“It’s a Challenge, I Guess”

by Melvin Leavitt

Editorial Assistant

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    Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are alive and well in Provo, Utah. They’ve traded the broad Mississippi for the towering peaks and rugged canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, but the same restless spirit of adventure lives on. Not content to merely march to the proverbial beat of a different drummer, they rush in a capella where neither fools nor angels have gotten around to treading yet.

    They call themselves Kevin Allred and Bennett LeBaron, and they’ve filled their short years with more adventure than most of us will have in a lifetime.

    When Bennett was ten and Kevin 13, they decided there were better things to do after school than just play driveway basketball, so one day they took a two-mile hike up a nearby mountain. That tiny crack in their routine broke the dam wide open, and since then they’ve hiked thousands of miles. Almost every day finds them out-of-doors, and they’ve climbed every mountain in the area many times over. Their compulsion to be up and doing has carried them into rock climbing, snow climbing, hiking, camping (including snow cave and igloo camping), fishing, hunting, spelunking, ice climbing, outdoor photography, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fossil hunting, and other miscellaneous adventures hard to classify. On, over, around, under, in, among, through—it’s hard to think of a preposition they haven’t tried out on a mountain.

    When they were 13 and 16 respectively, they decided they wanted to climb the steep western face of Mount Timpanogos in the winter. This is a hazardous climb, involving deep snow and treacherous ridges of ice. After they had received instruction from their neighbor James Jensen, who had climbed in Antarctica, they dressed in their warmest clothing and hiking boots, took their homemade crampons and borrowed ice axes, and started climbing one morning at 3:00 A.M.

    It was an exhausting climb, but they moved fast. At one point they were confronted with about 100 feet of almost vertical ice, and they had to chop steps in order to keep climbing. When they reached the 11,750 foot summit, they became the youngest team ever to make the ascent in winter.

    They’ve repeated the feat several times since then, but with a difference. On that first venture they took their “climbing dog” George with them, but he became so neurotic about going up and down the ice steps that he never climbed Timpanogos again. He earned his nickname, however, by later accompanying them on countless equally risky ventures, frightened out of his fur half the time, but faithful to the end.

    George has since passed gratefully away to a more peaceful existence.

    Bennett and Kevin aren’t sure exactly when they started rock climbing. They liked to crawl around on boulders whenever they went hiking, and gradually they became more serious about it. Finally they bought a length of manila rope and started trying some cliffs on for size. They used pocketknives and other odds and ends for pitons, until one day the members of a local climbing club saw them high above the ground and nearly had a collective heart attack. After that the daring young men received some expert instruction, purchased some nylon rope, and went on to become two of the most skillful climbers in the area.

    Unorthodox as usual, they insisted on making most of their climbing equipment in their metal shop class in school. Other climbers thought they were crazy, trusting their lives to self-made equipment, but it turned out to be superior in most cases to the store-bought paraphernalia. “We’ve climbed places with it that the others haven’t been able to climb,” Kevin says.

    All told, they’ve climbed just about far enough up to put them in orbit, scaling such colorful-sounding obstacles as Chicago, Holy Moly, George, Green Monster, Lone Peak, and the Demon.

    Their first major rock climb was the Purple Alvin, a 500-foot shaft of sandstone and quartzite. They started climbing too late in the day and had to spend the night on the rockface, sitting in nylon slings on a six-inch-wide ledge. Since then they have made a number of difficult climbs. Last summer they climbed a 2,500-foot cliff called the Brazos in New Mexico. They made the ascent in 27 pitches and spent a night on the cliff face.

    Is rock climbing dangerous? “Not if you know what you’re doing and take the proper precautions,” Kevin says.

    Have they ever fallen? “Lots of times.” Anything serious? “No, we’ve always been lucky,” Bennett says. “I fell 80 feet once, but the rope stopped me.”

    “I’ve only fallen 35 feet,” Kevin confesses. “On the other hand,” he adds thoughtfully, “I hit a ledge on the way down.” He wore a cast for three weeks after that misadventure but was climbing again before it was off.

    Falls are very infrequent nowadays, however, because they have perfected their protective climbing technique. Knowing well the dangers of climbing, both belong to the local mountain rescue team.

