PROJECT PELION
HANDICAPPED CLIMBERS ON MT. RAINIER

Chapter 1

JUNE 21, 1981

June 21, 1981 was the worst day in American mountaineering.  On Mt. Rainier, just before sunrise, eleven climbers stopped at 12,000 feet for a rest before starting up the steep traverse under the icy cliffs of Disappointment Cleaver in an area called the "bowling alley". As they sat in the pre-dawn twilight, tons of ice creeping down the slope from the summit under the pull of gravity and suspended over a vertical drop finally broke away from the glacier bordering the Cleaver above them. They were buried in the avalanche of ice blocks.  Seventy-five miles to the south, in Oregon, five other climbers were killed in an avalanche of snow on Mt. Hood.

About the time the eleven were being swept to their deaths on Mount Rainier I was driving from Aspen to Denver to meet eleven people who were going to start training for a climb of Mount Rainier fourteen days later.  The planned expedition would take them under the same ice fall.  The members of the team were flying into Denver from different parts of the country to rendezvous and drive to Aspen.  Two were coming in from Seattle, one from Portland, Oregon, one from Kansas City, one from Boston, one from New York City, three from Philadelphia and two from Washington, D.C.. They arrived on different flights over a period of three hours. 

Richard Rose, from Portland, arrived first at 10:20.  As we met there was a sense of challenge and adventure in starting something that had never been done before; in venturing onto a mountain to do something that many people did not think could be done.

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 Mt. Rainier.  One of the blind was also diabetic.  Two of the climbers were deaf, another was epileptic and the eleventh was an amputee.  None of the eleven were mountaineers.  Several had never carried a pack before.  A couple of them had never been camping.  Four, who had been blind since early childhood, really did not know what a mountain was.

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 Aspen.  We planned to meet at the St. Moritz Lodge in Aspen later in the afternoon.  With Fitz were Sheila Holzworth, Judy Oehler, Chuck O’Brien, Richard Rose, Justin McDevitt, Fred Noesner, Bud Keith and Doug Wakefield.  Sheila, Judy, Justin, Fred, Bud and Doug were totally blind.  Richard had epilepsy and Chuck had lost a leg in Viet Nam. 

After Fitz departed I went to find Alec Naiman who was visiting his sister in Denver.  Alec and his sister were both deaf.  When I knocked on the door there was no response so I knocked harder.  A neighbor said I would have to knock hard several times or call them.   Eventually a lady opened the door and I explained I was looking for Alec.  This was my first effort at trying to talk to a deaf person.  She read my lips when I asked for Alec and she went into another room and came back with him.  We introduced ourselves for the first time. He retrieved his backpack, said goodbye to his sister and we drove back to the airport.

  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 Aspen. 

The three hour drive from Denver to Aspen is spectacular.  Leaving the flat valley of Denver   the highway follows the bottom of steep canyons.  Old mines dot the walls.  For long uphill stretches the highway climbs to 9,000 feet and then runs across the top of mountains before descending into another steep canyon.

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 Washington State University.  He was an outdoor enthusiast, had some hiking experience and liked to ski.  He had been recommended to me by Bud Keith, President of Healthsports, an organization which sponsored skiing trips for the blind and people with other disabilities nationally and internationally.

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 Maryland to learn some concepts of trust and communication. We were having lunch next to a river that cut through a vertical uplift of rock, with the group, I when I noticed two small children eight or nine years of age, accompanied by two adults, working their way down from the parking strip along the highway toward the sound of the river.  They hugged trees and rocks and reached for the next large object in their path.  It became evident that they were blind.   They laughed and screamed with delight at everything they touched and explored with their fingers and were ecstatic when they found the river.  I had never seen two children so excited about nature. 

In addition to managing the Institute research grant I was also management consultant for several agencies in Washington D.C. and the City of Philadelphia. I had spent a number of years teaching in Arizona and the University of Pennsylvania and had worked in the White House on some organizational and program issues associated with drug abuse prevention.  I traveled to Washington D.C. a lot and liked to escape into climbing dreams while riding the train back to Philadelphia.  After seeing the two children I often wondered how difficult it would be for a blind person to climb a mountain.  One night on the train I tried to imagine a climb with a team of blind climbers and in the process sketched out the project I was to Pelion. When I got home I walked over to Fitz’s house and described the concept.  Fitz was a psychiatrist whose specialty was working with the blind.  He suggested we talk with Judy Oehler as a sounding board for such an unheard-of project.

