Friday, March 4, 2011

No. 14 - Highpoints in History - Part 1

 - by Bill Urbanski    

       Several weeks ago I wrote about a winter ascent of Mount Marcy, the highest point in the state of New York.  Deteriorating weather and other circumstances prevented our party from descending past Lake Tear of the Clouds.

      This was disappointing for me because Lake Tear of the Clouds, in addition to being the source of the Hudson River, also holds a unique place in American presidential history.  It is the site where then Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt learned that he was about to become President of the United States.

Artist Rendition of McKinley Assassination
      The story begins on September 6, 1901 when anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two shots at point blank range into the chest of President William McKinley, who had been shaking hands with well-wishers in the Hall of Music at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

      McKinley was taken immediately to a nearby hospital where emergency surgery was performed.  One of the bullets glanced off McKinley harmlessly. The other entered McKinley’s body through his rib cage, lacerated his stomach, and lodged somewhere in the muscles of his back.  It was never found.

      Astonishingly, state of the art medical technology – the X-Ray – had been on display at the Pan American Exposition, but it was not employed in the search for the rogue bullet.  Surgeons simply sutured the stomach, abandoned the bullet, and hoped for the best.

      Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was in Burlington, Vermont, about to speak before the Vermont Fish and Game Club when news reached him of the shooting.  Without delay, he boarded a boat on Lake Champlain and began his journey to be by the side of the stricken President.

      In the days following surgery, McKinley’s condition improved, and on September 10th, Roosevelt departed to join his family on vacation in the Adirondack Mountains. 

      The Roosevelts were staying at the Tahawus Club, a hunting and fishing club nestled in the foothills of Mt. Marcy, which at the time was known as Mt. Tahawus, a Native American word which roughly translates as “cloud splitter.”

      Roosevelt never could resist a physical challenge – ever since his days at Harvard when, as legend has it, he was told by a doctor that due to a weak heart he should find himself a desk job and avoid strenuous activities.

The Matterhorn
       The following summer (1881) and at the age of twenty-two, Roosevelt was honeymooning in Europe.  He found himself in the shadow of the Matterhorn, that most iconic of alpine peaks which had seen its first ascent just sixteen years earlier.  Despite having virtually zero mountaineering experience, Roosevelt decided he had to climb it.

      He was particularly drawn to the Matterhorn because it possessed “a certain somber interest from the number of people that have lost their lives on it.”  Indeed, four members of the Whymper party (the first successful summit team) were killed on their descent.

      If this or the majesty of the mountain itself were not enough, Roosevelt received the final push from two British mountaineers who were staying in his same hotel.  Roosevelt would later write to his friend and frequent guide William Sewall that he was determined to prove to them that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”
Roosevelt at 22, after climbing the Matterhorn

      Twenty years after the Matterhorn, Roosevelt again found himself in the shadow of a mountain of note, Mt. Tahawus.  Once again he was determined to climb.  Tahawus was no Matterhorn, so this time his wife Edith and children Kermit and Ethel wanted in on the adventure.  The Roosevelts set off on September 12th with a number of guides.  They hiked part way up the lower slopes and overnighted in a cabin with the intention of making a bid for the summit the following day.

      But the morning of the 13th was filled with rain, fog and generally miserable weather.  Edith turned back.  With several guides, she trekked back down to the Tahawus Club.  Undeterred by sloppy conditions, the ever-ebullient Teddy pressed on, hiking through the rain and fog and reaching a clear summit at about noon.

      Biographer Paul Grondahl described the mood of the Vice-President as he gazed out over the vast Adirondack wilderness from its highest point:  “Roosevelt, rarely at a loss for words, was uncharacteristically humbled by the magnificent view. ‘Beautiful country. Beautiful country.’”

      On the other side of the state in Buffalo, at precisely the same hour, the scene could not have been more different.  The deeply devout President, barely audible, began to mumble the Lord’s Prayer.  Infection had taken hold of his body.  Sepsis had set it.  McKinley knew the end was near.

      Grondahl:  “President McKinley’s room fell silent.  He clutched his wife’s hands.  There was nothing more that medicine or his powerful friends could do.  McKinley’s breathing had grown weak and shallow and his life seemed to be slowly seeping out. ‘It’s God’s way,’ he murmured almost inaudible.”