Chapter 12

JULY 3, Mt.Rainier, Day 5. The Summit

Jim woke camp at two, lit the stoves and started to melt snow and heat water for instant oatmeal and coffee. Though below freezing, the night air felt warm and held promise of a hot day. We would leave down pants in the tents. At two in the morning there is fuzziness in sounds and voices. Fitz was in the tent with Bud and Doug. He tried to dress in the dark, confined space and had to turn on his light. For a while he stopped and watched Bud and Doug methodically dress...pants, boots, sweaters, their own form of darkness. There was a continuous rustle of sleeping bags and parkas brushing against the sides of tents and the muffled banging of cups and spoons as climbers crawled out of their domed tents onto the ice. Their boots crunched and squeaked on the snow. Communications seemed limited to grunting acknowledgments. By three-thirty everybody was struggling to put on crampons.

Jim was yelling, "Come on gang. Let's get this show on the road." He knew that even though everybody was excited about the climb, at three in the morning it is easy to go back to sleep and dream about getting ready.

Finally each person was tied in to a rope and moving before the early rays of morning light stabbed over the tops of the mountains and thin clouds on the horizon to the east. The trail moved out of camp and down a small ramp onto the jumbled path of the ice fall. The teams stretched the ropes as they moved down the avalanche track, around ice blocks the size of cars, toward the base of Disappointment Cleaver, a rock buttress separating the Ingraham and the Emmons Glaciers.

Doug asked Warren Thompson, one of the Everest team, about the climbers who had died as he moved across the broken surface, "Is this where they were camped?"

"No," Warren said, "They weren't camped. They were just climbing by."

Doug sensed a void on his right. “What's that down there?"

"A big crevasse."

The full realization of the tragedy set in. "Is that the crevasse they were swept into?"

"Yes."Warren responded in a monotone.

Doug felt a surge of energy. "Let's get the hell out of here!" His team moved across the avalanche path about the time the sun's rays bathed the eastern slopes of the mountain in brilliant pink, creating deep blue shadows behind the jumble of ice blocks in the avalance path and outlined the deep crevasses extending between the clever and camp. The pink mountain was etched in the black night sky with brilliant stars to the west. At these altitudes there is little dust in the air to diffuse the light, so pink snow, blue shadows and the night sky accentuate each other.

     Sunrise Photo: Roy Fitzgerald

The light was now bright enough for the film crew to take pictures.

Jim had put in fixed lines across the face of the Cleaver the day before. They were anchored to the rock face every fifty to sixty feet and served as a railing. At first the trail was a six-inch ledge scuffed out of the top of the snow where it joined the vertical rock like traversing around the outside wall of a tall basalt building.

Bud was hesitantly moving across the face of the Cleaver. At times he would get a step or two off the track before I could turn around and redirect him, and remind Svein to pay more attention to Bud. I was trying to keep my eye on Justin, who was last on the third rope.

 Doug questioned Warren, "Is this the most dangerous part?"


"From rock fall?"


"If something comes down, what do I do… duck?"

"Press in against the wall.”

Doug's perception of the shape of the mountain was becoming more vivid.

The red volcanic rock cliff seemed held together by the ice.

During the warmth of the day pieces would melt loose and drop from above onto the steep slope and bounce into the chasm below.

The route moved around the buttress and opened onto a steep snow slope which dropped off to the right into a huge crevasse. The path, the width of a climbing boot, moved diagonally up and across the slope a hundred yards, then turned left and headed straight up a fifty degree slope for three hundred feet to the first of a series of rock outcroppings following the backbone of the Cleaver. The blind had to scrape each foot along the left edge of the path to make sure they didn't step off the right side. I climbed past the face of the Cleaver and was inching my way onto the steep slope for the traverse. Justin was in front of me. Fred, in second position on the rope with Justin, couldn't set his crampon properly.  He lost his balance slipped off the narrow path and started to fall grasping for his ice ax and struggling to attain the self-arrest position. I stopped breathing as Fred fell. He dropped fifteen feet before his self-arrest and belayer stopped him. The practice in Colorado and on the Nisqually had paid off.

