Diary of a Tragic Attempt to Climb the Walking Dunes in Napeague

Climbing the Walking Dunes in Napeague
Climbing the Walking Dunes in Napeague, Photo: Richard Lewin

The Walking Dunes in Napeague has never been climbed all the way to the top. Many have tried. Many have died. Today, the Walking Dunes, like Mount Ashkaeski in Nepal and the forbidding Peak of the Gods in Kashmir and perhaps just 10 others around the world, has remained beyond the grasp of even the greatest mountain climbers. It rises for at least 95 feet that we know, its forbidding walls disappearing into the fog and clouds that shroud its peak. Is it 110 feet up? Is it a 140? There have been times when, from nearly 200 yards away at Cyril’s on the Montauk Highway, the clouds have briefly cleared, and if you stand on a stool and shade your eyes as you look north, you can make out those peaks up there. But then, mostly people are drunk at Cyril’s. Who knows what they see.

Today, I begin this diary of my second attempt. Indeed, I failed, along with my other assistant climbers last year, due to that overwhelming attack of ospreys at the 75-foot level that turned us back, all bloody and sick. But this year will be a different story. We climb with folded-up cardboard we can deploy over our heads when the time comes. And so, we expect nothing less than the triumphant conquest of the Walking Dunes. As a result, mankind will be able to tick off one more supposedly un-climbable mountain on this planet. I, Bob Frankenfaller, on behalf of mankind, which leaves no stone unturned, no mountain unclimbed and no ocean unplumbed, accept this challenge. The expedition is ready. We leave at dawn.


This is a day of assembling the base camp. Beginning at dawn, those of us who stayed at Gurney’s Inn during the night arrived at the site, a quarter-mile down Napeague Harbor Road from the turn at Cyril’s on the Montauk Highway, to the dead end at the foot of the peak. We assemble our gear in the flat place just to the east of the dead end, across from Napeague Harbor, by erecting our tents and waiting for the supplies and the others to arrive. We have set up collapsible chairs and lanterns in the tents and wait. History books are taken out of backpacks. We review.

The Walking Dunes was created 4,000 years ago when the first of two glaciers during the last Ice Age slid down from the North Pole and ground to a halt in the ocean south of Connecticut. As they melted, rock and debris and sand piled up. Thus was made the South Fork. The sand made the Walking Dunes. Later, a second glacier melted and formed the North Fork.

Here at the Walking Dunes, strong winds from the north drove the sand up north side of the Walking Dunes and down the south side, resulting in the dunes moving at the rate of one inch a year to the south, burying everything in its path as it went. It buried squirrels alive. We have found their remains. It buried pine trees. Some still stick up half-exposed along the southern cliff. It buried deer, who might just have stopped for a moment to look around. The Walking Dunes has no eyes, no soul, no logic, no ethics. It just moves, and God help those that might get in the way.

Just before noon, the long caravan of cars bearing supplies and workmen and Sherpas and mules in trailers arrive, and we begin to set things up. It takes most of the afternoon. We are 17 bearers from the local Bonac community, 9 Sherpas from Nepal and a support team for the base camp, radio operators, planners, cooks, laundry people, guards and ambulance paramedics, a total of nine. Plus the chopper and the pilot and copilot for it. And the two trained rescue people from the National Guard in Westhampton. Twenty-six people altogether, ready for this effort.

My team of climbers, besides myself, are Harold Moss, Frank Armstrong, Thomas Higgleston and his sister Helga Higgleston. You probably know all of them, for all are famous conquerors of mountains from Everest to Pike’s Peak to K2. We know how to climb.

Having arrived and spent all day setting up, we build a bonfire at dusk and sing songs, roast marshmallows and enjoy the Spam that the U.S. Army has donated to our effort. We thank them for that, and then, as one, we all go to bed.


