|HANDICAPPED CLIMBERS ON MT. RAINIER|
About the time the eleven were being
swept to their deaths on
Richard Rose, from
The team was unique. The members were individuals who wanted to
climb a mountain against the odds of a physical handicap. Seven of them were blind. No blind person had ever climbed
The first eight to arrive were
introduced to each other and packed into “Big Blue”, a large Chevy carryall we
borrowed from friends of Judy Oehler.
Judy was one of the blind climbers and a key participant in the planning
of the Pelion Project. While I waited
for the later planes to arrive, Roy Fitzgerald (Fitz), a non-handicapped close
friend, physician member of the Board of the Institute For Outdoor Awareness
and specialist in working with the visually impaired, drove “Big Blue” to
After Fitz departed I went to find Alec
Naiman who was visiting his sister in
By mid afternoon Paul Stefurak and Kirk Adams arrived and were waiting
at an information counter. I introduced
them to each other and to Alec and we headed for
The three hour drive from
Alec and Paul, both deaf, were in the back seat and Kirk Adams sat up front. I watched Alec and Paul in fascination in the rear view mirror as they communicated in sign language and became acquainted. I had never met a deaf person before or watched sign language. They stirred the air with quick, flexible, snapping movements of their fingers. Their fists opened and closed in a rapid staccato as they slapped or thumped a wrist or their chests.
After watching them for some time I commented to Kirk that I had never seen two people talk so long and fast without getting hoarse. I had no idea what they were saying or how we would communicate during the critical moments that would inevitably occur on the climb because of the potential hazards and shifting mood of the mountain.
Kirk was born with cataracts and had surgery to remove them when he was two. A not uncommon result of this surgery was hemorrhaging of blood vessels in the eyes a couple of years later. This resulted in pressure and severe and sudden glaucoma and detachment of both retinas when he was five. Several painful surgeries over the next few years proved unsuccessful in restoring sight.
Kirk was now nineteen and a student at
I described the changing scenery to Kirk and recalled some of the efforts in getting the project organized. I was president of The Institute for Outdoor Awareness, a company involved in research on the role of wilderness challenge in therapy, education and management development.
Nearly two years earlier I had taken
a group from a drug treatment center rock climbing in
In addition to managing the Institute
research grant I was also management consultant for several agencies in
Judy was thirty-four and diabetic. She had lost her sight when she was twenty-four because of her diabetes. In spite of her loss of sight she went on to earn a Masters degree in Education and was finishing her Doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology. She had written to Fitz about some papers he had published, and in the course of their correspondences Fitz learned that Judy had gone through an Outward Bound program. In fact she had to start legal proceedings because they would not accept her. Since they received federal funding they came under the Americans With Disabilities Act and acquiesced.
When Fitz and I called, Judy hesitated and rejected the concept thinking it was not possible. After sleeping on the idea for the night she called back and thought it would be a wonderful adventure and subsequently became a tireless and resourceful advocate for the project. When we set out to find funds, equipment and participants, she threw herself into the project with the same determination that she had used to work her way through graduate school.
An expedition of disabled climbers was unheard of. Most people we had approached for support thought we were crazy and wondered why a blind person would want to climb a mountain. Our insurance broker indicated that not even Lloyds of London would cover us. There was no actuarial base for a team of blind climbers.
Nevertheless, during the first year
we identified a small team of blind climbers.
Fitz and I described the climb on a radio program for the blind
broadcast from The Associated Services for the Blind in
Fred lived in a
Fred scrambled up the rock like he had been climbing all his life. As he climbed up, I pulled down the rope going through the carabineer to minimize the slack. If he slipped he would not fall. Some joggers going by on the trail watched Fred for a while oblivious to the fact that he was blind. I felt a sense of relief realizing that the only thing Fred could not do was see what he was doing.
Blind since the age of four by cancer and surgery, Fred now trained other blind people how to use an ingenious optical and mechanical device called an Optacon in order to read regular printed materials. Fred suggested that Doug Wakefield, who had been his first Optacon student, might be interested in the climb.
Doug lived in
Fitz was working on a personnel
committee for the Associated Services for the Blind in
Early in 1980 we had a small team of four blind climbers. We went rock climbing at Carter Rock on the banks of the Potomac River Virginia and Ralph Stover Park north of Philadelphia and I felt that their not being able to see the mountain or the crevasses and ice-falls above them was not going to be a major factor technically. Whether or not the National Park Service would be receptive would be another issue.
I flew to
Jim Whittaker was a legend in
mountaineering. In May of 1963 he was the first American to
The then Co-op, for me, was a place to hang out to look at the new equipment and to hear where people were climbing. One day Jim said that a German doctor and his step-son needed a guide and would I take them up Mt Baker. I was seventeen. It was an amazing request and an amazing experience. I was scared from the beginning to the end.