 The view back down the cleaver showed the devastating path of the avalanche the week before. A huge crevasse cut across the Ingrham glacier toward the camp and Cadaver Gap. The valleys in the background were still in the morning shadows.

     Doug approaching the top of the cleaver Photo: Warren Thompson

 Climbing above the Cleaver involved moving up a series of small rock outcroppings. We would climb from one, up the steep snow slope several hundred feet to another outcrop. A sighted climber would arrive at the outcropping and pull in the rope. Tim could be heard talking to Sheila.

"Move a little left.” … ”There's a good place for your foot on the right of the rock in front of you” …”The ice is rotten in front of you. It might break through but doesn't go anywhere so don't worry.” …”Fantastic move. You're doing great. Sheila."

A brief rest was usually taken at the outcroppings. During one rest stop Doug said “I hear a jet, a big one.  It sounds like it is down there.” He pointed north of Little Tahoma.

I suggested it was a jumbo jet heading for Sea-Tac airport and it was over a thousand feet below us.

     Little Tahoma East of Mt Rainier Photo: Ridgeway-Film

“I guess we are pretty high up,” he commented.

Climbers separated by the length of the rope had a chance to see how each was doing, nibble some Gorp and drink juice. Rich mentioned to me on one rest stop that he had had a seizure. We discussed it, and Rich felt it wasn't affecting his strength, balance or judgment.

On the third outcropping, the second and third ropes were resting. Jim had already led the first team higher up and his moose call was echoing off Gibraltar Rock.  I was one hundred feet below and the fifth team was below mine. My Handi- Talkie started squawking and I turned it up. "Special Message." This was a pre-arranged signal. I yelled up to Steve Marts, a cameraman, to focus on Charles; then called to Charles to turn on his radio.

"...Twins...," was the message. Charles O’Brien had become the father of twins, a boy and a girl. With a few shouts of joy and congratulations, they continued up the slope. The twins were later named Matthew James Rainier, after Jim; and Meagan Elizabeth Tahoma.

The route from about 12,200 feet to the summit moved from the Ingraham to the Emmons glacier and switched back and forth up a relatively smooth but steep snow slope. A small depression on the slope at 12,800 feet was used for a rest stop. Team four arrived as team two was leaving.

I noticed that Bud Keith was having trouble. He had been pulling on the rope all morning for support. He wasn't getting enough oxygen and had been reminded several times to breathe harder but hadn't been able to make the adjustments. Now he was beginning to shake violently and had started to vomit; the symptoms of altitude sickness. We decided it was best to leave Bud with Ray Nichols, one of the Everest climbers on Pelion's team five, who agreed to stay with Bud. Warren Thompson, lead climber on team five, was carrying a sleeping bag and pad. A recessed platform was dug for Bud and Ray. Bud gave me the bag of jelly beans he was carrying to the top for President Reagan, and the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) flag.

Once Bud and Ray were secure, we continued up the slope, followed by Warren's team to rendezvous with the others at 13,800 feet. It was now 7:30 AM.  We had been climbing for four hours from high camp. The climbing was rhythmical. Step, rest, breathe, step, rest, breath. There were no obstacles, it was warm, and the pace was comfortable, relaxing and peaceful. This was the first time in two weeks that it was quiet and I didn't have to be planning. I only had to put one foot in front of the other. My thoughts wandered over the many events of the past two weeks. I felt that a lifetime of climbing experience was coming into focus in a sharing with a team that might not otherwise have had the chance.

     Two Climbers Above the CleaverPhoto: Ridgeway-Film

How are the others doing? I wondered. They seem strong, enthusiastic and excited. Chuck must be in a certain amount of pain. The blisters on his stump looked pretty sore. Fitz had been helping Chuck with dressing the blisters throughout the trip. Chuck can probably measure every step with a twinge of pain.

