Chapter 13

JULY 3, Mt. Rainier, Day 5. Avalanche

The initial grinding sound of an avalanche of ice falling and the cries to run took time to reach me. I could already see climbers trying to run. Fred and Justin were unable to follow the twisting path, and running in different directions were jerked off their feet by the rope.

When they got up and tried to run again they fell. This was the exact spot where the people were sitting when they were killed the week before. Fred and Justin were disoriented and ran into ice blocks left from the devastating avalanche from the previous week and fell.  Their ropes tangled.  When they tried to get up they were again pulled off their feet or tripped. Nancy Goforth, the leader on their rope, was pulled off her feet, and when she tried to get up was pulled down again. The team disappeared from the view of those in camp.

Climbers already in their tents, and some of the support team in high camp, started to move from the tents and away from the roaring, crashing sound of the falling ice. Everybody was yelling, "Run!" or just screaming anything that would come out of their throats, panicked at the realization that the events of the week before were, against all reason, repeating themselves.

I was afraid that somebody would fall on their ice ax or step on another person with the two inch crampon spikes.

Bud, on Jim’s rope, said he heard the ice crack and fall and felt the ground shake. “It sounded like a train.”

Jim could see the block tear off from the towering jumble of ice near the top of the Cleaver and watched it fall, hit an outcropping of rock and explode into several parts expanding the path of destruction. He sensed, based on a lifetime of guiding and climbing, that the block would break apart, and each of the smaller blocks would continue to fragment until none had the momentum to continue down the mountain onto the panicked climbers. The mass of ice twelve days before had been larger and had swept down the same slope another hundred feet to bury the eleven climbers.

     Large Avalanche Cascading Toward Climber Photo: Ridgeway-Film

He yelled, "It's OK; it's OK; it's OK!"

The last piece of ice rolled within twenty feet of the climbers as they got to their feet. It took a few seconds to catch their breath and feel to see if any injuries had occurred. Jim reached them and headed up the last forty feet of slope to the tents. From where I was standing further up on the slope, it  looked as if Jim had picked Bud up by the pants and carried him across the avalanche track in a dead run. Bud later told me he had a surge of energy and told Rick Ridgeway to “stay a head of me if you don’t want to get run over.”

 Fred Noesner, who was on a rope-team that was directly under the fall, and was miraculously spared, told me later that after he heard the sounds of the falling rock and ice slow and come to a stop he knew he had been spared.  He said the air tasted wonderful, the ground under his feet felt great.  Every sound was vivid and pleasant.  As he walked back into camp with his heart still racing, he wanted to talk with and share his joy with his fellow climbers.  Hearing Kirk and Sheila talking quietly in a nearby tent, he moved to the open flap and greeted them.  Sheila screamed and started crying. 

Understandably he was at first puzzled.  Inquiring what could be wrong on such a wonderful day?  Between sobs, Sheila said, “You are dead!” 

Kirk Explained.  “They told us your rope-team was buried in the ice-fall.”  

In the confusion and emotion of the moment, sighted climbers didn’t relay the good news to the blind in camp that the rope team in front of the avalanche had been spared. Fred assured Sheila that he was not a ghost.

A large rock swept across the slope in front of me as Rich Rose approached the avalanche track.  Rich waited until Svein and I were off the traverse, and then moved across the avalanche slope at a pace which did not reveal the exhaustion of fourteen hours of climbing and four minor epileptic seizures.

Warren's team came off the traverse last. They removed the fixed rope and the anchors as they moved down the face. There was a release of tension as they arrived.

The shock of the moments before set in on Justin. He was standing staring through unseeing eyes. I happened to be watching him as his fingers started to quiver then shake and then his whole body shook and tears poured down his face. I went over and hugged him and held him up. Several others came over to see if he was OK. He relaxed and we all congratulated one another.

Steve Marts unveiled a bottle of champagne. The bottle was passed around and everybody shared a toast to their unique accomplishment and narrow escape.

Climbing Mount Rainier is tiring. Most of the party went into their tents for a short nap before dinner and retiring for the night. Fitz checked with every person to see if any injuries had occurred during the ice fall. Everyone had escaped the ordeal without injury. I mentioned to him that Rich had had a couple of seizures going up. Fitz talked with him and discussed the four seizures Rich had had during the day and suggested an increase in the dosage of anti­convulsants. Rich had not had a seizure for three months prior to the climb.