The next year Jim referred me to a
person organizing a climbing team for an exploration mining company in the
My first plane flight took me to
When I called Jim from the Park Service lobby in Seattle, he was home I asked him if he had ever thought about taking a team of blind people up Mt. Rainier and did he think it was possible. He indicated that he had never taken blind people up but had led a lot of snow-blind people down. Very quickly I described Pelion and he indicated he could be interested in participating.
The Regional Administrator was cordial but eventually got to the question of feasibility. I mentioned that Jim Whittaker thought it feasible and would help out. His response was, “Oh, well, if Jim Whittaker thinks it is okay, we won’t argue with him.” But, he cautioned me that it was not his decision to make and that rested with the Park Administrator. A friend, Gayle Eversole, and I drove to the park headquarters where I had the same discussion with the Park Administrator and had the same response—“if Jim thinks it can be done it is okay by me.”
Gayle is a nurse from
A few days after meeting with the
Park Administrator, Gayle and I went climbing in the
In late 1980 the climbing season for
DC is only a couple hours drive from
He took the proposal and said he would get back to me in a couple of weeks because he was moving his office to the White House that afternoon and was leaving for the west coast the next day to represent the President. I learned that he was going to work directly for Elizabeth Dole.
returned to Swarthmore I called Bud Krogh, a friend whom I had worked for in
the White House during the Nixon Administration several years before. We had been friends when I was in high school;
I had taken him on some climbs and backpacking trips to remote mountain
lakes. He was aware of the project from
its inception and had a copy of the proposal.
I explained Harold Krentz’s new role in
Two weeks later when Krentz returned from his trip, he did in fact approach Elizabeth Dole with the idea. She explained that she knew all about the climb and thought it was a wonderful idea. He called me to review our time table and expressed his anger at my having gone above him. My response was I had a tight timetable and couldn’t wait two or three weeks to find out what his response would be; furthermore, I didn’t work for him and I didn’t go above him. Besides, his boss liked the idea.
Harold Krentz, I found later, was a very interesting person. He wrote his autobiography called To Race The Wind describing his experience as a Harvard law student. The Broadway play Butterflies are Free by Leonard Gersche was loosely based on Krentz’s life. Harold’s idea of including members with other disabilities added a new twist and direction to team selection.
To assemble the team I had contacted dozens of organizations for the disabled, asking for referrals to individuals who might be interested in participating. The National Epilepsy Foundation recommended Richard Rose. Bud Keith, President of Healthsports, recommended Kirk Adams. Healthsports was a unique organization which sponsored skiing trips for individuals who were blind or had some other handicap which might normally prevent them from skiing. After talking with Bud it became apparent that he would like to join us.
The Washington State Services for the
Deaf recommended Paul Stefurak. They
also suggested I contact the Services for the Deaf in
I had contacted the Motorola Company to find out if they could provide radios for communications on the climb. The person I talked to, Dave Weisz, pointed out that communication would require a communications tower and a permit from the Federal Communications Commission. During the conversation Mr. Weisz mentioned that Motorola had developed a technique to assist Sheila Holzworth a young blind woman who ran high school track meets against sighted opponents. Motorola placed a small radio receiver in Sheila’s head band so her coach could transmit directions to guide her to the left or right and when to slow down or speed up. I think she had to stay in front so her coach could see her, so she always won.
Sheila, like Kirk, was nineteen. She had lost her sight at the age of eleven in a freakish accident in which the band on her dental braces retainer broke while she was putting on a nightgown. The sharp tines on the retainer gouged out an eye and the other atrophied sympathetically. She continued undaunted by her loss to compete actively in sports.
Charles “Chuck” O’Brien was a lawyer who worked in the same law firm as Clifford Pearlman, a member of the Board of the Institute For Outdoor Awareness. Chuck had been a member of an elite Army Ranger group in Vietnam and lost his left leg below the knee when he stepped on a land mine. When I asked him if he wanted to participate he was skeptical, but reviewed his vacation schedule and agreed to join the team. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t convinced I was going to pull this project off and was going along out of curiosity.
Pelion had become a major undertaking. It was an ambitious and daring mountaineering project and had received considerable press coverage. Even the White House, through the efforts of Harold Krentz, was recognizing Pelion, endorsing it as a premier project for the International Year of Disabled Persons.
Being thoroughly prepared was absolutely essential - an obsession of mine. In order to anticipate training needs I had taken most of those who lived on the East Coast rock climbing and caving. In rock climbing activities the blind learned knot tying, belaying and rope management as fast as sighted people. I was fascinated watching Doug and Fred climb. They would search the wall in front of them with their hands, exploring possible foot and hand holds. Once they started to move up the vertical wall they could put the toe of their boot unerringly on the nubbin of rock they earlier had identified as a foot hold. Sighted people always look to see where they are putting their foot. In caving Fred would develop a map in his mind of every turn and incline, crawling on his stomach or walking in a crouched position, and could retrace his steps and guide us sighted participants out of the cave without lights.