We begin the climb. We have gear, tents, sleeping bags, pickaxes, goggles, metal hammers, a folded United States flag, a folded Explorer Club flag, pins and cleated shoes and helmets. The helmets are white with red numbers, one to five, so we can be identified from choppers. The temperature is 55. At noon, we are nearly 15 feet from the camp. For some reason, we have encountered rain. We have prepared for rain. What we have not prepared for is that it rains frogs. They are all over, slippery, around on everything. We set up a tarp and wait until the rain stops, then, beginning at 3 p.m. continue on. Sun is going to set at 5:30 in the afternoon. We cannot safely climb after that. By radio we contact one another on the cliff face. We will stop at an elevation of 11 feet, five short of our planned goal for the day. We will try to make this up later. We make camp. We sing. We eat Spam. We sleep.


Up at the crack of dawn, we put out the fire, eat Spam and are off. Heavy fog settles over us around 10 a.m., and for a while we can’t see one another. At 11:30, we are attacked by mosquitoes. We had this happen in our earlier attempt last year, but this year we have bug spray with us. We use some. We also lather ourselves with repellent. Temperature is 48° at noon. We don jackets. By the end of the day, we have made up the five feet we lost on Day One, traveled a further 22 feet up and have set up a new camp on a slope that’s less steep than others. It has been a good day.


Again we put out the fire, eat Spam and are off just after dawn. Around 10 a.m., several of the Bonackers are exhausted and have to be taken back aboard two of our mules. We have three left. We will manage. By 4 p.m., approaching the 55-foot level, we are attacked by a swarm of bees. We are each equipped with a swatter and we go at it, and by dusk at 5:30 we have won. We are exhausted. It’s been another day. Fire. Songs. Spam. Sleep.


Fire out. Spam, we’re off at dawn. By 11 a.m., approaching the 60-foot level, we are nearing the end of our strength for the day, and I instruct that we go just eight more feet and then make camp, just below the cloud level. As we are making camp on a steep slope that we have tried to make into a large level step with our shovels so the tents won’t slide, Helga Higgleston, the sister of Thomas Higgleston, loses her footing and falls 50 feet down to her death. We radio down for the chopper to pick her up. We try to comfort Thomas, who is distraught. He tries to jump after her, but we restrain him. Unfortunately, we have to tie him to a mule and have some of the Bonackers shepherd him down. He and his sister had climbed K2. It is a great loss. We are now down to two mules. But we will press on in the morning. We build a fire, but nobody can sing or eat. At 11 p.m., however, we come out of our tents to talk and roast marshmallows.


We enter the clouds. It’s now impossible to see anyone but we stay in touch by helmet radio. At 92 feet, we have all become exhausted. A great sandstorm now has come up inside the clouds, and I order everyone to shovel furiously to keep from being inundated and we have to stop. When I order us to press on, we can’t be far from the top, I find that Harold Moss, who’s down the rope 10 feet behind me, is not answering. I fear the worst. And now, the rope will not move. It must be the weight of the sand covering his body—it has to be—and so, sadly, I have no choice but to cut him free. This is a sad day, day six. I’m at 100 feet. I’m planting the Explorer Club flag here. We can’t be far from the top, though I can’t see it through the sandstorm and the fog. Now Armstrong is not answering. I press on. One hundred and five feet. One hundred and ten. I’m now fending off osprey. I have deployed the cardboard, but I can barely hold it because of the wind. And now there are bugs or something eating away at my feet and legs beneath the sand. I’m digging furiously. I will make it. I can see the top now. The clouds cleared for a moment. It is just 10 or 15 feet further on. Now they close in again. If only I can…


When the storm ended, those at base camp ordered the helicopter up to try and find survivors, but they had disappeared without a trace. The world has lost five of the greatest living climbers. And the Walking Dunes remains unclimbed, triumphant.

Three months later, on the north face of the dune, below the cloud line, a diary was spit out into the trail behind it. It’s from this diary that we publish the entries above. Let them be a testament to the power of nature and its ability to conquer over all in the end. The New York State Parks Department, in which the Walking Dunes are located, has passed a law banning all future attempts to get to the top of the Walking Dunes. We wish they had done so before.

A memorial for the lost climbers will be held on the lawn of the Montauk Lighthouse next year, one year to the day from their loss, which we estimate as September 29, 2013.

Walking Dunes Sign
Photo: Richard Lewin

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