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 Philadelphia.  Fred Noesner was dialing the Institute before Fitz and I finished the program.  His first words on the answering machine were, “I am blind. I am thirty-four and I have always wanted to climb a mountain.” 

Fred lived in a Philadelphia suburb so it was easy to arrange to  meet and his home and go on a simple rock climb in Fairmont Park.  I was curious how this was going to work out.  I had never worked with a blind person.  We  drove to a popular to the park and hiked to  rock outcrop with a cliffs if varying degrees of climbing challenge. By anchoring a loop of rope to a tree at the top of the cliff, snapping a carabineer onto the loop and passing a climbing rope through the carabineer I could belay Fred.  To belay is to secure the rope so that a climber cannot fall.  In simple terms the carabiner was a pulley at the top of the steep rock outcrop.  Fred and I were at the bottom of the outcrop on a park trail.  I showed Fred how to tie into a rope and reviewed the basic commands used by climbers and their belayer.  We discussed how to maintain three points of contact with rock, either both feet on the rock and one hand, or both hands and one foot,  and how to stand to maximize friction.  Many beginners become nervous and lean into the rock they are climbing and this pushes their feet away from the rock. 

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 Arlington, Virginia and worked for the Department of Agriculture, in Washington D.C., as a radio announcer.  Anybody living in the mid-west listening to hog prices has heard Doug.  Every morning Doug listened to a number of market recordings, transcribed them into Braille, and at the appointed hour started the farm price broadcast report flawlessly.   Doug and his twin brother Dana, a judge in Denver, were born blind.

Fitz was working on a personnel committee for the Associated Services for the Blind in Philadelphia.  He saw the resume from Justin McDevitt who was looking for a job.  Fitz suggested I contact him. Justin McDevitt and his twin brother were born prematurely and medically blinded at birth by excessive oxygen in the incubator.  Justin had been working as a social worker in an agency in Virginia that had lost its funding and was now looking for a job and living with his parents in Villanova, a Philadelphia suburb.  I called Justin and described the project.  He was hesitant, concerned about possible dangers and the time it would take, which might interfere with his job search activity.  I suggested he would become famous and get job offers.  He agreed to participate. 


     Doug belaying Fred on a cliff along the Potomac River

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 Seattle to do a little climbing and to visit the Regional Administrator for the National Park Service in Seattle.  As I started into the building on Second Avenue to meet the Regional Administrator I wondered what I would do if he didn’t think it was safe and would reject the idea.  I returned to the street to a pay phone and called Jim Whittaker.   I had known Jim since 1952.  He was instrumental in my getting my first guiding jobs and working for a mining company in Alaska as a technical climber.

Jim Whittaker was a legend in mountaineering. In May of 1963 he was the first American to climb Mt. Everest.  When I first met him he managed a small climbing equipment cooperative which had started off a few years before as a closet in an accountant’s office across the hall from the Seattle Mountaineers that was filled with army surplus climbing equipment and some imports. Jim took it from an 80 thousand dollar a year business to an internationally known multi-million dollar a year operation called the Recreational Equipment Cooperative, REI.   

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 Fairweather Range in south-east Alaska. I would end up spending two summers with the company with school in between.  Alaska is big and any adventure there was big.  My introduction to Alaska was a pivotal point in my life.