Several of the blind had expressed their uncertainty associated with each step crossing the steep face of the Cleaver below us. The simplicity and forcefulness of the climbing experience as a statement of how people deal with pain and uncertainty caught up with me. We have a summit, an objective and a belief in what we are doing. Given a meaningful objective, people will find a way to deal with the pain and uncertainty. They have been doing it all week. If we can do anything for others it is to help them identify meaningful objectives for themselves.

A helicopter droning up the valley broke through into my thoughts. "Damn, that noise will foul up the film team's recordings."

Near 13,800 feet we passed the climbing group that had gone through camp before we got up. They were dead tired, sitting in the snow and staring blankly as we climbed past them step by step. The "disabled" climbers of Pelion were moving well; they were strong and had been well prepared and were doing everything right. Jim stopped a little higher up for a break and indicated the summit was not very far away. In fact, while Warren and I were still at 13,800 feet, we could hear Jim, as lead on the first rope, shouting back that he could see the crater rocks.

     Climbers Approaching the Summit Photo: Ridgeway-Film

At 10:40 Jim's team reached the rocks of the south rim of the crater, and Kirk Adams became the first blind person to reach the top of Rainier. Every five to ten minutes another team would arrive to an increasing level of shouts and cheers. The sound carries well, and even though some were on top, the climbing seemed to go on and on and on. Finally, all the teams were on the rim.

     Pelion Team on the Summit Photo: Ridgeway-Film

The group was jubilant.

Jim played the bard on the summit leading a chorus.

Jim: “If there is an ocean.”             Chorus:  “We cross it.”

Jim: “When there is a disease.”      Chorus:  “We cure it.”

Jim: “When there is a record.”       Chorus: “We break it.”

Jim: “When there is a wrong.”       Chorus: “We right it.”

Jim: “When there is a mountain.”   Chorus: “We climb it.”


It was a historical moment not only in mountaineering, but for each person. No blind person had ever climbed the mountain before. We had a team of five blind, an amputee, two deaf and an epileptic on top. I contacted the Motorola communications center at Paradise and reported that Pelion was on the summit.  Rich Rose shouted, "Here's one for the epileptics!"

Tim and Svein, from competing newspapers, were trying to make contact on their radios with their counterparts at Paradise to report the event. Svein was hoping he could make the evening edition deadline. Tim's paper would report the story in the morning. Planes were flying overhead, obviously taking pictures. A Seattle TV film crew and Ridgeway documentation crew were cranking away on film.

Flags were flown in the gentle breeze: The US flag, the IYDP flag for the United Nations, and the Washington State flag.

I unwrapped the four eagle feathers and placed the shaft on which they were mounted in the snow in front of the team. The feathers danced and spun around, the colored beads flashing in the sunlight. I opened the medicine bundle and explained my instructions from Joe Washington. A pinch of the medicine was offered to the east, then a pinch to the south, a pinch to the west, a pinch to the north, a pinch to heaven and a pinch to the earth. The remainder of the bundle would be offered to a fire after the team returned to the base of the mountain.

The night before the climb to Camp Muir Judy gave Rich Rose her St. Christopher’s metal. On the rim he raised it above his head and spoke about how he felt about the team and Judy's presence in thought and spirit.

Dianne handed out some Tofflers Chocolate, and Charles opened a beer and passed it around. Every few minutes somebody would whoop or holler with a burst of enthusiasm and everybody joined in.

We planned to cross the crater to sign the summit register. To avoid the question of who got there first, I had everybody march hand-in-hand across the crater to the register. Snow and ice fill the inside of the crater, forming a large field a half-mile across. The rim rises fifteen to fifty feet above the floor. Steam vents around the edges both melt the snow and provide the moisture for irregular ice formations on the barren pumice-strewn crater rim. The colors were intense: a brilliant blue sky, white snow, and reddish-brown rim rock. The air in the crater bowl was still and warm.