The proper equipment was also a concern. Initially, I wondered how big my credit card bill was going to grow. Slowly support developed. When I first contacted Eddie Bauer, an outdoor equipment company, to determine if they could help, they responded in the affirmative. I called the person who had mailed me the support letter to find out how much they were willing to contribute to the project. The person’s answer was that Eddie Bauer supported “community projects”, typically in the range of $400 to $500.” I was thinking we needed equipment – ropes, carabiners, ice axes, crampons, boots, tents, stoves, food, parkas, sleeping bags, packs and other items for a total closer to $15,000 dollars. I thanked him for his consideration and asked if I could send him a list of the equipment we needed. He said "certainly".
My first experience with Eddie Bauer had
been in 1958 when climbing in
When Fitz, Judy Oehler and I were working out the Pelion concept, Judy mentioned that when she was a child one of her best friends was a Pillsbury. She contacted her friend and had an enthusiastic reception to the concept of the project.
When I sent our equipment needs to the Eddie Bauer contact, I was able to comment that the Chairman of the board of the company that owned Eddie Bauer liked the concept of the climb. When an Eddie Bauer representative called me after receiving my list, the first question was, “Was there anything else we needed?”
Judy also had contacts with a senior
member of Western Airlines who made arrangements for the airline to fly the
team members to
One day I received a call from
Philadelphia Life Insurance and was asked if I could come and describe the
project to the President of the Company.
Fred Noesner lived in a
It was clearly dawning on me that Pelion was supposed to happen and I was the agent. Everything that was needed was coming with an ease I didn’t think possible.
The weeks before the beginning of Pelion were hectic. I was taking groups out climbing, caving, backpacking and canoeing as part of on-going Institute activity. I was preparing the Institute staff to take over while I was gone. I had to tend to having T-shirts and hats made, making reservations in Aspen, coordinating plane flights, arranging for shipments of equipment, trying to find interpreters for the deaf to meet us in Aspen. In order to provide communications while on the mountain I had to work with the Federal Communications Commission to obtain a radio license and form a radio station. Each day seemed to provide another challenge to be solved.
I arrived in
The gateway to
In the morning I drove down to
Going over the pass with Kirk, Alec
and Paul, we picked up a hitch hiker going to
Fitz and those in “Big Blue” had arrived
several hours before and had gone hiking and found a restaurant where we
could meet. After their hike they returned
When we arrived Richard took Kirk, Paul, and Alec to the restaurant. Judy was taking a nap. I had to track down shipments. Some boxes had arrived and more were to arrive the next day. I had to find out where the airport was.
Fitz called the lodge and told me that they were only three blocks
away. I called Judy’s room and suggested
we go meet the rest of the crew. I felt
a sense of relief. I felt great. Two years of planning an unprecedented
project had come together, and we had a team ready to start training. We would be here for a week and then fly to
As I waited in the lobby of the
Rainier! Eleven dead! A cold, numbing jolt pounded through me. My legs grew heavy. I was stunned to a standstill. I asked them what else they’d heard. They had no more details. For them it was just a passing news item.
“What had happened? Nothing like this had ever happened before. How would it affect us? Will the team want to continue? Is the mountain safe? Will we be allowed to continue the climb? Will tour sponsors back out? Was it an avalanche? Were the victims experienced?”
Judy arrived and we walked to the restaurant. I did not mention to her what I had just heard. I walked on only vaguely aware of the chilly night air; my mind was echoing questions with no answers. I tried to convince myself that I did not know enough to start worrying.
The team was in an upbeat mood at the La Concina restaurant and obviously excited about getting started and hungry from their traveling and hiking. I quietly asked Fitz if he had seen the evening news. None of them had heard about the accident. I told Fitz what I had heard and what I didn’t know; then we both circulated around the table informing the others.
Dianne Roberts, Jim Whittaker’s wife, and Rick Ridgeway arrived having
just flown into
Dianne and Jim Whittaker were on the
way to the airport the day of the accident when they heard on
the car radio about the accident on
Jim was to be our climb leader on
A major storm was now ravaging the
As the word was passed around the table about the accident, I shared that we would have to wait until we heard from Jim and knew more before we could speculate on what it meant for Pelion. Since departing Seattle Dianne had not be able to contact Jim about any details.
The feelings at dinner were mixed. Notes were written for the deaf. The blind were asking what an avalanche was. While the news of the accident concerned the group, most of the team was still so excited about being in Aspen and getting started that the full impact of the accident didn’t set in; at least not overtly. Several commented that they were going to climb the mountain no matter what. They sounded like the climbers at the turn of the century who would write their wills on the cuff of their shirts before starting a climb. However, during dinner several small group conversations intimated that the news was a little frightening. They were starting to wonder what was really involved in mountain climbing.
After dinner we had a group meeting
at the lodge to discuss how we felt. The
magnitude of our objective and the tragic loss of eleven lives on our route
reinforced the need for intense preparation.