My first plane flight took me to Juneau.  There I was to rendezvous with a bush pilot named Ken Logan and fly to Lituya Bay the next morning to start setting up camp at the mouth of Coal Creek near the head end of the bay. In the morning I called Ken and he said the wheel fell of his child’s tricycle and we would go out at one o’clock.  At one he said his wife needed the car to go shopping so we would go out at four o’clock.  At four o’clock he said the washing machine broke and he would have to fix it and there would not be enough light to fly up, drop me off and return so we would go out first thing in the morning. At seven fifteen that night the ground shook under a very intense earthquake, 8.3 on the Richter scale.  A huge landslide at the head end of Lituya Bay generated the largest wave in history and a wall of water 1,800 feet high washed away the side of a mountain, a large forest and our camp. For the want of a tricycle wheel I escaped

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 Philadelphia who had participated in some Institute activities in Pennsylvania and now worked on an Indian Reservation south of Seattle.  Two years before she had introduced me to a tribal elder and medicine man, Joe Washington of the Lummi tribe from north of Seattle.  I am part Native American and had been trying to organize an outdoor challenge program for Indian youth.  Joe Washington was highly respected as the medicine man’s medicine man.   As Pelion progressed I was hoping that he could provide us with a Safe Journey Blessing.  

A few days after meeting with the Park Administrator, Gayle and I went climbing in the Snoqualmie Pass area for two days.  On the morning of the second day we heard a loud explosion.  I thought it was a construction crew in the pass below blasting.  Later in the afternoon we hiked out and as we started down the highway we noticed that there were not many cars and that those coming from the east, over the pass were covered with grey ash.  The explosion, we later learned, was Mt St. Helens erupting.

In late 1980 the climbing season for Rainier had passed and I still didn’t have funding and a couple of potential team members had dropped out.  In November of 1980, Fitz called me late on a Sunday night saying a colleague of his who lived in Washington DC had called a few minutes before.  His friend had just returned on a flight from Europe and during the flight was seated next to a blind lawyer named Harold Krentz who was going to be leaving his law firm to work for President Reagan heading up a Hire The Disabled Program as part of the 1981 International Year of the Disabled.  Fitz’ friend gave Krentz’s phone number to Fitz. I immediately called Harold Krentz, waking him, and gave a fast overview of what I was trying to do.  Krentz, sounding a little taken aback at being wakened up by a stranger, indicated that he was moving to the White House the next day.  He stated the only time we might possibly meet would be early the next morning in his office.  I figured he was politely putting me off.   

DC is only a couple hours drive from Philadelphia and I was in his office when he arrived.  I described the project and gave him a copy of the proposal of the project for a team of blind people to climb Mt. Rainier.  He suggested that including people with other disabilities should be considered to keep with the theme of the International Year of the Disabled.  He also clarified that he did not have funds for such a project.   I explained I was only interested in an endorsement.  Recognition of the project by the White House would help in seeking private funding.  Also, the climb would highlight the capabilities of people with disabilities if they were just given a chance.

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. 

When I 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 Washington and that Krentz worked for Elizabeth Dole.  Bud had hired Elizabeth Dole when Nixon was still President.  He sent her a copy of the proposal.

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 New York City who in turn  recommended Alec Naiman.

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 Alaska.  Then Eddie Bauer was a small firm that made excellent sleeping bags and parkas.  Years later they were bought and sold a couple of times and were now part of the Pillsbury corporate structure

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 Denver and from Denver to Seattle and home.  This was later amended to fly team members from Seattle to Washington D.C., then home.

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 Philadelphia suburb so I picked him up and we went to the Philadelphia Life Insurance Office.  We described the project. When I finished the president noted that such a project must encounter some cash requirements and inquired how much would we need as he took out a checkbook and pen.  I had probably blinked once or twice computing and suggested $20,000.00.  He wrote the check and a photographer came in to take pictures of Fred and me receiving the check.  Had I known this was going to happen I might have asked for more. 

