When you’re a kid growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, sniffing at hot pies your dad has placed in his bakery window, it’s impossible to say what your legacy will be. There’s a good chance you’ll become a baker.
But if you like the unknown, you may be drawn to the far flung territory of Alaska. There, during a long life, maybe you will leave some stories.
About 75 years ago, George Argus hitchhiked from New York City to Alaska, where he found work in Anchorage for the Alaska Railroad. From then until his death on October 21 at age 93, Argus carved some marks into the Alaskan frame.
A firmly cut notch in Alaskan mountaineering lore was the week Argus spent as “the most isolated human being in North America” in a tent high up on Denali. There, he lay motionless on his back with a dislocated hip, awaiting rescue by his friends.
Another trace he left behind was the scientific curiosity that led him to become an expert on one of Alaska’s most important plants, especially for moose, caribou, hare, and lynx: the willow.
Argus was not born in Alaska and he did not die in Alaska. He became a citizen of Canada in the 1970s and lived most of his life in Ontario. But he experienced Alaska during the prime of his life.
The mountaineering story happened in 1954. Argus, who had had a few jobs in Fairbanks and at the Juneau ice field, was drafted into the army. He was able to choose his destination after a while. He chose Delta Junction. He became a climbing instructor there at the Army’s Arctic Training Center near Black Rapids Glacier.
Elton Thayer, a 27-year-old Denali National Park ranger, asked Argus to be part of a four-man team that would attempt to scale North America’s highest peak via a route that hadn’t been tried before. Argus said yes.
That April, Les Viereck (24), Argus (25), Morton Wood (30) and Thayer began their ascent of Denali by climbing into the willows from an Alaska Railroad car at Curry. Over the next few weeks, they made it to the roof of North America with much difficulty via the South Buttress. And, as sometimes happens, his big problem came on the way down.
The four men were at the top of a steep ridge of snow and ice, thinking about how to get down.
In a 2011 interview with Karen Brewster, Argus recalled seeing Thayer’s crampon slip off the side of his mukluk. A second later he saw Thayer take a step, slip, and then fall.
The three remaining climbers, all tied to Thayer by a rope, dove into the snow, landing on the tips of their ice axes as the rope hissed past.
Thayer’s momentum carried them all off the slope. Argus remembered cartwheeling up the wall until his head hit the ice, knocking him unconscious.
When the ground leveled out after his 800-foot drop, Thayer was dead. Argus had a dislocated hip and damaged kneecap. Viereck was injured but functional. Wood was miraculously unscathed.
After tending to Thayer and realizing they couldn’t help him, Wood found some of his gear and pitched his three-person tent. He and Viereck dragged Argus inside.
They made Argus as comfortable as possible in the tent and installed a stove for him to melt water and food for a week. Feeling that no one would come to his rescue, Wood and Viereck left Argus without saying goodbye, perhaps because they couldn’t stand the finality.
“Suddenly, everything was silent,” Argus recalled.
His friends made the arduous journey to civilization and got help.
Finally, the young men Argus knew from the Fairbanks University Mountaineering Club reached the tent at the top of the mountain. It had been seven days since Argus had seen anyone.
“I offered to make them tea,” Argus said. He later said that his trust in his friends kept him from being afraid during the ordeal.
The rescue team took Argus out on a sled. Over time, he recovered from his injuries. A feature on the mountain was named the Thayer Basin after Elton Thayer.
Argus made no more harrowing mountaineering journeys. He later became a botanist fascinated with the minutiae of willow shrubs and trees.
He had collected willows from nunataks (mountains that poke through the ice) on the Juneau Icefield before his trip to Denali. He later collected and studied plants from Ketchikan to Barrow, squinting at the details of the far north plant, whose leaves and buds support moose in summer and winter.
Argus was fascinated with how resistant willow shoots came in so many varieties in Alaska (about 40) and how many of those species could cross and hybridize, making identification even more of a challenge.
His first publication was Willows of Wyoming in 1957, which is where he had done his graduate work. In 1961 he moved to Canada. There, at the University of Saskatchewan, he studied the willows of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
He did fieldwork on willows throughout North America and central Siberia, often taking another part of his legacy with him: his wife, Mary, and their five children.
He retired from his final professional position at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa in 1995. After that, he returned to lead willow-related field trips in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other parts of Alaska. Sometimes, when Denali’s white molar was visible on the horizon, he would look up from the bushes and up at the mountain. He was the last survivor of that 1954 climb.