    Inspired by their Timpanogos adventure, they have done a lot of snow climbing, a sport that requires entirely different techniques than rock climbing. It also requires superb conditioning. Among their conquests is Kings Peak, the highest mountain in Utah. They hiked 20 miles to the base before tackling the 13,587-foot peak. Another time they went to Colorado and climbed a number of peaks in the Little Switzerland of the Rockies. One of them was 14,300 feet high, requiring a 7,000 foot climb from the base to the peak.

    One day while climbing on Timpanogos they were probing with their ice axes to make sure that they were over solid rock and broke loose a huge snow cornice for two or three hundred yards along the ridge. They were left standing with their toes over the edge of the abyss while a full-fledged avalanche thundered down the slope away from them.

    On another occasion they were actually caught in an avalanche, but it was “just a little one—only up to our waists.”

    When there are no exciting climbs planned, Bennett and Kevin often just take off on a hike. One day they decided it would be interesting to hike through the mountains to Strawberry Reservoir, a 30-mile jaunt as the hypothetical crow flies, but closer to 50 on foot over tall mountains and through deep valleys. A little more than 24 hours after setting out, they staggered up to the placid blue water of the reservoir. Why do they do things like that? They shrug their shoulders. “It’s a challenge, I guess.”

    Another time the dynamic duo decided to play a little joke. In nearby Provo Canyon there is a 430-foot waterfall that plunges down a sheer cliff into the Provo River. A tram climbs on a cable to a small restaurant at the top, and there is no visible way up to the restaurant except by the tram, and even that’s a scary vertical trip. Nevertheless, the lady in charge one afternoon was startled by two young men tapping her on the shoulder.

    “Can we have a ride down the tram,” one asked. Her mouth hung open. They had not come up on the tram.

    “Can our dog ride down too?” the other asked. Her eyes dilated. There stood George, wagging his tail benevolently and panting. No dog had ever ridden up the tram. Before the confused lady could develop any serious emotional problems, they explained that they had come in by the “back door,” a hike of 20-plus miles over rough mountain terrain. They got a free ride down the tram, and George became the first and last canine passenger.

    One summer they climbed the Grand Teton, got lost going up, and finally ended up using about three different routes and wandering all over the mountain. They were accustomed to such a fast pace that in spite of the comedy of errors, they arrived at the top well ahead of the official guide who had started slightly ahead of them.

    Even their camping trips have a way of turning into adventures. One winter they decided to camp on top of Storm Mountain, a peak that can be reached only after a long hike. They left Christmas afternoon, camped on the lower slopes the first night, and pushed on up the mountain the next morning. At first they mushed through the deep powder on snowshoes, but soon it became too steep for the snowshoes, and they floundered on up the slopes on foot, their legs knotted into painful cramps. When they finally made it to the top of the mountain late that afternoon, they pitched their tent hurriedly because their transistor radio warned of a heavy storm.

    They hadn’t been inside the tent long when the storm hit with winds up to 70 miles per hour and an impenetrable wall of icy snow. The tent, which was anchored firmly to some trees, was blown up like a balloon, and ice whipped through it.

    “My feet were so cold that there was ice from my left sock stuck to my big toe,” Bennett remembers. “I had to peel the sock off and got frostbite.” Kevin traded his drier pants and socks for Bennett’s frozen ones to prevent further frostbite.

    Later that night the radio announcer predicted three days of heavy snow, with travelers advisories out even in the valleys. They knew it would be much worse on top of the mountain, so they decided to leave the first thing in the morning while they still had a chance. It was a long night.

    “I could hardly sleep that night because my feet were throbbing, thawing out,” Bennett says, and Kevin adds, “There must have been a wind chill factor of 50 below. I’d stick my hand out the door to check the thermometer, and when I’d pull it back in, I couldn’t move it for a long time.” They were also running low on fuel for their stove, which they had to keep burning all night because of the cold. As soon as they were sure it was morning, they threw their tent in a backpack, dug their snowshoes out of the snow, and started down the mountain. “You couldn’t even see your arm in front of you,” Kevin recalls. “It’s a good thing we knew the mountain so well.”