     Walking Together Across the Summit Photo: Ridgeway-Film

The register, a bound notebook, is kept in a metal box fifteen by eight by three inches. Another group was signing their names when the Pelion team arrived. After a cordial exchange, they handed over the register.

     Sitting at the Register Photo: Warren Thompson

I wrote in a description of Project Pelion, and then the register was passed around so each person could sign it. The register read:

"PROJECT PELION (symbolizing opportunity and access for all.) Project Pelion is a climb of Mt. Rainier by a team of disabled persons in recognition of the International Year of Disabled Persons."

Jim expressed concern about the lateness of the day. It would have been nice to bask in the sun on the summit, but dangers increase with the heat of the afternoon. Sun-warmed snow causes avalanches. Rocks frozen in the ice melt loose. The firm morning snow softens and climbers sink up to their waists in an exhausting struggle. Soft snow clings to crampons, filling the spikes with a heavy, clumsy ball of packed snow which causes the feet to slip. The later in the day, the more difficult and dangerous the descent becomes. It was twelve-thirty before the teams were roped up and starting down. The communication center was notified. They asked when the team would be down to the lodge. Jim asked to have milkshakes and hamburgers ready at 1:30

Fred had worn a red, white and blue scarf around his neck from the first day in Colorado. He had lost his sight to cancer at the age of four. His first daughter, whose scarf he was wearing, had died of the same disease at the age of four. He had worn the scarf as a memorial to her. As he started off the south rim for the descent he stopped, stood for a moment and then shoved a bamboo trail wand into the snow. Slowly he untied the scarf from around his neck, kissed it and secured it to the wand. He cradled it in both hands, then gently ran one hand over it like a loving father stroking the head of his child and slowly walked away. The scarf, highlighted by an endless expanse of blue sky, waved in the soft breeze.

     Fred Leaving his Daughter's Scarf on the Summit Photo: Ridgeway-Film

On the upward climb the slope is only a few inches in front of the climber, providing a feeling of security. On the descent, the slope falls away and the bottoms of the valleys are thousands of feet below. The crampons were clogging with snow, forcing some climbers to stop every two or three steps and hit the sides of their feet with their ice axes to knock the snow loose. Some developed a rhythm for hitting a foot every time they took a step. Others slipped, twisted their ankles and struggled to stay balanced on every third or fourth step. A sense of urgency set in. New muscles were being used and tired muscles were more apparent. Climbing down seemed more exhausting than climbing up.

Dianne and I stopped our teams when we arrived at the platform where Bud and Ray Nichols had spent the day. Bud had recovered from his altitude sickness but overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. He felt bad about not making the summit; he felt he had let down a lot of people. Dianne sat with him and let him know that no honor was lost. He had done more than many do, had gone higher than many sighted do; and that Pelion had succeeded and he was a part of Pelion.

Football-sized chunks of snow were cascading down from the team above.

Ray Nichols saw a large piece falling toward Bud, jumped to protect him, and stepped on Bud's water bottle with his crampons. Bud said, "That's OK; I stepped on another one this morning."

Bud was tied onto the rope in front of me and behind Paul Stefurak. We continued down. We descended five hundred feet, moving to a flat spot above the rock ridges. The first few steps off the rocky ledges into the snow were the most difficult. As the afternoon had progressed, the sun warmed and softened the surface so that every few steps a person would break through and fall into a hole up to their hips, or the crampons would become clogged with snow and slip.

Paul Stefurak hesitated and wanted to rest. He took his pack off. I motioned for him to keep moving. Every minute was adding to the instability of the slope, and he was putting his and others’ lives at risk. He was adamant, didn't want to communicate, and refused to read a note I wrote. He insisted that I sign to him. When I made a mistake, he would laugh. I gave him a couple of signs he understood. I threw his pack down the steep slope we had to descend and signed with a closed fist suggesting that he might be next. He climbed down to where his pack was and then again refused to continue the descent.

