live again, / Exultantly I die.

“O that all Life were but a Day / Sunny and sweet and sane! / And that at Even I might say: ‘I sleep to wake again.’”

“It’s called Each Day A Life. It was on my hospital wall for the eight months I was in there. It helped me get through the roughest parts of cancer treatment,” Dittrich said.

The long-awaited ceremony complete, Dittrich and his team descended the mountain and spent the next few days in the area climbing more small peaks and delivering a collection of Jack London’s books to the top of his mountain as well.

The mountains sent Dittrich on his way with one small token of their own. On one easy afternoon hike, Dittrich slipped and ruptured his Achilles tendon.

He had to be helicoptered off the mountain.

“I’ve been climbing for 50 years, and this is the first time I’ve been hurt,” he said, laughing. He had surgery last week to repair the damage, and will be out of commission for about the next six weeks.

Next summer Dittrich said he’ll return to the ice research program in Juneau, though he likely won’t be venturing into the looming peaks anymore. Instead, he can gaze at them from below, and rest easy knowing he finally got there after 17 years of trying.

Contact Jesse Winter at

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