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 Aspen a few days before the rest of the team was to arrive in Denver.  I wanted to hike the trails, scout training sites and organize what equipment had arrived.  I hiked to a pass at 12,300 feet between Maroon-Bells and Snowmass mountains.  This is where we would practice snow climbing techniques.  There was a nice meadow surrounded by Pine trees and separated from the trail by stream at 11,000 feet where we would camp for two nights.   Camping and climbing at higher elevations for several days was important for the team members to start their bodies acclimatizing to altitude so their bodies could generate more red blood cells to capture more oxygen needed at high altitudes

The gateway to Aspen is Independence Pass which is over 12,000 feet high.  From the top the highway switches back and forth across the steep mountain slopes by means of hairpin turns so tight that the larger trucks have to stop half-way through and backup before continuing through the turn.  In places the edges of the highway drop several thousand feet to the valley floor below.   When I had first gone over the pass the week before, it was night.   I stopped to stretch my legs and hike uphill for a while.  The slope rising to the south was rounded and free of boulders and other obstacles.  There was no moon but the stars were brilliant and provided enough light to hike without a flashlight.  As I warmed up, I hiked a little faster and noticed a light on the western horizon like a small sun setting.  All the light of stars seemed to run together and disappear into a pin hole which diminished in size.  I had flown to Denver from sea-level in Philadelphia and driven to 12,000 feet and found I was running out of breath.  When I stopped walking, the pin hole of light expanded and the dark horizon filled with stars.  When I started walking uphill the light on the horizon again shrunk to a pin hole.  I experimented walking faster and slower to influence the phenomena.  It finally dawned on me that I was experiencing oxygen starvation in the cornea which is not a good thing; I walked slowly back down to the car.  There I threw my sleeping bag on the ground and slept until sunrise.

In the morning I drove down to Aspen then up to the trailhead leading to Buckskin Pass and hiked to the pass at 12,300 feet between Maroon-Bells and Snowmass mountains.  This is where we would practice snow climbing techniques.  There was a nice meadow at 11,000 feet surrounded by pine trees and separated from the trail by a stream where we would camp for two nights.   Camping and climbing at higher elevations for several days was important for the team members to start their bodies acclimatizing to altitude.  In effect the body generates more red blood cells to capture more oxygen needed at high altitudes.

Going over the pass with Kirk, Alec and Paul, we picked up a hitch hiker going to Aspen.  He was carrying a British flag and was from New Zealand.  Paul’s eyes lit up and he grinned as he gestured and talked in the muted and unfamiliar verbalizations of a person who had never heard a spoken word.  He was excited to communicate that his wife was from New Zealand.  We dropped the hiker off at the edge of town and went on to our base of operations, the St. Moritz Lodge. 

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 to the St. Moritz then returned to the restaurant.  Judy and Richard Rose stayed at the lodge to wait for us to arrive.  

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 Seattle and drive to Mt. Rainier. 

  As I waited in the lobby of the St. Moritz for Judy to walk over to join the others, I barely overheard some other guests in the lodge commenting that they had just heard on the evening news that eleven people had been killed on Mt. Rainier earlier in the day.

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 Aspen from Seattle.  Rick was a world famous mountain climber.  He was the first American to climb K2 and the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.  He had heard about our adventure from Jim Whittaker and wanted to be our film director.  His film crew arrived at the restaurant shortly minutes later. 

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 Mt. Rainier. Jim dropped Dianne off at the airport and drove to Mt. Rainer.  She knew that Jim’s nephew had been guiding a large party up the Ingraham Glacier, the same route that Pelion was to take, and that an ice avalanche had crashed down onto the group burying half of them.  Jim’s nephew was able to notify the rangers of the accident.

Jim was to be our climb leader on Rainier.  He had stayed in Seattle to scout the route for Pelion and had not planned to meet us in Aspen.  Jim is one of the most experienced and strongest mountain climbers in the world.  Over the past forty years he and his brother Lou, who operated the Rainier Guide Service, had become as familiar with Rainier as anyone could be.  Jim and Lou were the ones the National Park Service asked to find out what had happened and to determine if the mountain was safe to climb.

A major storm was now ravaging the slopes of Rainier and it would be several days before Jim would be able to assess the full impact of the accident.

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.  Mt. Rainier rises 14,410 feet above the surrounding countryside.  It has the most extensive glacial system in the continental United States and requires a vertical climb of over 9,000 feet  into air that has only half the oxygen of air at sea level.  Climbers have to cross narrow snow bridges over crevasses hundreds of feet deep, pass under weathered, crumbling basalt cliffs and avalanching ice falls.  The climb would demand that the Pelion members push themselves physically beyond anything they had ever dared before.