    It was hard going, and before long they were utterly exhausted. “I can remember many times falling through the snow up to my neck and thinking, ‘I’m just going to die here,’” Bennett says. “Finally we were crawling more than walking.” To make matters worse, the snowfall was so heavy that as they got lower down the mountain the snow seemed to get deeper rather than shallower. “It’s a strange feeling,” Bennett says, “to be alone up there and know that everyone else is safe down below in his warm house.” Fortunately their way was mainly downhill, and finally, utterly spent, they arrived at their car and were able to get home. They gained a little more caution from the experience but lost little enthusiasm. It wasn’t long before they were spending the night in some snowcaves they dug on a mountainside.

    Then there was the time they went underground. They heard one day that someone had discovered a cave up a nearby canyon, and from that moment on nothing would do but that they should find a cave of their own. So everyday after school, and all day on Saturdays, they could be seen up in the canyons with their cameras, pretending to be sightseeing and picture taking.

    They were really cave hunting and doing it with the same all-out dedication they do everything. They checked out about every crack in every rock in the canyons, looking for the telltale air currents that reveal a cavern behind the crack. They learned to look for the slightest movement in spiderwebs and grasses; they lit matches and held them to cracks to see if the flame flickered under some imperceptible breeze.

    For two months they searched, and they were prepared to go on searching until heavy snow made it impossible, and then to start again the following spring. But one day the search suddenly stopped for a moment as they squatted in front of a tiny crack looking at an extinguished match. They fumbled another into flame and held it in front of the crack. It was immediately blown out. Grabbing a nearby stick, they started to dig. The next day they returned with picks and shovels. Their callouses grew during the following days, but the crack remained a crack. They told no one about their search, knowing that many fine caves have been vandalized by thoughtless sightseers.

    After 20 feet of hard digging, they came to a little room almost big enough for both of them to sit up in. A couple of anemic stalactites straggled down from the ceiling, but the room ended in a blank wall. They got the matches out, found another breezy crack, and started digging again. Fifteen feet farther in they broke through into a large cavern shimmering with the jeweled spires and daggers that cave hunters dream about. It had taken two months of search and 35 feet of back-breaking, dirty digging, but it was all worth it.

    The cave turned out to be about 300 feet deep, fanning out on either side into many smaller rooms. They left a register of their discovery in the largest chamber and covered the entrance back up so that no one could come in and destroy the formations. For several years it was their own private, secret cave, a little magic kingdom that no other human beings had ever seen. Recently, members of a local spelunking club found the signs of digging at the entrance and broke through into the cave, but they too wish to preserve the cave’s beauty and have agreed to keep its location a secret.

    As if these adventures were not enough, Bennett recently discovered the fossil remains of an ancient crocodile-like amphibian. Now, of course, Kevin will have to find one too. “A bigger one.”

    There is a lesson to be learned from these two young men from the Edgemont Fifth Ward. They do things now, not someday. Most of us make all sorts of fantasy plans about the wonderful things we’ll do sometime, when we get around to it. Every week these two do more than some of us will ever get around to doing. They know the silence and beauty of high places, the satisfaction of a challenge met, and the thrill of discovery, because they know that now is the best time to do anything worthwhile.

    Photos by Kevin Allred and Bennett LeBaron

    Kevin and Bennett started rock climbing as just a pastime while hiking, but they eventually became skilled climbers

    Each time they go rock climbing, Bennett and Kevin trust their lives to equipment that they have made themselves. They feel it is safer than any they could buy

    Deep in the snowbound mountain ranges, Bennett and Kevin have discovered a world unknown to the summertime hiker. It is a world where snow and sun and shadow make everything new and unexpected

    The dynamic duo spend a night in snow caves

    George, the faithful “climbing dog,” violates one of the basic rules of snow climbing by standing on a snow cornice

    Kevin and Bennett often have to hike long distances just to get to the area where they want to climb, sometimes spending several days camped there

    The two climbers have been caught in only one avalanche, just seen arriving in this photo. Fortunately it was just a small one—covering them up only to their waists

    The hut at the top of Mount Timpanogos is a welcome sight to many summer hikers each year, but few people see it in the wintertime

    The Utah Valley sun turns icicles into jewels on the slopes of Mount Timpanogos

    Bennett and Kevin decided one day that they should find a cave, so they went to work and found one. They were probably the first human beings ever to see these formations, although they are within a mile of one of the largest cities in the state

    George shares the beauty of mountain and cloudscape with his two masters. He always accompanied them on hikes and climbs, even though he sometimes had doubts about it all