"For Christ’s sake let’s get moving. Do something." Bud said. He was getting nervous about getting off the mountain. "We can't play games all the way down." Even with Svein on the rope, who had expressed some concern but was being quiet, we didn't have the strength to drag Paul and not make Bud's condition worse. My concerns in Colorado were being realized. We were in a dangerous setting and Paul was acting out a life of frustration.

Warren Thompson and Ray Nichols, two of the Everest climbers, were on the rope behind us. As they started to move by, I untied Paul gesturing I would leave him. He played along calling my bluff.  He knew that I would not leave him, but he couldn't hear me telling Warren and Ray to get ready to tie Paul onto their rope.  They were strong enough and could drag him down if necessary. As they started by Rich Rose quickly untied from their rope, and I distracted Paul long enough to get him clipped onto the rope vacated by Rich with a carabineer. Warren and Ray wasted no time in muscling Paul down the slope. I put Rich Rose at the front of my rope.

Rich had been a person I could turn to when somebody needed help. He was patient, level-headed and compassionate. When Judy had needed moral support and a guide, Rich had been there to help her. As soon as Rich was clipped in, we headed down the seven hundred feet to the top of the Cleaver. From there the camp was visible a thousand feet below to the right. Jim's team could be seen already working its way through the avalanche track into camp.

At high camp Judy and Joe Wishcamper had spent the day lounging around. In the morning Judy had planned to sleep through the departure of the team, but there was too much excitement. Then she thought she would go to sleep after the team left, but found she could follow their progress by the sound of their voices around the Cleaver. Once the climbers moved around the buttress, it grew quiet; but as they moved up above the Cleaver their voices carried down a thousand to fifteen hundred feet. Later in the day, as the climbers were descending, their voices could again be heard above the Cleaver. The sounds would be quieted by the buttress and then would boom out as the climbers came around the bottom of the cliff.

Bud was getting apprehensive about the traverse down across the face of the Cleaver. It had worried him all day. While climbing up he kept asking, "How do we get down this? How do we get down this?" Now he was still distracted by the confrontation with Paul. I called Jim on the Handi-Talkie and asked if he would climb up to the top of the traverse and take Bud. By the time Rich Rose got down to the edge of the Cleaver, Jim and Rick Ridgeway were already arriving after a fast climb up from camp. They tied Bud in between them and then headed down, disappearing over the line of snow and blue sky. I belayed Rich who followed Jim. 

When climbing up a slope, the experienced climber goes first to find the route and to hold the people who follow should they fall.  When descending, the experienced climber goes last to be able to hold the people in front should they fall.

Moving off the slope above the Cleaver head wall onto the steep face is like walking off a roof onto a very high ladder.  Suddenly there is nothing in front of you except a void and a very narrow trough wide enough for only one foot. It is necessary to squat to be able to move a foot down.  Moving down and to the right required the right foot be moved between the left leg and the wall of snow without snagging a crampon on the left pant leg. There was a sense that a slip here would result in a long fall, and a slip was all too likely.

Both the blind and sighted moved cautiously, making sure that they first knocked the snow out of their crampons and that each foot was securely placed in the middle of the small trough that was forming by the passage of climbers. It is difficult to  plant the down hill foot firmly when squatting; so you put your foot down and transferred weight to it  hoping the crampon would dig into the surface. Each step was calculated, deliberate, and acknowledged with a breath of relief.

Rocks falling off the Cleaver and sliding over the trail during the afternoon made small tracks which ended at the edge of the precipice below. Several large tracks cutting across the trail suggested that some of the rocks which had fallen during the afternoon were big enough to knock a whole rope team off the steep slope of the Cleaver face.

As we progressed slowly across the face, Rick, Bud and Jim were out of my sight around the corner of the Cleaver buttress. Rich Rose, first on my rope, was also out of sight, and Svein in front of me was rounding the corner. I could see the tents below and Nancy, Fred, George and Justin in team three crossing the avalanche track between the Cleaver and camp.